Don’t Call Me Comrade

It’s obvious that MacLeish’s poetry between 1936 and 1939 was heavily influenced by the Great Depression. Though he seemed to embrace the worker’s movement, his poetry rejected the kind of brotherhood being promoted by the Communist Party as shown in “Speech to Those who Say Comrade:”


The brotherhood is not by the blood certainly,
But neither are men brothers by speech – by saying so:
Men are brothers by life lived and are hurt for it.

Hunger and hurt are the great begetters of brotherhood:
Humiliation has gotten much love:
Danger I say is the nobler father and mother.

Those are as brothers whose bodies have shared fear
Or shared harm or shared hurt or indignity.
Why are the old soldiers brothers and nearest?

For this: with their minds they go over the sea a little
And find themselves in their youth again as they were in
Soissons and Meaux and at Ypres and those cities:

A French loaf and the girls with their eyelids painted
Bring back to aging and lonely men
Their twentieth year and the metal odor of danger.

It is this in life which of all things is tenderest –
To remember together with unknown men the days
Common also to them and perils ended:

It is this which makes of many a generation –
A wave of men who having the same years
Have in common the same dead and the changes.

The solitary and unshared experience
Dies of itself like the violations of love
Or lives on as the dead live eerily:

The unshared and single man must cover his
Loneliness as a girl her shame for the way of
Life is neither by one man nor by suffering.

Who are the born brothers in truth? The puddlers
Scorched by the same flame in the same foundries,
Those who have spit on the same boards with the blood in it.’

Ridden the same rivers with green logs,
Fought the police in the parks of the same cities,
Grinned for the same blows, the same flogging,

Veterans out of the same ships, factories,
Expeditions for fame: the founders of continents:
Those that hid in Geneva a time back,

Those that have hidden and hunted and all such –
Fought together, labored together: they carry the
Common look like a card and they pass touching.

Brotherhood! No word said can make you brothers!
Brotherhood only the brave earn and by danger or
Harm or by bearing hurt and by no other.

Brotherhood here in the strange world is the rich and
Rarest giving of life and the most valued,
Not to be had for a word or a week’s wishing.

Perhaps it is, indeed, hardships, “hunger and hurt,” that bring men together for people seem more likely to have empathy for each other precisely when times are most difficult. People in the 30’s certainly seemed to have more of a sense of community than people do today. Perhaps it’s not entirely irrelevant that when I was a paperboy I was always surprised that I got the biggest tips from my poorest, least demanding customers while wealthy customers seemed to content to demand the most service.

Judging from some of the greatest literary works of the Depression, MacLeish is correct when he suggests that “Hunger and hurt are great begetters of brotherhood.” Perhaps, this explains why my Mother’s parents always left food on the back porch during the Depression. Since her father had a steady job as a postman, he felt he had to share with those who could not find work.

Being a soldier in Vietnam made me closer to my men than I have ever been to anyone except my children or my wife. I would have died for any one of them, and I suspect that they would have done the same for me. Nearly forty years later, I still long to see those in my platoon again. MacLeish seems correct that it was precisely this war and all the dissension that it brought that tied my generation together, just as World War II brought together an earlier generation.

Those who work in dangerous, tough industries, like the steel “puddlers” scorched by the flames of the kilns, the loggers, the workers beaten by the police during strikes are truly brothers of shared hardship.

But “no word said can make you brothers.” Calling someone comrade does not make them your brother. You have to earn that privilege.

One thought on “Don’t Call Me Comrade”

  1. Well said – I can remember 1967,68 and 69 just like yesterday and my brothers still remain as much a part of me as my hands or heart. I miss them as a family and feel a warmth that can not be described when fellowshiping with one of my “brothers”.

    Thank you for your posting.

    Richard (Spider)

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