I became a socialist in the early ’70s before attending college. While never a member, I’ve been involved off and on in different capacities with the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) ever since — until last spring. In April I broke off my connection over political differences. This has led to a series of letters, texts and emails between myself and a close friend since college who was formally a member and who closely identifies with the party today. My friend recently used his blog to publicly respond to my latest email. He made an interesting and personally important observation. He said that I may now find myself “increasingly comfortable within the camp of left-liberalism.” This led to much introspection and I’ve concluded he’s right.
I was very patriotic as a youth. I made sure my family flew the flag out front every July 4th. I was disturbed when I saw things that didn’t match what school taught us about America. I remember being disturbed about poverty very early. I paid close attention to the 1963 march on Washington and Martin Luther King’s speech. In 1968, I was incensed watching the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as police brutally attacked anti-war protesters outside and network floor reporters inside were roughed up by Mayor Daley’s goons.
High School & College
At the start of my high school sophomore year in 1969 I was approached about helping to organize an after-school meeting at a friend’s house where a speaker would talk against the Vietnam War. I can’t recall exactly who asked me or why because I don’t remember being a particularly strong or outspoken opponent of the war at that time. Interestingly, the meeting was actually the idea of my friend’s mother. She opened the gathering after we all squeezed into her living room, expressing how delighted she was at the turnout.
I agreed to support and help organize the meeting, so flyers announcing the meeting were printed up which we passed out in the hallway before the homeroom bell.
It never really occurred to me there would a problem passing out these flyers. It was free speech and before school… so no problem. Wrong! I was surprised when we all got called out of First Period class to find ourselves in Big Trouble. Obviously I was naïve. We were told that the group coming to our meeting, the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), was a communist organization and we shouldn’t get involved with them. We were offered a number we could call for more information. I said I was willing to listen and called that night from home. It was a recorded White Power message!
I was dumbstruck. And it changed me. I decided in that moment that if these people were opposed to the SMC then the SMC was definitely an organization I should get involved with. That phone call set my political course for the rest of my life.
For the next few years I could probably be described as a middle-class counterculture liberal. I grew my hair long and went to work for a local “youth run” free clinic and crisis hotline — called Head Help — funded by the Geauga County 648 Board. The “648 Boards” were 53 Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Boards created in 1967 under Ohio’s Amended Substitute House Bill 648. Head Help was youth run in the sense the bylaws required that 51% of the board be under age 18. We had an adult Executive Director and other adult staff, but some paid staff like myself were youth. We had many enthusiastic volunteers of all ages, including the doctors who staffed our free medical clinic at night.
Head Help was a buzz of activity 24/7. In addition to all the direct services we offered, Head Help was a hub for progressive community groups and activities of all kinds. There was a spin-off food co-op and a recycling program. Protests and pickets supporting the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) national lettuce & grape boycott were coordinated there. We published Karma which was ostensibly the agency newsletter but was also a kind of underground newspaper. I was paid a pittance to work half time but actually put in 40 hours-plus. This wasn’t a job, it was a cause!
In 1972 I was a passionate supporter of Democratic Senator George McGovern in his run for president. I took time off from Head Help to work full time on his campaign. Over the next few years following the ’72 election I started to sense that social problems weren’t so much the result of bad policy by either party, but rather systemic problems arising from and inseparable from capitalism. I came to believe that electing this or that candidate might help in the short term but wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. I was becoming a socialist.
In those days the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) got considerable mainstream press attention when they ran candidates for public office. In Cleveland, Nancy Brown was a frequent candidate and I would read the coverage of her campaigns in the Plain Dealer. I agreed with everything she was saying.
1975 was a year of transition. It had been several years since I graduated high school and I decided it was time to leave Head Help and move onto college. I also needed to attend to a personal mission: to come out publicly as gay and get involved in gay rights. I had heard of the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF) at Kent State so that’s where I enrolled. In April I resigned from Head Help. Before going to Kent, I committed to work full time for six months with the UFW in Cleveland. I earned a $5/week stipend and a $5/week food allowance. I ate vegetarian, lost 40 pounds, and felt great. Ah, to be young and carefree again!
