I hated my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Carson. This was probably very unfair, because she really was just trying to get with the times, which were a changin’. Without revealing my advanced age, let’s just say that she was prone to having us discuss our feelings, world events and asked us what our “bag” was. I thought she was ridiculous and would complain about her being a phony, because after all, she was a middle-aged woman and looked like someone’s mom, not a young thing with frosted hair and go-go boots (like Miss Terry). One morning, I was chatting with my friends in the school bus and we started dishing about Mrs. Carson. As I warmed to the subject, Carrie—who lived in an gated community known for excluding minorities—had a scoop. She lowered her voice to a whisper: “My dad says that Mrs. Carson is….a communist!” In Orange County, California, this was tantamount to announcing that Mrs. Carson participated in satanic rituals.
I was taken aback. Not only did I doubt Mrs. Carson was a communist, but I was flummoxed by the use of the word as an insult. If she disapproved so whole-heartedly of WASP-y Mrs. Carson, what would she think of my parents, lefty Jews from New York City? Was being a communist really that bad? Did they even really exist? After all, none of us had ever seen one.
Imagine my amazement when a couple of years later we were living in France (thanks to my father’s sabbatical leave) and we went to lunch at my mother’s cousin’s house. A cousin who was…a communist! Favik had come to France from Poland before WWII to study medicine, and his doctoring skills and various strokes of luck helped him avoid being deported by Vichy. He sure didn’t look like a communist, whom I had imaged all being grey and thin and serious. He was fat and jovial and lived in a big house in Argenteuil. In fact, he seemed to have lots of money. “How can a communist have lots of money?” I asked my dad, who waved me off as he parked the car.
Since then, I have learned that in France, you can be a communist and still have fun. You can have a good job and lots of money, you simply have to vote and talk a certain way in certain situations. A dinner with a communist need not involve Molotov cocktails but simply alcoholic ones, especially now that the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall only exist as material for historic spy novels. Aside from a supporting role during the social explosion of May of 1968, the masses of communists in France were never much of a threat to the established order, even if they did and do continue to march in the streets at the first whisper of a labor dispute.
Because even if they have lost all semblance of political clout (though the party keeps huffing and puffing along), the communist spirit is alive and well in France’s powerful labor unions. And perhaps that is as it should be. Someone has got to at least shout back at the Captains of Industry, who have so clearly taken over the show on a global scale. And while they can be painfully earnest (take a gander at the prose at Lutte Ouvrière), being French, they still know how to enjoy themselves. A while back a friend of ours who has the unenviable chore of being a union representative at IBM, brought us a unique bit of paraphernalia from the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), the country’s largest trade union. It’s a bottle opener (décapsuleur) with a metal bit that starts to play the Internationale when it comes into contact with a bottle cap. I gave one to my younger brother as a gift, but the poor guy didn’t recognize the tune. Ah, the days of revolution seem to be far behind us. Or are they? Who knows what might be required after the startling election results of last night. It’s enough to make you want to start humming the opening lines…hey, come to think of it, this stanza sounds rather timely:
Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We'll live together or we'll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We've but one earth on which to live