Socialism or Suntan

Miami's revolutionaries may not be plentiful but they're persistent

Read Part 2

As the results of the Florida presidential election came in on November 7, Volusia County officials sitting in Daytona Beach were faced with a situation much more alarming than Gore and Bush tally irregularities, or even rumors of stolen ballot boxes. Without any advance warning Volusia County suddenly had emerged as a hotbed of socialist revolution. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) presidential candidate James Harris had received 9888 votes there, a sum far higher than any other area in the entire nation. Should the police be alerted? Were socialist militants about to storm Daytona Beach City Hall? True, county sheriffs had dealt with civil disturbances before, but those were drunken spring-breakers and Harley-Davidson bikers, not Bolsheviks.

One would imagine that James Harris himself, upon being alerted to his sizable following in Volusia County, would begin formulating plans for the new People's Republic of Daytona Beach. ("Sorority sisters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your thongs!") At the very least he'd pop open a bottle of champagne.

Instead Harris, watching television coverage of the election in Atlanta along with a clutch of SWP faithful, promptly phoned Florida election officials. As reported in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper, The Militant,he charged them with vote fraud and asked for a recount, making Harris perhaps the only presidential candidate in history to complain about receiving too many votes. (Chastened Volusia County election workers soon discovered a "computer disk glitch" that also gave Al Gore negative 16,000 votes in one precinct; a manual recount awarded Harris 8 votes out of a statewide total of 558.)

Harris's reaction seems awfully straight-laced for a group that proclaims the need to "take state power, overthrow capitalism, and join the international struggle for socialism.... Our goal is to emulate the Cuban revolution in the U.S. and internationally."

But then, this isn't the first time the Socialist Workers Party has been caught up in a presidential controversy. In the aftermath of the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, SWP leader Farrell Dobbs was called to testify before the Warren Commission. There Dobbs obediently produced letters he'd received from Lee Harvey Oswald asking for SWP membership, a carbon copy of Oswald's 35-cent receipt for a mail-order copy of the SWP manifesto The Coming American Revolution, and perhaps most startling, a photograph Oswald allegedly had sent to the SWP offices in which the presumed lone gunman posed in his Dallas back yard with a rifle in one hand and a clenched copy of The Militant in the other. (Oswald himself claimed the photo was a fake.)

Rather than salute a comrade in arms or even echo Malcolm X's famed quip that the chickens had finally come home to roost, Dobbs denied any SWP association with Oswald beyond the U.S. Postal Service. For good measure he soberly informed the Warren Commission: "I would add that it's a matter of historic record, long established, that our organization's philosophy is opposed to individual acts of terrorism." How very responsible of him.

So just who are these conscientious revolutionaries toiling away over the decades? Meeting the dozen-or-so members of Miami's Socialist Workers Party chapter (one of 28 nationwide) only causes more head-scratching at these dour defenders of the communist faith. It's one thing to be part of a group that unabashedly "defends Cuba's socialist revolution and sees it as a living example of the way forward for all humanity." But it takes a certain level of chutzpah to proclaim that same conviction in the very city to which hundreds of thousands of individuals have fled across the Florida Straits from that, ahem, "living example."

Rebecca is Miami's newest socialist worker and at 27 years old, could well be its youngest. (Fearing reprisals at work, she asked that her last name not be used.) Standing amid the flow of people at the Miami Book Fair Internationalon Saturday, November 18, she hardly looks like the determined Fidelista of el exilio's nightmares. Her long black hair is pulled back into a ponytail, revealing a pretty face. No makeup. A modest amount of jewelry accents a simple mauve T-shirt, gray slacks, and black sandals. The net effect recalls the Guatemalan peasant-chic lookpopular on Northeastern college campuses in the early Nineties. And indeed Rebecca was a student then at the University of Delaware, interested in environmentalism and Amnesty International, contemplating a career as a social worker.

Just three days ago, however, Rebecca was in Havana listening to Fidel Castro thank her fellow international delegates to the Second World Meeting of Friendship and Solidarity with Cuba for their vigorous support of the revolution.

"Cuba is not a utopia or a perfect society," she recalls of the experience, "but workers and farmers are in power. That's the key question to me. They decide the road the country is going to take.... From talking to people there, I can see that they feel they're a part of the political process. Contrast that to here, where only half the population votes."

It's an exotic statement to hear in Miami, further compounded by the tables of books set up by the SWP and arrayed behind Rebecca. And with several booths just around the corner sponsored by Cuban-exile groups, it's a provocative display: U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War screams one title near collections of Castro's speeches and a bundle of Granma International; stacks of Che Guevara Talks to Young People tower over Spanish translations of Lenin and Trotsky.

A booklet entitled Women, Leadership, and the Proletarian Norms of the Communist Movement provides Kulchur with a promising window of inquiry: What's the SWP position on Sex and the City?

Rebecca looks confused and shrinks back slightly from Kulchur. "How do we feel about having sex in the city?" she asks hesitantly.

No, no. The TV show Sex and the City, based on Candace Bushnell s collection of columns from the New York Observer.

Rebecca says she's never seen the show, but suitably primed by Kulchur's buildup of Candace Bushnell as one of the moment's most widely publicized post-feminists, she agrees to walk over to the nearby building where Bushnell just happens to be reading as part of the book fair.

The auditorium is packed with several hundred Bushnell fans sitting expectantly, many clutching copies of her two books to be autographed. Kulchur and Rebecca quickly slip into the back of the room as Bushnell begins reading a short story from her new collection, 4 Blondes. It's a tale of a B-level model, aged a bit past her prime, embarking on her annual rite of spring: the quest to score a summer home in the Hamptons -- or more precisely a man with a summer home attached. "I'm a feminist," the model proudly tells a friend. As for her legendary gold-digging skills, "It's all about the redistribution of wealth."

Ah, certainly Rebecca must have something to say about this appropriation of a hallowed Marxist phrase. Surely the SWP's take on feminism is about more than scoring a free pair of Manolo Blahnik slingbacks?

Rebecca politely declines to criticize Bushnell's writing. "I'm really not familiar enough with her work," she says, suddenly looking flushed. She excuses herself and Kulchur follows her outside.

With one hand on her stomach she explains she hasn't eaten anything all day. Per party orders she has taken a job in a Hialeah factory, and she was unexpectedly called into work today. The factory manager decided his schedule didn't permit a lunch break, so Rebecca and her fellow garment workers all sewed for eight hours straight. Both exhausted and famished, Rebecca still rushed straight from her job to the book fair to man the SWP's table.

"I'm just so angry," she mutters bitterly of the factory manager's dictate, a move that's not just cruel, it's also illegal. Surely then, it would have presented the perfect opportunity for a socialist such as Rebecca to rally her fellow workers, demand better conditions, maybe even win the party some new (noncollegiate) recruits. Isn't that precisely why SWP members have been told to take physically demanding industrial jobs (meat packer seems to be the occupation of choice for males), to insert committed revolutionaries into the workplace and ultimately bring about the revolution?

Rebecca sighs and explains, as if to an errant child: "If we tried to agitate people in the workplace and lead people to strike, it would be crazy, totally ultra-left. And not what we're about at all." Her voice hardens a bit: "You have to be disciplined. That's what's most important about the party."

She begs off any further questions until tomorrow. Right now she really needs to get back to manning that book fair table. Her comrades have been covering for her there all day. Then she needs to prepare for a party-sponsored forum on the situation in Yugoslavia later that evening. She waves goodbye and Kulchur reminds her to eat something.

Next week: What s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a communist sect like this?

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