Vivian Gornick: “It Is Thrilling for a Small Life to See Itself as Connected to Something Large”
Vivian Gornick’s recently reissued The Romance of American Communism is in high demand these days by young socialists grappling with the meaning of their activism. In an interview, Gornick is slightly skeptical of the reborn socialist movement — and even the book itself. But although she says “I wouldn't have written that book today, I'm not sorry I did write it.”
- Interview by
- Alex Doherty
Within the recently reborn twenty-first-century socialist movement, Vivian Gornick’s 1977 book The Romance of American Communism has attained a kind of cult status. The long-out-of-print book, composed of interviews with former Communist Party USA members active during its mid-century heyday about their time in the party and what it meant to them, was passed around via poorly scanned PDFs and beat-up old discarded library copies bought for pennies on Amazon (until the price for a used copy was driven up to over $100).
Whether the left publisher Verso decided to reissue the book in paperback with a new foreword from Gornick because the deep insights into leftist activism contained within its pages were too profound to remain out of print, or because they recognized a smart market opportunity in which demand was far outstripping supply, we’re grateful that Romance is gaining a second life. Jacobin has published several reviews of and a podcast about the book, and our editors have written about it elsewhere.
Gornick herself, however, in the intro for the new edition and in this interview conducted by Alex Doherty, isn’t quite as keen on the book as many of us at Jacobin are. But her reflections on what led her to write the book in the first place more than four decades ago, and why she “wouldn’t have written that book today” but is “not sorry I did write it,” are worth reading and wrestling with.
Doherty interviewed Gornick for Politics Theory Other, a podcast from our comrades at Tribune magazine. You can subscribe to the podcast here and listen to the conversation with Gornick here.
Can you first talk about your upbringing in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s?
I was raised in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, almost entirely Jewish. There were religious Jews, there were political Jews, and there were, for the most part, people who had no politics at all — the way things usually are. My family was known as left-wingers so we were both admired and stigmatized. When I was eight years old, I already knew that there were people who were horrified by us and people who were proud of us. I took to the proud part.
My brother, interestingly enough, was more influenced by the other part: he shrank more from the politics of our home. But I pitched right in. I loved it. From my earliest days of childhood, I remember being thrilled by these people all around me whom I knew had no power in the larger world, but I thought nevertheless were extremely romantic and brave, courageous, endowed with a mission. I always felt proud of being part of that little world.
When you describe people in the community who were, as you say, proud and admiring of the Communists, you’re not necessarily talking about people who were Communists themselves.
No, not at all. These neighborhoods in New York City, the Lower East Side in particular, were famous for this great mix. There were thousands of people of my mother’s generation, my parents’ generation, who lived on the Lower East Side who were themselves not political but they were proud that the socialists were on the street and that there were people among them who were Communists.
One of the things that really comes across in the book is the sense of optimism that people had — their power, such as it was, that came from being on the right side of history and being part of a broader, global movement.
Definitely. When people like me think back to that — and that’s more than sixty years ago — it’s remarkable how much, in spite of everything, at the bottom of the bottom was a hope for a different world.
One of the things I was struck by was the description of the emergence of fascism in Europe. You talk about how the Communists or socialists were looking at the liberals, and the liberals’ confusion and despair, and their sense of civilizational collapse. The Communists didn’t have that feeling. Whereas now, in a funny sort of way, socialists, like liberals, often have that sense of political pessimism, although it’s not total. There is less of that on the socialist left, but it’s not the sense of optimism that you describe.
Not at all, no. That’s one deeply important thing that the twentieth century has killed.
Do you have some sense of a return of that? Speaking personally, I became politically aware and active in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and in spite of the manifest horrors of the current period, in some ways that period seems even more despairing — the period of “there is no alternative,” when there really wasn’t a socialist movement to speak of.
The reason, as we all know, that The Romance of American Communism was republished, and that it has a following, is because of the resurgence of thousands of young people all around the world who are suddenly calling themselves socialists and feel compelled to get involved in various kinds of political movements that they look upon as progressive. I’m shocked by that, gratified. I don’t see it myself, but I’m willing to go along.
No, I don’t feel it. It’s very hard for somebody like me to feel it. Donald Trump has been a terrible blow to us, a terrible blow. Most of the activity against him has been carried out over these last years by people who themselves were never before political, or the young. These are the two elements that have been the most vigorously active. At best, you can call it social democracy.
