It is now more than two decades since most Philadelphia Communist activists abandoned the Party. Their experiences, before and since that denouncement, offer radicals soberly regarding the last years of the twentieth century a set of guidelines, hopes, and warnings. The history of how they have coped with the stubborn ideological terrain of American society stands as a crucial legacy for those seeking to chart a socialist future. What they accomplished, how they faltered and failed, are strands in an all too thin history of American radicalism. Most of all, I wish to emphasize how so many of these children of the Depression managed to maintain their socialist values and practices over a lifetime. In a culture ravaged by a cult of the celebrity (whom Daniel Boorstein once characterized as “a person who is known for his well-knownness”), it is essential to find ways through the ephemeral.1 The Old Leftists I interviewed were not “superstars”, they will never appear in People Magazine, and they have not recycled their consciousness with psychobabbled liberation, evangelical faith, or Wall Street hype. They are quite ordinary people who entered and then remained within a small American left. Knowing that the road remains long, present-day radicals need to reflect on how Old Leftists coped and sometimes flourished.
What becomes of former Communists who have spent the better part of their lives organizing, proselytizing, attending meetings, and living within a special and somewhat insular social network? First of all, they had to find ways of managing financially. Many faced a blacklisting job market and had to accept what they hoped would be only transitional jobs. A few college-educated ex-Communists had to work at low-paying service jobs, driving delivery trucks or working as clerks in retail stores. Some Philadelphia Communists returned to school in their forties to start new careers. Several found employment through the social network of Party veterans and sympathizers, with which they were still in contact although no longer members and which worked through institutions, schools, and businesses that had become occupational havens.
Many Old Leftists say that they “took off the shackles from their personal lives.” Although still harried by economic insecurity, long working hours, and in some cases double duty as workers and students, weary veterans of Party battles gave themselves as much time as possible for relaxation and leisure. They read Trotsky, Orwell, Djilas, Freud, material long forbidden by Party mores and went to the theater, and the ballpark. Parents, particularly fathers, who felt remorseful about neglecting their children could now try to make up for lost time. As Chapter Five indicates, some marriages fell apart without the bond of Party identification; couples discovered that they had very little else in common. Not everything was retrievable. But, in general, life became significantly more relaxed.
There is a certain mythology about the ability of former Communists to become extremely wealthy capitalists of a particularly ruthless and unscrupulous sort. A monograph on “Bolshevik businessmen” may be possible on a national scale, but an examination of social class and occupation within the Philadelphia sample does not indicate that this pattern was the norm. A few Philadelphia ex-Communists interviewed have become wealthy. Such success is viewed skeptically by several of those interviewed; I heard some allegations of unethical business practices and ruthless behavior. Others respond that such charges are mere envy and rooted in personal animosities. More significant, however, is the small number of such cases and claims. Former Communists often achieved affluence, but few achieved great wealth.2
Some observers make the related charge that rising levels of aflluence led most old Communists to dilute their political values and make a comfortable settlement with mainstream America. The evidence presented here suggests otherwise; in fact, there does not seem to be any correlation between the social class and the political values and behavior of Old Leftists.
Johnny Tisa’s experience, while not typical, stands as a measure of the efforts of many. He found himself in the mid-fifties stranded without a union base, with nothing in the bank, no prospects, and a growing family to feed. Tisa was forty years old, a high school graduate. He went to the Italian market in Camden to find out what items were marketable and discovered that pet food offered some possibilities. Borrowing a hundred dollars from a friend, Tisa purchased pet food from a North Jersey wholesaler, sold it, and reinvested the profits in more pet food. He and his family worked long hours to build the business and finally became established as successful retail merchants.
Tisa, a hearty and animated man, had little time for political involvement during this trying but rewarding period. There were occasional activities, such as attending rallies or signing petitions, but for the most part his business required a seven-day-a-week effort. In the sixties, however, the anti-Vietnam War movement reactivated him: “I went into that wholeheartedly.” He even rejoined the Party, calling it “still the vehicle for revolutionary change.” “I could make criticism but what other organization is trying to rebuild itself in basic industry?” Unlike several other remaining Party loyalists, Tisa speaks cordially about those who disagree with his reaffiliation. He remains optimistic. “The balance of forces is toward socialism and getting better every year.” He is active with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and has recently completed a book of Spanish Civil War posters with graphics by his son. He is presently working on his Spanish Civil War diary.
