As I pointed out in my last post that excerpted Vivian Gornick’s poignant and politically astute “The Romance of American Communism”, I was struck when I read it in the early 80s by how much the CP experience was like our own. This was particularly true of the “turn to industry” that began in 1977. As you will see in the excerpt from Gornick below, both the CP and the SWP used the same jargon. Can you imagine how much stupidity was involved in using the term “colonize” to describe what we did? As if we were missionaries going into the Congo to convert the natives? In fact the passage below refers to conversion three times. We never used that term ourselves (and for all I know the CP did not either) but it certainly describes what we were about. We “went into industry” to sell subscriptions to our stupid newspaper just like Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door, not to participate in labor struggles which were far and few between. But at least if you were in the CP, you got involved in living struggles. For that matter, the SWP’ers had the same experience in the 1930s and 40s. However, in 1977 the chances were slim that such an experience could be repeated—a function of the low ebb in the class struggle as well as our own ineptitude.
Going into Industry
“GOING into industry” (otherwise known in ironic Party parlance as “colonizing”) is the phrase used to describe the Communist Party’s practice during the Thirties, Forties, and early Fifties of sending Party organizers out to take up jobs as workers in the factories, plants, laboratories, and offices of America for the purpose of educating workers to class consciousness, converting them to socialism, and recruiting them into the Communist Party. Over nearly a quarter of a century thousands of American Communists spent the greater portion of their adult working lives “in industry.” The collective history of the life and work of these CP “colonizers” is one of glory and sorrow.
While for the most part they did not convert American workers to socialism, and certainly they did not recruit them in any significant numbers into the Communist Party, they most certainly did exert tremendous influence on the growth of worker consciousness in this country and contributed vastly to the development of the American labor movement. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, wherever major struggles were taking place between American labor and American capital, it was almost a given that CP organizers were involved. In the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady: they were there. They fought for the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker compensation, health and welfare insurance. And for one glorious moment—during the brief life of the CIO —they brought genuine worker politics to the American labor movement. What happened to many of the organizers, in fact, was that while they were unable to convert the nation’s workers to socialism, they themselves became gifted American trade unionists.
Karl Millens is fifty years old. He was raised in The Coops, named for Karl Marx, and was for twenty-three years a member of the Communist Party. Between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven he worked in industrial plants all over the Midwest on assignment for the CP. Today, Karl is an instructor in political science in a small community college in the New York area. He has written one book he was unable to get published and is now at work on a second. Publication, he says, is really a minor concern for him; he is happiest when sitting at the typewriter.
“The typewriter,” Karl says, holding out his large, well-shaped hands, “is a machine that fits my hands. The machines I used when I worked in the plant, they never fit my hands. They never felt natural to me, the way the typewriter does ”
Karl Millens is not bitter about his life as a Communist, but he is a sad man. He is divorced, estranged from many of his old friends, lives in a shabby one-room apartment in lower Manhattan, works at a low-paying, intellectually unrewarding job, and seems continually to be repressing a tide of emotional bewilderment that threatens daily to engulf him. It is visibly difficult for him to talk about the past. He is intelligent enough to know that if he could make sense of the past he would live more easily in the present, but he seems to have no confidence in the notion that he ever can make sense of the past. On this cold December night, however, he tries, he tries.
“Growing up in The Coops . . .” he begins vaguely. He passes a hand wearily across his wide forehead grown wider by virtue of a receding hairline. “It was like growing up in a hothouse. We were the hothouse kids of the Left. And like all creatures of the hothouse, we bloomed more intensely, more radiantly, precisely because the atmosphere was artificial. You know, in a very real sense America was a foreign country to us. Electoral politics meant nothing to us. But for weeks before May Day every wall, every storefront, every lamp post in the neighborhood was plastered with ‘All Out May One.’ And on the day itself the local grade school was empty. That was our election day, our July Fourth, our Hannukah, and our Christmas.
“I think almost every other Communist in America was more realistically involved with the country than we were. And more realistically involved with how they could best serve Communism in America than we were We grew up inside a language and a culture that was so dense, so insular, and finally so abstract. It’s incredible, when I think of it. We were all working class. Now, most working-class Communists didn’t romanticize working. But we, having grown up inside the theoretical jargon of Marxist-Leninist thought, adopted the stance of middle-class Party intellectuals and conceived our mission as revolutionaries to join the proletariat as fast as possible. No matter that we really were half-way to being intellectuals, that we felt at home only talking theory, ‘going into industry’ was all most of us dreamed of from the time we were teenagers.
“God! That language. This was supposed to be a movement of liberation, but every time I turned around I felt more and more constricted. Constricted by my language, which was either acceptable or nonacceptable. Constricted by my actions, which were definitely either acceptable or nonacceptable. Books I should or should not be reading, thoughts I should or should not be having. .. The Marxist-Leninist jargon was supposed to be evidence of high intelligence. But I found it put to uses of intimidation, and finally I felt it evidenced more a fear of life than it did of genuinely high intelligence. I remember when I left my wife and went into psychotherapy, I felt like a light had gone on inside my head. I saw a shape to my life I had not imagined before. When I tried to tell my oldest friend in the Party some of the things that were happening inside me, he talked to me as though I were counterrevolutionary vermin, fit only to be isolated in a laboratory or—under the right, the correct regime—taken out and shot. But all that came later, much later, these realizations of mine. First, I had to put in seventeen years in industry, serving the revolution around the corner.
“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 discovered very quickly I had no talent—repeat none—for organizing, for unionizing, for negotiating. I was slow-witted, clumsy on the uptake, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on around me. When a real, a natural organizer arose among the men, not only did I see how far away I was from the action, I couldn’t even encourage the guy in a radical direction. I’d open my mouth and out would come, I’m sure, I can hardly remember now what I said, some Marxist-Leninist formula The guy would just stare at me, shake his head, and walk away. I know he liked me, but I’m also sure he thought I was retarded. “I know that many people who went into industry were terrific organizers and turned out to be great trade unionists. But I have a feeling not too many of them came from The Coops.”