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The Power of Positive Trotskyism

Standing Fast

by Harvey Swados
Doubleday, 656 pp., $8.95

Standing Fast is a long, common-sensical chronicle of the lives of a score of American socialists over twenty-four years, from the Hitler-Stalin pact to the death of J.F. Kennedy. It could form the basis for several Stanley Kramer films, offering parts for performers like Henry Fonda, Arthur Kennedy, Eva-Marie Saint, Shelley Winters. The fighting and the sex are clean, moderate, reasonable.

The men are lean, handsome and active.
Where have you seen girls more attractive?

The political and social opinions are unexceptionable to middle-aged “radicals” on the liberal-socialist wave length. The author seems to be demonstrating, first, that you don’t (or, in those days, you didn’t) have to be freaky (still less, Stalinist) to be on the far left; second, that leftists should be careful not to neglect their own families in the interests of the wider community. A wholesome book, Charles Kingsley might say.

But, at any rate in the earlier chapters, it may seem too “reassuring,” in the way of the best seller. As Morris West reassures liberal Roman Catholics, and Harold Robbins reassures Harold Robbins readers, so perhaps Harvey Swados offers the same commodity to old-fashioned socialists. He refers to many large public problems but gets nowhere with them: optimistic speeches are made, meetings held, journals written. Each of the thirty-six chapters is a little drama, too brief to be conclusive, like a TV episode. In a way, the long book seems too short: each chapter is like the synopsis of a novel. The author may have chosen the wrong form. He has remarked that he would have liked to write it in a series of novels, as Anthony Powell and C.P. Snow have done, but American readers are not used to this.

He has also admitted that the beginning of the book is unsatisfactory, with too many characters. “You have to plow through meeting all these people.” True. Ten characters give their names to chapter headings, two of the most prominent being Norman Miller and Joe Link (with six chapters each), so that it’s a pity I kept getting these two confused in my mind. But both are professional writers, handsome, tough, and manly, who stride down Main Street, jackets swinging free, ready to address a street-corner meeting, the spring sun striking on their bared heads or through their thin pullovers. Both are attached to the “New Party”—which, Swados has stated, is loosely based on Max Schachtmann’s Socialist Workers’ Party. However that may be, they are broadly Trotskyite but not much inclined to accept instructions from Mexico or anywhere else.

When we first meet Norman he is making a speech, denouncing the Hitler-Stalin pact, and attracting the hero worship of two young students, Sy Glantzman and his girlfriend Bernie, both of them brought up among Communists. Norman’s personal distinction seems a bit overdone. The students, we are told, were

…smitten with him as a dashing figure, more glamorous than the Marxist logic-choppers with whom they had grown up. Still fresh from Mexico where he had been first pick-wielding archaeologist and then pistol-toting bodyguard to Trotsky, he possessed for them the added attractiveness of having gone to college out of town, in Ann Arbor, of having played football there, of having his own place on 113th Street.

The next sentence has come out as nonsense:

They could not possibly have understood that he still felt trapped in the middle-class and had been attracted to the revolutionary movement as a possible way out of experienced middle-class agitators like himself, whose principal working class like Sy and Bernie would have invested him with an additional appeal.

Evidently there has been some misprinting here; but it is perhaps characteristic of this kind of easy-running prose that, reading it lazily, skimmingly, you might fancy it made sense. This jumble of familiar phrases works, almost like a Burroughs “cut-up,” to suggest a familiar situation—a left-wing ambiance in which comrades find romance in each other’s class origins, limitations in their own.

Norman is not a memorable character. He is flat, like the kind of movie hero who exists only to have adventures. He is flat, too, like the typical narrator in English novel sequences, acute and eloquent about other characters, reticent about himself. If Mr. Swados had kept to his idea of following the example of Powell and Snow, Norman might have made a good narrator, becoming interesting over the years, almost in spite of himself, and providing a single view-point (much needed here), growing but consistent. The author has tried to make Norman solid by giving him sorrows and telling us that he is sad. At the end of the book, Norman steps forward to meet the plane bringing in the body of J.F. Kennedy to Washington, and we are given the impression that, deeply moved, he is about to do something very significant. But I do not know what it is, and feel that I have missed a clue.