Tisa does not communicate dogmatism; in fact, he is not particularly comfortable with ideology and theory. He is a working-class radical, with strong loyalties, pride in his life, and an ecumenical approach. This direct, unpretentious and thoroughly likable man lives in a simple South Jersey home; during the interview, he offered a glass of water. I accepted.
Abe Shapiro is professorial and yet without pretense. When he gets excited, his voice rises and booms; when conversation evokes humor, his laughter shakes the room. Beneath Shapiro’s intellectual vitality is a subtle stoicism that surfaces when he describes the years during which he was blacklisted from teaching. He was fired from the Philadelphia school district in November 1953, following the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations that allowed the superintendent to rationalize his dismissal of twenty-six teachers. “I lost my job Friday and returned to work for the company on Monday,” he says. “The company” was his father’s small retail business. He worked there from 1953 to 1968. “it was simply a job, no more,” Shapiro recalls, giving a hint of the frustration such work must have engendered.
Abe Shapiro never expected to regain his teaching job. He simply pursued his own studies, rigorously kept up with the literature in fields of interest, and after ideologically breaking with the Party in the mid-fifties, became involved with a local peace organization. A committed democratic socialist and Marxist, Shapiro believes that ongoing political effort is less a choice than a necessity.
He maintains friendships with a score of Old Left comrades despite many disagreements over key issues like the Soviet Union and Israel. “This once very close group is no longer ideological,” he says. “It’s kept together by friendship. People are active, but by their own choice; the common Utopia they had when they were young no longer exists; now they have the bond of friendship.” Shapiro concludes, “When you are young, everything is politics,” implying that now his political generation engages in “idle chatter” and reads less. Shapiro struggles against such currents, still intent upon making sense of a world characterized by a “winning of reason,” still believing that the point of “chatter” is to find ways of converting thought into effective action. He has remained active in the peace movement, was involved in civil rights support work, and is constantly bringing people of all ages together to grapple with contemporary social issues.
In the late sixties he returned to his teaching position in the Philadelphia public school system. Despite frustrations, he struggles to democratize his often obtuse union and to teach critical thinking to his wary students. Abe Shapiro takes frustration for granted as part of a radical’s burden and seems to derive satisfaction from puncturing left-wing shibboleths, particularly those that deny the kind of patience his life exemplifies. Sometimes he pontificates; mostly he strives to learn. Abe Shapiro, after more than forty years, remains a socialist teacher.
Again and again, one is struck by the refusal to allow any feelings of pessimism or self-doubt to interfere with Old Leftists’ drives to make lives for themselves. These were and are achievement-oriented people, only comfortable when putting in long hours at work or its equivalent—politics or hobbies. One finds few complaints about boredom or paralysis of the will, few tortured, ambivalent souls, few incapacitated dreamers. Meyer Weiner, speaking for many others, concludes, “I have no bitterness in me; my life has been the best possible for me.”3
Many speak proudly of the training they received as Communists, a training in self-discipline, organizational and administrative skills, social and public relations, precise record keeping, patience, and hard work. Others add that most Communists already had personalities and social backgrounds that made them likely to succeed in the business and professional world and that Party involvement simply delayed material achievements. Indeed, one can argue that these Depression-era activists were simply catching up with their non-Communist generational peers. In addition, the special training and experience of Party members seem to have bolstered and fashioned native qualities. As Edith Samuels says, “You became a disciplined person, responsible for your idealism.”4
Such disciplined veterans of the Communist movement have indeed been centrally involved in virtually every significant progressive organizing effort in the Philadelphia area. Depression-generation Old Leftists have worked within all of the peace groups—Women’s Strike for Peace, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, Businessmen for Peace (an anti-Vietnam War organization), and Resist (a support group for Vietnam draft resisters). They have also been active in early civil rights groups like the Friends of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee), the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, although for the most part their efforts in this area have focused on extending racial harmony and residential and school integration within their neighborhoods. Many have worked within the reform wing of the Democratic Party, sometimes holding minor local offices and responsibilities, in a few instances becoming influential at city and state levels. In addition, one finds Old Leftists using their skills to support progressive causes as organizers, fundraisers, and donors. They remain a small but valuable part of progressive trade-union activity, work within the cooperative movement, support political refugees from Third World fascist regimes, work in progressive education, and participate in civil libertarian groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. As Jessica Mitford observes, “for the most part the Ex’s were endowed with an outsized sense of social responsibility and exceptional organizational skills, legacies from their years in the C.P.”5
Many of them affirm Meyer Weiner’s lament: “I haven’t found a consistent political role yet.” After more than twenty years out of the Party, Weiner perceives himself as “a Marxist but without a home.” And yet despite this sense of loss, he proclaims, “I still get up every morning with expectations.”
