Beyond Bernie

A visit with the Colorado Springs Socialists

by Jack Truesdale; illustration by Britta Lam

"There has been no successful socialist nation ever!” Shouts ensue. “There hasn’t been a successful capitalist one either!” It’s a Saturday night, 8 o’clock, downtown at the Iron Bird Brewing Company, where the Colorado Springs Socialists are hosting their monthly meetup. I’m sitting between a pack of socialists and a 20-year-old libertarian named Patrick, who came “to learn something.”

“Russia, North Korea and China are examples of Marxism. Look at them. They failed,” Patrick says. An elderly socialist, Joe, attempts to prove him wrong, weaving unrelated and erroneous threads. Patrick’s eyes catch fire and, rising in his seat, he declares, “It seems you have a dramatic lack of understanding of history.” The pack responds collectively, “Woah, woah, woah,” to which Patrick shrugs. 

The Colorado Springs Socialists were officially founded about six months ago. The group evolved from the UCCS Socialist Reading Group, and, in time, members of the Colorado Springs community got involved. They now have around 60 members. Today, 35-year-old group leader Jeremy says they have to “get the theory down” before they can overthrow capitalism. In the meantime, the Colorado Springs Socialists are focused on expanding the group and planning community outreach events.

At the other end of the table sits a grizzled, graying man wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words “U.S. Army Veteran.” He says that after the Vietnam War, he worked as a mechanic. 

“Can’t find a job now cause I worked myself to fucking death for the past 30 years,” he says. “I want to be able to contribute.” He stares silently at his empty beer glass. “Because of capitalism I have to have money so I can eat,” he adds. 

Jeremy is listening, nodding. He responds, “People who struggle with their own physical impairments will never achieve the same [success] as people who are able-bodied and mentally stable.” 

Jeremy believes that “when you’re young and strong and have nothing to fear,” capitalism can be appealing. But, in his eyes, socialism seems “more morally appealing” as you get older and less physically able. Five years ago, Jeremy considered himself a Social Democrat à la Bernie Sanders, but after reading Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” and realizing that “being poor sucked,” he found himself becoming a socialist. Since then Jeremy has been known as “everyone’s socialist friend.” He says that “after Trump was elected, people started coming out of the woodwork and asking me questions.” 

Curious, frustrated and eager, newcomers have been fluttering into the light of the Colorado Springs Socialists. While the group openly welcomes sympathizers and prioritizes recruiting new members, the burgeoning interest does not seem tobe yielding a proportional number of dedicated Socialists. 

*  *  *

It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday, almost an hour into the weekly group meeting organized by the Colorado Springs Socialists, and it’s time to discuss the past week’s Marxist reading, current events and upcoming plans. “What topic would we want to set up a protest about?” asks the man sitting across from me and 12 or so of his comrades. We are seated at a square of tables in a small meeting room in the back of the Penrose Library in Colorado Springs. The man is Gabe, a UCCS student and another founder of the Colorado Springs Socialists. Gabe is wearing oxford shoes, sockless, with silvery basketball shorts and a t-shirt featuring the “Cat in the Hat” cover in Korean letters. His eyes are semi-glazed. His hair indicates that he may have just got out of bed.

Gabe orders all the new faces to introduce themselves. Seated to my left is a wiry guy with black smudges around his timid blue eyes. His ankles are crossed anxiously. He’s wearing black jeans, black shoes, a black shirt and a red bandana around his neck. “Scotty,” he says softly. “I was at the immigration rally for solidarity.” Gabe speaks up like he’s just adopted a dog. “We saw him with his red and black flag, and we had to reach out.” 

A UCCS student wearing a rhino shirt begins reporting on what happened this past week in Europe. A mention of Brexit here, another of Greece abandoning the Euro there. Someone else speaks about various injustices in Africa. The members unanimously groan and shake their heads. A young woman, also from UCCS, mentions reported hangings in Syria, protests in Baghdad and how the Trump Administration is putting Iran “on notice” for a missile test that was “really just a celebration that the U.S. used as propaganda.” Another group leader named Sam mentions the murder of a KKK leader the night before, as well as protests in Italy that “led to cool photos and stuff.”

Sam brings up the promotional event they plan to host in the spring. “We really need to find a speaker soon,” says Gabe. “Chomsky’s not available until the end of May.” The young man in the rhino shirt adds, “We should get a girl.” Gabe nods. “Yeah, we don’t want just four white dudes.” Again, the group members nod in unison and the energy lulls.

“We need to get people out into the streets. What would we protest?” Gabe asks again, surveying the room. The heater clacks on. Tired eyes angle down to the laminated tabletops. To my right a foot starts tapping, then a hand shoots up. “It could work to match it with one in Denver.” It’s Sam. He continues bouncing his knee. Gabe squints his eyes, “Yeah, we have to get it before another liberal organization claims it for themselves.” Sam pulls his hair back into a bun, nodding his head to the rhythm of his leg.

Gabe leans forward and announces, to no one in particular, an idea of how to move forward. “Create a list of all major upcoming events in Denver, make the Facebook event pages, reach out to my list of local organizations and see if they can promote it for us. If any events are being run by Unite Colorado Springs, we should message the page and ask if we can associate with them and add a message about capitalism.” Gabe hesitates, then continues. “We need to get people there under, not the guise, but under a liberal...” he trails off, “...we have to radicalize them somehow.” The others mutter and giggle, shifting with mischievous excitement in their chairs. 

