It may be only in the United States that one addresses the process of radicalization as a problem. To ask why someone became a radical presupposes that a particular deviancy must be explained. The literature on radicals and radicalization is replete with analyses with a psychological bent. Radicalization has been reduced to a phase of the identity crisis, an Oedipal conflict between generations, a manifestation of authoritarian personality structures, and a consequence of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s allegedly permissive child-rearing techniques.1
The gestation of the particular type of radical who becomes a member of the American Communist Party inspires an even greater emphasis on deviance, theological as well as psychological in nature. The demonology of many studies of Communist Party members is best considered a sad reflection of what we must now call the First Cold War of the late forties and early fifties, when all but the most fair-minded liberal scholars succumbed to McCarthyism.
In recent years, scholars have shown a more respectful interest in both the general question of radicalization and the more specific issue of American Communism. The breakdown of Cold War stereotypes during the 1960s made it more difficult to trace all radicals to alien roots. Of equal significance, scholars influenced by that decade of movement and resistance began to ask more pertinent questions about the process of radicalization. They sought to understand what produces radicals, particularly in a culture without a densely textured radical tradition. What are the personal, familial, institutional, and cultural factors that bring individuals into radical groups and movements?
First and foremost one must address the historical context within which radicalization occurs. In particular, one must place the twenty-six men and ten women interviewed in this study within the context of both the Communist Party and the political landscape following the Great Crash of 1929. These Philadelphia-based activists, political children of the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, of the rise of fascism and the diverse popular movements among industrial workers, farmers, the unemployed, blacks, and tenants, are essentially a thirties generation. For example, the mean year of radicalization is 1936, the year of Roosevelt’s second election victory, of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and of the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The mean age of radicalization is 19.6; the median is 20. These Philadelphia Communists began as a youth movement in a particular period of historical and cultural upheaval.
The French political sociologist Annie Kriegel suggests that a political generation experiences a “knot,” that is, a “point of origin and of reference” that creates a group identity.2 Although not all generational cohorts shared the same response to such knots as the 1930s, one can still seek to make sense of why some did. I cannot pretend to chart a “quantitative description of dated occurrences” that correlates with a statistically based cohort, but it remains possible to examine a political generation nevertheless.3 Some growing up in the thirties were minimally affected by the Crash and went about their business oblivious to political events. Others found ways to integrate special experiences and social trauma into already established liberal or conservative frames. A much larger group, deeply affected by the trauma of economic dislocation, carried through the rest of their lives a sense of scarcity and the preciousness of food, clothing and shelter. A few within this affected group were “struck by the event as by lightning.”4 Most of those so affected were politicized by the Roosevelt Revolution, the banner of the New Deal. Among the politicized, however, were some who turned against the system itself, rejecting capitalism as inherently unstable and unjust and proclaiming socialism as a viable and inspiring alternative. Most such radicals found the American Communist Party to be the most compelling voice articulating their values, ideas, and visions. Those who joined the Communist Party in the Depression years are hardly typical or representative, but they are nevertheless a significant variation within both their own generation and the history of radicalism.5
To begin to examine what they found attractive in the Communist Party, one must consider initially how that party addressed the social issues and problems of the 1930s.
Those who joined the Party prior to the Great Crash well understood adversity; in fact, one can view the entire first decade of the Party’s existence in the United States as one of crisis. What became the Communist Party, U.S.A., emerged out of a painful and destructive split in the Socialist Party that left all the groups involved weaker and smaller. Then, following a Soviet-directed strategy, American Communists went underground. When they re-emerged, their numbers were slight and their composition was disproportionately foreign-born.6
In the late twenties the Party became a more fully integrated member of the Soviet-dominated Comintern and began to establish some semblance of a stable identity after the purges of Trotskyists and Lovestonites. Earl Browder and William Z. Foster emerged as the dominant figures of a now “Bolshevized”—in fact, Stalinized—Party.7
Initially Finns were the dominant national group in the Party, but with the elimination of the autonomy of the foreign-language federations, Eastern European Jews, more assimilated and Americanized and centered in New York City and other urban areas, became the dominant minority.8 Sam Darcy, born in the Ukraine in 1905, brought to the United States at the age of two by working-class parents, raised in the Yiddish-socialist subculture of New York City, a Young Communist League leader in the twenties and a national figure by 1929, is fairly typical of the first group of Party cadres. They lived by a Bolshevik code of behavior culled from the classics of Lenin: What is To Be Done?, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Materialism and Empirio- Criticism, State and Revolution, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, and “Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.9 They believed that they knew what was to be done, these survivors of the origins of the Party, some of whom, like Browder and Foster, had roots in the old Socialist or Wobbly tradition.
