Bad Romance

Bad Romance

The afterlife of The Romance of American Communism shows that no political movement ever really ends. We bear the weight of dead generations—and sometimes living ones, too.

Young Communist women at a May Day parade in New York City in 1936 (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

A few years ago, when I was spending most of my time organizing a graduate student union, people kept recommending a book: The Romance of American Communism. It was out of print, but I found a used, ex-library copy for a few dollars on Amazon, hardcover and silver with a giant portrait of the author, Vivian Gornick, on the back. When I finally got around to reading it, after our unionization efforts were quashed, the effect was like listening to a breakup song: this book got me, got what I’d been through, like nothing I’d ever read before. The Communists Gornick had interviewed for the book described feelings and experiences I recognized intimately but had never seen articulated. I put Post-it notes on nearly every page. I raved about it to friends the way friends had raved about it to me. Apparently, lots of other people did too; it became an underground sensation, so much so that the venerable left-wing press Verso Books has issued a reprint with a new introduction by Gornick—who is, by all accounts, confused and somewhat alarmed by the book’s revival.

When Romance was first published in 1977, there was no shortage of writing on the Communist Party USA—most of it memoirs by ex-Communists thoroughly disavowing their past lives, or denunciations of totalitarianism and the “captive mind” it produced. Romance was different. Gornick was a red-diaper baby; as she tells us in the book’s indelible first line, “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew that I was a member of the working class.” She grew up in a household of “fellow travelers” in the Bronx, going to meetings of the Labor Youth League in a Prince Street loft decorated with posters of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Along with thousands of others, she abandoned Communism after the publication of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956, which detailed the mass repression, torture, and murder that had taken place under Stalin’s rule. But she didn’t recognize the world she knew in the subsequent literature decrying the Party. The Communists she had known weren’t depraved monsters or brainwashed automatons; instead “they were like everybody else, only more so.” The defining feature of belonging to the Communist Party (CP), the feature that Gornick set out to study, was an intensity of experience. You couldn’t really understand why someone would spend seventeen years trying to organize factory workers for the revolution by charting the pronouncements of the Comintern. Instead, for Gornick, the key to writing about American Communism was to relate what it felt like. From her interviews, she concluded that to be a Communist was to “experience a kind of inner radiance: some intensity of illumination that tore at the soul.” On every page you can find this sort of rapture. Who wouldn’t want to be a Communist?

The exhilaration was what critics latched onto. The book was slammed from both the right and the anti-Stalinist left for eliding the CP’s abuses and making Communists seem sexy. You would learn “precious little” about Communism from Gornick’s book, Joseph Clark wrote in this magazine in 1978; worse still, her book “cannot fathom the gulf between a free and sovereign mind and one that is the servant of a ‘higher and unquestioned’ purpose.” In the New York Times, Hilton Kramer called Romance a “particularly odious” book, “entirely devoid of political intelligence,” and a “travesty of some of the most hateful history of our time.” Irving Howe wrote in the New York Review of Books that Gornick had “written a book about Communism without saying very much about its politics”; the problem, he asserted, “is not so much that she can’t think as that she evidently prefers not to.” Romance wasn’t serious enough: “Where her book should be dry, it is damp. Where hard, soft.” Paradoxically, many of the Communists she interviewed disliked her approach too, telling Gornick hers was a “frivolous and reactionary point of view.”

Perhaps Gornick is worried that a new generation of enthusiastic readers is proving her critics right. Her introduction to the reissue is painfully apologetic and self-critical. She doesn’t regret writing about the romance at the heart of the Communist experience but scolds herself for writing about it “romantically,” in overly sentimental language. She nevertheless hopes that Romance “can act as a guide to those similarly stirred today.” Can it?

Romance is an unusual book. Sometimes described as an oral history, it’s perhaps better thought of as a group memoir. It offers, all at once, a collective portrait of select Communist Party members, a thesis about the role of feeling in politics, and a meditation on the evolution of political struggles over time. To write it, Gornick traveled the country for a year talking to ex-Party members who spoke fluently, elegantly, vividly (so vividly—who talks like this? you sometimes wonder) about their time in the CP. All kinds of people were Communists, Gornick declares: they came to the Party in different ways, played different roles within it, and led different lives after they left. Yet it is clear from the way their individual narratives build on one another that they shared a common experience.

