Dreams and Nightmares

Dreams and Nightmares

Now I know why I flunked the test given by Vivian Gornick at lunch in a Chinese restaurant. It turned out that she was screening me for an interview to be used in a book she was writing on the romance of American Communism. But between the egg roll and the fortune cookie she apparently concluded that I was not among those who “walked the wire successfullly and remained whole and strong.” Clearly, both her thesis and ideology were so neatly packaged in advance that she did not want to add my experience to that of an old, departed friend and comrade whom she had already interviewed.

My friend had been terribly disruptive of her idee fixé of Communism as creator of that “inner passion” and “intensity of illumination that tore at the soul,” to cite a bit of her description. Gornick wanted no more tampering with her dream of Communism, which spoke “with such power and moral imagination.” If only she had shared with her readers what she meant by “moral imagination,” there might have been far more than the singularly cluttered, but uninformative contents of her account.

Whatever the Communist experience was, it is touching to see how some—in what we once lovingly called the capitalist press—have taken the Gornick description to heart. The New York Times published a section of the Gornick “passion” in its Book Review, followed by a laudatory review by a democratic socialist, whose emphasis on the crucial requirement, that socialism must above all be democratic, played a part in the departure of this reviewer from the Communist movement. A number of “capitalist” journals now print reviews of books on the Communist experience, which twit former Communists for daring to entertain bitter recollections and give them good marks only if they remember that experience without regret or recrimination. This was the message of the review in Newsday, a paper of considerable circulation and solid capitalist paternity. Its reviewer, Jessica Mitford, was the author of that witty satire on the American funeral business, The American Way of Death. Now she had written a book on her experiences in the American Communist party, a more amusing and a better crafted book than Gornick’s, but equally lacking in candid recollection and equally barren of political appraisal.

Still another book, by Peggy Dennis, widow of Eugene Dennis, the former general secretary of the American CP, turns out to be far more significant than Gornick’s or Mitford’s, but in a way that the author, alas, never intended it to be. Peggy Dennis never meant to depict the rejection of mind and reason, the acceptance of a discipline that prompted acquiescence in anything demanded from above, even to the point of leaving an only child with the Russians permanently, on orders from Communist International leaders Georgi Dimitrov and Dimitri Manuilsky. But that is what she has done, and it emerges in painful detail.

Leopold Trepper, a Polish Jewish Communist who worked for Soviet intelligence and indeed organized the Soviet espionage network in Western Europe when it was occupied by Hitler, performing incredible feats in behalf of the Red Army battling against the Nazis, has also written about the Communist experience. Some of it dovetails neatly with the Dennis book. He lived in the same Comintern Hotel Luxe in Moscow where Peggy and Gene Dennis lived. On his return to Moscow after his war service he “sat” ten interminable years in Soviet jails. After Stalin died he was exonerated of any kind of “guilt” and allowed to return to his family in Moscow. He tells how he is reunited with his sons, but they cannot recognize him. He says to his oldest son, “I am your father. Ten years ago I returned to Russia, and for ten years I have been in prison. I have just been released and brought here to you—Do you have any questions to ask me?” His son replies: “Only one, Why were you sentenced? In this country, innocent people don’t spend ten years in prison.”



The subject matter of all these books has acquired an insistent timeliness, whatever the shortcomings of the books themselves. Commentators and statesmen debate Eurocommunism. The discussion goes on and on about Communists in America after World War II, when they became the excuse for the blight of McCarthyism. Some value may be wrung from the Gornick and Mitford books because there are Americans who will discover that Communists were real live people, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases. From all four books there comes a realization that the 1956 revelations by Nikita Khrushchev about the horrors of Stalinism inaugurated a deep and endless crisis of Communism.

Of the four authors, only Trepper confronts the issue. He writes: “We wanted to change man, and we have failed. This century has brought forth two monsters, fascism and Stalinism, and our ideal has been engulfed in this apocalypse.”

If an insoluble crisis developed among Communists in the middle 1950s, we still must face up to a great paradox: there is every reason to believe that Communist power, in the Soviet Union, China, and Communist satellite nations will be with us for a long time. And Communist movements will flourish in certain West European countries.

