The first teach-ins in the spring of 1965 marked my transformation into a radical or, as I rather casually defined myself, a “New Leftist.” The fact that I was a Marxist was significant, but of comparable import was the fact that in a whole variety of ways, not the least of which was my love for rock and roll, I felt part of a generational moment.
My generational sense was tempered by the academic training I received from Marxist intellectuals who eschewed both the old, turgid Marxist-Leninist rigidities and the activist imperatives of SDS. In this regard, my New Left identity was anomalous: very few of my movement friends had had enlightening or valuable academic experiences, least of all with Marxist professors.
What I shared with my generational cohorts was a knee-jerk contempt for what we called the “Old Left,” most particularly the Communist Party, but the “Trots” as well. Some “red-diaper babies,” children of Old Leftists, spoke impatiently of the old battles they were forced to endure between Stalinist uncles and Shactmanite cousins. More important, the pioneers of the New Left, the SDS founders, had direct experience with the old ideological wars and, as a result, helped to frame an image of the Old Left as dogmatic, foolish, and irrelevant.1
My own rather limited experiences confirmed such a contemptuous stance. At a Party-sponsored forum, one encountered several dozen old people seemingly battling ideological ghosts of an idiosyncratic past, mouthing passionate abstractions, still holding to “the correct line.” The Old Left seemed positively geriatric, and like most of my throw-away nation, Left, Center, or Right, I was insensitive to old folks. They were simply “old farts,” relegated to the dust-bin of history by those contemptuous of the past.
Indeed, the seminal intellectual influences of the sixties heavily weighted criticism against the Old Left. C. Wright Mills called on the young intelligentsia to abandon the “labor metaphysic” and to seek allies among their Third World peers. William Appleman Williams focused the attention of a generation of young revisionist historians on the expansionist nature and co-opting genius of “corporate liberalism.” Most New Leftists used such lessons to excoriate Communist Party strategy as “economistic” and “revisionist” (that is, passively awaiting the unfolding of History) and to view Old Left tactics (for example, refusing to struggle openly for socialism) as cowardly and enfuriating.2
The socialism we wished to proclaim was inspired by the visions of the young Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts.3 Alienation, rather than exploitation, was the central category of experience for sixties radicals. We faced what Herbert Marcuse called a “one-dimensional society,”4 with both Western capitalist and Soviet models, which was organized to perpetuate humanity’s alienation from such essential attributes as freedom, creativity, and harmony through bureaucratic, co-optive mechanisms topped by material benefits—that is, the system delivered the goods. The counterpoint to alienation was necessarily “liberation,” or if that was only a distant hope, then at least a “great refusal” to participate in the “Happy Consciousness.”5 We were enamored with the Utopian visions of Wilhelm Reich and Norman O. Brown6 and found precious little succor in puritanical Soviet experience.
New Leftists seemed to believe that radicalization would result from a more open and strenuous advocacy of a participatory democracy, which would temper Marxism with a touch of Christian blessed community, a strain of irreverence inspired by Groucho rather than Karl, and a healthy dose of erotic exuberance. We tried to pinpoint the psychic barriers that blocked people off from radical insights. Our essentially romantic question centered on what prevented people from being radical. What were the qualities of alienation that blocked humanity from “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being”?7
The literature dealing with the Communist Party and with radicalism in general, on the other hand, typically asks a different question: why do people become radical?8 Such studies place the radical experience within the context of deviance, searching out the paths that have led characteristically neurotic people to act out their pathologies through politics.9 As a result, the study of radicalization and radicals is often limited to a branch of social psychology. A variation of such an approach is to consider radicalization as an understandable phase in the maturational process, a generational struggle finding articulation within particular historical circumstances. As such, it will soon pass.
While the question of how human beings become radicals is of obvious importance, of equal weight are the consequences of radicalization, and in particular the question how and why one remains a radical.10 The longitudinal question is of particular relevance in dealing with American radicals.
The United States remains a land of what Louis Hartz called the Liberal Tradition,11 that is, a bourgeoise hegemony of social-contract theory. It is a nation weened on popularizations of English seventeenth-century political thought, which is often reduced to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through a commitment to private property.
