Monday, October 19, 2009
SHERRY WOLF: REAL SOCIALISM 101
Probably the best thing that I personally gained from working as Director of Diversity & Outreach for the National Equality March this fall was that I got to meet so many incredible people.
My faves were the ones who made me think about things I never really cared about before. Sherry Wolf is an unabashed Socialist in an age where every right wing mouth breather uses that word as a pejorative. While my own tastes run towards activism with a soupcon of Prada, Sherry speaks with such eloquence and plain common sense that I can't help but want to know more about her ideas and convictions.
To sate that need, I asked Sherry a few questions.
The Lady did not disappoint.
Herewith, a few questions for Sherry Wolf, author of "Sexuality & Socialism".
You mean why would I reject a system like capitalism rooted in rapacious greed, imperial arrogance and built on slavery in which racist, sexist and homophobic divisions are required for a minority to control their ill-gotten-gain to embrace a socialist political system and ideology based on human need over profit? Well, I guess I just answered your question.
ARE YOU A SOCIALIST OR A LESBIAN FIRST?
Like you, a Black gay man, I don't have the ability to separate out the various aspects of my personal identity. Though clearly someone's politics or sexual preferences are not the same as their skin color and there are different histories to these identities. That said, my world view and daily practice are rooted in an understanding of society that is unabashedly pro-underdog and anti-bigshot.
The fact that I am a lesbian in a society where gays are oppressed clearly plays a role in shaping that perspective, but there are plenty of wealthy lesbians who couldn't give a hoot about the obvious class fissures in our society. Sharing with them a desire for sex and intimacy with women doesn't overcome the wider class divisions in society or among LGBT people. In other words, I'm a commie dyke (who's also a fallen Jew!).
WHERE DO YOU, AS A LESBIAN, FIT INTO THE SOCIALIST WORLD AS FAR AS IT'S HIERARCHY IS CONCERNED?
There's a socialist hierarchy?! I had no idea. I guess that means I'm not part of it.
WHAT'S YOUR OPINION OF THE STATE OF THE TWO MAIN POLITICAL PARTIES?
The Republicans are an unrepentant bigots' party that expresses the unadulterated views of big capital. They are repugnant to me. The only reason they are getting any traction at all around the far-right, tea-bagging nonsense is because the Democratic leadership is so equivocal and unprincipled.
I have always remained independent of these two parties because while the Democrats clearly articulate a vision that is at times more progressive, or at least less obnoxious, than the Republicans, they too express the interests of big capital. That explains President Obama's no-banker-left-behind policies. It explains why a Black man elected on a social justice mandate is expanding two wars for oil and empire and selling a pro-corporate health care plan as "reform."
I believe that a truly democratic society must have political parties that express the interests of ordinary working-class people. The tenacity with which BOTH parties try to retain a stranglehold on political debate and prevent the rise of new parties expresses just how similar in certain central interests—military power and economic might—they are.
HOW IS PRESIDENT OBAMA DOING IN YOUR OPINION, NOT JUST ON LGBT ISSUES, BUT, AS A WHOLE?
President Obama is a contradictory figure—not so much because of who he is, but because of what people who elected him think and expect. He is, as any president of the most wealthy and powerful empire in world history must be, a man who oversees global capitalism's interests. However, that's not really what millions of people want of him, nor is it the way he pitched himself, despite his long history as somewhat moderate around health care, LGBT issues, business, etc.
We are experiencing liberalism in power. In other words, President Obama is leading the nation at a time of steep economic decline when workers' standard of living is declining rapidly to compete with Asian workers, yet he must give at least lip service to social demands from below, that is, from regular people. The National Equality March tapped into that mass desire for fundamental change that his election gave expression to but hasn't delivered on in jobs, health care, housing, LGBT issues, etc. It shows that we can, and must, organize a fight back under Obama to force change from below. In fact, I believe it's our only real hope for change.
ARE YOU TILTING AT WINDMILLS BY ESPOUSING SOCIALISM IN SUCH A CENTER RIGHT COUNTRY AS THE USA?
In recent polls, one-third of people under 30 prefer socialism to capitalism in this country and just 53% of all American adults think capitalism is superior to socialism. Aside from polls I have my own life experience to judge from, greater numbers of people by far are attracted to socialist ideas today than at any previous period in the last 25 years. Essentially, free-market capitalism is exposed as a casino where the house always wins—Derek, you should know that living in Vegas!
We are no longer, if we ever were a center-right country. What we need is greater numbers of people to get organized as socialists and build a stronger and more vocal left, there's an organizational and ideological vacuum out there that needs to be filled.
WHY DID YOU TAKE A LEADERSHIP ROLE IN THE NEM?
I was over-the-moon when I read about the march and thought it was exactly the right call at the right time. I immediately called people about how to get involved, including Cleve Jones whom I had never met before. He called me back on July 4th, assuming a socialist wasn't celebrating. In fact, I was with 1,000 other socialists in San Francisco that day speaking at a conference and we all began to gear up to organize people to get to the march right then.
