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, thrusting the paper at people who’d turn away from me or push me or even spit in my face. I dreaded it. Every week of my life for years I dreaded Saturday night.”
All of this bears the ring of truth, and forms the raw material, though no more than that, of historical study. Ms. Gornick asks our understanding of the experience glimpsed in such passages, which is fine; and she even milks our sympathies, which sometimes is all right. In the recollections she transcribes, the 1950s are an especially nightmarish time, since even defenders of persecution can themselves be persecuted.
(A recent autobiography by Peggy Dennis,* wife of a CP leader, reports that during the 1950s a free-lance vigilante attacked the eight-year-old daughter of Robert Thompson, head of the New York CP. One’s heart goes out to that child, and the father too. Yet it is impossible not to remember with some bitterness that Thompson, affectionate father as he no doubt was, was also a hard-line Stalinist who never showed a pinch of feeling for all the eight-year-old children in Russia whose fathers were being swept away by the NKVD. Those of us who lived through the 1950s can acknowledge that leading American Communists were victims, but we must object to making them into heroes.)
Understanding, then, and at times even sympathy. Ms. Gornick proposes, however, to go farther, suggesting that while the Communists were often wrong in their politics, still, they were somehow right since they were more passionate, more committed, than other people. In the Communists “the major spiritual and intellectual currents of their time ran strong instead of weak…. They feared, hungered, and cared more.”
About what? When Communists led strikes that were disastrously called or prolonged or “politicized,” they cared more about the Party’s directives than the workers’ interests. How strongly, for that matter, did they care about Bukharin when he was being humiliated and murdered in Moscow? As for the “major spiritual and intellectual currents,” these were indeed running strong among the Communists, but Ms. Gornick does not consider that perhaps the strongest was that streak of authoritarianism which has been at the center of twentieth-century politics. Nor does she stop to wonder whether it might have been the obligation of thinking people to resist those “major currents,” not the least of which were Stalinism and fascism.
What finally makes Ms. Gornick so indulgent with a good many of her respondents (almost never does she talk back to them or press them with difficult questions) is not so much the politics of Stalinism as the shared emotions of Party life. Now this is a reality which it would be foolish to dismiss, but surely there must be a better way to confront it than by speaking of a “humanizing process” in which Party members “emerge by merging.”
Repeatedly the old-time Communists whom Ms. Gornick interviewed keep returning to “the emotion of total comradeship,” the sensation of “wholeness.” That sensation still sets Ms. Gornick aquiver, she hungers for it with a touching lack of concealment. But what is it? Let me schematically note a few of its parts—a full-scale inquiry would come to the heart of twentieth-century politics:
—a feeling of having brought into active engagement a larger portion of one’s moral energies than routine life allows;
—a sense of inner harmony, in the past achieved through religious experience or romantic intuitions of nature, but now to be had through political activity;
—a subordination of ego to purpose, small vanity to large end, individual personality to collective structure.
What is interesting about any such listing of the parts of “wholeness” is that it runs the gamut from the morally best to the worst, from a wish for authenticity to a hunger for submission. Of all twentieth-century movements Communism has been most successful in yoking, and confusing, these feelings, and the reasons for this success, I am convinced, cannot be understood apart from concrete historical study. What seems beyond dispute is that such a fusion of yearnings could be reached in our time only through a movement requiring total commitment, the whole of life. Except perhaps in its initial phase of insurgency, liberalism could not provide such satisfactions since it refused on principle to cater to them. Socialism could sometimes provide them, but only when it linked political work with quasi-religious claims.
Movements other than Communism have of course brought a sense of “wholeness” to many people: fascism, the Moonies, Hare Krishna, Trotskyism, various ultra-left grouplets. And the single element that enables us to link a wide variety of movements and sects, radically different as these may be in value, is totality, a readiness to demand “everything” from believers.
The sad truth is, I’d guess, that no variety of democratic politics can compete in the provision of “wholeness.” People like Ms. Gornick who suffer from unacknowledged religious appetites must, if they find no contemporary agency to slake them, turn in nostalgia to a movement they recognize to have been deplorable.
I don’t mean here to deny that human beings experience a strong need for a life of community. But the idea of community, in so far as it refers to a union of autonomous persons, must be sharply distinguished from that surrender of the self which has been a major characteristic of authoritarian movements. Nothing is more typical of our time than this surrender to an absolute “We,” the ecstatic abasement called forth by the politics of what Harold Rosenberg once labeled the Counterfeit Collective. The most that independent-minded persons in our time can hope for, in politics and perhaps life, is a sort of “partial wholeness.”
But Ms. Gornick would surely reply with impatience, how can you possibly compare religious or even political sects with a world-encompassing movement like Communism? She would be right, but only in so far as she proposed to turn to the political and intellectual content of Communist activities. If it is “wholeness” that is in question, then there is every reason for invoking, with whatever qualifications, the experience of religious sects. And in this department there is no reason to suppose that what a religious sect provides is any the less “whole” than what the Party offered.
For anyone who has a slight acquaintance with twentieth-century politics and thought, the talk about “wholeness” bears sinister overtones. Peter Gay, in his study of Weimar culture, relates “the craving for wholeness” to a politics of reactionary nostalgia; Erich Fromm, with a wish to “escape from freedom” that forms a psychological basis for authoritarian yielding. Surely by this late moment in the century, no writer can be granted the kind of innocence with which Ms. Gornick uses terms like “wholeness.”
Ms. Gornick forces such familiar reflections because she has done something quite remarkable: she has written a book about Communism without saying very much about its politics. For her it is all vibration, remembered fraternity, huddling together, “passion.” She has almost nothing to say about dual unionism, “social fascism,” the Popular Front, the Moscow Trials, the role of the NKVD, the expulsion of Browder, the Slansky trial, the Hungarian revolution. One sometimes has to remind oneself that in her evocation of coziness and warmth she is writing about the CP in the time of Stalin and not about a summer camp.
The climax comes on the next-to-last page where Ms. Gornick sees a “historical chain” from the “visionary socialists of the nineteenth century” to “the fierce politicalness of the Communists,” and then, happily, “the unaffiliated Marxist consciousness of contemporary radicals.” And she asks: “Was there anyone who could argue that each phase in its turn had not been necessary to the development of American radicalism?” Yes, quite a few people would argue precisely that, with the line forming on the left. Does Ms. Gornick, in any case, realize that she is saying that Stalinism and all its attendant horrors were historically “necessary” and thereby perhaps “progressive”? Is she aware that exactly the same sort of argument might be made to justify the Vietnam war?
The problem with Ms. Gornick’s book is not so much that she can’t think as that she evidently prefers not to.
April 6, 1978
The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life, 1925-1975 (Lawrence Hill/Creative Arts, 1977). ↩