A Great Beginning: Communist Saturday & Alternative Cultural Spaces
”Frente a estos valores “civilizatorios” se levantan resistencias. Los cuerpos se transforman en trincheras, las palabras en acciones, las teorías se replantean, las prácticas se reconstruyen, lxs individuxs transformadxs en colectivxs, los sentidos y sentimientos se agudizan, la calle es el espacio de encuentros fraternos y de enfrentamientos con el poder “
“The bodies are transformed into trenches, the words into actions, rethinking the theories, practices are reconstructed, the indviduals transformed into collectives, senses and feelings are intensified, the street is the space of fraternal meetings and confrontations with the power”
– “Otra cultura posible y necesaria,” comrade from Balcarce, Argentina writing on the possibility and necessity of an ‘alternative cultural space’
I’ve been meaning to write something substantial about my experience in Argentina for some time now, but it wasn’t until very recently that I felt that I could consolidate my thoughts into one place. Even still, it will be difficult if not impossible to convey the real value of what I learned. My hope is that this writing will serve as a resource for future organizing and a catalyst for reflection. If this mere recollection of a lived experience can loosen the grip of atomizing misanthropy or inspire new ways of thinking about social and personal change, even by a small amount, then this will not be in vain. The latter, I believe, will reinforce the former.
Finally, I cannot overstate how lucky and privileged I am to even have had this opportunity. Recognizing this privilege, I feel it would be simply unconscionable to keep to myself the knowledge I have gained from it. With that said, I’ll start from the beginning.
I spent roughly four months in Argentina on a study abroad program, from March to June of this year. I lived with a family in the upper middle-class parts of Buenos Aires, Capital Federal. It’s important to note that I had never spent time outside the United States before this, my Spanish was terrible and I was basically that gringo.
Fast-forward to the end of March and it’s the weekend of the “Day of Remembrance”. This is one of the most important days in Argentina, when people remember the 30,000 communists, labor activists and complete bystanders that were killed and disappeared under the Videla dictatorship. Videla came to power in 1976 in a military coup that brought new repression and violence in the name of a “return to security”, very typical of right-wing authoritarian regimes in Latin America. Although there were armed left-wing groups (Monteneros, ERP) who fought to defeat the regime, it wasn’t until the failed war in the Malvinas that Videla finally caved.
On that weekend, some American friends and I decided to go to Mar Del Plata since we had extra days off class. MDP is a small-medium sized beach town in Buenos Aires province, about 4 or 5 hours away from the capital by train.
When the six of us arrived in MDP, I think on a Friday, my state of mind was mixed. Politically, I felt about as alienated as I have ever been. We all know how bad the political situation in the States was, and that feeling of hopelessness only sank further into me when I was submerged in the conservatism of my host family. MDP was going to be an escape from that, and politics generally. This was going to be a “get drunk and hang out at the beach all weekend” type of trip.
It’s now about eight or nine o’clock at night in MDP on the Day of Remembrance and I’m walking through a market area with a couple of friends. We start hearing a loud voice over a PA system in the distance, so we head over to check it out. Then I see this:
and a whole demonstration of the Argentine Communist Party. Naturally, I’m kind of excited and the urge to talk to someone was huge, but I kept hesitating. I still don’t know why it took so long but eventually I just walked up to someone and said “Hola, soy una Marxista”. They ask where I’m from and when I say los estados unidos every head turned to me. Genuine disbelief, and honestly I don’t blame them. They tell me the demonstration is in solidarity of the communists lost during the dictatorship. So I’m sort of struggling to convey any kind of meaning with my horrible Spanish and finally ask if anyone speaks English. At this point a small semi-circle of people were kind of crowding around when a woman came up and said “Yes! I’m a translator.” So we started translating back and forth, learning and teaching new words, etc.. After a while she asks me if I want to go to their headquarters with them to have drinks and choripan (choripan owns). Why not?
This is the headquarters:
We sat on the rooftop terrace for at least 3 hours that night, talking, drinking, smoking. There were about 30 of us give or take, people from around the city and elsewhere and most were members of “La Fede” (FJC), the youth wing of the Communist Party. We talked about Obama, Libya, Chavez, liberal democracy, Kirchner, the Simpsons, the recession… pretty much anything. After people start leaving, they tell me that tomorrow is Communist Saturday and that they would like me to join. At the time I had no idea what that was but I was interested so…
Communist Saturday. This is really why I wanted to make this post. I went back to the commune that Saturday and greeted everyone in the meeting room which looks like this:
We have lunch together (an amazing lunch) and continue talking about a whole lot of things. After a while one of the members says “we really need to start working. We’re here talking, and they are up there working!” They explain to me that Communist Saturday, modeled after the Soviet Union, is every Saturday. The members get together to work on the commune, clean it, repair and build new things. The objective today was to clear off the rooftop terrace.