In the late twenties the Party, under Comintern direction, entered what was called the “Third Period,” a severely militant, abrasive strategy that anticipated worldwide depression. Communists at this time argued that reformers and social democrats, by suggesting ameliorative solutions to capitalist crisis, played into the hands of the rising reactionary and fascist forces. They were, indeed, “social fascists” and consequently more devious adversaries than the open enemies of the workers. On these grounds Communists, in the United States and elsewhere, eschewed alliances with liberals and socialists. In Germany, it was a tragic period in which Communists cried, “After Hitler, us.”10
At the same time, Communists were able to win respect for themselves in the United States, especially after October 1929, as the most militant and uncompromising fighters for the rights of workers, blacks, and other oppressed groups. Communists fought against mortgage foreclosures and tenant evictions and for union recognition, better wages and working conditions, rights for the unemployed, and civil rights for black people in mines, mills, factories, and neighborhoods.11 They formed the idealistic John Reed Clubs, called for “proletarian literature,” and strongly condemned Hoover, Roosevelt, and the early New Deal. In 1932 many intellectuals rallied to Foster and Ford, the Party standard-bearers; membership, despite incredible turnover, rose from 7,500 in 1930 to 20,593 in 1933.12
the popular front, 1935–1939
Beginning with the national leaders, particularly in France and to some extent in the United States, Communists began to recognize the disastrous consequences of Third Period ultraleftism. The rise of Hitler and Nazism forced a change in strategy that reflected the already growing sense among many locally based Communists that an alliance against fascism, the primary and most dangerous adversary, was imperative. In the United States, signs of practical cooperation with “social fascists” predate Dimitrov’s United Front speech of 1935.13
Georgi Dimitrov’s manifesto called for a United Front, an alliance of all socialist and Communist forces representing the working class, and a Popular (or People’s) Front Against Fascism, a coalition of all progressive, antifascist workers, intellectuals, liberals, and middle-class elements. It marked a new path for the world Communist movement.14
Under the banner of the Popular Front, the adage “All not for us are against us” was transformed into “All not against us are for us.” It was an inclusive strategy, seeking to unite all of what came to be called “progressive” forces behind the Soviet Union’s primary goal of forging an alliance with the Western powers against the aggressions of Nazi Germany and its allies, Japan and Italy. The former “imperialist powers” became “the democracies,” and Roosevelt the “fascist” became a “progressive,” if still criticized, chief executive.15 The Party’s role in the rise of organized labor during the CIO campaigns of 1936 through 1939 made it a minor but important factor in American politics. Between 1936 and 1939 (and again between 1941 and 1947), American Communists sought and often built alliances and coalitions with non-Communists in a struggle against domestic reaction and international fascism.16
It is significant that most of the interviewed Philadelphia Communists joined the Party between 1936 and 1938. One must imagine the political and moral universe facing a twenty-year-old in 1936, the beginning year of the Popular Front.
Such American-born, disproportionately Jewish recruits were not fired primarily by the memories of Tsarist oppression, Cossacks, or the Bolshevik Revolution itself. There are two generations within the Communist Party experience. The Popular Front generation, often assimilated Jews, lacked the first-hand experience of Old World oppression that marked the foreign language-based 1905ers, that is, those who came to the United States following the defeat of the 1905 Russian Revolution, and their 1920s progeny.17 The thirties generation had only read about the early Bolshevik struggles in the era of War Communism and the New Economic Policy. They gloried in Soviet accomplishment, but were one step removed.
Depression-generation Communists were propelled by indigenous images of Hoovervilles, apple-sellers, breadlines, unemployed councils, and the militant strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis; they responded to the more progressive reforms of the New Deal and its patrician president and to the threats represented by the Liberty League, Father Charles Coughlin, and Huey Long. Their international issues, while very compelling indeed, were a part of Popular Front imagery: Five Year Plans, hydroelectric plants, Moscow subways, Stakhanovite altruism, all in contrast with American and Western capitalist stagnation and callousness. Most important was the struggle against fascism, a relatively new concept and reality but often the emotional and moral center of radicalization. The Popular Front persuasively called for a struggle against Hitler, anti-Semitism, concentration camps, book burnings, xenophobia, Italian aggressions against Ethiopia, and, finally, the fascist challenge in Spain.18 Harry Freedman places Nazi Germany and fascism at the top of the sources of his radicalization: “First and foremost, I was a Jew and saw in the Party and in the Soviet Union a model,” the only instruments fighting reaction on all fronts. Next in importance, he places the Spanish Civil War. Finally, Freedman lists the effects of the Depression, including the massive unemployment and the rising labor struggles.
Otto Kramer views his involvement as “comparatively simple. . . . just as the civil rights movement of the sixties fired up another generation, so the Spanish Civil War set off a rocket in my behalf.” The Spanish Civil War inspired the chief international metaphor of all progressive and democratic peoples: “No pasarán,” they shall not pass.19 Along with Dimitrov, the most articulate spokesman for the Popular Front theme of collective security was the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov, whose impassioned speeches at the League of Nations brought many Americans to accept the USSR as the most consistent opponent of fascism.
As the historian Robert Rosenstone suggests, Spain was the issue that brought the most recruits into the Party and the catalyst that led many into the Popular Front movement.20 Johnny Tisa, already a labor organizer, heard a Spanish Republican woman speak at a trade-union convention and immediately volunteered to go to Spain. Others put most of their political time into support work and relief drives in aid of the Republic. To most thirties Communists, it was the dress rehearsal for the coming confrontation with fascism.
The Depression generation of Communists also responded to the revival of Americana that the Popular Front both fostered and celebrated. Perhaps more than “The Internationale,” thirties Communists sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” enveloped in images evoked by John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets and emotionally close to, if sometimes uncomfortable with, Browder’s disingenuous slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Communists of the Depression generation read more of Stalin and Lenin than of Marx and were perhaps equally influenced by Charles Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington; their new pantheon of heroes included Tom Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.21
In a very special sense, the Popular Front allowed Communists to combine two sometimes contradictory beliefs and sets of images: a kind of populist patriotism and an international sense of solidarity that was ultimately attached to Soviet interests. American Communists were able to balance, at least until 1939, attacks on “Tories” and “Copperheads” in the name of a crusading New Deal, efforts to create an alliance of all democracies against fascist aggression in Spain, and defenses of the Soviet Union against “Trotskyite” and “fascist” slander and counterrevolutionary plots. As second-generation Americans, sensitive about being indigenous, thirties Communists could attack convention while remaining true to their nation. One Old Leftist speaks of feeling that she was “going with the mainstream” in this period. Others refer emotionally and respectfully, though always critically, to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Mort Levitt calls this period “the zenith” and refers to Eleanor Roosevelt as “the greatest First Lady the United States ever had.” Others agree that it was “a golden era.”
