THE BOOKS THAT LINED THE SHELVES in my mother’s home, and that, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape my worldview, were almost entirely about war and written almost entirely by communists. There were Marx and Engels, of course, and Trotsky (not Stalin), but there were also quite a few other authors, hovering on the margins of the canon, such as Farrell Dobbs and George Breitman, less talented and lesser known, who would have been read, and published, by the truly initiated, namely members of the Socialist Workers Party. And because my mother was herself an avid reader, a former student of English literature who as a young woman had once dreamed of becoming a novelist—before being thwarted by a failed marriage, three children, and clinical depression—there could be found, occasionally, an anomaly wedged in between these other books. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony comes to mind. How it made its way onto our bookshelf, and, more to the point, how it remained, I have no idea. If there were other examples, and I’m sure there must have been, I cannot now specifically recall them.
The reading of fiction, discouraged by the Socialist Workers Party, as most pursuits of pleasure were discouraged, was something that my mother undertook with considerable guilt and shame. There was, after all, the always urgent, always unceasing task at hand, to prepare for the imminent working-class revolution—a cause that should not be forestalled by the demands of an individual’s inner life. Thus, I would see my mother in the morning, just before she left for her job as a secretary, sitting in the living room reading, for a few minutes, one of the novels she’d checked out of the library. Later, though, it would be back to the ever-growing piles of appropriate books, pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, which explained, without flinching, the abysmal state of our world and what you must do to help rectify that state. To this end, there was always more to read, and there was always more that you should have already read.
It would be easy, however, to overlook the fact that communist literature is itself fictional, and, like most good fiction, bears, at least intermittently, some resemblance to the particulars of our real world. There is, foremost, the desperation of the toiling many, alongside the indifference of the privileged few, and rounded out by the inability, ever, by anyone, to find a lasting solution. The general plot points have not differed since the publication of The Communist Manifesto, nor has the language—proletariat, bourgeoisie, peasantry—but the story has always been soaring. And there was, truly, ever only one story. Never mind how the tale begins, it’s the ending that matters: a communist revolution, in which we once and for all find ourselves suddenly, miraculously, inhabiting a peaceful, flawless world. The Communist Manifesto, composed by Marx and Engels with erudition and insight—witness their survey of feudalism and modern industry—also includes a healthy amount of wishful thinking. “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all,” they write, “is its own grave-diggers.” The grim communist narrative, in other words, is not only grim, and my mother, who may have appeared to be confronting a cold, hard reality in those books on her bookshelf, was actually escaping from it.
Yet, before this final glory of ours, there must first be war. Not just any war, but never-ending war on a global scale. War being, of course, an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism in crisis. The literature taught well to expect the unhappy sequence of a second Great Depression, followed by a third world war that will dwarf the wars that have preceded it, followed by, if we were truly unlucky, fascism, followed, finally, by the rising up of the working class. These horrors to come dovetailed nicely with what had already arrived, i.e., the various military engagements that the United States was involved in during the years of my childhood, including those in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and the long stalemate with the Soviet Union. It would be hard to disprove at least some of the dire predictions of those books when all around us it seemed we were heading in that direction. In the spirit of other, more playful literary genres, like satire or science fiction, the literature of our household was not only exaggerating but also reflecting something that was already very real. It was also reflecting the state of our own broken family, with missing father and unhappy mother. Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war. The fiction, as nightmarish as it might have been, provided me with solace: If war was what we had to go through in order to finally achieve a splendid life, then the faster we could begin the better. So, for instance, when the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the Socialist government, the sadness that my mother and I shared was tempered by the understanding that of course things would be playing out this way, since Marx taught well that capitalism can only do what is in its nature to do. The years of my childhood brought more of the same, which is to say, more war, economic crisis, but no workers’ revolt, and eventually my mother, exhausted and disillusioned, resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and purged our household of its communist literature. Our best-laid plans had not come close to being borne out. But it’s not so easy to abandon one’s fantasies, and even as the years passed, and my mother tried, and failed, to become a writer, and I engaged in some decidedly capitalist behavior, like owning my own home, we occasionally found ourselves, at the beginning of yet another war, entertaining thoughts that the gravediggers would soon arrive. Still, we dreamed.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author of the story collection Brief Encounters with the Enemy (Dial Press, 2013).