Ghosts of the SWP past/Llover sobre mojado
Jose G. Perez
jgperez at SPAMfreepcmail.com
Sun Aug 29 23:11:26 MDT 1999
So there I am, outside CNN Center on a VERY slow Saturday smoking a
cigarette when I see a familiar, smiling face.
"Nancy? Nancy Ronsenstock?"
I struggle to recall the name from a life long past.
"José," she says, smiling brightly. She's wearing a badge that says, SWP
Trade Union Conference.
We start to catch up. "Your pamphlet is still a best seller," she says,
meaning one in support of Puerto Rican independence I wrote a quarter of a
century ago. She's quite at ease, friendly as ever.
Turns out the SWP is having some sort of national trade union fraction
meeting at the complex where CNN center is located. They're on lunch break.
I walk back into the huge central courtyard at CNN Center, occupied by
tables, sort of a large mall food court, and there they are, two at one
table, four at another: the ghosts of Trotskyism past. Standing Fast. Eating
I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia. There was Cappy, looking quite the
prole with his neatly trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard, who'd been kind enough
to visit me in Sarasota (he was in Tampa) when I was just an itsy-bitsy trot
neonate, having joined the YSA as an at-larger at the end of 1970. With him
I went to my first national SMC conference, in 1971, which was what really
drew me into the YSA. And there was John Staggs, looking barely a couple of
years older than last time I saw him. What was he doing at a trader union
fraction meeting, shouldn't he be in the print shop?
And Connie, who used to set all the type for Perspectiva, slim as ever, her
blonde hair all gray but coiffed as ever in a style I associate with Junior
High and American Bandstand. Jerry F., who had been my colleague in the YSA
National Office and his diminutive long-time companion Patty. Susan, who'd
been my prize Spanish Student at the second session of the SWP leadership
school in 1980. And Peter and Nancy and many --well in reality, not so
many -- faces from the past I'd hardly expected to have seen together in one
Warmest in her greeting was Olga, giving me a big embrace with her warm
Chicana heart. Coldest, Doug Jenness, for many years my editor on The
Militant, who expressed --was it alarm?-- to see me in Atlanta. "I'd heard
you were in Miami," he said quite pointedly. Where gusanos like me belonged,
I thought. "No, I've been working here on Mr. Turner's farm for 10 years."
It's safe Doug. This is just coincidence.
I talked to as many of the comrades as seemed inclined to chatting. Some
were in a hurry. Late for the meeting, time to reconvene. Others --most--
were happy to take a moment for an old-timer.
"Do you still read the Militant," several asked. Must be time for the fall
sub drive, I though.
"Yes, every week, I see it on the internet." Well, only a slight
exaggeration. I do visit the gopher once or twice a month, usually. "Oh, I
didn't realize we were on the internet," one said. She doesn't have a
computer. I had a vision of her lighting a Coleman lantern as the sun set.
"You know, Joe, we really might look into getting electricity put in. Even
many of the comrades have it."
Things are going GREAT, they all said. I smile appropriately as they recount
some of their recent accomplishments, selling the Militant at this strike
and that plant gate.
"That's great ... that's wonderful ... that's fantastic," I respond.
But no one has any stories to tell about their fresh batch of new recruits.
It was heartbreaking. I recalled the names of half the people with the
white, stick-on badges, recognized the faces of virtually all the rest.
There were three, perhaps five too young for me to have known them fifteen
years ago. A paunchy, balding. graying crew -- though, or so it seemed, the
years had been kinder to most of them than they had to me.
Going back to work, I imagined, looking down on the seating area of the food
court from the second floor balcony, that I was some comrade who'd left in
1950, reappearing again in 1965. At this sort of meeting they would have
seen, yes, the forty or fifty old timers. But sprinkled among them would be
a baby-faced Jack Barnes and Mary Alice and Betsey Stone and the Britton
brothers and Doug, Peter and Barry from Boston, Dan Styron before he killed
himself, and so many others.
These are the last of the "Bolshevik-Leninists," I thought, looking down at
them. The last of the Trotskyists. Heirs to the glorious October, keepers of
the flame in the dark night of betrayal.
Then I thought better. The last of the Bolshevik Leninists died in a
concentration camp decades ago. These, I reminded myself, had been a new
generation of radicals, born of the post World War II prosperity, and now
here because they are stuck with a decision made a quarter century ago to
become something they were not, "worker Bolsheviks" When what they
were, --American rebels-- seemed not quite enough to achieve their dreams.
It reminded me of seeing in a college labor history class a documentary
about the Wobblies, including filmed interviews with some of the old timers.
The last scene was of them at their Chicago headquarters, putting a new
edition of their newspaper, the Industrial Worker to bed.
I remembered feeling a tremendous sadness as the announcer highlighted the
surprising youth and vigor of these retirees. "But there are no young
Wobblies," he said. "These are the last of the fellow workers. Their kind
we will see no more." I was determined that it not be so, wrote to Chicago,
and was a member for a few months. But it was just a sentimental gesture.
Their day was past. Their work was done.