The historian Richard H. Pells argues that “in a curious way the Communists appeared more comfortable when they could regard themselves as integral members of the larger society rather than when they were forced to act as its critical conscience.”22 Popular Front Communists, like all activists of the period except the merely rebellious, chose to combine a rootedness in the American experience with a militant assault on social injustices. This preference sometimes approached the grotesque as people overcompensated for Soviet idolatry. Indeed, there were conformist and conservative aspects to the Popular Front ethos, as many observers have stressed.23
However, the desire for an intimate connection with the American experience is also in part a result of the relative tenuousness of Communist ethnic identity. That tenuousness, in Philadelphia within a district that might be 75 percent Jewish and 75 percent second-generation, was likely to respond to the Party’s manipulative use of native symbols. The American Communist volunteers in Spain formed the Lincoln, not the Debs, Brigade. The accomplishments of that era within the CIO and the labor movement in general sustained and deepened certain indigenous associations, even among experienced cadres. John L. Lewis was a genuine folk hero to many Communists, including those fully aware of his past and his political perspective. They were pleased to follow a large May Day rally with a July 4th celebration that featured banners proclaiming “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” along with “Communism—Twentieth Century Americanism.”24 They wanted, perhaps too deeply, an indigenous radical tradition.
Arthur Liebman suggests that the Left, from the turn of the century through the thirties, was “in large part dependent on the support it received from persons and institutions imbedded in an ethnic subculture—that of the Jews.” He describes a world familiar to all twenty-three of the Jewish Party members interviewed, and to several non-Jewish ones raised in northeastern cities: a Yiddish-socialist subculture of landmanschaften, fraternal orders, Jewish trade unions, especially in the garment industry, progressive schules, and summer camps. This constellation that Liebman calls “contra-culture” made Communism, if not the norm, certainly a commonplace in urban areas like Philadelphia.25
Whether Jewish members had conventionally religious or more secular upbringings, all grew up within what Liebman aptly calls a subculture of a subculture that allowed political activism and Marxist ideas to become familiar phenomena. If one’s parents were not left-wing, it is likely that one’s uncle or cousin or neighbor was. Thus, the theme of continuity is particularly strong among Jewish Communists.
I found little evidence of generational rebellion or of a psychosociological motif of alienation and frustration. There was one case of a cruel and insensitive father whose chronic belittling gestures still rankle after forty-five years, and in another instance, Fred Garst was disowned by an embarrassed and hostile family who blamed him for the strike facing their business. On the whole, however, Philadelphia Communists seem to have had relatively normal upbringings and conventionally loving relationships with their parents.
In a time of political turbulence and moral crisis, like the thirties, a certain proportion of young people, especially those with some higher education, will be attracted to idealistic causes, impressed with the integrity of encountered radicals, and driven by the injustices they observe and soon experience directly. Most begin to investigate radical groups tentatively, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes pushed by circumstances. Few share one former Communist’s feeling that the initial involvement with the Party “changed my whole personality.” As with contemporary religious cults and therapeutic cure-alls, such transformations involve a problematic trade-off of rigidity, dogmatism, and detachment from important reservoirs from one’s own past.
Most Communists speak of significant changes in their lives, especially in the discovery of a new meaning to life, but essential personality seems to have remained constant. Few members castigated their pre-Party lives or gave any indication that their political choices led them to deny their roots. I recognize the softening of older tensions, the mellowing of family hurts, the moderating of political passions, that come with the years. In addition, it is important to be careful about the retrospective whitewashing of events and experiences. But the telltale signs of this process—rigidity, hyperbole, memory blocks, fumblings—rarely appeared in my interviews. Old Leftists spoke at times of childhood and adolescent pains, of youthful excesses, of limitations in their own characters. But most managed to grow up without breaking all links with their families. These Philadelphia Communists experienced considerable continuity within a context: the continuity of the Jewish left-wing subculture in northeastern cities like Philadelphia within the context of the thirties.
Sammy Cohen was raised within that Jewish left-wing subculture. His father was a skilled craftsman, a socialist, and a self-educated intellectual, who arrived in America from the Ukraine in 1906. His mother, who arrived in 1910, was a seamstress. The father, a militant and idealistic immigrant worker, took his small family West to Utah to participate in an agrarian socialist community and later, after being fired for his radicalism from a local shop, gave farming in Bucks County a short fling. Eventually, however, they settled in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia, a working-class and lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood, where, as Sammy Cohen says, his father was alternately fired for his politics and rehired for his skill.
The elder Cohen was sympathetic to the old Socialist Party and apparently had met Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He decided not to join the Communists in 1919 but remained friendly with them in his Jewish local of the carpenters’ union.
Sammy’s parents, caught between the antagonisms of Socialist and Communist networks, at first did not send him either to the Workmen’s Circle or to the International Workers Order schule; instead, the independent carpenter taught his son himself. Later the parents relented, and in 1934, at age eleven, Sammy was sent to the Communist Party–related IWO schule and soon allowed to join the Young Pioneers, the Party youth group.
Sammy’s mother, while sharing her husband’s political values, felt that he “trusted too many non-Jews” and crossed over to the Gentile world without sufficient caution. Like many Jews within her Jewish-socialist subculture, she was more comfortable with her Jewish bourgeois neighbors than with her husband’s radical but “goyische” comrades.
The elder Cohen was widely read in both the Yiddish and English language press. He admired the scientific and technical institutions, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that represented the best of a bourgeois culture and the achievements that had to be absorbed by the proletariat, but he believed that an education in the humanities should come from experience and self-education, removed from the ideological distortions of bourgeois instruction. He believed that the working-class revolutionary did not need college to learn philosophy or to be enriched through literature and the arts. Although he enjoyed, and encouraged his children to participate in, athletics, Sammy Cohen’s father was disturbed by an American popular culture in which spectatorship and professionalization seemed to be turning sports and entertainment into a mere opiate.
