Marxism and Margaritas, by Marcus Duskin

I get to the rally late.  The procession of signs and crosses down Mission Street has ended, and the crowd dutifully gathers around the public address system for the obligatory speeches.  Today we are listening to “testimonials” by the victims of US government policy during the Reagan years in Central America. 

The atmosphere is somber, even though most of us are glad old Bonzo is gone.  We’d spent a good part of the week making Reagan jokes and rehashing some of his most famous quotes like “You’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all” or “Facts are stupid things.”  A friend held a party to celebrate the passing of the Great Communicator and the jokes about Bonzo and Ronnie and Nancy and their sordid lives continued.  I brought my guitar and sang Malvina Reynold’s song “Boraxo”, conjuring up images of Reagan the actor, Reagan the cowboy, Reagan the butcher of People’s Park. 

“It’s all right, it’s all right
When you’re righteous it’s all right
Though you have you hands in blood up to the elbows
You can always wash them clean with Boraxo. “

I wanted to come to this rally and sing Boraxo too and a couple of parodies my partner Christy had written, but Christy tells me it’s the wrong occasion, this is a mock funeral for Reagan’s victims.  So I just show up, standing at the edge of the crowd, watching the rally and the people watching the rally.  I see a few familiar faces in the crowd, listening to the speeches and holding up signs and crosses.  A friend asks me to hold up his sign for a minute – it’s painted red and blue on a white background and says “Reagan the Great Communicator” with “Communicator” crossed out and the word “Liar” written over it.  I try to hold up the sign but I get frustrated with the wind blowing it around and return it.  The speeches, as usual, do not interest me.  Feigning tiredness, I sit down on a little concrete bench near the entrance to the BART station. 

I remember being asked if I considered myself an activist.  Or perhaps someone called me an activist, identifying me with my affinity for left wing politics?  No, I don’t consider myself an activist (we used to say “cadre” in the Party).  Sure, I’ve been showing up again in recent years, singing and playing the old protest songs when someone’s invited me to.  Otherwise I haven’t cared much.  In the years since I gave up on being “cadre” I haven’t found anything to replace the all-encompassing movement that was PLP, the Progressive Labor Party, the Party of the working class, the Party of the future of humanity. 

My life as a revolutionary communist ended 22 years ago when I failed to show up at the club meeting.  That day I deliberately arrived late and, instead of ringing the bell, I put a note through the mail slot saying I can’t do it anymore.  I’m too unhappy, I’m too conflicted.  I’m supposed to be a good communist but I’m in a bad relationship and I smoke dope and I sneak into porno movies and I didn’t sell any Challenges again this week and I’m tired of you all asking me why not.  So I officially quit that day, then hung around for three more years as a “fellow traveler” because I still believed, hanging out on the edge like I’m hanging out now.  I put together an agit-prop theatre group with another comrade who seemed on the edge too, but we were told our theatre was a “weakness” because we forgot to put a big red flag in at the end of our play and tell our audience that the only solution was communist revolution, like they do at the end of the articles in Challenge.  No, we didn’t forget, comrades, we were trying to be creative, and the Peking Opera ending didn’t cut it for us anymore. 

So I left for good.  Now here I am 22 years later and, well what do you know, I’m still sitting over on the edge.  I distract myself, watching the bums and the moms with kids and the dope dealers.  Then up strolls Carol Tarlen, who I haven’t seen in a few years.  I figured she was still around, though I had put her in the “drifting away” category.  I had heard that she and her partner David had joined a cadre organization, the “League of Revolutionaries for a New America”, formerly the “Communist Labor Party”.  Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s poet laureate, is a leading member of the group in San Francisco, and it seems that he’s recruited quite a number of fellow poets.  I surmised that Carol had given in to her inherent cynicism by joining this formation and removing herself from more mundane causes, like the unionizing campaigns that were happening at UCSF a couple years ago when we both worked there.  I had met here at a union rally in front of the hospital and was looking for a fellow left winger to help me make sense of the reform trade union movement that I was (yeah that’s right) peripherally involved in at work.  But at the rally Carol told me it was all a waste of time.  It wasn’t what I wanted to hear and since that time I lost touch with her. 

But there she was, looking just a tad older, and as ascerbic as ever.  Sitting herself next to me, she began with a complaint that she had waited for a half hour for a bus that never came, there had been some sort of accident on Mission Street.  Then she looked around at the gathering.  Spotting a couple signs which had the endorsement “International Answer” she said conversationally “They’re anti-Semitic, don’t you know?”  That was the first surprise; I tried to get my mind around this statement and what it might mean exactly.  Well, I surmised, perhaps Carol has made a dramatic change to the right, she’s become an ardent Zionist, or maybe it has something to do with some sectarian position of the League of Revolutionaries?  On further clarification, it turned out she objected to IA’s exclusion of Israeli flags at their marches, even those held by peace marchers.  “They aren’t broad enough” she stated.  Then, after a perfunctory discussion about Trotskyist influences in the mass movement, I attempted to change the subject.

