• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Socialist Chic

July 2018

Given enough time, fashions do have a tendency to fade. Sometimes, they do so quickly. More often, though, their dissipation is slow. One can pray for the former but expect to hold out years, months, days, maybe even generations for the latter. One can hope for a merciful end to a fad, for a prompt fate like that visited upon the “Soulja Boy” dance circa 2010. I can still remember, all too vividly (and shamefully, if I’m to be frank), the side-to-side hopping, the sporadic “cranking” of the arms and shuffling of the legs—a dance by whose simplicity and popularity I was completely entranced. Thanks be unto the muses and their readiness to forgive, smiling as they do at our brief loss of tone and musical taste, for ensuring that the fad quickly faded away.

Equally as swift and merciful was the coup de grâce experienced by the men’s romper onesie. Blink, and you might’ve missed it—and all the more envious of you I’ll admit to be. However, if in need of a mental image, a re-casting of the general design, I’d be willing but not so very happy to oblige. It was an emasculating, unflattering garment that plunged from the wearer’s Adam’s apple and didn’t stop there. It continued without pause through his waist, obviating the need for a belt, ending its journey too soon at the mid-thigh. No one wants to see above a man’s knee. It was a piece of clothing in whose single stitches and ambi-genderous threads uncertain boys bestrode the gentler, comelier sex and her opposite—namely, their own. It’s since become a rag in the closet of sartorial history, where forevermore it should remain.

Such as they were, those fads left us rather in haste. Other fads fade away recalcitrantly. Other fads, in taking their leave, are stubborn and slow. Amongst this second group of fads we list not only dances, but philosophies; not only clothing, but ideas. Less innocuous, as equally hideous, yet—above all—much more odious than the men’s romper onesie is the Ché Guevara shirt. It’s sartorial, philosophical, blasphemous and modish all bundled into one.

Bewilderingly, it’s become something of a vintage American tee—an essential accessory to nearly every wardrobe of every dissident in every city across the U.S. It competes now with such classic American styles as Nike sneakers and cuffed Levi jeans. In fact, one often finds standing before him a strange and newfangled combination of someone donning all three: from heel to head, such a sight entails the shoes born of an athletic entrepreneur from Oregon, the jeans of an industrious German-American Jew, and the shirt of a quixotic communist with a with an equal capacity to proselytize and to kill.

Behind that Argentinian doctor’s defiant stare is a story untold. However, ask any proud contrarian on whose breast that image of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara beats, and it’s almost certain he’ll hazard no response as to what exactly that story might be. He’s thus caught in a matrimonial affair, succeeding, as it were, in marrying his dissidence and his stark ignorance—solemnizing a dangerous and unenlightened union. Ask again how it is he goes along touting Ché’s image and he might with umbrage reply, it’s just plain cool. Can’t you see? Wearing his face on this shirt—it’s simply socialist chic.

Yet it’s to say nothing of those horrible ideas for which Guevara stood—and, as circumstances often demanded of him, for which he indiscriminately slaughtered as well.

Already disillusioned with the medical career upon which he’d only recently embarked, Ché darted on a motorcycle from his native Argentina to somewhere, anywhere, far afield. An ambitious, if not entirely naïve soul, he sought greener pastures and poorer peasants beyond the slums of Buenos Aires he already knew. He wanted to have an impact on the poor worker’s plight outside of his hometown—some virgin soil where seeds might grow.

He found such a land and such peasants—burdened with their endless travails and burnt by the Mesoamerican sun—in the crop fields of Mexico. It was to them, these impecunious field hands and laborers, that he’d determined to preach his gospel in hopes of inciting a communistic second-coming of Marx. He was intoxicated with dreams of a proletarian revolution that would leave capitalism in the dust. And just as were those gospel fathers in the early days after Christ, Guevara was a Trinitarian in the truest sense of the word: Marx the father, Lenin the son, and Stalin the unholy spirit and ghost were those mighty figures at whose feet he prayed. To visit Trotsky’s final place of rest, the “Blue House” at nearby Coyoacán where the affectionately named “Old Man” was slain, would be a socialist’s pilgrimage, a devotee’s hajj. His was a zealous allegiance and philosophical devotion to these men—at once a religiosity and a rationality not often equaled nor shared amongst lesser educated or infatuated men.

