Making the Argument

A college student’s brush with socialism.

By Elias Altman

Monday, May 12, 2014

I spent much of my freshman year of college on the verge of becoming a card-carrying socialist but somehow always knew I would not. This was late 2003, not exactly a heyday for Marxism in America, but George W. Bush had recently unleashed shock and awe upon Iraq, and in Burlington, Vermont, where I was attending my state’s university, there was a small and active cell of the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

We like to think that the big ideas reach us purely, as if by divine light, but they usually come with a human face. For me the face of socialism belonged to Jonathan. To bring home the Homeric emphasis on bravery in The Iliad, our professor told us about an old friend and Vietnam War pilot who had volunteered to fly many more missions than were asked of him, bombing stores of weapons as well as bamboo hamlets, because the friend knew that he could keep the less capable pilots alive if he went in their stead. “I didn’t believe in the war, but I did what I did to save American lives,” the pilot told our professor. “I risked my life on every flight to keep the others alive, although I know I killed hundreds on the ground. Did I not act bravely?”

Cultural relativity and whatnot, I thought, uninterested in the answers the class had yet to offer and annoyed by the question itself, which sounded like it had never been posed outside the confines of a stilted soliloquy. Enter Jonathan from stage left.

“You can tell your friend that he did not act bravely,” he began. “The real heroes of the Vietnam War were the soldiers who fragged their officers, the Vietnamese who fought back, and the students and workers who protested the war. Heroes end wars—they don’t start them.”

Jonathan gesticulated, building his argument out of the air, but his voice didn’t waver. Once he was done he didn’t say another word for the rest of class, allowing his point to sit there, like a fire, for the rest of us to dance around.

I caught up with him after class; we argued the whole way back to our column of dorm rooms and kept at it after the few other interested students departed.

“It’s absurd to say there’s no bravery in carrying out an ugly duty. That’s what bravery is,” I pleaded.

“Well, I mean, I’m a socialist,” he shrugged.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“Everything,” he replied. “The only morality is class morality.”


There comes a point in any argument when one person no longer remembers what he’s fighting for—yes, the Vietnam War was bad—and the only thing I knew I still objected to was Jonathan’s surety, his brazen tone, and with an openness no longer so familiar to my character, I said, “Okay, go on.”

Jonathan’s mouth was wide, as if from heavy use, and his hair was short and sharp, like his interjections. He looked at me and said if I wanted to know more, I should come to an ISO meeting.

In the commandeered classroom was a motley crew—students, locals, an English professor who taught courses in postcolonial literature—but everyone seemed like he or she belonged nowhere but here. The meeting, as I learned most did, featured a talk by a senior member of the cadre, along with a roundup of political events—most were hissed, a few applauded—and a rundown of what was contained in the latest issue of the Socialist Worker. Each dues-paying member bought three copies for a buck apiece and was expected to sell them that week, or incur a loss.

“The articles are so badly written,” I once complained to Jonathan.

“No, they’re great,” he replied. “This one about striking workers got it right.”

Getting a position right was the goal, and so was meeting people where they were at: if Jonathan wanted to get a student who said she didn’t like the president’s policies to come to an antiwar rally, he might begin by talking about Bush’s dubious claims about weapons of mass destruction before spelling out the necessity for organized protest. First things first. Radicalization, I found out, happened in stages, and you could only bring someone around to a socialist viewpoint if it squared with some aspect of his or her objective reality—a layoff in the family or a friend serving a second tour, sometimes just a vague but persistent sense that the world was deeply unfair and didn’t need to be.

The process of bringing someone around to your position, whatever it happened to be at that moment, involved “making the argument,” and this is what interested me—assembling the parts of it, like pieces in a model-airplane set, to construct a sturdy whole. Whether a round condemnation of capitalism or a pointed attack on anarchism, the argument suddenly made sense to me, unambiguous and free from nuance. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, and the animating force of human history was reduced to a sentence. Following from a few basic premises, shades of gray became black and white. You didn’t need to explain the betrayals of the Democratic Party as unfortunate but necessary concessions amid political realities; both parties were parties of and for the ruling class. You didn’t need to concede that the UN was an undemocratic world body while still defending its beneficial human rights programs; the whole organization was a pretty front for the interests of imperial powers in late-stage capitalism. And although non-rigorous thinkers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon were relegated to the secular-socialist version of Dante’s limbo, the marvelous concision of his statement “Property is robbery” still held allure. It was simple and clean.

