Room to Grow

When leftists push their ideals on their kids, politics looks more like drudgery than liberation.

Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus (Spelling Bee), Norman Rockwell paining, 1918. Google Art Project

As a left-wing labor activist and father of two now-adult daughters, I once grappled with the challenges of “progressive parenting.” It was hard enough, I soon discovered, to avoid screwing up the basics of old-fashioned child-rearing — keeping kids safe, healthy, reasonably happy, and well-adjusted. Insuring conformity with parental views and values would have been an additional heavy lift — and an effort that could easily backfire.

I tried to learn from the experience of lefty parents who made their own politics a mandatory rather than elective subject, turning any related praxis into a much-resented family duty. For some, dragging their kids to meetings, lectures, rallies, and picket lines against their will created lasting resentment and even conservative views.

For radical parents who are still alive when their children stray far from their preferred party line, things can get a little embarrassing. Imagine the discomfort of David Horowitz’s parents, who were public school teachers and Communist Party (CP) members in Queens, when their red-diaper baby embraced the New, rather than Old, Left. (Of course, that 1960s heresy paled in comparison to David’s middle-aged romance with Ronald Reagan and the far right.) Fortunately, his Marxist mom and dad were long gone before their son, now a self-made right-wing icon, reached his final stage of parental rejection by embracing Donald Trump, a billionaire from his native borough. (Ironically, Horowitz’s own son Ben, a wealthy Silicon Valley investor, has, in turn, rejected David’s political views, including his rabid Islamophobia.)

With the Horowitz family saga (in its earlier stages) in mind, my wife and I trod lightly with our own offspring, carefully waiting for “teachable moments.” One involved their own embattled Arlington, Massachusetts, educators, when my daughters were in the fourth and sixth grades, respectively, in the midst of a teachers’ union contract fight. Wouldn’t it be fun, I suggested one winter evening in 1995, if we all made some signs, took them down to a local school board meeting, and walked around in a circle to support their favorite teachers’ request for a pay increase?

The informational picketing that night, organized by Jobs with Justice (JWJ), took place in bone-chilling New England weather. Yet the fringe benefits of labor solidarity soon became apparent to our two grade school pupils: A picture of our smiling daughters, bundled up in ski apparel with sandwich board signs demanding a fair contract, appeared in our local newspaper several days later.

After that media exposure, as Alexandra and Jessica walked the halls of their elementary school, they were showered with praise and congratulations from the teaching staff. Even the principal (a union member himself) complimented them on their civic engagement.

Today, one daughter helps California nursing-home workers picket for union contracts; the other later became a JWJ volunteer and now campaigns for healthcare reform in Vermont. For our household, the lighter touch in leftist child-rearing seemed to work.

Two Red-Diaper Babies

For anyone seeking guidance on progressive parenting today, much can be learned from two recently published memoirs. Born more than a generation apart, Richard March, author of A Great Vision: A Militant Family’s Journey through the Twentieth Century. and Peter Andreas, author of Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, both experienced red diapering but in very different eras and family settings.

March was raised, in fairly stable and “traditional” fashion, by two well-known labor and community organizers in Chicago who belonged to the CP in the 1930s and ‘40s. Now seventy-one and a retired folklorist, March joined the New Left in college, becoming a third-generation political activist in his family, with whom he remained close.

Andreas’s experience with sixties-inspired parenting was far more colorful, chaotic, and countercultural. When he was seven, his mother, a former “1950s housewife” who had become radicalized,” spirited him off to South America during a custody battle with his father, a straight-laced, professional staff member of the United Auto Workers in Detroit.

In Chile, Carol Andreas left Peter in the care of a peasant family while she briefly went missing during the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973. Although reunited with his mother, Peter remained terrified that she, like Allende would end up dead.

