[Marxism] Beleagured socialists?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 26 08:55:38 MST 2006

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Dec 24, 2006
Socialists are finding life in U.S. a challenge
By Billy Cox

When she graduates from Ringling School of Art 
and Design next year, aspiring photojournalist 
Cassandra Avalon will bail on her apartment, located in low-income Newtown.

Navigating through opposite ends of Sarasota's 
economic margins has, at her ripe old age of 20, 
given her a wide-angle glimpse of futility.

"I'm educated, but I don't think I could ever get 
there, into the rich society," says Avalon, who 
moonlights as a beverage assistant at the 
Longboat Key Club. "Not that I'd want to, really.

"I remember, when I walked through the airport at 
(Washington, D.C.'s) Dulles, I counted 22 
American flags. Everybody seems to have all this 
patriotism, but when you ask them to make a 
sacrifice for somebody else, no one volunteers to 
give up a Lexus so I won't have crackheads outside my door."

Avalon, an American citizen who grew up in 
Denmark, supports positions championed by many 
liberals: universal health care, affordable 
housing, an end to the war, etc. But what sets 
her apart is her political affiliation: the Socialist Party of Florida.

"All of my friends make fun of me," says Avalon, 
who once worked three jobs to make ends meet as a 
student. "They're like, 'Oh man, you're going to be on somebody's list now

What's in a name?

In another locale, the recent election of 
Vermont's Bernie Sanders as the first avowed 
socialist to the U.S. Senate might embolden 
kindred spirits to leave their closets and openly 
discuss their political sympathies. But a spot 
check in this region suggests the apprehensions 
raised by Avalon's friends can't be underestimated.

Avalon is one of more than 50 registered 
Socialists listed on the voter rolls in Sarasota, 
Charlotte and Manatee counties (none show up in 
DeSoto or Hardee). Of the 13 names contacted, 
seven of them — or their friends and family — 
denied such an affiliation existed.

"He's just a kid!" exclaimed a woman who answered 
the phone listed at a residence for a 21-year-old 
in Sarasota. She dismissed the possibility with a 
laugh, and the man did not return calls.

Another man found it hard to believe that his 
92-year-old father, also of Sarasota, could 
belong to the Florida Socialists. "He's a 
lifelong Republican," declared the son. "How can 
he keep voting in the Republican primaries if 
he's not a registered Republican?"

Staying low key

At the office of the Charlotte County Supervisor 
of Elections in Punta Gorda, spokeswoman Dotty 
Anderson doubted clerical errors were responsible 
for the incongruities in Sarasota, Port Charlotte 
or any other registrar's office. When Florida 
residents register to vote, they're instructed to 
mark boxes identifying themselves as Democrat, Republican, No Party or Other.

"If you check Other, you have to write down the 
name of your party, so it's hard to believe you 
could make that mistake," she says.

The only way Anderson could envision a clerical 
error is when people register to vote while 
obtaining a driver's license. "There could've 
been a problem keying it in," she says, "but even 
so, you have to review the form for accuracy."

An area resident who did acknowledge being a 
Socialist was clearly upset at being identified. 
He agreed to talk under condition of anonymity.

"Yes, the United States is in many ways a 
socialist nation; we just can't use the S-word 
anymore," he said. "And I can't afford to put my 
name out there because my wife and kids would be 
socially ostracized. When I was younger, I could 
take a punch in the jaw, but today, it'd be a 
witch hunt for me. It's not a healthy climate."

A diminished party

Such are the prospects for a deflated movement 
that once billowed the sails behind trade unions, 
child labor laws, Social Security, Medicare, 
workplace safety regulations, paid vacations and 
women's suffrage, to mention a few issues.

According to Howard Zinn's "A People's History of 
the United States," America's first socialist 
party once counted 100,000 members and elected 
1,200 of them to office in 340 municipalities. 
Its flagship newspaper had 500,000 readers. 
Counting rival periodicals, he writes, "perhaps a 
million people read the socialist press."

Today, those tattered remnants in Florida are 
officially registered as the Socialist Party of 
Florida and the Florida Socialist Workers Party, 
both of which languish alongside other political 
novelties such as the Surfers Party of America, 
the British Reformed Sectarian Party, the 
American Poor People Party and the Possibility Party.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato 
Institute, a libertarian think tank in 
Washington, D.C., says the reasons classic 
socialism has been demoted to third-party obscurity are demonstrably clear:

"Historically, socialism means the collective 
ownership of the means of production, the 
nationalization of everything from railroads to 
factories. Nobody believes in that now.

"In the early 1930s, capitalism looked like it 
had a lot of problems. But we know the science of 
economics much better today than we did back 
then. People who believe capitalism tends to 
favor the rich and needs government to constrain 
it forget how hard it is to create wealth. We've 
tried social experiments, and none of them worked."

Who are they?

