The New York Times has a lengthy, melancholy essay celebrating the role of Communism in American life by Vivian Gornick. It’s getting all of the predictable — and mostly deserved — blowback from conservatives.
As someone raised in anti-Communism, I expected to have a similar enraged reaction, but I have to say I found the piece almost touching. Almost.
Most Communists never set foot in party headquarters, laid eyes on a Central Committee member, or were privy to policy-making sessions. But every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor; party lawyers defended blacks in the South; party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia; farm workers in California; steel workers in Pittsburgh. What made it all real were the organizations the party built: the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils. 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 ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified. It was to this clarity of inner being that so many became not only attached, but addicted. No reward of life, no love nor fame nor wealth, could compete with the experience. It was this all-in-allness of world and self that, all too often, made of the Communists true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith, even when a 3-year-old could see that it was eating itself alive.
I think this is all a bit too rose-colored, but it’s not exactly wrong either. Lots of fairly ordinary Americans considered themselves Communists. The Communist Party did fight for civil rights and free speech in America. The individual lawyers and activists behind those efforts were no doubt often sincere. But what’s left out of this telling is that they were cleared to do this sort of thing by the party bosses for the propaganda value. If you think Stalin and his apparatchiks gave a whit about civil rights or free speech in America, or anywhere else, you’re ignorant or a fool.
One small example. The Smith Act was the heart of what would later be called “McCarthyism.” It allowed the Federal government to prosecute members of subversive organizations that sought the overthrow of the U.S. government. It was initially used — and abused — by FDR against alleged pro-Nazi elements during World War II, in what historian Leo Ribuffo called “the Brown Scare.” Later, it was used against Communists. The first Communists it was used against? Trotskyists (you know, the ones who actually supported a worldwide community of workers). And you know who supported these anti-Communist “witch-hunts”? The Stalinist pawns of the Communist Party of the United States. They “named names” and publicly supported the trials, because the first priority for the Communist Party was supporting Stalin, not worker’s liberation or any of the stuff Ms. Gornick rhapsodizes over.
Lenin supposedly called Western intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union “useful idiots” (though there’s some doubt whether he actually used the term). The people Ms. Gornick describes weren’t intellectuals, but they were dupes. Probably, or at least possibly, decent on the whole, but fools nonetheless. It was hardly as if one needed to be a member of the CPUSA to support labor unions or civil rights. Just ask Norman Thomas.
Gornick concludes at the end:
I was 20 years old in April 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and revealed to the world the incalculable horror of Stalin’s rule. Night after night the people at my father’s kitchen table raged or wept or sat staring into space. I was beside myself with youthful rage. “Lies!” I screamed at them. “Lies and treachery and murder. And all in the name of socialism! In the name of socialism!” Confused and heartbroken, they pleaded with me to wait and see, this couldn’t be the whole truth, it simply couldn’t be. But it was.
The 20th Congress report brought with it political devastation for the organized left around the world. Within weeks of its publication, 30,000 people in this country quit the party, and within the year it was as it had been in its 1919 beginnings: a small sect on the American political map.
The effective life of the Communist Party in the United States was approximately 40 years in length. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were Communists at one time or another during those 40 years. Many of these people endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment. They were two generations of Americans whose lives were formed by political history as were no other American lives save those of the original Revolutionists. History is in them — and they are in history.
Yes, some of those people suffered imprisonment, in no small part thanks to the treachery of the Communists themselves. Others suffered because they were part of an organization that was expressly hostile to the United States of America and in the service of a regime that murdered millions while claiming to be a champion of civil rights. I can appreciate Ms. Gornick’s nostalgia, but as Robert Nisbet said, nostalgia is the rust of memory. It seems to me a bit sad and pathetic, that she — and at least to some extent the New York Times — thinks the most important thing to remember from this sad chapter in American life are victims — not of Stalin’s mass murder or of Soviet espionage — but the victims of their own stupidity.
Update: A reader made a point that was gnawing in the back of my head that I should have made above. If you really had to wait for Kruschev’s 1956 speech to be disillusioned with Communism, you really were pretty deep in the bunker. The Nazi Soviet Pact in 1939 removed illusions for many Communists nearly two decades earlier. If your faith in Communism kept you in the Party after that (or, say, the assassination of Trotsky), you really don’t deserve any sympathy for your later disappointment — or for your alleged idealism.