Much of the current discussion of Eurocommunism leaves more questions than it answers, because it pays too little attention to the central factor that emerged in 1956: a Communist rebellion against Communist tyranny. That is the origin and essence of Eurocommunism. True, there were precursors of Eurocommunism that go back to the founding days of Italian Communism. But to understand the quality and direction of Italian Communism under Berlinguer is to know, above all, the crisis that swept over Communist movements in 1956. The early signs of that crisis first appeared when the tyrant died in 1953. But it flared up everywhere in the Communist world after Khrushchev’s speech in February 1956.

If the Spanish Communists under Santiago Carrillo have moved further than any other CP toward revising the tenets of both Leninist and Stalinist tyranny, it is because the Spanish Communists have carried even further than the Italians the evaluation of Stalinism, and to an extent of Leninism, begun by Togliatti in Italy in 1956. This was the same analysis conducted in the middle ’50s by the John Gates faction of the American CP. In 1956 Togliatti criticized the circular reasoning that the Soviet Communists applied to the Stalin phenomenon. Stalinism was the fault of the “cult of the individual”; Stalinism and Stalin were the fault of Joseph Stalin. Togliatti suggested that this was a mockery of Marxism, let alone of common sense, the latter being far more powerful a force for reason and logic than the former. The revisionism of Togliatti in Italy was applied rigorously by Gates in America and then extended into the experience of the Spanish Communists under Carrillo.

This revisionism was deepest in Spain, but more massive and meaningful in Italy, and no more than a facade in France. The French Communists under George Marchais adopted “Eurocommunism” and unanimously “rejected” the dictatorship of the proletariat in the same way that they had accepted Stalinism and the dictatorship of the proletariat before.



From the storms that blew over the Communist countries and through the Communist movements in 1956 came a reaffirmation of a basic fact of contemporary political experience—there’s a “Kronstadt” in every Communist movement. There was a rebellion against the Soviet regime by the workers and sailors of the Kronstadt naval base in 1921. It was not an antisocialist rebellion, as the Communists said at the time. It was a defense of the promises of the 1917 revolution in Russia. It was a protest against the betrayal of those promises that were made immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power. It was a rebellion against Lenin and Trotsky. This, too, bears emphasis because many who come to the study of Communism in a scholarly manner and with high ideals come with illusions about the purity of Leninism as compared with the absolute tyranny of Stalinism.

Some 15,000 Kronstadt sailors and workers demonstrated on March 1, 1921, in solidarity with some of the demands of the workers of Petrograd who were striking not only for economic demands but for free elections to factory committees and soviets. The demands of the Kronstadt demonstration were also for new elections to the soviets by secret ballot and with unrestricted political freedom. They demanded freedom of assembly and liberation of political prisoners, because by this time there were more dissident socialist prisoners in Soviet jails than supporters of the bourgeoisie. They demanded the right of peasants to own their own land and the right of all workers and peasants to assemble, to organize, to agitate—to receive the freedom that was promised to them

True, there is an enormous gulf between the theory and practice of Lenin and of Stalin. But it did not prove to be an unbridgeable gulf. Lenin and Trotsky ordered the machine-gunning of the Kronstadt rebels. Suppression feeds on itself. Only days after the Bolshevik seizure of power the opposition press was banned as “poisoners of the mind of the people.” A rereading of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World might cause some wonder among those who were enthusiastic about Reed and about Trotsky’s explanation that “the closing of the newspapers is a legitimate measure of defense.” How scornful the Leninists were of such Bolsheviks as Karelin who protested the suppression of newspapers with these prophetic words: “Three weeks ago the Bolsheviki were the most ardent defenders of the freedom of the press… The arguments in this resolution suggest singularly the point of view of the old Black Hundreds and the censors of the Czarist regime—for they also talked of ‘poisoners of the mind of the people.'”

So it was that the early but burgeoning tyranny of Lenin and Trotsky (only a few concentration camps, only hundreds and then several thousand killed in reprisals) became the monstrous tyranny of Stalin.

The 1950s saw many “Kronstadts,” notably in East Germany, in Poland, above all in Hungary. On October 23, 1956, student demonstrations in Budapest led to the placarding of the city with demands for evacuation of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil, elections by secret ballot in the Hungarian Workers’ party, and a long list of requirements adding up to a free and democratic socialism for Hungary. The uprising that followed was as spontaneous and broad-based as the revolution that overthrew the Czarist regime in Russia in March, 1917. Nevertheless, both Jessica Mitford and Peggy Dennis view the Hungarian uprising as a dark manipulation of “fascist” forces. The extraordinary thing about the 1956 events was the extent of support from workers in the most farflung parts of Hungary. But in the Mitford version of “a fine old conflict,” she prettifies the regime against which the entire Hungarian people arose in 1956.

