Paul calls one snowy evening to extend an invitation to me. I met him a few weeks ago, in front of the NYU library, where he was distributing copies of the newspaper Workers’ Vanguard. Ever since, he and I have been hanging out around Washington Square Park and getting into long, tedious debates. Now we’re talking on the phone. Would I like to come to a Christmas party, he asks, put on by the Spartacist League?
The Spartacists are Communists—Trotskyists to be exact. This means they see themselves as the true heirs to the Russian Revolution, to the heyday of Lenin, before Stalin ruined everything. Contemporary Trotskyists still hope to do like Lenin and seize the state apparatus in times of unrest. Poor bastards.
In our most recent encounter, I meet up with Paul and his “associate” Sky in a cafe. I’m sympathetic to Paul and his friend but let’s be real—these latter day Trotskyists aren’t going to take over the American government any time soon, and I am pedantic enough to tell them this. I suppose the party obligates its members to take part in recruitment efforts but Sky makes no effort to hide her contempt for me. “What do you want me to do?” she asks, “Be nice to you because you’re a pretend Marxist?” She wears a jean jacket and her chestnut hair in a ponytail. Her face is soft and sad, like a puppy’s, and her voice has the childlike quality of Bernardine Dohrn’s.
Paul on the other hand can only deliver his lines convivially. “I’m not trying to be mean,” he says in a jolly tone, “but it’s foolish to think you don’t need a proletarian dictatorship.” He’s a baby-faced and rotund black man who speaks with a New York accent. He slaps me on the back. It would never occur to me that he is trying to be mean.
“We have to go,” Sky stands up, her coffee only half drunk. “It was—.” She almost says “nice talking to you” but she’s uninterested in the pretense. “It was—interesting talking to you.” She cocks her head and lets out what can only be described as a cackle. I feel certain the Spartacists—at the behest of Sky—will now brand me as a counter-revolutionary and I’ll never hear from them again. But they apparently can’t turn anyway any interested parties so Paul invites me to Christmas and I accept.
A part of me, a dark nihilistic part, has wild fantasies about Trotskyist Christmas. In my mind, the party will be held deep in East New York, in a public school which, as kids in my high school liked to claim was common in our county, was built using the same floor plan as a prison. The navy ceramic tile on the wall will be so worn that it looks gray. There will be grates on the windows.
At the entrance, there will be a banner declaring a meeting of the “Anti-Stalinists’ Worker Holiday Union.” Of course, they could say “Trotskyists” or “Spartacists,” but they are fundamentally factious people who love nothing more than defining themselves in terms of their enemies. They are also beholden to a mania for re-christening Trotskyism with every conceivable alternate name (Orthodox Marxism, Next Wave Leninism, Soviet Socialism in Protest of the Comintern, Anti-Maoist Labor Organization, etc.).
Entrance to Trotskyist Christmas, which includes dinner, is 10 dollars, and proceeds go to help “political prisoners.” I will be told, when I ask, that the money’s immediate resting place will be the coffers of the Spartacist League. After all, are they not preparing a revolution that will free all political prisoners?
Dinner will be served by an austere man in a costume that is a mash-up of Santa Claus and Leon Trotsky himself. I will hold out my sparkling metallic disc to Trotsky Santa. “We believe in abundance!” he will intone as he heaps a hearty portion of gruel onto my plate. (Or better yet—he will be dressed like Karl Marx Santa, who is already more Santa-like anyway, bearded and corpulent, who rides around on a ricketty streetcar and distributes austere, wooden, Slavic toys to all the dispossessed proletarian children of the world.)
The women will all frown, their hair pulled back tightly. The men will be pale and robust, a bit like Klaus Kinski as Woyzeck. As they swig decades old Soviet state-issued vodka that some pious comrade has hoarded in a basement and only trots out for special occasions, they will become merry and occasionally burst into spontaneous renditions of l’Internationale. They will not invite me to join in. They will not speak to me, feeling instinctively that I am bourgeois. And in this way, they will realize for me my most bourgeois of fantasies.
Trotskyism is a positive sum. No matter how great one’s conviction, if multiplied by a negative, the result too will be negative. Trotskyism conjugated with an even slightly bourgeois ideology will emerge bourgeois (this is why the Spartacists must be always on guard against impurities). There is no more bourgeois fantasy than Trotskyist Christmas.
The reality of Trotskyist Christmas, like everything else in the world, is impure. It is not held in East New York but rather the relatively polished Downtown Brooklyn. The venue, The Commons Brooklyn, looks like it could be a long, deep event hall in a country club. Incidentally, while The Commons Brooklyn’s motto is “Healing ourselves, our communities and our planet,” the Spartacists reject environmentalist “ideology” for the seemingly contradictory reasons that (1) it entails fatal class collaboration and (2) condemns the worker to perpetual lack. “We are not minimalists!” they can’t seem to stop reminding me.