Others are more fearful about the future. Jack Ryan is “scared to death” and sees “a fascist government coming,” comparing the present American malaise with the decadence of the crumbling Roman Empire. Ethel Paine, discouraged by the slowness—even the erosion—of black progress, says of her grandchild, “I don’t know what kind of world he’s coming into.”
Most, however, subsume their fears and anxieties within their continuing Marxist perspectives. Stan Wax maintains, “Marxism was and still is the only system that could solve the economic woes of society.” George Paine stubbornly insists, “I still believe in socialism and that the working class is going to win.” Many feel that socialism is quite literally the only alternative to nuclear destruction, fascism, and barbarism. But as many add, with expressions that reflect painfully gained insight, “The kind of socialism is the big question.”6
Remarkably, some forty years after commencing political careers, Old Leftists still grasp “socialism” as their rock. All those interviewed (with a single problematic exception) call themselves socialists. Certainly the kinds of socialism affirmed vary; yet the Old Leftists’ loyalty to early ideals and values is impressive. Within my sample, seven respondents are best described as orthodox Stalinists, still loyal to a Soviet vision of socialism and critical of all deviations as “revisionist” or “Maoist.” The largest proportion are comfortable describing themselves as Marxists and democratic socialists, specifically denying that they are either Stalinists or social democrats. This group is attracted to the explorations going on under the label of Euro-Communism and, in some cases, to the growth of a left-wing in the socialist world, especially the tendency associated in the United States with Michael Harrington. Several are either active in or sympathetic to Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, though others remain wary of its connections with Western European Social Democrats. Several figures within this rather heterogeneous group are much more suspicious of all parliamentary maneuverings, including those of the Euro-Communists, and remain left-wing, anti-Stalinist independents. All of these “plain” Marxists opposed the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and invested some hope in “socialism with a human face.” Two respondents affirm social democracy, hoping for a Swedish-type evolutionary model for the United States, while one subject leans toward a humanitarian pacifism and a decentralized communalism.
Few have replaced the Soviet “god” with any other. They are generally discouraged by the nationalistic behavior of socialist countries; some focus criticism on the Soviet Union, a few on China, but most simply feel that they tremendously underestimated the force of nationalism and now have little sense of how to limit its destructiveness. Some found encouragement in the Cuban Revolution; many more were moved by the struggle of the Vietnamese against American military power. The most characteristic stance is that all foreign lessons must be carefully applied within the specific and distinctive experiences of the United States.
Generationally, Old Leftists stand between their 1905er parents, immigrant Jewish and Southern European Catholic, and their children, fully Americanized and raised in the fifties or sixties. Thus, they stand between a world of shtetl, ghetto, and peasant village and one of suburb, rock and roll, and mass consumption.7 Interestingly, the majority of them identify more with their parents than with their children. Indeed, many communicate anxiety and ambivalence about their children, somehow wishing that their preferences were more balanced. The Old Leftists share with their parents, including the older Party generation, a belief in the intrinsic value and necessity of human labor. On the other hand, they are not “Old World” as their parents often were; they identified with everyday American cultural life—movies, radio, and spectator sports. Most Depression-era Communists grew up with Jack Benny, Joe DiMaggio, and Rita Hayworth, wasting time, as their parents saw it, playing in the streets and dreaming Hollywood dreams, albeit from a class perspective.
