By Sudip Bhattacharya
“I feel doomed.”
“Mentally I am exhausted, depressed, and suffer from insomnia.”
“I worry about what our country will look like when we finally turn the corner.”
“This will never end.”
The first three comments are from a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year about peoples’ experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The final one was uttered by my girlfriend, Gab, after reading about the new variant, Omicron, that has been spreading across the country.
“The cases today are up by two thousand!” she exclaimed while we lay in bed, the sunlight pouring through the windows of our apartment, burning our toes.
“We should go out to that Italian place you always wanted to go to,” I said. “Before it gets worse.”
She quickly looked up from her phone. “And die? For pasta? No thanks!”
I stifled a laugh and suggested we could order but this time, her gaze was completely focused on her phone, as she read the latest articles about the virus and surveyed the numbers increasing across New Jersey and Philadelphia, only a few miles from where we were. After a while, she put down her phone and lay on her side, facing the sunlight. It was a Sunday and we had errands to do, but in the meantime, we simply laid in bed, weighed down by reality.
A part of me felt frustrated and jaded as well, but I quickly pushed those feelings away. At the same time, I recognized how difficult it can be not to feel pessimistic, even as we enter a new year, when it feels like one unending 2020. The pandemic still rages while we’ve been left to fend for ourselves. Bezos and his buddies are shooting spaceships into the sky ( to compensate for something, I’m sure) as social programs remain anemic, and we’re now compelled to return to in-person work.
“Prices on items I need such as meat and lumber have increased to the point I can’t afford to buy them,” another person had expressed in the survey. According to another poll by Gallup, a growing number of Americans, at nearly 40 percent, continue to view the health of the economy as “poor.”
Even avowed socialists are not immune. No matter how much Marx we’ve read, how much of Das Kapital we’ve highlighted and pretended to understand the first time, we are ordinary people forced to navigate survival under capitalism. No matter the days spent knocking on peoples’ doors and spreading the word, seeing peoples’ faces light up, realizing they aren’t alone, none of us can be blind to the fact that the road ahead toward gaining more power remains far off in the distance, a grain against a red sun.
“We’re but a speck on the horizon,” I told my comrades from our DSA chapter, Will and Jorge, several months ago, the last time I hung out with anyone in person.
Jorge laughed, as we sat outside my favorite bubble tea place right outside of Philly, at a strip mall next to a major road. The fumes and odor of gasoline engulfed us.
Will, the tallest among us, sat hunched over his drink, chuckling between sips.
Both spent a considerable amount of time helping to organize tenants and provide mutual aid once Covid-19 became a part of our daily reality. Jorge was instrumental in serving as administrator, making sure deliveries were made on time and that we would have enough volunteers and funds. For a time, it seemed like this was our moment to expand peoples’ political imaginations as we provided groceries and basic items. We also had a decent number of volunteers playing a role who otherwise had been previously uninterested in our other campaigns.
But after a long and grueling year, our capacity has shriveled. The funds have depleted and overall, our chapter has diminished in terms of active participation. Members have had to take care of their own personal responsibilities, like paying the rent, which I’ve heard is pretty essential during a pandemic, especially when there’s no more government help for people drowning in debt. It’s clear now that what Biden and others would prefer is for businesses to run “smoothly,” and as we’ve seen explicitly in the last year, whether big or small, the “health” of a business depends on the desperation of most people. Businesses need people who feel they can’t survive without some sort of wage, however laughable and demeaning.
“Maybe Elon will save us,” Jorge said, as an older white man staggered out from a convenience store, holding onto a six pack. He had spots all over his neck and face and was grumbling under his mask.
Will smiled, as he sucked on his straw.
I grinned. “Maybe Biden will save us first,” I said, doing everything I could to push against what was building up inside.
Other peoples’ conversations at the restaurants nearby flowed past us. Much of the parking lot, however, had emptied. I laughed at my own jokes like a chump.
NOTHING IS NEW
The major thing to remember is that the lingering pessimism that serves to erode our movements and our sense of self, a pessimism generated by conditions under capital, is not unique to us or to our moment. Others, such as the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, also had to contend with such emotions and situations that give rise to a narrowed sense of self and of the future.
Italy, at the time of Gramsci’s organizing, had been a place full of contradictions. Compared to other European nations, except for Germany and Russia of course, Italy had a robust socialist and, later, communist movement that Gramsci played a role in.
