[Marxism] Beleagured socialists?
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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.
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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