A friend and, dare I say, comrade wrote me and asked why I use the word “comrade” so freely, instead of the more accepted “brother” and “sister.” Won’t people associate you with James Bond villains and bomb-throwing radicals when you use that word? And it’s true. I do throw it around a good deal, both as a warm expression of solidarity and friendship and, a little bit, to make people a bit uncomfortable in otherwise stodgy rooms.
Fuck it; I’ve already been blown up by Fox News for being dangerously un-American, so why pretend to be a safer person than I am? Besides, saying “brother” or “sister” instead of comrade is one of those bits of American exceptionalism, like not celebrating Labor Day on May 1 or calling football “soccer,” that really ought to be resisted as a matter of global solidarity. Comrade is the preferred salutation of the labor movement in most countries. Perhaps it gets lost in translation? The British default to comrade, but, being British, they pronounce it funny (“comb-rayd”).
I was a teenage socialist. I joined the Socialist Party when I was 17 years old. Although I’ve since quit the party, I remain a socialist. In socialist politics, we say comrade. We even abbreviate it as “Cde.” in the minutes (“Cde. Richman seconded the motion”). It was when I first started saying the word and where I first gained an appreciation for its meaning.
Firstly, the word conveys a sense of equality that brother and sister don’t quite get across. As I said, I was a teenage socialist. But I was a comrade, on equal footing and with equal title as people who had been in the movement for decades; people who had been trained by Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, Michael Harrington. I was their comrade.
When I organized a teach-in against one of those many little Clinton wars at Queens College with one of my professors, he called me comrade. Of course, he’s British; it comes easier to him. But it was a tremendous equalizer. I still see him at rallies or union meetings and he still greets me with a warm, “Hello, comrade. How are you?”
I first started using the word in a union context as a dare. A bunch of my co-workers marched together under no banner in the first huge march against the proposed invasion of Iraq. It was an unseasonably warm early spring day. There were a million of us. It felt like a celebration (and then the war started).
At some point during the march, my friend Alan and I found ourselves separated from our group. “It appears we have misplaced our comrades,” I said. Alan paused, laughed and challenged me, “How amazing would it be if you and I called each other comrade at the office on Monday?” And so we did, and so we have ever since.
It’s significant to this story that one of our friends at the union was trans, but not yet out. Hell, he wasn’t even out to me but it just felt wrong to call him sister. Comrade, as a gender-neutral salutation, just made practical sense. This old word has some relevance to the 21st century yet!
Finally, comrade is used in the military. The salutation is standard at VFW halls. (What could be more American than that?) To me, comrade implies that we’ve been through some shit together; a tough campaign, a boss fight, some controversy. And there’s a greater loyalty that comes out of having been through some shit together. Calling someone a comrade, for me, is about trying to always keep that first and foremost. It’s too easy to get into an argument of some immediate political issue or campaign decision and just go to war or give someone up as dead to you. But you don’t do that with a comrade. You’ve been through some shit.
You could argue that brother and sister do all of this equally well (well, not the whole gender neutral thing). But I would say that those salutations in labor have become a bit too pro forma. They are said to fill the air, with not much deep thought behind them. Saying comrade, in America, in the year 2015, requires more of a thought process. And I’m generally in favor of people doing more thinking.