At Kent State I came out and joined KGLF. Next I went “shopping” among the different socialist groups on campus to select one that aligned most closely with my thinking. I chose the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), a national youth group affiliated with the SWP.
Gay Rights & Socialism
Unlike many in the YSA, I didn’t move on to membership in the SWP and a life devoted to revolutionary change. After graduation in 1979, I had little or no contact with the SWP until the Iraq War drew me back. I had no problem or disagreement with the party, I just preferred to put my political energy into gay rights. Among my activities was a weekly radio show on WRUW-FM in Cleveland which a team of us produced. I helped organize Cleveland’s first annual June pride celebration, and then served as Board President with Cleveland’s Lesbian-Gay Community Center.
I managed to apply my political values professionally as a community organizer and later director for a non-profit neighborhood-based community development corporation. From there I worked 31 years for the City of Cleveland as a Neighborhood Planner and later enforced federal regulations that protect tenants displaced by development projects.
I circled back to the SWP in the 1990s and became an organized supporter. The main work I did in this capacity was to serve on the Pathfinder Publishing Project. The SWP has a publishing arm — Pathfinder Press — dedicated to keeping the historic writings of the international working-class movement in print. At the time I was involved there were some 250 volunteers working internationally to produce, upgrade and distribute the books. The total catalog then was over 400 titles. The quality met the highest standards of the publishing industry, and still does. I worked on the Graphics Team that produced the book covers, inside photo signature pages and promotional materials. I was immensely proud of this work, but the demands for precision and excellence, all under production deadlines, eventually became too much. My City job was demanding with lots of stress and overtime, plus I was handling a number of heavy family responsibilities following my father’s passing. Upon receiving a big print assignment one night, I utterly crashed and resigned suddenly. It was the only obligation on my overwhelming plate that wasn’t absolutely mandatory.
One Foot in Marxism, One Foot in Liberalism
Looking back, I think that night I crashed started a very slow drift away from the party over the next 10 or 15 years. Also looking back, I think I have to acknowledge that I have never really been a true Marxist — not fully at least. If I’m honest I think all along I’ve had one foot in Marxism and one foot in liberalism. For a long time my Marxist side prevailed. Lately events have been bringing out my liberal side more.
My ultimate break with the party started about 2½ years ago. One pleasant summer evening in 2020, just a few days after I retired, I was sitting out front with my husband after dinner. We were sipping wine, chatting, watching people walk by with their kids or dogs. and scrolling through our phones. I came upon some socialist friends having a discussion on Facebook about transgenderism. I was soon startled by a negativity I had not expected. These are people who support gay and lesbian rights, and while the subject had apparently never come up, I had assumed they supported transgender people too. Apparently not I discovered, and I was almost shocked. As I contributed a few comments I found myself getting angry at the pushback I was receiving.
Since that evening there have been countless subsequent discussions and debates, some of which got pretty ugly. I’ve written about this elsewhere in the blog so I won’t recap it all here, but probably the low point came last April when I was likened to “Putin and his sycophants” in my defense of transgender people. How do you discuss anything with someone who resorts to this?
The socialists I’ve been arguing with on Facebook are not members of the SWP and don’t speak for the party, but most are former members and seem closely aligned. The party expresses itself officially through its paper, The Militant, where its position on transgenderism is more or less the same as the socialists on Facebook — but without the rowdiness. That much I appreciate. But when things hit that low point last spring, I reached my limit and terminated my last official connection. I am now a man without a party.
The Transgender Debate is Deeply Personal to Me
In fairness I should make clear here that my opponents in these debates have long histories of supporting gay, lesbian and bisexual rights. They are not homophobic. Even as they argue against various aspects of so-called “transgender ideology,” they oppose discrimination against transgender people in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodations. Unfortunately, despite these qualifiers, their positions broadly echo and reinforce the current rightwing campaign against the LGBTQ+ community.
I should also note that they base their stance on scientific grounds asserting there are indisputably two genders: male and female. In my opinion this takes a narrow select view of science — science as frozen in time — but it’s when I attempt to address this that I’m told I morph into Putin. It’s an impossible situation.
