You may have heard me summarize these events before, but this is *far and away* the best I’ve ever told the story. I feel re-inspired and reinvigorated just for having retold it like this, so I wanted to share it.
I used to be a libertarian. Like, a pro-capitalism, pro-market person who also wanted drugs and gay marriage to be legalized, and u.s. interventionism to be ended as much as possible. I started off as a Democrat when I was like thirteen because my parents were both Democrats, but then I read Ayn Rand when I was fifteen and then I also read this book “In Defense of Global Capitalism,” which is full of statistics that I found very convincing about why cutting regulations and lowering tariffs is best for everyone in every way. But I wasn’t *trying* to be an asshole or like a puritan Christian, and I believed in personal freedom, so I supported some “socially progressive” stuff. But I was also an outspoken advocate of “free markets” and such.
Virtually the only anticapitalists I would encounter for years were lifestylist anarchists on a college campus who, I don’t even remember what they said. I do know from time to time they would mention Chomsky or Howard Zinn, because I remembered those names when I started exploring on my own later. But they pointed out how this or that aspect of government policy was being corrupted by a corporation. For a while that just deepened my libertarianism, because the standard libertarian response is like, “Well, then if we just got rid of the government, then it couldn’t be corrupted.” The ideals of anarchism (“no gods, no masters”) made sense to me, but I wasn’t ready to abandon capitalism, so I became an anarchocapitalist.
But like, at the same time, the more I learned about the history of the time before government regulations, that seemed even *worse*. So on one hand I didn’t want government programs or regulations to stop, but I was also a quick advocate for removing tariffs and such, and believed that all arbitrary authorities should be destroyed.
It was a pretty contradictory position, and I didn’t see a solution, so I was pretty cynical for a while, even as the people around me continued to pour information about the greed of corporations on me. And I never stopped paying attention to electoral politics and geopolitics, even while I continued to not be able to draw any new conclusions about it, because I at least wanted to know what was going on in the world.
At a certain point, I also started to have the good fortune of the women around me starting to share their personal experiences of being oppressed as women, and I came to realize that patriarchy was real, and massive, and overwhelming. It made me incredibly sad once I realized that virtually every single woman on the planet had to go through the harassment and violence that my close friends were experiencing. I am a mostly heterosexual white mostly man from a mostly middle class background–I had simply never encountered that knowledge before. I knew our society was unequal because–duh–how come there aren’t the same number of men and women senators and CEOs? But once I heard how violent and cruel the system was that created those effects, and from people I knew were not lying, how could I ignore it?
From there I got interested in feminism, and from there into what is called social justice in general. I learned about the history, gravity, depth, and brutality of white supremacy. Learning about white supremacy and the disparity of wealth between white and black people in the united states led me to believe that a huge part of a solution to the problem would simply have to be massive economic redistribution, regardless of my skepticism of government intervention. And I saw that the power structure DID seem to be racist and sexist. And I noticed that a lot of the people involved in social justice were interested in leftist politics, and sometimes even critical of capitalism itself–and meanwhile most of the libertarians I had bumped into over the years denied the reality or severity of patriarchy and white supremacy. I found myself consorting with people on the left end of the political spectrum more and more. And I liked them more, they were simply kinder and funnier.
And somewhere along this timeline, I graduated from college and had to take a job that did not pay well, and which I hated. I was poorer than I had ever been. I had to find ways of scraping by in every aspect of life, from living in bad housing to eating as cheap of food as I could find. I learned what it is to *constantly* worry about money. I learned how hard it is to find a job with any kind of security or personal enjoyment. And then the recession in 2008 hit, and they cut the pay at my job, and I got even poorer. To be poor is terrible, and I wasn’t even *close* to absolute poverty by global standards.
So then four things happened at roughly the same time:
First, I was lucky enough to have the internship that I’d had for two years help me land a salaried job, which paid quite well (at least for the area I was living in), plus it gave me benefits. I realized just how fucking stressed I had been about being poor, and realized that inevitably part of what keeps poor people poor is that existing in such deprivation is self-perpetuating. It’s like gravity–the closer you are to absolute poverty, the harder the forces pulling you down are. Meanwhile, with this new job, I had passed above an important economic line. I found it easy to keep saving more and more money, and saw how that could help me climb even higher if I wanted to. I saw on a personal level how, once you get above a certain amount of wealth, there’s a feedback loop that lets you keep getting wealthier.
