One of the most annoying things about being a socialist in the United States is that people know jack-shit about socialism and yet they constantly feel the urge to confront you with the jack-shit that they know. And I do not mean “jack-shit” as in they are incapable of entering into a debate about the (dis)merits of the ideas of Eduard Bernstein. I mean jack-shit as in they have no fucking clue and, as a substitute for actually reading anything written by a socialist, prefer to fill the gaping holes in their brain about it with whatever the fuck they want. In America, Obama is a representative of socialism. Yes, a guy who is arguably more conservative than most conservatives in Europe is sounding the death-knell of capitalism. Taxing cigarettes is socialist. Seizing private property to build a strip mall is socialist. Telling adult novelty stores that they cannot sell dildos and porn to elementary school children is socialist. The government doing any-fucking-thing is socialist. The problem is not only with conservative and libertarian nitwits either. Liberals do the same shit. The more sympathetic ones might offer up a few kind words and associate some of our favorite government-provided services with socialism. “Hey, you like the fire department, don’t you? Well, that is totally socialism in practice right there!” Sorry dude, it isn’t.
I know the line many of us are given at revolutionary proletarian vanguard cadre summer camp when it comes to this. “People in America are very misinformed about socialism due to years of anti-socialist propaganda, a lack of a sustained history of strong, class-conscious left-wing labor movements, and a generalizable culture of douchebaggery [Okay, I added that last bit], so you need to patiently explain to them what socialism is really about, link it to their class interests, blah blah blah…We’re living in the belly of the beast!!!” Sure. There is probably something to that. But when I am at a bar, or a house party, or some other social setting where alcohol deludes us all into thinking that we have really important things to say and everyone wants to hear our hilarious dick jokes, I kind of do not give a fuck. I won’t be convincing anyone to forget everything they have been told about socialism and start reading the Monthly Review. Hell, I can’t do that when I am sober most of the time. Instead, I am instantly wondering what stupid shit I will hear the moment someone “outs” me by pointing at me and going “That guy’s a commie!” like I am a fucking unicorn (and having lived in Texas for most of my life, I might as well be). Or, what is infinitely more likely, when I out myself because I am bored, drunk, and thus have really, really… really important things to say.
Thing is, and I think anyone who has been a socialist for some time has realized this, no one in situations like that really want to discuss what you believe, or counter your perspective, or whatever. Unless (maybe) you are doing shots with some PhD students, they don’t know what you believe. Also, the people that will approach you about it are usually not going to be those who want to learn, either. It is going to be the libertarian frat bro, the conservative, meathead boyfriend, the dork accounting major who was on his high school debate team, the “practical” liberal who thinks he is so “progressive” (I hate that word now) but becomes William F. Buckley when he starts talking to you, the first-generation American who has some sob story about her grandma’s goat being nationalized by “the Communists” or the girl who thinks Ayn Rand wrote books that have any sort of value beyond a convenient replacement for toilet paper in a post-apocalyptic world. I am sure some of you recognize these characters.
You are probably the only real socialist any of them have ever met. Most of the time, the right-wing ones are busy throwing around the “socialist” label purely so as to anger Democrats in a manner befitting a 10 year old and the liberal ones are busy going “Nuh uh! Nuh uh!” and coming up with reasons why Barack Obama is not a socialist. Because, you know, that would be such bad PR if he actually were one. And socialists are weird, I guess. Anyway, by the time they get to you, they are like “Holy shit! I have only heard about these freaks or mindlessly accused someone of being one of them to get them pissed, but this fucker actually admits to being one!”
