The Humanity of American Communism

Communist Party members are often stereotyped as mindless zombies that blindly took orders from Moscow. But for many in the CPUSA, the party allowed them to recognize their own capacity to change the world.

Anti-Nazi demonstrators march in Battery Park, New York, June 23, 1934. FPG / Archive Photos / Getty

The last event I went to before New York City shut down was a talk by Vivian Gornick at The Strand, the famed East Village bookstore. She was discussing her most recent book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, a collection of essays revisiting the work of authors who have shaped her thinking and writing. Since then, I’ve been rereading her: her memoirs Fierce Attachments and The Odd Girl in the City, which revolve around walks and discussions around New York City, and, most recently, The Romance of American Communism, an oral history of American Communist Party (CP) members, originally written in 1977 and reissued this year from Verso, with a short new preface by Gornick where she rereads herself.

Appropriately enough, the original Romance was already a kind of rereading, a reconsideration of the world Gornick had been born into — where, as one Communist she interviewed fondly remembered, “the right-wingers were the New Dealers, and the political conjuration went on from there, Social Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, Anarchists.” Gornick was moved to reconsider them in light of her experiences as a chronicler of (and participant in) the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, attending to the ways that coming to politics might feel, as her title suggested, something like falling in love.

As Gornick opens the book, she recalls that when she “converted” to radical feminism while covering the movement as a journalist, she felt the joy of discovery and insight that so many American Communists felt when they first found the party or read Marx: the joy of comradeship and the joy of knowing that the injustices one has witnessed and experienced are not inevitable. As one party member, born into terrible poverty in Poland and working in a Chicago slaughterhouse when a coworker introduced him to socialism put it, “I didn’t even know that I was thinking there’s no way out of this life for me until suddenly I was thinking there is a way out.” For women of Gornick’s generation, who had been told their position in life was not only fixed but a question of nature, the epiphany would be just as startling.

With the new edition of the book, another level of reconsideration has been added. “Today,” Gornick writes at the end of the introduction, “the idea of socialism is particularly alive, especially among young people, in a way it has not been for decades. Yet today there is no existing model in the world of a socialist society to which a young radical can hitch a star or a truly international organization to which she or he can pledge allegiance. Socialists today must build their own unaffiliated version of how to achieve a more just world from the bottom up.”

Although Gornick and the people she interviewed have no easy lessons to impart, Romance is, first and foremost, an oral history with an argument. The first part of the argument is a response to the Cold War and how it elevated the voice of a certain kind of ex-Communist — those Gornick, using a term from Louis Fischer, calls the “anti-Communist Communist,” as dogmatic in their new faith as any party functionary could hope to be.

When Gornick was writing in the seventies, Communists were still remembered as mindless zombies, written about with “a distance that masquerades as objectivity but in fact conveys only an emotional and intellectual atmosphere of ‘otherness’— as though something vaguely nonhuman was being described.” Against such dehumanization, many of Gornick’s subjects speak to the paradox that, while their devotion to politics and to the party caused them to neglect what we normally think of as a “private life” or our innermost human feelings, for many, it was a way of becoming more fully human. “We were nothing,” a woman who, like Gornick, grew up in the Bronx among poor and working-class immigrant Jews, told her. “And look how we felt about ourselves. Because we were Communists.”

This sense of human experience is at the heart of her second argument, the one to which today’s young leftists may find themselves less receptive. To focus on the human richness of political experience pushes back on the notion — rampant in depoliticized America — that to be political is to ignore the self or the family, the only things that really matter. But it also leads her, through the stories her interviewees tell, to present political consciousness as highly personal in origin, and to focus more on the human experience of being an activist than on the ultimate impact people have on the shape of history.

Leftists have long had reason to reject the peddlers of this idea, from the midcentury sociologists who said the New Leftists opposing the Vietnam War were just rebelling against their parents to today’s commentators who turn over every psychological rock to explain away socialism’s popularity among austerity-wracked millennials.

And yet: circumstances alone don’t activate consciousness. Similar circumstances can make one person a socialist, another a reactionary, and a third apolitical or withdrawn.

And political consciousness that originates in an intimate setting can be deeply revealing about wider injustices look like. Consider one CP member Gornick interviewed, who came from an elegant German family and whose general sense of unease crystallized into political consciousness when he observed his aunt being shunned for marrying a man whom the family disapproved of and who abandoned her. Against the class structures that enforce such rules there is socialism, against the Victorian morality that justifies them there is feminism — but against both there is also, primarily, a disgust at the way human beings are discarded.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who had the richest experience in the party were those who were able to attack this dehumanization through the CP’s day-to-day work of union organizing and political education. One section leader recalled helping a woman who attended his classes stand up to her father, who disapproved of her marriage to a Chinese man. When he threatened to kill her, she responded: “If you kill me, who will cook your eggs?” Those with the worst experiences were those who didn’t have the chance to act on that humanizing impulse — most tragically, those members who were sent underground during the McCarthy era, unable to live any kind of political life at all.

