Growing to political maturity in the Socialist Workers Party taught me a number of good skills and habits that I have made use of in the 20 years since leaving membership.
One of these is respect for words, and specifically for scientific socialist nomenclature, if I may be so lofty. For instance, we never used to word radical. The reason for this is that the word radical can be used to describe anything, and little of it positive. A man or woman might be a reactionary or a rascal or a rapscallion, and still be a radical. Likewise the word "left", which is a particular pet peeve of mine. Left in a political sense was a designation that came from the era of bourgeois revolutions, and denotes a wing of bourgeois or petty bourgeois politics. It is no more progressive for workers and oppressed peoples to accept this term as an identifier than Roundhead. "Are you a leftist?" "No, I am a communist." Just shoot the answer right back at them, and let the conversation flow.
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Now, most political groups, especially those ascended from the Trotsky continuity, have the reputation for being all night kibitzers with glasses as thick as the bottoms of pop bottles. Comrades I worked with in the SWP were far from that caricature; they were serious, hardworking, lived their days not by the lights of bohemia but by whatever time their next shift started.
But no matter the circumstances, words mean things in politics; and learning the most politically correct way to approach questions verbally was an outgrowth of evolving communist political education.
This was not "book study" - though the SWP branch I started-out in had a fine library -- but what I would call Red Work Study, to coin a phrase. This was an informal but - I can see with hindsight - intentional and very effective method of more experienced cadre helping the new contacts and recruits while both engaged in common political work. This could be collective functioning at a job, in a coalition, or in newspaper and book sales. What it mostly meant was getting comfortable understanding politics by being exposed to questions from people who did not already believe the same thing.
Fellow workers on the job, in the neighborhoods, and at the grocery store had more than meat-and-potatoes questions to raise once they realized we would not ram generic answers down their throats. Knowing the correct way to alternate open and closed-ended questions was a strength that quickly developed, though I did know the method by those terms. Being known as a union-builder and a socialist on the job brought all kinds of questions as well as some derision. Often the questions came from coworkers I never spoke with before, or who worked in other departments, or were on a different shift on button-holed me on the way in or out of work. Sometimes I might not see the person for a few weeks, but the discussion would resume as though we had just seen each other a few hours ago.
One of the great weekly traditions the SWP carried on from the early years of the US communist movement was the plant gate sale. This involved comrades in the party selling the weekly newspaper [The Militant] at the workplace of a fellow comrade. This created fertile ground for political discussion inside and outside the plant, and let fellow workers know our ideas were more than individual eccentricity: they had social weight.
Talking to coworkers or Saturday grocery shoppers about socialism is more than just getting them to join you in griping about the high cost of living. It involves, first and foremost, listening; encouraging the other person to overcome their reticence and share a little about their joys and struggles. It is not about telling a woman worried about the education of her grandchildren that "Oh, when we have socialism education will be free, just like in Cuba." That kind of abstraction might be true in an Olympian sense, but only in that sense.
One of the most remarkable things about SWPers was that they all had a magnificent sense of humor, as well as a love of language and words. They wre not haughty and dismissive of the less well-versed, either. There was no sarcasm, unless it was directed at the powerful. These were not dour Jesuitical men and women rubbing their hands together when they thought they had a new recruit; new recruits required picnics and trips to the movies or a local hot dog stand, not moral witnessing about the iniquities of a system we all despised anyway.
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By the time I joined at the end of the 1980s, the habit of daily TV viewing among the SWP membership was over. This was not because the party was a monolithic cult, but because once comrades got out of the habit, they stayed out of it. Most found it easier than quitting smoking, and opened up a lot of free time. Naturally there were still Super bowl parties, and news-watching when big events exploded, but for the most part, there was a sense of blessed relief.
Comrades were big on movies, and not the movies you might think. I assumed communists would want to see kitchen sink dramas about spousal abuse or Argentinean prison torture. Far from it. When a member of the party a group of us went together to see everything from "When Harry Met Sally" to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" to Weird Al Yankovich's "UHF". When we left the theater, we went for a snack if we could afford it.
Lots of comrades read mysteries and SF novels. The mysteries mostly went in waves through the party, as one comrade would pass along a book to another and the kick would start picking up steam. Which meant every comrade had a bunch of old Georges Simenon or Tony Hillerman paperbacks to get rid of when it came time to move. The SF, mostly space operas, was not my bag, so I didn't note the preferred authors in that field very closely, though there was a near-universal regard for Arthur C. Clark.
Of course most of our time was spent doing what we loved doing: building our party. That meant Always Be Recruiting, having a Nose for Newspaper Sales, and always being ready to make the most of opportunities. For instance, I never went to the library or the Laundromat without a couple of copies of the Militant. When the 1989 revolts were happening in Eastern Europe, I sold more papers at my local Laundromat on the strength of those articles than anywhere else; everyone in my part of Tremont in Cleveland had ties to Eastern Europe.
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My time in the SWP was over nearly two decades ago. I wish it had been longer, but the confusions and impetuousness of youth prevented that. As time went by, I got married, and now have a grandchild. I still read the Militant on line every week, and I still manage to buy a new book put out by the party press every once in a while.
I have not forgotten many political lessons I learned, nor the good and bad times I had. I still remember the faces of the comrades, and my coworkers, usually smiling and often laughing as we worked together toward an "ever-expanding union of the workers."