Now, I don’t have a before picture, but the terrace was pretty much littered with all kinds of junk, scrap metal, wood planks, etc. I took one look at it and thought “this is going to take all day and night.” I was very wrong. Almost organically, people started moving, lifting, hauling, sweeping… no one was really in charge, men and women shared tasks… if someone was struggling, two would come to help. If someone gave directions or commands, they were expected to follow those commands as well. I just asked to be put to work wherever and went at it. All the while, we kept talking, joking, and generally having a good time.
After no more than two hours I felt tired but also revitalized. The sense of working toward something rather than for something, with over a dozen people sharing that labor – and it’s fruits – collectively triggered in me something I had never experienced before. It was more than just household labor, where one person produces a surplus for others to reap. It was collective from start to finish, no exploitation, no hierarchy. Add to that the knowledge that you are participating in building communism, in the concrete and personal sense. I told a member that I was amazed by this and she said “Well, this is communism. Every Saturday.” And the terrace looked amazing:
So we celebrated our labor with some mate and smokes:
I found out here that this commune used to be an abandoned house that the Party bought. When they found it, it was an absolute disaster. But every Saturday they worked on it, knowing that, despite the difficulty, they could turn it into something positive. The next project was to rebuild a room downstairs and turn it into a sort of alternative cultural center: a place for music, radical books, theater, etc. These are all models that have been repeated by the Party throughout the country. Underlying each project is the philosophy that communism is built, shared, defended and advanced in every area possible: culture, politics and every day life. It is just as much a personal and private transformation as it is social. As one comrade put it: “Everyday of your life must be revolutionary in some way, some how. This commune didn’t just appear, it was built piece by piece.” I am not a very good communist but when I remember this I have to ask myself: am I building or destroying? I think for too long we have been thinking “anti-capitalism” and not enough about what the next world will look like. More importantly, are we going to build it or is it going to be built for us? Right now I think it is the latter, but we can change that. It is in our muscle, nerve and minds.
What did Lenin have to say about the “Communist subbotnik”? He records in a Pravda article titled “A Great Beginning” that:
“There is no doubt that we have far more organising talent among the working and peasant women than we are aware of, that we have far more people than we know of who can organise practical work, with the co-operation of large numbers of workers and of still larger numbers of consumers, without that abundance of talk, fuss, squabbling and chatter about plans, systems, etc., with which our big-headed “intellectuals” or half-baked “Communists” are “affected”. But we do not nurse these shoots of the new as we should.
Look at the bourgeoisie. How very well they know how to advertise what they need! See how millions of copies of their newspapers extol what the capitalists regard as “model” enterprises, and how “model” bourgeois institutions are made an object of national pride! Our press does not take the trouble, or hardly ever, to describe the best catering establishments or nurseries, in order, by daily insistence, to get some of them turned into models of their kind. It does not give them enough publicity, does not describe in detail the saving in human labour, the conveniences for the consumer, the economy of products, the emancipation of women from domestic slavery, the improvement in sanitary conditions, that can be achieved with exemplary communist work and extended to the whole of society, to all working people.
Exemplary production, exemplary communist subbotniks, exemplary care and conscientiousness in procuring and distributing every pood of grain, exemplary catering establishments, exemplary cleanliness in such-and-such a workers’ house, in such-and-such a block, should all receive ten times more attention and care from our press, as well as from every workers’ and peasants’ organisation, than they receive now. All these are shoots of communism, and it is our common and primary duty to nurse them. Difficult as our food and production situation is, in the year and a half of Bolshevik rule there has been undoubted progress all along the line: grain procurements have increased from 30 million poods (from August 1, 1917 to August 1, 1918) to 100 million poods (from August 1, 1918 to May 1, 1919); vegetable gardening has expanded, the margin of unsown land has diminished, railway transport has begun to improve despite the enormous fuel difficulties, and so on. Against this general background, and with the support of the proletarian state power, the shoots of communism will not- wither; they will grow and blossom into complete communism.”