Although injustice has been persistent among our “people of plenty,” such incidents are perceived as exceptional, not endemic, anomalous blots on the democratic conscience. Advocates of social change have therefore characteristically been reform-minded, ameliorative, muckraking adherents of the evolutionary and piecemeal approach. In special hothouse circumstances, all in the past, of course, some have become radicals and revolutionaries. Fortunately, from the vantage point of the “vital center,” youthful indignation soon yields to mature and sober pragmatism; radicals are compelled toward responsible liberalism not only by the aging process itself but also by the system’s ability to absorb dissent and incorporate ameliorating programs.12 Our historical legacy notes with self-satisfaction the evolution of Debsian Socialists into Wilsonian Progressives, and Depression-era Communists and Socialists into New Deal Democrats. Recently we have witnessed the continuation of celebration as sixties radicals metamorphose into over-thirty reformers “working within the system.”
(Within this study, capitalized political designations [e.g., Communist, Socialist, or Fascist] indicate formal, institutional affiliations, such as membership in particular parties. Political designations not capitalized indicate ideological inclinations but not necessarily institutional affiliations. The broadest categories are based on the directional signals originated during the French Revolution: Left and Right. In this study “the Left,” “left wing,” and “radical” indicate alignment with anticapitalist political formations generally associated but not limited to Marxian socialism. A capitalized “Progressive” indicates affiliation with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party of 1948; uncapitalized “progressive” indicates ideological commitment to liberal, New Deal-style social reform. Within the Communist Party tradition, “progressive” also indicates a willingness to work cooperatively with radicals in Popular Front alliances and to eschew anti-Communism both domestically and in foreign policy.)
More depressing is the phenomenon of radicals becoming reactionaries, hucksters, religious faddists, and, finally, scoundrels or fools. The prevailing social psychology suggests that the radical-to-liberal transformation reflects the short-term deviance of healthy personality, whereas the turn toward the corrupt and the bizarre signals the persistence of pathology. In brief the radical-turned-liberal “grew up”; the radical-turned-conservative simply shifted focus within a paranoid style of stereotypical thought.13 The liberal, centrist bias of such vulgar psychologizing should be apparent.
We are left with the radical who remains radical throughout a lifetime. Is such a person an “authoritarian personality” or merely quaint? We need to explore the resources that sustain such radicals against the deep and subtle hegemonic forces of the “American way of life.” After all, in what other modern culture is the dominant value system so monolithically identified with the nation itself?
Peter Clecak delineates with remarkable insight the paradoxes that work against the construction of an indigenous American radical movement and generate frustration, excess, and demoralization.14 To be a socialist in a land without a socialist movement and without a class-conscious proletariat is painful. It is particularly agonizing when the times seem ripe for fundamental change and one’s ideological framework demands transformations that simply do not occur. Objective conditions are out of kilter with political realities.
The radicals of the thirties, like those of the sixties, experienced the times as historically propitious; both radical generations seemed to be riding a wave of the future—in the former case that of the industrial workers, in the latter, a complicated mix of students, youth, blacks, Third World peoples, women, and gays. At a certain point, such radicals felt that history was indeed on their side.
By the late forties, however, the older Communist Party generation of the Depression era knew that history had taken a different and disappointing turn. They had invested considerable faith in the Idea of Progress, Marxian-style, only to come up against mortality, ideological and personal. Communism was not turning out to be twentieth-century Americanism but instead a beleaguered and increasingly marginal rearguard with an increasingly suspect sponsor.
After moving to Philadelphia in 1967, I made some contacts with a few former Communists. They seemed to have a sense of the long haul that I had not noticed before. (Of course, I had never looked!) They seemed to have reservoirs of patience that did not reek of selling or burning out. I became friends with three Old Left men, all of whom had entered the Party in the thirties and had left it in the aftermath of the multiple trauma of Khrushchev’s Twentieth Party Congress revelations about Stalin, the Soviet intervention in Hungary, and the exposure of Soviet anti-Semitism. Yet all three continued fighting for socialism—which included working for piecemeal reforms—after leaving the Party. They, along with other ex-communists I encountered, worked in civil rights and peace groups and neighborhood associations fighting for integration.
