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The Nicest Thing He Ever Owned – The Newcomer – Chapter 2

Note: this is Chapter 2 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“Here’s your new phone,” said Lam, seating herself across from Tucker. “How’s your sandwich?”

The canteen of the Welcome Center was filled with other migrants. Most of them were from the USA. Tucker recognized a few of them from his convoy. They looked a lot different, now, cleaned up and sporting new clothes. He figured he must pretty unrecognizable, himself, after his first fresh shave and hot shower in over a week.

Tucker grabbed the phone, looked it over. He never cared much about phones. His old BlackBerry was in the stiff hip pocket of his brand new Levi’s jeans.

“Thanks,” said Tucker, placing the new device on the table. “It’s good.”

“It’s one of last year’s models, but when you get to Oakland we should be able to sort you out with something newer,” said Lam.

“I was talking about the sandwich,” said Tucker.

“Ah,” said Lam. “Probably not as good as the barbecue you have back in Atlanta.”

“Not quite,” said Tucker.

Lam placed a blue folder in front of Tucker.

“They want us to handle most of this stuff electronically,” she said, “but I thought you might prefer hard copies for some of this stuff.”

Tucker wiped his hands with his napkin, dabbed the corners of his mouth, then reached for the folder. Lam sat back and folded her hands over her side of the table.

“So, now you have your visa, your provisionary commune membership in Fischer Park. That’s the same neighborhood your cousin lives in,” she said.

“Did you talk to her?” asked Tucker, his eyes snapping up to Lam from the blue folder.

“I did, briefly. She wants you to call her.”

Lam glanced at the new phone. It was sitting next to Tucker’s lunch plate, now dusted with crumbs and smeared with remnants of coleslaw. Tucker picked up the phone, eyes running over it as he tried to figure it out.

“Here, let me help you,” said Lam, reaching for the phone. She pressed a few buttons, swiped at it a few times. “I’m putting her in your contact list.”

After a few moments she handed it back towards Tucker. “It’s ringing.”

Tucker seemed a bit frantic as he cupped the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice strained. It was still ringing.

“Hello?” said his cousin, after a couple more rings.

“Carla? Is that you?”

“Marvin?”

“Carla! I’m here! I’m in Denver!”

Lam noticed that Tucker’s hand was shaking as it gripped the phone. She stood up and touched his shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said, stepping away.

“How’s Curtis?”

“Curtis didn’t make it over,” said Marvin. “They got him down in Dallas, I think.”

“They say you’re coming to Oakland?”

“Yeah,” said Tucker, “Yeah, they’re gonna put me in… Fischer Park, it says.”

“That’s right, we’re gonna be neighbors. You call me when you get on the train, okay?”

“I will if I can figure out how to use this damn phone,” said Tucker.

“Still ‘Old Man Marvin,’ I see,” said Carla. “You gotta take some computer classes.”

“That’s what they keep tellin’ me. And I keep tellin’ ‘em I ain’t interested in that stuff. All I need a phone to do is make a call.”

“Now you be nice to them people, Marvin,” said Carla. “They’re tryin’ to help you.”

“I been takin’ care of my own damn self for thirty five years, now,” said Tucker. “I don’t need no help from nobody.”

“Things are different, here,” said Carla.


“Passport?” asked the customs liaison. She wore a simple gray uniform that looked a lot more comfortable than the stiff new blue jeans Tucker had on.

Tucker looked at Lam.

“In your folder,” said Lam. “It’s black and red.”

Tucker fumbled with the folder and finally found the little booklet, handed it over. The customs liaison compared the photo with his face for a few moments, then smiled and handed it back to him.

“Anything to declare?”

Tucker looked at Lam. Lam shook her head. Tucker looked to the liaison and shook his head. “No, ma’am.”

“Welcome to the Union of American Communes, Mr. Tucker,” said the liaison.

Marvin stepped past her, out into the lobby of the Welcome Center.

It was a massive space, and the walls were giant windows. In the center of the lobby was an enormous silver statue of a dove. It reminded Tucker of some of the hood ornaments of very old cars he’d seen, working as a mechanic in his youth.

There were people rushing about all over the lobby. Some of them wore the same gray smock-like uniform as the customs liaison. Others were wearing plastic ID badges like Lam wore in the breast pocket of her sport coat. But most of them were wearing brand new Levi’s.

“Let’s take you shopping,” said Lam, striding up to him from the entrance gate.

“Oh, I’d just assume get to the train station,” said Tucker. “I don’t especially need nothin’, right now.”

“Your train doesn’t leave for four hours,” said Lam. “We have some time to kill. You’ve been fidgeting ever since you got into those blue jeans. And I need a new pair of running shoes. C’mon.” She started walking toward the exit doors without looking back. He followed, crumpling his face in annoyance.

The air was hot and dry and the sun was dazzling as he stepped outside for the first time in over twenty four hours. He stumbled along behind Lam into a wide public square. There were vendors everywhere selling drinks, candy and snacks, souvenirs and toys.

Lam grabbed a bottle of water from one of the vendors without stopping.

“Don’t you gotta pay for that?” asked Tucker, perplexed.

Lam laughed. “I told you, we don’t use money here.”

She handed him the bottle. It was ice cold.

“So these people just sit around all day handing out stuff for free?” asked Tucker.

“It’s their work assignment. And it’s how I got my start, doing what I do now.”

“By handing out bottles of water?”

“Yes, actually. Right here, in front of the Welcome Center. It was sort of a summer job, while I was in college. I loved the way it felt to help new folks. Give them some water, give them directions. Seeing the looks on their faces — like the look on your face, right now. That’s what made me decide to get trained up as a Welcoming Coordinator.”

“I still don’t get it,” said Marvin, though he cracked open the bottle and took a long drink.

“You’ll get the hang of it,” said Lam. They came to another enormous building. The facade had the appearance of carved sandstone, with a dizzying network of motifs of farmers, construction workers, dozens of little faceless people at labor in gallantly stylized poses. A giant marquis was chiseled above the entranceway.

“The Free Market,” Tucker read aloud.

“It’s kind of a joke,” said Lam, glancing at Tucker. “Do they have those, back in Atlanta? Jokes, I mean?”

Tucker rolled his eyes. They stepped inside, blasted by frosty air conditioning. The place reminded him of a Wal-Mart, if Wal-Marts were designed to look like museums on the outside. There were a few dozen aisles sprawled out in the massive space carrying items ranging from groceries to clothes to furniture. Lam lead him to the clothing department, which was front-and-center. “Find yourself some pants you like,” she said, “I’m going to the shoes.” She pointed to the shoes.

Tucker nodded, and began walking through the racks. It was so much like a department store back home, but it was very different somehow.

“No prices,” he muttered to himself. That was it. He stepped up to a rack of slacks and examined them. They all had little tags attached to them, but the tags were blank. Just had those little microchips that stopped shoplifters, it seemed like. He found a pair of khakis that looked okay and went to the dressing room. There didn’t seem to be anyone around to watch him go in, which made him feel strange.

Inside the dressing room there was a sign that read: “Feel free to wear your new clothes out of the store, but please do not remove inventory tags until you exit the building.”

He tried them on and decided to keep them. As he walked out of the dressing room, a woman walked up to him, wearing a bright yellow vest that said “Customer Service.” Tucker felt an instinctive rush of anxiety, assuming he had somehow gotten himself into trouble, but she was flashing a pretty genuine-looking smile.

“Would you like me to put those in a bag for you?” she asked, reaching for the Levi’s he now had draped over one arm.

“I… Well, I don’t really think I’ll be holdin’ on to them,” he said.

“That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll make sure they’re reconsigned.”

She took the jeans, smiled again, and walked away.

He walked over to the shoe department and found Lam struggling with a pair of Nikes. His friend had a pair of black market Nike high tops back in high school, and Tucker had always wanted a pair of his own. Now here were stacks and stacks of brand new Nikes, just free for the taking.

“I think my left foot is bigger than my right foot,” said Lam. “Oh, those look a lot more comfortable. You kept the tag, right?”

“I read the sign,” said Tucker.

“Alright, good. There’s no limit on what you can take, they just need to keep track of inventory.”

“What if someone wanted to take, like, a hundred pairs of pants?”

“I hope they have a big closet,” said Lam. “But why would anyone want a hundred pairs of pants?”

“They sell them shoes back East. Go for a lot of money,” said Tucker, pointing at the Nikes she now wore. She stood up, taking a few steps to get a feel for them.

“That stuff happens from time to time. It’s a breach of contract, of course.”