Romance excels as an account of the feeling that suffused a particular historical moment and way of life. But it also conveys something core to the experience of political action more generally. It captures the affective energy that gives politics its transformative potential—the intensity of the ritual practices that strengthen belief, the way that the meaning of the larger project can suffuse the most mundane actions, how being in struggle with others makes people braver in all parts of their lives. As Marian Moran tells Gornick, “Day by day people were developing, transforming, communicating inarticulate dreams, discovering a force of being themselves.” Most people who have engaged in committed political activity will recognize themselves in these interviews. The fact that so many of Gornick’s critics on the left didn’t makes you wonder whether they’d done any organizing at all—or marvel at their apparent need to distance themselves from it.

Although it fell flat with the serious men of her generation, Gornick’s method is perfectly suited to the age of the personal essay—a genre she helped pioneer—and speaks to a renewed attention to affect, emotional labor, and relational organizing. No one today would blink at the idea that feelings are essential to politics. To the contrary, the explicit point of much contemporary organizing is to tap into feelings—hopelessness, fear, anger, despair—and direct them into political action.

But if Gornick’s book is alive with the experience of political life, it is hard to know how to interpret its relatability—a dilemma complicated by Gornick’s own disavowal of the book and her apprehensive response to its recent uptake. Should we be, as one writer suggested in the New Yorker, “surprised” to find that Gornick is “skeptical” of the Bernie Sanders campaign and wary of young socialists who read Romance as a cult classic? I don’t think so. That skepticism is present in the work. If Gornick’s portrayal of Communism appears romantic on its face, the underlying critique is all the harsher for it. It’s true, as critics charged, that the characters of Romance are sketched as heroes—but they are tragic heroes, doomed from the start. Their struggles are often brave and moving, but it’s clear from the outset that they are futile—and not just because we, in hindsight, know how things turned out. Rather, Gornick suggests that something about how her subjects do politics is impossible.

It’s true that Gornick doesn’t discuss the structure of the CP in depth, detail its repressive aspects, or explore its relationship to the Stalin-era Soviet Union. But she is hardly soft on authoritarianism. Although some of her ex-Communists make excuses for themselves, many others speak frankly about the interminable meetings, the doctrinaire pronouncements, the way that comrades turned on one another, and the friends and family they neglected for the sake of the party. Characters who come across as charming and thoughtful in their own reflections are remembered by others as ruthless. Gornick’s critics took issue with her evocative descriptions: her subjects all have thick hair, piercing eyes, intelligent faces, noble brows, husky voices. But Gornick hardly spares them on account of good looks. Rather, doubt is always flickering in their eyes, conflict flashing across their faces. They have a “hunted, confused” look.

The Party, Gornick emphasizes, ruined some people: it eroded their capacity to form personal relationships and perceive the world clearly. Some, who were “dignified” by the Party, were also “hobbled” by it; they were at once “formed and deformed” by their work. They stayed in longer than they should have because of how being in it made them feel. Moran, for example, tolerated what she calls “the narrowness and the stupidity of the Party” because she couldn’t let go of the “emotion of total comradeship” she’d felt organizing fruit pickers in California. These disaffected former members can only speak in political terms, not personal ones. They have sacrificed career prospects and neglected self-improvement projects. They are single-minded, delusional, and, above all, dogmatic. This, Gornick proclaims, is the contradiction of the Communist experience: “It is the journey toward the vision that is brilliantly humanizing; it is the dogma at the end of the road that is soul-destroying.” The journey and the destination, she strongly implies, cannot be separated.

Paradoxically, the lack of historical specificity that led Howe, Kramer, and Clark to grumble that Gornick had let the CP off the hook renders her narrative more damning of radical politics in general. For Gornick, the saga of the American Communists is ultimately one episode in a timeless human search for meaning. The Communists’ relationship to Marxism is like the longing of Paris for Helen of Troy, “a hunger that finally had a life of its own,” and that eventually consumed those who felt it. In pursuit of the “wholeness” that came from belonging to the party, Gornick’s Communists lose the ability to think for themselves, and finally lose themselves altogether.

So the question is: Are we reading the book wrong if we identify with its Communists? And still more troubling, are we doing something wrong if we see ourselves in them? While many on the left have recognized in Romance a reflection of their own inner lives, it’s also entirely possible to read it as a cautionary tale about letting politics mean too much. In the language of dogma and orthodoxy, meaning and souls, Romance invites an unflattering comparison of politics to religion, characterized by irrational attachments, devotion to sacred texts, the desire to fill a spiritual void, and claims of moral righteousness—all anathema to both the liberal idea of politics as the confluence of rational choices made by individual actors, and the hardheaded view of politics as the unsentimentally strategic pursuit of power.