Because it is an oral history with an argument, what comes through most strongly in Romance is a singular voice, that of the author. This sets it apart from other classics of the genre, like Studs Terkel’s Working; Isabel Wilkerson’s study of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns; or Anna Deavere Smith’s theatrical explorations. While some were prominent enough to be recognizable to scholars of the Old Left and the American CP, Gornick gives her interviewees pseudonyms, contributing to the sense of the book as a crafted thing, a set of character studies out of notes for an unwritten Dos Passos novel.

And yet, paradoxically, Gornick’s hand never flattens her subject’s experiences, and the argumentative threads are responsible for some of her most important insights. As her section titles suggest, American Communists “came from everywhere,” “lived it out” in every imaginable way, and “went back into everywhere.” But Gornick wrestles with them, interprets them, and reshapes them through her own obsessions and insight. When someone says something Gornick finds delusional or unintentionally revealing, she tells us — as when visiting the couple she calls Arnold and Bea Richman, “professional radicals” and CP members for twenty-five years. Since they left, Bea has become a passionate feminist, and as she rails against party sexism, Gornick unravels their dynamic:

“She’s right, she’s right.” He smiled gently at his angry wife and repeated softly, “When she’s right, she’s right.” Which, I added silently to myself, is every day of your life these days.

So it went for a day and a half. Clearer and clearer it came: he had beat her head in for twenty years with the revolution, she would beat his in for the next twenty with feminist retaliation.

It’s a sad observation, and a funny one, but not a simple one. It doesn’t mean Arnold’s devotion to the party was a cover for his chauvinism (the CP’s preferred term for sexism), or that Bea’s is a cover for her anger at her husband (echoes of “They are ‘just’ rebelling against their parents”). Both of these devotions were completely heartfelt, and the results were heroic and cruel.

Most poignantly, Arnold’s dedication to taking his licks stems not only from resignation but from the fact that he will be, in a phrase Gornick uses for many of her subjects, “political to the bone.” It brings to mind a story Gornick tells in an essay about feminism, when a woman at a dinner table stops the conversation cold: she has been interrupted and will never be disrespected that way again. Everyone is terrified, but only the old Communist says she must be heard. For better or worse, only his politics go that deep.

What made them go so deep was, in large part, the sense of discipline that came from the structure of the party and its rootedness in the international movement. When Gornick’s introduction speaks of young socialists without “a truly international organization to which she or he can pledge allegiance,” this is not a commentary on the worth of the Democratic Socialists of America or any other organization. It’s simply a factual observation about what “pledging allegiance” to an organization that demanded all meant.

For some of Gornick’s subjects, the horrors of trying to follow a party line outweighed the comforts of what she calls the “wholeness” of the experience; for others, for many, the wholeness was something they continued to cherish. But for nearly all of them, the two were connected.

At the end of the book, Gornick traces a historical chain: “First had come the visionary socialists of the nineteenth century, then had come the fierce politicalness of the Communists, and now had come the unaffiliated Marxist consciousness of the contemporary radicals. Was there anyone who could argue that each phase in its turn had not been necessary in the development of American radicalism?” Perhaps the real damage of psychological explanations for radicalism is that they enforce on each generation the demand that the young repudiate those that came before, who in turn are called on to condescend to and cynically offer lessons to the youth. Gornick’s book, with all its layers of rereading and reflectiveness, is a model of how a multigenerational left can avoid these traps.

That evening at the Strand, Gornick repeated her observation about all the young socialists with no organization to join. It was the night before Super Tuesday delivered a devastating blow to many of these young socialists, as well as more than a few not so young ones, and many more of those who, like the slaughterhouse worker before talking to the man next to him on the line, have yet to name the shape of their unease with the current state of things. 

Is it possible to imagine these young people in twenty or fifty years, looking back on their coming to socialism as a romance? What does the arrival of political consciousness look like now, and what does it feel like? 

During Occupy, the discussions among the young about their debt and dwindling economic prospects came to feel something like that — a declaration that brought with it the same sense of “I am not alone” and “It is not a personal failing” with which members of Gornick’s generation revealed their illegal abortions. With Trump and the reemergence of the far right worldwide, and with the climate crisis always looming in the background, it can be difficult to think of coming to political consciousness as liberation. For those grappling with the climate change especially, coming to consciousness can often feel more like an intrusive thought one wants to push away than the ability to imagine another world. 

This is perhaps why, rereading Gornick under quarantine, what struck me the most was the extent to which the world-historical views of her subjects were forged by hope that was born in part from horror. “It was the Depression,” Communist after Communist tells Gornick when asked why they became Communists. Or, “fascism was coming. What else could I have done?” 

One might object that even under fascism or Depression it was only (only!) the whole of nations, not all of life on the planet that was imperiled. But to those who experienced it, this was their whole world. And they fought the way they fought, and as hard as they did, not in spite of living in dark times, but because of it.