Socialism or Suntan, Part 2

Is it a harmless political party, or is it a cult?

"The idea was that political and military leadership should fuse to form a foco, a rural guerrilla unit," Gitlin wrote. "Debray was not talking about the flatlands of Berkeley but about the high plateau of Bolivia (not that his confident advice proved so apt there either). But during this overheated summer, a critical mass of New Leftists toyed with his detailed prescriptions as if they were metaphors for their own future.... It was more important for intellectuals to acquire the right guerrilla boots than to debate the right books. At a moment when conventional channels seemed blocked, there was intense concentration on the power of the will."

Gitlin himself, then a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (and blithely unaware of Cuba's imprisoned poets and forced-labor camps for gays), captured the moment in a March 1968 Liberation essay: "Now we dig Cuba.... We preserve our quick optimism with fantasies of an assault on our barracks, a landing in our yacht, a fight in our mountains."

James Harris is jovially dismissive of such interpretations of Che. "Those people thought they were going to reinvent the wheel," he scoffs to Kulchur after his speech. He has much the same take on figures such as Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, who attempted to launch urban guerrilla campaigns in New York City during the Seventies and early Eighties respectively, and who now live in Havana as exiles. "I'm not going to badmouth them," Harris says with a raised eyebrow, "but they're in Cuba now." He laughs. "I'm still here."

Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris
Steve Satterwhite
Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris

Miami's progress toward the revolution is measured by the SWP in painfully minute increments: a new subscription sold to the party's newspaper, the Militant; several copies of the party's manifesto, Capitalism's World Disorder, placed in a Borders outlet; a speech delivered to a handful of students at Florida International University. The party plods on in the same tortoiselike fashion it has since its founding in 1938 by a splinter group of Communist Party members. More than six decades on, it's easy to see the organization as an esoteric debating club with little impact on or threat to society-at-large.

That also was the opinion of a federal judge who, in 1986, awarded the SWP $264,000 as damages in a lawsuit the party brought against the Federal Bureau of Investigation for harassment and violation of its civil rights. The FBI readily admitted that since 1958, it had paid out $1.7 million to 1300 different informants (including 300 party members) and had broken into the SWP's headquarters more than 90 times. But the FBI's lawyers argued the bureau had a right to "keep itself informed on the activities" of the SWP since it advocated revolution. Judge Thomas P. Griesa said nonsense, that since 1958 there was "no indication that any informant ever observed any violation of federal law or gave information leading to a single arrest." In other words despite all the radical talk, the SWP isn't just law abiding; it's absolutely harmless.

"It was the biggest education of my life," explains Rebecca of a 1993 college semester spent in Central America. After several months working in Costa Rica, she traveled to El Salvador. "You see that the U.S. gave billions of dollars to El Salvador to fight this civil war, and what that money was actually used for you can see quite clearly: people being disappeared." Rebecca, now 27 years old, credits that experience and a subsequent trip to Cuba as the catalyst for her joining the Socialist Workers Party, which transferred her this past September from a Philadelphia chapter to Miami. Between her day job in a Hialeah factory (she's asked that her last name not be used for fear of being fired) and her party duties, she hasn't had much time to explore Miami.

On a recent Sunday afternoon she takes Kulchur to one of the few places she has discovered, a cozy downtown Honduran café. As a jukebox blares merengue, Rebecca sits with a knife and fork poised over a plate of moros y cristianos. At the moment, though, she's far too impassioned to actually take a bite.

"When we look at how we're going to change society, you can't be romantic," she says. "You have to look at the facts, where revolutions have been made, and learn from it -- so we can do it here." Accordingly Rebecca and the SWP have little time for either Ralph Nader's electoral strategy or the civil disobedience that shut down Seattle last year and reappeared at World Trade Organization meetings in Washington, D.C., and Prague. "There's no point in getting intentionally arrested. It doesn't advance anything."

Instead the SWP sends its devotees into industrial jobs to transform them into "worker-Bolsheviks" and prepare for the coming struggle, which Rebecca insists definitely is on the horizon. Trying to pin down the specifics of the socialist paradise the SWP envisions, however, is trickier. Will we still have Napster? Will Adam Sandler be allowed to make more movies?

"I don't have a blueprint," Rebecca replies with a hint of frustration at Kulchur's lack of understanding, "but just imagine what it would be like, what we could accomplish if workers had all the country's resources at their disposal." Kulchur pushes on, noting that the party has been predicting both capitalism's demise and the coming revolution since 1938. After 62 years isn't it possible that the SWP may be, ahem, wrong?

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