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We're Not Comrades

wuming's picture

Originally Posted at Occupy Oakland Media
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 ??. 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 ????: “ideals/aspiration are identical,” and there was also an example phrase– ???????????: “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.

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danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

drags violent baggage behind it may be a feature and not a bug. Those who embrace it might well embrace the violence (or potential for violence) it implies. I'm not really inclined to think it's simply ahistorical ignorance, though that too may exist. And come to think of it, if ahistorical ignorance does exist, it likely also does so as a feature and not a bug.

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

What we all really want is economic and social justice, and a political system that empowers everyone. Whether or not a government or reform strategy is used to get there is irrelevant at the core. Unlike, for example, Democrats, whose value system begins and ends with their personal political power over everyone else.

that said I do agree that the use of the word 'comrade' is creepy... I have a friend who uses it and it weirds me out a little every time, even though I know her politics.

Submitted by lambert on

... is an interesting data point and I think revealing.

Maybe I'm still angsting over tax day, but I can't think of a pleasant example of such forms of address; the French Revolution used "Citizen" IIRC.

It's strange to me that Occupy participants haven't come up with something less retrograde and tinged with #FAIL, because there are so many genius (not irony!) innovations in communcations: People's mic, the gestures (twinkle and other).

Is a new form of address perhaps not needed at all? Or should there be a different one? The great Marge Piercy, in Woman on the Edge of Time, used "per" (person) instead of "he" or "she," but I can't remember a form of address. Thais use khun, person (along with a ton of other honorifics in their very stratified society). I'm instancing that because I wonder if there's a Buddhist form of address.

I guess what creeps me out is that "comrade" (unlike "citizen," modulo considerations of racism, the nation state....) is not universal. It does not recognized, explicitly rejects, shared humanity. Instead, it's in-group/out-group. If prefigurative, I want no part of that prefiguration.

Thoughts to ponder: Prefiguration forms of address. Other than "Hey you," I suppose. On the flip side, the fascist side, I wonder what forms of address DHS agents are trained use? We might consider inverting them.

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

"I guess what creeps me out is that "comrade" (unlike "citizen," modulo considerations of racism, the nation state....) is not universal. It does not recognized, explicitly rejects, shared humanity. Instead, it's in-group/out-group. If prefigurative, I want no part of that prefiguration."

That's kind of it right there. It's a recurrent phenomenon with Occupy (which is probably good)- refusing to self-identify because it would imply some kind of limit. Other than "We Are the 99%" which is more of an argument or aspiration than it is an identifier (no one says, "Greetings, member of the 99%"). Just as calling someone "per" just seems silly, because it implies that there might be a time when you're talking to someone who's not a person...

Along similar lines, one thing that Occupy hasn't done is demonize individual people irredeemably- i.e. Bloomberg is Mayor 1% but that doesn't mean we intend to chop his head off. The logical conclusion to this is that if individuals are not to blame, then the problem must be systemic, which is a much healthier and more productive line of thinking. But calling people "comrade" implies this "if you're not with us, you're against us" worldview that's out of line with Occupy's values.

Another example of one of these things is the IWW, in which anyone who is eligible to join the IWW (i.e. laborers and the unemployed, not managers or capitalists) is referred to as "Fellow Worker," in a way that implies a high level of respect and solidarity. However the IWW also has a 19th century class analysis (although they also generally don't think it's necessary to kill the bourgeoisie and kulaks, since seizing control of the means of production would annihilate their power anyway), which does not account for the fact that many people today, particularly those in the young precariat class, do not see themselves as "workers," both because the Modern/New Deal idea of a steady job is dead and because we (speaking as a member of this class) don't aspire to this Syndicalist idea of "carry(ing) on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown". Work is what you have to do in order to be able to do what you want to do; why would we define ourselves by the thing we hate to do? Or, if there are ways of making genuinely productive activities enjoyable (for example, how many people grow plants as a hobby? If they're doing the same thing but food instead of flowers, and they enjoy it just as much...), is it really "work"? Or is it just life? And then how silly would it be to call people "Fellow Liver"?

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

but then, I have a very different set of contexts for the word. I don't know anyone here in Hong Kong who doesn't either use it 1) tongue-in-cheek or 2) in a very old school, bookish, almost nostalgic way, the way that Cornel West calls everyone he meets "Brother.." or "Sister".

Actually, the one person I know who uses it a lot in that fashion spent 11 years as a political prisoner in China.

As for "tung ji"--well, the way it is most commonly used here, outside the small circle of Marxist/Socialists I hang out with, is as a very wry synonym for "Gay".

"Comradeship" has a nice ring for me, actually. It speaks of a more purpose driven, less private relationship than friendship, and has a nice echo of the word camaraderie, of shared good times.

Maybe we should reclaim it.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

It basically means "those who share the room" rather than "those who have reached agreement on the practical grounds of the ultimate outcome." It's about being together rather than thinking alike. It has a history of international working class solidarity.

One the one hand it's the boogeyman who scared the ruling classes of the western industrialized nations into allowing the development of labor rights and social welfare measures. On the other hand it's the boogeyman gibbering about mass graves to keep us all from taking much real power from those ruling classes. It's a good word like "liberal" that has been successfully vilified, so you're probably right to avoid it. But I think that's too bad, since it's another instance of the way the rulers constrict our thoughts by constricting our language..

JoeInSF's picture
Submitted by JoeInSF on

It's not inclusive, since a good chunk of folks in the country aren't citizens. And they tend to be towards the bottom of the 99% who do the hardest work for the least money.

I agree with the sentiment, but given the current situation i wouldn't call the term inclusive.

JoeInSF's picture
Submitted by JoeInSF on

It's a great, and in its highest meaning the clearest way to refer to "those with whom we are in this together". I remember when "citizen" was a common way to refer to members of We The People. Along the way it was supplanted by insipid terms like "consumer".

I'm just saying that like "comrade" the term has its own history and connotations, "citizen"can bring up different meanings for different people. Something to keep in mind.