Like the 2018 elections of all of those progressive women in Congress — that kind of thing. That’s a thrill, but that’s not socialism, much less communism. In fact, it all is an attempt at social democracy. What these people want, what everybody wants — they want in, they want back into the democracy. They’re dissenters, not revolutionaries.
In the first part of the book, you describe part of your motivation for writing it. You describe some of the memoirs of ex-Communists and books on the topic, most notably The God That Failed. And you talk about what you felt to be the serious flaws in that genre of writing. Could you explain what those flaws were in your mind, and what you hoped to do in the book as something of a corrective to that?
What that book was all about was a complete denunciation. [The contributors] pay lip service to the part that was thrilling, that was moving, that was idealistic, that self-commitment to mankind that made people feel larger — everything that I talk about throughout the book. But then, for the most part, they are crushingly denunciatory. They denounce the whole experience in the style of Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon. People like me, when we wrote about this, felt like we were writing a corrective.
Most of what was written about Communism was about the completely dehumanizing elements of its authoritarianism. Nobody could hold it in balance. I didn’t hold it in balance, either! I performed the same romance.
Most of the negative reviews that I received turned exactly on that word — that I had written romantically; that I myself was completely ignoring … well, if you read the reviews from when it was originally published, you know what I mean. They almost all denounced me as a romantic, as somebody who was foolishly denying or ignoring all of the miserable elements belonging to the Communist Party.
Though you do dwell on those elements quite a lot. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about the trials within the party, and the authoritarianism and repressiveness of it.
Yeah. Nevertheless, the greatest import of the book is that it was a moving and thrilling experience. It was enlarging, made small lives feel large. And indeed, that is true — that is the part that I was concentrating on. I was not concentrating at all on the large political, theoretical part or that piece of the experience. I was doing exactly what they were accusing me of doing! So I no doubt err in the sense that I didn’t put anything in proportion, either.
I was accused of, for example, describing everyone in the book as beautiful, and heroic, and handsome, and well-spoken. When I reread the book this past year, I saw that they were absolutely right! [Laughter] I never seemed to see any flaws in anything. Everybody was justified. Nobody did any harm.
It is a very partial picture of what it meant to be any one of those people during that time. But I still stand by it, because I still think it is thrilling for a small life to be able to see itself as connected to something large, larger than itself. I think that is a great thing.
I agree. For me, one of the most moving aspects of the book is where you describe first-generation immigrants from Europe who, in many cases, were living in the most incredible poverty and social isolation. You describe how Communism and the party made it possible for them to develop a sense of themselves, merely as human beings — as people who could act in the world. I found that very moving.
Oh, good! I’m glad to hear that.
Going back to the genesis of the book, it’s not a work about feminism per se — although you do talk about feminism and the experience of women in the party specifically quite a bit — you describe the book as being informed by your experience in feminist-activist circles in the 1960s and ’70s, and that that experience led to something of a reevaluation of the Communists on your part, and then led to your writing the book.
Could you explain how your feminist commitments and experiences in the women’s movement led to writing the book?
The women’s movement of the late ’60s through the ’80s, which is called the second wave, of which I was a part — those years were the years of the romance of feminism, the romance of American feminism. Those were years in which thousands of women suddenly experienced themselves as visionaries. We suddenly saw ourselves just the way the Communists and socialists viewed life: as a thrilling rebuttal of the forces that ground life down rather than raised it up.
Those of us who were early feminists immediately saw ourselves in a large way, in culture, in history, in political and cultural custom. We suddenly saw women’s position as subordinate throughout history. That was an incredible eye-opener. That was an experience that drew people together. Everyone saw the same thing and was excited, exhilarated, by seeing it.
And then, very quickly, political factions began to form inside of that. Seeing things like that is a piece of consciousness that is floating in a world without support, so to speak. You don’t have a party, you don’t have a manifesto, you don’t have a set of rules, you don’t have the organizations that are ruling you and holding things together for you. That was the great power of the Communists: they very quickly formed this kind of apparatus that could ground people. We didn’t have that.
So very quickly, when political factions began to form, people were at each other’s throats. I saw how quickly the need for dogma had set in, and that people couldn’t float in the world without that kind of grounding. It was shocking to me. All of a sudden, I saw my childhood differently. I saw what the Communist Party had done for them, and I saw what it had done to them. It moved me greatly. It didn’t disgust me, as enemies of that experience were disgusted. I was deeply moved by everything that they had been up against, that their own need for dogma had undone them, as this was undoing us.
