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In 1960 I got off the boat from Karachi, Pakistan, where my diplomatic parents had been representing the American empire, and shortly after met Ron Suny at college who informed me while playing ping pong at the student union that he represented the international proletariat since his father had sold water and distributed the Bolshevik newspaper Izvestia in Tiflis back in the day. As teen-age rebels in the Cold War we called ourselves “Marxists” and sought in each other what it meant to be an “American.” I had the blue-eyed Aryan look favored by the ruling class at the time, and he had native dance moves from south Philly among other vernacular talents.
Given more to acting than activism we did theatre together, and aspired to the advanced style which represented reality in the Stanislavsky manner by being very sincere in our pretending. It was called Method acting. In Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Good Woman of Setzuan I played one of the Gods, and Ron played the water-seller. We Gods had come to earth to answer the din of complaints of poverty which we were willing to do so if we could only find a good person and a place to stay. The water-seller introduced us to Shen Te, a prostitute. “I’d like to be good,” she said, “it’s true, but there’s the rent to pay .…” She quietly admitted, “Even breaking a few commandments, I can hardly manage.” Her dilemma and everyone else’s – later I learned to call it contradiction – was summed up in “The Song of the Water Seller in the Rain” – out of abundance comes scarcity, which prophetically fits with our tale of Flint’s water amid the Great Lakes – out of the fresh and clean comes poison.
However, even as Gods we could not write the ending. Brecht’s philosophy of theatre, or epic theatre, permitted no illusions as these were inevitably bourgeois. Instead of the Method we had ‘to break the fourth wall.’ Anyway, the Gods could not find a good person, so poverty persisted in Setzuan. A couplet put an end to the play:
“You write the happy ending of the play!
There must, there must, there’s got to be a way!”
“No Gods, No Masters,” as Margaret Sanger said in 1914 promoting contraception. Ron was prepared. He had absorbed the subversive attitude of Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce. There was not a ruling class platitude, bromide from the Dean’s office, or sacred cow that escaped his caustic, hilarious commentary. Call it class consciousness or not, this laughter undermined capital punishment, thermonuclear war, Jim Crow, speed-up at the assembly line, and ‘the little woman over the stove’. The way, the way out of the contradictions, the way forward, had to be Marxism, revolution, and the commune where it was
From Each according to their Abilities.
To Each according to their Needs,
So, it was on to New York city where at the time, to quote Lenny Bruce, “everyone was Jewish even if you’re Catholic.” Besides Zabar’s and the Stage Delicatessen, this meant historical materialism. Ron, now in deep earnest, began his studies of the Great Bolshevik Revolution. We put aside acting. Historical materialism is for activists; it’s not pretend. Instead of representing the world, historical materialism wants to change it.
Like Marx, Ron is a master of languages written and spoken. Like Marx, Ron is a scholar who believes in books and libraries. Like Marx, he can make himself at home anywhere in the world. Like Marx, he has intelligent, gifted daughters. Ron believes in class analysis.
From this study came his erudite dissertation and important book, The Baku Commune 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (1972). As a May Day enthusiast I am fond of one of its class-struggle metrics, namely, the annual trans-Caucasian May Day turn-out. The commune was nothing if not international. “Do you know how ‘Baku’ is pronounced in American?” Jack Reed asked at the 1st Congress of the People’s of the East in 1920. “It is pronounced oil.” Stepan Shaumian was at the center of the Baku Commune; he learned from Lenin; and Lenin learned from the Paris Commune. Up against owners of the Baku oil fields, Robert and Ludwig Nobel and the Rothschilds, Stepan Shaumian took the first step, Ron writes, by nationalizing “the bowels of the earth.”
Whether we look back to the women pétroleuses of the Paris Commune of 1871 or forward to Standing Rock, North Dakota, September 2016, and the encampments of thousands upholding the clean water of the Missouri River against the Dakota Access Pipeline (this is the class struggle inherent to settler colonialism), or whether we look forward to Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan, where the principle of “all things in common” is policy (this is the class struggle inherent to extractive imperialism) it is from these violent circuits of oil, “the bowels of the earth,” that people have again called forth the hopeful name of the commune, and ask what kind of community they want to build. As Marx said in May 1871 in The Civil War in France, “The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune.” He continued, “… the Commune intended to abolish that class-property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators.… This is Communism!” Twenty-five years earlier he wrote, “Communism is for us not a stable state to which reality will have to adjust itself. We can call Communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence.”
What is that “real movement”? Bert Brecht’s last play was about the Paris Commune whose main demand was ‘the right to live.’ I want to go back to that ping pong table where Ron and I used to talk. He had just come back from Europe (Denmark or Russia I can’t remember which) where he had been deeply affected body and soul and told me a couple of things about how to live. Against the competitive individualism that ruled our lives, he found men and women cooperating collectively together. Against ‘the blackboard jungle’ or the trash-heap he found the young and the old doing the same collective cooperation. In volleyball! Against the silent alienation or the drugged somnolence which American life offered, he said that on the bus, or in the hostel, or with peers, it was expected to able to sing a song. I do not propose them as revolutionary panacea. Yet, given the times, volleyball and song were partial signs of the community we wanted to build, part of the ethos of the commons.