One summer night in the early 1960s, at a rally in New York City, the cold war liberal Murray Kempton admitted to an audience full of old Reds that while America had not been kind to them, it had been lucky to have them. My mother was in the audience that night and said, when she came home, “America was fortunate to have had the Communists here. They, more than most, prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was.” I was surprised by the gentleness in her voice, she’d always been a hot-under-the-collar socialist; but then again, it was the 1960s, and by then she was really tired.
The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was formed in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. Over the next forty years, it grew steadily from a membership roll of two or three thousand to, at the height of its influence in the 1930s and 1940s, seventy-five thousand. All in all, nearly a million Americans were Communists at one time or another. While it is true that the majority joined the Communist Party in those years because they were members of the hard-pressed working class (garment district Jews, West Virginia miners, California fruit-pickers), it was even truer that many more in the educated middle class (teachers, scientists, writers) joined because for them, too, the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent concrete shape to a sense of social injustice made urgent by the Great Depression and World War II.
Most American Communists never set foot in party headquarters, nor laid eyes on a Central Committee member, nor were privy to internal party policy-making sessions. But every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor in this country; that it was mainly party lawyers who defended blacks in the Deep South; that party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia, farm workers in California, steel workers in Pittsburgh. On a day-to-day basis, through its passion for structure and the eloquence of its rhetoric, the party made itself feel real and familiar not only to its own members but also to the immensely larger world that then existed of sympathizers and fellow-travelers. It had built a remarkable network of regional sections and local branches; schools and publications; organizations that addressed large home-grown miseries—the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils—and an in-your-face daily newspaper that liberals as well as radicals regularly read. As one old Red put it, “Whenever some new world catastrophe announced itself throughout the Depression and World War II, The Daily Worker sold out in minutes.”
It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that made life feel large: large and clarified. It was to this inner clarity that so many became not only attached, but addicted. While under its influence, no reward of life, neither love nor fame nor wealth, could compete.
At the same time, it was this very all-in-allness of world and self that, all too often, made of Communists the true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith, even when a ten-year-old could see that a double game was being played. The CPUSA was a dues-paying member of the Comintern (the International Communist organization run from Moscow), and as such, it was accountable to the Soviets who intimidated communist parties around the world into adopting policies, both domestic and foreign, that most often served the needs of the USSR rather than those of the Comintern’s member countries. As a result, the CPUSA turned itself inside out, time and again, to accommodate what American communists saw as the one and only socialist country in the world, which they were required to support at all costs. This unyielding devotion to Soviet Russia allowed American Communists to deceive themselves repeatedly throughout the 1930s and 1940s and much of the 1950s as the Soviet Union rolled over Eastern Europe and became steadily more totalitarian, its actual life ever more hidden and its demands ever more self-serving.
In the early 1950s, the CPUSA came under serious fire from the wild panic over American security that McCarthyism set in motion—scores of Communists went underground out of fear of prison and perhaps worse—but then, in 1956, the party very nearly disintegrated under the weight of its own world-shattering scandal. In February of that year, Nikita Khrushchev addressed the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and revealed to the world the incalculable horror of Stalin’s rule. That address brought with it political devastation for the organized left around the world. Within weeks of its delivery, thirty thousand people quit the CPUSA, and within the year, the party was as it had been in its 1919 beginnings—a small sect on the American political map.
I grew up in a left-wing home where The Daily Worker was read, worker politics (global and local) was discussed at the dinner table, and progressives of every type regularly came and went. It never occurred to me to think of these people as revolutionaries. Never once did I have the impression that anyone around me wanted to see the government overthrown by violence. On the contrary, I saw them as working to see socialism become the norm through a change in the law: a change that would insure that, with the defeat of capitalism, American democracy would keep its broken promise of equality for all. In short, however naïve that may have been, I saw the progressives, always, as honest dissenters.
When I graduated from City College in the late 1950s, I went west to UC Berkeley, to pursue a graduate degree in English literature. For the first time, I met “Americans” en masse. Until then, all I’d ever known were urban Jews and Irish or Italian Catholics, mostly of immigrant origin. Now I discovered that America was a natively Protestant country; which meant that, there in Berkeley, I met people from Vermont and Nebraska and Idaho, every one of whom had remarkably good manners and thought of Communists as the nameless, faceless evil from across the sea. “Your parents were Communists?” one after another said to me. No one seemed ever to have laid eyes on one.
The shock to my nervous system was profound. It made me both defensive and aggressive, and in time I began finding excuses to announce myself as a “red diaper baby” wherever and whenever I could—exactly as I would have announced my Jewishness in the presence of open anti-Semitism. Most often, the red diaper declaration made people stare at me as if I were a curiosity, but there were times when the listener viscerally shrank. Decades later, I seemed not to have gotten over the experience of all those educated people characterizing the women and men among whom I’d grown up as somehow other. Once in a while it flashed through my mind that I should write a book.
By that time—I’m now speaking of the mid-1970s—I had been working at the Village Voice for some years and had become a liberationist writer, on the barricades for radical feminism. Everywhere I looked in those years, I saw discrimination against women and every piece I wrote was influenced by what I saw. That was the easy part. Soon enough, however—and this was the difficult part—the women’s movement itself began to spout a separatist line that contained strong suggestions regarding what was proper and improper for a card-carrying feminist to say or do. In no time at all, those suggestions became imperatives.