They were heartened by the revival of political activism in the sixties but disturbed and sometimes angered by the decade’s flamboyant bohemianism. “My generation was molded by the Depression,” Milt Goldberg concludes; Laura Blum adds, “We’re the product of a depression psychology.” They are therefore conscious of the value of money, even the ones who are quite affluent, and bewildered by the apparent irresponsibility toward money they see in their children. Milt Goldberg, for example, winces when his adult son buys his lunch; he himself still makes his own and brings it to work. While most Old Leftists enjoy travel and certainly are not miserly, they remain savers rather than spenders.
Many have mixed feelings about the much proclaimed changes in values and sensibility associated with the sixties and seventies. They tend to complain, “Our children are products of a hedonistic generation,” less willing to struggle to preserve marriages and families, more interested in self-fulfillment, less politically interested or active. They are certainly at odds with the changes in sexual attitude of recent times. Some recall severely repressive sexual upbringings; one woman says that her husband never kissed her until he proposed. Thirties Communists typically think of sex as a natural and pleasurable activity and remember the loosening of already eroding Victorian standards in the 1920s and 1930s. They are tolerant of premarital sex, critical of most forms of censorship relating to sexuality, and decidedly not prudish. They are, however, amazed at what they perceive as the contemporary mania about sex, recalling that their generation never made it such a center of either conversation or thought. One woman admits, “Communists were not that far ahead of the rest of the community” on such matters. Tessie Kramer offers the shrewdest observation, arguing that there was little or no difference between her generation and that of the 1960s where behavior is concerned. But her generation was circumspect, whereas “the sixties scorned to be discreet.”
Old Leftists are very ambivalent about the women’s movement. They readily agree with its egalitarian goals and express regret that it was not on their own political agenda. A few women, in fact, speak very forcefully about the limitations Party sexism imposed on their careers. Yet there is a strong undercurrent of resentment and mistrust among many old Communists, men and women, concerning what they view as the hedonism and selfishness of the contemporary women’s movement. A few veteran radicals—again, both men and women—refer to some contemporary feminists as “man-haters.” When discussing feminism they typically begin with affirmations of the constitutional and economic goals of feminists but soon focus on those aspects, particularly lesbianism and assertions of uninhibited sexuality, that they feel undermine marriage and the family. On the other hand, it is no mere sop when Old Leftists affirm a movement that values women as fully competent participants in society and seeks to generate social and cooperative systems of home maintenance and child care. And perhaps it is no coincidence, as Sara Evans suggests, that “red-diaper” feminists of the sixties, taught by their mothers about the nature of various kinds of oppression, spearheaded the attack on New Left sexism.8
Those interviewed do not appear to be particularly introspective or insightful concerning the subtleties of human behavior. The men especially, tend to be highly rationalistic, goal-oriented, and straightforward. Several speak of their insensitivity to the emotional life of their children or spouses during their Party period. This is a generation taught by the Party to mistrust depth psychology as subjectivist and to treat Freud and psychoanalysis as a “bourgeois” phenomenon. Lenin was scarcely a guide to the mysteries of feeling, fantasy, ambition, fear, or any of the other affective components of life.9
Old Leftists worry about their own children, whom they describe as “progressive” but not activist, sympathetic to their political pasts but not carriers of the Marxist banner. Many of their children protested against the war, opposed the draft, and fought for civil rights and women’s rights, and some still remain active into the early eighties, often as environmentalists, feminists, and cultural radicals. But very few have become full-time, active radicals; as one parent notes almost apologetically, “Our children are very politically aware, but not joiners.” Many experienced serious conflict and pain when their children became involved in the more self-destructive and indulgent aspects of the “counterculture.” As one woman states, exaggerating for dramatic effect, “There isn’t a Communist family that hasn’t been caught up in some of this ‘hippie’ stuff.”
