Blogs > Cliopatria > Murray Polner: Review of Said Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood (Dial Press, 2009)

Apr 22, 2009

Murray Polner: Review of Said Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood (Dial Press, 2009)

We’ve had plenty of Red Diaper babies’ memoirs about growing up little communists but Said Sayrafiezadeh’s exasperating and smart chronicle of growing up in the bosom of a fervent Trotskyist family is rather exceptional. His love and resentment toward his Jewish mother, (the sister of Mark Harris best known for his baseball novel Bang The Drum Slowly) and Mahmoud, his Iranian father and dedicated Marxist who abandoned the family (his brother and sister were sent away to be raised by others and about whom the author says little) when he was nine months old, are the heart of his recollections.

His parents’ devotion to the Socialist Workers Party was paramount in their lives. Inspired by Trotsky and his hatred of Stalin’s Soviet Union, they were part of the Fourth International, their answer to Moscow’s Third International. They were anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-war, all of which they believed related. The SWP, a legal political party, was regularly persecuted, prosecuted and spied upon by the American government. Over the years their members included novelist James T. Farrell, philosopher Sidney Hook, Marxist theoretician Max Shachtman, the political writer James Burnham, all of whom turned rightward later in their lives.

In 1941 SWP’s leaders were sent to prison for violating the unconstitutional and repugnant Smith Act while the American Communist Party cheered; their approval changed drastically when their leaders were later indicted and imprisoned in 1949-50 for violating the very same Smith Act. In truth, the SWP was never much. In 1976 its presidential candidate drew 90,986 votes. By 2008 their tally was down to two candidates drawing 7561 votes, their membership reduced by many factors including continuous doctrinal disputes.

Still, those who survived its constant factional battles were true believers. Said writes that he wasn’t allowed to eat grapes because the United Farm Workers were being exploited by capitalists. He also adds that he couldn’t have a skateboard until every poor kid could have one too. And when would the revolution come, he asks his mother? “Soon,” she reassures him over and again, just as millions of religious parents awaiting the imminent coming of the messiah have assured their young.

Martha Harris Sayrafiezadeh, deserted by her husband, wearing her ubiquitous back pack containing scotch tape, stapler and other materials suitable for posting leaflets, would take young Said to party meetings, demonstrations and street corners where they would distribute flyers. Loyalty to the party was crucial. He writes that when he was a child a party baby sitter sexually abused him and when his mother complained to a SWP functionary he waved the allegation away. When the party leadership decided their middle class members had to reach out to the working class they instituted the “turn to industry” policy and Sayid’s older brother and sister found jobs in factories, much as young American Communists had done. And of course there were those internal battles where the losers were cast out. At one party convention Said describes walking with his sister “passing a table covered with pamphlets and surrounded by sad men who had been expelled from the party years ago.” His mother berates him for approaching and greeting these “sad men.” They are no longer comrades, she warns him.”

The doctrinal wars helped tear the party, small as it was, apart. “Each time the party had grown smaller and each time the members had assured themselves that now only those with the correct ideas remained.” During the late seventies, not long before the 1979 Iranian hostage, Said's father returned to Iran to form a unified Trotskyist party and eventually run for Iranian president under its banner. The party soon split into three factions and he received an infinitesimal number of votes, was briefly jailed, and then returned to the U.S. to become a professor of mathematics and remain loyal to the SWP.

Said, now an adult, writes of meeting his long missing father who proceeds to persuade him that a coal miners strike was less about wages and the right to organize than a demand for human dignity. He then urges his son to buy an introductory subscription to The Militant, the party’s official organ,.

His mother, meanwhile, remained loyal to Said. In her seventies she retired from her 30 year job as a secretary in a Pittsburgh university and finally quit the party as did her elder son and daughter. Now attending Quaker meetings, she told a Pittsburgh newspaper she loved her son’s book. Said meanwhile had relocated from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, worked for Martha Stewart, acted, wrote, and married. Toward the close of the book his mother visits and unexpectedly asks, “Said, can you tell me? How is Mahmoud?” Said answers that he hadn’t seen his father even though they both work and live in the same New York City borough. He did talk with him months before and Mahmoud said he was pleased to learn his son had married but, as Said had heard all his life from him, “he couldn’t [visit] right now, but soon, definitely soon.” But at an earlier lunch his father showed him a photo of Said as a baby which he had in his wallet. “I’ve carried this with me the whole time,” he told Said, who is clearly moved by the surprising revelation. And when his mother prepares to board a bus for Pittsburgh following her visit she embraces her son and weeps.

Did it all happen as Said records? Were the SWP leaders and members such insensitive ideologues? Was their unflagging opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars of no concern to him? Has his experience turned him sharply to the right? Or, perhaps, made him apolitical? And is he Iranian or Jewish or even a residual political theorist? A talented writer, we need to hear more from him.

And now that we’ve heard from a child of the far left who among the children of the far right will write their memoirs?

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