One afternoon, at a meeting in Boston, I stood up in the audience to urge my sisters to give up man-hating: it wasn’t men, I said, we needed to condemn, it was the culture at large. A woman on the stage pointed an accusing finger at me and called out: “You’re an intellectual and a revisionist!” You’re an intellectual and a revisionist. I hadn’t heard those words since childhood. Overnight, it seemed, the politically correct and the politically incorrect were upon us, and the speed with which ideology developed into dogma made me reel. It was then that my sympathies for the Communists reawakened, and I felt new respect for the ordinary, everyday Communist who, on a daily basis must have felt repeatedly subdued by dogma.
“My God,” I remember thinking, “I’m living through what they lived through!” For the second time, I thought of writing a book: an oral history of ordinary American Communists that would serve as an inspired piece of sociology about the relationship between ideology and the individual, showing clearly how the universal hunger for a large life is inscribed in the relationship—and how destructive of that hunger it is when ideology is overtaken by dogma.
I did write the book—and I wrote it badly. The problem was that by the time I set out to write what became The Romance of American Communism, I was indeed romantically—that is, defensively—attached to my strong memories of the progressives of my youth. To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate; to write about it romantically was not. To do so romantically ensured that the complexity of my subjects’ lives would not be explored; there would be no presentation of the branch leader who loved humanity yet ruthlessly sacrificed one comrade after another to party rigidities; or, equally, the section head who could quote Marx reverentially by the hour, then call for the expulsion of a CP member who had served watermelon at a party; or, worse yet, much worse, the party organizer who forced some directive originating in the Soviet Union on a local labor union when clearly that directive meant a betrayal of its membership.
As a writer, I knew full well that the reader’s sympathy could be engaged only by laying out as honestly as possible all the contradictions of character or behavior that a situation exposed, but I routinely forgot what I knew. I read the book today and I am dismayed by much of the writing. Its emotionalism is so thick you can cut it with a knife. The same rhetorical qualifiers—“powerfully,” “profoundly,” “deeply,” “at the very core of his being”—disfigure thousands of sentences. Then again, although the book is not long, it is strangely over-written: where one word would do, three are sure to appear; where two sentences tell the story four, five, or six clutter the page. And every one of my subjects is either beautiful or handsome, while all are well-spoken and a remarkable number come out sounding heroic.
The book was attacked by the intellectual heavyweights on the left and on the right. Irving Howe wrote a vitriolic review that sent me to bed for a week. He hated, hated, hated the book. And so did Theodore Draper—he vilified it twice! And so did Hilton Kramer, and so did Ronald Radosh. Because these men felt free to mount such an aggressive attack, I was persuaded that I had brought it on myself through the weaknesses in the writing. Of course, they were all violent anti-Communists and would have hated the story I was telling if Shakespeare had written it, but it was incredibly naïve of me not to have realized that all the cold war animosities were as alive in 1978 as they’d been in 1938.
What was not naïve was to have considered the life of an American Communist worth recording. And indeed, the stories that the Communists told me are still vivid, their experience still moving, and they themselves are indisputably present. As I encounter once again, in the pages of that book, the women and men among whom I grew, they and their moment come vibrantly to life. I am startled by all that I ignored, charmed by all that I captured; either way, it seems to me that the Communists mattered when I wrote about them, and they matter still.
One thing I cannot regret, then, is having written of them as though they were all handsome or beautiful, all well-spoken, and many heroic. Because they were. And this is why:
There’s a certain kind of cultural hero—the artist, the scientist, the thinker—who is often characterized as one who lives for “the work.” Family, friends, moral obligations be damned, the work comes first. The reason the work comes first in the case of the artist, the scientist, the thinker is that its practice makes flare into bright life a sense of inner expressiveness that is incomparable. To feel not simply alive but expressive is to feel as though one has reached center. That conviction of centeredness irradiates the mind, heart, and spirit like nothing else. Many, if not most, of the Communists who felt destined for a life of serious radicalism experienced themselves in exactly the same way. Their lives, too—impassioned by an ideal of social justice—were irradiated by a kind of expressiveness that made them feel brilliantly centered.
This centeredness glowed in the dark. That was what made them beautiful, well-spoken, and often heroic.
Whatever my shortcomings as an oral historian, and they are many, it seems to me that The Romance of American Communism remains emblematic of a richly extended moment in the history of American politics; a moment that, regrettably enough, speaks directly to our own, since the problems on which the CPUSA focused—racial injustice, economic inequality, the rights of minorities—all remain unresolved to this day.
Today, the idea of socialism is peculiarly alive, especially among young people in the United States, in a way it has not been for decades. Yet today, there is no existing model in the world of a socialist society to which a young radical can hitch a star, nor is there a truly international organization to which she or he can pledge allegiance. Socialists today must build their own, unaffiliated version of how to achieve a more just world, from the bottom up. It is my hope that Romance, telling the story of how it was done some sixty or seventy years ago, can act as a guide to those similarly stirred today.
This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to a new edition of her book The Romance of American Communism, published by Verso next week.