The Romance of American Communism, by Vivian Gornick
The Romance of American Communism.
by Vivian Gornick.
Basic Books. 216 pp. $10.00.
On Stalinism, at least, one might have thought the verdict was in for all time, but no such luck. The revisionist impulse peeping shyly from every publisher’s list grows fatter and bolder with each success, thriving on ignorance, short memories, nostalgia, and that passion for novelty at any cost which is fast becoming a kind of cultural deformity. This past season alone has given us Robert Coover’s The Public Burning and Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict, and now comes Vivian Gornick’s adoring account of a year spent hunting up and interviewing old members of the Communist Party USA.
There are forty-four portraits in all here, offering what is intended to serve as (and probably is) a representative cross-section of CP membership in the party’s heyday. Those interviewed range in age from their late forties to their seventies, though most are in their late fifties to early sixties. (Two New Leftists are also included.) These people were in the party for anywhere from ten to thirty years—a substantial portion of their adult lives—and occupied positions ranging from humble picketers and meeting-attenders like Dina Shapiro, the Los Angeles dressmaker who is still waiting for the revolution, and Selma Gardinsky, who thinks it would all have come out differently if the party hadn’t backed Henry Wallace in 1948, to branch organizers, section heads, and state party chairmen. Most joined the party during the 30′s, and a few still seem to belong, though it is difficult, from behind the veil of the author’s dreamy prose, to discern such bald statistics. But one’s general impression is that most ceased to be members at around the time the party fell apart—that is, in 1956 after Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist party detailing the record of Stalinist “achievement.”
In keeping with their proportions in the party itself, Jews predominate in Miss Gornick’s book, though the author does her best to avoid clumping them together too obviously. A section of Chapter One is specifically devoted to the “Jewish Marxists,” but others crop up under such soulful headings as “Those of the Middle Kingdom”; “The Ordinariness of Daily Activity & the Revolution Around the Corner”; “The Wholeness of the CP World”; “Varieties of Aftermath”; and so forth. Out of the forty-four, then, more than half are Jews, and about half of these come from Jewish-leftist backgrounds.
With this group the author is most familiar, having come from it herself (as a mawkish prelude attests), and she evokes all too vividly the quality of their speech, their dress, their mannerisms, their marriages, and such oddities of the period as the Communist-run housing project in the Bronx known as the Coops, where May Day was a school holiday, and the luckless tots in the sandbox were apt to be named for Communist luminaries. (When they got older, if they were good, they could wear the red-and-blue uniform of the Young Pioneers, and still later, if truly promising, they might be singled out for cadre school or “going into industry”—signing on as factory workers with a view to recruiting fellow workers into the party.)
But if the Jews are most familiar, it is the non-Jews who evoke the author’s most tremulous response, a variety of that same reverence that Jewish radicals themselves felt for bona-fide specimens of the American working class. The air is heavy in these pages with Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and that special brand of Jefferson School historiography which places the Comintern in a direct line of descent from the Boston Tea Party. Thus, the plucky Blossom Sheed, for twenty-five years a highly-placed party functionary on the West Coast, boasts an ancestry that is “literally the salt of the American earth, the kind of people who had fought cheerfully in the Revolution, bravely in the Civil War, and then . . . formed themselves into Worker and Farmer Alliances and become the American Populists.” And in the “pure American blue” eyes of rangy Jim Holbrook, son of tenant-farming Nebraska “Jeffersonian Democrats”—who rejoiced at eighteen to find himself “piped into Joe Stalin”—the author discerns that “native rebel I-want-to-know-why look” which explains to her “why Jim Holbrook was an organizer for the Communist party for twenty years.” In the background one hears strains of “Ballad for Americans” and “The Talking Union” mingling with the “Internationale,” as Communism is once again touted as “20th-century Americanism.”
But the mood music is not limited to these precious native exemplars. What all Miss Gornick’s subjects have in common—humble rank-and-filers and forty-year apparatchiks alike, Jews, Gentiles, blacks, and whites—is quite simply how nice they are: the men with their wonderful shocks of pepper-and-salt hair (only two cases of baldness are recorded here); the women with lithe bodies and good bones and salty humor; the Gentiles, blue-eyed almost to a man, looking variously like Peter Finch, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and John Wayne; the Jews strong and kindly or else sad and kindly; the one lone Hispanic, “a golden child with a spring of sweetness flowing deep within him.” How, one begins to wonder, with all these shrewd, tender, feisty, and gallant souls in its ranks, did the American Communist party manage to rack up a record for duplicity and servility to Moscow unsurpassed in the rest of the Communist world?
The Romance of American Communism is aptly named; portraying the involvement with Communism as a romantic episode in American history, it sets out to romanticize all those who took part in it. If something polemical is intended here, Miss Gornick has neither the inclination nor, one suspects, the skill to say it outright. Rather, she addresses herself to her own particular specialty, which is extracting the “human reality” from behind the vexed political questions of the age. She asks us to ponder the proposition that the former CP members portrayed in her book—or, as she somewhere calls them, “the golden children called to Marxism”—loved, in effect, not wisely but too well. They “feared, hungered, and cared more . . . they were like everybody else, only more so”—more so, that is, in their greater capacity for passion, for engagement, for responding to injustice and to the call of History.
