Leftism in the Streets and a Memoir

Yes, it’s the “big anti-war demo” day today. And it totally lacks anything remotely approaching excitement or curiosity. It is utterly predictable. I won’t bother describing the event beforehand, even though it would be ridiculously easy to do so. Suffice to say that I’ll go out and drum with my pals in the sun of a late San Francisco September Saturday. The die-hard leftists who organize these things give themselves enormous credit for doing so. Most people I know either won’t go, or find it absurd to give the answeristas any credit. They make the reservation but the rest of us go and have a dinner party and never notice them again (their control over the speakers matters not a whit since we don’t listen or hang around for the speeches anyway). But what does make these things worthwhile, on a fairly grassroots level, is that it’s a space for networking, catching up with old friends, and sometimes those connections lead to something worthy down the road.

In fact, “mass” demonstrations like this, if I don’t have my own agenda of drumming and seeing friends, make me feel quite stupid and impotent. I hate being a body count, instrumentalized by someone else’s agenda.

Which leads me to today’s short book review, of Margot Pepper’s memoir of being in Cuba during the “Special Period” after the Soviet Union fell and their economy was thrown into a deep decline (Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, or get it at Modern Times or City Lights or any decent independent bookstore) Margot is an excellent, poetic writer (her earlier volume of poetry, At This Very Moment, is really excellent; she also wrote a few things we published in Processed World over the years.)

Through the Wall was kind of hard for me to read. Not because it’s not well written, but because it is an honest portrayal of a relatively bad (in a common sort of way) relationship, a relationship whose emotional foundation runs parallel to her own ambiguous commitment to “socialism,” Cuba, leftism, her father (an exiled Hollywood 10 director) and her own feelings about revolution.

Through the Wall takes you into the daily life of Cuba during the hunger and isolation of the first years of post-Soviet life. There’s just not enough food, and the new hierarchies associated with dollars and tourism and foreigners are just emerging. Detailed arguments defending the Cuban achievements in health, education, and general welfare are laid out in painstaking detail, side by side with Margot’s growing ambivalence at the unsatisfactory life she’s having to live. When her boyfriend Guillermo arrives via Mexico, her dream of sharing tropical socialist paradise are soon crushed under the weight of his demons, the poverty of their daily lives, and the sheer boredom of her fulltime job translating for the Cuban daily Granma.

It’s a fascinating documentary memoir, a vital contribution to history, and even more interesting when put into the context of the terminal end of the Left. Margot goes to Cuba as a true believer in Old Left socialism but having lived in the Mission among the anarchists and artists around Komotion and other upsurges of the 1980s, her own ideas were already changing in subtle but permanent ways. When confronted by “actually existing socialism” as hard as she tries to explain her dissatisfactions with guilty self-recrimination and broad explanations of the world economy’s fundamental unfairness, they ring hollow. There really is a problem living in a society dominated by a one-party state, which is made worse by poor planning and rigid dogma.

She finally has to return to the Bay Area. Partly she has to escape Guillermo’s abuse, but I think more deeply she has to get back in the mix of our crazy, topsy-turvy world that simultaneously nourishes our passions, gives us wild freedoms, but demands that we find our way to a new vibrant opposition that does not just bring this madhouse down, but can build something amazing in its place. I think her memoir obliquely describes a generation’s disillusionment and break with a 20th century worldview, and a false goal (state socialism/capitalism) that we’ll have to invent our way beyond… If you still don’t get why Cubans deserve support, but the Cuban state is something separate, this book is a good place to start. Its unblinkered look at the special period turns out to be a healthy way of examining any period, under “really existing socialism” or the banal barbarism of our own daily lives.

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