A Specter is Haunting Mississippi

“Yes, I am a Communist and I consider it one of the greatest honors,

because we are struggling for the total liberation of the human race.” – Angela Y. Davis

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.

They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.

They have a world to win. Working [People] of All Countries, Unite!” – Karl Marx

“I graduated from high school. I was a straight, Southern-Baptist Republican. Today I am none of those things”. Knowing Jonathan Szot as well as I do, this was a very fitting way for him to open up our dialogue about his current Leftist views. Religion and Leftism aren’t inherently at odds. You’ll find many Socialist and Communist who align themselves with spiritual thought. One reason I became a Communist is that it’s ideology mirrors in material terms, my own spiritual beliefs.

I do think that Szot words speak to something many Leftist who have grown up in Mississippi can relate to. The journey toward Leftist thinking for me comes out of a dissatisfaction with the institutions we grow up under. Before we even realize why, a lot of us drift from religion because of the way that capitalist ideology has infiltrated the infrastructure of religious institution. Looking back, that’s certainly a factor in why I left the church.

Long before Szot read any manifestos of any kind, Dr. Miriam Davis’ History of Women in the Family course did more to alter his conservative thinking than anything else. It was a class that offered perspective that traditionally isn’t offered. It was a class about what the life of people, particularly women, of different classes, of different cultures experienced over the arch of their existence. It challenged a lot of the traditional notions that Szot had been raised to believe.

The journey toward Leftist thought for Szot, was to a large extent the journey of his education. Exposure to a diverse array of people, ideologies, and “basically getting out of the shell of the private segregation academy I attended created for me”.

Robert Emmett, who lives in Oxford, was raised in a traditionalist right-wing Catholic home, brought up in deeply reactionary beliefs, including Confederate revisionism, anti-Semitism, and fascist apologism. Mostly he parroted his father’s beliefs, identifying himself as a paleo-conservative libertarian in high school, but deliberately shedding the explicit racism of that ideology. He became a fan of Ron Paul, supporting him in the 2008 election. I myself supported Ron Paul in the 2012 election.

It seems that another commonality for many Communist in Mississippi and the South in general, is becoming Libertarian as some weird pit stop on the way to Leftism. I think we can be initially pulled in by its anti-corrupt and small government rhetoric. Robert was specifically interested in Paul’s anti-war policies, which lead to a deep interest in foreign politics, especially the Palestinian struggle. By the time he was a senior in high school, the more he read about anti-imperialism, the more he realized that it was incompatible with Capitalism. Capitalism’s nature is to grow and expand itself by any means necessary. Almost by its very nature Capitalism leads to Imperialism.

During our talk, Szot and I agreed that where Communism gets it most right is the idea of removing structures that place any group in power over any other group. A free egalitarian society is the ultimate aim. We live in the rural South where rich white men are often the ones with the most power. Who play poorer white people off against poorer black people. Whereas the one keeping both sides down is that old bourgeois white guy who has a vested interest in playing the poor off against each other. He also has a vested interest in enforcing gender norms that keep women in “their place”.

Class struggles interrelate with struggles against patriarchy, against racism, against homophobia and transphobia. “You can articulate it in very Marxist terms and be very materialist about it, and that’s fine, but it’s not gonna be useful to everybody. It’s not going to bring everyone into the fold”. One of the main and most effective strategies of the right has been to actively work at breaking apart marginalized  collectives. They want to separate the T from the LGB. They encourage the radical feminist who think that only born women are women. That this has been a mode of attack for the right speaks largely for the need of people on the Left to unite. It’s important that we work to fight these divisions. Because as Szot said, “the right wants to encourage that kind of division among us. You have to look at as an attack on one of these groups being an attack on all of these groups”.

Nick Kries, a resident of Hattisburg, slowly started to develop anti-Capitalist sentiments toward the end of high school. “I thought it was full of contradictions and unstable. So I was more anti-Capitalist before I actually became a Socialist”.

Reading Marx and Lenin was ultimately what radicalized Nick. For a long time he was a Marxist-Leninist, but he’s much more aligned with Libertarian-Marxism now. He’s also influenced by a number of other Leftist thinkers and revolutionaries. “I like people like Luxembourg, the Frankfurt school, some postmodernist Marxists, and then post-colonialists like Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara”.

Robert was at his friend Stephanie’s house during the election. “We were all cracking jokes to lighten the tension and shock we felt. The next day, my grad school professor, a Korean immigrant, broke down crying halfway through class and canceled the rest of class. I went to talk it out with her in her office. It was a shitty week”. However, in the weeks to come Robert realized much of the renewed support for anti-fascist politics was a sham as the #Resistance emerged with the same warmed-over Neo-Liberalism that lost Clinton the election. “This (combined with extreme depression) was a big factor in my dropping out of grad school and actively participate in on-the-ground political movements”.

Connor W., also a resident of Oxford, similarly to Robert, grew up in a post-Reagan republican household both on his mother’s and father’s side. “So even my understanding of social capital in whiteness, masculinity, straightness, etc. came as a surprise as it began to develop in me internally as I guess I was used to a personal philosophy of being a white, assigned-male”.

