Don't Despair

I want to tell you a story.

In the early 1990s, when I was international news editor at The Guardian Newsweekly, we hired a bookkeeper named Frances. Being a political newspaper run by the staff, our interviews were a mix of questions about competency and politics, as well as determining whether the person could really live on an annual salary of $13,000 in New York City. Frances was an old commie. She had joined the Communist Party USA during the World War Two era when it was a mass movement with hundreds of thousands of committed cadre and its influence was felt throughout society, particularly in theater, Hollywood, publishing, and all the arts.

When we asked Frances about her politics, about the crisis in the Left, about the failures of actually existing socialism, she gave the same response. Shaking a veiny fist in the air, Frances declared, “Socialism will win!” We chuckled, and we hired her. We desperately needed a bookkeeper, and she was willing to work for peanuts. 

Frances would punctuate her sentences with “hoo-hahs!” picked up in New York’s tenements as a kid during the Great Depression. Frances said the boys used to fancy her back in the day, so she had a method to weed out the pretenders from the contenders. She would take them to a Communist Party meeting to see if they were worthy of her interest, but usually decided if she liked them by the time they finished walking over to the CP hall. At The Guardian, she kept a large mason jar of digestible fiber on her desk that looked like wood chips that she would prescribe for every ill real or imagined. “Really cleans you out!”, she would bellow in a raspy Brooklyn accent. Frances was bony, had enormous pendulous breasts, and would regularly dress and undress at her desk oblivious to coworkers in our open office.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, following the disastrous Communist Party coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the entire cover of The Guardian was a photograph of a sewage drain with the Kremlin in the background. When Frances saw that she muttered all day, “Socialism down the drain. Hoo-hah!” To Frances, the idea that socialism was kaput made about as much sense as saying the sun wasn’t going to rise tomorrow. 

That’s not what we were saying. We were saying the Soviet system was over. The Guardian, along with nearly all the American Left, had broken with the Soviet Union decades earlier. We saw the Soviet Union as a bastardization of what socialism can and should be, though we admired Gorbachev for bringing an end to the Cold War and trying to reform a failing system. 

We supported Third World revolutions, the well-known ones, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Palestine, and obscure ones from Western Sahara to East Timor. But as much as we opposed Soviet-style socialism and capitalism in equal measure, we didn’t realize how the collapse of the USSR would remove the last bulwark against American-led capitalism. The end of the Soviet Union quickly led nearly all the revolutionary post-colonial states to collapse or make deals with the devil to cling to power. 

Frances never gave up the faith. She also didn’t work out as a bookkeeper. She was hiding the books from our business manager because they were a mess. Attempts to work out the conflict didn’t go anywhere. But one day, as two of us who were part of the elected leadership tried to mediate the conflict, she piped up, “Well, if you want me to resign, I’ll resign!” We were dumbfounded because we were used to threats and pleas and crying from incompetent staff. When you pay barely a thousand bucks a month, you don’t get the cream of the crop.

We weren’t stupid and immediately accepted her resignation. Frances was a good Communist to the end. She would sacrifice herself no questions asked because the collective struggle was all that mattered.

I’ve been thinking about Francis. We are in a time of profound despair. I know Francis would be keeping the faith. She lived through the long night of McCarthyism. It’s hard these days to understand how devastating that was. I’ve heard many stories from boomers about the lives of parents ruined and destroyed. McCarthyism was a society-wide purge. Thousands lost jobs as educators, professionals, union organizers, journalists, farmers. Many saw marriages crumble, lost homes, were forced into poverty, drank themselves to an early grave, and even committed suicide. 

This was a time when the planet also stood on the brink of annihilation from the threat of nuclear war. But rays of light did appear, first with the civil rights movement. Then with the student and antiwar movements, followed by Black liberation, feminism, gay liberation, the environmental movement.

The heady feeling on the Left in the late sixties and early seventies is also hard to imagine these days One editor, who was involved in the leading student organization of the time, Students for a Democratic Society, summed it up as, “We had the bastards on the run.” The militarists, the CEOs, the politicians, the priests were all running scared and didn’t know what to make of this rebellion sweeping across their societies and the world. 

Today it feels like the bastards are winning. America is scary: the rise of a strongman in the White House who is carrying out ethnic cleansing of undesirable religious and ethnic groups, encouraging rampant misogyny and violence by his followers, and pouring fracked gasoline on a world already on the funeral pyre. 

But over many years of political involvement, I developed my own faith. I’m not sure socialism will win, even though I absolutely believe it’s the only hope for humanity. I know most species will not survive the next century, though fears of a total collapse misunderstand how evolution works. We can’t kill all life on the planet, though we can reduce it to pests and weeds such as jellyfish, rats, cockroaches, and invasive plants. 

I know. That’s small comfort. But even after years of reporting on the worst of humanity. I still believe in the innate human capacity to do good. I don’t believe in a sky god. Not that I have an issue with that. As a young activist I got arrested as part of the Central American solidarity movement with radical Catholics like Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. That gave me respect for people of spiritual faith even if it’s not my cup of tea. Of course, blind faith is dangerous. It’s led to some of the worst atrocities in human history. 

Nor do I subscribe to the leftist belief that there is a design to history, such as what Francis believed. My faith stems from our nature as social animals. Even in a dog-eat-dog society like America, our lives are based on cooperation and sharing whether at home or work or even shopping or driving. We depend on cooperation in every facet of our lives. We just don’t think of it because we have a media that highlights competition and conflict because that’s how they make money, even though those moments are relatively rare in our lives. 

Trump will pass soon from the stage, as horrifying as he is. How else to describe someone who has created concentration camps for children, demonizes an entire religion of more than one billion people, and decades ago paid for full-page ads calling for the lynching of innocent Black children, the Central Park 5? Though I am less sanguine about the quick passing of violent white nationalism Trump has brought into being. 

I am seeing despair all around. Every day I log on to Facebook and Twitter, I see friends full of despair about the global turn towards fascism, the assaults on basic freedoms and dignity, and the deepening ecological crisis. 

But keep the faith. Keep the faith in the human capacity for compassion and understanding and generosity, and we will get through this together.

A personal note. I need to offer my sincere apologies for my radio silence of late. I handed in 10,000 words on my food book a few weeks ago to my publisher, The New Press. I will feature an article based on my thesis over the summer.

Then I had to pivot to an article about the campaign that defeated the planned Amazon headquarters in New York City. It’s a story that has not been told: the coalition that defeated a trillion-dollar corporation was led by women of color, nearly all immigrants, and many of them are undocumented. 

That article will be published by The Progressive in early June. I will also have some added material to that I will share with you.

Finally, I am going to do shorter thought pieces. Over the last few months, I’ve started four or five different articles to publish here, but then got caught up with other work. I’ve been doing journalism for so many years, I have to develop a different writing muscle, one for quick commentary rather than a comprehensive analysis. So be on the lookout for more writing soon. And thank you as always for your support!

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