Sammy moved very smoothly into Communist activity while in high school in the late 1930s. It was the heyday of the Popular Front’s mobilization. As a young member of both the American Student Union (ASU) and the Young Communist League (YCL), Sammy, a student at Central High School, worked with students from about half a dozen other senior high schools in the area. His transition into the Communist Party network seemed smooth and natural, and he officially joined the Party in 1938 at the age of fifteen. He was indeed his father’s son.
Sam Katz’s parents were Bundists from the Ukraine who became supporters of the new American Communist Party in the 1920s. They were both tailors struggling to earn a living in the Strawberry Mansion section. By age twelve, Sam was being sent to Young Pioneer meetings by his father to hear speakers evoke the new Russia, the future China, and the present struggles of the labor movement. He quickly became an activist, brawling with the football team over his activities in high school, fighting for a free lunch program, and getting expelled (he had called upon Party longshoremen and seamen to combat the varsity). He recalls that his mother successfully pleaded for his readmission; immigrant parents, Bolshevik or bourgeois, wanted their children to get the benefit of an education.
During the 1928 presidential campaign, young Sam, fourteen, spoke for the Party’s Foster and Gitlow ticket on a West Philadelphia street corner, only to be met by taunting American Legionnaires. Once again, Party prols came to the rescue. When the police came to break up the brawl, Sam was arrested for inciting a riot and spent a week in jail. Local papers headlined the story, “Boy Red Incites Riot.”
Sam was not particularly interested in school, spending most of his time on YCL activities or listening to the intriguing stories of international adventure told to him by the Communist seamen. Finally he quit school to go to work in a factory, despite his parents’ disapproval. He was soon selected to become a “colonizer” in Reading, that is, to enter a garment factory and attempt to organize the workers. He spent his time there “under conditions of privation,” living in an attic, hidden from a sympathizer’s own household, never receiving promised Party funds, often hungry, and thanks to the Depression, unable to get a job. Returning to Philadelphia with a sense “of personal defeat,” he turned seventeen.
Home was tough; his parents found little steady work, and Sam survived on odd jobs. Most of his energy went into the earliest efforts to organize unemployed councils. He recalls being “impressed with the size of the demonstrations” in Washington and especially with the estimated 100,000 who rallied at Rayburn Plaza in Philadelphia. Sam was living, eating, and drinking Party activity, only coming home to sleep, if that. His home base was Party headquarters, then at 5th and Spring Garden Streets.26
In the mid-thirties, with the Depression showing some signs of lifting, Sam began to get “a little tired of poverty” and found a full-time job in one of the state-run liquor stores. There he proceeded to help organize a local that eventually joined the State, County and Municipal Workers Union (CIO). He moved up to districtwide leadership, became involved with the Philadelphia CIO Council, and was now “a full-fledged trade unionist” and a Party leader in union affairs.
Sam Katz became a Party functionary, remaining at the district level of activity for the next fifteen years. While his early life had been filled with rebellion against authority, it was not a generational rebellion in any sense. He was pursuing the core values he absorbed from his family; he was a “red-diaper” baby. Such a family background, while not typical, was hardly unique. While only four of the Old Leftists I interviewed are the children of Communist Party members, fourteen (39 percent) experienced some variety of progressive political upbringing. The other twenty-two (61 percent) either had conservative or reactionary parents or, more often, had no discernible political background at all.
Of the fourteen from progressive political homes, six had fathers active in labor unions, five came from socialist milieux, and several had parents who belonged to the Workmen’s Circle or the International Workers Order. A few had parents with Old World loyalties to the Jewish Bund or to such left-wing Zionist groups as the Farband. For such young people, as Nathan Glazer notes, “it was neither eccentric nor exceptional to become a Communist.”27
Ruth Shapiro speaks of growing up “smelling the clannishness,” the sense of community, within the Jewish Left. As her father experienced upward mobility in America, becoming “a somebody,” he became a more moderate leader within the Workmen’s Circle and an active Zionist. Ruth’s more radical mother, on the other hand, opted for the I WO. Ruth describes the intense Jewish radicalism of both her parents as a “political religion,” with all of the heat, passion, and intolerance that the term implies. She says that “when Palestine became a crisis, our house became a crisis.” Al Schwartz’s father was a Communist Party organizer, blacklisted from local shops but comfortable within the Yiddish-speaking world of garment workers and machinists.
More characteristic Jewish subjects felt political radicalism “all around” them rather than within their immediate families. Meyer Weiner’s parents were nonpracticing Jews, poor and politically uninvolved, but several of his older brothers became union activists and organizers. He also remembers that a close friend’s father was a militant socialist and that his neighborhood had “a fairly strong socialist-communist composition.” Several Philadelphia Communists had brothers or sisters, sometimes cousins, who joined the left-wing movement.
Milt Goldberg’s father, working in the garment industry, shifted his allegiance from Eugene Debs to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Like several others, his family experienced an Americanization that touched politics as well as everyday life. Otto Kramer describes his Russian-born parents as highly Americanized, apolitical and “religious only to a certain extent.” Kramer feels that “the new culture almost immediately took them over.”
Some Jewish Communists, like Mort Levitt, were raised outside the Jewish subculture, in Gentile neighborhoods, “the only Jews on the street in a working-class area.” And a few, like Tessie Kramer, describe their parents as “illiterate,” with no books in the house and a total absence of any cultural stimulation. As with all stereotypes, that of the vibrant Jewish-Left subculture must be tempered by significant exceptions.