The worst of Norman’s sorrows is the condition of his son, whom he seems to have neglected. This youth is apparently normal, even charming, but behaves as an autistic child or a psychopath is supposed to do: he has no humane feelings or moral inhibitions, but has learned how and when to act good. This sketch would make a novel in itself, the situation being too big for a few paragraphs. The same may be said of some of Norman’s public exploits and adventures. It is rather as if old newspaper stories were being riffled through, with Norman’s presence on the scene not adding very much. He fights with “scabs” during a steelworkers’ strike. He writes reports for the New Party’s journal (with cartoons by Vito Brigante, virile artist and ex-boxer, a part for Anthony Quinn).

He breaks “party discipline” by enlisting for the war against Japan. He becomes a sergeant in the Philippines: a well-respected soldier, he is also loved by the natives, whom he instructs in Marxism. He leads the other GIs in a demonstration against staying in the Philippines: “Let’s go home! Leave them alone!” they shout—which annoys the colonel but impresses visiting congressmen, who recognize Norman as a skilled politician. This brief sequence reads rather like a daydream of all-round satisfaction. Later we find Norman active in Little Rock, during the desegregation campaign. In 1956 he is in Budapest—where he writes, perhaps rather glibly, about “the lynched bodies of AVO assassins.”

One of the things wrong with lynching is that the victims are often innocent. But there is a tendency, in the otherwise unrevolutionary media of the West, to suppose that violent rebels in Hungary or Poland can do no wrong, and that if they lynch a policeman he must be an “assassin.” Whether or not the New Party shares this attitude, there are indications that the members are, in practical terms, more concerned to oppose Soviet Communism than capitalism. The New Party members are predictably critical of the Communists’ stage management of the Rosenbergs—more critical, perhaps, than they are of the execution. They spend much of their time campaigning against “right-wing Communist” coalitions in the trade unions. No doubt this is how it was; but it seems a pity that there is no space for a character who might accuse the New Party of splitting the labor movement. In the rush of events, and allusions to events, a pause for discussion on strategy and tactics would be welcome. There must have been some.

The narrative line switches from one to another of these party members, catching them at dramatic moments in their biographies. Fred is an academic who becomes a TV star until his quiz program is exposed as being crooked. Another member, Margaret the labor lawyer, acts in his defense, but most of his old comrades are disgusted by his testimony at the Senate inquiry, rating it as “one of the great performances of the Eisenhower era.” Then there is Joe Link, the man who is like Norman and does the same kind of thing. We see him as a college student, working in factories to be among the proletariat. Romantically, he takes over a corrupt union local, at gunpoint. In the 1950s he is blacklisted by both unions and employers. Finally he is commissioned to write a book, an analysis of the state of the labor movement.

There is Big Boy, a black trade unionist, who also has a young relative with new ideas. This boy, Ham, believes in nonviolence and goes on sit-ins in the South. There is Irwin, a Jewish dentist, who has an almost Christ-like son called Paul: he brings Ham to his bar mitzvah and hands over the family’s gifts to Ham’s racial integration movement. The author has decided that the relationship between black and Jewish radicals is very important, and it is time to make reference to this. Paul goes to a New York black ghetto, helping the Catholic Workers; he is murdered by black youths, and mourned by the neighborhood at a packed funeral. I knew this would happen to Paul, because it is that kind of book. Paul’s tragedy, again, deserves a novel to itself, instead of flickering across the screen as one in a series of disasters, like newspaper clippings and calendar pages in an old film.

Swados’s mistake is that he has tried to squeeze in historical data through allusions and parentheses in his characters’ conversation: this method leads to long-windedness and only a blurred, hinting impression of what the author thinks to be the most significant events and what his characters make of them. So the story has a dreamlike effect—not unpleasant but surely unintended in a “realistic” novel, a documentary apologia for a generation of radicals, with its “Well, we did our best” tone of voice. Although the events are grim, a dreamy optimism comes across. I liked the idea of the book and its general tone, I found it companionable and wish I could praise it more highly. But it does seem the wrong size and the wrong shape.

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