“I offer an alternative to liberal-style capitalism or conservative-style capitalism. Both are neoliberal at the end of the day.”
hristopher Helali stands out for one reason in particular this election cycle: He is the first person to run for a major political office as a member of the Communist Party USA since 1984. Mr. Helali, who is running to represent Vermont’s at-large district in the United States House of Representatives, speaks with Teddy Duncan Jr. about why he is running, his dissatisfaction with the two-party system in the United States, as well as to address a pair of scandals that have, at times, overshadowed his campaign.
So, first off, Mr. Helali, why are you running? What do you think that you can contribute as a self-described communist/Marxist-Leninist to the already primarily left-leaning state of Vermont?
I would describe Vermont as more liberal than leftist. That, of course, is apparent in the fact that we have a Republican governor, and we are historically a Republican state. Vermont shifted its politics after the back-to-the-land movement when hippies went back to become farmers and live off the land. Things changed politically in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Vermont. While the Republican party is slowly waning in Vermont, there is still a big conservative streak in the state.
What I can offer is an alternative to the two parties of capitalism and war. I offer an alternative to liberal-style capitalism or conservative-style capitalism. Both are neoliberal at the end of the day. Both are beholden to Wall Street, to big corporations, to the big monopolies, and, of course, to the military-industrial complex. My alternative is a society where we can end the wars, bring home all of the troops from abroad, close the bases, and abolish NATO. We can, then, reinvest the trillions of dollars in our communities. One of the things that separates me is that when I speak about family values and patriotism, it means giving everybody free health care, free education, and free child care of the highest quality, universal to everyone in this country. We have steered clear of a lot of the culture-war-type conversations, and I focused strictly on class, economics, and war. It has proven successful so far.
What are some of the issues specific to Vermont that you would focus on as a member of Congress?
For me, one of the biggest issues is the struggles of small and medium-sized family farms. Farms are having a really difficult time now, especially during the pandemic—primarily because Vermont agriculture is in the dairy industry. They have experienced tremendous hardships as a result. My biggest push would be to end the subsidies to the big agribusinesses, end all of the support for the big corporate agricultural monopolies, and create a federal program that provides full funding to small and medium-size farms, with good environmental practices like carbon sequestration and pollution reduction. Ultimately, I believe that if we support small and medium-sized farms, we will create robust communities—strong communities of solidarity and mutual aid—because our small farming communities are the bedrock of Vermont’s political and social life. Of course, we are farmers ourselves here. We realize the difficulty and the hardship.
The second thing is that the Vermont National Guard has—per capita—one of the highest loss rates in terms of casualties in the wars in the Middle East: the “War on Terror.” We need to end the basing of the F-35, which is now based in Burlington, stop the wars, and prevent our National Guard from fighting in these wars of empire.
I would fight for more funding for schools in small communities to provide high-quality education. I would fight to keep clinics open and advocate for more hospitals and clinics in rural areas. These are the primary issues in the state. We need a big, big push for more economic rights for all workers in the state, especially migrant workers with groups like Migrant Justice. We need to provide strong, robust union jobs and pay way more than $15 an hour. $15 an hour is not a living wage. It should be beyond $20 an hour now when you account for decades of inflation and stagnant wages.
That is what we are fighting for, and we know it is an uphill struggle.
I have seen in other interviews where you have claimed that electoral politics is something that can be subverted to be used against the status quo, and that is why you are running for Congress. Many on the Left would say that electoral politics is untenable for a true communist or socialist revolution. What alternatives do you see to electoral politics?
The alternatives are mass organizations and mass strikes. We are not advocating for violence. There have been revolutions that have been violent and revolutions that have been fairly non-violent. We are advocating for working-class people to seize their industries and to struggle and strike for their rights. If you have a large enough mass-movement, you can transform the system. In order to do that outside of electoral politics, you have to have a population that is willing and dedicated to political and economic transformation. I think that that will come only through political education and the raising of class consciousness. It will not happen via tweets, and it will not happen on Facebook. Transformation will happen in the streets, in our communities, on our farms, and in our workplaces. That is where the struggle is. The struggle is to shed light on all of these issues and help working-class people see who the real enemy is. We have to look at what sort of society we want to build afterward.