Working-class backgrounds predominate among the Old Leftists, Jewish and Gentile. Twenty (56 percent) come from working-class homes, while another four (11 percent) have lower-middle-class backgrounds. Few parents, however, were engaged in the mass production or heavy industrial work emphasized by Marxists in defining the proletariat. Most were skilled or semiskilled workers: barbers, tailors, cabinetmakers, jewelers, or garment workers; some owned small businesses. The remainder (33 percent) includes one upper-class and seven middle-class backgrounds, with the professions and commerce predominating.28
Twenty-four of those interviewed were raised in the greater Philadelphia area; twelve migrated to Philadelphia during their adult lives, from metropolitan northeastern cities (eight), from smaller industrial towns (two), or from the rural South (two). Of the Philadelphia-raised Old Leftists, all grew up in ethnic, primarily Jewish, neighborhoods such as West Philadelphia (seven), South Philadelphia (five), and Strawberry Mansion (three). Such neighborhoods were left-wing strongholds until the “red scare” of 1947–1954 weakened the Party and, simultaneously, suburbanization undermined inner-city ethnic areas.29
The Gentile life stories reveal more discontinuity. In the radical pockets within the Southern and Eastern European Catholic immigrant communities, however, the process of radicalization followed similar lines.
Angie Repice’s parents came to North Philadelphia in the years before the Great War. Her mother was “a charming, quiet lady,” deeply religious, and deferential to Angie’s father, a railroad worker. Mr. Repice had become militantly anticlerical because of what he saw as the hypocrisies of priests. Initially “pretty much of an anarchist,” he was called “the Bolshevik” by fellow immigrants because of his outspoken support for the Russian Revolution.
It was a poor household but a loving one. The family spoke Italian at home, and Angie’s father was active in Italian fraternal organizations. She remembers the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918/1919, during which her infant brother died. The local priest wanted money to perform the last sacraments; her struggling, proud father saw this as “the last straw” and forbade all church-going within the family.
Angie did piecework in the garment industry while attending public school; it was a family effort in which she labored before and after classes and during her lunch break. The Depression made things worse, as her father’s construction business collapsed. There were six children to support.
Angie “was furious” that she could not continue her schooling after graduating from elementary school—that was sufficient for girls, she was informed—but accepted her fate. She entered the full-time work world in a period when unemployment was approaching one-third of the labor force. This “very aggressive little girl,” still a teen-ager, got factory work and discovered the class struggle. “Who knew from strikes?” she recalls with wry amusement. With her father’s approval—the union leadership came to the house to gain it—she became an activist with the Textile Workers Union.
Angie’s education, now mostly from the school of experience, expanded when she was invited to attend the eight-week summer sessions of the Affiliated Schools, a Bryn Mawr College program influenced by radical YMCA-YWCA staffers and specifically geared to working women. There she studied economics, labor history, and literature. Such training gave her a context within which to assess her experience.
Angie Repice’s road leftward had already been smoothed by a brother who was a YCL activist and, of course, by her father’s lifelong radicalism. Her house had served as a center for Sacco-Vanzetti protest meetings, raucous, argumentative, laughing meetings that included such prominent figures as the Wobbly organizer Joe Ettor, who, Angie proudly proclaims, “wanted to adopt me.” She wanted to enter that political universe, seemingly exclusive to men, and, with her brothers and sisters, would sneak as close as they could: “They were in the dining room eating; we were in the kitchen listening.”
As Angie’s activism burgeoned, she found herself filling all of her time with meetings, lectures, discussions, at all hours and late into the night. Her father, still the Old World patriarch, tried to limit her involvement, but she said, “Either you let me go or I’m not going to go to work.” One of her activist friends, a socialist, came to the house and persuaded Mr. Repice to allow her to continue participating in radical and trade-union activities.
In 1934 she joined the YCL and became, as she stresses, “the activist of the family.” She worked within the “Y,” her “mass organization,” and with the YCL and the American Youth Congress. She rose quickly to leadership in the youth activities of the Party, partly, as she admits, “because of my background,” but also because of her energy, enthusiasm, and ability to work with a variety of groups. An Italian working-class woman was, of course, a valuable asset to the Communist Party.
Several subjects with Catholic working-class backgrounds recall that their fathers were union sympathizers or even militants. Tim Palen remembers his father’s involvement in mining strikes in western Pennsylvania; Jack Ryan’s father was simultaneously a Democratic Party precinct leader, a staunch trade unionist, and a noted local bootlegger.
None of the black Old Leftists had radical political upbringings. Ethel Paine’s father was a Republican leader in his community. The other three blacks, however, had low-income parents who simply struggled to earn a living and lacked the time and the energy to provide a political education for their children.
Some young people came to the Communist Party from much less congenial environments. They came from politically conservative homes or unhappy ones, or simply conventional families that did not seem to speak to their disaffections and their dreams. And they found a new home, a new family, in the support network that was the Communist Party in the thirties.
Mark Greenly was introduced to the Communist Party in an almost comical fashion. While at Gratz High School, he found an ASU membership card decorated with the slogan “Stop the Hearst March Toward Fascism.” He was curious about the group and finally made contact with a Gratz member who invited him to a meeting.
The meeting was across town in Strawberry Mansion, a section unfamiliar to Greenly. He arrived an hour early after walking across town and found what to him was an exotically Jewish, disheveled apartment, with broken-down furniture, the powerful smell of Jewish food, a little, dark girl with no underwear, and “a bushy-haired guy.” As others began to drift in, “one guy wanted to put up a picture of Lenin on the wall.” Others, however, argued that it was inappropriate (since ASU was a coalition of Communists, Socialists, and progressives and not formally a Marxist-Leninist group). Greenly, bewildered by the argument that ensued and dazed by the fury of the combat, the political terminology, and the plethora of initialed groups mentioned, sat and listened. The meeting finally began and ran very efficiently, covering electoral issues and the need to support New Deal candidates. During the question period Greenly innocently asked, “Is this a Communist organization?” He was immediately and furiously attacked by all parties: “That’s red-baiting!” Greenly had no way at that point to know that within Popular Front groups like ASU it was considered provocative to bring to the surface the very sensitive issue of Communist domination.
Yet Greenly was not driven away by this minor trauma; he soon became heavily involved in his school’s ASU chapter, rose to a leadership position, and helped to make it the largest in the city. What were the life experiences that permitted his radicalization despite an inauspicious beginning?