More than two decades after the Hungarian Communists themselves had admitted that their pre-1956 regime was a police state in which first Rakosi and then Gero ruled with an iron fist and with the secret police as the major instrument of political repression, Mitford writes of her 1955 visit to Hungary and reaffirms “everything we saw of socialist accomplishment.” She rereads her dispatches to the People’s World and finds them—not misleading, not refuted by events that horrified democrats and socialists—merely “rather tedious.” Mitford is still enthusiastic about the “exhilarating experience” of discovering the sumptuous food enjoyed by the collective farmers. Her husband Bob, born in Hungary, “was particularly struck by the evident prosperity and sense of progress we found everywhere.” No less than “everywhere.” Shortly after they left, the people rebelled—everywhere. True, Mitford attempts an explanation, the Hungarian people were “manipulated by the CIA from without and counterrevolution from within.”

On a Potemkin tour Mitford might not have been able to see everything as it was then in Hungary. But here it is, 21 years later when she should have been able to go back and review Hungary’s tragic history, and all she sees is confirmation that the Hungarian Freedom Fighters were “grasping, neo-fascist types.” “Fascist” types, such as Anna Kethly, the Hungarian socialist leader who declared in November when Russian tanks were ranging everywhere to put down the rebellion: “The Hungary of tomorrow will be a socialist state…. We must be watchful so that the results of the Revolution do not disappear, as was the case in 1919.

Though she admits that terrible revelations were made by Khrushchev, Mitford stands by the “socialist” achievements of pre-1956 Hungary despite everything that even the current rulers of Hungary have admitted. As to the prosperity that she and Bob saw in 1955, she could have used some of the 22 years since that visit to research what both the Russian and Hungarian Communists divulged about the declining economic standards brought about by the Stalinist pre-1956 regime. Rakosi and other Hungarian leaders had been summoned to Moscow after Stalin died in 1953. The Hungarians could say little when the Russians accused them of bringing the Hungarian economy to the verge of collapse.

Peggy Dennis takes strong exception to the denunciation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 by the Daily Worker under the editorship of John Gates. She admits that the struggle of the Hungarian people had started as a “people’s rebellion” but then adds that “the fascist elements grouped around Cardinal Mindszenty had turned the people’s rebellion into a blood bath.” Dennis complains that the Daily Worker at the time did not provide a “factual analysis” of what was happening in Budapest. This brings us to a fascinating failure of both Mitford and Dennis to review some of the factual information the Daily Worker and the People’s World were getting from Budapest in that fall of 1956. First of all, the London Daily Worker correspondent in Budapest at the end of October, Peter Freyer, had refuted the reports of a fascist counterrevolution. He did note that many of the secret police who were universally hated had been killed during the uprising, but that this had in no way deprived the uprising of its popular character; it only pointed up the universal feeling about a secret police that had even pulled out the fingernails of Janos Kadar, later installed as the head of the Hungarian government by the Russians.

But even more intriguing is the correspondence that came to the Daily Worker and People’s World from Freyer’s successor, Sam Russell, who covered the events in Budapest after the second Soviet tank invasion starting on November 4. Russell was chosen because of his political reliability and indeed he remained in the British CP long after these events. But he was a reporter, and he was with the Hungarian workers at the huge Csepel and Dunapentele steel and machine works. He sent dispatches describing the Budapest workers’ councils as the real and unanimous representatives of all the workers. He wrote about a strike without a single scab as an example of worker solidarity such as he had rarely seen anywhere else in the world. He tried to put the best face possible on the Russians, and in one dispatch he described a worker delegation that had gone to the Russians to negotiate and though the Hungarians remained unpersuaded, they suggested that possibly “the devil was not as black as he was painted.” This was a loyal British Communist writing about the Soviet fatherland as a devil, if perhaps not quite as terrible as pictured. What a pleasure it was for the Daily Worker editor, Gates, and for his foreign editor, myself, to spread the dispatches from the Csepel factories across five columns above the masthead. Here was a class struggle and a national liberation struggle in all its glory. But drowned in blood.