So they fled next to Argentina and then Peru, which Carol believed “had the greatest promise for revolutionary ferment.” In the Peruvian highlands, they had to overcome the myriad hardships of voluntary poverty and the suspicion, harbored by some local activists, that Carol was a “hippie CIA agent.”  To improve her street cred, she married the leader of a street theater company, which performed anti-imperialist skits, one step ahead of the local police. Peter got cast “as the bad guy — the Rockefeller, the boss, the landlord, or some other hated gringo authority figure.”

Andreas expresses considerable ambivalence about this unconventional upbringing. It landed him in more than a dozen different homes and schools, in three states and five countries, between the ages of five and eleven, often longing for greater comfort, protection, and security.

The author did not emerge unscathed, politically or personally, from being raised by a “stubborn whirlwind of a mother.” But he does credit Carol Andreas with sparing him “a more narrow insular life, less aware of other peoples and culture and less concerned about the world’s great injustices and inequalities.”

The McCarthy Era Revisited

A Great Vision provides a timely reminder of what the McCarthy era was like for progressives who had been building major unions and successfully challenging injustice just ten or fifteen years before. In the 1950s, political witch hunts and purges forced CP leaders underground, sent other radicals into exile, cost many their jobs, and landed some in jail. Herb March’s leadership in the Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA) and open membership in the CP led to “FBI surveillance that became intense,” according to Richard.

Federal agents even made “an attempt to recruit his brother “to spy on his own parents,” he reports. In 1952, Herb was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Meanwhile, the Smith Act cases that ensnared top party leaders “were particularly terrifying” to Jane March, who worried that her spouse could be indicted at any moment

“Mom’s fears had a strong effect on me as a child,” Richard March recalls. A child psychologist confirmed that his “regression to more infantile behavior” was the result of “sensing and reacting to her fears.” Due to the anticommunist oath-taking requirement of the Taft-Hartley Act, Herb March was forced to step down as an elected leader of the Packinghouse Workers (although he remained involved as a local union staffer for a several more years). He also suffered the indignity, as a veteran antiracist and civil rights crusader, of being expelled from the CP for “white chauvinism” after a secret trial to which he was not invited — an all-too-common experience for many party cadre in the 1940s and ‘50s.

This led the March family to relocate to southern California in 1955. Herb went “from the pinnacle of success to being exiled from his calling at the age of only forty-two, at loose ends and forced to start a new life in a new city.” His son recalls a much changed-domestic scene, after the move:

Pa and I sat together in the living room watching cartoons on TV. Even as a third grader, I knew it was strange. In Chicago, it had been my duty, as Pa was leaving in the morning, to shout down the stairway from the third floor, “Will you be home for supper?” The usual answer was “No!” He was a busy man, his life filled with meetings and people to see. Now, he was watching Bugs Bunny. I enjoyed his company, but my father seemed moody. Today, I would say depressed.

Fortunately, Herb March bounced back. He first retooled as a sheet-metal worker and then completed law school at night, finishing up his labor career as a lawyer for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers (where the UPWA eventually ended up as well after a series of mergers with more conservative American Federation of Labor unions).

Richard, meanwhile, found refuge among like-minded teenagers in a multiracial youth group run by a Unitarian Church in Los Angeles. This exposed him to an “eclectic mix of progressive viewpoints” that “contrasted sharply with the narrow party line of the 1930s Communist Party” and its Young Communist League that his father had joined at the same age.

From high school activism on behalf of civil rights and banning the bomb, Richard graduated to campus radicalism within the University of California system. There, his own “red diaper experience” led him to question fellow New Leftists who believed that political repression by California Governor Ronald Reagan or President Richard Nixon would increase popular dissatisfaction, heighten political contradictions, and hasten “the revolution.”

In the 1950s, our families felt the visceral effects of repression. The blacklists ruined careers and lives; the many jailed comrades led to a decimation of the leftist and trade union movements in America.

Believing in the imminence of revolutionary change was “our parents’ mistaken idea in the 1930s,” March concluded. In the 1960s, it was an even more “far-fetched notion” despite encouraging pockets of militancy on campus and among the urban black poor, Native Americans, farm laborers, and unionized factory workers.

