My mother, father, stepfather, and an aunt and uncle from both sides of the family, were all communists back in their day. And I mean members of the CPUSA, though, as is typical of red diaper babies, I don’t know the exact years, or even whether they carried cards. So when I checked out Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers—How the Left Changed a Nation from the library, I turned to immediately to Chapter Five, “The Paradox of American Communism, 1920s-1950s.”
The New York Review of Books article on Kazin’s book had already pissed me off, though. In it SeanWeilentz took great pains to say that this history of the left should not have focused on leftists at all, but instead on liberals, who had accomplished so much good for our nation. Call me crazy, but I expected him to focus on the actual topic of the book.
Liberals often exhibit an unrelenting hostility toward those to their left; American social democrats do the same toward American communists; and of course, that doesn’t even get to the numerous groups so tiny that their endless arguments truly seem meaningless. The right, of course, is totally out of hand as they label Obama a socialist/communist/fascist. In all this everyone, including Kazin, exacts their pound of flesh from the fact that the American CP idolized the Soviet Union under Stalin.
For example, the “anti-racist rigor” exhibited by the CP at a time when that was virtually nonexistent in the rest of white America? According to Kazin, “Like any noteworthy stance the Party adopted, (it) was stamped with the imprimatur of Moscow.” (p. 167)
Okay, okay–but what about the courage of party members who went South to protest lynchings? (See Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict.) What about the beauty of raising communist children in the midst of segregation to use the word “Negro,” instead of “nigra” or “colored?” To argue with their schoolmates every time a phrase like “jungle bunny” was used? To never ever utter the original words to “eeney-meeney-miney-mo” aloud?
Furthermore, per Kazin, “the downfall of the CP cannot be blamed primarily on the wave of legal and extralegal repression that began in the Truman era and ended during the Eisenhower presidency.” (p. 204).
Oh, really? Well, try this.
Listen to your mother brag about how the only thing she was ever scared about was the Red Squad and their threats to deport her children (all born in the U.S.). Have your collection of Children’s Digests, brought to school at your teacher’s request, purloined and destroyed by the school. Were they considered left-wing, or what? Go with your mother down to the principal’s office, to request an explanation which she never receives.
Listen to your mother talk about becoming indispensable before the FBI showed up on each new job, so she wouldn’t get fired. Then discover out that your parents’ best friend, with whom they bought a home for the first time in their lives, is an FBI snitch. Home sold; move again.
Be dogged by nightmares about trucks running down union organizers in dark alleys, repetitive fears of a wounded man dragging himself up the stairs.
Explain to the kids in junior high why your mom is on the front page of the LA Times telling HUAC it can go “flummox itself.” Listen to your parents worry about how all this will affect your sister in high school. Five years later, explain to your own high-school history teacher, in front of the class, why you thought it was wrong to assign J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit as required reading.
Be honest with your teenage girlfriends about the fact that you liked a black boy. Find a cardboard cross burned on your locker door. Go with your mother when she storms into the principal’s office, to demand an apology. Move to a different part of town, where she won’t be afraid that you will get hurt.
Realize just recently, way way into your adult life, that if Dewey had won against Truman–and remember, the nation went to sleep that election night believing he had–J. Edgar had detailed plans for interning 12,000 communists, and was working on the facilities to detain 12,000 more. Would your parents, with you as a baby, have been in the first wave or the second?
You’re right, Kazin. We weren’t, by and large, jailed (though some were, of course), killed or tortured. But a bunch of stuff did happen to us and it hurt, so it’s hard to have that wave of repression dismissed so easily.
Where is a lyrical description of the American communists’ hard-bitten dedication to counter-acting “the outrageous misery of the Depression?” (p. 158) Where is the wonder that some people are so troubled by material inequality that they struggle all their lives, against impossible odds, for the notion that everyone on this planet should have enough to eat, clothes on their back, a place to live, education and medical care? Where is the sense that this tenacity is admirable–spiritual, even?
No. Here is Kazin’s conclusion: “Nothing (the CP) did mattered as much as their allegiance to a foreign power, and when that allegiance became a serious handicap, the CP was finished.” (p. 207) Simple, right?
Well, when I think about Marx, Darwin and Freud, it seems they all wrote in a time of searching for the one unified theory that would explain the troubles of humankind. Sexual instincts repressed in childhood morphed into every family’s history. The survival of the fittest became the perfect justification for this dog-eat-dog world.
Then there was the way the bosses took the surplus value of their workers’ labor for personal profit. So, the communists decided if the workers could only throw off their chains, things would progress. And, to them, in Russia that had occurred, notwithstanding unremitting hostility from the capitalist classes of Europe and America, which helped goad a ruthless civil war.
Was there too much reliance on the Soviet Union as an example of virtue? You bet! Just watch the documentary Seeing Red, and you’ll hear the communists say it themselves.
All this before human beings were able to tabulate instantaneously endless amounts of data; before we saw images of our planet from space; before we realized we were the smallest dot in an infinite field of galaxies. Now thoughtful people know better–this situation of the human species is too complex for a unitary analysis.
As for that pesky Marxism, though, revolutions threatened moneyed interests at the core, and whew–is the ruling class relieved that communism didn’t succeed! The profiteers profit on, their gobs of money threatening the sustainability of the very planet we all depend on. (If you doubt it, this blog’s post from July 30th and check out Bill McKibben’s math on how the oil companies are trading in our weather for their profit.)
The liberals have made progress on alleviating poverty, yes. And so have the socialists, by creating/defending social safety nets and continuing to insist that all this matters. As for communism, as an economic system it has disappeared everywhere except Cuba and North Korea. So why do we have to choose? Why can’t we form a respectful spectrum, from center to left, struggling to find solutions to that ever-present inequality, now confronted by an emergent understanding of the need for sustainable practices.
Yet–although the people in my family, all unionists, spent more time organizing workers than praising Russia–let me make my position clear. One should never ever apologize for a dictator like Stalin. It’s bad to murder millions! There should be endless acknowledgment, and everyone needs to search their respective souls right now about what to do to stop this incessant human slaughter, whether perpetrated by left, right or center
But during those decades of CP denial of Stalin’s crimes, weren’t the liberals in denial also? How many apologies were there around that time about the internment of the Japanese, Jim Crow, genocide of the American Indian?
When did you last hear a right-winger slam all those who idolize murderous dictators during the endless cycle of modern America war? In this current crazy season, how often do those right of center lay into the Santorums, the Huckabees, the survivalists, the Timothy McVeys, those who murder the abortionists, those multitudes who support the murder of abortionists. No—those right of center go relatively easy on each other. You’ll never catch me saying this again, but perhaps we can learn something here.
So, Kazin, I admire all the work you’ve put into this book–I really do. But I probably won’t read more than the one chapter. Something about where is the love…