I went back to my work, putting into Spanish a documentary series on the
Cold War. I'm at the very end, Gorby has signed over the nuclear trigger to
Yeltsin, a few mournful bars of the Internationale play over the lowering of
the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin for the last time. It is time for
Fidel --presented more or less as the last of the Communists-- to say his
I had seen the whole interview with Fidel, not just the excerpts, and knew
what had been left out, not just what had been put in. Asked by his American
interviewer who had won the Cold War, he answered without hesitation. "You
did. The United States did." It had been brought to mind by one of the
comrades, who talked to me about some book by Jack Barnes, "U.S. Imperialism
lost the Cold War."
That, I thought, would be a much better world to live in. I played the tape,
with the excerpt from Fidel's interview that was in the documentary. Despite
everything, he was sure of ultimate victory.
"Why believe that the ideals of socialism, which are so generous and appeal
so much to solidarity and fraternity, will one day disappear? What would
prevail -- selfishness, individualism, personal ambitions? That will not
save the world; of that I am absolutely convinced."
I finished what I was doing, ejected the tape from the machine.
"De eso estoy absolutamente convencido," of that I am absolutely convinced.
Fidel's words stayed with me. It is a stock phrase he uses when he speaks of
his innermost convictions.
I remembered the first time I had ever seen Fidel in person, 20 years ago,
at the inauguration of a theme park for the pioneers, Cuba's children. He
had just told them it would be named for Ernesto Guevara, and the pioneers
responded with their slogan, "Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che!"
"And you WILL be," Fidel responded, "of that I am absolutely convinced."
I walked out of the editing suite where I had been working to the shelves
where I keep the tapes and put them away. It was time to go home. I walked
out of the facility onto the balcony and looked down. The comrades were now
on their dinner break.
These may be the last generation of SWPers, I thought, but not the last of
their kind, just as the new generations of American rebels did not call
themselves wobblies, but were heirs to the best of that tradition, just the
same. The new generation of rebels isn't down here, but it is out there, or
I went down to talk to the comrades. There would be no social at this
conference, all Saturday night was taken up by meetings. To everyone I saw I
smiled warmly, wished them the best. No hypocrisy there. If dedication to a
cause is worth something, these had surely earned the best of luck by it.
Soon enough it was time for them to reconvene.
I'd though they'd all gone, when someone came up from behind, and said,
"Hello, stranger." I did not know why I hadn't spotted her before, she and I
had been lovers, once, briefly, when she had been very young and I only a
little older, just enough to make it seem, in her eyes, that I knew
everything. Later we were fast friends, until I left the party, when we lost
We talked for quite a while, she told me of her life for 15 years, I, of
mine. She'd never understood why I'd left the party, I explained as gently
as I could, too gently. She told me of all the exiting strikes and Militant
sales, as if I were still a member, just a bit down in morale, or perhaps
one considering rejoining.
"Things are really looking up--" and then she added, totally changing her
tone, "I really used to look up to you." She said it lightly, flippantly
almost succeeding in hiding her feelings of abandonment and betrayal.
The conversation drifted to what I was doing now. I told her about the cold
war series, the flag coming down above the Kremlin, followed by the excerpt
of Fidel's interview expressing his faith that, some day, socialism will
"I hope some kid in Venezuela hears it, and it means something to him."
"Why Venezuela?" she asked.
Really, because it had been on my mind. The day before the bourgeois
legislature had tried to reassert itself against the popularly-backed
constituent assembly. There had been a very nasty clash outside parliament.
I'd noticed the American papers --and CNN in English-- paid it to no
attention, but CNN en Español had broadcast a lot of it live, as well as
much of a speech by President Chávez defending the Assembly and denouncing
the old corrupt political system. But I did not tell her this. I did not
want to get into a political discussion of what people should be doing, and
why. Least of all with her. I had been her mentor, once. Look where it had
"Just to name a country," I said. "It could have been any of them."
She really had to go, she was late for her meeting. I hug her goodbye. On
the way home, I listen to Silvio Rodríguez, on the cassette player. I'd
introduced her to Silvio, some of his songs still remind me of her.
By happenstance, the tape I play is one I'd quoted on this list a few days
ago, about how socialism was made by plowing the future with old oxen. I
hadn't thought then about the first lines of that verse. Now I did.
Salgo y pregunto por un viejo amigo
de aquellos tiempos duramente humanos
pero nos lo ha podrido el enemigo
degollaron su alma en nuestras manos
absurdo suponer que el paraiso
es solo la igualdad las buenas leyes
el sueño se hace a mano y sin permiso
arando el porvenir con viejos bueyes
Valla forma de saber
que aún quiere llover
Vaya forma de saber
que aún quiere llover
* * *
I go out, and ask about an old friend
>From those harshly human days
But the enemy has rotted him
They decapitated his soul in our hands
It's absurd to think that paradise
Is just equality and good laws.
The dream is made by hand and without permission
Plowing the future with good oxen,
What a way to find out
That it's going to rain
On what's already wet.*
What a way to find out
That it's going to rain
On what's already wet.
* "Quiere llover sobre mojado" is a Cuban dicho, or saying, for which I've
fruitlessly searched for even a rough equivalent. It can mean slightly
different things, of someone stating the obvious, or something happening
again, but mostly it captures a feeling that you've been here before, you've
gone beyond it, and now you find yourself back here again.
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