The Last Communist
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Uphill battles and political struggles are nothing new for Fishman, or her family. Born the only child of George and Edie Fishman, a working-class couple in the working-class city of Camden, N.J., Fishman was a red diaper baby. Both parents came from Jewish immigrant families in Philadelphia and met in the 1930s through the Young Communist League.
“Camden was an industrial city, home of Campbell’s Soup and RCA. It was similar to what Bridgeport once was,” recalls Fishman. “I went to Camden High School, nicknamed ‘the Castle on the Hill,’ where I edited the high school newspaper.”
Though Fishman felt safe in her multiethnic neighborhood, her family suffered during the red-baiting days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Her parents and their friends lost jobs and were harassed for their political beliefs.
“I am in awe at how my parents protected me in many ways,” Fishman says. “I do remember when I was about 10, walking home from a girlfriend’s house in Camden. It was getting dark and a car pulled up on the curb and pointed its headlights right at me. It was probably the FBI, and the message was clear: ‘We are watching you.’ I still remember that vividly more than 50 years later. Those sorts of things never stopped or intimidated me. I am here today, still standing up for what I believe, which is the power of collective action. I see a community as a beautiful bouquet made up of all sorts of people. We don’t want to go back to that McCarthy era as a country.”
After graduating from Douglass College—at the time, Rutgers University’s women’s college—Fishman moved to New Haven in the fall of 1968. It was a tumultuous time in the city, with the anti-war and black power movements particularly strong in the city. She found a job at a printing cooperative called Advocate Press and met Sid Taylor. The colorful Taylor, a plumber and decorated World War II veteran—he was a machine gunner on B-17 bombers flying raids over Germany—had reenergized the state chapter of the U.S. Communist Party. The two co-founded the Angela Davis Bookstore on Broadway.
She knew Arthur Perlo, a union worker at an Oregon steel mill, from various party conferences over the years. When part of the steel mill closed down in 1975, Perlo was laid off and moved to New Haven where he and Fishman were married. At an earlier job, Perlo had briefly worked as a computer programmer, an esoteric skill at the time, which helped land him a job in the science laboratory at Yale.
Perlo doesn’t recall he or his wife ever having been victims of hostility or discrimination because of their shared political beliefs. “On the contrary,” he says, “Joelle is still stopped on the street or in the supermarket by people who say ‘Aren’t you Joelle Fishman? I used to vote for you.’ This does not mean that New Haven is typical, or to deny that many react negatively to the word ‘communist.’ But when people see the human being, that we are neighbors and coworkers, that we are working with them for workers’ rights, environmental justice, equality, an end to racism—then the stereotypes break down.”
Fishman isn’t nostalgic about the past. Indeed, she’s very much grounded in present-day challenges. Just two weeks after the battle over the People’s Center grant, Fishman attended the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C., a gathering of progressive coalitions featuring guest speakers like Paul Krugman, Van Jones, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Ver.), Howard Dean, Sandra Fluke and Melissa Harris-Perry. Invigorated by the experience, she is closely following the 2012 election cycle, which she sees as “a crossroads for the country.”
“Do we want to go in the direction of caring about each other with common goals, or do we want to return to everyone for themselves, with no role for government other than doing the bidding of the corporations and fighting wars?” she asks. “I believe in a progressive arc of history, not a straight line. Karl Marx showed that history has a positive direction, examining previous social systems from slavery to feudalism to capitalism and predicting socialism and eventually communism.”
Current events have conspired, you might say, to stir more than the usual amount of interest—at least in the U.S.—in Marx’s progressive arc of history. Never before in U.S. history has the gap between the haves and have-nots been wider. Statistical evidence of this is provided by nothing more radical than the 2010 U.S. Census and a 2011 report prepared by the Congressional Budget Office. The study found that, between 1979 and 2007, the top-earning 1 percent of American households rose 275 percent in their income. The share of income for low and middle-income in that same time period actually declined.
While pointing out these facts can lead to accusations of “class war” or what Mitt Romney calls “attacking success,” the numbers seem to speak to millions of Americans. Thus, the new battle cries about the “1 percent” vs. the “99 percent.”
“Look at the forces behind the candidates,” says Fishman. “They don’t represent the 1 percent. They represent the one-tenth of 1 percent. It’s no wonder that several polls show that among youth socialism is viewed more favorably than capitalism today. This is a reflection of the unsustainable wealth gap and all of the hardships it creates. Young people want a future that is not cut short by lack of funds for college or by staggering college debt that prevents getting a home and lasts a lifetime. They want a safe and secure future in a sustainable environment. They don’t see those possibilities within the current system. The failings of the capitalist system are becoming so obvious that many people are open to alternatives.”
Perhaps what most fuels her current optimism is the reemergence of youthful activism, echoing her own experiences in the civil rights movement. “Young people came from all over the country to Washington, D.C., to the Take Back the American Dream conference this summer,” she says. “They are so bold, so clear, and the injustices are simply not acceptable to them.”
She’s dismayed by the lack of truth in most political ads, regardless of which major party sponsors them, and even in the way the media covers the election. To her, the issues are so straightforward and problems so profound, they can be broken down into factual matters without resorting to heated rhetoric.
“What we need is a national conversation, millions of people talking door-to-door about what’s at stake, what are your worries and fears, what will make your life better?” she says. “The stimulus bill should have been much larger but it barely passed as it was. Even so, it created thousands of jobs for people across America. When you create jobs you serve the community, the money earned is funneled right back into the economy.”
To those who question her patriotism, Fishman says, with rising emotion, “I don’t hate America and I have never hated America. My life is dedicated to achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, the words in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.”
John Olson has never doubted Joelle Fishman’s love of her country.
“What’s great about our nation is our tolerance and diversity,” he says. “One size doesn’t fit all. Are all communists good? Are all communists bad? Are all capitalists good? Are all capitalists bad? No, of course not. Capitalism is a tool. It can be used for good and bad. The framers didn’t say, ‘One Nation, under capitalism’. That word does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. We’re witnessing some of the same things we saw in the 1950s. The phony patriotism, the fear and the hate mongering. We ought to welcome all points of view. I always say that if we agree on 10 percent of the issues, let’s work together on those.”
If Fishman ever does wax nostalgic, it is about a single event in her past that had nothing to do with communism or, really, even politics. It was the Poor People’s March for Jobs on Washington, D.C., led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was there on the Mall in D.C. in August 1963,” she recalls. “I was in high school, 16 years old. My parents couldn’t afford for all three of us to go, so they had the wisdom and foresight to pay for me to go as the family representative. Just before the event, the media was filled with scare stories about how it was going to be a bloodbath, to spread fear about the event. But it was completely peaceful and beautiful. Everybody wore their Sunday best, held hands while they marched and sang. This was one of the events that shaped my life.”
It also shaped American history. The Poor People’s March on Washington was what today would be called a tipping point. After that, there was no going back. The sheer numbers of marchers and the sense of solidarity among many groups represented were empowering. Fishman feels the same vibe coming from those in the Occupy movement, and other, similar efforts, today.
“My hope and optimism comes from my confidence in people,” she says, “and an understanding that there is a progressive direction to history in the long term.”