“It is precisely proletarian work such as that put into “communist subbotniks” that will win the complete respect and love of peasants for the proletarian state. Such work and such work alone will completely convince the peasant that we are right that communism is right, and make him our devoted ally, and hence, will lead to the complete elimination of our food difficulties, to the complete victory of communism over capitalism in the matter of the production and distribution of grain, to the unqualified consolidation of communism.”
And this report of how much more effective this communist organization of labor really is:
“How the work is done at these communist subbotniks is described by Comrade A. Dyachenko in an article in Pravda of June 7, entitled “Notes of a Subbotnik Worker”. We quote the main passages from this article.
“A comrade and I were very pleased to go and do our ’bit’ in the subbotnik arranged by a decision of the railway district committee of the Party; for a time, for a few hours, I would give my head a rest and my muscles a bit of exercise…. We were detailed off to the railway carpentry shop. We got there, found a number of our people, exchanged greetings, engaged in banter for a bit, counted up our forces and found that there were thirty of us…. And in front of us lay a ’monster’, a steam boiler weighing no less than six or seven hundred poods; our job was to ’shift’ it, i.e., move it over a distance of a quarter or a third of a verst, to its base. We began to have our doubts…. However, we started on the job. Some comrades placed wooden rollers under the boiler, attached two ropes to it, and we began to tug away…. The boiler gave way reluctantly, but at length it budged. We were delighted. After all, there were so few of us…. For nearly two weeks this boiler had resisted the efforts of thrice our number of non-communist workers and nothing could make it budge until we tackled it…. We worked for an hour, strenuously, rhythmically, to the command of our ’foreman’—’one, two, three’, and the boiler kept on rolling. Suddenly there was confusion, and a number of our comrades went tumbling on to the ground in the funniest fashion. The rope ’let them down’…. A moment’s delay, and a thicker rope was made fast…. Evening. It was getting dark, but we had yet to negotiate a small hillock, and then our job would soon be done. Our arms ached, our palms burned, we were hot and pulled for all we were worth—and were making headway. The ’management’ stood round and somewhat shamed by our success, clutched at a rope. ’Lend a hand, it’s time you did!’ A Red Army man was watching our labours; in his hands he held an accordion. What was he thinking? Who were these people? Why should they work on Saturday when everybody was at home? I solved his riddle and said to him: ’Comrade, play us a jolly tune. We are not raw hands, we are real Communists. Don’t you see how fast the work is going under our hands? We are not lazy, we are pulling for all we are worth!’ In response, the Red Army man carefully put his accordion on the ground and hastened to grab at a rope end….”
““The first communist subbotnik in Tver took place on May 31. One hundred and twenty-eight Communists worked on the railway. In three and a half hours they loaded and unloaded fourteen wagons, repaired three locomotives, cut up ten sagenes of firewood and performed other work. The productivity of labour of the skilled communist workers was thirteen times above normal.”
“This new discipline does not drop from the skies, nor is it born from pious wishes; it grows out of the material conditions of large-scale capitalist production, and out of them alone. Without them it is impossible. And the repository, or the vehicle, of these material conditions is a definite historical class, created, organised, united, trained, educated and hardened by large-scale capitalism. This class is the proletariat.
Clearly, in order to abolish classes completely, it is not enough to overthrow the exploiters, the landowners and capitalists, not enough to abolish their rights of ownership; it is necessary also to abolish all private ownership of the means of production, it is necessary to abolish the distinction between town and country, as well as the distinction between manual workers and brain workers. This requires a very long period of time. In order to achieve this an enormous step forward must be taken in developing the productive forces; it is necessary to overcome the resistance (frequently passive, which is particularly stubborn and particularly difficult to overcome) of the numerous survivals of small-scale production; it is necessary to overcome the enormous force of habit and conservatism which are connected with these survivals.”
This is really one of my favorite pieces by Lenin and is worth reading in whole.
I told them that I want to recreate this model in the US. I’ve since found out that the Communist Party does similar things but not this extent. Plus, its CPUSA. They’re practically all Feds. Can we (not just LF, I mean in general) do this in the States? I think so.
Back to Argentina. Later that day we worked on posters that would be posted at the local university. Some examples:
Also, later that night I asked them to write down some of their marching songs for me. They decided to give me a demonstration and…. well:
Guess which one is me 🙂
I’m gonna end this here. In another post I’ll talk about the organizing we did at the University when I came back, if there is enough interest! Thanks.
Un abrazo revolucionario.