Second, Occupy was going on. I started to hear lots of theories about what was going on in the world, including more anticapitalist stuff. Nothing too severe. A friend of mine happened to be reading “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” Well, the concept of debt itself was being talked about a *lot* around that time, and I had heard people saying that book was interesting, so I decided to read it. More on that in a second.
Third, in fact while I was reading “Debt,” I went to what is called the Rainbow Gathering, a basically anarchist gathering in the forest where no money is exchanged, and anyone who shows up can eat for free. But they are asked to work, getting water, digging latrines, etc. in order to support the whole thing. There is a lot wrong with Rainbow, but it was an overall positive experience for me (probably because I am a white mostly man). I met some incredibly kind and compassionate people there, and I saw an entirely different way of running society–one where people do things for each other because they love each other and they love the community and society that supports them. A society where each individual’s self-interest becomes expansive, and they recognize that their own personal flourishing will be fostered most by a society in which *ALL* people are flourishing.
The fourth thing is I watched the film “Malcolm X.” I’ll go more into that in a minute.
So, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” is basically a history of class society. It tells again and again how the system of loans and interest crushed peasants and other laborers deeper and deeper into the ground with each passing generation, and how periodically they would rebel and force the debts to be erased, only for the cycle to start again. I started to grasp the structure of history, that ruling/owning classes and working/non-owning classes were very old indeed.
So at this point, I kind of already knew. I wasn’t quite ready to admit it, but I knew. I had basically already been chipped away at enough, but the “break” hadn’t happened yet. I had heard of “A People’s History of the United States” for forever. It’s mentioned in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” in fact. I kind of knew what I would find in that book after having read “Debt,” but I had never really had an interest in reading “A People’s History” up to that point in my life. So then I read it.
The heroes of “A People’s History” are anti-imperialists and anticapitalists from basically beginning to end. I would say now that the book has major shortcomings and problems, but for me at the time it really picked up right where “Debt” left off, and helped me see that the modern ruling class was really no different from the one that had emerged thousands of years ago. I saw (or came to believe, at least) that the root of the problem was that concentrated wealth is concentrated power, so if we want a free, non-oppressive, and truly democratic society, we simply have to disallow concentrated wealth.
Well, that basically meant I had become a communist, or at least that I believed communism would be good. I was pretty timid about it for a while, but after I finished reading “A People’s History,” I was ready to call myself a socialist, at least. And I was also ready to say that if nothing else, in order for the wealth to be sufficiently equalized, the political-economic system had to come under the power of the people, whether or not capitalism was entirely abolished. In short, I had come to believe in the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though I had not yet realized that was the right term for it.
But once I knew I was a socialist, well, how convenient–there was a branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in my city. So I showed up to one of their meetings, and I met people who actually spoke respectfully and knowledgeably about Lenin and the Russian Revolution.
They also eased my transition by basically agreeing with all of my prejudices and stereotypes about the USSR under Stalin and the PRC under Mao that capitalist society had drilled into me.
And so although I have learned more, since then, and now uphold the USSR under Stalin and the PRC under Mao, I think it helped my transition into revolutionary socialism by having my first exposure to Leninist ideas come from people who didn’t also immediately try to tell me that the USSR and the PRC were overall good during those times instead of Very Very Bad (as I had always been told by basically everyone I had ever met in my life, and every TV program and movie I had ever watched, and every book I had ever read). So I was ready to listen.
As an aside, I think this is part of why there are so many Trotskyists in the First World, also–because they are willing to recognize that capitalism cannot be reformed and will have to be overthrown, but they can’t touch the third rail, they can’t break the taboo. Stalin is compared to Hitler, and Mao is even worse. No one wants to become a Hitler apologist, and upholding the contributions of Stalin and Mao feels like that’s how people will start to look at you. And many do, in fact. But it’s not as bad as I was worried it would be.
So it took me maybe a year, still, after showing up to that ISO meeting to accept, as they were telling me, that capitalism could not be reformed, and that a revolution was necessary. And what the folks at the ISO branch said about the necessity of the working class getting organized and powerful also made sense, so I recognized the need for some kind of hierarchical party, even if the end goal was a stateless society.
So about Malcolm X. Well, getting that salaried job gave me both the time and emotional reserves to try to focus on improving my mental health for, really, the first time in my life, instead of just scraping by. And a lot of my friends had gotten into practices like meditation, and also into some elements of wisdom traditions (the sort of stuff Ram Dass, Hazrat Inayat Khan, and Jiddu Krishnamurti talk about, for example) like trying to be present, and trying to be humble.