Mark Greenly is of Scandinavian descent. His parents were first-generation Americans. He was born in 1922 in the Midwest and came to Philadelphia with his family a few years later. His father was a mining engineer, a “near-genius” who spoke six languages but was “bigoted and intolerant,” a man whose technical accomplishments got him listed in Who’s Who but who nonetheless was never materially successful. Greenly’s mother’s family apparently included Socialists, but his father was “reactionary and anti-Semitic,” although the household was essentially bereft of political discussion. The father traveled a great deal, and the marriage broke up in the early thirties. His mother, who experienced some emotional instability at this point, eventually remarried. Greenly describes his stepfather as a drunken “ignoramus” and “a real prick,” who fought a great deal with his mother.
Greenly therefore sought comfort and support elsewhere. Initially, he found it with the father of a boyhood friend who discussed current events with him. Greenly recalls, “I didn’t like what Hitler was doing,” and the friend’s father, a retired army officer, took him seriously enough to discuss such issues. He remembers a brief flirtation with religion at age fourteen but for the most part describes his teen years as somewhat lonely but filled with the typical pleasures of an urban neighborhood: hanging out, playing ball.
Greenly would practice the arguments he absorbed from his friend’s father with people in the neighborhood. But another friend’s parents “kept refuting all my arguments.” He argued for Alf Landon; they countered with FDR. They were tolerant of his views, however, and gave him lots of literature to examine, including some about the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, Greenly’s schoolwork was “just enough to pass,” and his stepfather advised him to enter a commercial program. Instead he took his married sister’s advice and made a commitment to academic studies. During our interview, Greenly spoke warmly of his sister and her husband as family “who cared.”
His schoolwork began to improve, and it was at this point, in tenth grade, that he found the ASU card. His integration into the student radical universe came quickly as he began to clash with school authorities over their denial of permission to bring antifascist speakers to school assemblies. He was soon arrested for illegal leafletting on school grounds, which only served to deepen his growing radicalism.
Greenly’s pattern of radicalization is almost the polar opposite of Sammy Cohen’s. Greenly rebelled against the bigotry of his erratic and critical father and the instability and neglect of his unstable mother and alcoholic stepfather. He found a variety of resources to help him establish a sense of self and a mode of representation, political discourse, to express that self. Without psychologizing, it seems clear that Greenly’s radicalization allowed him to express his resentment at the injustices of his own life within a political context that tempered rage with a sense of social justice and a belief in humanity. Greenly could have chosen another kind of conversion, but he chose one that allowed him to join with a political generation of Communists who felt that they were defending “the salt of the earth” against fascism.
In 1938 he attended an ASU national meeting in New York and was elected to its executive committee. He was one of only two high school students elected. Greenly, a Northern European Protestant, was much cherished by a Communist student movement deeply embarrassed by its predominantly Jewish membership. He was often chosen for leadership or to attend conferences because of his ethnic identity. Yet Greenly did not feel used but rather took advantage of his opportunities to become a citywide student leader. He does recall, interestingly, that whereas the Jewish student activists were hopeful about their futures, he was oblivious to his own, and more recklessly “militant.”
The critical moment for Greenly, as for many other young militants, came in 1939 when the Soviets agreed to a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. Greenly says, “I had to decide whose side I’m on, on the side of the working people, or with the other bastards.” He stayed loyal, became a YCL leader, organizing a small group with “Bolshevik discipline,” and looked forward to becoming a professional Communist, a full-time revolutionary. He also married a Jewish girl, a comrade. Greenly sprinkles his comments with Yiddishisms and notes that he is often mistaken for a Jew.
A few Gentiles, never mistaken for Jews or, for that matter, with being anything but White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, embraced the Party in the context of the traumatic events of the thirties. Typically, they were from affluent families, went to the best schools, and had some of their illusions shattered by the economic suffering and oppression of the American working class and the mounting ugliness of fascism.
Sally Turpin was born in upstate New York during World War I. Her father was a prominent Republican officeholder with Mayflower credentials, but her mother, who Sally asserts was the greater influence, was of immigrant, working-class stock. “My mother was much more political and analytic than my father, who was a sweet but shallow man,” she adds.
She attended a “small and snobbish” Quaker school, where she was, as she describes herself, “a very unpopular girl,” physically unattractive, occasionally obstreperous, and very bright.
At a prestigious Main Line college, Sally “busted out in culture all over the place, “attended concerts, read voraciously, and “fell in with a bohemian bunch, largely Jewish.” It was the heart of the Depression, but her family was untouched. In 1936 her father financed a European trip on which she was escorted by “a lively, unconventional” art professor.
Visiting galleries and cathedrals, Sally found herself in a France racked with labor conflict, with “people in the streets. . . . I had never experienced anything like that before.” She remembers giving away all of her money to a struggling striker’s family. The moment remains with her and marks a turning point in her life. They journeyed to Italy; meanwhile, “the war in Spain broke out under my nose.” Sally recalls troop trains of Italians being sent out to Ethiopia and, at Padua, a heated argument with Italian Fascists during which, she says, “I found myself declaiming about liberty, fraternity, equality.”
She had changed, but it was not yet clear in exactly what way. In 1936 she campaigned on campus for Roosevelt. That same year she read W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction and found herself angered at the lies she had been fed by her history professors. “A very exciting man,” a Marxist classics professor, brought her into study groups, and the world of ideas seemed to explode. By early 1937, she had joined the YCL.
Such experiences and intellectual tutelage helped to ensure Sally Turpin’s conversion to the Left. A multitude of activities brought her to total immersion and identification. She recalls attending massive rallies in Washington, having an affair with a fellow radical student, and being “up to my ears” in ambulance fund raising for Spain, the ASU, and local labor politics. After she graduated, this “convinced, committed, thoroughly organized Communist . . . wanted to go into the labor movement,” but was instead assigned to head the high school section of the citywide ASU office.