Over a ten-year period in Philadelphia, I met many other veterans of that Depression generation of Communists—at rallies, at educational conferences, within the university, and sometimes through their children, who were my peers. I discovered, almost by accident, that the Communist Party had spawned an impressive network of radicals in a variety of political and cultural settings.
This remarkable network of old comrades rested on the ongoing social contact of scores of friends, acquaintances, and even enemies over more than four decades. They kept in touch, socialized, and still sparred with each other, sometimes harshly, sometimes nostalgically. My own generation seemed to have great difficulty in this sphere over a mere decade. Many of my friends had moved away, radical variants of the American gypsy, without the excuse of corporate orders. We were not even good letter writers and often made excuses about the costs of coast-to-coast phone calls. It saddened me. Clearly there was some reason to envy these Old Leftists their more stable networks. Too many of my generation, born in sprawling suburbs, did not have the rootedness of the urban- and ethnically based old Communists.
The crystalizing event in my developing fascination with Philadelphia’s Old Left community came at a memorial service for the mother of a friend of my stepdaughter. She had been an energetic and productive educational innovator in the area. I already knew that her parents were 1905ers, Russian Jewish radicals who had carried their political idealism to the New World at the start of the century. She had even been named for a great Bolshevik leader, although she was known publicly by a less controversial derivative.
Upon entering the auditorium, I half-consciously began to note the presence of several veterans of the Old Left network, though I could not identify them all by name. Indeed, delivering one of the memorial service addresses was one of my three Old Left friends; he had known the dead woman since she was a little girl. By the close of the services it became apparent that scores of participants in this remarkable network were present. It was a rather frail and insignificant network as civil society goes, and yet it sustained several of its own cultural and social organizations, filled important positions in many progressive political groups, and was on call for a host of programs that made local and national life a bit more humane.
My story begins at that point. Were these old radicals typical of their political generation? Why had they not burnt out or sold out? Was I romanticizing a small, unrepresentative sample? Was I merely reading the surface, unaware of uglier and less noble features beneath?
The literature about the Communist Party, U.S.A., offered few answers or even hints. Most of it focused on the national and international dynamics of the Party or on a social-psychologizing of Communists.15 There seemed to be no considerations of what it was actually like to be a Communist. More intriguing, at least to me, was how local radical activists experienced national and international events and issues within their own immediate environments. For example, what did the Nazi-Soviet Pact mean to a steel plant organizer whose primary associations were with fellow activists within a Party industrial branch? What did the flip-flops of Soviet policy mean to a rank-and-file member of a neighborhood club who sold his quota of Sunday Workers and attended Party functions and rallies? How did members experience their participation in a worldwide movement in the context of local friendships, local efforts, and local victories and defeats?
My own experience within the New Left led me to anticipate that local peer-group pressure played a remarkably large role in the personal responses to political events. There was the bright and perceptive guy who had worked with those fanatical Labor Committee people, and the energetic and decent woman in Progressive Labor, and, of course, the sharp and hard-working people I knew who opted for the Communist Party in the aftermath of the collapse of the New Left. Several acquaintances had joined the Weather Underground despite their academic accomplishments and apparent street smarts. The key seemed to be in social networks, their radical comrades and friends, particularly their “significant others,” admirable leaders, inspirational coworkers. Radical politics, like any other variety, seemed to be as much a matter of loyalties as of conscience and ideology. Certainly one encountered within the Left true believers, authoritarian personalities, power-trippers, and fools. The bulk, however, seemed to be people with fairly normal, if not superior, quotients of common sense and intelligence.