Still, the fight for power remained fraught with tension and failure, especially as Mussolini and his fascists grew their support and, in turn, became ever more violent. But there was also the fact that many in the country’s dormant working class were facing extreme forms of oppression from leading capitalists and conservatives, and betrayal from segments of socialists who were willing to work within the parliamentary system while trading in the long-term goal of systemic progressive change that people needed.
Gramsci, however, recognized that it was, therefore, understandable that masses of people were feeling less and less optimistic and increasingly dour about the future. The economy was tanking and working people who did agree with a socialist vision for society started to drift away, retreating into individualized and personal concerns, such as maintaining what little financial security they had. But, Gramsci emphasized to the communist party leadership that it was their responsibility to carry on the revolutionary spirit.
Otherwise, the problems they were facing would simply deepen.
“The great battles are drawing closer; battles which will perhaps be more bloody and harder than those of previous years,” he stated. “With that in mind, all the energy of our leaders will be needed, the best form of organisation and concentration of the party’s mass, a great spirit of initiative and a great rapidity of response.”
It was also expected that communists and radicals will always face some type of hardship. After all, what we’re trying to accomplish is to literally dismantle the society we have now, and to replace it with one that is far more humane, and no longer sustains itself through exploitation and oppression. Like Gramsci, we are seeking to overturn a society in which a myriad of people benefit, from businesses to social conservatives, to segments of the working class that have “made it,” a.k.a. living tenuously inside the vaunted chamber of the “middle class.”
Of course, we will endure repression, paranoia, and such forces stepping up to make our political journey miserable and deflated at times.
To not expect this arduous road ahead is not to be a serious or committed radical, or Marxist, or whomever is claiming to believe in justice. It is pure naivety.
“This pessimism is closely linked to the current situation in which our country finds itself; the situation explains it to a certain extent but, of course, does not justify it. What difference would there be between us and the Socialist Party, between our will and the party’s tradition, if we also knew how to work and were only actively optimistic in periods when the cows were plump, when the situation was favourable?” Gramsci stated as he and others formed the Communist Party in Italy. He added, “What difference would there be between us if we were only actively optimistic when the working masses advanced of their own accord, because of an impulse they could not fight, and the proletarian parties could take up a prime position and grab hold of the reins of their own accord?”
The whole point of being a committed communist is to maintain our revolutionary zeal and vision when it’s needed the most, when times are dire. When people are worn down. When it seems like the best we can hope for is to vote for one candidate over another. When it feels as if being an immigrant of color is a death sentence.
Otherwise, what’s the point? To hear ourselves talk until oblivion? Groceries still need to be delivered. Capitalism still needs to be ended and replaced. Peoples’ lives won’t get better until a society that treats labor as a force for social needs triumphs. A society where people have what they need to live, regardless.
Even when feeling low or drained, as communists and Leftists, it would be a mistake to drift too far away from the movement itself or any type of progressive organization. Self-care is useful, and necessary, as in taking more time to relax between shifts at work and organizing, but it should never lead to someone completely leaving, if that person claims to be an anti-capitalist radical.
It is again our responsibility to hold on and to lead with a vision. And one cannot do so by turning away from the movement itself.
“Like most of us back in those days, I was new at this, learning about clandestine struggle as I lived it,” the revolutionary, Assata Shakur, had stated in her classic autobiography detailing her and others in the New Left struggling against the U.S. empire in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
For Shakur and Gramsci, there is too much at stake to give in to pessimism completely. To forgo one’s responsibility to the movement at-large.
OPTIMISM SHOULD NOT MEAN REFUSING REALITY
On the night of the 2020 presidential election, Gab and I stayed up late. Gab, who is a teacher and had to wake up early, eventually went to bed, kissing my face, insisting I also do the same. I nodded and stayed where I was on the couch, melting.
When the results finally were official, days later because our system of governance is so efficient and safe, Gab and I were taking a break from our work, mixing in kimchi with our ramen, the steam covering our faces.
“Every time I hear Biden, I think about Bernie instead,” Gab said as we slurped at the table, overlooking the apartment parking lot.
I heard similar from many in my life, including friends who had shifted to the Left over the years. There was “relief,” one could argue, but also disappointment, lingering like the stench of gasoline.
“Don’t you feel the same way?” she asked.
I took in a deep breath and smiled. “He will be our communist god, finally,” I said.
Gab smiled too and shook her head as she scraped the bottom of her bowl and, soon after, rushed back to teaching her lessons. But I could still smell gasoline in the air, and winced.
It has been an issue of mine to contemplate optimism, or the refusal of pessimistic thinking, as somehow devoid of any type of reality-based analysis. As Gramsci had done, what now feels like ages ago, to be an optimist runs parallel to being a realist as well. One can have optimism in the fact that we will indeed win and seize power, but a realist in how we get there.