Like Miss Gornick’s earlier account of a trip to Cairo to extract the “reality” behind the Middle East conflict, the present volume, too, is awash in feeling—so much so that it is almost damp to the touch. Chords are struck, great griefs flow, experiences soak through and wash over, thoughts well up from “somewhere deep inside.” At peak moments, these inner changes are accompanied by “gathering stillnesses,” converging streams, and other historical sound effects. Yet this prose delirium is, as the Marxists might say, no accident. For under cover of the fog and the rumbling, the book gradually shifts its ground: the author begins by entering the plea that we understand these people; she ends with a ringing reaffirmation of their politics. The great crimes of the Stalin era, and the shabby record of the American Communist party in covering up for them, are transmuted through the mist of her tears into a necessary, if regrettable, stage on the road to “socialism”; her dutiful and for the most part rather complacent party members are transformed into Camusian rebels, participants in a “magnificent sorrow,” “. . . torn to pieces so that the many may feed on the wisdom passion alone can purchase.”
The casual and not-quite-ingenuous way in which Miss Gornick uses the terms socialism and Communism interchangeably, and then equates either or both of them with “feeling,” is epitomized to bathetic effect in her account of the fellow-traveling milieu of her childhood. The time is 1940 or thereabouts, the scene is a “shabby tenement apartment in the Bronx,” the author is nestled in the crook of her father’s arm as he and his “socialist friends”—men named “Max and Hymie . . . women named Masha and Goldie”—are seated around the kitchen table drinking tea à la Russe, eating black bread and herring, and endlessly debating “the issues.” Present in spirit if not in the flesh is the author’s Russian-born grandmother, the family’s first radical, given to exclaiming in what is supposed to be Yiddish, “Frei! Wir sind hier frei!” A few pages farther on, like the figures massed in an old WPA mural, is the obligatory idealized panorama of East European Jewish immigrants circa 1900—a colorful lot with their “Talmud” (the one-volume paperback edition, presumably), “Spinoza, Herzl, and Marx packed in among the pots and pans and ragged clothes.”
This lamplit evocation of Jewish radicalism-in-the-cradle has become such a set piece by now, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at it. Invariably it features a few touches of Yiddish for authenticity—which it never fails to get wrong—and invariably it features a kind of downward social climbing, turning a Bronx apartment into a “shabby tenement” and a piece of herring into some sort of ethnic communion ritual. But more important than the fraudulent Yiddish and the fraudulent herring is the fraudulent politics. Though this is, as the author would argue, only her own reminiscence, there is no question but that it is also meant as a stand-in for the Jewish immigrant experience as a whole, and as such it cashes in on the current ignorance about the political actualities of that world.
Thus, one would not know from this evocation, cloaked in the twin pieties of socialism and Yiddishkeit, that the Jewish Communists (who numbered few within the community as a whole, despite their overrepresentation in the party), far from being either the mainstream or the vanguard of the Jewish working class, were actually cut off from the rest of the community by a kind of cordon sanitaire—and not because of their “socialism” (the socialists were their worst enemies), but precisely because of their slavish support of the Soviet Union throughout the long period of Stalinist treachery and the calculated destruction of Soviet Jewish life. There may be some grisly pathos in the tenacity with which the Jewish Communists upheld the “honor” of the Soviet Union through all this, but one looks in vain for traces of the “wisdom passion alone can purchase.”
Indeed, not just the socialists are left out of this account, but also the rest of the anti-Communist Jewish Left, including the trade-union movement, the labor Zionists, the Workmen’s Circle, and a host of others. When they appear at all, it is as an occasion for the author to display the mendacious politics learned in Marxist kindergarten: “My father was Labor, my uncles were Capital. My father was a socialist, my uncles were Zionists. Therefore Labor was Socialism and Capital was Nationalism.” These are of course utterly false oppositions, as even someone prejudiced in the matter might be expected to see; and the travesty of reality they represent is neatly captured in the word “therefore,” which attempts to make a sort of dialectical “truth” out of a simple self-serving lie.
Although the Jewish Communists may present an especially pathetic spectacle, they were hardly alone in gullibility, willful self-deception, or moral delinquency. The bloody truth about the Soviet Union (not to speak of the disreputable record of the CPUSA in its own “domestic” operations) was well enough known in the time of which Vivian Gornick is writing, for one must recall that this is not a book about the early 20′s and 30′s, but extends into the 50′s, the 60′s, and in some cases into the present. The Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Doctors’ Plot, the takeover in Czechoslovakia, the Slansky Trial, the murdered writers, the labor camps, and all the rest—all of this the American Communists were asked to swallow, and many, to judge from Miss Gornick’s sampling, did. Not only swallow—they justified it, those wonderful couples, “hungry for justice,” rushing off to protest meetings and “peace” rallies and picket lines while supper cooled on the stove at home and bullets met their mark in the cellars of the Lubianka. To read this book along with, say, the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam is to become almost physically ill. The romance of Communism, indeed. It is an apology that is required—not an elegy.