EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally ran on May 8, 2002.
May Day passed quietly this year in Red Square where the rumble of mobile missile launchers and the beat of goose-stepping soldiers used to celebrate the power of the proletariat. But there was noise aplenty just off Dupont Circle in Washington, where upwards of a hundred aging one-time American Reds belted out beery refrains of “Which Side Are You On?” and “The Internationale.”
These were Reds of a different hue. Not Communists. But former members of the Socialist Party — led once by Eugene Victor Debs and later Norman Thomas — and of its youth group, the Young People’s Socialist League (“Yipsel”). This party never escaped the margins of American politics, but a fair number of its members — radicals of the ’30s or ’60s — eventually made their mark, some on the left, some on the right, and many of these convened this May Day for a kind of Socialist all-class reunion. Among those sponsoring or joining the evening’s festivities — funded mainly by the estate of the widow of Trotskyist icon Max Shachtman — were, on the right, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Christian Coalition spokesman Marshall Wittmann, and former Secretary of Labor nominee Linda Chavez; and, on the Left, teachers’ union chief Sandra Feldman, Clinton USIA director Penn Kemble, and New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg. In between were former arms negotiator Max Kampelman, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, and scholars like Nathan Glazer and Seymour Martin Lipset.
However far most of the revelers had strayed from the fold, the political imprint is so deep in these folks that they could not enjoy a party if it did not include a meeting. So before the kegs and banjos came out, there was a panel revolving around my newly published book, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, an effort to come to grips with my own past (I was national chairman of Yipsel from 1968 to 1973, succeeding Kemble and preceding Gershman) as well as with an idea that underlay so much of the history of the 20th century. The book traces socialism’s birth and growth; its division into diverse forms — social democracy, Communism, fascism, third-world socialism, communes — that among them came to rule over 60 percent of mankind; and then its momentous implosion.
To capture all this history in a manageable compass, and to render it as the human drama it was (not the unfolding of “historical forces,” as socialist theory would have it), Heaven on Earth weaves together a string of biographical portraits of some 14 key figures who caused or embodied each major turning point in socialist history. I preface this with a note of autobiography, not so much about my Yipsel years, but how I came to them.
Socialism was the faith in which I was raised. My father, Manny, joined the Socialist Party when he was 13, during Norman Thomas’s 1929 campaign for mayor of New York. This political precocity flowed from having been raised, himself, in the faith of socialism. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Kiev, were active members of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, a party allied with Lenin’s Bolsheviks. My grandparents, who both found work in America with the newspaper, the Forward (which is still in print, although its masthead no longer bears the inscription, “Workers of the world, unite!”), passed away a half century ago. But my dad, at 85, is alive; and he is not only kicking but remains undiminished in his faith.
He journeyed from New York for the reunion, lugging the portable oxygen he requires for an incurable lung disease, a bottle of Karl Marx brand vodka for the festivities, and enough copies to go around of his personal rebuttal to my book. In the form of an open letter — “To my children, grandchildren, comrades, ex-comrades, and anti-comrades” — it denies that socialism has fallen, citing the vital role in his own life of parks, libraries, Social Security, and Medicare, and it argues that “the one thing that our poor battered world needs right now is a vigorous and creative social democratic movement.”
There is, thank the gods, an alternative to the Oedipal explanation of our family frictions. The epilogue of my book examines Ginosar, a typical Israeli kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. The kibbutzim were once the only true socialism the world has ever known, but they are now in the process of transforming themselves into free-market communities. An Israeli scholar who devoted his life to studying communes around the world explained to me that they classically suffer from a “third-generation crisis.” The founders burn with enthusiasm; their sons continue the fathers’ work, albeit more tepidly. But the grandchildren rebel. Charles Krauthammer pointed out, in commenting on my book, that I myself personified the third-generation crisis. I prefer this to the Oedipus analogy.
Besides, an Oedipal dynamic implies a triangle. But my mom stands nowhere in the middle. She is to the left of my dad, so militant that she stayed away from the panel altogether. But then, younger people tend to be more radical, and she’s only 82.