“Breach of contract?”

“The contract you sign with your commune. If you don’t wish to abide by the non-negotiable terms, you can always leave. But if you agree to a contract and then breach it there will be consequences.”

“I know all about that, Ms. Lam. I been locked up before, like I wrote down on the forms.”

“Oh, god,” said Lam. “It’s nothing like that. There hasn’t been a jail or a prison West of the Harman-Cleveland line in over a century.”

“That’s true?” said Tucker. He let that sink in for a moment, then asked: “So how do y’all punish criminals?”

“What does punishment solve? We try to prevent problems, first and foremost. And when we fail at that with someone, we try to rehabilitate them.”

“Some folks can’t be rehabilitated, Ms. Lam.”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.”

“How?”

Lam was unlacing the Nikes, now. She looked up at him, puzzled. “How?”

“Like, say someone goes crazy, kills a bunch of folks. Y’all ain’t gonna put him in no jail, so what are y’all gonna do?”

“We,” said Lam, “will put him in a hospital, or a rehabilitation center. Try to find out the cause and look for a solution.”

“What if there ain’t no solution? Some folks is just plain crazy, Ms. Lam.”

“It is true that there are some people we haven’t figured out how to help, yet,” said Lam, “but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Some people do spend their entire lives confined to rehabilitation, and that’s very unfortunate. But at least we try to help them recover.”

“Sounds like jail, to me,” said Tucker.

“It’s nothing like jail. Some of my clients are undergoing rehabilitation, and believe me when I say we try to do everything we can to help them to reform.”

“Still don’t make no sense to me,” said Tucker.

“Give living here a chance before you make up your mind about us,” said Lam.

“Guess I ain’t got no choice,” said Tucker.

“Choice,” said Lam, “is sacred, here. Should I go with the blue or the black?”

“They say that back in the States, too,” said Tucker, bitterly. “Blue, I reckon.”

“Give us a chance to prove we’re different than the States,” said Lam, placing the pairs of Nikes back in their respective boxes. “I think you’re right. I’ll go with blue.”

A few minutes later they were strolling back towards the exit. Lam stopped at a jewelry display.

“I noticed you don’t have a watch,” said Lam.

“Oh, I don’t need no watch, Ms. Lam,” said Tucker, hovering towards the exit.

“Come on, you’ll be traveling for a couple of days. Don’t want to miss any trains, do you?”

“Those look expensive,” said Tucker, realizing that his vocabulary had yet to adapt to this new reality that was forming around him.

“I think my husband has this one,” said Lam.

The watch she held up was black-faced and dainty, elegantly braceleted in stainless steel. Marvin looked at it like it had just grown six legs.

“No, you’re right, maybe this one,” she said, holding up another model that was a bit more simple: plain white face, bold black numerals, brown leather strap.

He tried it on. It felt solid, well-made… expensive. He just didn’t have any other word for that.

“I don’t know, Ms. Lam. I ain’t never worn no wrist-watch, before, ‘cept an ol’ Casio when I was a kid. I don’t usually go for fancy stuff like this.”

“There’s nothing fancy about having a nice watch, here, Mr. Tucker, or a nice pair of shoes, or a nice home. Or a big-screen TV, or a nice long vacation. You plan to do your part to help out once you get to Oakland, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am, Ms. Lam. I done told you, I ain’t afraid of workin’ hard.”

“Then take the watch,” she said. “The bread has been secured.”

“Bread?”

“It’s kind of a saying we have,” said Lam. “It means ‘relax.’”

“I don’t get it,” said Tucker.

“Comes from a line of Kropotkin: ‘after bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim.’”

“Oh,” said Tucker, gazing down at his wrist. The name “ELGIN” was stamped cleanly onto the pearly face of the watch in bold, black letters.

“Consider it a gift,” said Lam. “A welcoming gift, from the city of Denver.”

Tucker smiled, just a little. “Alright,” he said. “And…”

Tucker stopped short, winding his new watch. It was the nicest thing he’d ever owned.

“What?” asked Lam.

“Aw, it’s nothin’. Let’s head over to the train station.”

“No, come on, tell me. What were you going to say?”

Tucker glanced at the shoe box tucked under Lam’s arm.

“You think I could get me a pair of them Nikes, too?”

Welcome to Denver – The Newcomer – Chapter 1

“What’s your name?”

“Tucker. Marvin Tucker.”

“You seem nervous.”

“Just tired. Took a long time to get here.”

“Well, you’re here now. Welcome to Denver.”

She pulled back a seat and gestured for Tucker to sit down.

“I’m Traci Lam, I’ve been assigned to be your Welcomer, which means I’ll also be your initial case worker. You can request a new case worker at any time and for any reason. Do you consent to me being your case worker?”

“Sure, yeah. Whatever that means.”

“Great. It just means I’ll be helping you adjust to life here. And with any problems you might have. Are you comfortable with disclosing your gender?”

“What? I’m a man,” said Tucker, surprised by the question.

“Some things are different here than where you came from. There are certain questions we have to ask. You’ll get used to it. So may I call you Mr. Tucker?”

“Go right ahead, Ms. Lam.”

She smiled.

“The first thing we need to decide is where you’re going to live. Of course, you’re welcome to stay here in Denver, but a lot of newcomers prefer to—”

“Oakland.”

“Oakland?”

“I have people in Oakland.”

“That won’t be a problem. The Oakland Communes are very welcoming to newcomers. Have you given much thought to what kind of contract you’ll wish to sign?”

“Contract?”

“I’m sorry, sometimes I get ahead of myself. Living Arrangement Contract. It’s an agreement you make with the commune to determine where you’ll live, what kind of contributions you’ll be making to—”

“Contributions?”

“Yes, Mr. Tucker, you—”

“Now, listen, Ms. Lam. I ain’t got any money. I told them folks at the border. I ain’t got no money.”

Lam smiled wide. “Neither do I, Mr. Tucker. None of us do. That’s not really how things work here.”

Tucker’s eyes widened.

“So that’s true? You people ain’t got no money here?”

“You’re from… Georgia, is it, Mr. Tucker?”

“Atlanta.”

“You’re a long way from Atlanta, Mr. Tucker. There’s a lot you’ll need to learn. When we talk about contributions we’re talking about work contributions. Of course, if for whatever reason, you don’t feel capable of working, then—”

“Well, I don’t mind workin’, Ms. Lam.”

“Of course you don’t.”

“I been workin’ all my life.”

“Of course you have. But we find that some newcomers have suffered physical or emotional stress that prevents them from—”

“I don’t mind workin’, like I said. But I don’t get how y’all get nothin’ done without no money.”

“The standard contract is pretty straightforward. You work 15 hours a week helping with essential labor for the commune. In exchange, you get a place to live, you get electricity, high speed internet, water, sanitation—”

“For free?”

“Well, yes, I guess. We don’t think of it that way.”

“What kinda work I gotta do?”

“There’s a lot of flexibility there. Most people choose to rotate their assignments on a weekly or monthly basis, so it doesn’t get too boring. Other people choose to specialize. I see here on your intake form that you have military experience, so if you wanted to, you could join our self defense service.”

“I think I’m all finished up with soldierin’, Ms. Lam.”

“Of course.”

“So what kind of work they want me to do? I been doin’ some carpentry, back in Atlanta.”

“If you enjoy carpentry you could specialize in it. Or you can just make it an assignment that you rotate into on a regular basis. We also have apprenticeship programs, educational programs, I have some brochures here that—”

“I think I’d like to keep on with carpentry, Ms. Lam. And I don’t mind doin’ other jobs, neither. I ain’t too picky ‘bout none of that.”

“Well, then, we’ll give you a standard contract with an emphasis on carpentry, for now. Of course, if you change your mind, you can submit a new contract at any time with your case worker.”

“That’s you, ain’t it?”

“Well, yes, for now, but once you get to Oakland you’ll probably want to select a local case worker.”

“Can’t I stick with you?”

“Certainly, we could carry everything out online. I do have a couple other remote clients.”

“I think I’ll be stickin’ with you, then, Ms. Lam.”

Chapter 2 is now available here.

The Little Known #MeToo Movement of Vietnam

By: Luna Nguyen

Ms. Nguyen is a Vietnamese writer and translator living in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pham Anh Khoa

Pham Anh Khoa is at the center of one of Vietnam’s first high profile sexual harassment scandals.

