I was a teenage communist. And, frankly, I was the real fucking deal.
I was not a poser. Not one of those corduroy-wearing tossers who talked about world peace to get into indie-rock girls’ pants. I was militant. I had read Marx for Beginners. Twice. I would walk alone through my London suburb, thinking deeply about socialist currency systems. I would not hang out at the shopping center. That was collaborating with consumerist false consciousness. I would not talk to girls. They smelled too good and were scary.
I was radicalized by a 42 year-old named Carol in Edinburgh during 1998. I was 17 and acting in a play at the Festival. Obligatory throwback picture:
Carol was a leathery, tea-stained Australian who shared my opposition to capitalism and fun. Also, as a gay woman, she was guaranteed to have total contempt for my male sexual urges, which felt very reassuring at the time. Carol invited me to join Workers’ Fight, part of the Trotskyite Internationalist Communist Union. They still have a website, which I presume is maintained on a communal, non-hierarchical, democratic basis. Because it’s complete shit.
We got talking. She was earnest and passionate. I said how alienated I felt at school. She empathized, “but at the end of the day,” she said, “who wants to be popular, when you can be RIGHT?” I was skeptical about Carol, but I loved being right. After that, I started to care a great deal about “The Party”. Bear in mind, I had still never been to a party.
Back in London, I began selling copies of the Workers’ Fight bi-monthly magazine — Class Struggle — on the street during weekends. The articles were dense, earnest, and tinged with resentment. And the headlines were pure 1920’s propaganda. For a donation of just one British pound, you could read such gems as:
The Scottish Socialist Party — from an electoralist scratch to the danger of reformist gangrene
The crisis of post-Soviet agriculture is aggravated by “reforms” and Western “food relief”
You could tell when Class Struggle hated an idea, because they put “quotation marks” around it. “Quotation marks” was code for rolling their eyes and jerking their wrist back and forth. Class Struggle also spent just as much time (if not more) attacking other groups on the Left than they did denouncing capitalists. They particularly loathed the Scottish Socialist Party, who are so tiny, they received just 875 total votes in Scotland’s last election, out of 2.9 million cast.
Class Struggle was never intentionally funny. But sometimes laughs crept in. I enjoyed the classified ads, which said things like:
Housemate wanted. Pref. non-smoker. No Maoists.
My magazine-selling went on for a few months, until a few friends and I applied for an obscure local government travel grant to visit anywhere in Latin America. Somehow, we got the cash, and decided to visit Cuba (of course). Carol was thrilled. She should not have been.
Nothing will strip you of Communist beliefs quicker than visiting a Communist country. I always enjoyed lecturing people that Cuba “had the best health care system in the world, with more doctors per capita than any other nation”. And that was true. In the Cuban city of Trinidad, I saw a boy with a gleaming white cast on his recently fractured arm. Great! Sure, the rest of him was covered in literal rags, and he was stick thin from the socialist paradise’s chronic food shortages. And he lived in a corrugated shack. But his healthcare was super duper! The next day, we offered a taxi driver $20 U.S. to take us to another city. He said it was strictly illegal. We offered double. He reluctantly agreed. Halfway through the trip, he was pulled over by an aggressively humorless state policeman, and fined what he said was three months’ wages for “unauthorized entrepreneurial activity.” We all thought he was going to cry. It was devastating.
And the final nail in my Communist coffin? I saw Fidel Castro speak.
July 26th is a Cuban public holiday, honoring the movement that swept Castro into power. We heard he was going to be speaking at an outdoor event in Cienfuegos. We took the train. He was an hour late, but we saw his helicopter touch down near the town square, where thousands had gathered to hear El Comandante. Then it began pouring with rain. He didn’t come out. Another hour went by. When the rain stopped, he emerged. We were all drenched to the bone, but he looked immaculate in army fatigues. This was not the behavior of a class warrior or an anti-imperialist freedom fighter. It was the behavior of an entitled jerk. (Oh, and thanks to the internet, you can read his speech that day. Don’t, though. It’s very dull.)
We listened politely for a few minutes, but we barely understood a word. Our Spanish was bad, and we were right at the back of a huge crowd of diehard party loyalists, about 500 yards from a 72 year-old Fidel, amplified only by crappy, 1950s loudspeakers. We were bored. We were 18. One by one, we slunk away to explore the town.
We were gone maybe two hours, and on our way back to the train station, we had to pass by the same town square. And Fidel was STILL TALKING. The crowd was distraught with boredom and probably contracting pneumonia from their wet clothes. Castro did not care. He was just another entitled bully who loved the sound of his own voice and the feeling of telling other people how to live.
My communism was already gravely wounded. But Castro killed it.
I never spoke to Carol again.