One summer night in the early 1960s, at a demonstration in New York, leftist Murray Kempton proclaimed to an audience full of old reds that, although the United States had not treated them well, he had been very lucky to have them. My mother was in the audience that night, and when she returned home she said, “The United States has been lucky that there were Communists here. They are the ones who pushed the country the most to become the democracy it always claimed to be. ” I was surprised that she said it in such a soft voice, because she had always been an exalted socialist; But it was the sixties, and by now I was really tired.
The United States Communist Party was formed in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. For 40 years, it grew steadily, from two or three thousand members to 75,000 at its most influential time, in the 1930s and 1940s. Altogether, nearly a million Americans were communists at one time or another. Although it is true that most of those who joined the Communist Party in those years were members of the troubled working class (Jews from the New York garment district, miners from West Virginia, fruit pickers in California), it is even more so. It is true that many members of the enlightened middle class (teachers, scientists, writers) also joined, because, for them, the party possessed a moral authority that gave concrete form to a feeling of social injustice fueled by the Great Depression and World War II. .
Perhaps now it is difficult to understand, but at that time the Marxist vision that the Communist Party transmitted awoke in the most common men and women an awareness of their own humanity that gave greatness to life.
The majority of the American Communists never stepped on the party headquarters, saw a member of the Central Committee in person, or knew anything about the internal meetings in which the policies were drawn up. But everyone knew that the party's unionists were fundamental to the improvements of industrial workers in this country; that party attorneys were the most vocal advocates for blacks in the southern states; that many party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with Appalachian mountain miners, California temps, and Pittsburgh steelworkers. Thanks to its passion for the structure and eloquence of its rhetoric, the party materialized on a day-to-day basis and made itself known not only to its own members but also to the many supporters and traveling companions of that time. He had built an extraordinary network of regional and local sections, schools and publications, organizations concerned with remedying major problems in communities - the International Order of Workers, the National Congress of Blacks, the Unemployment Councils - and a periodic provocateur who Progressives and radicals regularly read. As an old red said: "Throughout the Depression and World War II, every time a new catastrophe was announced, The Daily Worker it sold out its copies in a matter of minutes ”.
Perhaps now it is difficult to understand, but, at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity transmitted by the Communist Party woke up in the most common men and women an awareness of their own humanity that gave greatness to life. : greatness and clarity. That inner clarity was something that many not only grew fond of but also became addicted to. Faced with his influence, no vital reward, neither love, fame, nor wealth, could compete.
At the same time, that absolute totality of the world and the self was precisely what, too often, made the Communists true believers, incapable of dealing with the corruption of the police state that formed the basis of their faith, even when any child 10-year-old could tell there was a double game. The United States PC was member of the Komintern (the organization of the Communist International led from Moscow) and, as such, he had to answer to the Soviets, who intimidated communist parties around the world to support internal and external policies that, most of the time, served the interests of the USSR, and not those of the member countries of the International. As a consequence, the American CP always did everything possible to satisfy what its members considered the only socialist country in the world and which they felt compelled to support at all costs. This unshakable devotion to Soviet Russia allowed American Communists to remain deceived during the 1930s and 1940s and much of the 1950s, as the Soviet Union crushed Eastern Europe and became increasingly totalitarian, with its daily reality becoming more and more hidden and its increasingly interested demands.
In the early 1950s, the PC was seriously attacked due to the panic that McCarthyism unleashed on the security of the United States — dozens of communists went underground for fear of prison or other worse destinations — but then, in 1956, the party was on the verge of disintegrating under the weight of the scandal of communism itself. In February of that year, Nikita Khrushchev He spoke before the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and revealed to the world the unimaginable horror of Stalin's mandate. The speech spelled the political devastation of the organized left across the world. In the weeks that followed, 30,000 people left the American CP, and by the end of the year the party had returned to what it had started out to be in 1919: a small sect on the American political map.
I grew up in a left-wing home where you read The Daily Worker, there was talk of workers' politics (world and local) at the table and progressives of all kinds usually passed by. It never occurred to me to consider them revolutionary. I never had the impression that nobody around me wanted to overthrow the Government by violent methods. On the contrary, he saw them working to make socialism the norm through legal change, a change that was to ensure that, with the defeat of capitalism, American democracy could realize its unfulfilled promise of equality for all. In short, perhaps it was naive, but progressives always seemed sincere dissenters to me.
When I graduated from City College in the late 1950s, I went west to Berkeley to study language and literature. It was the first time that I met "Americans" on a massive scale. Until then, I had only known New York Jews and Irish or Italian Catholics, almost all children of immigrants. At Berkeley I discovered that the United States had been born as a Protestant country; I met people from Vermont, Nebraska, and Idaho, extraordinarily well-educated people who thought that the Communists were evil, the faceless and anonymous enemy across the sea. "Did your parents communists? ”They asked me. Apparently no one had ever met anyone.
I met extraordinarily well-educated people who thought that the Communists were evil, the faceless and anonymous enemy from across the sea. "Did your parents communists? ”They asked me. No one had ever met one
The impact on my nervous system was intense. He made me defensive and aggressive at the same time and, over time, I began to look for excuses to proclaim that I had been a "red diaper baby" whenever I could, just as I would have proclaimed my Jewish status in the face of any overt display of anti-Semitism. Most of the time, the declaration of the red diaper made people stare at me like I was a museum object, but in some cases the interlocutor cringed in front of me. Several decades later, he still felt as if he had not overcome the fact that all those well-educated people considered the men and women with whom different people had grown up, others. Occasionally, it occurred to me that I should write a book.
