Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 27, 2015

The Romance of American Trotskyism

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

I am currently reading Vivian Gornick’s “Romance of American Communism”, a book that was written in 1974 and that I first read about 5 years later, not long after dropping out of the SWP. I am rereading it for a review in “Revolutionary History”, a British journal put out by people with mostly a Trotskyist past like me. When I first read Gornick’s book, I was struck by how much their experience was like mine—leaving aside the ideology. When I came across this excerpt, I was reminded of that. Substitute the word “Militant” for “Worker” and “Socialist Workers Party” for “Communist” and it pretty much describes our world, especially when I was going door to door in Harlem housing projects in the late 1960s selling subscriptions to the Militant.

* * * *

Sarah Gordon clutches her head and moans: “My God! How I hated selling the Worker! I used to stand in front of the neighbor-hood movie on a Saturday night with sickness and terror in my heart, thrusting the paper at people who’d turn away from me or push me or even spit in my face I dreaded it. Every week of my life for years I dreaded Saturday night. And then canvassing! An-other horror. A lady would shut the door in my face before I’d gotten three words out—and if she was a socialist she’d slain the door—and I’d stand there sick. I’d tell myself a thousand times: It’s not your face she’s shutting out. .. God, I felt annihilated. But I did it, I did it. I did it because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t face my comrades the next day. And we all did it for the same reason: we were accountable to each other. It was each other we’d be betraying if we didn’t push down the gagging and go do it. You know, people never understand that. They say to us, `The Communist Party held a whip over you.’ They don’t understand. The whip was inside each of us, we held it over ourselves, not over each other.”

For countless people, ringing doorbells or handing out the Worker was an agony but, as Sarah says, the Party and all the people in it had become a source of moral accounting to each of them. Sarah, during her years in the Party, would have done any-thing that was demanded of her—up to and including going to jail—because not to have done so would have been to become a pariah in her own eyes. The same was true for Ben Saltzman and Selma Gardinsky and Diana Michaels, as well as Jim Holbrook and Paul Levinson and Mason Goode.

Beyond and connected up with the moral accounting lay the in-credibly concrete vision of “the revolution around the corner” most Communists carried within themselves during the Thirties and Forties. Selma Gardinsky describes how when she first joined the Party in New York, the leader of her branch took her for a walk one day around New York’s Central Park. “Do you see those fancy, beautiful houses?” he demanded, waving his hand in the direction of Central Park West. “Workers built them with their blood and bones,” he railed, “but do workers live in them? No!” But, the branch organizer assured Selma, the revolution would correct all this. “When?” Selma asked. “In ten years,” the organizer replied calmly. Years later, Selma adds, she met this same organizer in Washington at a demonstration to save the Rosenbergs. “It’s been a long ten years,” Selma said.

Blossom Sheed tells a similar story about a well-known Left lawyer who in a court case during the Thirties said nonchalantly in court: “Everyone knows the revolution is around the corner.” During a recess someone from the Party said to the lawyer: That was an error We never say that.” The lawyer went back into court and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I was in error this morning. I said the revolution was just around the corner. The revolution probably won’t come for another ten years.”

But he didn’t really believe that. He believed the revolution was around the corner. And most Communists did. The sense of political time was so urgent people could taste it in their mouths. Fascism abroad, the New Deal at home, socialism surging up all over the world, Edgar Snow coming back from China, announcing, “There, too!” Every twenty-four hours seemed to send the pulse of the world racing toward Marxist revolution. The worse things got in Europe, the better it seemed for imminent socialist explosion. . . .

And the wholeness of the CP world was so complete, so deeply felt, that it was impossible not to believe it capable of making the revolution not in some unforeseeable future but right now, today, tomorrow, certainly within one’s own lifetime. That wholeness: its depth, its dimension, its utter circularity are almost impossible to describe. Very nearly, one had to have lived through it to understand its holding powers.



  1. The sectarian/cultlike milieu can exist of course in religion, but as you have chronicled, in politics such as in the Healyites and Sparts in the Trotskyist arena and several Maoist groups, and, off the charts, the LaRouchites. Finally, we have had the psychotherapeutic cults such as the Upper West Side Sullivanians, and in the “therapeutic communities” for drug addiction spun off from the Synanon program which devolved into a cult. They all share an insular bubble-like existence, strict dogma, often millenial expectations (cargo cult Marxists) – was that you Louis who made that one up? Often a prophetic maximum leader as Jim Jones, Jim Robertson, Gerry Healy, Chuck Dederich of Synanon. LaRouche, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Bob Avakian (the world is a shakin’ , learn from Bob Avakian!) Selling the party rag is one of the crosses to bear when belonging to the CP, SWP, Sparts, and Vivian Gornick is a colorful chronicler of this life; was going to recommend her earlier books but the neurons are not firing.

    Comment by Peter Myers — October 27, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

  2. Clive James claimed that Trotsky appealed to “aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuade themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism.”

    (As if there were a vegetarian version of capitalism.)

    Comment by Watson — October 27, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

  3. I dunno, this seems like a neo-con caricature of warm and fuzzy liberals apologizing for “the communists”. I knew Commentary and the like would have had a field day with it and they did, something Irving Howe in his own NYRB review seemed to see being set-up (it’s behind a pay wall).


    Comment by Sue Sponte — October 28, 2015 @ 1:09 am

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