Yet for the most part the children of the thirties radicals have adopted what the psychologist Kenneth Keniston calls the “core values” of their parents: liberal and egalitarian values, toleration, support for minority rights, opposition to superpatriotism, suspicion of corporations.10 Raised by parents who wanted them to have the very best, they are now upwardly mobile professionals, artists, professors, and human service workers.
Some parents anxiously conclude about their children’s politics, “At least they’re not on the other side.” Others feel greater confidence and pride in their children’s activism. Sammy Cohen says of his school-age children, “Of course, they will be radicals,” and describes their present political ventures. Laura Blum proudly proclaims that “our kids knew what we were doing,” and then describes how her daughter’s friends recently told her that her home was always more interesting than those of other friends because it lacked a religious atmosphere, encouraged open discussions on virtually any topic, always had interesting guests, and cultivated excitement about cultural affairs.
The issue of ethnicity continues to trouble the Old Left. For example, Philadelphia Communists and other progressives established a Jewish club, the Sholom Aleichem Club, in the 1950s when the IWO’s Jewish People’s Fraternal Order collapsed under governmental persecution.11 After half a decade the organization included many of the Jewish Communists who had left the Party in the mid-fifties plus others on the edge of the movement. As Harry Freedman puts it, the club “provided a useful way for many of us who were the backbone of that organization to continue to be active around the major issues of our times.” It had a committee that served as a virtual left-wing enclave, supporting civil rights groups and seeking to minimize the tensions and misunderstandings that began to appear as blacks moved toward more militant positions and Jews became more comfortable and politically moderate.
The club, consisting of perhaps 150 to 200 families, faced rising tension over Jewishness, especially as it related to Israel. In the mid-sixties conflict erupted over the club’s decision to criticize Soviet treatment of Jews. Some orthodox pro-Soviet club members resigned; others disagreed but stayed. Meanwhile, the club continued to change, becoming less Marxist and more Zionist. During the 1967 Middle East war, “we got dogmatic, for one week,” as Ben Green, a club leader, puts it. They allowed no discussion on the merits of supporting Israel, but simply raised funds to show their full support. Nevertheless, several members insist that the club is not Zionist and engages in “critical support” of Israel.
The continuing Old Left subculture also generated a modest summer club that has always been mostly Jewish and has become increasingly apolitical over the years. Edith Samuels, using a form of affirmative action that antagonized many members, finally brought black members into the club. While none of those interviewed have experienced such a hardening of the ideological and moral arteries, apparently many other former Communists and fellow-travelers, and their relatives and children, have adopted the ethnocentric and parochial values and interests of the affluent American bourgeoisie.
The most explosive and consequently most avoided issue is the state of Israel. It is the point of departure for the present passions of many Jewish ex-Communists. A solidarity with the Soviet position on Palestinian rights exists among the remaining orthodox Stalinists. Among the democratic socialists one finds a belief that Palestinian rights must be recognized by a more generous Israel and that the Palestinian Liberation Organization must finally accept the right of Israel to exist.12
Despite the virtual demise of the Communist Party in the late fifties, a social network still exists of people who shared in its political life and camaraderie. That social network has had a significant effect on the political and even cultural life of Philadelphia—especially the area’s peace groups and many neighborhood efforts challenging “politics as usual.” The Communist Party contributed to the training of possibly tens of thousands of Philadelphians in the skills of organizing; leaving the Party did not necessarily deprive them of those skills. Individuals, usually in touch with other individuals, simply did and continue to do what they always have done—organize.
The intensity of political life since the break with the Party is lower for most. Parents become grandparents, and physical activity is limited by age or illness (although one feels compelled to note the amazing courage and energy of one physically disabled Old Leftist who does more political work than a boatload of Marin County joggers). A few veterans of older political wars chastise their peers for shifting toward what Henry Blum cynically calls “tennis materialism,” the good life. Old Leftists are always hard on themselves.