I’m not generally adverse to having political differences with people. A lot of times it’s fun, like some people enjoy debate club. It’s an intellectual challenge. This transgender debate has been different, however. First it’s personal, deeply personal. I see transgender people as family in the LGBTQ+ community, so to attack them is basically to attack me. Second, the people I see as attacking me are my friends — one in particular is a friend going all the way back to the YSA in college. Dealing with attacks from strangers is one thing. But when it’s coming from friends, it’s painful and eventually intolerable.
My friend and I have come to the point we’ve wondered if we can even get together socially. Hopefully we’ll work this through. We’ve recently exchanged several heartfelt letters, emails and texts. He responded to my latest communication publicly with a post in his blog. Which is fine; I don’t mind. One point he made stopped me cold, leading me to reflect and prepare this post in return. He wrote,
“In my opinion, your differences with the SWP on Transgenderism are not a sufficient reason to break with the party and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what your objections are to what the Militant has written. That said, I think there’s other things going on as well, and that you find yourself increasingly comfortable within the camp of left-liberalism. And that’s okay, people are allowed to change their minds and such a drift is hardly rare.”
This felt like a stab to the heart. I just sat for almost an hour. I felt a wave of shame as if having betrayed myself, my life’s work and my comrades. I felt depressed and my energy sapped. Has my whole life been a giant hypocrisy?
I felt better the next morning, and especially after a New Years gathering of old gay friends with whom I’ve fought side-by-side since I first came out. We talked about our history and our campaigns together, we shared old stories, remembered those passed, and talked about where our movement & struggle stands today. I came away rejuvenated and still feel it over a week later. I wake up everyday now in a good mood again. Thankfully! Clearly this 2½-year online battle has worn me down and even negatively impacted my physical health.
The Proverbial Last Straw
With respect to my break from the SWP, my friend observed correctly when he wrote “I think there’s other things going on as well.” Yes, there are other things, although none until now have caused me to break away. The transgender controversy has proved to be the proverbial last straw.
What are some of my differences with the party?
Where do I start? I’ve grown increasingly disturbed with the slack the party cuts Donald Trump, sometimes virtually echoing his rhetoric verbatim. It’s one thing when Trump gives voice to the many legitimate concerns of working people, especially at the beginning. He certainly did so more than Clinton, which is why he won in 2016. But he also did so cynically. Speaking from the right, he has never truly had workers’ interests at heart. It’s all lip service, which of course can be said of the Democrats too. But Trump has also given voice, encouragement and cover to those layers of the population that are white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and more — which is arguably his democratic right under the First Amendment. However he went even further to employ all the forces of government he could muster attempting to nullify the 2020 election and retain the presidency illegitimately.
People in Trump’s base have threatened volunteer poll workers. They’ve threatened secretaries of state and other paid election staff including death threats against their families and children. Some threats have included specific information including children’s names and school locations. They’ve shown up armed outside ballot drop boxes to try and intimidate voters, in some cases photographing people dropping off ballots. License plates can be used to identify these voters. Trump has never said or posted anything opposing this conduct by his supporters, which is to effectively support and encourage it.
I find this sample excerpt from October in the Militant eye-popping:
“In Georgia prosecutors are going after 16 people who signed on as would-be Trump electors in 2020 because they believed Trump had won the vote there. Their lawyers deny they did anything wrong, saying their actions were a legitimate contingency plan as they waited for a court ruling on a challenge to the outcome of the vote.
“None of these moves have anything to do with defending our rights or improving the conditions of working people. They’re all aimed at the Democratic Party finding a road to long-term control in Washington and sidelining the working class. They’re a deadly threat to constitutional freedoms.”
There’s no denying that so-called “free elections” are something of a sham in the United States. Two parties hold a monopoly on the political process, functioning more like factions of a single party serving the interests of employers and capital. Workers are forced to pick sides as their bosses and the ruling class struggle amongst themselves over how best to manage their affairs under their system. Despite this, “free elections” in principle are nonetheless a political conquest that serve workers’ interests, just the same as the First Amendment Freedom of Speech. While parties like the SWP and others have to leap undemocratic hurdles to gain ballot access, they still can run candidates. Any votes cast for them should be honestly counted and protected, not cast aside and replaced by “alternate votes.”