DO YOU FEEL YOUR WORK PAID OFF?
The march—and even the mobilizing in the prior 3 months, including my month long speaking tour along the East Coast—will remain among the most collaborative and joyful experiences of my life.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE WAY THE MARCH WAS TREATED BY THE MAJOR NATIONAL LGBT ORGS?
Predictably, they came on board late, did little to nothing to build it and now are taking credit for its successes. That is the way corporate opportunists operate, so I'm hardly surprised by the flagrant opportunism of HRC, for example, that sent out the first notice about the march on the morning it took place and after President Obama spoke at their dinner—naturally, they were asking for money. Shameful and predictable all at once. It's why we need Equality Across America to project the activist vision our march gave expression to—Gay Inc's vision is narrow and its strategy is bankrupt.
IS THEIR TIME OVER?
HRC and co. have money and media, they will continue for quite some time. And to be clear, I do draw a distinction between their leaderships and the rank-and-file who take no part in shaping their strategy, but volunteer many hours to work for them. But they are a political butter churn—quaintly anachronistic, but utterly useless in practice.
WHY GRASSROOTS? WHY NOW? WHERE DID THIS MOVEMENT BUBBLE UP FROM? DOES IT HAVE A FUTURE?
The old strategies don't work and a new generation has come up expecting equality and experiencing an openness that those over 35 didn't have. They weren't raised on a steady diet of vitriol like: AIDS is God's punishment for gays, etc. They have LGBT role models in the media, music that reflects a multi-culti queer sensibility and social acceptance that was unheard of even one generation ago. This march struck a chord because its politics were fierce, unapologetic and defiant.
YOU REFER TO "GAY, INC", WHAT IS THAT?
The corporate-sponsored, Democratic Party beholden national groups that have access to millions of dollars that they squander on bloated salaries and black-tie dinners with politicians.
CAN THE LGBT MOVEMENT ADVANCE WITHOUT ADDRESSING ISSUES OF ECONOMIC ISOLATION AND RACISM ALONG WITH SEXISM IN IT'S OWN RANKS?
Absolutely not, no social justice movement can. However, racism, sexism and class oppression was explicitly taken on by this march in its organizing—solidarizing with immigrant workers, holding unprecedented meeting at historically Black colleges and in Black and Brown neighborhoods, opening the door to our trans brothers and sisters in a non-tokenistic way, etc.
We should not conflate the institutional oppressions of our society with thinking that activists struggling against oppression share those ideas and gain in any way from those oppressions.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR LATEST BOOK. WHY DID YOU WRITE IT?
I wrote Sexuality and Socialism because there did not exist a book-length history and analysis of LGBT oppression from a Marxist standpoint. In addition, I find many of the popular theories in some sections of the academy, such as queer theory, to be quite antithetical to our struggle for liberation and ideas like that and identity politics have floated around for some time virtually uncontested from the left. I wanted to win people away from those ideas and provide a historical, left-wing political account for how the heck our street movement for liberation came to be a market niche.
Plus, I have no idea why but so many political books on sexuality are deadly boring and truly incomprehensible to most ordinary people. I am incapable of writing a dull book, so I wrote a funny and fast-paced one instead with snippets on lesbian porn and clitoral orgasms. It is a book that deals with sex, after all.
WAS THE PROCESS GRUELING, OR, DID IT JUST FLOW FROM YOU?
I am a gregarious extrovert so sitting in a library or alone at my desk for nearly two years was a journey, so to speak. Not to mention that somewhere along the way my girlfriend of six years ditched me—in a phone call!—so that was a heart-breaker.
But as soon as the book came out I was on the road speaking again, and I even met a cutie-pie, smarty-pants professor whom I adore and all was right again in my world. The book's doing well and I'm in love—makes dealing with a world in terrifying crisis slightly more endurable I think.
AFTER IT WAS PRINTED, WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISHED YOU HAD TAKEN OUT,OR, PUT IN?
Yes and no. It was the best book I could have written at the time and since I'm always learning more I undoubtedly could have added/altered/tweaked a few things, but no big, bad doozies.
HOW HAS IT BEEN GREETED BOTH CRITICALLY AND AT BOOK READINGS?
I am blown away by the gracious and even enthusiastic responses to Sexuality and Socialism. It's sold a few thousand in its first weeks out, which is almost unheard of for a new title from a new author published by an independent press. I love doing readings and public speaking and opening them up for questions and discussion.
For the price of a ticket and a few bucks to help keep me alive, I'll travel and speak anywhere—it not only sells books, but I honestly learn a great deal from people who come. And I enjoy getting feedback.
WHAT'S NEXT ON YOUR AGENDA?
I'm already writing a column and starting to blog soon for socialistworker.org. And after a week off, I'm heading back out on the road through the Midwest for a few days and then to the West Coast in November-December. My publisher, Haymarket Books, schedules me around and helps pimp my book, so folks can write directly to them at email@example.com