Of course, the American feminist movement turned out to be a huge, world-dominated movement. It never became a party, obviously. It became the obvious. It became a source of changed consciousness in the world. It made me see what the Communists themselves were up against. This, of course, was our own selves, our own divided selves. The feminists were really no better at it. We were lucky not to have a party ruling us.
So the internecine warfare among feminists weathered many decades, and here we are, forty years later, with what we have. We’ve made what we have made and we haven’t made what we haven’t made, but we have influenced history, and the history of the place of women in society and in the world, and in the long struggle for women to experience their own lives in the way that they want to. We have made a dent, in our own free-floating way. That was it.
If I hadn’t had the experience of that particular childhood, and if I hadn’t had the dual experience of growing up and becoming a feminist, seeing a different version of a movement for social justice at work, I don’t think I ever would have been able to write this book.
Your experience in that sense seems different from the former Communists you interview in the book, who, for the most part, seem to be pretty alienated from the New Left, whether that’s the women’s movement or black radicalism. Primarily, that seems to be related to a view of those movements as dividing the class against itself — almost as right-wing conspiracies to disaggregate the class.
They were like dinosaurs by then. Any revolution not their revolution was not a revolution.
Many people on the New Left, myself included — certainly, as a feminist — thought they would see us as their revolutionary heirs, as their sons and daughters. But they didn’t. They were so rigidly attached to their own notions, and that was both the good and the bad of it. The rigidity of the old Communists was phenomenal. They couldn’t see anything other than the way they saw it. That was really a shock.
As well as the criticism of the New Left, in terms of what would now be called a criticism of “identity politics,” I think we’d both agree that’s a wrongheaded form of criticism. But the other side to what the old Communists were saying is also a criticism of an absence of both organization and a properly utopian horizon. That’s perhaps also what they found alienating about the chaos of the New Left.
Absolutely. The liberationist movements, as I said before, clearly were dissident, not revolutionary. Gay, black, feminist, the great liberation movements which were a thousand times more effective than the Left itself — all of these people wanted in. They didn’t want to destroy anything. They wanted in.
They wanted their share of the promised democracy. The idea that they wanted to overturn a government and actually put in place a socialist apparatus — I’ve always believed that was a misnomer. I’ve never really believed that that was what it was all about, ever, in the United States. Certainly not in our years of the New Left. That was very clear. It was very clear to the Old Left.
The language was not the same; the activities were not the same; the relations among people were not the same. The whole intertwining of the counterculture with the New Left was something that had not been seen before. You had the hippies of that time. They were horrifying to the Old Left, who wanted more respectability.
Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll were horrifying to the Old Left, whereas they were very useful to the New Left. Everyone was divided about everything, but in fact what was going forward was a desire for the broken promises of democracy to be fulfilled.
That contrast with the respectability politics of the Old Left is interesting. That’s a period where you have people who sincerely believed they were engaging in a project aimed toward revolution. At the same time, there was that respectability politics, which wanted them to be seen as civilized, not as dissolute or lazy, which contrasts sharply with the hippies, who embraced that kind of perspective.
Yes, of course. The hippies were, in a certain sense, latter-day Modernists. The Modernists at the turn of the twentieth century, both politically and socially and culturally — that was a revolution in consciousness.
So were the ’60s and ’70s. That was a twin movement. I was never in the counterculture; I was horrified like everybody else like me. But I saw its power; I understood what it was doing, and I didn’t deny its power. I couldn’t join it. I wasn’t sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
But I saw the real meaning beneath the wildness — the explosion, the wanting to explode an ossified consciousness. That was a thrilling thing. It coincided with the liberationist movements. That’s how I look upon that whole period and everything that emerged from it, both for the good and for the bad.
Thinking about the contemporary reception of the book’s reissue, I wonder if part of the appeal is to deal with that misrecognition and the lack of sympathy between the New Left and the older Communists, and that many leftists today, even if they don’t necessarily have a Communist perspective, would like to square the circle of organization.
A lot of leftists today are very critical of the horizontalism and anarchist-inflected politics of the Left of the 1990s and 2000s. There’s a desire, maybe, to have organization, but also to have a rigorously feminist and antiracist politics at the same time.
That is true. It is a source of conflict and frustration. But it’s too late. It can’t happen.