Looking back at the years she spent organizing and fighting in the U.S., after finally gaining her freedom back living in exile in Cuba, Shakur was transparent in how she believed in socialism, but was no longer the same person as before. She admitted, “I was no longer the wide-eyed, romantic young revolutionary who believed the revolution was just around the corner,” adding, “I still appreciated energetic idealism, but I had long ago become convinced that revolution was a science.”
For instance, as much as Shakur admired the mission of groups like the Black Panther Party, she conceded that their form of organizing had been limiting and insufficient.
“The Party had some of the most politically conscious sisters and brothers as members, but in some ways it failed to spread that consciousness to the cadre in general,” she expressed.
Now, capitalism is in another drawn-out process of implosion, and weakness. As Marx noted, the capitalists are not machines inserting data to produce what they need. They’re also human and, right now, as some have already written about, are increasingly incompetent and self-destructive. How can one make a profit if there’s no world for anyone to live on? The refusal to also recognize the desperation people are facing is pushing people away from ideas and norms that had once propped up the status quo, such as the valorizing of work.
A significant number of workers, especially in the service industry, have now refused to return to work. David Dayen in The American Prospect writes, “Workers are quitting across the labor force; people I’ve talked to range from minimum-wage employees to senior executives. But quit rates and job-to-job transitions in the Great Resignation are mostly taking place among workers with less than a high school education, whose daily toil is typically spent in dead-end low-wage jobs, an engine for corporate profits that produces some of the grimmer existences in the industrialized world.”
Nonetheless, as Gramsci and Shakur would’ve also noticed, it’s delusional not to view the Left as incredibly weak and in some ways disorganized, too. Groups like the DSA, which I’ve been in now for some years and have been grateful for, are staggering after the dissolution of the Sanders presidential campaign. The uprisings against law enforcement that had been so significant what feels like many summers ago did not lead to any growth of progressive groups and institutions. Labor unrest is indeed shaking loose from its slumber, but the type of labor struggle we need to dislodge the wealthy and their defenders remains a speck.
Most importantly, the situation we’re in is very different from what Gramsci and Shakur and others had experienced decades and generations ago.
“Gramsci’s two years of parliamentary action showed how much he had internalized Lenin’s perspectives and tactics on the need to use the bourgeois parliament by utilizing and boycotting it as the occasion demanded,” writes E.M.S. Namboodiripad and P. Govinda Pillai in Gramsci’s Thought.
The Soviet Union, however flawed, provided some alternative to capitalism. It also provided material support and strategy for others like Gramsci and, later, for revolutionaries in other parts of the world. 
“Cuba is a country of hope,” Shakur stated after escaping the clutches of U.S. law enforcement, finding relief and protection on the island.
Cuba remains a beacon for many across the world, for anyone fighting for basic needs and the principle that humanity is more important than profit. Cuba’s own history of supporting liberation struggles overseas, such as the fight against Portuguese colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, are inspiring when you consider how small the island nation is and how significant its impact had been. After the fall of apartheid as a formal political system, Nelson Mandela thanked Castro and Cuba, praising them for their material and other support in their time of need, when the white leaders of apartheid had much of the weaponry and cunning.
According to the latest reports, however, Cuba has been buckling under the weight of the U.S.-led embargo, which prevents Cuba from gaining access to necessary resources, like material to produce syringes for the Covid-19 vaccine.
“This is it! This is it, dude!” Will exclaimed one evening as we watched election results at a nearby pub in Princeton, where I like to go when feeling bourgeois. He clapped me enthusiastically on the back as the Nevada results rolled in, with Sanders squarely in the lead. Others there, many of them white, some sprinkling of East and South Asian in the crowd, threw back their heads and drank more.
Will, who is Jewish, and I had been anxious about Trump’s re-election, especially when he was more explicitly leaning on his die-hard right-wing support. His collection of anti-socialist, anti-democratic, antisemite, anti-black, anti-humanity soldiers, some literally, and others pretending to be warriors, but willing to harass and intimidate others. Trump was the distillation of Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush, Jr. His supporters reminded me of the people my parents and I had to contend with, either while growing up in Queens or, later, in East Brunswick, people who were part of the “vaunted” middle class, yelling, and screaming at us and others about how we all needed to “go back” to where we came from. The irony lost on them was that it would mean Queens for me, and of course, the only ones who had any kind of real ownership of the land are the Indigenous. Nothing is more humorous than an Italian American in New Jersey claiming some kind of patriotism while they hang the Italian flag over their meeting hall, ignoring how Chinese Americans and African Americans, and others have been here far longer.
