Many new members of DSA (which is to say, most members of DSA), feel more than a little self-conscious about calling each other “comrade.” The Cold War Soviet connotations are still too strong for the word to not feel hokey. Contrary to our unconscious associations, “comrade” and “tovarish” (“това́рищ”), its Russian equivalent, are etymologically unrelated. In fact, socialists and leftists of many stripes were using it long before the Soviet Union came into existence. Rather than give you a detailed history of the origins of this curious linguistic practice, let’s explore what the word means in the present day.
We often use the word “comrade” as a synonym for friend, but that’s not entirely accurate. Many of your comrades you’ll come to love like family, while others will drive you up the fucking wall. Being a comrade isn’t the same as being a friend, a neighbor, or coworker: you aren’t necessarily tied to your comrades by a personal relationship, physical location, or employer. Instead, comradeship is based on a shared vision of the future. To paraphrase the words of Charlie Chaplin, our vision is of a world in which life is free and beautiful, a marvelous adventure, a world that will give everyone a chance to work, that offers an exciting, open future and the security to fully enjoy it. It’s that vision, that candle burning brightly in the dark, that we all share, that keeps us working and fighting together, even when we’re absolutely livid with one another.
At some point, each of us feels as though we’ve reached the end of our rope, that we’ve given all the fight we have in us and just can’t give anymore. It’s in those moments we can lie down to rest knowing that our comrades will pick up the fight in our place. Even if a comrade has been a thorn in our side recently, we can smile knowing they’re out there giving hell to the people who really deserve it: the bigots, the fascists, and the capitalists.
A certain comfort and warmth comes from having a sense of purpose and meaning. When you’re a comrade, even if you feel, as most do at some point, that our dream is impossibly distant, you can take solace in the knowledge that you’re investing your time and energy in something that has a real shot at making a difference, even if you might not be around to see it. Even at the worst of times you know you did your part to keep the dream of a better, more egalitarian future alive.
So, while it’s perfectly understandable to feel self-conscious about using the term “comrade,” it’s important to recognize the meaning behind the custom. We aren’t simply doing it to be countercultural or in blind adherence to tradition. It’s a reminder of who we are as socialists, and how we want to live: in solidarity.