Over the past year, we’ve seen dozens of powerful and high-profile men fall from grace as their long histories of sexual assault have been revealed by women who are stepping forward thanks to the #MeToo movement. This movement began when Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet about their experiences with sexual assault to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Since October, 2017 the hashtag and the movement have gone viral around the world, with major #MeToo revalations in countries ranging from Kenya to Sweden to South Korea. Here in Vietnam there have been some ground-shaking revelations as well, though for the most part they’ve not yet been picked up by Western media. I worked with Vietnamese writer and translator Luna Nguyen to fill the English-speaking world in on some of the major scandals which have been making waves in Vietnamese society.

Pham Anh Khoa is a famous rock singer in Vietnam. He first climbed to fame when he won the first prize in a singing competition. He is married and has two children and maintained his fame in part because of his scandal-free life.

Earlier this year, he was a coach in the Vietnamese version of the reality show “It Takes Two.” After a few weeks, many of the singers on his team claimed he was irresponsible and unprofessional as a coach, but none of the women dared to give details in public.

Finally, on April 27th, a dancer named Pham Lich who was working with Pham Anh Khoa stepped forward and told her story.

Pham Lich was the first accuser to come forth about Pham Anh Khoa’s history of sexual harassment.

“In the time I was working with Pham Anh Khoa, he sexually harassed me through actions and words. When we were working together alone, he said things to me that were sexually aggressive,” said Pham Lich.

“He called me by an impolite nickname – “Lịch Chồn” (“Lịch the weasel”) – in front of many other people. He asked me to give him one year, and claimed he would ‘deal’ with his family and come to me after that.”

The dancer claimed Pham Anh Khoa was an abusive and unfaithful man and that he became increasingly abusive as time went on and she continued to reject his advances. She said that she wanted to come forward to try to create a “cleaner” working environment for female artists and to protect other women.

Since Pham Lich came forward, many other singers, actors, and actresses, both male and female, came forward to support her decision to step forward.

Of course there have been many many other people who have defended Pham Anh Khoa, in particular his male fans. They argue that it is normal for men to treat women in this manner and accused the dancer of lying to become famous. There have even been calls to boycott her and ruin her career.

She said she had nothing to lose now, and that she would tell more, explaining: “I am tired, but not afraid.”

Pham Lich says she is not afraid and will offer more evidence if necessary. Meanwhile, Pham Anh Khoa maintained silence about the issue, which the public began to take as a de facto admission of guilt.

Finally, after several days of silence, Pham Anh Khoa made an official statement. He denied all of Pham Lich’s accusations and announced that he planned to sue her for defamation, and said that he would face her in the court of law.

Pham Lich became very angry and said she had been threatened by many anonymous messages, phone calls, and emails from angry fans of Pham Anh Khoa. She said she had nothing to lose now, and that she would tell more, explaining: “I am tired, but not afraid.”

Pham Lich released more details about what had transpired between her and Pham Anh Khoa.

Pham Lich and Pham Anh Khoa

Pham LIch and Pham Anh Khoa pictured together.

They had worked together for only two weeks, during which time they had met seven or eight times. Pham Anh Khoa asked Pham Lich to go to his house to work, where he had a fully equipped recording studio. The first two or three times, she came during the day time, but Pham Anh Khoa slept the whole time and she had to wait for him for many hours. After a few of these episodes, Pham Anh Khoa insisted that she come at night because he was unable to focus in the morning. Because he was her coach, she felt she had no choice, and agreed to work between 9pm and 10pm. Many times when she came, there was nobody home except for Pham Anh Khoa. She said she was afraid, but decided not to ask why nobody else was around.

While working, Pham Anh Khoa usually asked her many personal questions. He asked if she had broken up with her boyfriend, if she was in a relationship, and what kind of man she preferred. He suggested that they “taste” each other. He tried to touch her back and her thighs many times. She tried to say “no,” but she was afraid to reject him too strongly out of personal fear.

Finally, she confronted Pham Anh Khoa, asking him, “Why did you treat me like that?”

She felt she had no choice but to continue coming to practice. Pham Anh Khoa once answered the door wearing a towel. She was very frightened and upset by this, and considered taking photos with her phone, but she was too afraid. She said she looked away and told him to go put on his normal clothes. She even decided to speak to Pham Anh Khoa’s wife about this occurrence, but nothing changed.

Finally, she confronted Pham Anh Khoa, asking him, “Why did you treat me like that?”

“Because you didn’t give me what I want,” said Pham Anh Khoa.

“So, what do you want?” asked Pham Lich.

“Even now, you still don’t understand?” asked Pham Anh Khoa.

Pham Lich says that Pham Anh Khoa’s wife was present when he asked these questions and overheard everything, but said nothing.

After those two weeks, Pham Lich asked to drop out of the show, and told the television studio that it was because he was sexually harassing her.

Pham LIch

Pham Lich risked her personal career and reputation to become the first woman to come forward in Vietnam’s #MeToo movement.

Pham Anh Khoa tried to play the victim in the aftermath of these private allegations, claiming that Pham Lich was destroying his pride and reputation. He tried to arrange a meeting with Pham Lich on two occasions. The first time, he asked to meet with her alone, but she demanded that his wife and the show’s producer and her friend be present. He did not consent, and so that meeting didn’t happen.

A bit later, he asked her for a meeting a second time. This time, she believed he would offer an apology, so she agreed to meet him alone, but ultimately he did not show up for the meeting.

Since Pham Lich made all of these allegations public, other women who worked with Pham Anh Khoa have come forward with stories of similar abuse.

One dancer accused Pham Anh Khoa of coming onto her in January of this year. She took screenshots of messages from Pham Anh Khoa texting her at midnight to come to his house, instructing her: “Don’t bring your boyfriend.” She said she and Pham Anh Khoa were not close enough to consider this a joke, and felt offended by the messages.

Many of Pham Anh Khoa’s male fans again dismissed those messages, saying it was normal behavior for a man.

After 15 minutes of terror, the stylist was saved when one of her friends came upstairs to change her clothes.

A few days later, a stylist who had worked with Pham Anh Khoa revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by him four years earlier on a business trip. When she was packing up to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Pham Anh Khoa said many vulgar words to her and became sexually aggressive. She tried to run upstairs but he followed her, grabbing her arms, and said, “You can never run away from me! I always have everything I want. The harder you fight, the more I like it!”

After 15 minutes of terror, the stylist was saved when one of her friends came upstairs to change her clothes. Somehow, Pham Anh Khoa’s wife found out about the incident and called the stylist in tears. Pham Anh Khoa blamed the stylist for the episode and demanded that she explain to her wife that it was all just a misunderstanding. The stylist was too scared to tell her story publicly and fell into a depression which required medication for over a year. Pham Lich gave her the courage to finally come forward with her story.

In a talk show with the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women, and Adolescents, Pham Anh Khoa apologized to his three accusers but continued to deny that he had done anything wrong. He claimed he didn’t know what was acceptable behavior towards women, and where those sorts of lines were drawn, because nobody had taught him. He said that in Vietnamese show business, clapping a woman on the butt was just a normal way of greeting.

The three women who accused Pham Anh Khoa were angered by his words, and said that nobody would agree that such a “greeting” was acceptable.

Fallout from the scandal has shaken Vietnam’s media landscape, spurring discussion of issues of sexual harassment and workplace abuse in this country. Rock’nShare 2018, a huge Vietnamese rock campaign, has broken ties with Pham Anh Khoa. The United Nations Population Fund has removed Pham Anh Khoa as its ambassador activist on the prevention of violence against women and girls in the country. All images of Pham Anh Khoa have been removed from the website and Facebook of the United Nations Population Fund.

Today Pham Lich is building Vietnam’s first #MeToo web presence.

Pham Lich has created an official fanpage to develop a #MeToo campaign in Vietnam. On the 14th of May, the Vietnamese version of “It Takes Two” fired Pham Anh Khoa and cut all of his images out of their broadcasts.

Most recently, Pham Anh Khoa held a news conference to apologize. He finally confessed to all of his wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness from the three accusers, from his wife, from his family, and from his fans. He also asked his fans to stop attacking the three women who came forward to shed light on his behavior and to let them continue their careers in peace.

Pham Lich accepted his apology and is still working to build the #MeToo campaign in Vietnam.

Nguyen Khach Thuy

Nguyen Khach Thuy is the retired former director of the National Bank of Vietnam.

The second story coming from Vietnam takes an even darker turn and centers around the former director of the Vietnam National Bank, 78 year old Nguyen Khac Thuy. In 2012 a three year old girl who lived near Nguyen told her grandmother that the retired banker had molested her. Nguyen was a very powerful figure both in terms of wealth and stature in the communist party, so her grandmother chose not to file a report because she feared it might negatively affect the victim’s future.