Still, the fear and anger caused steam to rise off my arms and face most days during the campaign. The Nevada results came on one of the few days in which I felt somewhat calmer, and enjoyed being outside apart from knocking on doors and handing out material to people.
Although I did not view electoral politics as a panacea, I also did not and still believe it is incredibly shortsighted, naive, and weirdly disconnected for some socialists to completely eschew from mainstream politics, or to treat someone like a Sanders as a distraction from “real” politics. The election of Sanders wouldn’t have ushered in a new Bolshevik era of change (needed) but no less, the campaign had been important in engaging with masses of people on important issues, like healthcare and even some foreign policy. I still remember the Sanders campaign imploring their supporters to pay attention to India’s occupation of Kashmir, something I never heard any popular candidate mention as publicly, Democrat or Republican.
When Sanders won Nevada, there was an understandable feeling that something new was starting to take root. That finally, we would have some chance at remaking government as it should be, a bulwark against corporate power and greed. It was the same when the uprisings had started at the beginning of the pandemic, as people burned down police precincts, pushing against the tide of “moderation” espoused by our so-called leaders.
We’d had enough of police surveillance and harassment. We’d had enough scarce resources and being treated as collateral.
“This is it!”
After the 2020 elections, Democrats blamed the Defund campaign for its losses. Police budgets have continued to swell. After Jorge left, Will and I continued to sit outside, as the neon light from the gas stations flash on, like an alien spacecraft about to take off. Cars honked and someone was yelling from inside the convenience store, as others dangled masks under their chins to dine.
Will took in a deep breath and continued to sip, his eyelids halfway lowered.
ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?
To change the situation we’re in, we need to get rid of corporate power. To get rid of corporate power, we need government power. To seize government power, we need our own organizations and constituency of working people. To cultivate all of that, we need coordination, a cadre, a dedicated following. To gather that following, we need people to believe in the mission of socialism. To recognize that we need a socialist society for humanity’s best interests. To be willing to keep fighting what is and has been a long, grueling and sometimes confusing struggle, especially when the times we’re in grow worse with each passing day.
We return to the fact that despite the loss, and the failure, none of that changes what people need, which is a society not as cruel and callous and nonsensical as the one we have now. The repression and co-optation of the recent anti-police protests does not reflect a weakness of ideas and principle. Fundamentally, a society as ours, so heavily intertwined with police militarization and police acting as mediator of social problems like mental illness episodes, is a deadly and toxic one. This must change somehow.
Revolutionaries have long understood this. A deteriorating reality does not mean a failure of ideas. It is a testament to a failure of organizing for those ideas. Indeed, when the political situation becomes ever more dire and strained, it is then that we must hold onto what we believe and our commitment to those beliefs.
According to Enzo Traverso, the political theorist and historian, from Marx to Walter Benjamin to Daniel Bensaid, dealing with lost futures can be a crippling feeling, especially when you felt like you were on the cusp of something more profound and healing. But when such crises persist, like the one we’re in now with Covid-19 and neoliberalism staggering on as authoritarianism knocks at the door, it is our responsibility, as Leftists and radicals, to hold onto our principles and beliefs.
“The transformation of the present carries a possible ‘redemption’ of what has passed,” Traverso writes in Left-Wing Melancholia. “In other words, in order to rescue the past we have to give birth again to the hopes of the vanquished, we need to give a new life to the unfulfilled hopes of the generations that preceded us.”
When W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction, he did so as a means of countering the propaganda about the Reconstruction era promulgated by white supremacists in academia. But he also did so as a method of preserving those necessary ideals the radical Republicans, Black, and white had been fighting for. To preserve and disseminate their struggle for others to carry on in the era he was in, with the rise of fascism and the consolidation of Jim Crow.
“The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure. It did not fail where it was expected to fail. It was Athanasius contra mundum, with back to the wall, outnumbered ten to one, with all the wealth and all the opportunity and all the world against him. And only in his hands and heart the consciousness of a great and just cause; fighting the battle of all the oppressed and despised humanity of every race and color, against the massed hirelings of Religion, Science, Education, Law, and brute force.”
Claudia Jones was a Black female Marxist who is now being credited for connecting the dots between gender and racial oppression with the exploitative systems of global capital. Jones would eventually be deported to England during the Red Scare period in the U.S. This meant leaving behind people she loved and cared for and decades spent organizing and cultivating communist bonds in the states. Imagine the frustration and deep sense of loss. Imagine the sense of failure and being dejected.
