Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2015

The Lives of American Communists After Communism

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 11:34 am


The Lives of American Communists After Communism

When history moved beyond the Cold War, it became possible for historians to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role of the Communist Party in American society. Books such as Mark Naison’sCommunists in Harlem during the Depression and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party during the Second World War treated party activists as men and women organically linked to the great conflicts of the 20th century in which they played major roles. There were of course scholars like Harvey Klehr who continued to insist that they were automatons serving almost as foreign agents but it was difficult to square that view with the evidence found in the new historiography or in films like “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight: Story of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in which people like Bill Bailey talked about their experiences in the party, including the time he tore down the Swastika flag from the mast of a German luxury liner in 1935—anticipating the young woman who recently tore down a Confederate flag in South Carolina.

As a former member of the Trotskyist movement I found myself identifying very strongly with the experiences of these dedicated veterans of the CP left even though I had a much different ideological background. When I read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism not long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar my own experience was to that of ex-CP’ers, particularly those who took factory jobs in the hope of converting workers to the socialist cause. Gornick’s book combines her own reflections with oral histories, mostly those of rank-and-filers, including Karl Millens who recollects “Going into Industry” (a term we used as well) in brutally frank terms:

What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into.

I looked up this passage in Gornick’s book a few days after I read what the late Gladys Scales had to say in A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales,  an oral history collected by Mickey Friedman that is an essential contribution to understanding the Communist experience.

The Party knew they had talented people and used their talents, yet many stupid things were done with people. One was a period of “industrial concentration,” where intellectuals and students were taken out of school and put into factory work. They were going to organize the workers. First of all, they stuck out like sore thumbs. You can’t take an intellectual and put blue jeans on him and make him look like a worker. The workers didn’t particularly trust him. They weren’t really at ease and neglected their own talents. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Gladys was married to Junius Scales, a man I met in 1997 at his mountaintop home in Pine Bush, NY about a half-hour’s drive from Woodridge, the tiny village where I grew up. Not long after I interviewed him, I read his memoir Cause at Heart: a Former Communist Remembers, a book that I consider to be the finest ever written about the Communist Party experience. Reading “A Red Family” reminded me of why Junius has remained a hero of mine ever since reading his memoir. Born into a blueblood family in North Carolina with a thirty-six room mansion, and with a grandfather who was a “big slaveowner”, Junius Scales seemed like the last person in the world to join the CP but as Karl Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalist crisis can often lead some to betray the class they were born into.

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  1. Wonderful piece, Louis.

    In 2003 I got very active in the Seattle antiwar movement. This was where I learned not to give a damn about what brought people to the table, not to consider my ideology superior to theirs and just to accept that we were in the same fight on the same side.

    Early on I made friends with a guy who has become my most important political collaborator. His history went back to one or another of the Albanian groups (I can never remember the exact flavor) in upstate New York, where he conducted the “party work” phase of his political existence.

    What was most remarkable was that, as we got closer and opened up more about our political experiences, it became clear that our parties were mirrors of each other, exactly alike in almost all respects except for the details of political positions, the sorts of things you could never successfully explain to a co-worker (as I know from voluminous experience as one of those people who spent a lot of time in industries like trucking, rubber, railroad, steel, starting well before I joined the SWP).

    While a lot of people, including myself, have indicted the SWP for its hamfisted turn to industry, the bigger problem therein was not so much the arm-twisting to get people to go into industry, but the way rigid top-down control was established and maintained thru the national trade-union fractions. It was, for instance, forbidden to just talk to other comrades in other branches about your joint work in, say, the rail fraction. Likewise, my formal request (as Chicago rail fraction coordinator) to see the minutes of the Minneapolis rail fraction was rebuffed. Information flowed upward, never sideways, so that information would flow downward only when that was decided from the center. Naturally this stifled what might have been fruitful collaborations on any number of campaigns.

    You have discussed this as a consequence of the bowlderized understanding of Leninism championed by the SWP so I know I am not opening a new door for you. But I think it had a gigantic impact in keeping comrades from following their own noses to the class struggle as it unfolded within whatever industry they were in. This is not to even mention that lateness of the SWP’s turn, which completely missed the real working class upsurge of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

    The key issue for the NO seems to me to have been control. I wasn’t in the party at the time, joining at the tail end, but I wonder if one of the reason for the sudden calling of a halt to the community branches was the impossibility of maintaining tight control over all aspects of branch functioning.

    Comment by davidbyrnemcdonaldiii — July 10, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

  2. “they were automatons serving almost as foreign agents” — like AIPAC? lol

    Comment by thom — July 11, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

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