Singing for Sectarians

Dirk Willems (picture) saves his pursuer. This act of mercy led to his recapture, after which he was burned at the stake near Asperen (etching from Jan Luyken in the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror. Image Source: Jan Luyken – Public Domain

I sang at a conference in Kansas last week, for CPIUSA.  Response was mixed.  From conference participants, my musical contributions were well-received.  Feedback from the wider public on social media to the fact that I was going to sing at this conference, to the extent that there was any, was mostly negative.

Times are very different now than they were when I was young, in many different respects.  But there is also consistency here, and this situation reminds me of my youth, so I’ll start there.  And I do so not to be self-indulgent, but because my own trajectory is undoubtedly shared by countless others, if you change a few details.

My parents were (and are) politically progressive.  I went to a wonderfully alternative sort of elementary school, and a summer camp run by an anti-nuclear activist Unitarian minister.  And then Reagan came to power, threatening nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  By the age of twelve, I had found a loving community of like-minded kids — fellow pubescent anti-nuclear hippies, basically.  And by the age of thirteen Reagan was enthusiastically developing big new nuclear missiles.

I devoured Helen Caldicott’s critiques of the nuclear arms race, nuclear power, and the military-industrial complex.  Along the line in my teens I discovered the books of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.  I subscribed to Chomsky’s regular periodical, Lies of Our Times, about the New York Times (which I read every day, so I knew what he was talking about).

Up to this point, the sociopolitical influences I had mainly been exposed to ran the gamut from the Reagan supporters and church-going Christians I was largely surrounded by, growing up in a conservative suburb of New York City, to the various ecumenically-oriented progressives, social democrats, socialists and left-leaning libertarians that populated the pages of most of the sorts of publications people like Zinn or Chomsky were involved with.

Still in my teens, I studied a bit of Marxist political economy in college and then dropped out, heading to Berkeley, California.  That’s where I became more intimately acquainted with the more vanguardist-oriented elements of the left, who were often some of the most accessible adults a teenage leftist wandering the streets of Berkeley on any given day might find to talk to.  In particular, Trotskyists and Maoists.

True to form, the Trotskyists spent most of their time on college campuses, having quite a bit of success with student branches, with a focus on popular education — or indoctrination, depending on who you ask.  The Maoists’ focus was more on the lumpen, a class which I fell into at the time, more or less.  I was mostly not homeless myself, but certainly spending most of my time hanging out on the streets.

The Maoists put out a sizeable weekly paper, the Revolutionary Worker, which I read cover-to-cover every week.  I never joined the party, never myself becoming convinced that any kind of vanguardist party politics were the way forward, of whatever variety.  But I learned a lot from the pages of their newspaper, and even more from endless hours of discussion and debate with both Revolutionary Communist Party members, and especially with the many former members of the party I still meet everywhere I go.

At some point in my twenties, my critique of what some would call the sectarian left, by which we meant vanguardist socialist and communist parties, became more hardened.  Whether because of the times or because we were young, or both, me and many others who shared my orientation might be polite and even friendly in public when interacting with those we viewed as the paper-pushing elements of the left, but behind their backs, we’d smugly agree that they were brainwashed cult members, unlike us.

The academic left didn’t hang out with the punks and hippies and assorted riffraff in Harvard Square, so we didn’t have much of a chance to talk about them behind their backs, because we never talked with them.  We talked to the ones who talked to us, who we learned so much from, and then we called them cultists behind their backs.

But to the extent that I did make contact with those elements of the left that had been so formative for me as a young teen discovering radical ideas, the example set by Professor Howard Zinn was tremendous.

If you’ve read Zinn’s books at all, you know why people love his writing — he’s a brilliant storyteller, bringing to life exciting historical events that so many of us had never heard about.  I had vague knowledge of a guy named Joe Hill, but I never really knew of the existence of the Industrial Workers of the World until I read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, for example.  But as a human being, he was also so loved by so many — he was a kind, gentle, witty, thoughtful man, with an enveloping warmth about him.

And when he did leave the campuses and set foot in the off-campus world, he could occasionally be found giving a little talk at Revolution Books, the book store of the Revolutionary Communist Party, then very centrally located in Harvard Square.

Not only that, but he and some other like-minded college professors in Cambridge basically forced their students to go to Revolution Books, at least once a year.  As the half of society that has attended college may recall, you have to buy a lot of expensive, hardback textbooks every year for your classes.  These are often sold at the book store on the campus of your university, but sometimes a professor makes an arrangement with an off-campus book store instead, which is what Howard did at Revolution Books.