When she did arrive in the U.K., the Communist Party of Great Britain did not take Jones’ ideas and experience seriously. Despite the level of respect and the dedication shown in the U.S., none of that seemed to matter. Again, it is entirely conceivable that Jones must’ve felt, at times, low or simply worn out and fatigued, even if a part of her did not give a shit what some white English people, claiming to be radicals, thought of her.
But there were pressing needs that had to be in some way attended to. Wallowing would not change the situation either. Indeed, one of the major issues she did identify had been the racism and feelings of disempowerment many in the Black Caribbean community in the U.K. were experiencing. Jones, herself of African and Caribbean descent, plowed ahead, utilizing the skills she developed in organizing events the people desperately needed. It was a time of increasing police abuse and the rising tide of right-wing groups terrorizing Asians and Africans.
“She developed the London Carnival, held in town halls before it moved to the streets,” Carol Boyce Davies explained in her distillation of Jones’ life and ideals, adding, “She saw beauty and talent contests and cultural programming as a way of bringing the black community out for carnival. She worked at all levels: with sympathetic whites, community workers, politicians, diplomatic representatives, musicians, entertainers, and writers and in schools and universities.”
In times of crises, a commitment to socialist ideals and the possibility of change is most needed.
Near the end of his life, right before he went into exile in the newly independent Ghana, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s, stating, “Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.”
His decision to join the party reflected his undying belief in the mission being relevant, always. How necessary liberation was for the multitude. How there was really no choice, if one was serious about change, apart from preserving the mission and seeking to carry it out. And, therefore, to be the one to exude a strident belief in it, an optimism that can be infectious. An optimism that can lift others in times of need, when it is most critical to keep moving, to keep fighting.
Otherwise, the problems compound and there is no way out from them.
To change the situation, we need the masses. To win the masses, we need to believe. Admittedly, there will be times when we don’t feel as optimistic and feel fatigued. But we cannot let such thinking undermine the overall goal. Brooding and behaving as if there’s no way ahead has never been an effective form of strategy for victory for anyone, unless we’re speaking to the nihilism on the right-wing. But again, they’re not fighting for a different world. They’re not fighting for what the majority of people must have.
We are and hence, we need to show people we know we will win. One can’t build movements when the people leading them are expressing constant dread and disappointment.
As I’ve noticed in my own time organizing, people I’ve come across, from various exploited and oppressed groups, are overwhelmed. They know that what they have now isn’t working for them. But what else is out there, many wonder. Understandably so, as they wander from one shift to the next, from one day to the next.
“Of course, yea, you can’t organize someone when all you offer them is being sad,” said Gab, one Friday evening as we decompressed after work, holding hands on the couch. “But, you can’t also ignore what people are saying. That’s a very bad idea too.”
“I don’t ignore what they’re trying to say …”
“You do with me sometimes.”
I stared at the screen, as Gab flipped through the shows on Netflix, between baking competitions and detective dramas.
“Whenever I bring up how bad things are, you move to something else to talk about.”
“I have to. It gets to be a lot.”
“You don’t think I know that?”
I sighed. “I’m sorry.” I paused. “I’ll try to do better with that. It is something any organizer should do well. Acknowledge at least where the person is at.”
“And you have made me see a bit clearer too. Not saying you haven’t. All that history you share, talk about. It does clarify that history isn’t just this long road of losing. There have been victories. Sometimes right in front of us.”
It was true. In 2016, after Trump won, I too had been cratering, turning inside-out for weeks. My arms would dangle at my sides, as if magnetically drawn to the asphalt.
Along the way, I was pushed by others to keep myself engaged with theory and reading and reviewing the world beyond the bounds of mainstream news and propaganda. I began to see that even if Cuba is now suffering, it doesn’t change the fact that the revolution happened, and persevered. The success of the civil rights movement, end of formal Jim Crow, the defeat of the American war machine by the Viet Minh, the fact that a number of people are refusing to go back to work. It is delusional to ignore all this.
Similarly, as Gab insisted, it would also be a grave mistake to pretend that people haven’t been changed since the pandemic either. They still need something to believe in. It is still our responsibility, our prerogative as people who see clearly what needs to change, to exude that belief and vision.
“How much we had all gone through,” Shakur stated near the end of her memoir, just as her family was disembarking from a plane in Cuba to finally embrace her, to touch her face.
It’s been nearly two years now. How much have we changed? How much have we had to endure? A nd how much have we had to carry along the way?
Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, Cosmonaut, Protean Magazine, Socialist Forum, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.