I first encountered socialism during the 1960s, reading a small book by Sidney Hook entitled “Marx and the Marxists.” I studied it carefully, thinking that I understood most it, with the exception of a few minor points. I certainly learned to express a socialist indignation over the escalating outrages committed against Black’s in America’s former slave states, the injustices of gender stereotyping and patriarchy on women, and the country’s latest imperial adventure in the Western Pacific, the Vietnam War. The baseness of America’s consumerist culture was sufficient to provoke a 30-minute tirade.
Thus, I became skilled at uttering just the right “Marxisms,” at the just right political moments, to the just right people; depending upon circumstances. Nevertheless, as I read and thought more about Marxism, that initial confidence in my comprehension of it alarmingly dwindled. I continued to find Marx’s “dialectics” steadfastly obscure, and the complexity and detail of Capital bewildering. Even after considerable effort, I still felt like an initiate; but resigned myself to a worldview understood vaguely, but somehow deeply appreciated.
Attending college, I began associating with students who, unlike me, had experienced more routinely and directly the debilitating effects of capitalism. Together, they bore the wounds of economic insecurity, police corruption and brutality, restricted access to quality healthcare, patriarchy, and crumbling public schools staffed by beleaguered faculty and staff. These injustices were first endured silently, but later became the steel from which determined socialist revolutionaries were being forged. By genuinely sharing our personal experiences, fears, hopes, and revolutionary ideas, we galvanized a socialist solidarity that would soon be critically tested.
Anti-war sentiments were spreading and political actions on campuses were becoming commonplace and more dangerous. When Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam War to include the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, protests flared across America. The already tense political situation became unmanageable in May 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired on protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine. For student activists, the killings confirmed a fear that they were now in the murderous crosshairs of a capitalist war machine. Compounding that grizzly reality was an insatiable military draft threatening to serve the lives and limbs of thousands of young Americans at an imperial blood fest in Southeast Asia.
This alarming situation molded my “theoretical” Marxism into an increasingly revolutionary socialist practice. My long-standing anti-war sentiment became publically manifest when I applied for, and was granted, the draft status of a “conscientious objector available for noncombatant military service.” Later, I joined with communist, feminist, and Black Panther students to organize a student strike against the War and its economic and social roots. Employing practices developed at other campuses, we successfully shut down and occupied the university. Being a CO, I educated draft-eligible students on the law regarding conscientious objection and alternatives to military service. I also helped to organize a CO student support group, provided printed information about conscientious objection, and helped fellow students begin the process of applying for CO status with their draft boards.
Graduating from college in June, I became eligible for military induction, and in September, I was drafted. After basic training, I was assigned to Ft. Polk Louisiana for advanced military occupational training. It was there, in the heart of an unrepentant former slave state, that, for the first time, I encountered abject poverty. I was astonished that such wrenched conditions remained untreated in a state whose flag bore an image of a “pelican in her piety,” a symbol of Christian charity. During training, our troop buses passed through areas where Blacks lived in unpainted shacks, with deteriorating roofs, and no doors or windows. Forgotten and hopeless adults, and children playing naked in deserts that passed for front yards, stared expressionless as we passed. There were no vehicles, no streetlights, and no fire hydrants. This image poverty was overwhelming.
After military training, I was assigned to the US Army’s Second Infantry Division at Dongducheon, South Korea. As a socialist, I immediately recognized South Korea as a poster child for imperialist domination. Again, I was struck by the low standard of living, although by Louisiana standards the Koreans were faring reasonably well. This was because the neighboring US military base provided the town with significant income. Shops and clubs flourished, and young Korean women catered to lonely and bored GIs. Poverty and the lack of economic opportunity invited some women into sex work, an enterprise that was encouraged and, in part, administered the Korean government. Wishing to maximize the economic opportunity that camp towns offered, President Park Chung-hee (who gained power in a military coup with President John F. Kennedy’s blessing) “marketized” sex work, implementing legal protections and supporting regulations. Park appropriated the existing network of older female mama sans as managers of the supply chain, who were also expected to provide food and shelter to their newly minted sex employees. The government now celebrated sex workers as “dollar-earning patriots.”
Ironically, Koreans recalled the Japanese occupation during World War 2, when poor Korean women and girls were “coaxed” or intimidated to serve as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers. Now, under US capitalist domination, South Korea marketized sexual services, creating a well managed and profitable supply chain that enabled a legalized and jingoistically rebranded sexual coercion and wage slavery. Therewith, GIs and “tourists” poured a billion dollars into the Korean economy.
Then there was racism.
Camp towns, not unlike neighborhoods in Louisiana, were racially segregated between Blacks and Whites. The clubs in the Black areas were physically inferior to White establishments, and the names of some Black clubs were racially insensitive. Service was poor, and racist sentiments among some Korean women and management aggravated an already tense situation.
By 1971, the draft seized increasing numbers of Blacks that were radicalized by racist repression at home. Inspired by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, they began to demand an end to the segregation of GI clubs. On July 9 1971, Black GIs rose up against discrimination at Camp Humphreys, destroying some club and engaging in street fights with local Koreans and the US military police. The protests soon spread to other military bases, including the American Eighth Army headquarters at Yongsan in Seoul, where I was then stationed.
Although Black GIs and Korean women remained trapped in a web of capitalist exploitation, each group benefitted from the courageous protest. The Korean government and the US military banned the racial segregation of GI clubs, and upgraded their facilities and operations. Authorities improved village streets, worked to improve race relations, and expanded sexually transmitted disease (STD) training and medical care for the workingwomen and GIs.
Political experience gained through confronting capitalism “point blank” combined with a working theoretical understanding of socialism can provide a nuanced and rich understanding of the mechanisms of oppression. Together, they simultaneously challenge naive political viewpoints based upon indefensible and reactionary racial and gender binaries. This fusion of theory and practice can encourage the development of a sensitivity to a systemic oppression comprised of multiple “intersecting” social maladies, including racism, patriarchy, and militarism. It also recognizes the internal drive of capitalism to “alienate” human beings from the means of their own self-sufficiency and self-actualization. Nevertheless, it also cautions us to remain careful not to “over determine” oppression “mono-causally” with reference to capitalist production and its social relations.
David Harvey, in his book The Limits to Capital, reminds us that when it comes to capitalist exploitation and oppression, “everything relates to everything else.” Certainly, my experiences demonstrate this. They also reveal the political value of understanding oppression both collectively and individually. By sharing personal incidents of oppression, people can together fashion a more practicable political understanding of the domination they commonly experience, while also appreciating conditions unique to specific social groups. Such conversations develop a sense of comradeship that fosters understanding and empathy; weakening that cycle of fear, mistrust, and ignorance that perpetuates human conflict and suffering.