A couple of years later in April of 2014, another small girl was in her yard playing with her friends. Nguyen approached her and tried to molest her. The little girl’s father was informed by one of her friends what had happened. The father tried to confront Nguyen but he ran away. A month later, yet another little girl was in her room, leaning out of the window and talking to her friend. Nguyen suddenly ran up to the 5 year old girl and tried to violently hug her. When the little girl ran away, he changed his target to the girl she was talking to, and molested the child.

Nguyen attempted to appear frail and sickly in his initial court appearance.

One month after that, on June 19th, 2014, an Indian national identified as Mr. Vajay and his son witnessed Nguyen molesting a little girl at a park located within their apartment complex. Vajay photographed the activity to submit to authorities.

Finally, in July of 2017, Nguyen’s actions caught up with him. The parents of one of the victims decided to press charges. In court, the victim’s mother said that she did not witness the abuse with her own eyes, and the sole evidence was the testimony of the young victim and rumors of other girls who had been molested.

The victim’s family was threatened with an anonymous note placed on their door that read: “Be careful with the safety of your family.” The police checked the note and confirmed that it was Nguyen’s handwriting.

At his trial, Nguyen claimed his health had been too poor for him to commit these crimes. He presented himself as too weak to stand and walk, and fainted in court, needing medical assistance. It was quickly revealed that these claims of frailty were mere theatrics when photographs were presented to the court of Nguyen enjoying many physical activities in his daily life.

the judge decided to move forward with the trial and he was found guilty and given a three year sentence. Nguyen continued the theatrics, shouting angrily to the court that he would burn his communist party membership card and then burn himself. You can see video of that incident here:

 

Nguyen’s family appealed the court’s decision and his three year prison sentence was changed by a higher court to 18 months of probation. Part of the reason his sentence was lightened was that he had “made many contributions to the Vietnam National Bank,” which hints at the political power he still held.

What followed was, in the context of Vietnamese standards, pretty remarkable. A strong wave of anger swept through Vietnam. Reporters and private citizens expressed outrage that the court had essentially let a serial child molester off the hook in what was widely seen as a political favor. A month later, the Judges Committee of the High Court in Ho Chi Minh City reconcidered the case and reversed the decision, and re-sentenced Nguyen to three years in prison. Even more remarkably, the judge who had given Nguyen the lighter sentence was suspended from his position.

It should be noted that these actions are more or less unprecedented in Vietnam. This is the first time in our nation’s history that such a criminal trial has been reversed after an appeal, and judges are very rarely rebuked for decisions tied to political corruption. This shows that Vietnamese society is beginning to demand more accountability even from the politically powerful when it comes to matters of sexual abuse.

Nguyen Khac Thuy and his Victim

Nguyen Khac Thuy and one of his victims. Thanks to public demands for justice, Nguyen Khac Thuy received a final conviction for child molestation.

Before these stories came to light, many Vietnamese men believed that they held a higher position than women  If they were rich and powerful, they had no fear of consequences. Because these brave women and girls stepped forward, along with courageous journalists and reporters and government officials, Vietnamese women and children are finding new strength.

I would like to end by noting that I, personally, was sexually assaulted when I was just nine years old. Nobody taught me to protect myself or share my experiences. My parents tried to keep my innocence. There has also been a traditional belief that if a girl is sexually assaulted, it would bring shame to the family, and that no men would be interested in the female victims as wives in the future. For these reasons, my abuser never faced any repercussions. But these attitudes are changing rapidly thanks to the brave women and girls who came forward and told their stories to the public. Because of their bravery, today we Vietnamese women are learning that if we face abuse and harassment, we can speak loudly and our voices can be heard. This gives us hope for a brighter future for Vietnamese women and children.

What the hell kind of country is China? – China Rising, Part 1

In this series of articles, I am going to be digging into the the most populous nation on Earth and its ambitious plans for a China-lead future.

China is on the rise.

If you are a leftist, you need to be paying attention to China. Since the dawn of the 21st century, this giant of a nation has been expanding its reach across the globe and building power. Today China is fielding an ambitious package of foreign and domestic programs that will be grabbing global attention for years to come.

As the largest and oldest nation in the world to claim to adhere to communist principles, China centers heavily in reactionary propaganda targeting leftism. The Chinese Communist Party is used as a bogeyman to demonstrate the evils of communism by everyone from liberals to fascists and everyone in between.

But is the Chinese government even communist? That’s an issue that’s hotly debated, even within leftist circles. I’ve seen China labeled as everything from Marxist-Leninist to fascist to state capitalist. The liberal media simply labels them as “Communist,” but anyone with a basic grasp of Marxist communism should be baffled by the fact that there are so many flagrantly billionaire capitalists permitted to do business and turn profits within China.

China’s official state philosophy is described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

So what the hell is China? What terminology can best be used to describe the form of government and economy modern China has assumed?

China’s official state philosophy is described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That’s a pretty slippery description of a complex foundation of principles, ideals, ambitions, and, yes, characteristics that the Chinese state is built upon.

It’s not really surprising that there is no simple answer to this question, given the complex nature of Chinese social, economic, and political systems. Perhaps we can start with the process of elimination. What isn’t China?

Is China a Republic?

Chinese citizens can elect representatives, but only at the lowest, local level.

The official name of China is the “People’s Republic of China.” In a Republic, leaders are elected to represent citizens in a legislative body.

In China, elections are hierarchical. On the local level, Chinese citizens directly elect representatives to their local congresses. These local congresses elect higher officials, who in turn elect higher officials, and so on, up to the National People’s Congress, which currently consists of 2,980 people.

Technically it is possible for non-members of the Communist party to run for office. However, the Communist Party must approve any appointments to positions of power, so in practice there can never be a true opposition party to the Communist party beyond a limited local level.

What this means is that party membership is not necessarily required for local offices, but it is required to attain any higher level offices. In addition, Chinese citizens do not vote directly for national-level officials. They vote for local representatives who, in turn, vote for the higher levels of office.

This does, certainly, have Republican features. However, the Chinese Republic has many limitations: it is effectively single-party and highly indirect in nature when you get to the highest levels of national power. And, as we’ll see, the Chinese Republic may not be as democratic as it seems on paper.

Is China an Autocratic Dictatorship?

How much power does Xi Jipining really have?

It isn’t uncommon to see China described as a dictatorship, especially since the rapid rise to power of current president of China, Xi Jinping. To be sure, Xi is a powerful man with a complicated past that includes multiple rises and falls throughout his life before cementing his current position as head of the Communist Party of China.

Today, Xi has three primary official titles: as President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi is the head of state. This is a largely ceremonial position. As Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi is the commander and chief of the armed forces of China. But Xi’s real font of power is his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Since China is in practice (though not officially) a single-party state, the leader of the party has sweeping power over the state apparatus.

It’s an open question as to how much direct power and influence Xi has over these bodies, but it’s certain that Xi has been central in developing many of China’s most important and far-reaching policies. . .

By most accounts, Xi has been strengthening the office of the General Secretary since taking power in 2012. He has built two new bodies of the Communist Party: the National Security Commission, and the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. These bodies were formed to develop general policy direction for national security and economic reform, and both groups are headed by the General Secretary.

In short, Xi now holds the reins to the Chinese military and economic policy development.

Xi’s status as leader of the Chinese military is not much different than powers held by most heads of state. The president of the United States of America, for example, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

But Xi has powers over economic and social policy that extend beyond the powers of most Western-style liberal democracy executives. It’s an open question as to how much direct power and influence Xi has over these bodies, but it’s certain that Xi has been central in developing many of China’s most important and far-reaching policies, including the “Belt and Road” initiative, the “Go Out” initiative, and the initiative to eliminate poverty in China by 2021.

The vote to scrap term limits for the Chinese presidential office was almost unanimous.

Since the announcement that China will be scrapping term limits, many Western pundits have speculated that Xi has become president-for-life. The truth is slightly less sensational: term limits have been removed, so he could be president for life in theory, though there’s no explicit guarantee.

One noteworthy example of Xi’s power is the lionization of his political philosophy by the Communist Party of China. In 2017, the Communist Party Central Committee embedded Xi’s political philosophies, referred to as “Xi Jinping Thought,” into the Party Constitution. The only other person in Chinese history to have this honor was Mao Zedong himself.

All of Xi’s offices are, technically, elected positions. In the recent presidential election, Xi netted a 100% victory, receiving each of the 2,970 votes that were cast.