Joe, the old man from the Iron Bird, speaks up. “This city is responsible for so much turmoil in the world,” he says. “These people have destabilized Mexico. You guys are it.” Gabe pauses, looks at the table, then up, then makes eye contact with Sam, who shrugs back at him, before finally acknowledging Joe with a “Yeah, uh, yeah.”

The room takes on a gentle shade of chaos, chuckles and groans going off here and there. But the group has much to accomplish. It’s time to move on. 

Gabe raises his voice and says, “This week we read Kautsky’s ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,’” and the others go quiet. I glance at the reading list from earlier this year: “Imperialism,” “Feminism,” “Alienism,” “Anarchism,” “Russian Revolution.” 

“Who read it?” asks Gabe. “I didn’t because I had the flu, but who did?” Of the 12 members, Sam and a bespectacled man raise their hands. “What are your thoughts? Let’s start with the first page.” The man with glasses begins to summarize the reading while Gabe and Sam nod vigorously. Gabe interrupts the man as he drifts into generalizations, “We have to stay disciplined. Keep the discussion going through the chapters in order. Let’s stick with chapter two.” The summary proceeds as the other members look at the ceiling, the tables, their shoes. 

Justin, Jeremy’s brother and also a group leader, would later explain to me that “the purpose of this group is to better train Marxists. Our purpose is to internalize the Marxist tenets.” The man wearing glasses concludes that they “need to be better read to understand what it means to be a Marxist.” Everyone nods, some quite consciously, others not quite so.

While the pack may lack ardor, the leaders pull it forward as best they can. Jeremy believes that leadership should be “with the group, in the group, from the group,” otherwise the implication is that “people aren’t smart enough to do this on their own.” He believes that “when the leader is gone, the masses are directionless,” though he knows he can’t “create an upper class in the efforts to destroy class.” The Colorado Springs Socialists don’t just need more members; they need more leaders. They need people who think of Socialism when they think of social justice. They need people who embody Socialism in their Facebook posts, in their social interactions and in their protests. Jeremy tells me that “people who are struggling are who we want.” The group needs people who need Socialism. 

But often the word “Socialist” can deter people who immediately associate it with Communism. “Not everyone in the group is a communist. Socialism is the foundation,” Sam says. The group members “have different perspectives but the same goals.” I ask what those perspectives are. “Some Marxists, Leninists, I’m an anarchist,” he says. “We had one Maoist but we made him go away.” 

However, Jeremy thinks that such titles can be tangential to the group’s purpose. “It’s not necessary or valuable to say ‘This is who I am.’” He thinks the group should be focused on “what steps we need to take to get to Socialism, not worrying about labels.”

To “get to Socialism,” their fundamental problem arises: the Colorado Springs Socialists need more members. The weekly reading group meetings, monthly dinners and the frequent protests in which they wave their red-on-white “COLORADO SPRINGS SOCIALISTS” banner serve to bring attention to the group, to advertise the movement to the people of Colorado Springs. But how many new members are enough? And when “enough” is reached, what then?

Both Jeremy and Sam agree that they would like to see the group grow indefinitely, and they think it will in today’s political climate. “Especially in the age of Trump, it’s prime time to radicalize,” says Sam. While some of the group members think President Trump’s administration will “ruin our world,” Sam believes that “under Trump there is potential for big change to take place: strikes, taking over factories.” And if all goes as planned, that is just where the Colorado Springs Socialists are headed. 

*  *  *

One Wednesday afternoon, before the Iron Bird, before the Penrose Library, before Jeremy and Justin and Gabe, I met with Sam in a coffeeshop. I was expecting to meet a smooth-talking American tough guy. Maybe one who had had a rough childhood, who had worked on a railroad and daydreamed of capitalism’s demise. As far as I know, I only found my last expectation to be true. 

Sam moved here from London when he was 17. He brims with youthful optimism that no weathered American railroad worker could have maintained. He looks me in the eye, stern but enthusiastic. “Once we expand, we can start working on,” he pauses—“revolution.” His British accent reminds me that the contemporary Socialist movement is not strictly American. 

“The revolution will require a transitional period,” Sam tells me, citing the necessity of provisional currency and temporary bosses. “The revolution has to be global for it to succeed. If we revolted, everyone would follow eventually.” Sam nods to himself. “The majority of Americans are apathetic. Only the politically active right will fight back.” 

With a bit of anger Sam continues, “There are people starving to death on a daily basis. That is economic violence, and when we retaliate that’s only self-defense. Tactics have to be used that aren’t always popular.” When I question him about the viability of this post-revolution economy, Sam maintains his solemnity and shrugs, “It’s not going to be easy but it’s better than capitalism.”

A few mornings later, again at a coffeeshop, I met with Jeremy. I asked him about the revolution. He offered a different take: “A lot of people like to fetishize and fantasize about revolution, but in reality that’s a lot of people dying.” Perhaps for Socialism to spread, violent revolution is not necessary. “The end of capitalism would be fine with me. But it’s a difficult goal to achieve without some sort of force or action, since no capitalist will voluntarily turn over their profits to employees. But…” He lifts his latte to take a sip. The back of his wrist pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “People like to say Communism goes against human nature because humans are greedy. People adapt to their environments. If capitalism rewards greed, people will be greedy.” Jeremy reaches into his pocket, pulls out his iPhone and tells me that it’s time to go. “The only difference fundamentally between capitalism and Socialism is who gets the money when profit is made.” We shake hands. “We’re just normal-ass people.”


Part of the Red Issue