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Mao, more than ever (continued)

Toward a just society

Alpana Mehta first found herself thinking hard about Marx and Lenin in 1993, after she’d spent considerable time and energy helping get Bill Clinton elected. It wasn’t long, though, before Mehta, now 32, noticed a "series of broken promises" — the promise of universal health care, that Haitian refugees would be allowed to enter the country — and wondered why she was wasting her time with the Democrats. So she joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a Trotskyist group that, blaming capitalism for poverty, racism, famine, war, and environmental despoliation, works toward international revolution culminating in a society "where we all have control over our lives."

With approximately 1300 American members (only about 25 in Boston), the ISO is one of the largest socialist organizations in the US — but it’s still quite small. "Part of that is because of the devastation of McCarthyism," Mehta reasons. "And part of it is the relationship of the left to the Democratic Party. I think the biggest stumbling block for the left right now to building genuine movements for social change is the Democratic Party. That party is not a party of ordinary working people. It’s a party of the rich. A party that supports the war."

For Mehta and the ISO, the only way forward is a radical rethinking of people’s relations with one other and with their government. "Would we consider ourselves communists? The word ‘communism’ is associated with Stalinism. Or with Cuba and Castro," she says. "That, we completely separate ourselves from. Genuine Marxism is about control from below by workers. Marx, he talks about a future communist society, an ultimate society that is classless, and that’s not what Russia or North Korea or Cuba look like."

But it is what America — and the world — can look like, says Mehta. One of the arguments habitually put forward as to why communism will never really work is because "human nature" won’t allow it: people are too greedy — and too lazy — to really make a society based on "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" possible. Mehta doesn’t agree. "I actually think that human beings, when put in situations where they have to come forward and help each other, always do. Like the tsunami effort — people gave millions of dollars. When children are kidnapped, people come out and look for them." It’s capitalism, which puts people in a situation where they’re forced to compete with one another, that’s the problem.

The system, she says, is broken, so it has to be "smashed and overthrown." Mehta points to "our own back yard" in South America, where revolutions can and do take place. "They’re similar conditions to what people are facing here. We don’t have peasants, but we do have multinational corporations that are devastating workers." And it doesn’t have to be bloody when the revolution comes. "Russia in 1917 was incredibly nonviolent."

Josh Koritz and Jesse Lessinger, on the other hand, aren’t quite sure they’re ready for — or even necessarily want — revolution, violent or not. At Revolution Books, Koritz offers me an issue of Justice (PRICE $1 ... SOLIDARITY PRICE $2), the newspaper put out by his group, Socialist Alternative. It’s a group of union activists, in solidarity with Committee for a Workers International, one of whose tenets is that "as capitalism moves deeper into crisis and recession, a new generation of workers and youth must join together to take the top 500 corporations into public ownership." It’s a group for and by young people, focusing on issues like unionizing fast-food McJobs and countering the military’s efforts to recruit the poor. While it’s not straight-up communism, the ideals are there.

Koritz talks of getting into an argument at a campus party with "products of the Tufts economics department." But Koritz and Lessinger also went to Tufts, an expensive liberal-arts school, populated largely by rich, white suburbanites. How do they square that with their agitation for the working class? "The fact of the matter is, if you look at Marx’s background, Lenin’s background, they come from more wealthy backgrounds," says Lessinger. "It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know what’s going on."

Eat the rich

Growing up in a working-class town on the South Shore, Mark Kronstadt noticed the class antagonisms early on. "It goes to your head," he says. "On the other hand, there was a positive side. In my community a lot of people shared resources, took each other for rides to go shopping, watched each other’s kids. It was sort of an innate sense of communism, I think." Kronstadt is 28 now, but says he’s been a committed leftist for 15 years already.

He’s sitting in a walk-up loft in the Lucy Parsons Center, the leftist bookstore in the South End where he volunteers. He has two rings in his lip and one in his nose, spiky black hair, black shorts, and black Doc Martens. He wears a T-shirt bearing the image of the jaunty Monopoly millionaire, dead of a stab wound. WE FUCKING HATE RICH PEOPLE, it reads. Entertainment!, the classic album by hard-left British post-punks Gang of Four (named, of course, for the cadre whose arrest and removal from power marked the end of China’s Cultural Revolution), plays on the stereo next to him.

Kronstadt describes himself as an anarcho-communist. He’s a member of the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists, a group that bills itself as a collection of "workers, students, unemployed people, and assorted revolutionaries who are disgusted by the current state of the world and committed to fighting for a better future." Kronstadt is well plugged in to the leftist scene in Boston: the eco-anarchists, who reject the notion that humans are superior to the natural world; the anarcho-syndicalists, who work to build revolutionary unions; and the anarcho-primitivists ("They wanna go back to pre-civilization ... they’re a little wacky").

Asked why younger people these days seem more drawn to anarchism and its offshoots than to straight-up communism, Kronstadt says it’s a matter of appeal.

"I’ve known them for 10 years now," he says of the Maoist RCP members at Revolution Books, "and they’re doing the same thing." Still, he says, "at least they’re committed."

While he sees obvious commonalities between his own anarcho-communist group and the Maoists, he thinks the older communists have "a hard time applying their ideas to struggles without sounding rigid and robotic and turning people off completely." He also thinks they "missed the train" on important contemporary issues like the anti-globalization movement.

Kronstadt recognizes that all-out revolution is a long shot — and, at the very least, a long way off. In the meantime, he busies himself with labor-solidarity work, winning anti-gentrification campaigns in Jamaica Plain.

Revolution, says Kronstadt, is obviously "easier said than done."

And "in the bigger scheme of things, I think the entire left is getting its ass kicked right now." But he doesn’t think that will last forever. Eventually the pendulum will swing the other way and the fat cats will find themselves on the outside. "Right now we’re living in relative affluence, but I think there’s going to be a period where there’s economic and political crisis. The economy’s gonna shit the bed sooner or later. I think all of this is going to lead to a crisis at some point. I think then it would be realistic to talk about whether there would be an abrupt change. At a point, there’s gonna be a push from the bottom, and the people in power aren’t gonna want to relinquish power. It’s gonna require some sort of force."

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Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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