So, I said, are you still working with the League of Revolutionaries? “Oh, sure, I still am” she replied, “but it’s a terrible name for a group and I’m trying to get them to change it.  It’s so pretentious, don’t you think?”

Now here was something really different and quite out of my experience.  I imagined having been at that club meeting and saying “Yes, I am a committed Marxist-Leninist and I support the Party 100%, but don’t you think our name should be a little less pretentious?”  No, something like that never would have happened, and if it did I would have been criticized for being a bourgeois individualist and secretly the comrades would have all thought that I was insane.  Did the League of Revolutionaries tolerate this sort of opinionating from its members?  I doubted it.  It was more likely that they were like any other sectarian organization, only they couldn’t change Carol.

I lose interest completely in the demo and focus my attention on talking with Carol.  We talk about Reagan and Bush, Jr. and the upcoming election. “Such terrible men, I’ll vote for Kerry only because I have to, but John Edwards has a nice smile and Koosh (Dennis Kucinich) has a smidgen of vision, don’t you think?”  Then more about the League.  I hear another astounding comment “Many of our new members are religious”.  A Marxist-Leninist group accepting avowed Christians?  Now I really don’t know what to think. 

Christy comes up and says hello.  Carol mentions she wants to retire to Puerto Allegre, drink some margaritas, and toast the passing of Ronnie.  Off we go together.  The conversation continues along the same vein at the restaurant.  I get the sense that Carol is in recruitment mode, but her style is so unorthodox that I can’t tell when she’s spouting the Party line and when she’s talking about her own ideas.  She invites us to a League event, a party at Jack’s house.  “You’ll bring your guitar, of course” she says.  “Jack just loves to sing, don’t you know?”  She goes on chatting about the Christians “I’m an atheist but I get along with them just fine, they’re people just like me.”  She talks about a long-winded debate at the League’s convention on whether or not to use the word “hate” in a resolution.  I remember those debates in PL.  Most have to do with art and culture.  The Party leadership was uncomfortable with these debates and discouraged them, unless that is the “Party line”, the orthodoxy, was reenforced. 

The League, however, seems to be on a different track.  “People want new things brought in” says Carol.  “They want to listen to what you bring in.”  Perhaps, I think, that’s why the San Francisco chapter is comprised mostly of poets (and some pretty good ones I might add).  I’m amazed by the direction this whole discussion has taken, perhaps stimulated further by the pitcher of tequila mix in front of us.  I can’t say I’ve had much of a positive impression of the League up to now.  I’ve bought their paper a couple of times from Jack and nothing interested me much except for a good article about speculation in economics and Jack’s poetry.  The group even seemed to have some cult-like tendencies, with a somewhat mysterious charismatic leader named Nelson Peery, and their paper is full of articles written mostly by women in their 30s and 40s.  To me it’s a bit reminiscent of Sendero Luminoso without the Maoist rhetoric.  How is it that these San Francisco poets I know are into something like this?  Maybe the San Francisco chapter is different?  Christy and I did attend a League event a couple of years ago –a strange combination of political speechmaking (Matt Gonzalez, the newly elected Green on the Board of Supervisors, was the main attraction) and poetry reading.  Nothing anyone said that night related much to what anyone else said, and the whole thing went on way too long.  Well, maybe if you put a group of poets in charge of a cadre organization this is what you get.  Or perhaps the League of Revolutionaries for a New America really is like this, strictly orthodox in some respects but wildly creative in others, and tolerant of anyone and anything that wants to align with it?  Well, one thing is for certain: it would be hard for any party to maintain their orthodoxy if someone like Carol Tarlen was a member. 

Christy and I say our goodbyes to Carol with a promise to come to the event at Jack’s.  When I get home I feel moved to put the events of the day on paper.  Carol has got me thinking about my own history and where I am today, and I keep having flashbacks into my own past.  I go all the way back before my college days when I joined, before I even knew what “political” was, back to age 11, 5th Grade.  I am wandering on the playground of my school in the middle of the day, alone.  Why? Because I passed a “directions” test my teacher gave the class, and only me and no one else read all the directions and so saw through the trick.  Is this my fate, to be out on the edge looking in, as I was on that day and this day as well?  Or maybe this chance meeting with Carol has got me thinking that something else is possible, that it’s OK to be different but to also belong, to be part of the collective but not to forget that only an individual possesses a soul and, as the Bard said so poetically, “To thine own self be true.”

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