The Romance of American Communism
by Vivian Gornick
Basic Books, 265 pp., $10.00
A good subject with large possibilities—what more can a writer ask for? Vivian Gornick has found such a subject in turning back to the experience of those thousands of Americans who passed through the Communist Party. She interviews a number of old-timers, taking down their words with syntactical improvements, and she frames these recollections with her own commentaries. Her purpose is to recall the humanity of the Communist experience, that is, to show that while some were or became scoundrels, others were decent, selfless people who found themselves trapped by their idealism.
That last phrase of mine imposes upon her book an idea that Ms. Gornick prefers not to confront: the idea that, quite apart from the usual risks of alloy and contamination, idealism can in its very purity be a source of moral corruption. Even while repeating the usual criticisms of the Party, she tries hard to salvage the good intentions and earnest commitments of its members.
It could have been a first-rate book. All she needed was a strict discipline of mind and language, and a determination to hold fast against the self-justifications bound to seep into the memories of her respondents. I don’t mean thereby to suggest that she had to write from this or the other point of view, least of all the crude, reactionary anti-Communism she is eager to dismiss. But in turning to her battered and disillusioned comrades, she would have had to press beyond nostalgia and especially to question the worth of resummoned emotions. Alas, where her book should be dry, it is damp; where hard, soft. Her own part of it is badly written, in a breathy, hyped-up style which betrays too close an acquaintance with the “new journalism.”
Still, there are good passages, notably so when old-time Party people look back with honesty. Selma Gardinsky (the names are not real ones) remembers the boredom of interminable meetings:
“Oy, those meetings! You know why most Communists aren’t politically active today? Because they can’t stand the thought of ever going to another meeting!
“A lot of [Party activity] was just sheer grinding shitwork. You think making a revolution is all agony and ecstasy?”
Joe Preisen talks about the mad willfulness of the Party in “colonizing” radical college boys as factory workers:
“God, the things the Party did to these college boys…. They sent people into industry who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what it was all about—the bones, the experience, the years of being a worker.”
Paul Levinson joined the CP in a Bronx housing cooperative:
“It was life, the only life I ever knew, and it was alive. Intense, absorbing, filled with a kind of comradeship I never again expect to know…. We literally felt we were making history.”
And here is a touching recollection from Sarah Gordon:
“How I hated selling the Worker! I used to stand in front of the neighborhood movie on a Saturday night with sickness and terror in my heart …