Socialist Humor Is Not an Oxymoron
Paul Buhle interviews socialist humorist Danny Katch, on the publication of a new edition of Socialism….Seriously, by Haymarket Press, 2923
I wrote the first version of this book in early 2014, when TikTok was a Ke$ha song, Donald Trump was a joke, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender. #Blacklivesmatter was a hashtag and not a movement, #metoo was neither, and Mark Zuckerburg was a boy genius bringing the world together through his social network. We talked about climate change in the future tense and fascism in the past, and only wore masks at Halloween parties, bank robberies and lucha libre wrestling matches. For our purposes here, the most important change is that socialism was reborn, right here in the US of A, during Bernie Sanders’ historic 2106 presidential campaign….”
So begins the latest effort of a literary humorist living in Queens. Danny Katch is important to me for his insights and his way of expressing them. He is also important as part of a socialist humor tradition too easily forgotten.
Abraham Lincoln used to act out the monologues written by his good friend “Petroleum V. Nasby” aka David Locke during the especially tense moments of the Civil War. Mark Twain was already on the job, of course.
Pretty soon, the first literary satires of capitalism were appearing in the weekend “cultural” editions of German-American socialist newspapers, and the zeyde (grandfather) of the Yiddish socialist press, Morris Winchevsky, adopted the persona of the “Meshugina Filosofer” (crazy philosopher) to ridicule the sanctities of capitalism. Within a couple of generations, socialist writer-editor Oscar Ameringer had written a satirical version of U.S. history that sold a half-million copies.
That’s enough history. These were the questions that I posed to Danny Katch, and his responses.
PB: How did you get the idea of writing anti-capitalist humor?
DK: I didn’t start writing as a serious pursuit until I was in my mid-thirties, around 2010.
I’d been a socialist organizer for 15 years at that point, and I was starting to feel burnt out. I needed to find additional ways of being part of the movement that brought me a different kind of satisfaction. I’d always liked writing but found it overwhelming. Making jokes was easier to imagine, since that’s how I cope with pretty much everything. Writing political humor became a way to make some of those jokes a little more useful.
The writing process could be agonizing, but as a socialist organizer in the early 2000s, I was well-trained in masochism.
PB. How have you developed your technique?
DK: When I first started writing I was always searching for one-liners. Over time I’ve learned to trust that the jokes will come, and that what’s more important is to find the right overall angle to approach an issue. It’s finding the degree to which, if you cock your head, you can see all the weirdness that ideology and repetition make invisible, which is great for both comedy and subversive politics.
People often think I throw in some jokes to make the politics more accessible–like some sugar to make the socialism medicine go down easier. I never thought of it that way. I can only sustain myself as a socialist if I keep reminding myself just how absurd capitalism is–and even more so the people who find themselves “in charge” of it. You know, the people who believe in a meritocracy that–well, would you look at that!–just happens to benefit them at every turn, who think that the United States has the greatest military in world history that oddly never happens to actually “win” any of its endless wars.
Of course, these absurd people have massive power to make or break our puny lives, which means that our lives are absurd, too, and you have to be able to make fun of yourself and your comrades. That’s the angle my head was cocked at as I wrote the new Socialism…Seriously. I was in a constant state of, “Really? These are the idiots who are going to bring down human civilization and everything we hold dear?” We can’t let that happen if for no other reason than sheer embarrassment.
PB: How is this second edition of Socialism…Seriously different from the first?
DK: It’s updated, expanded, and revised. Or, as the cover of the book promises, the new version is “Now With 50% More Socialism!” (h/t to Jim Plank for coming up with that). The original was written in 2014, before Bernie’s run, DSA’s growth, Trump’s presidency, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, #MeToo, Proud Boys. You get the idea. The whole premise of the original was that socialism was this little-known idea, which is simply no longer the case. A couple of years ago I saw that people were continuing to buy Socialism…Seriously, which was great, but I thought, “Wow the book is really out of date.” So, I wanted people to read a book that describes the world they’re living in.
The next difference is the expansion. I like that the original was short, but I couldn’t resist adding three new chapters. The first is about climate anxiety, which we all feel to varying degrees, but I fear is having more of a paralyzing (and in the case of conservatives, a pathologizing) effect than a galvanizing one. The second is about the centrality of Indigenous struggles to any idea of what socialism will be in the 21st century. And the third is an additional second speculative fiction chapter that gets into workplace democracy and COVID grief. I wrote a speculative fiction chapter in the original about a day under socialism (a bad day, in fact) and it got a great response, so I thought I’d add a second.
The last difference is the revision. My ideas have evolved in the last eight years. I wanted to revisit questions of reform and revolution, electoral strategies, and different socialist currents. In short, the book is not simply revised, it’s…revisionist!
PB: Once upon a time, a different time of large working-class followings, left speeches often had “openers,” standup comics, sometimes making fun of pompous speech-making. Oscar Ameringer opened for Eugene Debs, for instance. Why does the Left today seem so humorless or appear to most newcomers to be so? What would it take for a serious improvement?
DK: I don’t agree that the Left is humorless. When I first came around socialists, a friend of mine was surprised when I said many of them were funny. He said, “I thought socialists would be like, ‘Nobody laughs until everyone is fed!,’” which still cracks me up today. But that’s kind of what I was afraid of, too.
Why does the Left have a reputation for being humorless? For the same reason we have a reputation for wanting to make everyone share a toothbrush. It’s just right-wing propaganda. As a Jew I also have a “reputation” for controlling global networks of media and finance. We can’t control what people who don’t like us are going to say about us.
I don’t know how this compares to a century ago, but today there’s a vibrant comedy subculture inside the socialist movement–podcasts, standups doing movement fundraisers, etc. And there’s plenty of millennial and Gen Z lefties who are way better at being funny in the cruel carnival of social media than I am. I have my critiques of left-wing comedy–too many in-jokes, lazy edginess, and long rants that just end with amirite? But I have the same critiques about all comedy– it’s the only art form I feel somewhat entitled to be an asshole about.