Which One Are You?

The practice of politics is something that I was born into.

My grandmother, Dorothy Marie Boone-Anderson, was a community organizer during the Civil Rights Movement.  Being someone who left school in the eighth grade to work in the fields and help support her family, she understood that the only way oppression could stand was in the face of a hopelessly divided working class. She was someone who understood that building coalitions and activating the common spirit were indispensable qualities for a successful movement.

When my father first arrived on the job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1982, he came home and told Grandma that someone had talked to him about joining the union. When she asked him if he had signed up for the union that first day, he said that he had not.

My grandmother was a woman of many qualities; introversion was not one of them. After getting a talking to about the importance of collective bargaining and working-class political power, he quickly joined the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. When he was moved to a different shop, he became a member of the Machinists. It is through that union that he continues his service to America’s working class.

Given this, it seems obvious that the discussion of current events around the dining room table were as much a part of my childhood as my grandmother’s delicious cornbread or the smell of roasted peanuts. The topics ranged from the local (usually around Suffolk politics or the Civic League that she belonged to) to the national (my father’s discussions about fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement’s passage in 1993). Even after my father moved away to pursue new job opportunities (he had been laid off from the shipyard in 1993; thanks a lot, President Clinton), the routine remained the same: Grandma would ask me what I wanted for breakfast; I would reply that I wanted the usual; and about twenty minutes later, I would come out to pancakes, bacon, black coffee with sugar, and the day’s Virginian-Pilot.

Through these conversations and my experience in American politics, I have learned one important lesson.

Some people become involved in politics because it is cool. Power is attractive, after all, and even at the lowest rungs of the political process, you can get a small taste of power. The field organizer might get to be in those closed-door meetings before a major rally or a state nominating convention and feel that they are something apart from the people too burdened with work or circumstance to participate. Hell, even I got to shake John Kerry’s hand in 2004. And then comes Election Night, where you get to watch the numbers bounce up-and-down on the screen as people far removed from anything you have been engaged with turn out to cast their ballots. The red or blue shading of the map makes this exercise that much harder to ignore.

It is fun, but it is also debilitating. Because after a while, politics simply becomes a game to win. Public policy becomes not an instrument through which you can provoke change, but rather one more means of hanging on to power and access. I know; I was once one of those people.

But right as the 2008 election began to heat up, I was invited to a house party by a friend of mine. By this time, I was referring to myself as a socialist, which is pretty hilarious considering that I was still in the throes of barely center-left liberalism. But how many people do you know that could tell you the difference between a social democrat, socialist, and a communist? Probably zero, which goes a long way towards explaining why my hilariously incorrect assertion went unchallenged.

This day was different, however, since the shindig that I was going to was one being thrown by leaders of the Minneapolis branch of Socialist Alternative. I walked in the house and scoffed at the Nader/Gonzalez yard signs on the wall. Pleasantries were exchanged and we commenced to discussing politics over dinner. When it came out that I was voting for then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential election, all hell broke loose (though it was a polite kind of hell, because Minnesota). Ty Moore, who would later come within a hair’s breadth of the Minneapolis City Council, was fairly vociferous in his challenge. During a conversation where I defended remaining in Iraq until a time was reasonable to leave and dismissing concerns over Obama’s fealty to American capital, he turned to me and said:

“Well if you are a socialist, you must be one helluva a right-wing socialist.”

I was beyond pissed. But looking back on that night, I have long since come to the realization that, yes, he had me pegged like a button.

That night, I danced and laughed with a group of people for whom the pursuit of power is a means rather than an end. They are a group of people that sees politics and policymaking as a force for revolutionary change. The working class for these individuals is just that; a class of people who should be working as a group unto itself, rather than a collection of identity-based fiefdoms competing for the particles of crumbs so graciously allocated by the captains of a rapacious capitalism. If there has ever been such a thing as “giving to something bigger than yourself”, then these are the people who exemplify the concept.

It is on their shoulders that any liberatory politics must stand.

As I watched the recently-concluded race for the leadership of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, won by socialist Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn, I cannot help but feel that we are experiencing an awakening of sorts. People who have felt like they had no place in the political process signed up to vote for Corbyn by the tens of thousands, and he harnessed the full potential of their vote by speaking against the crushing austerity that has visited their fair isle in recent years. He has spoken in favor of renationalizing the railways, reopening the mines, and instituting a people’s quantitative easing that would produce money for investment in infrastructure and social services. In other words, he is making good on the founding promise of a party founded by and for working people.

And for that he has been met with a resistance that has been as over-the-top as it is instructive. While there has been predictable flak taken from the British right, it is telling that the fiercest critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise came from people thought to be supportive of the British left. But it turned out that they were actually supportive of a meaningless catch-all politics that thought nothing of demands on those in power. Corbyn has messed up their ability to simply be players in a game; they might actually have to (gasp!) contend with an energized working-class politics that will ask questions of NATO and EU membership, wonder why the National Health Service is being cut to the bone, and demand that something be done about these things.

Though Corbyn is much to his left, Bernie Sanders has the potential to do the same thing in the United States. Supporters of his should expect nothing less from those seeking a maintenance of status quo politics.

Florence Reece wrote the classic labor ballad “Which Side Are You On?” out of a sense of outrage at the way miners were being terrorized by their bosses and their private security apparatus. As the Winter of Discontent with the excesses of runaway capital approaches, it is a question that should be asked with increasing dynamism and urgency.

The forces of revanchism, repression, and reaction have long since made their decision. Have you?