This study is the result of my probes. My goal was to construct a model of a local Party experience—not so much a history or an institutional analysis as an anthropological, ethnographic account. The focus is the experience of becoming, being, and remaining a radical in a particular local setting. My three Old Left friends were of invaluable assistance in helping me contact a large enough sample to construct such a model.16
Oral history has become a contemporary fad. As Tamara Hareven wryly notes, “Like the computer, the recorder has not only facilitated the gathering and preservation of data; it has also generated a mystique of authenticity which is conveyed through the magic of technology.”17 Hareven appropriately sees oral history as “a subjective process, . . . an expression of the personality of the interviewees, of their cultural values, and of the particular historical circumstances which shaped their point of view.” As such it is “a record of perceptions, rather than a recreation of historical events.” Oral history, despite the tendency to confuse sophisticated technology with a guarantee of objectivity, requires corroboration.18
After much consideration and advice from cooperative Philadelphia Old Leftists, I decided to eschew the gadgetry and rely on traditional notetaking. The prospective sample included few well-known figures, being made up for the most part of local former members with good reasons for avoiding publicity. Many Communist veterans bear painful and deep scars inflicted by governmental persecution and harrassment that affected vocation, neighborhood and family. Although a few would consent to taping, I anticipated that the electronic machinery would subtly intimidate and put even them on guard.
To further secure cooperation, I devised a coded system of numbers and aliases to protect my research files and assure those interviewed that any published results would protect anonymity. Only two people preferred to be identified. Other Philadelphia Communists are presented either under cover names or, to ensure that biographical details cannot lead to identification, in composite form. The integrity of the process rests on the accuracy of the interview transcriptions. However, given the special circumstances of such interviewees, I have engaged in some camouflage.19
The sample is both geographically and generationally bound. All of those interviewed spent at least a substantial part of their political lives, that is, their Communist Party experiences, in greater Philadelphia. Living and healthy pre-Depression Party members are relatively few in number. The experiences of such Communists, who were either charter members or who joined in the twenties, remains a valuable research area; I decided, however, to focus on the Communists of the Depression generation, with a few exceptions included for purposes of comparative analysis.
Relying on the few close contacts mentioned above, I began to collect the names and addresses of Old Leftists in the area. As usually happens, the list grew as interviews yielded new possibilities. Clearly this study would not have been possible without the initial support of key contacts. In many instances, I would telephone a possible subject, describing the study and requesting an interview. Many Old Leftists were initially suspicious, for obvious reasons, and wanted to know how I came to know of their names. In a few instances, in fact, contacts were reprimanded for providing names. In most cases, fortunately, Communist veterans either found my connections comforting or simply delayed scheduling an interview until they had checked with contacts about my reliability.
Even after they had checked my references, many Old Leftists were initially suspicious and cautious in their responses. I therefore framed the interviews more extensively than I had planned to. I informed people of the kinds of questions that directed the study and how I had selected this particular topic. I expressed my empathy for Old Left experiences clearly but generally so as not to give clues to particular political preferences and, therefore, to desired or anticipated responses.
The interviews were essentially autobiographical, although in a few cases sources served as important guides to organizational and strategic issues. Most interviews began with the informant’s family and proceeded through his or her life story. The emphasis, most of which emerged naturally in freely flowing discourse but which I at times directed, was on family background, the process of radicalization, organizing experiences, the significance of marriage and family, the role of ethnicity, the influence of the local Party subculture and social network, and, broadly, responses to the various crises in the Party’s history from the late thirties through the mid-fifties. I concluded most interviews with questions about people’s post-Party experiences and perspective. Interviews ranged from ninety minutes to almost four hours, most typically lasting for two to three hours. I interviewed a few people more than once.
I was able to accumulate the names of ninety-five Philadelphia Old Leftists from helpful sources, and thirty-six allowed me to interview them. Of the remainder, five were no longer in the area, one had died, sixteen could not be located, and seventeen were eliminated because they would tilt the sample away from any semblance of ethnic representation (see Chapter Four for the ethnic composition of the Communist Party in Philadelphia). Seven were judged inappropriate because of their age or lack of extensive experience in Philadelphia. Finally, thirteen people declined to be interviewed, most for personal reasons, a few on what they called Party instructions.