Xi’s unanimous re-election can be viewed in two different lights:

Cynically: We could assume that Xi’s re-election was more or less “rigged,” a foregone conclusion, and that Xi holds so much power that the National People’s Congress that elected him essentially had their hands forced to re-elect him.

At face value: On the contrary, we could assume that Xi’s re-election was earned by way of the significant achievements and results he has shown as president.

Now, I hate to do this, but let me get anecdotal. I’m not an expert on Chinese culture, nor on the Chinese communist party, but I have met and spoken with exactly two members of the Chinese communist party who have voted in Chinese Communist Party elections.

Social harmony is an important cultural value in China.

The way they explain it, Chinese culture emphasizes things like collectivism and harmony in ways that can seem pretty alien to outside cultures. Because of this, they tend to work together to reach a consensus on an important issue before any official ballot is cast. For them, it’s a matter of social harmony and unity, and unanimous election results are seen as a sign that society is functioning properly.

I don’t expect you, dear reader, to take these anecdotal explanations as conclusive evidence that China’s government is a perfectly functioning democracy. I am just raising the point that it could very well be a Western-centric position to expect democracies and elections to function exactly like ours do in every nation.

So is China’s democracy truly free and above-board, or are all of China’s elections complete shams? I believe the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Xi will likely need to continue to succeed to maintain his power.

Xi certainly holds wide and sweeping power over the Chinese state apparatus, but it’s unlikely that his power is absolute and eternal. Based on my experiences living and working in Asian societies, I personally believe that Xi’s power is incumbent on showing results and making progress. Xi will likely need to continue to succeed to maintain his power. If he had made a mess of things after taking office in 2012, I highly doubt that he would have ever been re-elected twice.

Of course, the determination of whether Xi is seen as a success of a failure is made by the highest level echelons of the Communist Party of China, and it’s entirely possible that they would put their own selfish agendas before the needs and wellbeing of the public at large.

Ultimately we just have no way of knowing for sure just how far Xi’s power extends. The best we can say is that China does have autocratic tendencies, though to some extent there might be cultural explanations for some of these dynamics. The real extent of Xi’s power is unknowable, but he does not wield absolute authority for life — at least officially.

Is China a State Capitalist Economy?

China has a lot of State Owned Enterprises, but they are heavily outnumbered by private businesses.

State Capitalism is a system in which capitalist institutions are owned and operated by the state as state-owned enterprises. China definitely has state-owned businesses, banks, and other entities, which means it does embody State Capitalism to some degree. But even the USA owns some enterprises, such as the US Postal Service. True State Capitalism would place all (or at least a clear majority) of market entities in the direct control of the government.

China does not own and operate the vast majority of for-profit enterprises in the country, and most Chinese workers collect wages from privately-held businesses. The lines do blur a bit, however, when you consider the degree of power the Chinese government holds over capitalist enterprises.

The Chinese state can impose its authorities on capitalist institutions however it sees fit. The Communist Party of China has far-reaching authority to set policies and guidelines which corporations must follow. Even though China has a large and wealthy capitalist class, and even though these capitalists own the means of production and take labor value from employees in the form of profit, they are still very much subordinated to the state apparatus.

This is very different from capitalist nations like the United States, South Korea, Japan, and most European nations. In Western-style capitalist democracies such as these, the capitalist class in many way rivals the state in terms of clout, reach, and power. In Japan and South Korea, large family-owned corporations (called “zaibatsus” and “chebols,” respectively) have incredible and far-reaching power. In the USA, corporations like Amazon and Uber have so much power that they are able to bully and manipulate municipal, state, and federal government authorities.

This could never happen in China, at least not in the bold and open manner that it occurs under Western capitalism. I have no doubt that Chinese capitalists have far-reaching political influence, but you will never see a Chinese corporation openly flouting or challenging state authority in this manner.

So there are aspects of state capitalism at play in China, however, since most businesses are privately owned, we must ultimately declare that China is not truly engaged in State Capitalism.

Is China Fascist?

There is a cult of personality in China, but it revolves around the deceased Chairman Mao.

Fascism can take many forms, but there are some ironclad features that most fascist governments have maintained.

Going back to the subject of executive authority, most fascist states are controlled by one strong, charismatic leader. Italy had “il Duce” Mussolini, Germany had “der Feuhrer” Hitler, Spain had “el Caudillo,” etc.

So, what about “Big Xi?”

I don’t see Xi as a fascistic ruler. He has certainly managed to consolidate a tremendous amount of power for himself, but his power is not explicitly absolute. Likewise, there has not been any effort to build a cult of personality around Xi. We don’t see public campaigns to plaster his face all over Beijing, for example — that privilege is still reserved for Chairman Mao, who has been dead since 1976.

Fascist nations are invariably nationalist in character, and the government of China is certainly nationalistic. But here, too, we see stark contrasts between fascist nationalism and Chinese nationalism.

Fascistic nationalism is typically exclusionary in nature, with an emphasis on racial or national superiority over outsiders.

Chinese nationalism is certainly not ethnocentric, since one key aspect of Chinese nationalism is the notion that every inch of Chinese territory is Chinese. To the Chinese nationalist, Tibet is not some kind of colony of expansionist conquest – it is simply China, and Tibetans are considered Chinese by Chinese nationalists. Although there continue to be tensions over suppressed or resistant regions such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the official stance on domestic issues of nationality is simple: it’s all settled, beyond the scope of debate.

According to University of Michigan professor Kenneth G. Lieberthal, the Chinese consider Tibetans to be backward, feudal, superstitious, and reliant on China for modernization.

“So I think they regard it as bizarre that the advanced industrial countries would humiliate them by boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics over the Tibet issue,” says Lieberthal, “as America would find it if [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao suddenly refused to visit the United States because of our history of treatment of Native Americans.”

Chinese nationalism is complex and multifaceted.

Chinese nationalism has other unique characteristics: Chinese nationalist propaganda maintains strong anti-imperialist rhetoric that positions China as a victim of Western colonialism, and also plays up the nation’s “5,000 years of glorious civilization.”

Broadly speaking, Chinese citizens have become increasingly nationalistic over the years, and modern Chinese youth have been prone to pouring out intense, emotional nationalist rhetoric, especially online. This emotional nationalism is in part due to state propaganda campaigns and education that play up the official (altered) history of the party. Ironically, the state media has urged Chinese citizens to tone down nationalist rhetoric to project an image of peace to the outside world.

All of this taken into consideration, I don’t find Chinese nationalism to be fascistic in characteristic at all. Chinese nationalism is just too complicated and nuanced – nothing like the stark and aggressive nationalism of fascism.

How about economics? As I’ve explained in a previous article, fascist economies tend to blend capitalism with authoritarianism. The state’s primary economic function is to broker relations between capitalists and workers, and the state accomplishes this primarily by organizing and imposing its will on the working class.

While the Chinese government does support capitalist entities and helps to preserve capitalist power structures, these wealthy corporations must still submit to the power of the Communist party, and there are many examples of the Communist party running roughshod over large Chinese corporations. The power dynamics are completely different than the cozy relationships between the state and the bourgeoisie typically observed in fascist nations.

Given the lack of an explicit authoritarian ruler and explicit nationalist fomentation and the official subjugation of capitalist entities to the Communist Party of China, I’m ready to call it: China is not a fascist state.

Is China Communist?

Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, oh my!

China was ostensibly founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, and these principles were further refined by Mao Zedong into what is now referred to as Marxist-Leninist Maoism, known in leftist circles as MLM.

Marxist-Leninism relies on a planned economy and stated-owned industry as opposed to capitalist institutions. Of primary and immediate concern is the dismantling of the capitalist bourgeois class and the elimination of for-profit institutions and corporations.

Maoism is an ideology dependent on iconoclasm – the elimination of cultural and social systems and ideas that are incompatible with Marxist proletarian dictatorship. Economically, Mao also advocated for smaller-scale industrial development and agricultural collectivism.

Mao also made tweaks to Leninist principles. For instance, he replaced Lenin’s concept of a “vanguard party” with the principle of “mass lines” that are supposed to connect the ruling party more directly to the working people.

All of this is largely irrelevant in a discussion of modern China, however, since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. This massive overhaul of the Chinese state replaced most of Mao’s policies with a new set of ideals known as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

Deng ushered in capitalist institutions and businesses with the goal of fostering economic growth and boosting productivity. Today, China has a well-established stock market that is about to go fully global.

The wealth gap in China is tremendous (comparable to Western capitlaist democracies), with 1% of the population owning a third of the country’s total wealth.