Armed with this trilogy of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology, Ché’s goal was to join in the fight for the rights of the oppressed—of whom in Mexico, as in most of Latin America, there were many. Both Mexico specifically and Latin America more broadly were as they remain today; relatively poor, remarkably unstable, and restlessly endeavoring for improvement and for change. In his transition from Argentinian physician to Mexican agrarian—learned university man to shovel-toting farm-hand, he hoped to make these improvements and visions real.

But the wheel of history took an unexpected turn. Failing to rally the Mexican proletariat as he’d so enthusiastically dreamed, Ché found himself instead imprisoned beside another young, dashing, and highly-educated professional with a revolutionary streak. Ché the doctor met Fidel the lawyer, and the history of Cuba and America, of a dictatorial regime and a democratic republic, of the Caribbean and the continent separated by the accident of a mere ninety miles, was never to be the same.

Though no ideologue himself, Fidel understood communism’s appeal. He wasn’t an acolyte of Marx, nor a great admirer of Lenin, nor a student of Stalin, but he was at root a man of action. There’s no doubt that he saw in himself that quality in the last two of these three. The February and October Revolutions, the purges, the gulags, and the coups—these were masculine punches to the status quo sallied by a “man of steel” (this was, of course, the self-aggrandizing, though not unapt meaning of the name, “Stalin”) and his fiery-eyed predecessor Lenin (whose party name was less imaginatively derived from a Siberian river) that he could get behind. He saw in communism a form of governance by which he alone could impose his will. He could nationalize production, antagonize the U.S., enrich himself, and immiserate his people all while intoxicating them with the plume of his sexy Caribbean cult of personality. What’s more, he could go on his merry way and “liquidate”—to borrow a term from that man of steel’s endless lexicon of euphemisms—those who looked askance at him and his regime.

One could go on and on in re-telling the horror show that is socialism—in theory or in practice. And really, one should. The foregoing merely scrapes the page and touches one scene. It doesn’t even come close to finishing a single chapter on the unmitigated disaster that is Castroism, let alone the other “-isms” (all subordinate to Marxism) that bedeviled humanity before and since. It says nothing of the international fever that Marx concocted from his head, the worldwide illness that for decades raged from Beijing to Bucharest, from Moscow to Prague to Havana to East Berlin—born of a pen in a library rather than a pathogen in a laboratory. It speaks not to the ideological plague of the twentieth century, whose infection nips at us still, and whose recrudescence, god forbid our inoculation fails, patiently awaits to come back in. It says nothing of the millions of people bled dry—intellectually, culturally, and literally—by the combined efforts of Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ceaușescu, Castro, Minh, and Kim.

That said, for young Americans, socialism is an idea they can’t quit. Less a fad than a style, it’s a modish concept from whose grip they can’t step away. And as the French handbag designer Yves Saint-Laurent once famously quipped, where fashions fade (and thus fail) style remains. Style is forever. His words have never rung so true. Since 2016, the Democratic Socialist Party of America has seen its membership swell by 30,000 devotees. Even as I write today, its numbers grow. Querulous though they might seem, these nouveau-socialists have been undoubtedly successful in building their base. They’ve attracted fellow travelers and massively broadened their appeal. Perhaps, the popularity of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders anticipated this growth, and we didn’t take his own ascent seriously enough. Now, in his wake, there’s a passage that’s been cleared a way. His message resonated with America’s youth, for whom socialism is but an egalitarian expedient—far superior to the crass capitalism of their parents. Many are therefore eager to carry the Democratic Party along this primrose path.

Yet again, they see it not in the context of history. Instead, they think it wears well today. But like Soulja Boy and male rompers, socialism is ill-fitting in the extreme. We must ensure that it remains forever a fad, and nothing more—one long since passed its expiration date. Socialism has spoiled, after all, and we’d be foolish, not to mention fashionably senseless, to consider it once again chic.

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