It is instructive to see how Vivian Gornick manages to cast those who supported the Hungarian rebellion and sought to eradicate Stalinism from the American CP as the ugly Communists who did not manage to maintain the “wholeness,” the “passion” and the “moral imagination” of the clear-cut hero of her interviews. The hero of her “romance” is called Lanzetti. His “Marxism,” she writes, “is, indeed, not so much a political doctrine as it is a philosophical perspective, a piece of truth that lives inside him with such sure knowledge it is not necessary for him to sacrifice reality to theory.” Truth? Reality? On the page before, Gornick writes about Lanzetti:

For, if you meet him today and in his presence you attack the Party or Stalin or the Soviet Union, he flies into a passion and cries: “Don’t talk to me about the atrocities of Stalin! He only killed Russians! We kill everyone. Don’t talk to me about Vietnam, the energy crisis and Watergate, and then dare to tell me what is wrong with the people and the Party and the movement that I represent and will belong to with honor as long as I live.

Quite apart from the incongruity of comparing Stalin’s killing of millions with America killing “everyone” there is the “technical” matter of Stalin killing only Russians. In the Luxe Hotel where Trepper lived and where Gene and Peggy Dennis lived, Stalin killed Finns and Poles, Italians and French. Germans and Spaniards, and the list could go on until we exhausted all the “national” parties affiliated with the Comintern. It has been accurately noted that Stalin killed far more Communist leaders and far more rank-and-file Communists than Hitler did. Trepper describes how Stalin ordered the murder of every member of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist party! He tells how Togliatti sat on the Comintern tribunal that condemned Bela Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Communist revolution of 1919, to die as an imperialist spy.



What then can be gleaned from these books about the Communist experience? From the Gornick book, precious little. You wouldn’t even learn the name of the organization when it was transformed under Browder; she got that wrong. Her chronology is all wrong. The reader of the Mitford book would learn as little about CP history and politics, but a little bit more of what an experience it was to fight for Negro rights and to go to the Deep South in the fight to save the life of Willie McGee.

What then was the Communist experience? Obviously, it had to be many different things. It included high idealism and passion, self-sacrifice, and often a great brotherhood among its adherents.

But when examining the Communist experience, far more emphasis should be devoted, I think, to the rebellion of the Communist when confronted with the betrayal of his ideal, more accurately, when the Communist perceives that betrayal. Call it revisionism, a Kronstadt, Titoism, nationalism, workers’ control, democratic centralism, the Workers’ Opposition, self-determination. Call it the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, the Czechoslovak struggle in 1968, the German workers battling Soviet tanks in 1953, the children of Moscow fighting Beria’s police troops in the streets on the day of Stalin’s funeral. Call it revolt of the damned at Kolyma, call it Trotskyism, Bukharinism, a right-wing, a left-wing, a left-cum-right deviation. Call them Djilas, Mikhailov, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Scharansky; call them the bearers of wreaths to Chou En-lai’s memorial; liquidators, economists, even God Seekers. Call it whatever you will, there is this built-in spark of rebellion against Communist tyranny and betrayal in almost every Communist heart.

What are the great moments in the experience of this former Communist? One such moment is half-described in Peggy Dennis’s book. She tells about an article her husband had written for the Daily Worker in 1956; more important, it was written for and appeared in Moscow’s Pravda. It was a careful, oh so restrained criticism of Stalin. But Peggy Dennis censors the account of that article as it appeared in Pravda. The Communist world had learned a few days after Stalin died that one of his crimes had been the murder of the entire top ranks of the Soviet Union’s Yiddish writers.

The very first foreign Communist article critical of Stalin ever to appear in the Soviet press was written by Eugene Dennis. Making every effort not to offend the then Soviet leaders, who themselves were up to their ears in Stalin’s terror, Dennis wrote of “the shocking crimes and crass violations of socialist law and ethics.” He condemned “the use of tortures, rigged trials … and snuffing out of lives of more than a score of Jewish cultural figures.” But even at that time, after Stalin, the word Jewish was an alarming sign of impending heresy to those who had survived in Soviet leadership. So, in printing the Dennis article, Pravda cut out the reference to the murder of all the leading Jewish literary figures!

But Dennis never complained about this censorship. Nor does Peggy Dennis, 21 years later, summon up the candor or courage to relate how Pravda mutilated her husband’s article. She gets around that episode by omitting the fact that Pravda reprinted it.