The state does own a large number of banks, corporations, and other such institutions, which does nominally put at least some of the means of production in the category of “collective ownership,” but by and large, most Chinese workers are wage laborers who work for private for-profit entities.

There are certainly socialist policies in effect in China, including the previously mentioned  plan to eliminate all Chinese poverty by 2021. The official goal of the Communist Party of China is to eventually develop the nation into a state of communism, but that is a distant fantasy as capitalist free markets drive the present-day Chinese economy. The means of production are not owned by workers, a bourgeois class is allowed to steal labor value from workers on a grand scale, and the majority of commerce and industry is driven by for-profit corporations and capitalists.

China may be ruled by a Communist party, but it is not a Communist state.

 

Final Tally

So, here’s a breakdown of the scoring so far:

Republic: sort of…?
Dictatorship: kind of…?
State Capitalist: a little bit…?
Fascist: NO
Communist: NO

Well… So… What is it?

Will China continue its rise? Will it maintain its current form of government or continue to evolve?

I have been studying and analyzing China’s social, political, and economic systems for quite some time. I have talked to Chinese people, including members of the Chinese Communist Party. I have spoken to professors and United States military officers about China. All of this is to say that my survey of China has been wide and deep and, dare I say extensive, so I am pretty confident with my ultimate conclusion about the Chinese form of government:

China is…

China.

It’s a complicated country with a lot of moving parts, shifting power dynamics, and complex social systems embedded into the fabric of the state.

The Chinese system of government is far from perfect – indeed, from an anarcho-communist perspective, it’s deeply flawed.

China’s governmental system is a chimera which exhibits aspects of autocracy, republicanism, state capitalism, free market capitalism, and socialism. Ironically, China carries almost no concrete features of fascism or communism, even though these are the labels most often applied to the nation by its detractors.

The Chinese system of government is far from perfect – indeed, from an anarcho-communist perspective, it’s deeply flawed. In my mind, it gives capitalists too free of a hand in robbing workers of their labor value. The state apparatus is far too authoritarian in nature and I am certainly not a fan of the roles state media, propaganda, and bowdlerized education play in controlling the Chinese people. China is overly antagonistic of regional neighbors and too oppressive of certain ethnic groups within its own borders. However, China deserves respect for playing a strong hand strategically in building its economy and its power abroad, and I certainly give China credit for going to such great lengths to eliminate poverty with their 2021 initiative.

Moving forward, I hope that the Chinese state will do more to ease repression of its citizens and give them freer access to information. I urge China’s Communist party to flatten their governmental hierarchy, reduce the autocratic powers of high government officials, and eliminate all capitalistic exploitation of the Chinese working class.

If you liked this article, I hope you’ll also check out my YouTube channel where I cover a wide range of leftist topics. In my next article about China, I will be discussing China’s ambitions plans for the years ahead – follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Mastodon if you don’t wanna miss it!

Incels and Toxic Masculinity: a Res Publica Podcast Interview

I was recently invited to do my very first podcast interview with the great folks at Res Publica Podcast. We had a great discussion about incels and toxic masculinity. Give it a listen now and be sure to subscribe! They’re on SoundCloud and iTunes!

An Anarchist Defense of the Sickle and Hammer

The author in a sickle and flag shirt standing in front of an anarchism flag.

Hey! You got communism in my anarchism!

Ado:

As a leftist YouTuber and blogger, I get a lot of push-back and negative comments every single day about my worldview and the content I generate. As you’d expect, the vast majority of the criticism I receive comes from white male reactionaries: they hate the idea of feminism. They love the idea of capitalism. They are resistant to fundamental changes that would upset the privileges they enjoy in our current society.

These criticisms are generally easy for me to handle. They’re usually coming from a place of ignorance and fear. I know this because I used to BE a right-winger, myself. I know exactly what it feels like to have that nagging awareness deep in the back of your mind that you might be wrong about the world. This kind of existential doubt and discomfort lead me to be a very toxic and negative person for many years, as I’ve touched on in previous videos.

I have always felt very prepared to deal with this kind of criticism. After all, YouTube (and the internet at large) is rife with alt right trolls and angry right-wingers, and leftist positions are few and far between in our society. As leftist content creators, we have to enter into this work with a thick skin and an understanding that we will come under continuous and relentless attack from the far right.

But then there’s the “friendly fire.”

Hell, I admit it, sometimes I even have fun knocking out an ignorant Nazi with cold, hard logic.

When I receive criticism and negative feedback from my fellow leftists, it’s quite frankly a lot more difficult for me to process. I like to think we’re all on the same team, and I also like to think that I have done my homework and prepared myself before I choose to write an article or put together a video enough that I’ll essentially be preaching to the choir in leftist spaces. So when I read a negative comment from a fellow leftist it can really throw me for a loop.

See, when a right-winger comes swinging, I swing right back without hesitation. I know most of the arguments they’re going to make before they even make them, since I used to be on the far-right myself. And the more toxic and abusive their comments are, the less threatened I feel. Hell, I admit it, sometimes I even have fun knocking out an ignorant Nazi with cold, hard logic. This isn’t really a good thing, and it can even become performative and counter-productive (which is a whole other issue I’ll probably be writing about in a near-future blog post) but the TL;DR is that sticks and stones can break my bones but Nazi words can never hurt me.

Further Ado

Leftist words, on the other hand, can really mess me up. I’m a big advocate of leftist unity, and I want very much for all of us on the far left to be on the same page, arm-in-arm, resisting the oppressive forces that dominate this world. Points of contention really concern me, because the division within and among leftists has done more to stymie our movement than any reactionary anti-leftist force in history.

I get a LOT of negative from my fellow anarchists about my use of the sickle and hammer.

So when I keep seeing the same negative comments cropping up about my videos, it really gives me pause. If something I’m saying or doing is unpopular with a signifant number of viewers, I really want to stop and reflect and self-crit and make sure I’m not wrong before proceeding to defend myself. I don’t mind being front-footed with reactionaries because I used to be a reactionary myself, and I know how wrong they are. But when it comes to leftists, I know I’m dealing with people who are, for the most part, principled and thoughtful and nuanced in their conception of the world. I take negative feedback from my fellow leftists very seriously.

And I get a LOT of negative from my fellow anarchists about my use of the sickle and hammer.

I composed this long preamble because I want you, the presumably leftist reader, to know that I have put a great deal of thought into what follows. I have examined the arguments against the sickle and hammer. I have weighed and considered them. I realize that advocating for the display and use of the sickle and hammer symbol is a risky and controversial position to take. Worst of all, it is potentially divisive, and here I am, a guy who’s always preaching leftist unity.

Symbols Matter

Portrait of Hugo Boss

Hugo Boss was a big ol’ Nazi.

This subject may seem flippant and unimportant. Should we really be this concerned about something as silly as a logo when there are people suffering capitalist exploitation, racist violence, sexist oppression, and all the other injustices of the world? Why am I even wasting my time typing up a diatribe about an old flag when there are so many more pressing issues that need to be addressed?

The fact is that symbols really do matter. The way we present ourselves is important. As a student of history, I know just how powerful (and dangerous) symbolism can be for any political movement. There’s a reason Nazi Germany funneled so many resources into imagery and design. Incredibly talented designers like Hugo Boss and Karl Diebitsch designed uniforms, equipment, and logos for the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned to create propaganda films with breathtaking and painstakingly composed photography. Everything the Nazis put their hands on, from the architecture of buildings to the artwork of postage stamps, was meant to intimidate, inspire, and indoctrinate the German people. And it was terrifyingly effective.

Pre-Soviet Origins of the Sickle and Hammer

Together, the sickle and hammer have origins that predate Soviet communism.

Working tools have long been symbols of proletariat struggle. Used separately, there is no doubt that the hammer and the sickle have origins as workers’ symbols that predate the Soviet Union by thousands of years. The classical conception of a blacksmith or factory worker has long been a burly man with hammer in hand, depictions of farmers at work have always included reaping with sickles.

A 1933 Chilean Peso with sickle and hammer.

1 UN PESO is Spanish for 1 ONE PESO (…I think)

Together, the sickle and hammer have origins which predate Soviet communism. It’s hard to find concrete examples of these symbols being used together, but they have certainly been used together on Chilean coinage (albeit uncrossed) as a symbol of the working class since 1895. This Spanish-language blog article seems to go into more detail about the use of the symbols – I don’t speak Spanish, but from what I gather these symbols were commonly used together, non-politically, as a heraldic motif to represent the working classes long before the Communist revolution in Russia.