They call the party “Holiday Appeal” as they are indifferent to Christmas. They do not keep the money at the door for themselves but rather, in the propaganda they hand you on your way in, provide detailed accounting of the many different $50 sums collected in cells around the world and how exactly they are divided up amongst the defense councils for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Lynne Stewart, and a bunch of other people I’ve never heard of. Instead of singing l’Internationale, people just make a lot of boring speeches about how great Edward Snowden is.
There is no gruel but rather catered lasagna and Brussel sprouts. The bar is stocked with Heineken. There are no surly Communist Santas or Grandfather Frosts. They don’t all look like the pasty extras from a film adaptation of 1984, but rather like a racially representative cross-section of the city with incomes probably hovering around the mean, a bit above the median. The only person who displays the slightest aggression towards me is a strapping young redheaded man sitting at the “literature” table. (“The problem with Maoists,” he explains calmly, “is that they don’t understand the revolution can only be carried out by the working class.” “By ‘working class’ you mean like factory workers, not farmers?” I ask. “Who else would I mean?” he snaps.) Sky is, to both my relief and my disappointment, nowhere to be seen.
On the whole, however, people are so friendly, I feel like I could be in the South. “How did you hear about us?” I am asked by any number of conservatively dressed middle aged women. “Oh I talked to Paul and—” “—and Sky!” These knowing interruptions unnerve me. I scan their faces to try to read what Sky has told them about me but they hold their cards close to the chest.
Paul comes to say hi, looking surprised that I came. He sets me up with Sasha and Mónica, two young comrades so attractive—stunning even—that they might have been torn from a propaganda poster. I suspect Paul thinks this will be a good conversion strategy (no dice Paul, I’m gay). I find myself wishing Sky were there, like some kind of Communist Mommy Dearest to put me in my place. One often wants some Christmas discomfort.
When I was a kid, I was a brat. I was never satisfied with what I got underneath the Christmas tree. Santa Claus, it seemed, could never quench my endless consumerist desire.
Christmas is about fairy tales of wish-fulfillment, whether about Jesus, reindeer, pagan elves, or Charlie Brown. But literary critic D. W. Harding once made the point that what we call a “wish-fulfillment” would really be more accurately described as “a wish-formulation or the definition of desires.” (At this time of year, in the midst of Yuletide consumerism, this rings true more than ever, as “wish-fulfillment” inspires in us the most peculiar and unlikely desires for stuff.) “It seems nearer to the truth,” he continues, “to say that fictions contribute to defining the reader’s or the spectator’s values, and perhaps stimulating his desires, rather than to suppose that they gratify desire by some mechanism of vicarious experience.”
Advertisements are the most obvious example of this kind of wish fulfillment—which is to say, wish-formulation, telling us what we want—but the Spartacists have their own wish fulfillment too. If only it hadn’t been for that villainous Stalin, the Sparticists sigh, the Russian Revolution could have truly ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. They can’t stop telling the same stories—about Petrograd, the overthrow of the Romanovs, the defeat of the Mensheviks in the Russian Constituent Assembly, and the triumphant return of Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Lenin from exile. It is the fairy tale of a utopia poised to emerge.
The program of the Trotskyites is one in which a set of demands for a better world has been clearly spelled out, mostly a long time ago. As with so many things retro, the intervening history between then and now has turned that past into something else for us (for instance, the historian Leszek Kolakowski observes that Stalin himself was the first one who came up with the idea that “Trotskyism” was a political doctrine, though I wouldn’t be so petty as to point this out to the Spartacists). For many who see this Soviet idealism as passé, we “learned lessons” in the 20th century about communism – and yet these critics ignore the fact that the same dismissals of communism or apologies for capitalism that they make today were already being made by the end of the 19th century (which should give us all pause).
I do not believe that the horrors of the Soviet Union were all Stalin’s fault, though that does not have to mean I side with those for whom inequality has always been an iron law of the cosmos. However we may disagree, I have to respect the imagination of somebody like Sky who can really, rigorously envision a world where there is no inequality and where everyone has enough.
For those of us in whom most Christmas rituals inspire revulsion, this might be a good occasion for an alternate Christmas exercise. Silence your phone. Close your eyes. Sit up straight and take a deep breath. Picture for yourself a place where democracy really works, where there are no rich or poor, there is no racism or bigotry, there are no lay-offs or precarity traps or sweatshops or wars. Utopia doesn’t have to be about purity, it might just a world without exploitation and corruption. I don’t know if it’s possible. You don’t have to either. But for a moment, picture it. Just really try to imagine it was possible. Wish-fulfillment or wish-definition? Maybe utopia can be found in the genuine anticipation of utopia, as happiness can be in the real expectation of happiness.
To put it another way, utopia isn’t opening your presents. It’s the excitement before you do.