Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 25, 2017

The Romance of American Communism

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 2:53 pm

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.



  1. as a trotskyist, i always appreciate learning about the what the CP was doing in those years; it was hateful to anyone who didn’t toe the stalin line, even more than the rightists

    Comment by isabelle rawich — March 25, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

  2. I was just reading parts of Hammer and Hoe by Robin Kelley, about black Communists in Alabama who built sharecropper unions and defended victims of racist attacks and repression, including the Scottsboro 9. A couple of quotes – “When I asked Mr. Johnson how the union succeeded in winning some of their demands, without the slightest hesitation he reached into the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a dog-eared copy of V. I. Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells, set both firmly on the bed next to me, and said, “Right thar, theory and practice. That’s how we did it. Theory and practice.”’. And “Alabama Communists developed strategies and tactics in response to local circumstances that, in most cases, had nothing to do with international crises. Besides, if Alabamians had waited patiently for orders from Moscow, they might still be waiting today. Not only were lines of communication between New York and Birmingham hazy throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but Birmingham Communists had enough difficulty maintaining contact with comrades as close as Tallapoosa County.”

    Comment by Fred Murphy — March 25, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

  3. The ‘Turn to Industry’ was a faked up staged fraud from the get-go. I remember when that was announced and just laughing at the insanity of it. The Cannon-Hansen crowd were too old, too fat and mostly schoolteachers. They only knew what a factory was from the outside. The Insurgents were long-haired pot-smoking gay people who wouldn’t last a week inside a factory. Know what ‘constructive dismissal’ is? That’s what the Turn to Industry was all about. It was the Uber-leadership contriving to break the culture of the endless, endemic Opposition, fencing them out and breaking them up. Eugenics for Reds. I had worked as a gold miner, truck driver, in the woods and on farms and could see straight through this and wasn’t having any of it. I couldn’t believe that my otherwise intelligent comrades could be bamboozled so easily.

    I like the spirit of Mr. Johnson above. What is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells. All this hand-wringing over the angst of ex-reds. You want tough, join any church and rationalize killing people for god. Try any soulness business corporation and deal with selling contaminated garbage to trusting folks. Become a bureaucrat and bully and break people for…nothing. When all these fakers are through ‘slumming’ there will still be some steady streetfighters to carry on.

    Comment by Robert McMaster — March 25, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

  4. Louis writes: “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.”

    I don’t recall Dorothy Healy being instrumental in the launching of the Committees of Correspondence in 1991/92 when she was 77. I don’t think she was actively involved beyond giving her intellectual endorsement. Healy left the CP in 1973, having been critical of CP leadership since the Khrushchev ‘revelations’ of 1956. She did remain politically active, joining the New American Movement in 1974 and participating in NAM’s merger with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to create the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982.

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — March 25, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

  5. Here’s an alternative history for someone to write: no successful Bolshevik seizure of power, no Comintern, no Stalin and no Stalinism. The world-historic consequences would have been in Europe — would there still have been fascism? — but the evolution of the American Left, free of the malign grip of Stalin and the mental gymnastics it imposed, would almost certainly have been for the better.

    Comment by doug1943 — March 25, 2017 @ 11:41 pm

  6. It is a mistake to depoliticize the Communist Party (called by one critic of the “new” CP histories the most political of all organizations). As Gornick documents, many CP members were selfless and dedicated. What she and other “revisionist” historians miss – and what may be most important for a new generation of radicals to know – is that often their sacrifices served the opposite of what they thought they were fighting for. (No need to review the sordid history of the CP, which you know as well as I do, to demonstrate that.) Of course my concern is valid only if one takes seriously the possibility of fundamental change; otherwise we can continue to cheer the Communists for winning Social Security and building the unions, while ignoring or playing down what they gave up in return for those dubious achievements. As a rule the Trotskyists were guilty of fewer crimes than the CPs, if only because they never got so close to power—but it makes you wonder, why no Farrell Dobbs or other Trot heroes in Gornick’s book or Naison’s or Isserman’s or any others of that genre?

    Comment by Noel Ignatiev — March 26, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

  7. My impression is that the CP first monopolized the American left and then permitted “the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit” to be “sold down the American river”–in the words of a highly American and individualistic poet who nevertheless paid tribute to the “good thing” that the Party could be at times and in certain places, and was in his upbringing.

    I sometimes wonder whether this wasn’t perfectly OK with the Stalinists in the U.S.S.R. Suppose the United States had actually undergone a “communist” revolution. Where would that have left the Soviet Union, no longer the indisputable leader of “actually existing socialism”?

    A great many oxen would certainly have been gored. In fact, I rather fancy that they would have scuttled the whole thing. Who knows? Maybe they did. (Note, this is a semi-facetious observation.)

    When I look at the ill-assorted farrago of things the Russians allow on RT–Thom Hartmann and Alex Jones, for Gosh sakes–I can’t help being faintly reminded of the rich variety of “un-American” things that went forward under the Party’s aegis–things that perhaps constituted an important part of the “romance.” Perhaps the U.S. Party leadership and their Russian handlers (if that is what they had), merely sought, like today’s Russian Federation, to weaken their adversary rather broadly, with no real intention to promote actual “communist” revolution, with its potential threat to the primacy of the CP of the U.S.S.R.

    That said, the courage and discipline of the black communists Louis cites seems as monumental and awe-inspiring as anything in history. That discipline–I’ve certainly never had anything like it and doubt that I would be capable of it. Is this a magic ingredient that is lacking on today’s left?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 29, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

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