Soviet Iconification of the Sickle and Hammer

Early 20th century leftists understood the power of design, including Vladimir Lenin. One of the problems faced by early communist revolutionaries in Russia was a huge divide between urban workers and rural peasants. Early on, the Bolsheviks were largely rooted in industrial workers’ unions. Lenin and his Bolshevik contemporaries wanted to win peasants over to their cause.

First seal of the Soviet Union.

The first draft was a little busy, but it had some pretty sweet grain. I give it a B-.

A design contest was held for a logo that would symbolize the unification of peasants and factory workers, and the winning design featured a sickle, a hammer, and a sword, though Lenin nixed the sword because he wanted to portray the new Soviet nation as peaceful.

In this fascinating article, Christopher Warton explains the importance of these kinds of symbols in the Russian revolution:

Symbols of the government and party, rituals, mass demonstrations, and social illustrations each played a vital role in revolutionary ideology. Party emblems, seals, iconography, posters, and political insignia, from the hammer and sickle to the red five point star, were essential mediums in conveying the messages of the revolution. In addition to the imagery of symbols, rituals and public demonstrations such as parades, unveilings, celebrations, chants, and motivational rhetoric in speech and communication found significance as well because they signified socio-political change, and indoctrinated Bolshevik ideology. Symbols and rituals of 1917 essentially set the parameters that defined post-revolutionary Russia.

In conclusion, though the sickle and hammer as symbols have been used for centuries to represent the working class, there is no question that the iconic configuration of the sickle and hammer we know today was devised by the Soviets under the direction of Vladimir Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik party leadership.

Anarchist Usage of the Sickle and Hammer

The Soviet adoption of the sickle and hammer as symbols of Leninist-style communism did not stop libertarian socialists from adopting and using these symbols throughout the 20th century. The best and most striking examples I have found are those used by anarchist groups during the Spanish civil war, as can be seen in these beautiful posters:

In a more modern context, it is not uncommon to see anarcho-communist use of the sickle and hammer online and at demonstrations. Typically, the sickle and hammer is presented in white over the black and red flag that was also developed by anarchists during the Spanish civil war, or in white over a red flag. There are also renditions of the sickle, the hammer, and the Anarchist “A” symbol intertwined:

Admittedly, these presentations are most often seen online. I have found very few images of anarchists and antifa demonstrators sporting the sickle and hammer in the real world (if you have any, I’d be very pleased if you send them my way), but I do see them used in online leftist memes, websites, and forum posts fairly frequently.

All this to say that sickle and hammer symbolism is far from universal in anarchist communities, but it is also far from unprecedented and unheard of. This begs the question: why do so many anarchists reject the sickle and hammer? And why do some anarchists (including myself) choose to use a symbol that was devised by Lenin and tied directly to the state communism of the Soviet Union in the minds of most people?

This is a complicated question, and I’ll try to unpack it by first presenting anarchist objections to the symbol and then submitting my responses, one-by-one.

Of Gulags and Purges

The most eloquent and reasoned criticism of my use of the sickle and hammer came via email from one of my subscribers. This person wrote:

I understand that the USSR’s iconography is powerful (I’m a big fan of Soviet propaganda posters myself) but it’s the same flag that flew over gulags that killed millions of people for dissenting thought, and the soviet project itself was ultimately a failure. It might not be the best choice of motif for your channel. And it’s also ‘classic leftism’ – I’d like to think we’ve gone further since 1917.

Let’s break these (and other common) arguments down, point-by-point:

1. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state that killed millions of people and suppressed dissenting thought. We should reject all Soviet symbolism.

First of all, I will be the first to admit that the Soviet union was tremendously problematic. I recognize that the Soviet state committed atrocities. I know that the Soviets assassinated anarchists and imprisoned and executed a lot of good and innocent people. I am not naive and I am not a Soviet Union apologist.

Russian soldier holding Sickle and Hammer flag in Berlin at the end of World War II.

You gotta admit, that thing looks better than a Swastika

But I am also not willing to completely demonize the Soviets as completely evil villains of history. To begin with, we have to recognize that much of what we learn in school about the Soviet union is Western propaganda. Many — not all, but many — of the atrocities the Soviets alledgedly committed were grossly exaggerated or else completely fabricated by Western capitalists, Nazis, and other reactionary regimes. In the future, I hope to go into more detail about some of the more egregious anticommunist myths and lies about the Soviet Union, but for the time being, let it suffice to say that we as leftists should take the Western narrative of the USSR with a grain of salt (just as we should take the official narrative of Soviet officials themselves with a grain of salt). The Soviets and capitalists of the 20th century fought a propaganda war that lasted decades, so the fact is that it can be tremendously difficult to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to Soviet successes, failures, and atrocities.

Did the Soviets do very bad things? Of course they did. But that doesn’t erase the good things that were achieved under Soviet leadership. They were crucial for the defeat of Hitler in World War II, they helped to liberate Cuba and Vietnam from capitalist-imperialist and colonial rule, they made remarkable advances in science (including many victories in the space race), they had one of the highest literacy rates in the world (surpassing even the USA), and so on.

It’s easy to forget where the Soviets began. Russia was a feudal agricultural nation under the absolute dictatorship of the Czar. They were devastated by World War I and had very little industry to speak of. The fact that they were able to become a world power with such industrial and military might in such short order is objectively impressive. The accomplishments they made after the devastation they suffered in World War II is equally impressive, especially when you consider the tremendous pressure and aggression they faced from capitalist powers in the USA and Europe.

A Soviet cosmonaut

At least they got the “space” and “communism” part of Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism right…

This is not a love song for the USSR. I believe that their regime ultimately failed because of its authoritarian nature. I am, at the end of the day, an anarcho-communist, and I disagree adamantly with many of the decisions that were made by the Soviet Union. But when I look at the USSR in toto, especially compared to the capitalist-imperialist states they opposed, I have to conclude that they were generally on the right side of history and were able to accomplish a great deal from very humble beginnings.

And, remember! The Soviet Union was not just its leadership. Set Stalin and Lenin and Khruschev aside and you still have millions of soldiers who fought and died beneath the sickle and hammer to defeat Hitler. You still have millions of workers and farmers who struggled and toiled together for decades to try and advance their own society. It’s easy to be cynical, in hindsight, and pretend that the people of the Soviet Union never bought into communism – that’s certainly what capitalist propaganda wants us to believe – but that erases the efforts and accomplishments and sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of comrades who did believe in the dream of the Soviet Union and did want to create a better world for the working people of the world.

The Soviet Union was a major part of the history of leftism, and we must accept the role they played, warts and all. For my part, I may have strong criticism for many of the leaders of the Soviet Union, but I am proud of the good things they were able to accomplish. I will not disown them, but at the same time, I will recognize their faults and flaws and learn from their mistakes. The Soviets were people, and people are flawed. Most of us call ourselves Marxists even though Marx himself was highly problematic.

Communist flags for sale in Vietnam

Is there anything more capitalist than selling communist flags?

In addition, the sickle and hammer logo was not only used by the Soviet Union! Cuba and Vietnam use the sickle and hammer to this day. Granted, these regimes were never perfect. I live in Vietnam, and I know full well that the communist party of Vietnam has tremendous problems with corruption. I understand very well the mistakes that have been made by Vietnamese communist leadership, including the assassination of Trotskyists and anarchists and the abuses against South Vietnamese citizens which occurred immediately after the war. I have personally interviewed communist dissident Nguyen Dan Que who has been imprisoned several times for speaking out against government corruption.

But I’ve also talked to many Vietnamese veterans who fought for leftist ideals. I have heard their stories about watching their friends and family members die before their eyes. Many of these freedom fighters proudly display the sickle and hammer to this day. As they explain it to me, the nation and its government may not be perfect, but it is their nation. Vietnamese communists – with tremendous support from the Soviet Union – did repel American imperialism and overthrow colonial rule that stretches back over a thousand years, they have managed to rebuild their nation after being “bombed into the stone age” by the mightiest military in the world, and they did liberate Cambodia from Pol Pot. They are also one of the happiest countries in the world according to the Happiness Index.

These are all leftist accomplishments worth celebrating.

As for Cuba, again, they have their fair share of problems and failures. But they also have one of the best medical systems in the world, including universal healthcare, their international disaster relief is the finest in the world, they provide free education to citizens and their literacy rate is among the highest in the world. Today they are making strides in combating sexism and racism and eliminating poverty.

These are all leftist accomplishments worth celebrating.