The vitality of the Old Left local social network is impressive. Many speak of friendships that have lasted over forty years, and several argue that Philadelphia’s Old Left network is remarkably close, intimate, and stable. It is unlikely that one can be involved in local progressive political activities without at some point discovering a role being played by someone or some group with roots in the Communist Party experience.
Vivian Gornick argues that there was a passion within the Old Left, the Communist movement of the thirties, that held ground until the crisis of 1956. Most Philadelphia Old Leftists, many of whom have read Gornick’s book, affirm that intensity and sense of community. But many tightly organized groups have generated passion and community, including some of dubious merit, like religious cults. What makes the Communist movement unique is that its passion created a community, a subculture, and strong social networks committed to particular changes within the United States and to an often vague but remarkably steady vision of socialism. It is not coincidental that so many Old Leftists have continued to live by their political beliefs, engaging in progressive and radical activities and deriving nourishment and comradeship from the social networks they built many decades ago.
The Old Left political experience offers no conventionally defined “lessons” for contemporary radicals. Would that life could be so simple and straightforward! Nevertheless, an understanding of the Communist Party’s thirties generation enriches one’s identity as a part of the ongoing effort to build a socialist movement in a nation still clinging to a mythology of a middle-classless society.
Certainly, we need to pay attention to the subculture and the social networks we build. The context within which radicals operate plays a critical role in how they deal with the inevitable frustrations and failures. The New Left talked a great deal about community and solidarity but often subverted such goals with its penchant for the protean life. The various citizens’ movements of the seventies indicate how important neighborliness and a sense of rootedness are, particularly in an era when television, electronic space games, home computers, and humongous portable radios seem to box people into isolation and antisocial patterns.13
Radical subcultures have too often been exclusive, a protected terrain for battered radicals or ideologically arrogant ones. The Communist Party’s subculture suffered from such insularity. More recently, university-based enclaves like Berkeley, Madison, and Cambridge have demonstrated a tendency to organize themselves in a way that restricts their ability to connect with the lives of ordinary people.
Political movements have to be in but not of the world. Edith Samuels talks of the inherent tension between “cadre needs” and “family needs.” Workaholic Communist men often match corporate executives in their neglect of personal life and family. For some radical leaders, such single-mindedness may be essential. But for most participants in social change movements, a balance between work, politics, and personal life is highly recommended.
The life cycle of organizers deserves analysis so that a more realistic view of age-specific needs and tolerances can be developed. Certainly young people without children, unmarried or married, are capable of a level of political work beyond the capacity of most parents. Youth carries with it a level of enthusiasm and energy that is special and unique. Many Communists recall monumental schedules from their student and YCL days. The dawn of political awakening brings with it expectations that are incredibly energizing. Ben Green heard about the San Francisco general strike of 1934 while on his honeymoon. He thought, “The revolution is at hand.” Others, although less euphoric, recall being lifted by events and barely fazed by failures. They were willing to work interminable hours with no thought to remuneration. They did not consider professional credentials or careers; they assumed the future would be bright and were too much involved in the dramatic present to worry about their next jobs.
An organizing strategy must value and encourage such youthful energy but must also recognize its inevitable limits. Organizers with family responsibilities will only remain totally mobile and completely given to their work at tremendous personal cost. Indeed, one can argue that the experience of responsibility and residential stability gives an older organizer better insight into and empathy with other Americans, who are usually too busy with work, laundry, dishes, household repairs, and family concerns to attend meetings and engage in political activity.
