Several years ago, during an interview, Ralph Nader told me that he thought the workers should control the factories.
Oh, I said, then you’re a socialist.
Oh no, he dodged, not a socialist. But workers running the factories certainly sounded like socialism, didn’t it? Nader stood his ground: it wasn’t socialism. It was something called initiatory democracy.
I let it go at that, figuring he had an inalienable right to camouflage. Even in the best of times, the American Left has had to cloak itself in protective verbiage—Marxism truly is the cause that dare not speak its name—and the euphemisms often have been hilarious. My current favorite is “economic democracy.” Of course, after a century of witch hunts there is a natural tendency toward caution, but sometimes the word games seem unduly conspiratorial and silly. If the revolution—you remember The Revolution—were to be held tomorrow, some well-intentioned souls would try, no doubt, to call it a “decentralized ballistic initiative,” hoping not to alienate the masses.
But there is good news on the euphemism front. Following the example of the women’s and gay liberation movements, and in keeping with the confessional nature of the decade, new closets have begun to creak open. Old lefties are stepping out. People who once called themselves “progressive” and let everyone wonder what they really meant are now finding it fashionable to admit that they were communists. At least, some of them are. Enough for me to call it a trend.
I suppose we should have seen it coming when Barbra Streisand played a member of the Young Communist League in The Way We Were, but a strange thing has happened: the Communist party (U.S.A.), which was seen as a dagger pointed at the heart of America in the Fifties and as something of a joke in the Sixties, has become—like virtually everything else in the Seventies—a nostalgia piece, a curio. Over the past year, all sorts of books have appeared reminiscing about the good old days in the party.
The most popular of the nostalgic Marxists is Jessica Mitford, whose elegant and clever book, A Fine Old Conflict, is about as insidious as you can get—the Communist party as tea party. In the old days, Mitford would have been lambasted as a Bolshie swine taking orders directly from the Kremlin; now even Time magazine is beguiled. It is probably the first mainstream book since the McCarthy era to explain why people actually joined the party.
This always was a mystery to me, growing up in the Fifties. Communists were people who hung out in schoolyards, abducted unsuspecting children and forced them to recite math equations like in Russia. None of them believed in God, and few took baths. Most were perverts. Why would anyone volunteer for a group like that? Later, as a peripheral New Lefty, I didn’t care much about the old days. Stalinists were boring and irrelevant. I didn’t know any of them personally and, because of the McCarthy insanity, there weren’t many books—at least, books I’d want to read—to explain what had happened. The political history of a whole generation had been expurgated, sterilized, hidden, lost.
Mitford—and several of the other old leftists who’ve written books lately—makes it very plain: people joined the party because they were idealists. They wanted to fight fascism. They wanted to end human suffering. For a while, in the Thirties, to join or not to join was the crucial decision for people with a social conscience in this country. The utopianism seems rather naive now, but it drove Mitford to spend her life fighting for racial equality in Oakland, and her husband to work as a public-interest lawyer in the days before that particular euphemism was invented.
Mitford doesn’t say much about how it all fell apart, about how the beautiful young idealists became stomping ideologues, but there are others who’ve written about that with some understanding lately: most notably, Peggy Dennis, the wife of a major American CP leader. She describes, with rare emotional honesty, how she managed to rationalize the Moscow purge trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact and her decision to leave her four-year-old son in Russia for the good of the revolution, in a book called The Autobiography of an American Communist. There’s also Vivian Gornick’s wonderfully titled collection of interviews with former party members, The Romance of American Communism.
Of course, the only reason why communism can be pitched as “romantic” is that it’s no longer perceived as a threat, and so the capitalists can afford to be charitable. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Left—old and new—has shriveled and virtually died in this country. It no longer has a natural constituency, except in the desperate, forgotten inner cities. When people talk about solutions to end “human suffering” in America nowadays, they are usually talking about things like EST, transcendental meditation or being born again. For most people, poverty is more a spiritual question than a physical reality.
The irony is that Marxism always worked better as religion than it did as politics. It had a colorful pantheon of saints and martyrs, and even better ogres. It had great songs, heroic legends and a Utopian vision that made Jesus seem like a small-timer (The meek trampling the capitalists on their way to the kingdom of heaven always seemed a lot more fun than simply “inheriting” it). The problem is that everyone always took it so literally … but then, that’s the problem with most religions until they wise up.
What would happen, I wonder, if the few remaining leftists in this country started talking about the absence of community instead of the presence of poverty, if they started talking about loneliness instead of economics? They do have an answer, of sorts, to our suburban angst: the idea of community, of shared responsibilities. It isn’t as easy, or as much fun for them, as ripping the capitalist pigs, but in these strange, narcotized times, it could provide some “spiritual” relief.