The Romance of American Communism
by Vivian Gornick

Review-Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Basic Books: New York, 1977
265 pages

May 2009

Taking the Red Veil

If you're non-political, or anti-communist, don't go scampering off just yet. The Romance of American Communism isn't a political book about political issues. Nor is it about romance in the sense of boy-girl courtship, Love Under the Red Star sort of thing. What the book actually cares about is the true romance of its subjects' great love, their consuming passionate commitment: their former membership in the Communist Party of the United States, the CPUSA. How they got into the Party, when and why and where they're from; how they functioned within it; and how they left the Party, when and why and what they did after. These are very personal vignettes, and fascinating reading.

They took with them on this journey not only their own narrow, impoverished experience but a set of abstractions as well, abstractions with the power to transform. When these people sat down at the kitchen table to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them, above all, History sat down with them.

They spoke and thought within a context that had world-making properties. This context lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity of the soul into which they had been born and gave them, for the first time in their lives, a sense of rights as well as of obligations. They had rights because they now knew who and what they were. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians. They were not a people without a history, they had the Russian Revolution. They were not without a civilizing world view, they had Marxism.

Vivian Gornick was raised in the Old Left, growing up assuming that everyone was either a socialist of some stripe, or an enemy of the people. She possesses considerable understanding and empathy for the ex-Communists whose personal histories she narrates. She is a clear writer, eliciting and illuminating key details, the passionate motivations and turning points in these lives.

One of the most important points to grasp is the diversity of the ex-Communists who tell their stories here. Immigrants and natives, from all sorts of religious and educational and social backgrounds. Many joined the Party as young adults during the Depression in the 1930s, a few were brought up so that the Party seemed their destiny, but they come from all over. Gornick presents their stories both in summary and in their own words, but these are real individuals speaking here. Some look back in anger, some ruefully or bitterly, often with varying degrees of pride, always with the sense of what a great part of their life was subsumed by the Communist Party. Intellectual, social, familial, communitarian — all these facets of life became part of one's Party existence, serving Party ends, or were dropped.

Gornick is aware of the difficulty that prominent ex-Communists have in coming to grips with their former immersion in the Party, of dealing with "the God that failed": Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright. She works hard to get past the abstractions and generalizations to the individual stories of real people, and I think succeeds very well.

Apparatchiks and the organization

Vivian Gornick focuses on personal lives in and after the Communist Party, but sometimes gets into the work of the apparatchiks. The organization of the Communist Party in those days is impressive: national, district, section, and branch level. Most was visible, but there also were secret branches, for instance for teachers. In the early 1950s the national second-level functionaries were ordered to go underground to avoid the feared fascist persecution, firing squads and so on: a couple of thousand lives were submerged for several years, people bereft of family and friends and often even of Party associates. But the Party said that it was for the good of the Party. This underground period was devastatingly traumatic to many of the uprooted, constantly shifting people.

The Romance of American Communism concentrates on American home-folks' Communism, with relatively little connection-making to those master illusionists, the Red Tsars in the Kremlin, and the relationship of the CPUSA to the Soviet Union. That international relationship is not the issue here.

After the American Communist crash

The passion is important to understand. These American Communists were building utopia in America's industrious but unpleasant land, and no sacrifice of themselves or others was too great. Or almost so, for each of these folks did finally find a breaking point. It was not a change of opinion, but an internal falling out of love, an external fall from grace.

Upon leaving the Party after many selflessly dedicated years, these folks often found that pre-Party talents and goals, emotional responsiveness, family feeling, and so forth could not be fully recovered or restarted. As some events narrated obviously were vicious or harrowing to the participants, there necessarily is a lot of emotional scar tissue. These are survivors' stories, people become more or less regular Americans again, but their life stories retained huge tragic imprisonments in the center.

When we glance back at Karl Marx, we see that the pedigree is legitimate;

From his [youthful] poems and his uncompleted play [Oulanem, 1836] we learn that Marx was essentially the child of the romantic age, dreaming its dreams and surrendering to its obsessions. Damnation, satanic seductions, curses and excommunications, the ruin of the world — such were his nightmares. What no one could have known or guessed was that more than a century later he would still be visiting his nightmares on the world.
Robert Payne
"Oulanem, a Tragedy"
Marx: A Biography  (1968)

I myself believe the Communist Party immersion and dedication cast long shadows across American life and down the generations. After Nikita Khrushchev's revelatory speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, organized Communism in America crashed, the CPUSA effectively disintegrated. But the Communist cause was only apparently extinguished. The believers were staggered, no longer cloaked in the nimbus of the American Communist Party, but their Communist idealism did not disappear. It shattered into a thousand institutions on as many paths, a cancer metastasized but hardly vanquished; and in a thousand causes, thoughtfully self-labelled to pass among "progressive" and "enlightened" intentions, continued the work fractionally.

Does it matter when you left?

The most vivid impression I retained across the years from my first reading of The Romance of American Communism shortly after publication, has been the self-justificatory sense of timing that defined which specific outrage finally caused each Communist to become an ex-Communist. In other words, suppose the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 made you unable to abide longer within the Party. The timing of your own departure is reasonable, measured, and correct, confessedly "duped but still righteous"; while those Communists who abandoned the Party earlier, say during the Moscow Purge Trials of 1936-1938 were cowards; on the other side, those who stayed in until Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 were opportunists.

The exit point is a delusional slider on the long traumatic spectrum of Communist outrages. If the 20th Party Congress happened to be your righteous breaking point, those who bailed out at the Hitler-Stalin Pact were the cowards, while those who held on until the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the opportunists. And so on.

Depressing, yes. Delusional, yes. But at least these American Communists came out alive from their dangerous romance, their embrace of the ideal organization — unlike millions of their Soviet colleagues who were murdered by their Communist system, unable to change their minds and live, often even loyally unable to live.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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