Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The Pathology of American Communism

Supporters of the “Revolutionary Communist Party, USA” stand on the American flag near the site of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
The Romance of American Communism, by Vivian Gornick (Verso, 288 pp., $19.95)

Progressives may be riding high these days, but Vivian Gornick believes they lack good role models as they set about trying to “achieve a more just world from the bottom up.” Gornick, the New York journalist and memoirist whose radical feminist writings appeared regularly in the Village Voice, believes The Romance of American Communism is what they need. Verso has reissued her 1977 book, a group portrait of the men and women of her parents’ generation who embraced Communism during its mid-20th-century heyday. 

Much of America scorned the “old Reds,” to use Gornick’s term. The reasons why come through clearly in the interviews she conducted. Her quixotic mission is to make us warm to her interviewees even as they relate, in excruciating detail, how disillusioned the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) left them. One testifies to “all the bullying, all the petty despotism, and all the real horror of being tied to the Soviet line.” His comment is typical. Summarizing the book’s recollections of life in the Party in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Gornick writes: “There are many, many Communists who remember with fear and self-loathing the cruelties both inflicted and received” in the name of “democratic centralism,” the Leninist concept around which a “vicious tyranny,” the CPUSA, was built.

Among the dozens of people Gornick caught up with in the mid 1970s, as they were living their post-Communist lives, are a fisherman in Puget Sound, an academic couple in Kansas, a property manager in Madison, Wis., a California craftswoman, and a Manhattan theater director. They and everyone else in the book believe, despite everything, that they benefited from their time in the CPUSA. Being part of something larger than themselves was elevating, they say. Notwithstanding the rigid Party discipline, the in-fighting, the demoralization caused by Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 revelation of Josef Stalin’s murderous rule, each deemed it in some way a character-building experience. In mid century, many Americans had fleeting associations with the Party; not these people. These were the stalwarts, fortified for the drudgery (“How I hated selling the Worker!” says one lady of the Party’s official newspaper) by their conviction that the revolution was just around the corner.

Being a “romance” about a “vicious tyranny,” this book has the curious quality of puncturing what it insists on recommending. Its heroes are rank-and-file Reds who sought to enact the vision of a worker-controlled state and society but who “anguished over the structured authority of the Party.” This was a complicated feeling, for they also believed that “it was the Party whose awesome structure harnessed that inchoate emotion which, with the force of a tidal wave, drove millions of people around the globe toward Marxism.”

Gornick was raised in a Communist milieu and wants to evoke “the fierce emotional pull of that life.” If readers appreciate this, they will gain a more rounded view of Communists and no longer dismiss them as automatons. That is her hope. Her lively writing does give us a sense of these people as individuals, it’s true, and some of the situations they conjure up touch the heart. More often they chill it. Some of these people were victims, and some victimizers. Some were both. In this volume, there are more victims of “What We Did to Each Other” (one of her chapter subheadings) than of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Consider the case of the academic couple in Kansas. As newlyweds and CPUSA members, husband and wife attended New York’s City College in the 1940s. Having voiced a criticism of the Party, the wife was promptly “brought up on charges of insubordination and divisiveness.” In a room at Party headquarters, she underwent an interrogation by her Party friends and schoolmates, led by a Party official. “Then one of the girls in our group took out a notebook and began to read from it. . . . She had been taking notes on my conversations for two years. Two whole years. I looked at her as though I’d never seen her before in my life. She had been my friend.” Afterwards the accused was expelled from the CPUSA. Her husband stayed in, which nearly destroyed their marriage. 

Party discipline — deemed necessary if the Soviet model was ever to be brought to America — “induced in many Communists a kind of shameful behavior they would probably never in their lives have otherwise been guilty of,” writes Gornick. “For the Party I was willing to ruin anybody, anywhere,” one man tells her, a late admission in a conversation that started out with his self-description as a pretty easygoing comrade.

