Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 1, 2009

Said Sayrafiezadeh: When Skateboards will be Free

Filed under: anti-Communism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

So says Said Sayrafiezadeh in a New York Magazine interview. His newly published memoir “When Skateboards Will Be Free” recounts his youthful misfortunes as the son of two members of the Socialist Workers Party in Dickensian terms. Like Oliver Twist, he was on the receiving end of Fagin-like parents forcing Marxist politics down his throat while denying him  the constitutional right to own and love consumer goods, including a lowly skateboard.

Said Sayrafiezadeh: David Horowitz wannabe

Now, to my everlasting regret, this is a group that I belonged to for 11 years. As much as I dislike this sect, after reading a longish excerpt from Sayrafiezadeh’s book four years ago I almost felt like rejoining. No matter how much distaste I have for vanguardist posturing, it is dwarfed by men who get erections over a television set.

For reasons having everything to do with this great nation’s ideological insecurities and nothing to do with the book’s literary merits, it has garnered worshipful reviews in two of the most important ruling class newspapers. As befits today’s date, April Fool’s Day, the N.Y. Times review states:

Growing up in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, the author was a good little revolutionary, at least on the outside. When asked by a friend’s father, during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, what he thought of the situation, the author automatically replied (the caps are his): “I SUPPORT THE STRUGGLE OF THE IRANIAN WORKERS AND PEASANTS AGAINST U.S. IMPERIALISM.” This is not how you win friends and influence people in Pittsburgh.

Well, of course. To win friends and influence people, you regurgitate the ruling ideology of society, like how big television sets give you an erection or how illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs. Or, better yet, how the dirty Iranians are working feverishly to build nuclear weapons that they can launch against Israel and the U.S. because they hate Americans and their 32 inch television sets and other freedoms.

Movie inspired by Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir

The Washington Post’s Sunday Book Review was just as giddy over the book, although spending fewer words. Here is the review in its totality:

Said Sayrafiezadeh learned early and often the sacrifices — and conflicting principles — that come with being a revolutionary. His mother, a member of the Socialist Workers Party (and sister of “Bang the Drum Slowly” novelist Mark Harris) inflicted her ideology on her son at a young age. In solidarity with the United Farm Workers, she forbade him to eat grapes, leading the 4-year-old Said to steal the fruit, with his mother’s tacit approval, while sporting his “Don’t Eat Grapes” button. “I would stand leisurely in front of the mounds of grapes as if they were a buffet and I was considering my options,” he recalls in “When Skateboards Were Free.” The lesson, he explains, was ingrained: “desire + yearning = theft.” (For his mother, the calculus was more complex: “desire + yearning + theft = revolution.”)

Sayrafiezadeh looks back with wonder, even humor, at the many difficulties he faced in his childhood, the no-grapes rule being the least of them. In one unnerving scene, his mother leaves him in the care of a man she knows only as a fellow party member, who sexually abuses him. Despite his mother’s strong presence, at the center of Sayrafiezadeh’s story is his father, an Iranian math professor and socialist who left the family when Said was an infant and whose infrequent reappearances are marked by political lessons and tough love. But Sayrafiezadeh maintains a generous spirit throughout this eloquent memoir. Over dinner with his father one evening, Said even banters about his own job with one of America’s most successful capitalists, Martha Stewart.

I first ran into Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir when an excerpt appeared in Granta four years ago. It included the business about being molested. I scanned in the Granta article and posted it to a Yahoo mailing devoted to exploring the rather sick politics and culture of the Socialist Workers Party, which you can read here.

You will discover there how the book got its title:

On one occasion I mustered the courage to ask my mother to buy me a skateboard (they were all the rage at the time) and she took me to Sears to have a look. In the middle of the sports department was a bin filled with skateboards in bright bubblegum colours. A sign read $10.99.

‘Once the revolution comes,’ my mother said to me, ‘everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.’ Then she took me by the hand and led me out of the store. I pictured a world of long rolling grassy hills, where it was always summertime and boys skateboarded up and down the slopes.

Now I didn’t know Martha Harris, but I really find it hard to believe that the conversation between the two occurred in exactly this way. There is just something a bit too robotic about her response, calculated to convince the reader that these socialists lacked human feeling and compassion. This is not to speak of the doubt I have over a $10.99 skateboard being beyond her reach. After all, this is not like asking for a pony. But who knows.

All in all, this memoir is geared to the same market niche as David Horowitz’s “Radical Son”. As was the case with the Sayrafiezadeh’s, for Horowitz “Almost all conversation in our household was political, other than what was necessary to advance the business of daily life.” Horowitz was warned off baseball, “a form of capitalist exploitation,” and especially the Yankees, “the ruling class of baseball”. “To root for the Yankees,” as Horowitz did, “was to betray a lack of social consciousness that was unthinkable for people like us.”

Now I don’t object to somebody writing crude caricatures of Marxists if it helps them to sell a book. After all, we have survived 150 years of this kind of mudslinging hardly the worse for wear. As the New York Magazine is anxious to point out to the celebrity author, people have been “ranting about capitalism’s dying days” lately. When millions of people are losing their jobs and their homes, it does tend to make Marxism a bit more trendy than it was when Mr. Sayrafiezadeh was working for Martha Stewart.

Of greater concern to me is the charge of molestation, to which the N.Y. Times refers:

He is molested by a party member, in a scene he typically underplays. (When his mother reports the molestation, a party functionary shrugs and says, “Under capitalism, everyone has problems.”)

So, here we have it. The SWP not only forces children to go without skateboards, it shrugs it shoulders when they are buggered. What trash.

Whatever the faults of the SWP in this period, it would not tolerate child molestation. Male SWP members of long standing were expelled for using violence against their female companions so sexual abuse of a four year old would not go unpunished. This group might have had its problems, but this was not one of them. It is entirely possible that Said Sayrafiezadeh was abused, but it is impossible that such a crime would have been shrugged off using Marxist jargon. This bit of nonsense might appeal to the anti-Communist prejudices of N.Y. Times reviewers, but it is patent nonsense.

If the SWP was guilty of anything, it was turning into such a suffocating cult that the child of two of its members would turn into such a vengeful fabricator. Let’s hope that in the revolutionary party of the future we can create an environment where parents and children can relate to each other normally. I should qualify that by saying as normal as can be expected in bourgeois society, which the revolutionary party has to operate in.

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