Whenever me and a certain bunch of young radicals in the Boston area heard about Zinn or Chomsky speaking for the public somewhere you could get in for free, we’d be there.  It’s been so long, that I can’t remember if I actually posed questions to Howard or if he just answered my questions through his actions, but in any case, he was making his position clear.

Did he know that the RCP were Maoists?  Did he notice the posters in the room that included not just Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, but Stalin, too?  It was, at the time, the height of the AIDS crisis.  Did he know that the RCP considered homosexuality to be a manifestation of bourgeois culture?  Did he know his presence in that book store was causing a lot of impressionable young leftists to question what we might call our anti-sectarian sectarianism?  Or to put it another way, that his presence there was helping to legitimize this Maoist cult in the eyes of their potential recruits?

Of course, we knew that he did know about the RCP, obviously.  This was not some academic who got invited to speak at a book store, where he just found out when he got there who runs it.  He knew, and he was doing this on purpose.  He knew the RCP and he did not see eye to eye on lots of different things.  He knew that in a different time and place, he might have been fired from his university job and sent to the countryside to work in the fields, were the folks running this book store running the country.  But he spoke there anyway.  Or even because of this.

While I don’t for a moment want to condescendingly suggest that vanguardism is just a phase some left-oriented youth go through, for some, it is, just as other political tendencies are.  While I might like to believe that as people grow up and learn about the world they will naturally drift more towards a libertarian socialist orientation like mine, in fact, political viewpoints evolve in all kinds of different directions.  Some teenage anarchists grow up to become Republicans.  Many kids raised by communists grow up to become anarchists.  Lots of social democrats used to be more militant when they were younger.  Other long-time believers in electoral politics become disenchanted and radicalized later in life.

These things happen for all kinds of reasons.  In the meantime, given the political differences and similarities that exist in society, and on the left in particular, what do we do with what may indeed be some pretty stark divergences of opinion on all kinds of things?  Including, even, disagreements that may make some people feel threatened or “unsafe”?  (In the modern sense of the word, which has very little to do with actual physical safety most of the time.)

For me, although I found it very challenging at the time, Howard Zinn, by example, provided the answer to this question:  we communicate, openly and honestly, with civility and empathy, with anyone.

A bit later in life, in my late twenties, when I was starting to do a lot of songwriting and performing at small venues, I sent a song lyric I had written to Pete Seeger.  I had met him before at gatherings of the People’s Music Network, and his mailing address was right there in the annual, wire-bound PMN member directory.

To my surprise, Pete called me up.  He was still relatively young then, in his seventies, and clearly not retired.  He was in recruitment mode.  And I bring this up not to impress everyone with my phone call with Pete Seeger, but to tell you about his particular recruitment efforts.

Knowing what most readers probably already know about Pete Seeger (you can look him up if you were born yesterday and never heard of the guy), we might expect him to call a young leftwing musician and encourage them to keep writing and performing, and invite them to sing at a lefty music festival.  But in addition to these things, Pete’s focus in this phone call was to educate me about a group of people who lived all around us in there in the Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania region, but who most of us knew nothing about.

There are actually a bunch of populations that fit this description, but Pete was calling to promote the Bruderhof, a socially conservative, German-speaking Christian community a lot like the Hamish, except the Bruderhof are institutionally politically radical, big supporters of Black liberation and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and they were at that time trying to make more connections on the left outside of their communities, which are all basically Christian communes, a bit reminiscent of the more well-organized of the hippie communes, but with the hippie parts being replaced by serving God and the people.

Pete was certainly not a believer in so many of the things the Bruderhof believe in.  It would be hard to know where to start, in terms of distinguishing them from each other.  Among the Bruderhof, men wear slacks and women wear dresses, and nobody wears shorts.  Married and unmarried women wear different-color dresses.  There is no acknowledgment of LGBTQ Bruderhof members.  The Bruderhof of course don’t believe in abortion.  And on and on.

But they believe in living simply, they believe in society being egalitarian, and they actively speak out against racism in American society.  Was Pete hoping a young leftist musician like me might join the Bruderhof and adopt their socially conservative value system?  No.  He was just trying to bring people together and facilitate good communication and good work on those values and campaigns we can all happily support.

In the years and decades that followed, I’ve played at a lot of different sorts of conferences and other events put on by a very wide variety of groups, whether apolitical, culturally-oriented groups, or political parties and organizations running the gamut — generally liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists of all descriptions.

I’m aware of fellow musicians, mostly ones a bit younger than me, who have had to agonize over whether they’ll play a certain event organized by a certain group, or associate with a certain other performer.  I empathize with them deeply — I could have been them, and probably almost was, except for the examples of the more inclusive left icons I was so impacted by.  Not just Howard and Pete, but many other people of their generation and lots of younger veterans of the 1960’s struggled as well.