Because I didn’t join the ISO but kept coming to meetings, Jonathan asked if I wanted to revive the defunct group Students Against War (SAW). And so we went to work. We exploited the free honors program copier to print out fliers and handed them out in front of the library during class changes. I met people where they were at. I coaxed and cajoled, backed off and circled back. I bent the stick—as Vladimir Lenin called distorting reality to make clearer a political necessity—when the stick needed bending. I drew distinctions between people who were “open to the argument” and people who were looking to get into one. There was the march in New Haven in solidarity with striking service workers and the blue signs with yellow lettering that said YALE: YOU CAN’T HIDE BEHIND THE IVY. There was the two-day ISO conference at Hunter College where a resolution on Palestine was approved late at night in a bar owned by former radicals. I delivered a talk at a SAW meeting about how the Vietnam War was ended—by the protestors at home, the dissenting soldiers abroad, and the anticolonial Vietcong. I cut short my spring break trip to Georgia with the ultimate frisbee team to fly to Washington, DC, for an antiwar protest. To be young was very heaven, but of course it was the feeling that I was no longer so young that made it true; this was life, not preparation for it.

Later that spring, Jonathan and I and a few others went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to sell the Socialist Worker in Central Square (the squares of Porter and Harvard were too bourgeois). We split up with twenty copies each, walked the streets, and rejoined two hours later. Jonathan asked how many we had sold. Larry replied five. Tom said two. Jonathan said he sold seven. Elias? Twenty.

“That’s the most I’ve ever heard of anyone selling,” Jonathan observed.

I was elated, as I had been the whole time selling and, most especially, during the empty-handed walk back to the meet up point.

On the ride home to Burlington, though, my enthusiasm hardened. I recalled when I had felt it before. It was the same thrill as when I’d made a sale at the watch store—my job the previous summer—resulting from the exercise of the same skills: I made eye contact, sized up my potential customer, and delivered the pitch. Don’t lose them by trying to push a Swiss Army if you know what they want is a Seiko. The true pleasure of the sell derived from self-affirmation, not from the knowledge that the buyer would be on time for his next appointment or that he was now better guarded against the trickeries of a Maoist. If peddling the idea of revolution felt the same to me as the selling of a commodity, then what was the difference?

I was losing my faith and sought guidance; I wanted to explain my epiphany to someone who could demystify it. I set up a lunch with the New England ISO coordinator, but somehow over those forty-five minutes I could never explain what I’d felt that day; it was too far afield from anything practical. I was thinking in terms of my emotions and he was talking struggles and movements.

“Frankly,” he said, finishing his sandwich, “I don’t see why you don’t join. You come to the meetings and seem to agree with everything we stand for. You’ve essentially agreed with all I’ve said today.”

“I know. It baffles me too,” I replied. “Let me think about it some more.”

It takes a long time to realize in your head what’s been in your heart all along, and this was when the twain got reacquainted. I stopped going to the meetings. Jonathan and I hung out less; I played more frisbee. I couldn’t keep holding the pose knowing that it was one, and I didn’t want to waste more of anyone’s time, including my own. It was sad, closing a chapter of my life midsentence. I still saw Jonathan in class, though, and the comrades in front of the library; they went on making the argument. I passed with a nod of the head and said polite, meaningless words.

It was not that I didn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member or that I’d suddenly elected to become a libertarian. It was that I didn’t like saying the same thing to different people, not because it made them less than human—though it did—but because it made me. Perhaps all along, somewhere, I’d known that if I were to become a socialist, I would surely want to become a tyrant. That’s what I liked, the power—to be right, to sway people, to convince them. And if I couldn’t, if they didn’t listen, then I didn’t need to know them, they could be written off. There is no clarity like the clarity of a Jacobin.

But as I progressed into my sophomore and junior years, another glorious fall becoming another white winter, what I missed most about the early days were the quiet moments—four of us painting a banner in preparation for a march, or all of us listening to protest songs after one. I remember driving back to Burlington in a snowstorm at the end of that two-day conference at Hunter, relishing the memory of the late-night resolution, when I saw a deer in my headlights. I swerved. The car fishtailed, back tires sliding off the road, and I managed to correct the swerve with that split-second instinct we all possess but never understand. Jonathan and his friend woke up in the backseat, looked around at the falling snow, and fell back asleep. Despite almost dying, I thought to myself, this was worth it, all of it.

Like many epiphanies mine was demystified over time, not explained away but lived through. We’re all selling something—ourselves, socialism, Skagen watches. Writing too is the peddling of ideas. I didn’t feel that same dog-tired sense of accomplishment until my senior year, when a friend and I started a student newspaper—rewriting copy late at night, battling InDesign quirks in the morning—and this time when I realized I’d felt it before, I wasn’t unnerved. I was just glad to have it back.