Sally Turpin just immersed herself in a Communist Party milieu in which “everyone was so friendly—I cannot tell you how comradely the movement was then.” She soon met a YCL organizer working out of Kensington, an intellectual of working-class origin. Their marriage cemented Sally Turpin’s organizational commitments for the next fifteen years.
What kinds of children were these future Communists? What were their goals, their aspirations as adolescents? Were they high achievers, underachievers, chronic rebels, mediocrities? While there is much diversity, the predominant experience, at least among males, is that of the urban “street kid,” with minor Jewish variations.
Although one working-class Catholic ran crap games on the streets and a Jewish Old Leftist was expelled from Hebrew school for punching the rabbi, there is little evidence in the Old Leftists’ life stories of physical toughness or street-fighting experience. On the other hand, few seem to have been exclusively bookish. Ike Samuels recalls that he became “street-wise” early in life, hustling for money to help out his family, and Moe Levy describes his growing up in South Philadelphia as a period of “hanging around with the guys,” playing ball, and being what he calls a “street kid.” Most of the men had sports interests, including stickball, ping-pong, basketball, and other city games. Such Americanized behavior was linked with solid, often impressive, scholastic achievement. Harry Freedman, for example, speaks of being “active physically, a good ballplayer, a good student” who initially wanted to become a rabbi. Mort Levitt recalls that he was “a complete athlete who loved the outdoors” and “a pretty good student” as well. Several refer to themselves as high achievers and avid readers. Otto Kramer was an active Boy Scout and almost an Eagle before his political interests began to influence his extracurricular activities.
The women’s childhood and adolescent experiences range from Angie Repice’s sweatshops and piecework to Sally Turpin’s upper-class private school. While the women were more studious in elementary and secondary school, they were not expected to proceed to college. One Jewish woman who, at her mother’s urging, “went through the classics at age twelve,” was encouraged by her father to attend normal school rather than seek a classical undergraduate education. She resisted and instead entered the job market. Tessie Kramer, on the other hand, says that she faced no battle at all about going to college and describes an active, stimulating high school period. She characterizes herself as “a very aesthetic and bright” adolescent, active in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. She adds, “I never really learned to cook an egg.”
Ambitions and goals vary considerably in the life histories. In most cases one finds traditional attitudes toward work, although quite Americanized ones. The parents of the Depression generation often looked critically, at times angrily, and always quizzically, at their children’s passion for sports, movies, and radio. Parents would exclaim, “What’s a big boy like you, almost ready to get a full-time job, doing wasting his time with children’s games like baseball?” These were decidedly American youth, more accomplished than the norm, more ambitious, perhaps even harder-working, yet very much products of the urban street society and of the new mass culture of ballparks and movie theaters. Even if they were “red-diaper babies” or raised within the Yiddish-socialist subculture, most still added popular culture heroes to their pantheon of socialist idols. It would be members of this generation who would see fit to proclaim mournfully “Babe Ruth Is Dead” on a Daily Worker front page headline.30
Only a few Philadelphia Communists share Ruth Shapiro’s assertion that “we were very much immigrant children,” envious of the social life of the public schools and feeling like outsiders in a milieu of proms, hops, and sports events. Nor do many relate to the more splendidly parochial remembrance of one national Party figure: “We were happy, unconflicted, suffered no identity crisis, saw no generation gaps. We lived in isolated security amongst our own kind. The goals and hopes of our parents were ours. We rejected those of society around us; ours was the dream of the future.”31 Such insularity may have been possible in environments like the New York City Coops, but in Philadelphia a fusion of left-wing and indigenous modes was more typical, at least among Jews of progressive backgrounds.32
All but four Philadelphia Communists attended urban public schools; two went to parochial and two to private schools. Only four did not complete high school, a measure of the value placed on education by Jewish culture in particular, but present among all groups considered. Many went on to college, and nearly half (seventeen) gained bachelor’s degrees. Almost a third of the sample went on to attend graduate school. Philadelphia Depression-generation Communists were an impressively upwardly mobile, educationally minded group.33
Most Communists stress the naturalness of their radicalization, giving support to Glazer’s observation that “the Communists who joined the party in the course of a relatively common psychological development, far, far outnumber those who had exceptional and rare psychological reasons for joining.” Few fit Gabriel Almond’s assessment that American Communists, more middle class, more rebellious, more needy than continental European Communists, with weak fathers and dominating mothers, were casualties of “acculturative and socialization processes.”34
Many simply stated that “the Depression molded our whole generation”; some tersely emphasize “the times,” recalling the ever present news about Hitler, the New Deal, unemployment, the rising militancy of unemployed marches, rent strikes, and labor struggles.35 Several Philadelphia Communists speak of entering the job market of the early and middle thirties, realizing how little was available, not despondent, still young, but forcefully made aware of the realities of the Depression.
A few Old Leftists remember being strongly anti-Communist at some point in their youth, although never actively so. One veteran had even joined a local fascist club, although primarily as a means of earning a scholarship. He adds that eventually he was “red-baited” out of the group for raising questions; at that point he hardly knew what communism was. Moe Levy recalls a “questioning period” during which he headed a Jewish high school discussion group. He invited one of the city’s more prominent Jewish attorneys to speak and was amazed at the man’s arrogance and insensitivity. Levy concludes that such experiences made him “disenchanted with this type of people.” Those not from a left-wing milieu typically found themselves excited by the window on understanding that the Party provided. Stan Wax, for example, remembers the thrill of discovering Marxist literature, usually in pamphlet form, providing him with an alternative and more enlightening way to make sense of the world around him. Many subjects devoured Party literature, finding in it a key to knowledge in anything from the causes of the Depression to the nature of art. Tessie Kramer recalls feeling that “the whole world of literature fell into place . . . [through] dialectical materialism.” Surprisingly few, however, had read the classics of Marxism before entering the Party. Pamphlets, mimeographs, leaflets, and speeches were the core of their early political reading.36
Stan Wax speaks euphorically about the lectures and rallies he attended in his youth. The speakers were always fiery and enthusiastic and the crowds were attentive and responsive. He reflects that such experiences led him to believe that “there was something beautiful in this socialism.”
