We’re Not Comrades

We’re Not Comrades Last week, I wrote about the tension between personal and institutional loyalty. This week’s blogpost will discuss the term comrade, and why I think it’s outgrown its usefulness.

I’ve heard people at OO throw the term comrade around often, and it’s always made me uncomfortable. There are three reasons for this. One is personal; to me it always sounds forced. Another reason is that the use of the term assumes something that is in fact not true [common orientation]. Most importantly, the term comrade comes with a lot of baggage– if we really want to build a new social movement, we should discard it.

When I first started hearing people at OO use the phrase comrade, I found it jarring. This is because the last time I had heard it used was really when I lived in Beijing in the late 1990s. I learned Chinese as a foreign language while I was an undergrad. I remember that we used a series of books that were authored by the mainland (Communist) government during the 1980s, and in the first few lessons we were introduced to “comrade” as a term of address. In Mandarin, the word for comrade is tongzhi or 同志. Our instructors were quick to tell us that the term was no longer in common use, and some of them took a moment to chuckle let us know that it was something only used by “old people.” When I lived in Beijing in the 1990s, it was something I only heard from old people. I do remember one time when the head of the summer language program gave a speech at the end of the program, and he addressed us all as “tonzhimen”, i.e., comrades. It was actually pretty touching, as he talked about international cooperation and his warm feelings towards foreigners who chose to come to China and learn the language in his program.

Speaking of language, I always understood tongzhi to actually mean “sharing the same mind.” When I sat down to write this blogpost, I thought I would dig out my old etymological dictionary (Ciyuan, 1996, Commercial Press) and look up the meaning. One meaning given (and I’m translating, please forgive my crappy Chinese) was 志向相同: “ideals/aspiration are identical,” and there was also an example phrase– 同德则同心,同心则同志: “the same values lead to the same heart, the same heart leads to comrades.”

By this definition, then, those of us involved in Occupy Oakland are far from comrades. I think it is pretty clear that we don’t all share the same ideals or aspirations. Yes, we are all together dissatisfied with the current political-economic order. Yet, at the same time, we are far from agreeing about what we want as a desired end goal. I’ve talked with a lot of people involved in Occupy Oakland. Some people want a few minor changes to the system. Others want a new form of government, and others want to eliminate government altogether. I’ve therefore, always felt uncomfortable when someone got up on the mic and started talking about “our comrades,” since, really, we don’t all share the same aspirations. This is why , to me, the use of the word “comrades” seems forced, because people at OO don’t all share the same end goals. Certainly having the desire to change the current system does produce some unity, but that is negation and not creation. The real question still remains, what do we really want?

Yes, I want to see a unified and strong political movement that can challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Yes, I want to see an end to rent-seeking behavior by financial institutions. Yes, I want to see a political-economy that allows all people to thrive and share in the wealth of our nation.
For me, I can say that one thing I don’t want is to rerun the 20th century history of deeply flawed leftist revolutions. Just as we know the flaws of the current financial sector driven system, so too do we have ample evidence of the way that revolutions have taken the hopes and dreams of well-meaning intellectual idealists and turned them into sad epitaphs on tombstones– for the lucky ones. For the unlucky ones found their final resting places in unmarked mass graves. Like it or not, the word comrade is loaded with those implications.

That is why I say that the word “comrade” is one that we should cast aside.  Instead, I prefer to use either brother/sister, or compatriot.  Brother and sister, though, to me, are more than just words, but are representative of bonds of personal obligation and loyalty.  For people with whom I do not have a close personal connection, but perhaps share a political orientation, I prefer the term compatriot.  Compatriot has two meanings.  From Merriam-Webster, the  first meaning is a person born, having citizenship or residing in the same country as another.  The second meaning is a companion or colleague.   For those of you who, like me, are involved in this movement because of your concern over the direction of our nation, then the word compatriot should sit well with you.  I know that there are  those of you who reject the very idea of a nation state, but even, then the word compatriot should not wear hard on your spirit; for at the moment, we are all living here on this land, call it what you will.

If we really want to do something new here at OO, then we should be willing to discard old dogmas about what revolution means, and what a change in political economy really looks like. We can start by recognizing our limits, and indeed, the limits of the earth that sustains us. That will be my next blog entry– Seeking Limits.