The Militant appears to buy the line that the slates of “alternate electors” in Georgia and six other states were innocent and well-intentioned. Surely the party has heard by now that evidence and testimony assembled by the January 6 Committee show how these “alternate electors” were a scheme to derail the election organized with Trump’s participation and implemented by attorneys including John Eastman. Trump facilitated two meetings intended to pressure Mike Pence to unilaterally substitute these alternate slates for Trump rather than count the state-certified slates for Biden, which were based on the actual votes cast in those states1See Chapter 3 (pages 341-354) of the Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, published by Harper.. The Militant seems to be saying that to prosecute people attempting to suppress bonafide votes in an election constitutes a “deadly threat to constitutional freedoms.”
I contrast this with a front-page editorial run by the Militant in its September 20, 1974, issue titled “Nixon pardon: capitalist ‘justice,’ Watergate cover-up continues.” The party said this about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon:
“By thus preventing any federal trials of Nixon or any further publication of non-subpoenaed tapes, Ford hopes to put an end to the whole process of unraveling exposures of ruling-class lies and corruption that has come to be called ‘Watergate’.”
The party’s position on Trump makes no sense to me, especially given its earlier position on Nixon — whose actions paled in comparison. That said, this issue alone was not enough to drive me away from the party.
My differences on climate change are limited and specific. I agree with the party when it says “We [meaning the working class] are the only force capable of leading a fight to change society, to protect the land, water and air, to utilize scientific and technological advances for the benefit of all.” The party explains that the workings of capitalism are the source of environmental destruction. I personally think it’s inconceivable that the capitalist nations, driven by profit and competition with each other, will take the necessary steps to address climate change. They talk and make unenforceable pledges, but little happens. Should they ever actually decide to take genuine action, it’ll be too little and too late. And then, they’ll push most of the resulting hardship from their newfound policies onto the backs of workers.
My problem with the SWP is it then goes on to belittle the warnings about climate change, dismissing much of it as “climate hysteria.” I’m not sure the people losing their homes, lives and limbs to the increasing frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events would agree that they’re being “hysterical.”
The Militant has also said “The working class must also reject all forms of fake science, exaggerations, catastrophism, and crankism.” Yes we should, but just what “crankism” are they referring to? I doubt every detail or prediction about climate change issued by the UN or others is correct, but I believe the overall thrust is. A survey of 88,125 peer-reviewed scientific papers found virtually 100% agreement among climate scientists.
A year ago the Militant discounted warnings in a UN report saying that “despite prophecies of impending doom, much in the 4,000-page report shows a different picture, that disaster isn’t at our doorstep.” Maybe not yet, but it will be if action isn’t taken soon. The UN explains that to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025, at the latest. That’s practically tomorrow!
As with Trump above, this issue alone was not enough to drive me away from the party.
Like with climate change, my differences here are limited and specific. To be clear, the SWP supports and defends abortion rights. However, the party has almost celebrated the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs ruling. As I understand the party’s position, they contend that Roe prematurely cut off needed discussion among workers and women on the best course forward to defend abortion rights and women’s rights overall. They criticize Roe — and I agree on this point — for linking the right to abortion to medical grounds and fetal viability. The problem is that viability shifts over time as medical science advances, thus the right to abortion under Roe would shift as well.
An article in the Militant says this about the decision overturning Roe: “In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, the high court turned the issue over to the people and their state representatives. It is in the interest of working people to oppose legislation by the courts, as was the case with Roe v. Wade.” In this same article, the Militant opposed a state-wide ballot initiative in California that called for a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion. The paper complained that it didn’t address the “broader battle to advance the rights, interests and fighting capacity of women and working people as a whole.” The paper stated “Proposition 1, an amendment to the California Constitution [that] its Democratic Party authors and backers claim will ‘enshrine’ the right to abortion in law forever, is an obstacle to this fight. The SWP urges you to vote ‘No'”. This bears repeating to sink in: The SWP called for defeat of a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights in California.
Two points here I need to make:
- If the party was happy that Dobbs turned the issue of abortion over to the people and their state representatives, what’s wrong with the people of California then adding explicit abortion rights to their state constitution? The party claimed that Democrats were “using [abortion] as a vote-getting ploy.” They probably were. So what else is new? How does opportunism of the Democratic Party become a relevant basis to advocate defeat of a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights?