The Communist movement on campus attracted many to Party-initiated activities. Ike Samuels, after having dropped out of school for a year because of the Depression pinch, returned to join the pre-Popular Front National Student League. He began to learn about the causes of the economic crisis from his new comrades and soon was vigorously arguing in the classroom with an economics professor over what now seemed to be callous reflections on the laws of supply and demand. Several collegians were swept up by student strikes that provided them with intense and pleasurable contact with already radical students.
The campus Communists impressed many neophytes with their dedication and intelligence. As Arthur Liebman states: “Those who were attracted and became involved with the Left, especially those who rose to leadership positions as student leftists, were not the campus oddballs. They were generally the brightest, most precocious, and most dedicated students.”37 Neophyte Communists wanted to spend time with the campus radical leaders. Tessie Kramer speaks of the ASU and YCL leaders on her campus as “the most wonderful, the most creative, the most intelligent . . . they were the brightest.” It is clear that those who joined the Communist movement were particularly impressed by the quality of its adherents.
Milt Goldberg casually replies, “I read a couple of books,” when asked to explain his radicalization. He adds, however, that he found intellectual and moral stimulation at a Society of Friends center that he attended regularly, helping out with the arrangements for guest lecturers. Finally some radical students from Swarthmore took him aside and suggested that he was “too advanced” for Quaker activities. He had never met a Communist before and was intrigued by their confidence and their apparent knowledge. Moreover, he was very much flattered by their attention. He joined a clandestine Party club and became active. “I respected Party people; they were able, talented people,” he concludes.
Soon he found himself in the midst of a strike at his workplace. The strike failed, but Goldberg discovered that most of the strike leaders, all fired and blacklisted, were Communists. Goldberg stresses that such discoveries were typical of the thirties, cementing recruits’ belief in the integrity and dedication of Party people.
Thus, the process of radicalization for many began with contact with radical “significant others” who stimulated some tentative involvement. The recruit next experienced excitement and a sense of community through ongoing activity. Constituted authority then confirmed the emerging radicalization through acts of suppression, confirming the validity of radical categories and metaphors and providing the recruit with an intense experience of himself or herself as part of “the movement.” All of a sudden, one was part of a new “we” whose very existence presupposed a “they” in a thoroughly visceral sense.38
In a common variation of this pattern, many were introduced to and recruited into the Communist Party by a single significant other, a dynamic and convincing politico who came to personify the movement to the neophyte. This person was characteristically a mentor rather than a guru, a teacher who influenced, not a prophet who mesmerized. Henry and Laura Blum joined their neighborhood Party club under the influence of “this very brilliant guy” who would “stand out when someone would bait him.” This “wise-guy New Yorker” helped them slide smoothly into Party activities. They regard those early years as “the best years of our lives,” mixing with Communists who were “brighter, more interested in the important things” than previous friends. They became socially close to their mentor and his wife, sharing meals, talking politics, and generally joining together in Party activities.
One Communist speaks of a YCL “older guy,” maybe eighteen or nineteen (he himself was fifteen at the time) who “played a helluva game” of ball and who started a political group: “he was a very good and gentle person,” the veteran remembers, not at all manipulative or cynical. Tim Palen was influenced by a Party functionary, Betty Gannett, who told him “the truth” about the new Soviet experience and predicted the Crash in mid-1929. Ethel Paine, a black Communist, speaks of being deeply impressed and influenced by Eslanda Robeson (Mrs. Paul Robeson) during the period of the Progressive Party.
Harry Freedman’s brother’s wife was his “significant other,” while Fred Gerst had a “Damon and Pythias” relationship with a close friend who had a “mentor influence.” Jack Ryan recalls a socialist “who couldn’t read or write until he was twenty-three,” whom he met while working in a knitting mill. This self-educated socialist worker told Ryan of his labor experiences and explained socialism to him in simple, clear, and attractive ways.
Why did not any within the sample opt for other left-wing groups, such as the Socialist Party, A. J. Muste’s Workers Party, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, or one of the many single-issue groups? Why did they not find satisfaction with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal?
In the context of the thirties, the Communist Party seemed to these young people to be the most active, most militant, and most impressive organization around. It basked in the reflected light of the still young Soviet Union, identified in many minds with enlightened planning, the absence of any forms of discrimination, full employment, and a fierce opposition to fascism. New recruits were often inspired with the idea of “uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole of international solidarity.”39
Some did explore other left-wing groups. Johnny Tisa initially joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), a Socialist Party youth group. He was sent to their labor school for training but recalls that he was already becoming disenchanted with what he perceived as their excessive factionalism. At the school he met Communists who persuaded him to join what seemed to be a more effective and serious outfit. Many young radicals shared John Gates’s conclusion: “It seemed that the Socialists only talked, while the Communists acted.”40
Other political groups also recruited and organized, but apparently never had the drawing power of the American branch of the Communist International. There are no data, unfortunately, on the number of people who joined other radical groups, shifted from one to another, or dropped out of radical politics upon entering the work world. Harvey Klehr suggests, possibly with some exaggeration, that as many as 750,000 people may have joined the Communist Party at one time or another. The turnover was continuous and high. Many recruits left within a short time, making the CPUSA and, one suspects, other radical groups, revolving doors of the naive and the disillusioned.41
Some, however, stayed for several decades, during which they gained remarkable organizing experiences, contributed to key progressive achievements, lost all too many battles, fought against demoralization, married and had families, went off to war, sought to make ends meet, and participated in the organization and subculture that was the Communist Party, U.S.A. The following chapter will examine that organizational and cultural context.