What pleasure it was for me, then foreign editor of a Daily Worker edited by John Gates, to write about the phrase that Pravda eliminated from the article. “If the charge was untrue, all Pravda had to do was to deny it . . . Deleting the phrase from Dennis’s article solved no problems for Pravda or for anyone else. It only compounds the wrong that was done in the first place. Candor, not suppression, is called for.”

Which illuminates an aspect of “Kronstadt” that makes it such a stunning part of the Communist experience. When Vivian Gornick presents her scurrilous portrayal of her arch villain, the man she calls Bitterman, the man who wanted to deprive her of the “romance of Communism,” she quotes him as saying, “The things we did, the lies we told . . .” Gornick also quotes Richard Crossman as an early culprit in this regard, for he had written: “Once the renunciation has been made, the mind, instead of operating freely, becomes the servant of a higher and unquestioned purpose. To deny the truth is an act of service . . .” What is one to make of such sentences, Gornick asks? What one should make of them is, indeed, that those sentences quite accurately describe the minds of Pravda’s editors, of Dennis and, sadly, of Peggy Dennis even now. If there were truly ecstatic moments in the Communist experience they came when the mind was suddenly freed from the obligation to conform to a “higher” verity. That was why 1956 was such a singular year for many of us.

For thousands of others it had come earlier. What a wonderful time it was for some who spoke their minds when the Moscow trials took place in the ’30s! If nothing else, freeing one’s mind at that time spared many Communists the necessity of accepting the proposition that Bukharin had tried to assassinate Lenin.

What could have been a better time than the year when Molotov told the Communist world that fascism was “a matter of taste,” when Stalin leered at the world standing by the side of Herr von Ribbentropp? What better moment for mind and conscience than the time when the Nazi-Soviet pact unleashed World War II? And what is one to make of a book such as Gornick’s, which cannot fathom the gulf between a free and sovereign mind and one that is the servant of a “higher and unquestioned” purpose?

How suitable the phrase, “renunciation of the mind” in the light of Peggy Dennis’s Moscow experiences. She arrived there with Gene, who was to work in the Comintern, in 1931, She quickly discovered that an iron curtain separated foreign Communists from Soviet citizens, except those at the Luxe. “No one could give me a plausible reason why this was so,” she writes. She and Gene developed warm friendships with others at the Luxe. These included “Boris” a China expert, “Bob” whose specialty was India, Boris’s wife “Musa,” on the faculty of the Soviet Institute of Red Professors, and Bob’s wife “Valerie” who was studying at a Party school.

Gene and Peggy finally left Moscow, but they were back for more in 1937. This time they could find no trace of Boris or Musa, Bob or Valerie. Only on her third visit to Moscow in 1941 did she see Valerie walking in her direction on Gorky Street. “I started to greet her warmly, but she passed me with a slight flicker of recognition,” Peggy writes. She then implored her comrades to tell her what had happened and she learned that Bob had been executed. Boris and Musa disappeared never to be seen among the living, and Valerie must not be approached. “I was told for her sake to leave her alone.” Why was all this happening? Peggy Dennis discovered that, “In the purges of the Comintern in 1937 and 1938, the very international activity and foreign travel demanded by the Comintern became the basis of charges of “foreign agent” that sent hundreds of Soviet and European Comintern workers to labor camps and firing squads.”

Peggy Dennis’s friends were murdered in the ’30s, 20 years before the Khrushchev speech. Peggy learned about that in Moscow at the time but she had made that renunciation of mind, that relinquishing of conscience, and there was always Gene to explain it to her. If there are mysteries that Gornick must probe it is not the Crossman quote, but how people accepted such renunciation of mind.

Trepper rejects the notion that his was a wasted life. He feels pride and satisfaction for the part he played in the war against the Nazis. But his book and his experience is sharply distinguished from those of Gornick, Mitford, and Dennis. Trepper heaps scorn on those Communist leaders who feigned astonishment after the 20th Congress in 1956. He calls to account all who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine; all, he says, are collectively responsible. And he writes, “I am no exception to this verdict.”

Within the Soviet Union in the ’30s, Trepper says, only the Trotskyists can lay claim to the honor of having resisted. “By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.”

Though an ever advancing socialization of life imposes social responsibility and social action on the individual, it is the person who remains essential and sovereign. Brought to a violation of the human condition and of human rights the individual, even the Communist as individual, discovers that “the only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.” And Communists will harbor ever new “Kronstadts” because, “Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” whether or not he knows that the words are those of John Stuart Mill.


Download the full article as a PDF