But whether or not Gornick’s Communists are sympathetic, I think she does describe something essential about political commitment, so if she’s right about where it inevitably leads, we should be worried. To knock on doors for hours in the freezing cold you need to believe you’re taking a step toward Medicare for All, even if you know how distant a possibility it is; in turn, because it is so distant, the work of taking that small step also has to be meaningful in itself. You act according to what you believe is worth doing; in turn, the practices strengthen your beliefs. The meaning you glean from these small acts may at times outweigh their strategic value—but you can’t undertake sustained political action without believing it’s meaningful to do so. Nor can you do so without the feeling of belonging that is so central to the Communist experience—what Gornick describes as the “wholeness” of the CP world. To anxious liberals who think politics should know its place, a political project of that nature suggests totalitarianism on a small scale. But we already live in an all-encompassing world: the ideology we can’t see is just the ideology of common sense. The point of the “whole world” of the CP was to counteract what was already hegemonic, to provide an escape from the totality of capitalism. Although many ex-Communists bemoan the “Marxist-Leninist jargon” spewed by Party members, others describe discovering Marxism as a way of making sense of a world that treats them as worthless. As Dick Nikowsski tells Gornick, “I was discovering I had a mind, I could think, and I was doing it! … God, I have never felt so free in my life as in those first days when I discovered Marx and the existence of my own mind at the same time—in that cold filthy apartment in Chicago.”

World-making projects can become warped, of course. If the courage and commitment of the Communists is recognizable, so too is their petty despotism. A whole world can become a solipsistic, asphyxiating, and delusional one—or simply very small. But such turns aren’t inevitable, and the details of how leadership turns into tyranny or rhetoric into rigid orthodoxy matter. Not every bully in a meeting becomes Stalin. The likes of Howe and Clark misunderstood something crucial about Gornick’s project, but they were right that passion can’t explain it all.

If Gornick suspects that some of her subjects are “governed by an emotional frame of reference” they cannot let go of or even recognize, the same might be said of her. Her own emotional frame, however, is grounded not in romance but heartbreak. It stems from her disappointment with the “dreadful nagging pain” she felt upon coming to doubt the “simplistic socialist explanations” she was offered as a child, her experience of seeing a once all-encompassing world “dead and dying, lost and gone.” At the end of the book, we learn that Gornick was moved to write Romance by a later encounter with the feminist movement, which initially reawakened her politically but eventually let her down. Her anxiety about growing movement dogma came to a head when, at a meeting, she was decried as “an intellectual and a revisionist” by a fellow feminist, and experience of the CP came rushing back. It’s not an accident that her encounter with the feminist movement echoed her experience with the Party: that original disillusionment, I think, is the defining political experience for Gornick, and it is one that she looks for in all others. Disenchantment, for her, is where radical, intensely felt politics end up.

She isn’t alone in this suspicion. If some of the Old Left held on too long to the dream of revolution, many veterans of the New Left seem determined to cling to defeat. But Gornick’s pessimism is better earned than most, and hence more sobering. After all, she has lived through not one but two historic defeats for the left: first the CP, then the New Left. And yet despite her pessimism, she isn’t entirely fatalistic. She closes Romance by contemplating the way the feminist and socialist movements have developed over time. Of the latter she writes, “First had come the visionary socialists of the nineteenth century, then had come the fierce politicalness of the Communists, and now … the unaffiliated Marxist consciousness of contemporary radicals.” This line was criticized for seeming to suggest that Stalinism was a necessary stage in the development of socialism. The afterlife of Romance, however, speaks perfectly to her actual point: no political moment ever really ends, but rather becomes part of a set of reference points; no political moment ever begins anew, but always bears the weight of dead generations—and sometimes living ones, too.

So what comes after those unaffiliated radicals of the New Left? What kind of energy are we bringing into 2020? Are we, too, doomed?

The biggest difference between Gornick’s Communists and today’s socialists, of course, is that—for better and worse—there is no Communist Party, and no world power backing it. The Communists “came from everywhere,” as Gornick puts it, not because they all had socialist parents or grew up in the radical milieu of the Jewish Lower East Side, though many did. They came from everywhere because they lived through a world-historical moment—the Depression—and the Party, itself the product of the world-historical Russian Revolution, was there waiting for them. As Belle Rothman tells Gornick, “Life came in on us, and we were bashed over the head, and we struggled to our knees and to our feet, and when we were standing there was the Communist Party.” CP membership more than tripled over the course of the 1930s, from 18,000 to over 65,000, and peaked at 85,000.

