The Romance of American Communism

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One of the great enigmas of working class history is how it was that so many fine working class militants, men and women, embraced Stalinism and either refused to believe in or actually helped cover up its crimes.

They happily followed political strategies dictated by Moscow and aimed to further Soviet foreign policy rather than the class struggle.

In Britain, these people got no material benefit from their allegiance to the Communist Party, instead facing victimisation and the blacklist. The situation was considerably worse for CP members in the US. Here, they also often faced brutal beatings and shootings on the picket line, and serious jail time for their communist beliefs.

How was it that such people were at the same time apologists for a murderous tyranny that was just about as far away from socialism as you could get, and followed its orders when waging the class struggle at home?

In her book, The Romance of Communism, first published in 1977, Vivian Gornick is aware of this enigma, but unfortunately does not really contribute that much to resolving it. The very title of the book indicates its limitations. What we really needed was a study entitled The Tragedy of Stalinism.

According to Gornick, in the course of its history, something like a million Americans had been members of the party at one time or other.

She sees this as a testimony to its influence, but a better take on this would be the high rate of turnover the Party had. Of course, this turnover did not necessarily represent people seeing through the Stalinist lies that the CP wrapped itself in, but was just as likely a result of people being exhausted by the commitment demanded or intimidated by the persecution membership invited.

What she does in her volume is interview a large number of CP veterans with a view to understanding the part the party played in their lives, and the part they played in the struggle.

There is much of interest, and one can only admire the steadfast commitment that these people had to what they perceived to be the best interests of the working class and to the cause of socialism.

One problem, as with many sympathetic accounts of Communist Parties, is that they tend to privilege the Popular Front period of militant reformism as if it was the authentic period of communist politics; the real Road to Socialism so to speak.

This inevitably leads to neglect of the experience of these parties when they actually were revolutionary parties, and fails to get to grips with the enormity of their subordination to Moscow and the twists and turns it occasioned; the Third Period, for example, when the CP was violently sectarian towards the rest of the Left.

This policy was adopted by every Communist Party in the world, regardless of domestic circumstances, and undoubtedly helped Hitler into power.

The Third Period was, of course, abandoned for the Popular Front. What is surprising about Gornick’s book, however, is how little the people she interviews have to say about the overnight abandonment of the Popular Front and its replacement by support for the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

This is strange, to say the least, in a party with so many Jewish members. Eric Lanzetti discusses its impact and being called a Communazi, but his account is completely inadequate.

Something as important as this is almost airbrushed out. The book manages to be both interesting and disappointing at the same time.