Yes, there was a yearning — no matter what anybody says — for hierarchy. The great thing about the Communist Party — both the great thing and the terrible thing — is the longing for authority, the longing on the part of millions of people to be told what to do. But that’s gone; it’s gone forever. That’s the meaning of twentieth-century consciousness. It has achieved what it has achieved, and it has destroyed what it has destroyed.
That is why it is so hard to say with any kind of authority at the moment that one is speaking, and say that “If we follow this line, and this line, and this line, we can predict the outcome.” But there is no line to follow anymore.
Toward the end of the book, you interview a former Communist who makes a comparison between Communism and the life of Martin Luther, the central figure of the Protestant Reformation. And you also interview Carl Marzani under the pseudonym of Eric Lanzetti, and he makes a similar sort of comparison regarding Marxism and Sigmund Freud.
Could you say something about the comparisons they were making, and also why you found Marzani’s politics to be particularly admirable? You describe him as being the most “integrated” of the Communists that you spoke to.
Yeah, I know. I certainly wouldn’t say that today!
Reading that, I was thinking, “This is more or less what I believe,” but I did wonder, “Is this what Vivian believes?”
[Laughter] No. He was a very romantic figure to me, Marzani. I got very close to him. I was always thrilled and horrified by him, but I let the “thrill” part influence me more than the “horrified” part. He was really it. He was the essence of everything one could love and hate among the Communists. He really was a true believer, and he was very thrilling, often, for what he felt and the way he felt it.
He could have been one of those Communists who gladly sent anyone up to the firing squad if he thought he was a counter-revolutionary. On the other hand, that very same figure, in somebody else’s hands, could seem very romantic: he was laying down his life for the revolution.
When I listened to these people, I chose to see them in a wholly positive light, but I can easily see how you can repeat those same words and use them in bitterness. Today, I would not have written of them as I did. But I’m not sorry I did, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t have written that book today, but I’m not sorry I did write it. That’s because of a lot of other living — not just having lost my devotion to a romantic ideal, which I have.
But the fact of the matter is, this is American Communism. None of these people were ever put to the test. None of these people were ever in a position to put anybody else to death. American Communists are among the most innocent of all the Communists in the world. They were never anywhere near a position to do even what the [Italian Communist Party] did. You read Silone and it has a different feel altogether.
When you read Silone, you are in the presence of an Italian Communist who held his own against Moscow. His sorrow is hard-earned, and you feel that in every word he wrote. Not in any American Communists. So a lot of it was bravado. I don’t really know what Carl Marzani would have done if he had actually been in a position of power, and there had really been a revolution, or anything remotely like it. Moscow never trusted the American Communists for exactly this reason.
What I found appealing — particularly given what Anthony Aaron Price says about Martin Luther — makes the case that Martin Luther was a monster, but would anyone want to live in a world in which Luther hadn’t lived, and the Reformation hadn’t happened? It reminded me of a line in a book by the historian S. A. Smith on the Russian Revolution. He’s very honest about what the Bolsheviks did, and about the violence of the situation, and the violence that Communism was responsible for.
He makes a comparison with the French Revolution, which is to say that if one looks at the early phases of the French Revolution, what do we see? We see the Terror; we see violence; we see war, but whatever else one thinks of the French Revolution, it did effectively kill the idea of the divine right of kings.
Is that one way to think of Communism in the long term — that it has put the question of the rule of capital front and center, and that we’re still grappling with that?
Do you believe that’s true?
You do? I don’t! I really don’t. On the contrary. No, it did not do that. It made all of those who suffer horribly from being in the wrong class, the wrong sex, the wrong race — it made all of that more acutely visible, perhaps, or it helped to. But it certainly did not dissuade anybody on the cruelty of capitalism. I don’t believe that at all. It made everybody who hates it more bitter, perhaps, but it didn’t provide a betterment. It did not provide a system that you could believe in. It didn’t demonstrate at all what socialism could or should have done.
I wouldn’t dispute that. I’m not suggesting that Communism of the twentieth century provided any models to follow, necessarily. But rather, at least, posed a question that wasn’t there to the same extent beforehand, and raised the possibility of an alternative to capitalism for a significant number of people. Optimistically, I like to think it’s still early days.
Okay, go with it! [Laughter] Be my guest. Yes. The critique of capitalism certainly is made brilliantly, again and again. But I don’t think it offers hope. I don’t think so. Anyway, what do I know? I am just a writer — really, the idea that I have political wisdom is a joke to me. I’m just shooting my mouth off here.