- Opposition to so-called “legislation by the courts” is an age-old cry of the right. It stems from a fundamental lack of understanding or acceptance of the constitutional role of the Supreme Court. SCOTUS “functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution… The complex role of the Supreme Court in this system derives from its authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions which, in the Court’s considered judgment, conflict with the Constitution.” By invalidating unconstitutional laws, SCOTUS sometimes clarifies or establishes rights heretofore not recognized as constitutional. This might appear to be “legislating from the bench,” but it isn’t.
If Roe was improper “legislation by the courts” are these other rulings also improper? Brown v. Board of Education throwing out “separate but equal” education, Miranda v. Arizona establishing Miranda Rights, Gideon v. Wainwright establishing the right to counsel in criminal cases, Mapp v. Ohio establishing the inadmissibility of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Tinker v. Des Moines affirming students’ First Amendment rights in school, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette establishing that students cannot be compelled to salute the flag against their First Amendment rights, Loving v. Virginia establishing the right to interracial marriage, Lawrence v. Texas throwing out laws against sodomy, Obergefell v. Hodges establishing the right to same-sex marriage….and on.
Expanding on the party’s opposition to the California initiative, the Militant said we need to be “fighting for a government-funded public works program to create jobs to build child care centers, housing and other things workers need. It means fighting for publicly financed cradle-to-grave medical care” The party argues that “we need to fight to make abortion rarer by changing the social conditions that have led to its widespread use.” Agreed! But still, I can’t see how locking in abortion rights is a bad thing. We need to grab what victories we can, then fight for more. By analogy, gays can still be discriminated against and fired around the country, but we were correct to grab same-sex marriage when we had the chance.
As with Trump and climate change above, this issue alone was not enough to drive me away from the party.
And finally, transgenderism: the last straw. This issue was enough to finally drive me away from the party.
In my friend’s quote above, he wrote “I’m not exactly sure what your objections are to what the Militant has written.” Well, there is no single thing the paper has written. My objection is broader. It’s that the Militant broadly agrees with everything being said on Facebook. I thought I was pretty clear in a private letter to my friend in November: “While the party expresses itself with more decorum and restraint than one finds on Facebook, its position on this subject is essentially the same.”
My problem is with the party’s overall rejection and opposition to transgenderism, its perfunctory calls for non-discrimination duly noted. I simply no longer feel comfortable with a party that I don’t see as reliably supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Despite their sincere best intentions, the party, its organized supporters and followers are echoing and feeding into rightwing rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community.
These aren’t my only issues with the party but they come quickest to mind and serve as good illustrations. It wasn’t until the transgender disagreement that everything reached a critical mass where I had to say “Enough!” and break away. I have too many reservations now to identify with the SWP. With respect to LGBTQ+ matters, I’m feeling too alienated.
I remain irreversibly opposed to capitalism. I would call myself now a socialist sympathizer. I am not hostile to the SWP. I plan to continue supporting the party now and again on an ad hoc basis. For all its faults, the SWP is the only serious game in town. There is no other socialist or communist party or organization that comes close to the SWP. The party is quite small, but with its large contingent of organized supporters and its highly productive and successful publishing program, it carries considerable weight in the working class movement.
I am now voting for Democrats. I do so fully cognizant that the Democratic Party is a ruling class party. I realize I’m making a certain pact with the devil when I vote for them. It’s tactical, for lack of a better word or better excuse. The Republicans are waging an aggressive nationwide assault against the LGBTQ+ community (see my blog post ‘Deja Vu All Over Again: The New Wave of Anti-LGBTQ+ Attacks‘). For all their faults, the Democrats are at least defending the LGBTQ+ community. My guard is up, but I have to go with them in this situation.
At the same time, I support calls for a genuine Labor Party based on the unions and the working class. If the SWP or a Labor Party make it onto the ballot in Ohio I will have a decision to make. I expect I’ll be very uncomfortable in that situation voting against them and for the Democrats instead. I don’t think this will come up for a while, but in time it may.
Finally, to sum it up, my friend called it right. For now I am comfortable owning the label of left-liberal. I hope that someday circumstances may change and I’ll see my way back to the SWP again.
Title image is by Diana Kereselidze on Unsplash.
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