At that time - now I am talking about the mid-1970s - I had been working at the Village Voice and I had become a liberation activist, always on the barricades of radical feminism. In those years, I saw everywhere signs of discrimination against women, and every article I wrote was influenced by what I saw. So far, no problem. However — and here the hard part began — I soon saw that a separatist trend was beginning to emerge in the movement, making strong suggestions about what a true feminist should and should not say and do. Some suggestions that quickly became orders.
One afternoon during a meeting in Boston, I got up from the audience to urge my sisters to stop fomenting hatred of men: it wasn't them, I said, we had to condemn, but the culture as a whole. A woman onstage pointed an accusing finger at me and yelled, "You are an intellectual and a revisionist!" You are an intellectual and a revisionist. Some words that I haven't heard since I was a child. Apparently, the politically correct and the politically incorrect had invaded us overnight, and the speed with which ideology was transformed into dogma overwhelmed me. Then my sympathies for the communists were rekindled, and I felt a new respect for the ordinary communist who must have felt enslaved by dogma in his daily life.
God, I remember thinking, I'm living the same thing they experienced. For the second time, I thought of writing a book, an oral history of ordinary American communists, that was a sociological work on the relationship between ideology and the individual and that clearly demonstrated that thirst is imprinted in that relationship. universal of a more complete life and how it is destroyed when dogma takes over ideology.
To consider the experience of being a communist romantic seemed to me and still seems legitimate to me; write about it romantically, no. That made me not explore the complexity of my characters.
I wrote the book, and I wrote it awkwardly. The bad thing was that when I started writing The Romance of American CommunismI was romantically — that is, defensive — clinging to my strong memories of the progressives of my childhood. To consider the experience of being a communist romantic seemed to me and still seems legitimate to me; write about it romantically, no. Writing romantically made me not explore the complexity of the lives of my characters; that he did not portray the leader of the local arm who loved humanity and yet mercilessly sacrificed one comrade after another for party rigidities, nor the section chief capable of venerating Marx for hours and then demanding the expulsion of a militant who had served watermelon at a dinner; Nor, and that is much worse, to the organizer who imposed a directive issued in the Soviet Union to a local union despite the fact that the order undoubtedly meant betraying union members.
As a writer, I knew that I could only gain the reader's understanding if I exposed as honestly as possible all the contradictions in character or behavior that had been exposed in a given situation, but I constantly forgot what I knew. Today I read the book and I am appalled at the style. Your sentimentality can be cut with a knife. There are thousands of phrases distorted by the same adverbs and rhetorical qualifiers: "powerfully", "intensely", "deeply", "in the depths of your being". On the other hand, although the book is not long, it has a strangely cumbersome style: there are always three words when one, four, five or six sentences would have sufficed to fill a page when two would have been sufficient. And all my characters are beautiful or attractive, eloquent and, in an extraordinary proportion, heroic.
The book received harsh criticism from the intellectual heavyweights of the right and the left. Irving Howe wrote a corrosive review that forced me to go to bed for a week. I hated, hated the book. Just like Theodore Draper, who vilified him twice! Also Hilton Kramer, and Ronald Radosh. Since these men had taken the liberty of attacking me so aggressively, I convinced myself that it was my fault for the poverty of my writing. Of course, they were all violently anti-communist and would have hated the book even if Shakespeare had written it, but I was incredibly naive not to realize that all the animosity of 1938 was still just as alive in 1978, in the middle of the Cold War.
What was not naive was to think that the life of an American communist was worth narrating. And the stories those people told me are still alive, their experience continues to thrill, and they are indisputably present. Now that I meet again, in the pages of this book, with the women and men I grew up with, they and their time come alive in a vibrant way. I am surprised by everything I did not know and I love everything I captured; In any case, it seems to me that the Communists were interested when I wrote about them and they still matter today.
So there is one thing I do not regret, which is to have written about them as if they were all beautiful or attractive, all eloquent and many, heroic. Because they were. And this is the reason:
Today, the idea of socialism is strangely alive in the United States, especially among young people. However, there is no model of a socialist society in the world that a young person can adopt as a guide.
There is a certain type of cultural hero — the artist, the scientist, the thinker — who is often characterized as someone who lives for "work." Family, friends and moral obligations do not matter, work comes first. The reason that work is the priority in the case of the artist, the scientist and the thinker is that it makes an interior expressiveness that is incomparable shine in full light. To feel, not only alive, but expressive, is to feel that one has reached the center. That conviction of balance radiates the mind, heart and spirit like nothing else. Many communists - perhaps the majority - who believed themselves destined for a life of serious radicalism felt exactly like this. Their lives were also radiated by a kind of expressiveness that made them feel bright and focused.
That balance glowed in the dark. That was what made them beautiful, eloquent, and often heroic.
Apart from my shortcomings as an oral historian, which are many, it seems to me that The Romance of American Communism it remains emblematic of a long and rich period in the history of American politics; a moment that, unfortunately, refers us directly to the current one, since the problems that the American CP wanted to address - racial injustices, economic inequalities, minority rights - remain unresolved to date.
Today, the idea of socialism is strangely alive in America, especially among young people, as it had not been for decades. However, there is no model of a socialist society in the world that a young radical can adopt as a guide, nor a truly international organization to which he can swear allegiance. Today's socialists must build their own independent version of how to achieve a fairer world, starting from the bottom. I trust that my book, which tells the story of how they tried 50 or 70 years ago, will serve as a guide for those who feel the same impulses today.
Translation by María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.
Vivian Gornick is an American writer, author of books Fierce attachments, Look at each other and The singular woman and the city, all of them edited by Sixth Floor. This article serves as a foreword to your book The Romance of American Communism, republished this month by Verso Books.