Nevertheless, Florida Socialist Workers Party 
chairman Omari Musa, a Miami garment worker, ran 
for governor this year. He described his 
constituents as "people who are interested in 
ideas, not elections." That platform includes 
ideas such as the withdrawal of American troops 
from Afghanistan and Iraq, the defense of 
affirmative action quotas and abortion rights and 
"the unionization of working people."

Of the roughly 4.7 million votes cast in the 
Florida governor's race last month, Musa banked 76.

The few who did vote Socialist, such as 
18-year-old Valerie Pfiester of Port Charlotte, 
aren't necessarily hard-core ideologues versed in 
the arcane history of the workers movement.

Pfiester, a community-college student hoping to 
earn a music major, said she was repulsed by the 
two-party mudslinging monopoly on the campaign 
trail. Democrat and Republican commercials seemed 
more consumed by anger than solutions.

"I'd like to see social changes in this country 
like they have in Europe," she says. "And we've got too much racism here."

History students, on the other hand, might recall 
that the Socialist Workers Party was founded in 
1938 by union workers hooking up with former 
members of the Communist Party USA who were 
expelled for supporting intellectual Leon Trotsky 
over Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin.

One of the Socialist Workers' old-guard holdovers 
is The Militant, a weekly, Depression-era 
magazine that continues to publish in New York 
City. The conclusion to its Nov. 27 editorial 
reaffirms its fidelity to core values: "Cuba 
shows what we are capable of accomplishing if we 
organize our potential power and chart a course 
to make a revolution and join the worldwide struggle for socialism."

Quick to draw distinctions between the Socialist 
Workers and the Socialist Party of Florida is 
Jacksonville's Atlee Yarrow, party secretary of 
the latter. Although Yarrow endorsed Musa's bid 
for governor and addresses Socialists from all 
factions as comrades, the career press operator 
says his own party embraces the brand of 
democratic socialism advocated by Eugene Debs.

Some history

Debs, whose home in Terra Haute, Ind., is 
designated as a National Historic Landmark by the 
National Park Service, organized America's first 
industrial union — the American Railway Union — 
and became a five-time presidential candidate.

Founder of the Socialist Party of America (now 
the Socialist Party USA) in 1901, Debs corralled 
more than 900,000 votes from a prison cell during 
his final White House bid in 1920. Two years 
earlier, the celebrated strike leader drew an 
Espionage Act conviction for speaking out against 
U.S. participation in World War I. But he would 
also denounce the dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

"We're not utopians and we're not communists," 
says Yarrow, illuminating the famously 
contentious divides that have long characterized 
American socialism. "The Socialist Workers Party 
is to the militant left of us."

Yarrow calls the definition of socialism from 
Boaz of the Cato Institute "a fallacy" that 
actually applies to totalitarian communism. 
Mixed-economy socialism, he says, is particularly 
successful in the Scandinavian countries: "The 
taxes are the highest in the world, and yet the 
majority are the happiest since they have 
cradle-to-grave safety nets in all parts of life."

Yarrow describes his Socialist Party of Florida 
as a defender of "true family values" and cites 
Florida's nation-leading home foreclosure rates 
as a prime example of an expanding class war. He 
says the accelerating privatization of 
traditional government operations (e.g., 
corporate contracts for war logistics in Iraq) 
often produces rip-off cronyism, and that genuine 
campaign finance reform could slow the trend.

By contrast, Yarrow's designs on promoting 
socialism — by word of mouth — seem hopelessly anachronistic.

"We are the working poor," says Yarrow, who adds 
that he lives in a 22-year-old singlewide 
trailer. "We don't collect money, so we can't 
spend what we don't have. If I can influence one 
person, and that person can influence one or two 
others, then I've done my job."


Even with so little clout, Yarrow suspects his 
party affiliation accounts for why he gets 
searched every time he visits an airport. For 
that reason, he understands why socialists are reluctant to speak up.

"The fear is real," Yarrow says. "A lot of people 
will support the work behind anonymous computer 
screens, but Florida is a right-to-work state, 
meaning employers can fire you at will."

In Sarasota, Avalon says she's more alert than paranoid.

"My four years here have been very informative," 
says the Ringling student, for whom details 
matter, such as the disparities in response time 
for repairing roads in tony Longboat Key and 
Newtown. "When black mold forms on the walls and 
people get sick (in Newtown), it's like the only 
solution they can come up with is building a 
Wal-Mart. Relocation is more important than renovation."

The sort of blight she's chronicled with her 
cameras in Newtown would be a jolting scenario 
back in Copenhagen, home to a constitutional 
monarchy with generous social programs. Living in 
Sarasota has renewed her appreciation for the 
national health insurance she abandoned for an 
American policy that only one local doctor will accept.

"It's really sad to say, but my stay in Sarasota 
is temporary. My stay in Florida is temporary. I 
don't see myself being able to live in America with my viewpoints."

(Billy Cox writes for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Fla.) 

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