The thirty-six interviews, all Philadelphia-based, represent a unique sample. Gabriel Almond interviewed sixty-four former American Communists and also gained information supplied by psychotherapists who provided services to another thirty-five former Communists. Not only was Almond’s sample geographically undefined, but more than half of his subjects had left the Party by 1940 and none were products of the fifties schisms.20
Vivian Gornick’s more journalistic study involves a sample of more than forty Old Leftists but organizes them impressionistically.21 Arthur Liebman, in his massive and invaluable study of Jewish radicalism, interviewed thirty-five old Party members, mostly in New York City, but used the interviews only to illustrate his narrative analysis.22
As Nathan Glazer asks, “How is one to find a random sample of former Communists?”23 One hopes at best to find a reasonably representative sample. Judging from the consistency of responses from many Philadelphia sources, this sample approaches such a level of representation, racially, ethnically, sexually, and ideologically.
This is a study of the Depression generation of Philadelphia Communist activists. Given the incredibly high turnover within the Party, nationally and locally, those interviewed make up a sample that is skewed toward long-term, more intensively involved, and relatively affirming members and former members. They are part of the Depression generation identified not by “an interval of time,” but by “an energy field that provides a framework for one of several experiences held to be crucial and worth remembering.”24 What sets them off from other thirties products is the intensity with which they responded to those experiences and the particular framework with which they identified. In addition, they are notable for their durability, for the way in which the framework and the vision generated in the thirties have remained constant, though with revisions, over at least four decades.25
In interviewing participants about events and feelings of the past, I sought to remain as sensitive as possible to the inevitable tendency to color and distort. Often the narratives and observations of several veterans aided in deciphering an experience or event. Of critical importance, as well, was a thorough familiarity with Party literature, particularly the Daily Worker and, in the late forties and fifties, the Pennsylvania Sunday supplement, often called the Pennsylvania Worker. The various memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, histories, and sociological studies dealing with the CPUSA have been invaluable. Although formal Party records are not available, I made maximum use of accumulated memorabilia and cross-checked the recollections of individuals.
The ability of most Old Leftists to describe and evaluate their lives with considerable self-criticism, if not detachment, is most impressive. These were and are passionate people for the most part, interested in understanding the significance of their political careers and institutional affiliations. My greatest difficulty in gathering a representative sample was finding informants who still held orthodox Communist views. Primary contacts tended to be of a particular type: people who left the Party in the mid-fifties and have since become anti-Stalinist but not anti-Communist democratic socialists. Fortunately, enough orthodox—that is, still essentially pro-Soviet and Stalinist—veterans agreed to be interviewed. With perhaps one exception, the bitter and the disillusioned do not appear in the sample.
point of view
This study will, I hope, help to flesh out a more dense and comprehensive history of the American Communist Party that takes local dynamics into full account. My first goal is to provide my own generation and later generations of radicals with some insight into the qualities that sustain or subvert the stability and vitality of a local radical community.
Every research effort operates on certain hunches, if not biases. Mine are significant to the particular approach I have chosen. The reader will have to determine whether my predispositions mar the evidence I present.
Despite a few moments of ecstatic and millenial expectations, I have been a fairly consistent advocate of democratic socialism and a Marxist approach to the study of society and culture. As such, I am critical of social democratic politics as prone to self-satisifed trusteeship of capitalist goals, of Soviet-style Communism as fundamentally corrupt and hostile to basic civil liberties, and of anarchism and various forms of Maoist Communism as utopian and therefore susceptible to excess. Modern history seems to indicate that an authoritarian model of economic development directed by a Marxist-Leninist party through the state makes some sense for poor and backward nations, although such disasters as the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia force one to a chilling recognition of the consequences of left-wing fanaticism. In Western and advanced nations, experience rather than theory informs one that working-class movements tend to opt for either social democratic formations (including American liberal and British laborite variants) or authoritarian Communist trade-union and party ones. Why this is so is a query that deserves the utmost study and yet so far has received virtually no serious attention, other than a blaming of false leadership. Suffice it to say that a commitment to democratic socialism often seems to be closer to a Kantian imperative than to a Hegelian historical synthesis. What is there in the make-up of a worker, or indeed of any nonexploiter, that tolerates impositions from capitalists, labor bureaucracies, and state officialdom? Answers do not come easily, and yet I persist in attempting to move beyond a Scylla and Charybdis of revision and repression, of social democratic sell-out and Stalinist cynicism.
