Last Sunday night, a small crowd gathered at Vermillion, a homey, brick-wall gallery and bar on Capitol Hill, ordered drinks and waited for the lecture to begin. Its red-flag-raising title: “The Secret History of Marxist Alien Hunters.” The atmosphere felt like a circus tent while people were settling into their seats: curious, playful, ready to be baffled — nobody seemed exactly sure what they were in for.
Neither did New York-based cultural critic A.M. Gittlitz, who stood at the podium and sized up his audience. “I gave this talk last week at a serious Trotskyist conference in Cuba,” he warned us with a smile. “Half the room walked out.” Unsurprisingly, his research found that Marxists throughout history tend to be more interested in the terrestrial concerns of escaping the grip of capitalism and alleviating human suffering than in UFOs — but a few, particularly in mid-20th-century Argentina, had turned their minds toward the rest of the universe.
“Alien Hunters” was the last session of the second weekend of Red May, a free, three-year-old event that rolls around Seattle for four weeks, bringing Marxist thinkers (rarefied academics, elbow-grease organizers, some who hover in between) from around the country to talk about (mostly) serious subjects.
A sample of next week’s events: Samuel Stein on the overwhelming power of gentrification (according to global property giant Savills, global real estate is now a $127 trillion industry, or 36 times more valuable than all the gold ever mined); Thea Riofrancos (The Guardian, Los Angeles Times Review of Books, n+1, Jacobin) on the perils and possibilities of the Green New Deal, plus a panel event about who “we” (of the often-invoked “We the People” or “we the 99 percent”) might actually be these days; and a discussion titled “Down With Work!” featuring big brains Kathi Weeks, Michael Hardt, Peter Frase and Charles Mudede.
But Red May leaves room for curveballs. Ergo, aliens. (The previous weekend’s diversion: “Cranky Communist Asians Talk ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ” a sort-of screening at Northwest Film Forum with snippets of the hit movie plus eye-rolly and exasperated critique.)
“Red May is unusual in the U.S.,” Riofrancos said by phone from New Orleans. “It’s bringing a mix of academics and nonacademic but still intellectually inclined activist and artist types to investigate thorny ideas, and people whose individual politics vary from social democrats who want to work on electoral issues to revolutionary or insurrectionist analyses. There’s a range, it’s ecumenical, which for me is a good thing.”
In other words, Red May is a place where hard-line communists can commingle with more pliable socialists — as well as curious folks who just wander in.
“That’s one of the best things that can happen,” said Asad Haider, founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, who ducked into the “Alien Hunters” talk. “Some circles want to build their own thing and restrict it to people who already subscribe to a certain doctrine. But I am very much against that. Drawing people in is the best goal.”
A few faces in the Vermillion crowd had been slightly more sleepy-looking that morning at a coffee session with Haider, where he tried to thread the needle between two leftist camps: those who think class issues are fundamental and people who counter that racism and gender issues are primary. “Look, there are many different demands that can be made,” he said. “But you have to be strategic. If your demand is health care and people say ‘that’s only for white people,’ how do you respond? ‘You’re wrong, this is a class issue and class issues matter to everybody’? No. You go out and talk to people, see what they want, get as many involved as possible.”
Philip Wohlstetter, one of the founders of Red May, said the budget for the four-week event is only $7,000. “We put it on a credit card, then have a GoFundMe campaign and hope we can pay it off,” he said. “The rest is everyday communism: no speaker fees, housing is donated, some people donate their frequent-flyer miles.” And the ecumenical quality Riofrancos noticed is entirely intentional.
“The big question is: ‘What is capitalism? What is this totality we’re living under?’ ” Wohlstetter said. “And beyond the simple answer of: ‘Someone has something to sell, someone wants to buy, and they meet in a market where everything’s in equilibrium.’ That doesn’t explain this insane volatility with crashes and restructurings that keep speeding up.”
Chloe Watlington, associate editor of the new magazine Commune (tagline: “for a life worth living”) put the question another way: “What if suddenly everyone in the world had access to health care and welfare to reach their highest potential? Sometimes it seems like everything is conspiring against human flourishing.”
At the Vermillion-aliens talk, a young man asked Gittlitz whether Juan Posadas, and the tiny handful of Latin American Marxists who dreamed about benevolent aliens coming to Earth, had been thinking from a place of optimism or pessimism.
“In some ways, that meme was nihilistic, and expressed a disbelief that there could ever be a successful revolution,” Gittlitz said. “But it also had some hope — that if something radically different presented itself to humanity, that may not be such a bad thing.”
Red May, through May 29; various Seattle venues including Elliott Bay Book Co., Vermillion Gallery and Bar, Town Hall and Seattle Labor Temple; free; redmayseattle.org