We might be socialists, but we live in the United States. We know the typical beliefs of typical American people. We tend to know the difference between a libertarian and a conservative, a New Democrat and a “progressive liberal.” We even might have been one of those people at some time. But keep in mind that they never had the benefit of being bombarded with your left-wing extremist talking points (because Hillary Clinton is apparently a left-wing extremist and they are satisfied with that). Suddenly, they are scouring their brains for everything they have ever learned about socialism starting with their high school social studies text books and ending somewhere between AM talk radio and what their drunken, racist uncle would say at Thanksgiving (not much of a difference there, really). Fuck it. Not even socialism. More like “big C” Communism, socialism, Nazism, fascism, social democracy, FDR liberalism, Keynesianism, and every political movement that has occurred in Western Europe since the dawn of the 20th Century become one big cluster fuck of an ideology that most definitely nails it apropos describing your beliefs. And you are now expected to answer for all of it, you Communist Nazi liberal Barack Obama loving Keynesian Europhile you. Forget the fact that these ideologies are readily distinguishable from one another, that that there is wide variation within them, or that they might be diametrically opposed (Sorry, but if you are a conservative, you are way fucking closer to a National Socialist or a fascist on the political spectrum than I am, dingus). Prepare for a big fuck all barrage of brilliant criticisms of the shit you don’t believe in but they think you do. And who knows. They might actually get around to talking shit about single-payer healthcare or food stamps or some other provision of the welfare state that you definitely support but is not an essential component of your being a socialist.
And as we well know, they have some really good material. I mean, REALLY good. I mean, come on: “It works on paper, but not in practice.” Dude. Fucking blew my mind!! I totally do not know what to say to that! You are an intellectual GIANT! I certainly cannot respond to that gem, being as solid and well-thought out as it is (that’s what she said… wait… what?). They also tend to bring up the following bullshit:
1) the Soviet Union, the atrocities of Stalin/Mao/whoever
2) European debt. Forget the fact that the United States is terribly indebted and has jack shit in the way of a welfare state to show for it.
3) the idea that you are being a hypocrite for buying things. Obviously, socialists are like religious ascetics. You don’t like money and you are not supposed to participate in the capitalist market economy that is imposed on us all, duh!
4) how it is so wrong to “steal” from the awesome, totally cool, super human rich people and give handouts to the moochers (because socialism is really about getting back at the cool kids and you are a jeal jeal hater of successful people),
5) how you suck because you don’t believe in private property, which (OF COURSE!) they take to mean you think everyone should be forced to share their shoes, and so on. This is perfect when you are eating some slop of American fast food. “You’re a socialist huh? So you are gonna give me your pizza because you don’t believe in property and that we should share everything!”
So, instead of defending what you do believe, you spend the next several hours explaining what you DO NOT believe. Like how there have been so many tendencies within socialism as there are so many tendencies within Christianity and you don’t care much for the Soviet Union. Sorry, those of you who do. I guess you find yourself explaining that the USSR was not a dystopian nightmare for most of its history, or that the United States in its history has obvious parallels in terms of atrocity and mass murder. It sucks because the entire conversation has nothing to do with what you believe and everything to do with what they think you believe. What they think you believe despite the fact that they have never made an honest effort to learn about the ideology that they hate so much. Despite your best efforts, by the end of the night, they will probably walk away from the entire conversation thinking the same patently fallacious shit, too.
Now, I am not trying to get at the idea that you should try to “pass” for a normal person and never get into these conversations with people. People are always wearing their political beliefs on their sleeves when they are out socializing. Even the people who like to pretend that they do not have any politics do this. Once someone starts talking shit about how fucking awesomely responsible they are and how they believe so much in “personal responsibility,” which poor people unfortunately do not (that’s why they are poor!), your commie senses should be tingling. When they bump it up to the next level and make a crack about how people on foodstamps routinely trade their government assistance for Nike sneakers or how the homeless are totally out there “banking” on panhandling, you know exactly where the motherfucker is coming from. And while they can often get away with saying bullshit like that, they deserve to be called out on it. Liberals might step up. You can step up too and berate them for their reprehensible “common knowledge” beliefs.
