Debs in Love

Debs in Love

Comrade Gene Debs: even to those Americans who can identify the name, it sounds antiquated, conjuring up a political culture that died long ago. It is difficult today for anyone (including, and maybe especially, anyone on the left) to utter “comrade” without a touch of irony. Partly, the word is one of the linguistic casualties of the twentieth century, with its links to communism, double-speak and cold-war movies. But “comrade” also sounds strange in an American political world that lacks much sense of enduring, universal affection. The battered trade union movement can still address its members as “brothers and sisters.” So can organizations based in churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as black organizations generally. Although badly frayed by years of bickering and posturing, “sisterhood” is still cherished in corners of the feminist movement. Yet such usages usually connote a designated American subgroup and mark the continuing fragmentation of the old, bold culture of comradeship. Only once in recent years have I heard the word spoken with complete sincerity, when an émigré intellectual told me how much he enjoyed attending editorial meetings where he could meet with the “combraids.” How sweet, how odd, I thought—but then, I reminded myself, he is an Englishman.

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