Among the Alienated, Marx Lives

Many have proclaimed the death of Marxism, but C.S. Lewis said it best: Witches don’t die, they merely come back in a modified form. And therein lies a story.

One morning 34 years ago, my college roommate and I saw a notice in the Yale Daily News about a meeting on socialism to be held that evening in one of the university classrooms. We showed up on time and found ourselves the only ones in the room except for a solemn man precisely arranging on a front table piles of publications from the Socialist Workers Party.

Saying not a word to us, he focused on squaring each stack and having the distance between each stack exactly the same. My roommate and I took one look at each other and bolted the room, heading down the stairs as the comrade, jolted from his reverie, hurried after us, yelling, “Wait, wait.”

We didn’t wait, that evening. We never went back to that particular clique. But both of us were alienated: I had grown up within Judaism and my roommate within Christianity, yet neither of us had absorbed reasons beyond social custom for maintaining our allegiance.

I continued drifting left, participating in “peace” marches and joining the Communist Party, before resigning from it late in 1973. My roommate drifted in another way, announcing several years after graduation that he was gay. (In college, he had talked about heterosexual pursuits like the rest of us.)

Late last month, I attended “Socialism 2003,” a three-day gathering in Chicago of 900 leftists, most of them under 30. The International Socialist Organization, publisher of Socialist Worker, the same periodical I had seen neatly stacked in 1969, sponsored the meeting. Three decades had gone by since the last Marxist function I had attended, yet much was unchanged.

Most of the young men were pale and under-muscled. Most of the young women were homely, although a few socialist babes strolled through the throng surrounded by admiring swains. Buttons still proclaimed, “No to war, No to racism,” and, “Human need, not corporate greed.” “Free Mumia” buttons (concerning the convicted cop-killer imprisoned in Pennsylvania) had merely replaced “Free Huey” buttons (demanding freedom for a convicted cop-killer/Black Panther leader).

Some changes were evident. A female couple, both sporting butch haircuts, cuddled a baby. Some guys displayed tattooed arms. Books about Vietnam or Cambodia, the main squeeze three decades ago, had given way to anti-Israel tomes on the Middle East. (In the old days, Israel still retained some sympathy for its socialist background.)

The lead speaker at one well-attended session was Toufic Haddad, who raged against “the Zionist imperialists.” When his microphone did not work for a moment, he grumped about “a Zionist mike.” Other speakers — Ahmad, Ahmed, Salim and Mostafa, as well as those with names of English derivation — also assaulted Israel.

At 10 p.m. one evening, organizers tried to drive conference attendees into Jam for Justice, a mix of music and angry poems that was the main entertainment for the night. Two cash bars in the room did little business, and the designated poet soon sounded desperate, because few were listening. Socialists had come not to be entertained but to reach out and touch other socialists, and maybe hook up.

I felt a bit like Bruce Willis in The Kid, where he meets his younger self, a fat, unattractive child. Most of the socialists seemed to be political philosophy nerds, choosing to stay inside convention spaces instead of going to baseball games or other activities that the Ferris Buellers of the world prefer. Some with radical parents are merely carrying on the family business.

But the general news is this: Many have proclaimed that Marxism is dead, but judging by the enthusiasm and intensity of the folks I mingled with, Marxism is alive. It’s particularly strong among alienated professors and graduate students who hope to replicate the 1965-1974 golden age of unrest. It’s too early to celebrate Marxism’s demise.