But what I am getting at is that you should never expect too much to come from it. You cannot fall into the trap of thinking that once someone is exposed to your socialist awesomeness that they will walk away thinking that socialists are not so bad after all. Even if you are extremely polite and patient with the invariably nonsensical things they will say to you. You can either go about it too ways, if you are going to say anything.
1) Be totally unapologetic about it. Never confirm the outrageous things they will say about socialism, or make apologies for some dumbass Communist government because they did what they did for the “glory of socialism.” Don’t turn it into a confessional about how “socialism had its failures” but you are a socialist anyway because we might just get it right the second time around. That is what they want. And in both theory and practice socialism as a movement the world over has brought about tremendous advancements for the working class. You don’t have to be sorry about anything because some socialists somewhere did bad shit. The same is true of governments that protected the interests of the capitalist class (like, hey, the Nazis… or the American one for that matter). As with the historical progress towards bourgeois liberal democracy, the struggle to realize socialism on earth is going to be a long and arduous one. Along the way, there will be many defeats, mistakes, failures, tears and bloodshed. I am no Maoist, but one quote of Mao’s that I find to be really perceptive is “the revolution is not a dinner party.” It has been and will be rough and chaotic. If you are some sort of ex-Trotskyist Neo-Marxist like me, or a democratic socialist, make the comparison between the long history of Christianity and the socialist movement. Socialism was THE movement of the 20th Century. It has been one of the most powerful, sustained movements in the history of mankind, the first time, perhaps, that we realized that the future is OURS to create. Along the way, there have been numerous splits and schisms, numerous tendencies within the socialist movement existing side by side with one another and fighting for a better future in different ways. I am not taking shit for what other socialists did, and I highly oppose the idea that socialist struggle “inevitably” leads to one thing or another. Nothing is inevitable. If the enemies of socialism fairly applied the same standard to their own ideological heritage, they would have more explaining to do than us.
2) Learn how to talk to people. I never could do this very well. Sometimes I think I am great at it, other times I stutter like a fool and cannot overcome my issues with shyness. I am sure that I have appeared offensive or like I am leading someone on (during those brief periods when I was not in a serious relationship). What is worse, it just seems totally random whether it will be easy for me to make a connection with someone in a social situation or not. A lot of it, however, seems to be figuring out what makes someone click and going from there. Some time back, a friend of mine who is a complete, unapologetic, hardcore, orthodox Marxist-Leninist and I were at a bar drinking. A couple sat next to us and we ended up talking to them for whatever reason, maybe they overheard some political statement that one of us made. The guy was a small business owner and a conservative. Usually not the easiest person to have a political discussion with when you are on the left. Being in one of my moments, I let him know of my socialist politics, perhaps as a response to something derogatory that was said about socialism. I came off as pretty idealistic to him. My friend, fortunately, jumped in was able to really get this guy to agree with or take seriously the points that he was making from a socialist perspective. The guy brings up small business, my friend had something to say for the small businessman. The guy brings up economic inefficiencies, my friend could let him know that he took him seriously while proposing an alternative to capitalist planning. Not only did my friend have a response for every argument the guy was making, he could relate the socialist point of view to him in a way that he could appreciate. There was very little of having to correct the conservative on the misunderstandings of socialist ideology because my friend avoided those “big issues” and honed-in on the obvious problems we have to day and how socialism is an answer to them. It went surprisingly well.
The stuff we hear about approaching non-socialists for purposes of recruitment and otherwise makes sense. Doing that well is something else entirely. Sometimes, I totally agree that you should call a reactionary motherfucker out and try the best you can to make a fool of him in front of everyone else. Other times, you need to be tactful about it, and it is something you learn with experience. As infuriating as it might be for you to be confronted with a totally one-sided condemnation of what you believe when you do not even believe that, you have to make the determination for when it is a good idea to do that and not. And if not, how you will go about it. It relies just as much on all those wonderful books you have read on socialist theory as it does pure and simple social skills.