In many respects the term New Left that emerged in the 1960s meant a rejection of the Communist Party, which was the paradigm of the Old Left. Despite the fact that Maoism and Trotskyism were also “old”, young people were much more open to such groups because of their rejection of both the troubled legacy of the USSR and their embrace of a militancy the CP regarded as “ultraleft”. There were also attempts by many New Left leaders in the mid-60s to build upon new theoretical foundations drawing from post-Marxists like Herbert Marcuse or anarchists such as Paul Goodman. When “Leninism” became fashionable, the New Left fell by the wayside.
Despite the lack of interest in the Communist Party as it then existed, young scholars influenced by the New Left embarked on a scholarly project to see CP history in context, not just as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy—although they accepted this reality—but as authentically rooted in American society. Among the most notable were Maurice Isserman who wrote “Which Side Were You On” in 1982 and Mark Naison who wrote “Communists in Harlem During the Depression” a year later. When Naison was a student at Columbia University in 1968, he worked closely with SDS and could be relied upon to speak against the Vietnam War and the planned expansion that encroached on a Harlem park. Meanwhile Isserman was an SDS member at Reed College but dropped out of school after the Kent State shootings.
The whole point of the “revisionist” scholarship was to show that party membership was contradictory. While tacitly or openly supporting retrograde Kremlin policies such as the Moscow trials, the rank-and-file were key participants and often leaders of momentous struggles in the labor and civil rights movements.
The new thinking about the CP clearly had an influence on films such as the 1982 “Seeing Red” that consisted of interviews with veteran members of the party like West Coast leader Dorothy Healy. Two years later “The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War” was released. Both films included interviews with Bill Bailey, a long-time CP member who was famous for tearing down the swastika flag from the bow of the Bremen that was docked in New York in 1935.
Nearly all the CP’ers who appeared in the documentaries had remained on the left even though many had broken with Stalinism, especially Dorothy Healy who would be instrumental in the launching of the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP. They acknowledged the bureaucratic practices but never repudiated genuinely radical acts such as tearing down a swastika, helping to organize a trade union, or fighting against Jim Crow.
Published in 1974, Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism” falls squarely within this “revisionist” tendency and is a counterpart to such films. The book is basically a collection of interviews with ex-CPers across the entire USA woven together in a New Journalism style that was popular at the time.
As a red diaper baby born in 1935, Gornick was much more a feminist activist than a student radical. Her goal in writing such a book was to allow ex-CP’ers to tell their stories, warts and all. Obviously determined to make their political work seem rooted in the American experience and not a virtual spy network as argued by the current crop of anti-Communists such as Harvey Klehr, she interviewed people who to a large degree never repudiated their past life even though they readily admitted that they were dogmatic, manipulative and frequently unethical.
When I first read Gornick’s book in the early 1980s, not too long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar their experiences were to my own especially “going into industry”, a rite of passage that had the ultimate effect of destroying American Trotskyism.
Interviewing one former member who had joined the industrial proletariat, Gornick reveals a malaise similar to that expressed to me by many ex-SWP’ers. In conversations with Gornick, one Karl Millens revealed a profound alienation during his own “colonizing” venture:
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.
That being said, other veterans of the trade union implantation had an enormous feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment, especially if they were involved in the key battles in auto, steel or textile. Unfortunately for young radicals in the Trotskyist or Maoist movement, the 1970s were nothing like the 1930s so alienation prevailed even if they were loath to admit it. In both the CP and the rival “Marxist-Leninist” movements, there is a stubborn refusal to admit that the party is ever wrong. When the party line comes into conflict with reality, reality is the first to be bent.
In reading “The Romance of American Communism” a second time to prepare this review, I was struck by some serious problems that were undoubtedly dictated by the New Journalism approach. To begin with, there are obvious signs that Gornick embellished the words of her interviewees to make them sound much more like characters in a novel. For example, a female ex-CP’er recollects living on the Upper West Side using words that struck me as something out of a romance novel:
I remember the other women were wearing magnificent dresses, embroidered and bejeweled. Mady was wearing only a simple white satin blouse and a long black skirt with no ornamentation whatever. She picked up one of the roses, sniffed deeply at it, held it against her face. Then she walked over to a mirror and held the rose against her white blouse. Immediately, the entire look of her plain costume was altered; the rose transferred its color to Mady’s face, brightening her eyes. Suddenly, she looked lovely, and young again.
But more egregiously, Gornick chose to use made-up names for all her interviewees even when there was no need to protect them from public scrutiny such as a man she describes as the CP’s lead defense attorney in Smith Act cases. By changing the names “to protect the innocent” (the book does not even include a disclaimer to this effect), she made it impossible to carry out scholarly research. You have to have some familiarity with CP history to identity the individual she is speaking to.
For example, having read Carl Marzani’s “The Education of a Reluctant Radical”, a five volume (!) memoir published by Monthly Review, I recognized him as the person Gornick refers to as Eric Lanzetti. Her interview with him epitomized the contradictions of life in the CP. As she puts it: “Inevitably, if one wishes to illustrate what that Communist Party wholeness in its detailed dailiness was once like, one is drawn to a man like Eric Lanzetti.
Marzani/Lanzetti was the son of an Italian socialist who came to the US in 1914 over fears that fascism would come to his country. The father, who had been a civil servant in Italy, became a miner and Marzani grew up in a West Virginia coal town. The hard life of miners was a principal factor in turning him into a revolutionary.
As an exceptionally gifted student, he got a scholarship to Brown University where few sons of miners would end up. After graduating, he went to Oxford on a scholarship and on his way there in 1936, he thought he would stop off in Spain to see what was going on. It was there that he was politicized for life. He became a Communist because it was the best way to help avert the fascism he saw coming.
In the fall of 1941 the party gave him the green light to join the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. Bill Donovan, the OSS chief, told Marzani that if he was a Communist, he did not want to know about it. This, of course, was par for the course before the Cold War began. Once the Cold War kicked in, everything changed. Marzani was the first CP’er to be sent to prison, in this instance being charged with “defrauding” the government about his party membership.
Gornick goes into considerable depth about Marzani’s work as a CP section head in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This discussion as well as much of her recounting of what other CP’ers did is invaluable to scholars and activists trying to come to terms with an important part of our legacy. It is unfortunate that she made follow-up all the more difficult to carry out by employing New Journalism techniques. However, if New Journalism is purported to reveal deeper truths than the mere facts, Vivian Gornick succeeded admirably.