My attempt focuses on the following problem: how can a sober, pragmatic movement in touch with the everyday realities of immediate reform maintain its revolutionary cutting edge? This is the political counterpart of the personal problem of how to be in but not of the world. The question has been addressed strategically through the concept of structural reforms.26 The British writer Stanley Moore offers the most useful and modest approach to this dilemma arguing, in brief, that the commitment to a transition from the socialist to the communist stage—that is, from a postcapitalist order with reward based on one’s contributions to a gemeinschaft with no division of labor and reward based on need—must be rejected as utopian. Basing his analysis upon the experiences of left-wing totalitarianism, Moore eschews the Marxian vision of communism as “romantic and utopian in theory, oppressive and reactionary in practice.”27 He distinguishes a “sociology of change” rooted in Marx’s empirical analysis of capitalism from a “dialectic of liberation” resting on “a quantum leap out of history” into communitarian Utopia.28
Such an assertion is not sufficient. Marxism must disengage itself from its utopian vision, from its anticipation of the end of alienation, from its dreams of utter harmony and community, from its belief that the state will wither away. But must it necessarily, inexorably, be reduced to the kind of reformism associated with social democracy or the Alice-in-Wonderland elitism of Communist Party hegemony?
A sober assessment of human capability does not necessarily lead to a rejection of social justice and equality. Lenin was capable of the following exultation:
Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the mass of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order, as at the time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the limited, philistine yardstick of gradualist progress.29
Yet he was, at the same time, the consummate realist, eschewing ideological and romantic definitions belied by material realities. His euphoric lapses in State and Revolution are more than balanced by his single-minded attention to actual behavior.30 One must make the revolution with human beings as they actually are, not as one wishes they were; and one sustains the revolution by continuing to pay attention to human behavior.
The Old Leftists I have interviewed straddled such dilemmas with little self-consciousness or reflection of their own behavior. They were for the most part not psychologically sophisticated. In many ways they were conservative—not Victorian or prudish, but solidly old-fashioned in their basic values. I am intrigued by the relationship between their personal and primary group-behavior and their political and institutional beliefs and activities. In particular, I want to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their particular mix of character, ideology, and organization. I do not wish to project these Old Leftists as models for newly chastened sixties radicals; rather, my intention is to use Communist Party experiences to raise questions about the relationship between radicals’ way of life and their effectiveness in organizing constituents.
There is a need to approach such a task with great humility. The veterans of the Communist Party often behaved badly, brutalizing comrades, manipulating constituents, and treating loved ones hypocritically and insensitively. Yet we of the following political generation have also proved capable of atrocious behavior, tolerating injustice in the name of abstractions, sanctioning adventurism and terrorism, generating dogmatism, phrase-mongering, and all the posturings associated with the Old Left. And the cruelties, mostly unintended, of our personal relations have been at least as damaging as those of our political elders.
Those of us who have been humbled by our own loss of innocence and approach to maturity have found it necessary to take another look at the radicals and organizers of the previous political generation. Their failures now look less pathetic and cowardly; their moderation now seems less irresponsible and “revisionist.” Like the child who finally discovers, somewhere in early adulthood, that his parents have grown wiser, we radicals of the sixties, coming to grips with the realities of defeats, setbacks, even mortality, must take a more realistic and respectful look at another political generation that struggled, in a different context, with similar problems.
My goal is not to deify previously condemned activists. The men and women who made up the CPUSA were neither saints nor knaves, though sometimes, in seeking forms of sainthood, they tragically and inexorably produced its opposite. Ultimately, they were people committed to a vision of social justice and a strategy of social change that make them my political forebears. And like my biological parents, they merit a love that includes—in fact, requires—recognition of their faults and errors. Needless to say, such a love also rests on an honoring.