The fact that the Soviet Union and its allies have been less than perfect is not an excuse to completely throw the baby out with the bath water nor to completely disown the legacy of the sickle and hammer in my mind. To me, the sickle and hammer represents more than just the states and their leaders. They also represent the millions of comrades who have fought and died in class struggle.

2. “Have we gotten further since 1917? Are these old symbols and ideas really relevant? Is this the best way for us to be presenting ourselves?”

Grafiti that reads "queer" with a sickle and hammer.

Intersectional communist grafiti really does it for me

To be sure, leftist thought and theory has had tremendous advances since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In my mind, one of the biggest and most important advances has been the concept of intersectionality. 20th century classical communists could scarcely have conceived of the ways in which we are combining the struggle against capitalism with struggles against racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and so many other social ills.

But we did not invent these ideas from whole cloth. Earlier communists were concerned with solidarity between races and liberation of women, even if their concepts of intersectionality were less developed in their time.

Just because past leftists made mistakes and, yes, even committed atrocities, that doesn’t mean I want to sever myself from them. On the contrary, I think it’s important to celebrate what they were able to accomplish in such dire circumstances.

Furthermore, I believe that trying to distance ourselves from past communists will ultimately backfire. I believe that people are very sensitive to authenticity and falseness. I strongly believe that trying to deny and distance ourselves from our political heritage, such as it is, would ring incredibly false.

I am a marketing professional, and I have watched closely how entities deal with crises and other such problematic situations over the years. Efforts to rebrand in order to conceal or evade mistakes and failures always meet with embarrassing failure.

BP Logo parodies with oil

Does BP stand for “Bad PR?”

As an example, look no further than BP. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, BP came under heavy fire. It was one of the worst PR disasters in history. In the fallout, BP decided to rebrand, updating their logo. This was met with public outcry and derision and a flurry of vicious memes calling them out on their attempt to distance themselves from their mistakes.

Imagine if McDonald’s had a terrible PR disaster. Say, for example, a batch of bad Chicken McNuggets killed a thousand people across America. Now, let’s say McDonald’s responded to this disaster by… changing their logo. How do you think people would react to that decision?

This may come as a surprise, but I believe every leftist should study marketing. We should have a good grasp on the way corporate branding, PR, and advertising, because they have spent billions of dollars and employed some of the best minds in history to develop the craft of human communication. Just as we can learn about good design from the Nazis, we can also learn about branding and marketing our ideas from the capitalist opposition.

One of my favorite books about branding is called Chasing Cool, by Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman. The basic argument of the book as that trying to be cool will always backfire, because people are highly sensitive to such subterfuge:

Chasing someone else’s notion of cool is the biggest mistake one can possibly make. . . The only way to build a true communion with an audience – to a point where they might deem you or your work ‘cool’ – is to follow a personal vision and stay true to that vision no matter what.

Soviet propaganda poster featuring a communist holding a sickle and hammer.

How could you not want that dude to be your comrade?

For me, the history of our movement is a vital aspect of who we are today. When I think of the struggle and sacrifices of the generations of leftists who came before me, I find myself humbled and awe-stricken. Their successes and their victories and, yes, their failures and flaws, lead us directly to where we are today. I don’t want to distance myself from any comrade who fought or died for the working class. I want to celebrate them and learn from them and incorporate that lineage into the identity of our contemporary movement. For me, the sickle and hammer is an important part of our story, and one that I choose to adopt in my work today.

“3. We’re anarchists, not communists. Why would we be using communist symbols?”

If you’re an anarchist and you don’t want to incorporate communist symbols into your praxis, then I absolutely support your decision. As for me, I am an anarcho-communist.

I AM a Marxist – that is to say, I subscribe to Marx’s views of class struggle and of history. It’s not an option for me to put my fingers in my ears and say, “THOSE Marxists were DIFFERENT, I’m NOTHING like those Marxists!”

If I were to try to pretend my ideology has no connection whatsoever to 20th century state communism, I can’t expect anyone to take me seriously. It’s much better to say, “Those Marxists were human, they made mistakes and put some bad people in power and also did some terrible things, but I understand how and why they made those mistakes and how those mistakes can be prevented moving forward.” Owning up to the past gives me a lot more credibility with people who are actually paying attention and engaging with my content.

Artwork featuring Anarchist and Communist men kissing

I’m cishet as hell but this turns me on

I also feel like there’s something to be said for the dynamics of leftist solidarity and unity that come with using a symbol that was designed by Lenin even though I, myself, am not a Marxist-Leninist. I hope that principled ML comrades will see it as the olive branch that I am symbolically extending by incorporating one of their symbols into my own leftist identity. For my part, I feel plenty of warm fuzzies when I see Marxist-Leninists flying the black-and-red-flags logo common in Antifa circles. In my mind, we are on the same side, and though we might have some disagreements we can still stand side-by-side and share some symbols and beliefs.

I have a lot more to say about leftist unity, but I’ll leave it at this for now: I don’t hate Marxist-Leninists, on the contrary I have some good ML comrades, such as Patrick with the First Marxist Leninist Demonstration of South Carolina, so the fact that Lenin played a hand in the symbol’s design doesn’t keep me up at night.

4. “Liberals and centrists are going to be instantly turned off by the sickle and hammer! You’re going to drive people away with that symbol… it’s counter-productive!”

It’s true: the sickle and hammer is an instantly recognizable. In marketing terms, it’s a “powerful brand,” and it does, indeed, evoke an instant emotional response.

In simplistic terms, there is something to be said for “shock value.” If nothing else, shocking people can get them to pay attention to messaging they might otherwise ignore. This shock value definitely worked on me. When I first moved to Vietnam, I was completely creeped the hell out by all the sickles and hammers I saw. I was still a centrist when I first moved here and in my mind it was absolutely no different than seeing a bunch of Nazi swastikas hung up all over the place. It made me feel uncomfortable and alarmed.

In hindsight I can definitely say that this exposure made me really curious about this kind of aggressive, in-your-face leftism and sent me on some of my first forays into Googling modern-day communism.

On the inverse, there is also a case to be made for normalization of leftist words and symbols. After my first week in Vietnam, the sickle and hammer stopped being so scary. I barely even noticed them after a month or two, they just blended into the background.

Bernie Sanders

“SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM”

Fast forward a few years to the 2016 election. This was when I learned for certain that stigmatized symbols, words, and ideas CAN be rehabilitated and inserted back into the mainstream. A great example of this is Bernie Sanders’ use of the word “socialism.” It’s hard to remember and even believe now, but just a couple of years ago the word “socialism” was absolutely a dirty word in USA politics. No Democrat in their right mind would admit to being a socialist or advocating socialism, such was the success of Republican propaganda efforts against that word.

Then Bernie came forward and started using the word “socialism” in every other dang sentence. In the beginning of his campaign, he was considered extremely fringe for using that word, but the more he used it, the more normalized it became, and the more people were willing to actually analyze it and see what it really meant. For my part this was fundamental to radicalizing me to the left, because I was one of those people who bought into the idea that socialism was evil before Bernie first: normalized it in my mind then, second: got me to pay attention to the positive aspects of socialism and the evils of capitalism.

When I began to dig deeper into true leftism, I went through this same process of normalization all over again. Seeing the sickle and hammer plastered all over leftist Facebook and Reddit groups freaked me out at first. I felt like I was falling into some dark corner of the Deep Web where evil lurked. For the first week or two I was incredibly weirded out by talking to these people with their black flags and their sickle and hammer avatars, but over time it became normal, and my mind was able to reinterpret these symbols as friendly and welcoming.

Normalizing radical language and symbols is a basic Overton Window strategy, and one which the far right has been using to net real results in politics. We should not shy away from our own authentic political identities and having pride in our leftism, even if we know there will be initial pushback and resistance.

You Make the Call

Me in a tank

Come at me, bro

Believe it or not, I’m honestly not trying to sell you on the sickle and hammer. I don’t really care if you use it or not. If you don’t feel like this symbol represents your political identity and ideology then I don’t expect you to use it. This is simply my explanation for why I, personally, identify with the sickle and hammer and choose to display it in my content.

If you disagree with me, that’s totally fine. I welcome your dissent. For my part, we can still be comrades. I just hope you realize that my decision to use the sickle and hammer came with careful consideration, and I hope you’ll consider my points carefully before attacking my use of the symbol.

Hell, I could be wrong! If I am, I’m sure I’ll hear about it.

If, after reading this entire article, you still think I’m tankie scum for using the sickle and hammer, feel free to drop a comment on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Mastodon!

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