During the election Connor was at a friend’s house where they were all drinking wine and eating snacks and following the results because, in their minds, it seemed like an “easy and breezy” election. Although they collectively didn’t care for Hillary’s politics, they assumed that Trump’s inability to present a sound basis for what his political beliefs were (and when they were made apparent they seemed appalling), and his persistent scandals would make it an easy win for Hillary.

“But when the final elections results came in everyone was shocked not only in what it meant for the presidency of the United States but also what it meant about voters. The often mentioned statistic is that fifty-two percent of white women voted for Trump kind of exhibited the complacence of white women with his often made apparent sexualization and objectification of women as well has dog whistle racism in the face of women of color”.

Connor originally came to leftism because a few years ago he realized that he personally wasn’t treating people well and slowly dedicated himself to becoming more empathetic to the experiences of others. It didn’t take long after that for Connor to begin investing himself in politics. Initially to a small degree focusing on the topics of social issues. The more he invested himself in politics the more he approached issues from a more systemic vantage point. “I began to notice that negativity I found in homophobia, racism, transphobia, islamaphobia, etc, was similarly reflected in how people of lower financial status, not only in mainstream western thought but globally, were represented in the minds of the people. Just as much as privileged people tended to punch down socially to the less privileged, so too did they often punch down in economic privilege”.

Nick has mixed feelings about the current political environment. “I was actually really struggling with the usefulness of my Marxist beliefs in today’s political atmosphere, but after reading The Society of the Spectacle by Debord, like a month ago, I kind of had this re-radicalization and the importance of class consciousness for overcoming capitalism was reawakened.”

Nick believes that the idea that a Socialist revolution is inevitable is idealistic and that it’s important we take this into our hands and actually cause change. “I also think Capitalism has changed since Marx’s time so the way of overcoming Capitalism may be different.” Nick emphasizes the importance of spreading class conscious. “It’s really important because the working class needs to see how much they actually contribute to the economy and how much they’re exploited in this process”.

Many people believe that Communism is too impractical, idealistic, and Utopian. This is often the biggest criticism of Leftism thought. So of course, addressing this became a large part of the conversation between Szot and I. When I asked Szot what he thought about these kinds of criticisms he quite dryly and simply said, “Practicality has never stopped a society from attempting an ideal”.

He’s completely right. It hasn’t stopped any society and it shouldn’t. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it. Just because there can be flaws doesn’t mean we don’t strive to better ourselves. Especially when the current system doesn’t work too well for most of the population.

Capitalist societies create pain and suffering that is aimed at the marginalized and the working class. But awareness of this is often stifled by Capitalism telling us that were free. We may be suffering but at least no one is telling us what to do. The Bourgeoisie would have us think, as Szot said, that it’s “magical suffering from nowhere”, that doesn’t have any underlying structure to it. When of course it does.

Another counter against Communist ideology that Szot and I discussed is the red herring that under Communism your property and the fruits of your labor will be taken away from you. As if that’s not the exact same thing that Capitalist societies do. The ultimate point that Szot made was that thinking things are too impractical or idealistic is a cop-out. “That’s saying, well I don’t wanna think hard about how to overcome inherent difficulties in changing the system”.

Robert believes that to move Leftism forward the entire South needs to be looking to Jackson, MS and Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s vision for an urban politics with robust social services and support for broad worker collectives in industry. Most think to organize in the South correlates to organizing on a rural level. However, “Southern cities like Jackson are home to millions of workers with revolutionary potential. And if the Left wants to fix its image as being dominated by white people, it could do no better than to look to the urban South”.

Szot’s belief is that the key to revolution, in whatever form it takes, is investment in education. When you look at how systematically the Mississippi legislature is trying to destroy public education in all tiers, you see that education is the front lines, so to speak, of the battle between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. “They recognize that an educated society will realize that their ideas, their way of ruling – is horseshit”.

Robert is currently working with the Memphis branch of the DSA, though he maintains connections to the Saint Louis branch as his hometown. While he is much further to the left, he supports the DSA because it’s committed to organizing in the South and represents a broad left coalition open to multiple tendencies. “In today’s atmosphere, where direct confrontation with fascists and white supremacists is necessary, the Left needs to stick together and not worry about petty divisions. We can straighten those out after the revolution, after all.”

While we can see that there are particular avenues, there’s not a easy answer that gives a clear path for Communistic revolution. It’s not an easy task to address and conquer the embedded divisions among different groups. It takes long, sometimes unproductive conversations to reinforce the idea that we really are all in this together. The Left needs clear and concrete plans. “People don’t follow vague ‘we’re all one’ ideas”, Szot said as our conversation was coming to a close. “You have to have concrete notions and steps to take”. You have to listen to everyone’s ideas, and craft those ideas into one solid plan. The most importantly, or course, is actually doing the work. As Szot put it, “You have to ‘just do it’, as the meme instructs us to”.