The best feature of the old Communist Party remains the bonds created by shared political work, robust discourse, and ongoing friendship. As Joseph Starobin observes, “Not intended to be a family but a quasi-military elite, forged for stern historical tasks, it was in fact a family to many.”14 As a family, it included marriages, child rearing, and all of the other institutions and arrangements involved in generational continuity. The formal Party definitions of political activism give the ways in which Communists arranged their domestic lives a special significance. In deciding on a political career of a particularly stringent type, Communists, male and female, constructed a social and domestic life in which “the personal” often contradicted “the political.”15
Contemporary tasks are both clearer and more difficult. Radicals need to establish egalitarian, nonpatriarchal relations within all their primary groups, marital and communal, heterosexual and homosexual, to allow men and women to engage the world according to their abilities and interests without sacrificing their responsibilities to others, particularly the next generation. We are in a difficult time in which the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” are unfolding in ways that confuse and distort our perceptions.16 The old bourgeois, patriarchal ways are crumbling, but the Left cannot afford to stand as the countercultural, bohemian flip-side of modern hedonism. The current surge of the Moral Majority is a rearguard action that will soon receive its comeuppance; we are not about to return to that fundamentalist world, despite some very real short-term threats. Most of America is more enamored with the decadence of Atlantic City casinos, T. V. soap operas, and designer jeans. The Old Left, at its best, was neither bohemian nor Victorian in its social life. The people I interviewed value the sense of responsibility they found and nurtured in the Party, in their social circles, and in their own families. We do not have to imitate them; rather, we should place such traditional values and behavior in settings that no longer victimize women, old people, and children.
At the same time, we need to understand why so many Americans have turned toward the demagogic cultural solutions of the Moral Majority, Phyllis Schlafly, and Jesse Helms. They legitimately fear crime and lawlessness, worry about what sexuality means without some connection with procreation, are concerned with the tension between self-fulfillment and child rearing. In struggling for the right of women to control their bodies, affirming the civil liberties of gays, and remaining open to alternative ways of organizing personal relationships, the Left has to take more seriously the fears, anxieties, and concerns of working-class Americans.
Most American radicals have preferred a more ecstatic perspective, with roots in Protestant millennial visions of a blessed community and Popular Front—style evocations of the abstract “people,” who, like the Joads, simply carry on. More recently the rise of the therapeutic vision has further removed many radicals from a clear assessment of human behavior. The plethora of therapeutic fads associated with the human potential movement are the bourgeois counterpart to utopian visions of a new socialist man. Jerry Rubin’s journey from the Yippies to Esalen to Wall Street is an emblem of the way in which the status quo of oppression can coexist with the pursuit of perfection.
Too many of my Sixties comrades sought authenticity in their personal lives, their friendships, and their marriages only to find themselves facing the return of repressed guilt and rage. Countercultural libertarians find themselves on the same wave length as many Communists when their utopian experiments collapse. When expectations are unrealistic, when Stakhanovites do not emerge to enthusiastically increase output, when Red Guard units seek petty vengeances, when Cuban workers resist moral incentives, when mates experience jealousy despite their proclamation of open marriage, when union leaders resign themselves to the poor prospects for worker democracy, one discovers a common thread of illusory hopes and subsequent reprisals. As antirevolutionary thinkers have correctly stressed, when utopian dreams go awry, justifications for repression emerge.17
My not so hidden agenda is to extend my analysis of the Old Left subculture to the contemporary problem of maintaining a radical praxis in a nonradical environment. Counter-cultural enclaves and “Liberated zones” only work for the privileged, and even then they may not work as anticipated. Radicals must be more sober about human behavior without losing their commitment to a more humane social order. Our Federalist founding fathers provided us with a model (albeit a bourgeois and now dated one) that tried to put human frailty, self-interest, and aggression to work in the interest of the community. Aggression and destructiveness in no way determine a social order; one could suggest that the Hobbesian view of human nature virtually demands a socialist society to temper selfishness and limit malevolence. Indeed, if human beings are selfish and power-seeking, how can one accept the kind of institutional power presently in the hands of corporate leaders? While it is undoubtedly true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is not true that power itself is corrupting. The concentration of power is most harmful to a democracy; it corrupts the powerful and infantilizes the powerless. To seek the absence of any power, an underlying wish of countercultural and therapeutic communities, merely concedes it to those less enamored with utopian dreams. The gloomiest view of human nature suggests the need for controls of the consequences of human selfishness, particularly in an era when ecological disaster has become a legitimate fear. It, of course, follows from this argument that the Soviet model of Party dictatorship with its rejection of a pluralistic system of checks and balances is to be found equally wanting.