But the CP dwindled, the Soviet Union collapsed, the unions were broken. By the time the Great Recession bashed today’s socialists over the head, there was nothing there. It has taken nearly a decade to build an organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), that comes anywhere close to approaching the CP in numbers—DSA currently has around 50,000 members—though it is not really comparable in most other senses. Unlike the CP, DSA is not part of an international network; it has no socialist state to look to or take orders from; it is much easier to join, much more public, far looser ideologically, and much less disciplined. DSA itself is the organizational remnant of more than one previous generation—forged from what founder Michael Harrington described as the “remnant of a remnant” of the Debs-era Socialist Party of America and the New Left’s New American Movement, and revived in recent years because people needed somewhere to go. With little else to give structure to an amorphous set of bad feelings, the left has most significantly tried to bootstrap its way to organization through electoral politics.

The Bernie Sanders campaign all too perfectly embodies the historical jumble of left politics. Sanders himself is of Gornick’s generation, though he is politically closer to Howe and Harrington. It’s easy to imagine him as a character in Romance, and probably not one Gornick would find very sympathetic. From most reports, he has been rather single-minded about politics throughout his life, and he has held the same line—more Debsian-Rooseveltian than Marxist-Leninist—for decades. But what seems like dogma in one moment appears as consistency in another. Toward the end of Romance, Eric Lanzetti makes the case for staying in it for the long haul: “Look at the Italian Communists,” he says. “For thirty years they lived in total eclipse.” But the whole time, “they were organizing … everywhere they taught, they participated, they took positions. They wheedled, they compromised, they made concessions, they stayed alive.”

So while the current turn to electoral politics might be a strategy born of bad options, it isn’t without possibilities. For a political movement that believes in the power of the masses, there are worse things than having to win a majority; worse things than having to actually go out and talk to people. One Communist strategy was to “go into industry,” taking jobs in factories in hopes of converting workers to socialism; though they failed to win workers to the CP en masse, they transformed the American labor movement. We may not be on the democratic road to socialism quite yet, but it’s hard not to be at least a little excited about the possible ripple effects of socialists’ efforts to “go into politics.”

That said, Italy is not today a socialist paradise, and the Italian Communists never won more than 35 percent of the vote. Gornick may well be right that the left can’t win, even if Bernie does. It’s hard to become a socialist today without seriously contemplating the possibility. “I used to envy people who had come into the movement in adult life,” one Communist born into the party tells Gornick. “What a thrill it must be for people to discover Marxism.” It is a thrill to discover the left—but a bittersweet one. Although you discover many of the things that thrilled Gornick’s interlocutors—the power and pleasure of acting with others, your own potential to change the world—you also discover a legacy of defeat. You fall in love with a long line of brave and principled losers. You learn about the failure of every possible strategy: for every electoral victory, a capital strike or a coup; for every revolution, an assassination or a massacre. And that’s before you consider the fact that the future of life on earth looks increasingly dire. Contrary to the protestations of those who think that today’s socialists are delusional idealists, most of us are not cruel optimists, attached to toxic desires or living in a dream world; we are kind pessimists, all too aware of our limitations, but doing what we think has a sliver of a chance of salvaging a world in which very little seems possible.

So Romance isn’t a guidebook, but a portal back to a time when class consciousness was widespread, when a few committed leftists could help spur a wave of strikes among thousands of farmworkers, when we seemed truly dangerous. It’s a fantasy of finding your way to socialism and really believing—not only that you’ll win an election or two, but that revolution is just around the corner. That kind of belief is no longer available, and we know it. The question for the left today is: why, knowing what we know, should we make the leap of faith yet again?

Political action does require faith, but it isn’t religious. Rather, it’s what the philosopher Martin Hägglund describes as secular faith—the practice of committing your finite life to the projects and relationships that matter to you. You don’t spend your time on them because you know they’ll succeed; to the contrary, it’s because you don’t know how things will turn out that you have to keep working at them. It’s faith expressed not in a single desperate leap, but by taking one step after another, day after day. It’s not a whirlwind romance—it’s a long-term relationship.

Many of Gornick’s ex-Communists seem to have come to this understanding and lived their post-Party lives accordingly; like Gornick, I’m grateful to them. I’m grateful to Gornick too, for giving us this book. But what I really want to read is something that will capture the feeling of being on the left today—our moods, our fears, our backgrounds, our plans, our prospects. I want to read more about what it’s like to be in the midst of the struggle from people who are currently struggling, unfiltered through the lens of victory or defeat. I hope today’s democratic socialists, Bernie canvassers, antifascists, labor organizers, climate strikers, and others will read about the American Communists—and then tell their own stories. The passion we share with the Popular Front, after all, is the passion of living actively in history, trying to grasp and shape its flow. What’s old about it is that it’s always new.

Alyssa Battistoni is a political theorist at the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

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