Slavoj Žižek has claimed in his new book, Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, that the Coronavirus revealed to the world the need for communism, which he has re-defined roughly as global solidarity. You’ve spoken about nationalizing major resources, which some argue would have been beneficial during this time. How do you think a communist American government would have handled the pandemic differently?
First and foremost, I think Žižek is on to something here. And I think a communist United States government would have said, “Everyone, stay home. We’re going to provide you with full wages, and we’re going to provide all industries with all the resources they need to keep everybody on the payrolls to keep everybody, without any question, fully funded in terms of their wages and their benefits.”
So, number one: Provide full funding to everyone for their work. The second would be to marshal all of the nationalized industries and resources of the state. This can only happen if industries were nationalized or, in the case of the United States, under the Defense Production Act, which, of course, Trump eventually decided to use. That forces private corporations in our current capitalist system to produce, for example, personal protective equipment. In a communist society, nobody has to be forced; the nationalized industries are under the people’s control. The third point is this: We would not let all of this food go to waste. We would have in-place structures and systems to take in resources, like milk, for example. Millions of gallons of milk were wasted because schools, workplaces, and restaurants were not buying milk. We would find a way to get that out to people in the community.
But I think this is an absolute tragedy, and it shows the barbarity of our system. In the midst of a pandemic, while people are starving in the streets, in their homes, and on their farms, farmers are forced to get rid of produce and dump milk because there is no market for it. To me, that is a crime. It is a crime because people are going hungry. At the same time, we are destroying all of the food. So, I think that we would have a society and a government where they could marshal the resources of the state to redistribute all of those food products to the people who would be most in-need. Of course, in a society like that, if everyone is getting full funding, they would not even have to pay out of pocket. The government could give this fully subsidized food back to the people.
Your campaign, policy-wise, is expressly anti-war. You state on your campaign website that you want to “end U.S. imperialism.” However, you have served in the United States military and served in the PPU (a military group in Syria). Is your time in the United States military in contention with your beliefs? Did you have a change of belief or did the military disillusion you?
Well, I joined them. I was already a Marxist-Leninist in high school. When I went to college, my family did not have that much money to provide, and I had to pay for college on my own. I had limited options, so I decided I would join ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, to help pay for my studies. So, I joined the military, but I joined the military with my beliefs, knowing that I would not go and fight in these wars of empire. Some people might say that that was wrong of me to do, but I was able to pay for school. And I was able to see—within the military—how things are and what goes on. Ultimately, I was slated to go to my Infantry Officer Course and eventually to go to the 82nd Airborne Division and deploy to Afghanistan.
I was able to get out of that by switching to the Chaplain Corps and then resigning my commission in protest. I was able to get out without any penalties. Of course, the United States military is an arm of its imperialism. I had those same beliefs while I was in it.
I would never fight. I am Iranian. I am here. I have dual citizenship. Why would I go fight in Afghanistan? Why would I go fight in Iraq? What did these people do to me? It is absolutely crazy. We have fathers and mothers who served in Afghanistan, and now their children are going to deploy to Afghanistan. We have been there for almost 20 years. What the hell have we accomplished? The Taliban is stronger than it was in 2001. That is telling me that there are other factors at play.
For example, in the case of Afghanistan, you have opium. Afghanistan is the center of opium production. We have an opioid crisis in this country. I think that there is a direct correlation between American troops guarding poppy fields in Afghanistan and the opioid crisis here in the United States—and the big pharmaceutical companies that benefit from it. Consider the fact that China is next-door; it borders Afghanistan. Afghanistan is home to trillions of dollars in rare earth minerals. Of course, the United States does not want that to fall into the hands of the Chinese. So, I think that these are very telling about what the wars are all about. I wore the uniform. Those who wear the uniform do not fight for democracy. They fight for corporations. So, I think that is how we are able to open people’s eyes. The fight was not for the United States’ flag, our liberty, or our democracy. It was for big corporations like Halliburton that plunder the resources of other people’s countries.