Others didn’t come clean — possibly because they had half-unconsciously expunged from their memories their worst actions. A “gentle, intelligent, and thoughtful” man the author calls Arthur Chessler (a pseudonym) told her he never participated in sessions like the one described above. Others she interviewed knew his denial to be untrue. Likewise, a woman the author calls Marian Moran (another pseudonym) “led me to believe that she had been at a distance from trials and expulsions.” Others told Gornick that Moran had presided over “a particularly ugly and unjust” trial, and Gornick then realized that “there were countless others she must have been involved in.” 

Moran, who Gornick says is “beloved in radical Western circles,” did quit the CPUSA in disgust — not with herself but with the Soviets. They crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. Gornick asks Moran why it took her that long (many of the others she spoke with quit in 1956 after Khrushchev’s speech). Her answer: “I could not give up the power. I could not give up the structure. I could not walk away from the only identity I have ever had.” 

That point about identity comes up again and again. Another former Communist, the theater director, says of her former comrades that they “no longer knew the difference between their own finite selves and what I could now only call party dogma.”

A distorted perception of reality; relinquishing one’s identity; setting aside one’s ethics; brutal intragroup policing — what former Scientologist or member of any other cult isn’t familiar with these things? Gornick never uses the “c” word. (In fairness, we knew a lot less about cult behavior when this book first came out than we do now.) She considers the CPUSA’s pathology-inducing insularity to be unique to that organization. Her heroes are heroic because they came, finally, to see their own part in the pathology. 

There is a catch here, though. It’s good to leave pathology behind, but they are never supposed to separate themselves from the Marxist ideal — not if they are to be grouped among the book’s heroes. Those ex-Communists who turn anti-Communist are the villains of her romance. She makes the ideology and the pathology out to be separable, but they are not. Her exploration of an aspect she more aptly considers unique — the Party’s secrecy — shows this. The organization was inconsistent, operating sometimes covertly and sometimes out in the open; but covert came with the ideological package. As she notes, Vladimir Lenin decreed the secrecy, and the Americans bought it — a big mistake, since it might have been suitable for Russia but wasn’t for the United States.

No disagreement there; but if you’re Gornick, wouldn’t you want the cloak-and-dagger as an element of the “romance”? Indeed, that is, contradictorily, how she treats it. Going “on assignment for the CP,” or, as the Party hierarchy called it, “going into industry,” meant embedding oneself, without disclosing one’s Communist ties, in a factory, a company, a trade union, or a Democratic Party organ. (She doesn’t address Communists’ embedding themselves in agencies of the federal government; presumably none of her interviewees did this.) “The collective history of the life and work of these CP ‘colonizers’ is one of glory and sorrow,” she writes. “In the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady: they were there.”

Readers won’t find the glory here, only the sorrow. The professor in Kansas, the one whose wife got kicked out of the CPUSA, was one of the colonizers. The Party ordered him to go to Pittsburgh to be a union organizer and Party recruiter in a steel mill. His wife and child followed. “Ten years later my world was in ruins,” he said. The steelworkers did not respond to his Marxist-Leninist coaxing. “I wasn’t radicalizing anybody in the mill.” Looking back, he thinks he and other secret Communists were in too much of a hurry to start the revolution. “We could, and did, act often in such stupid, brutal ways because we imagined ourselves always in a revolutionary situation. When we weren’t at all.” The Reds stirred things up; their efforts fizzled; and then “the people we had hurt along the way came back at us hurling bricks and bats.”

The author’s introduction to the new edition alludes to there being, in our time, “no existing model” of “a socialist society to which a young radical can hitch a star.” This is another way of saying, without quite saying, that a wall in Berlin came down and Soviet Communism, having failed as an economic system, died. Emulating those who believed in it — the “beautiful losers” of this book — hardly seems like a recipe for success. Maybe there is a silver lining there for supporters of democracy.

This article appears as “Life in the Party” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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