The rejection of radicalism by working Americans stems in part from a suspicion of radical visions. Their experience teaches them that there are consequences to all choices and that reality is fundamentally tragic. They did not accept the old Communist Party’s “private vision” of a Soviet workers’ paradise, or any of the more recent Third World substitutes. American workers, like their Polish counterparts, understand that if socialism is merely Soviet reality writ large, there is no point in being a socialist. Leftists, Old and New, have too long had a propensity to romanticize struggling revolutionizing societies—the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, even Cambodia.18
At least Old Left Communists understood that they had to communicate with working Americans. They did not always succeed, for some of the reasons noted above, but their activism was grounded in the knowledge that no socialist movement could advance without persuading working people of its merit. James Weinstein correctly argues that the Party members of the Popular Front period went too far in their conformist drive to be thoroughly American and authentically of the people.19 But at least they understood which constituencies had to be addressed.
More recent radicals, caught up in the abstractions of the counterculture and their libertarian and utopian goals, need to be more sensitive to the desire of working people to maintain as much stability, order, and meaning in their lives as possible. The consequences of the radical refusal to come to grips with the “old-fashioned” beliefs of possible constituents are brutally articulated by Christopher Lasch.
Having written off demands for law and order as the expression of the proto-fascist mentality of the American working class, intellectuals wonder why working–class discontent often takes the form of anti-intellectualism, opposition to McGovernite “new politics,” or of a “profound conservatism.” When the alternatives held up to “middle America” are a totally permissive paradise, a socialist utopia modeled on Cuba or the USSR, or a “language located beyond the rhetoric of the “real,” it is not surprising that ordinary working people in this country refuse to become revolutionary.
. . . The Left has turned its back on its proper constituency—the people who cling to family life, religion, the work ethic, and other ostensibly outmoded values and institutions as the only source of stability in an otherwise precarious existence. The Left has chosen the wrong side in the cultural warfare between “middle America” and the educated or half-educated classes, which have absorbed avant garde ideas only to put them at the service of consumer capitalism.20
The Old Left, rooted in the labor struggles of the thirties, rarely dealt with such problems. In fact, two of their central limitations were at the other extreme—obliviousness to matters of the psyche and the toleration of cultural forms—for example, patriarchy—that their formal ideology rejected.
All adherents to the Left need to learn from the American Communist Party experience. We need to celebrate their victories in establishing mass industrial unions, furthering humane social welfare practices, contributing to a better standard of living for working and poor people, fighting for racial justice, standing up early and leading the fight against barbarism, and, finally, being part of the radical tradition that has had some success in demonstrating that democracy and capitalism are incompatible.
That Philadelphia Communists, like others, have had shameful moments is also true. Eric Bentley is probably exaggerating when he argues that Communists “have the worst record of perhaps any radical group that ever existed for intrigue, unscrupulousness, and inhumanity,”21 but there is enough truth in his words to temper any impulse to glorify the Old Left. And yet even Bentley admits that “very many Stalinists continued to be men.”22
I have met and interviewed many of these men and women and hope that some of their personalities, dreams, struggles, successes and failures, errors and hurts have come alive in these pages. These are good, decent, and eminently fallible people. The “true believer” model, while appropriate to a small percentage of Communists, is too abstract and ideologically slanted. Too often critics treat the Communist Party, U.S.A., according to its own arrogant standards of specialness—as “the Party”—subjecting it to standards of consistency and ethics rarely if ever met by any other political agency. Ultimately it was a party and a movement that energized hundreds of thousands of men and women to struggle for a more equitable social order.
That they did not succeed in fulfilling all of their hopes is less noteworthy than the fact that most of them still have them. Such hopes may be tempered by certain realities, but perhaps all would find satisfaction with the modest anticipation that under socialism, “man ceases to suffer as an animal and suffers as human. He, therewith, moves from the plane of the pitiful to the plane of the tragic.”23