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Rekindling the ‘Romance of American Communism’

Issue 257

The reissue of Vivian Gornick's classic work of oral history offers activists lessons for today.

Steven Wishnia Jul 24

If those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, Vivian Gornick’s recently reissued The Romance of American Communism is a crucial book for today’s radical movements.

Gornick takes as her main theme the all-consuming rush of becoming part of a movement bigger than yourself and finding a purpose.

In this oral history originally published in 1977, Gornick, a red-diaper baby from the Bronx and prominent second-wave feminist, wrestles with the complex legacy of the U.S. Communist Party, its major contributions to the labor and civil rights movements of the mid-20th century and its destructively authoritarian internal politics. It mostly consists of pseudonymous interviews with more than 40 mostly former party members, a spectrum of working-class Bronx Jews, Western migrant workers, artists and actors, and middle-class youths with a burning spiritual hunger.

Its main theme is the all-consuming rush of becoming part of a movement bigger than yourself and finding a purpose. The party offered an ideology to explain the poverty and injustice of the Great Depression, and an organization dedicated to upending it and creating a new world. In the introduction, Gornick writes that she’s now embarrassed by the purple romance-novel prose she used to describe her subjects, but the concept of “romance” fits their passion.

To the CP’s credit, the far-right canard that the labor and civil rights movements were heavily red-tinged contains a good bit of truth. Some of the hardest-core union organizers of the 1930s were Communists, organizing transit, textile, and port workers by industry instead of limiting themselves to skilled craftsmen. They organized strikes by thousands of California farmworkers in the early 1930s, a time when one national craft-union official Gornick quotes said “only fanatics are willing to live in shacks and get their heads broken in the interests of migratory labor.” 

Meanwhile, Bayard Rustin, philosophical mentor and logistics specialist for the civil rights movement, was a party member in the early 1940s. Lester Rodney of the Daily Worker was the first white sportswriter to campaign for the integration of major-league baseball, and the second black person elected to the New York City Council was Harlem Communist Benjamin Davis. The New York neighborhoods where hundreds of people turned out to resist evictions during the Depression were those with the strongest Communist presence, and current and former party members later cofounded some of the city’s main tenant organizations. 

Those seeds sprouted outside the party too. Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, the first major gay-rights organization in the United States, was a member, although he was expelled for being gay a few years later.

Losing yourself in passionate devotion, however, can open you up to manipulation and abuse. The Leninist secretive/authoritarian model was probably essential for sustaining a revolutionary movement in Tsarist Russia, but its Stalinist offspring was a world-historical disaster for governing the Soviet Union and the socialist cause. The U.S. Communist Party defended Stalin to the point of endorsing the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. (My grandfather, a Warsaw-born Jewish immigrant active in the garment workers union, was one of the many party members who quit after that.) 

The result was ruthless internal politics: Any disagreement with official dogma or minor screwup would be considered sabotage of the party’s global mission, “objectively counterrevolutionary,” and therefore the actions of an enemy. By the 1950s, members were being expelled for offenses as trivial as visiting their sister in the South and serving watermelon at an outdoor party — both deemed evidence of “white chauvinism.” That venomousness lingered on: Gornick notes that her most vitriolic (and anti-Communist) interviewee was far from the only one expressing “scorn and hatred for anyone who had left the Party either thirty seconds earlier or thirty seconds later than he had. If they left earlier, they were cowards; if they left later, they were opportunists.”

The party’s organizing style also demanded people’s entire lives. It got the work done but came at the sacrifice of any personal life outside activism. “Oy, those meetings!” laments “Selma Gardinsky.” “You know why most Communists aren’t politically active today? Because they can’t stand the thought of ever going to another meeting!” Personal discontent was considered a reactionary self-indulgence. Many of Gornick’s subjects, particularly the men, lucid and passionate when talking about politics, became tongue-tied when discussing their own feelings. Others say they hung on to the party like spouses in a bad marriage, still devoted to the underlying cause and reluctant to abandon the community that shaped their lives.

Gornick, largely apolitical after she left the CP milieu in 1956 at the age of 20 — part of the mass exodus after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed the depth of Stalin’s police-state crimes — became a leading feminist writer in the early 1970s. Her impetus for this book, she says, came at a conference then, when she questioned the idea that men are “by nature” oppressors, and was denounced as “an intellectual and a revisionist” — the type of viciously dismissive personal-political attack she loathed about the Stalinist style, coupled with the groupthink dogma that people are scared to question openly. 

Neither of those has disappeared from today’s activist subculture — one reason it’s essential to learn from the mistakes of the past. If radical movements need leadership, structure, and discipline to be effective, the lesson of this book is to find a way to prevent that from devolving into dogma and tyranny.

However, Gornick ends The Romance of American Communism on an optimistic note, quoting “Eric Lanzetti” (leftist publisher Carl Marzani, a former Communist organizer on the Lower East Side who served 32 months in federal prison for not revealing his membership in the party while working for U.S. intelligence during World War II). Even those who left the party, he told her, were permanently politicized.

They’d learned to see “a system of oppression older than God” and feel part of a movement bigger than they ever knew existed, Marzani spieled, and they were inevitably going to act on that understanding.

They were “impassioned by an ideal of social justice,” Gornick writes. And for that, she does not regret depicting them as heroic 45 years ago.

The Romance of American Communism
By Vivian Gornick
Verso, 2020