I have read that your maternal grandfather was involved in militant communist groups in Greece. Coming from a lineage of committed communists from other countries, what do you think about the United States’ general aversion to non-free-market practices?
I always tell people that the movement for socialism and communism in this country is as American as apple pie. We had utopian communes like New Harmony. We had the trade union movement. We had militancy with the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Party under Eugene Debs. I mean—there were millions of people in this country fighting for different leftist beliefs: anarcho-syndicalism, socialism, and communism. They were fighting against the capitalist system. Revisionist histories have erased these movements and people from American history. As we begin to speak about it, we say, “Oh my gosh, we’re communists and this is something alien!” It is not alien. Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, there had already been socialists fighting in the United States for decades.
Communism has deep roots in the United States. It has deep roots in the struggles for labor and civil rights. The New Deal was passed because Roosevelt did not want a communist revolution. It was a way to placate the working class—what is called “labor peace.” These benefits and gains of the working class, which are now being eroded and are almost done for, were achieved because of working-class militancy on the Left.
When I think about the legacy of my family, my grandparents, and great-grandparents in Greece involved in the Communist Party of Greece, they were always in fraternal solidarity with and holding hands with the working-class people around the world. We are fighting for something international; we are fighting for the liberation of all, beyond borders. Ultimately, I think that communism and socialism—these different ideas—are not at all alien to the United States. There is a proud, strong, vibrant history of struggle here that continues to this day. We are just part of that lineage.
There have been issues with you and the previous leftist organization that you were a member of, which alleges that you embezzled money and also that you left a woman with your newborn child without providing her with any support. I have seen emails that you have attempted to rectify the situation with the alleged embezzlement by offering to return the amount taken. I also understand that there is currently a legal situation over the unpaid child support. This is in contention with the communist values of communal property and wealth. Why and how should voters trust you? How are you representative of communist values and beliefs?
First and foremost, we are setting the record straight on a big campaign of slander and defamation against me from some on the Left. I was an anarchist; then, I went back to communism. I saw a lot of anarchists really spreading hate and vitriol because of that. In regard to the question about embezzlement, I never embezzled any money. There was a faction of the IWW in Boston, of which I was the branch secretary-treasurer, and our faction decided together that the money should be used for revolutionary purposes. Since I was already planning on leaving, we gave six hundred dollars to a comrade who was undergoing cancer treatments—to whom we had already given money before the split in the chapter. I reimbursed somebody else for receipts before the split. I used the rest of the money to go to Syria to fight against ISIS. While I was there, the other faction took control and then claimed that I embezzled the money.
They were worried about terrorism and material support for terrorism—that kind of thing. When I returned and I had the money, I repaid it all. So, all the money has been repaid back to the union. I feel not only hurt but very suspicious about this campaign and why people still spread all these lies now that the money has been paid back for quite some time. I have never stolen from comrades. It is not like I used the money to go on a vacation. The money was used to support a struggle against a brutal enemy in an area that was being supported by many anarchists and socialists around the world.
On the question of my child: I have a child with a former comrade in Boston. I was already out of the country when I found out that she was pregnant. I had already committed to going over to Syria. They were originally supportive but changed their mind. My brother helped out with raising my daughter for a period of time. I do not want to get into this because it is an ongoing legal case. I tried to reach out. We tried to figure things out; now, we are going through the courts. It was not possible to solve these things through the community. Now we are going through the courts to establish paternity and deal with child support and custody. I think everybody has personal issues and personal problems. Not all relationships work out. People get separated and divorced; families go through difficulties. That is just a personal issue that I am handling. I have given money to her for the child. My brother and my family have also helped out. I hope that I can one day have a relationship with my daughter without her being weaponized for political purposes.
I appreciate your time today, Mr. Helali.