During the same period, Carol Andreas, Peter’s mother, decided to cast her lot with Latin American workers and peasants because Berkeley commune-dwelling felt too tame and radical change in the United States was not occurring fast enough.

Raised as a pacifist Mennonite, she went from leading a local campaign against war toys to letting her twelve-year old son keep a loaded pistol in his Denver bedroom less than a decade later — because, as she told him, “learning to handle a gun will prove handy for when the revolution comes.”

As the author notes, he was forced, as a teenager, “to defy his mother’s ideological insistence that he attend a bad high school because it was more ‘working class.’” Plus, he had to “bear the weight of her suicidal thoughts,” on top of “nightly political screaming matches and marital passions” with all the difficult men in her life, in the United States and abroad. One can’t read Andreas’s narrative without recoiling at his mother’s use of leftist principles to justify irresponsible, even dangerous child-rearing.

A Painful Betrayal?

Despite her history of bad parental judgment and questionable boundary-crossing, Carol Andreas was able to achieve greater stability in her own personal and professional life. She landed a tenure track job at the University of Northern Colorado and produced a “controversial book sympathetic to Sendero Luminoso” (Shining Path, the Marxist-Leninist insurgent group known for its brutality, dogmatism, and personality cult leadership.) entitled When Women Rebel: The Rise of Popular Feminism in Peru. Her final academic work exposed unsafe conditions in a Greeley, Colorado slaughterhouse, which she studied as a local sociologist.

Yet, by then, it became clear to Peter that he and his mother “should avoid talking about politics together.” After her death, he discovered a diary in which she confided that “Peter’s betrayal of the class struggle” was making her sleepless at night.

Carol’s diary, which Peter heavily mined for his memoir of their life together, contains many similar expressions of parental disapproval or dismay. The fact that she had succeeded in raising a sensitive and socially concerned son who was strong, independent, and accomplished in his own life and career did not make Carol happy. Instead, she mourned Peter’s failure to confirm to her rigid ideological expectations.

When The Personal Gets Too Political

Throughout her motherhood, Carol Andreas would have been a good (if unreceptive) candidate for advice dispensed by clinical psychologist Ava Siegler. In her practice, Dr. Siegler has counseled adults from New York activist families who felt their own needs, as children, were neglected when their “parents became so involved in a cause.”

In a new book entitled How Do I Explain This To My Kids, a guide to parenting in the Trump era, Siegler recommends keeping “the balance of your child’s life (and your own) in mind as you encourage social activism.” She warns that “too much commitment can backfire, and cause teenagers to exhaust their dedication to justice.  . . . There is life beyond politics; be sure to make room for it.”

When Peter Andreas finally escaped his “lifelong allegiance” to his peripatetic Marxist Mom, he attended Swarthmore College, where all kinds of anti-Reagan protests were underway in the early 1980s. “Despite my upbringing, I attended only one demonstration,” he confesses.

I was burned out on activism.  . . . I had overdosed on a childhood full of marches and heated late-night arguments about Lenin and the “correct party line;” college was my detox  . . . At Swarthmore, it was more about asking probing questions than having all the answers. And the more questions I asked, the more I began to question my mother’s politics.

As Rebel Mother confirms, when parents turn childhood into a left-wing boot camp, their kids are not likely to remain on the shining path of their own politics for long. When the personal gets too political (as it did for Peter Andreas), parent-child relationships can be poisoned with resentment, anger, and recriminations. Far better to make changing the world a voluntary activity for one’s children, so that the experience of cross-generational solidarity and shared ideals can become the basis for enduring connections and joyful participation in struggles for liberation, not set the stage for painful estrangement.

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Steve Early is a longtime union activist and author of four books about labor or politics. He is collaborating on a forthcoming book about veterans for Duke University Press. He was a participant in the May 1970 student strike against the Vietnam war and later served as Vermont field secretary for the American Friends Service Committee.

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