And I realized that there was tremendous validity in many of these practices–these practices worked, they helped me feel better. My whole life I had never understood why anyone would want to kill their ego–isn’t my ego me? Why would I want to kill me? But I realized that wasn’t what they were talking about. The ego is my bullshit delusions of grandeur, as well as my self-hate. I realized that I had been both aggrandizing myself and despising myself, when really I could let go of both, and it would be a lot better for me, emotionally. And I saw how addiction played into all of this–how people turn to addiction to treat their stress and pain. I saw how all the world was consumed with addiction to this or that. I myself was addicted to masturbating and watching porn, as well as to alcohol and cigarettes, as well as to looking at silly stuff on the internet. Even self-aggrandizement itself is an addiction, and I came to despise how arrogant I had been. I came to despise the whole of capitalist culture, and it was easy for me to see how capitalism REQUIRED us to all be addicted, consumed by these things. It was so insidious–capitalism poisons us spiritually. God, I want to cry just thinking about it. Capitalism rots our souls out, it seduces our well-intended desires into addictions, and then turns us against each other to achieve them.
In Rainbow Gathering, they refer to the outside world as Babylon. This comes to them via Rastafari, which calls the police and white supremacist, consumerist society Babylon. And the Rastas themselves got the term from the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people spend a while being a captive and oppressed people in the kingdom of Babylon. When Christianity came along it used this story as a metaphor–sin (which, to me, as a basically secular person, I was able to understand as being caught up in selfish, bullshit, addictive, egotistical desires) was Babylon, and Christ was the way out of Babylon.
I was also reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy” at the time and taking a course on it with a *really* good scholar of Dante. In Dante, there are some beautiful lines about freedom from sin, or what I took as freedom from addictive desire. At the beginning of “Purgatorio,” the second book in the “Comedy,” the protagonist has just crawled through the bottom of Hell. And Hell, in Dante, is a place where people are tortured by the sin they succumbed to in life. They are mocked and destroyed over and over again by the thing that caused them to turn from humility and expansive love to cold, narrow, inward-looking selfish love. And Hell is this dark, gray place, with no colors except for like blood colors and shit colors and pus colors.
And so the protagonist, at the beginning of Purgatory, he crawls through the center of the earth, out the bottom of Hell, and he’s on this island, and the sky is full of color, and it’s morning, and the sun is just rising, and the waters of the ocean are pure and he can wash himself clean of all the soot and shit and blood he’s gotten covered in going through Hell. And there’s this line,
“We were going along … like one seeking the lost path and, until he reaches it, feels he walks in vain.”
I felt like I had been looking for the right path my whole life, not even knowing if it was real or not, and oh my God, I had finally found it. I found it spiritually and politically all at once.
So watching “Malcolm X,” I saw this same story in him, in fact, even more intensified. Malcolm X had been a criminal as a young man, and went to prison. And he was very addicted and self-serving, but then he meets members of the Nation of Islam in prison. And say what you will about them now, they helped Malcolm save himself. They helped him realize all the stuff I had been talking about. He, too, found spiritual meaning and political purpose all at once. Malcolm X was an incredibly inspiring figure for me. I had come to hate white supremacy, so when in the movie he writes, “Please tell Elijah [Muhammad] I have dedicated my life to telling the white devil the truth to his face.” I was like, “HELL yeah.”
So realizing that I had always heard that Malcolm X was this really bad person, when in fact he is one of the most amazing people ever to live, well, that was just about it for me and this society. I wanted to overthrow it. I realized it had destroyed all possibility of my having a genuinely good, decent life on this earth, because it had twisted and corrupted literally everyone and everything. I wanted to serve the people to work to help free us all from it, as Malcolm X had. Nothing else would do it for me.
I sobbed at the end of that movie when I realized what a great human being we had lost in Malcolm. Though I cannot relate as deeply, not being black nor living through those times, I feel like I really get it when Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, heard that Malcolm had been assassinated and in rage and anguish said, “Fuck it, I’ll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X.”
Very few people will ever be as great as Malcolm X, but I want to serve the people with all my heart. All the various contradictory purposes and desires of my life up to that point became aligned at that time and all pointed in the same direction. I am going to give my life to the communist movement, and nothing could make me happier than the great luck I have had in being given the opportunity to do so.