Two pithy quotes of Maurice Bishop have been rattling about in my head recently. The first: “Forward ever, backward never.” The second: “We hold the truth itself to be revolutionary and we shall stand firm by its side.” Bishop is a hero of mine: a lawyer who saw the radical potential of using legal services to raise class consciousness to build a mass socialist movement.
I frequently look to his words for guidance, as well as the words of many others like Audre Lorde, Paul Robeson, and Sylvia Rivera. This guidance is often contradictory: I imagine Robeson would not be pleased by Lorde’s critique of the Soviet Union for example. But forward ever, backwards never: my task as a modern socialist is to synthesize these contradictory views and apply it to the world I now live in. This includes empirical, somewhat politically detached information. I know data shows newspapers are not widely read by the working class, so rather than taking the directives in “What Is To Be Done?” verbatim, I extract the core purpose behind Lenin pushing a party newspaper, “to raise local functionaries to broader views, tasks, plans, etc.” And that folks is why I’m on Twitter so often (definitely not because I’m addicted or anything).
U.S. socialists have a monumental task staring them down. Their country is an empire of sorrows; it is the capital of capital (including increasingly of other nation’s capitalists); it was the fetid breeding grounds of white supremacy when the first Black Codes were imposed prior to national sovereignty. It is so patriarchal that not only has it never had a woman president or proportional female legislative representation, the current president is an unrepentant sexual predator and legislators are regularly exposed as sexual predators as well.
Faced by this monumental task, it is not surprising that so many U.S. socialists retreat into one of two wonderlands (to borrow the phrase as Michael Parenti uses it) made up of half truths. Wonderland one is seeing the truth that violent revolution in this country would be easily suppressed by overwhelming military might, and consequently turning to reformism. This contradiction should be self-evident, and if not so many authors have written on it, so I won’t bother reciting those arguments.
Rather I want to focus on the second wonderland. This wonderland is as old as socialism itself. Marx saw it in German “true” socialism of his time, comparing them to “schoolboy[s].” I’ve referred to it by a more timely but just as snarky name: Soviet cosplay
Cosplay is the ritual of dressing up as characters from fictional stories, usually cartoons and comics, for gatherings of fans like ComicCon. Cosplay is an expression of fandom.
Sure, there are occasional creative alterations, especially by people of color who often have to carve out space in a hegemonically white “geek” culture. But for the most part, cosplay is not art but imitation of art.
Someone making a meticulous Superboy Prime costume is not really comparable to how Geoff Johns was influenced by Silver Age comics when writing his own take on Superboy Prime in Infinite Crisis. That twisting of the desire for a purely good superhero into something that reveals the hatred implicit in that desire — it’s not imitation or replication, but rather synthesizing the Silver Age with the obnoxiously gritty comics of the 80’s and 90’s to product something new and timely for readers in the early 2000's.
So what is Soviet cosplay? Soviet cosply is the Superboy Prime of U.S. socialism. They want the purity they see in Soviet propaganda, now more accessible than ever because of the Internet. And like Superboy Prime, creating this purity can only come through destroying the impurity: the U.S. Left itself. Soviet cosplay transforms the U.S. Left from the target of organizing into nothing but the target of derision and disgust. The 38% of U.S. people who are not white become nothing but imperialists. The 14.5% of U.S. people in extreme poverty become labor aristocracy.
The conditions specific to the modern world as well as those specific to the United States are ignored or even dismissed as revisionism. As if the legacy of slavery and indigenous genocide alone were not reason to craft a U.S.-specific socialism! But the Soviet cosplayer does not see this legacy, for they are buried in books and the deluge of media provided by the internet to trigger their confirmation biases. They are not unionists. They are not organizers. They are not even theorists. And as such, they are in no way revolutionary. They are parrots, only as coherent as what they repeat, and capable of nothing but unintelligible squawking without such mimicry.
And of course Soviet cosplay is especially odd for being so enamored with a socialism which ultimately did not overcome capitalism despite its many successes. As noted “tankie” and historian Michael Parenti noted, the same “siege socialism” that got the Soviet Union through Nazi invasion and the first decades of the Cold War prevented it from thriving. By failing to alter their socialist practice to the changing material conditions, all it could produce was a “perpetually tenuous existence.” The Soviet cosplay, doubtfully aware of how the economy of their beloved country actually functioned besides its successes, is more than willing to repeat the same mistakes.
But repeating smart people like Lenin and Mao can make someone appear smart to a certain degree. As to being, for lack of a better term, “politically correct,” the Soviet cosplayer does fairly well. They are generally more principled in their opposition to U.S. empire than the majority of the U.S. Left. They are generally more cognizant that the proletariat about 90% in the Global South, with just a small percent located in the United States. They understand that individualism, and its political manifestation of libertarianism, is inherently destructive to socialism.
Unfortunately they have seemingly little desire to have their views adopted more broadly. Rather, their superior politics have the predominant purpose of being a whip for self-flagellation. Jesus Christ, anointed principled anti-imperialist, dying on the cross of political obscurity for the sins of U.S. socialists. Now with the internet, they goad each other into this isolation, always at the ready to denounce the next Judas psyop.
It’s time to step down from the cross. While my political affiliations are what they are, rejecting the inanity of Soviet cosplay is not a prescription for any particular party. After all, if you actually bother to involve yourself in a U.S. socialist party, you hold at least some interest in making U.S. socialism (or socialism on the land currently called the United States). What stepping down from the cross is a prescription for is to reject adopting communism or socialism as a form of orthodox identity politics rather than a constantly developing set of political theories tested and analyzed by their application to the real world and to our real lives. That synthesis won’t be found in any book or documentary or Reddit argument. It is found in the rent strikes, picket lines, and other campaigns happening today not far from wherever you are reading this.
So please, get off the internet and go be socialists rather than Soviet cosplayers. But go ahead and keep the hammer and sickle pin: after all, there’s nothing wrong with having fun while you do it.