Howard Zinn may have been a libertarian socialist, but in his history writing this is not evident.  His writing is of great interest to anyone who is interested in the many social movements that have made up the hidden history of the US.  He had (and has) fans from all walks of life and political persuasions, especially on the liberal-left spectrum.  Further, I’d suggest with no hard evidence that many conservatives who happen upon his books get radicalized by the time they finish one, and many more sectarian leftists who read his books become more nuanced and ecumenical in their political orientation after they read one.

If one’s inbox can be believed, the same is true for some people who get exposed to my music.  Before this was ever clarified for me, though, I operated on this assumption, that getting exposed to a new audience is inherently a good thing.  Whatever the cons may be, they are vastly outweighed by the pros.  Communication is a good thing, and whether people are offended by my music or radicalized by it, whether it encourages a black-and-white thinker to develop a more nuanced perspective, even if it may be seen as “legitimizing” a sectarian group that is organizing an event or running a book store or whatever, it is overall, overwhelmingly, a positive thing for me (or artists like me) to sing anywhere we have an audience.

Divisions on the left are nothing new, and these sorts of criticisms aren’t new, either.  Neither is the ecumenical orientation of popular educators like Howard Zinn, Pete Seeger, and so many others.

What is new, at least for me, in my lifetime, in terms of the parts of the world I’m familiar with, is the degree of sectarianism on all sides, and the amount of vitriol involved with it.

I don’t want to make light of political differences.  These are potentially life and death issues.  Roe vs. Wade has just been overturned.  There are lots of “what if’s” in terms of decisions made by activist groups over the past years and decades that could perhaps have changed this outcome.  It’s legitimate to wonder, to agonize is natural.  Russia has invaded Ukraine, and whatever led up to this invasion, people and groups feel compelled to take sides.  There’s a massive proxy war still going on in Syria, and between the various factions many left groups around the world feel compelled to take a side.  Some support the Syrian government, others support Rojava.  None of these are small choices.

But then what do we do with this information?  If we follow the logic of exclusion, “safe spaces,” and political purity — the logic of callout culture, cancel culture, or whatever we want to call the mentality — then we just isolate ourselves and help isolate others.  We would then say we can’t play for this communist group because they like Putin and Xi.  We can’t play for that Trotskyist group because one of the party leaders was involved with a scandal of some kind.  We can’t play at that anarchist squat because one of the collective members has been accused of an unknown transgression, but the rest of the collective won’t kick him out, so we’re boycotting that place.  We can’t play for that progressive group because even though they also support universal health care, rent control, and forgiving debts to students, they support continued US membership in NATO.

This mentality may, perhaps, make for safer spaces — though I seriously doubt that.  What it mostly does is help foster the echo chamber, the social polarization effect that is already being monetized very profitably by the monolithic social media platforms that oversee all of our communication with each other these days, increasingly each year, for many years now, growing exponentially during the pandemic.  (If you haven’t seen the Social Dilemma, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a must-watch.)

This kind of exclusionary mentality is rife in various sectors of society today, across the political spectrum.  It’s very evident among many young anarchists, social democrats, communists, Democrats, and Republicans of every persuasion.  It can’t lead anywhere good.  It could lead to civil war, of many possible varieties.

At the same time, the ecumenical, inclusive, empathetic impulse is unquestionably commonplace as well.  I would venture to suggest that this can be measured on my Spotify profile.  From abundant personal real-world experience (and to some extent you can see this illustrated in different ways on Spotify and other platforms as well), my song, “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You” is the song most often requested and appreciated by anarchists, and my song, “Vanguard” is the song most requested by members of vanguardist parties.  The former song makes fun of holier-than-thou anarcho-puritan types, and the latter makes fun of the sectarianism of the more communist end of the left.  And these are the songs of most interest to anarchists and communists, respectively.

Most people, including most people on the left, have a sense of humor, and are capable of self-reflection and humility.  But the silo-building cancel campaigners and critics can be very loud, and their voices are amplified tremendously by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

To those who would, perhaps without even thinking about it more than a microsecond, shoot off the question, “don’t you know they’re Stalinists?”, and to anyone out there who has been invited to speak or perform at a conference or event organized by a group that we might consider conspiratorial or sectarian or pro-Putin or pro-NATO or whatever other terrible thing, to all of you I say what I saw Howard Zinn and Pete Seeger say by example over and over again:  take the invitation.  Communicate.  Share your thoughts (and your music) and listen to the thoughts (and the music) of those around you.  If you disagree, if you get heckled, stay calm, don’t be snarky, breathe deeply, be humble, and keep communicating.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.