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Drying my mother’s tears

Socialism is out of the closet and part of America’s everyday life

Do you remember where you were on November 9th,1989? That’s the day it was announced the Berlin Wall had fallen. The day is etched in my memory like where I was on February 28 during the Nisqually earthquake or September 11, when the World Trade Center Towers collapsed.

Louis and Norma Epstein at the New York World’s Fair circa 1964

Not everyone celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall

The weather in November can be miserable but that day in 1989 was mild and pleasant. It wasn’t raining. The news spread quickly. Everywhere people were talking about the end of the Iron Curtain, embracing each other, happy and congratulatory. It seemed to be great news among my peers and people of all ages. For the first time in my life I fantasized about traveling to Eastern Europe and visiting countries like Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Maybe I could visit Budapest one day.

It was all revelry until early evening when I arrived at my mother’s home for a dinner engagement. The first thing I noticed was that the curtains were drawn, though it was still daylight. Few lights were on. When I saw my mother, her face was puffy and I realized she’d been crying all day alone in her house.

A generation fighting for social justice as Party members

I should explain that I’m a “red-diaper” baby. The term doesn’t have anything to do with my actual infant diaper. It refers to the fact that I’m the child of parents who were members of the Communist Party USA. My parents met at a meeting of the Young Communist League (YCL) in New York City in the early 1940s. The YCL recognized the Communist Party USA as the party for socialism in the United States and operated as the Party’s youth wing.

Both my parents were first generation Americans who came of age during the Great Depression. In the face of economic collapse, my parents came to believe in the rights of union workers to organize, in social and economic justice, in civil rights and in world peace.

In 1963 they took their young family to the March on Washington where we witnessed Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. My father used to say the most radical thing a person could do was to have children and raise them with love so they would grow up to emulate their parents’ political beliefs. In that way my parents succeeded. Maybe there are red-diaper babies who grew up to be Republicans and Wall Street bankers, but I did not. I’ve considered myself a socialist all my life.

Fighting for justice and equality — subversive and unAmerican

I couldn’t talk about my family history while my parents were alive. I’d been sworn to secrecy. My parents spent much of their lives deathly afraid of anyone finding out their political beliefs. They had lived through the so-called “Red Scare” in the 1950s. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in a series of highly publicized Congressional hearings accused business and political leaders and many other individuals of being Communists or Socialists, engaged in subverting the government. In 1954, he was discredited by CBS news journalist Edward R Murrow and censured by the Senate.

But McCarthy had already ruined the lives of many Americans and convinced a nation that socialism was evil. The House Unamerican Activities Committee went on attacking people for their political beliefs until it was finally disbanded only in 1975.

Arguing for socialism—still scary after all these years

McCarthy’s tactics persist to this day. Senator Lindsey Graham recently accused four Democratic Congresswomen of being “communists.” Republicans just released a video that opens with Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) in a photograph that’s being set ablaze. While the photograph burns, a voice intones,”This is the face of socialism and ignorance. Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know the horror of socialism? …. forced obedience! starvation!” The message is clear: AOC is ignorant, socialism is evil and Ocasio-Cortez should be burned like a witch for promoting it.

Coming out as a believer in socialism

I was born in 1957, about a month after Senator McCarthy died. I didn’t experience the red-scare directly and I am proud of my socialist history. Yet because of my parents’ palpable fear of retribution, it’s not something I felt I could speak about until after they had passed.

Now I would argue that socialism is not a bad thing—it makes sense to have certain economic and social functions performed by our government and subject to society’s goals. When profit is not the main object, goals such as a living wage, universal health care, fair employment, etc. can be part of an enterprise.

It’s clear that the United States economic structure is neither purely capitalist nor socialist but a hybrid. Like a car that uses both fossil fuel and electricity to propel itself, the USA is built of capitalist and socialist elements. Coffee is provided by a private corporation and organized to make a profit—think Starbucks. But there is a long and varied list of services Americans enjoy that are supplied by government owned entities and not driven by the profit motive.

Some news for Senator Graham and his friends

The US military is the biggest socialist program on the face of the earth and our government spends billions of our tax money on it. Think Joint Base Lewis McChord. Roads, highways and bridges are completely taxpayer-funded and government owned and maintained — free to everyone who drives anywhere or eats foods grown elsewhere. Government-employed Air Traffic Controllers see to our safety at government-owned airports. Other examples: police and fire departments, libraries, public schools, colleges, and universities, museums, national, state and municipal (city) parks.

In addition to government-owned institutions there are many other services provided by government that reflect elements of socialism. These include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, farm subsidies, food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs, education subsidies like Pell grants, to name just a few.

If you live in the City of Olympia your garbage, sewer service, and water are all municipalized, which means they’re provided by the government according to social goals and not to make a profit. In a word: socialist! About half of Washington State residents get their electricity from public utility districts (PUDs). These electric utilities are owned by the local citizenry who elect commissioners to make policy and oversee operations. Unlike utilities owned by private investors, PUD rates don’t include a profit to be sent out of the community in the form of dividends to stockholders. Instead, even with low rates, PUD jobs pay well and the community benefits directly from improvements to the system.

My mother’s tears were for a socialist future she thought was lost

Back in 1989 I asked my mother why she had been crying all day. She said that the symbolism of the Iron Curtain falling meant that capitalism had won. All her youthful idealism had been for nothing; she felt utterly defeated and depressed. I always knew my mother was a socialist, but she rarely discussed those days with me as an adult.

I saw my mother in a whole new light that November evening. I really didn’t know her as well as I thought, and I will never forget that day because of it. All her life she wanted to live in a world that was fair for working people. A world where all could achieve the American dream. A world where everyone had access to healthcare and good wages so they could raise a family and live without fear of persecution because of their race, ethnicity or religious beliefs.

I wish I had been more aware and educated at the time so I might have relieved her suffering. The truth is, many of the socialist ideals she fought for are alive and well and baked into the American economy regardless of what gets reported in the corporate media. Next time you are enjoying your commute to work on public transportation, paying your sewer bill, visiting Mt Rainier National Park, or cashing your Social Security check remember that you are benefiting from socialism.

Jon Epstein was born in New York City and moved to Olympia in 1975. He earned a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College in 1981. He worked for six seasons as a federal forest firefighter and also with the Washington legislature, DSHS, and the Dept. of Corrections.

 

2 Comments

  1. Diana Moore November 2, 2019

    Jon, kudos for this heart-felt article. Your mother was obviously a generous-minded and thoughtful person My mother, too, ran in Communist circles in the 40’s in Montgomery, Alabama of all places. As far as I know, she never joined the Party, but held on to the ideals you express above all her life.

  2. dale baird November 6, 2019

    Thanks Jon, I will be sharing your thoughts with others.

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