The Shock of Recognition: On Reading Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism
A new generation of socialist activists has discovered Vivian Gornick's memoir of life in The Party. What are they seeing there?
What I remember most deeply about the Communists is their passion. It was passion that converted them, passion that held them, passion that lifted them up and then twisted them down. Each and every one of them experienced a kind of inner radiance: some intensity of illumination that tore at the soul. To know that radiance, to be lit from within, and then to lose it; to be thrown back, away from its light and heat; to know thereafter the ordinary greyness of life, black and lightless; that was to know a kind of exaltation and dread that can be understood only, perhaps, by those who have loved deeply and suffered the crippling loss of that love.
Ever since I started reading The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick, I have kept thinking about it consistently, maybe even daily. By 2020, I had spent the past year as a first-time organized socialist, participating in the mass movement of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the George Floyd uprising through Wayne State YDSA and later Metro Detroit DSA.
Those days I spent in meetings, canvassing, preparing for the primary (and in my mind, the election itself), where our movement for socialism would come head to head with the forces of capital and their willing servants in the Democratic Party — it made me feel like I was part of a great drama, carried out on the world stage of politics. Reading these memoirs, first published in 1977, from old members of the Communist Party USA in its heyday felt like reading about myself, at times in very uncomfortable ways.
It struck a chord that resonated so deeply within me, it almost brought me to tears. There wasn’t a single sentence, profession, or reflection in the book that felt unfamiliar to me. How they spoke about socialism, how they felt as members of the Communist Party, how they were seduced and even betrayed by their commitment to Communism, and how it shaped their life and mind forever after… I either saw myself already in them, as a young and energized member of DSA, or I saw what could become of me in my older age, for better and for worse.
Gornick, a feminist, New Left radical, and notably a red-diaper baby, interviewed 50 members of the old Communist Party (or as it was often referred to, simply “the Party”). She did this in part to do justice to people who had been painted as mindless agents of Stalin and the Soviet Union by all of American society at that point, but also to capture on paper the intellectual, emotional, communal, religious, spiritual force that they encountered during their time in the Party, that force that so clearly shaped all of them for the rest of their lives, like any good romance does.
For those who are living that tradition today, like many of us recently radicalized young people who’ve found their home as organized socialists in DSA, her book allows us to see how the force of communism and international revolution drove people 80 years ago, not unlike the way the Bernie campaign drove many of us. At the same time, it allows us to see all the peculiarities about that moment in history, the different conditions that generation faced, so we can better understand the unique conditions that confront us today.
For example, while many lament DSA for being a middle-class- (or educated working class, or professional-managerial class–whatever you call it, you know it when you see it) dominated organization, Romance reminds us that this tension was present even in the CPUSA, which arguably had a much stronger presence in the organized working class compared to any other group in this country’s history. On one hand, the Party drew considerable numbers from the working class. For every prolific leader like Earl Browder and William Foster that was pulled into the party from the labor movement, there were also thousands of working class members who were active in the party, living lives “in the field,” acting as unionists and organizers on the shop floors as auto workers, electricians, steel workers, etc.
Although some were “sent into industry,” there were many more thousands of middle class members drawn to the Party from universities and artistic circles. Many of these people were paper members, some of whom attended meetings, and fewer still who filtered up through the ranks of the Party as functionaries. Whether that was living the life of selling The Daily Worker on street corners and at factory shift changes, administering party meetings, handling Party finances and membership rolls as secretaries, or rising through the ranks as Party leaders, middle-class members could do this work simply because they weren’t tied down to grueling work every day.
When contrasted with the CPUSA on this aspect, DSA has a much higher proportion of its membership made up from the downwardly mobile middle class than it does from the working class. It’s more a quantitative difference and less a qualitative difference.
Part of what explains that difference are the dense and vibrant communities the Party was built out of and was able to recruit from. For example, the Party was most developed in New York City. While NYC-DSA similarly stands as the largest, most-developed chapter in DSA nationally, it does not compare to the Party’s presence in the everyday life of workers in NYC, not least of all in the dense working-class Jewish enclaves in the boroughs. Gornick herself grew up in this world during the 1940s and 50s, in Jewish working-class neighborhoods where, at the time, the Communist Party was synonymous with the social and institutional backbone of her family and of many of her friends and neighbors.
Many of these Jewish immigrant families brought the socialist tradition with them from Eastern Europe as they settled into the States. There were even some areas of the city, like the Co-Operatives Houses on Allerton Avenue in the Bronx, that had an internal social life entirely rooted in the Party. The Party ran its own organizations like workers’ schools and unemployed councils, and its members were present in civic organizations like sports clubs and community centers. They were filled by teens who were in the Young Communist League (the Party’s youth branch) and were run by older members in the Party proper.
Though it was Jewish immigrants that filled the ranks in its New York district, in other parts of the country the Party drew its ranks from more native lineages, like descendants of the American revolutionaries, abolitionists, and members of the Populist Party, such as Blossom Sheed, who came from a family of farmers. Impressive still, while the Party remained mostly white (not unlike DSA), even at the height of its presence in American society, it did make a considerable effort to recruit and organize Black workers like Hugh Armstrong, who rose to become a section organizer for the Northern Bronx (and although it’s not touched on in Romance, the Party accomplished impressive tasks in organizing Black farmers in Alabama and recruiting them to the Party).
Although there are still dense communities in large cities to develop working-class organizations out of, some of whom carry social democratic traditions with them like many of the Latino working-class communities of Los Angeles, we as socialists face tougher organizing conditions today. We exist in a world with a much less developed, much smaller, and much weaker labor movement. We also live in a world with a much thinner civic society overall, despite the hyper-politicization facilitated by the omni-presence of the internet and social media.
Furthermore, DSA also exists in a world where socialism and communism are not the ideological forces they were during the first half of the twentieth century. The Communists were guided and driven by a utopian vision of world communism and the real feeling of world revolution being right around the corner. This was grounded, in part, by the existence of the Soviet Union that existed just across the ocean. They could point to it as a shining beacon on a hill, a first example of a workers’ country, despite the many mental gymnastics so many Communists like Eric Lanzetti and Arthur Chessler had to jump through when they were processing the darker parts of the USSR’s existence, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the 20th Congress Report. We live today in a much different world, at the end of the end of history, where capitalism is clearly destroying the world but no concrete, preferable alternative has presented itself.
We are much more adrift than our Communist predecessors were, and many of us young people feel like our project is to simply build something that can withstand the century of catastrophe and disintegration facing us. That can make it hard to understand the kind of world the Communist Party existed in during the Depression, which was very real and palpable to those who lived in it. The palpability made it easier for many more dedicated Communists to make drastic decisions, like to abandon their middle-class lives and become industrial unionists on Party orders, or to live lives of secrecy for years doing underground work for the Party.
Despite the differences in conditions they faced, it is hard not to feel a strong emotional intimacy with these old Communists as they describe their inner lives and feelings as they processed the world around them. Gornick and her interviewees describe it as a “oneness,” a sense of “integration,” or a sense of being “at the center of the world.” It turned life in the Depression from confusion, loneliness, and bitterness into righteousness, belonging, and certainty. For these Communists, Marxism provided that to them ideologically through ideas of class struggle and capitalist development, Party life facilitated it for them socially through collective work and belonging, and the Depression grounded it with its harsh material conditions and industrial life.
On the other hand, life in the Party also brought out some of their worst, most vicious behaviors. Intellectual clarity through Marxism lent itself to self-gratifying dogma, organized collective action lent itself to rigid hierarchy and discipline. Suspicions filled the ranks of the Party, and members were regularly asked to spy on others and carry out purges. Conversations were recorded in secret and used during internal party trials, where the defendants were asked to humiliate themselves in displays of supposed commitment to the Party line and to the revolutionary movement. Members like Sam Russel found themselves emotionally destroyed and socially isolated after expulsion, as Party members refused to talk to them. Although these horrible internal tendencies were exacerbated as the Party came under attack externally during the 1950s, they had been present in the Party’s internal culture for quite some time.
For anyone who has come into political consciousness within the last 15 years, especially through the internet, it is hard not to see the parallels between the Party and the way they are conditioned to behave by life online. The atmosphere of mutual-and-self-suspicion, avoiding social pariahs that have been called-out and exposed for problematic behavior, all feels eerily similar. And although DSA has not experienced anything near the turmoil the CPUSA endured, it is hard not to see how the embryo of these vicious behaviors, ingrained into us by websites like Twitter and Reddit, have come to bear at different times, whether it be during internal chapter fights over leadership and bylaws, or during inter-caucus politics at the national level.
Gornick herself was in a troubled place when she found herself compelled to write this book in the mid-70’s. She grew up during the 1940’s and 50’s in the Jewish community in New York. Although her young life was defined by activity in and around the Party, like so many of those in her generation she had come to reject the politics and behaviors of her parents, in her case with their rigid Marxist-Leninist doctrine, especially once Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956 shattered the world her family had built over the past decades. Unlike her elders who found a sense of clarity and purpose through Marxism, she had found intellectual clarity and spiritual liberation through radical feminism in the 60’s. It cohered her experiences in such a powerful way she fully devoted herself to it. However, as the feminist movement changed through the 70’s, and she found herself amongst sectarians and dogmatists, she realized through her disillusion that she had a great deal in common with those old Communists who had raised her.
More than the glimpse into an older world where socialism and communism were palpable forces for thousands, even millions of people, that may be the most important lesson Romance leaves us with: we are not that different from those that came before us.
Despite how different our world is today, we can still see all around us the bubbling of activity, the spirit of rebellion, and the demand for a better world that can be forged into an organized movement for socialism, just as Gornick saw as she encountered the radical feminist movement some 50 years ago. And like so many young adults who pass that traumatic milestone of adulthood, who have a moment where they realize the idea of their parents has died for them, and who then finally see their parents for what they always have been — that is, full, complicated, limited, flawed, strange, but genuine human beings — Gornick sympathetically saw herself and the feminist movement in the Communists and their Party.
Similarly, we ought to see ourselves in her generation and their challenges. The Communists had no singular claim on the passion, the spirit, the desire for purpose, and the collective ecstasy that drove them. By the same token, they were not the only ones prone to the worst behaviors that ideological life, radical politics, and disciplined organization can easily produce. We tread the same path they did, with all the same risks, and that’s something we must never forget.