The Case of Judith Clark
The Case of Judith Clark
How a young New Leftist ended up in prison for murder, and why she should be released.
This story originally appeared in Tablet magazine, and is reprinted with permission.
Emanuel Geltman was one of the founding editors of Dissent magazine, and 30 years ago he told me a story that sheds light on the tragedy, now the continuing tragedy, of Judith Clark, the prisoner. The story had to do with his childhood friend, Joseph Clark, who was Judy’s father.
Manny explained that in Brooklyn in the 1930s, he and a few friends enlisted in the Trotskyist movement. Trotskyism was not a mass movement in Brooklyn or anywhere else. In Brooklyn, the movement consisted largely of Manny and his high school friends, some of whom adopted party names not merely because name-changes were a Trotskyist custom (in order to avoid arrest by the agents of capitalism) but also in order to conceal the embarrassing fact that too many of the comrades were related to one another. The friends admired Trotsky. They believed Trotsky’s message, which was that, in the Soviet Union, Stalin was destroying the Russian Revolution. Their entire purpose was to offer to the working class a Marxist alternative to the stalwarts of the Communist Party, who were the champions of Stalin. And they tried to persuade their friend Joe Clark to join them.
Joe enlisted in the Communist Party instead. The Communists were a substantial movement, well-funded, with a party press and a degree of popular support. And, having taken his side among the Communists, Joe turned against his old friends bitterly, as was his political duty. In the Soviet Union, Stalin was conducting the Great Terror, which was intended to crush or exterminate all of the other currents of the Russian or Soviet left, beginning with the followers of Trotsky, who were accused of ghastly and preposterous crimes; all over the world Communists were required to participate in the same campaign as best they could. Joe Clark, therefore, refused to speak any longer to his old high school friends, and his refusal lasted decades. He prospered in the Communist movement. He became a journalist. He went to work for the Daily Worker. He became the Worker correspondent in Moscow. He became the foreign editor. Those were positions of major responsibility not just in the American Communist Party but in the international Communist movement, given that America’s Communist press circulated everywhere in the Communist world. Joe Clark’s obligation was to present world affairs from the Soviet standpoint and not to deviate significantly from the line—to present world affairs in such a way that Communists everywhere would be able to understand and support. This was not difficult for him to do because he believed in the Soviet Union and in its interpretation of events.
Stalin died in 1953, however, and, three years later, Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, delivered his shocking speech on Stalin’s crimes. Joe Clark and other people at the Daily Worker were astonished to learn what the truth had been—astonished to learn the reality that they themselves, as journalists, had labored to conceal. A large number of people in the American Communist Party were shocked at the revelation, and they left the party—a larger number than had ever been driven out by the McCarthyite persecutions. And Joe Clark was among them. He resigned from the Worker and gave up his party membership, which must have been for him a traumatic decision to make. He reflected on his past. And, after a while, he swallowed his pride and looked up his old teenage friends, Manny Geltman and the Brooklyn Trotskyists.
By that time, the friends had grown into middle age, and they were no longer revolutionary fantasists. They had set their Trotskyism aside, with affection and regret, and they had become democrats of the left. Dissent was their creation—a socialist and liberal magazine dedicated to the labor movement and civil rights and generally the causes of the democratic left, which included, on liberal grounds, the cause of anti-communism. Joe acknowledged to his old friends that, in the past, during the decades when he had refused to speak to them, they had been, in fact, right. Stalin was the enemy of humanity. The Communist movement that supported Stalin had been wrong. He himself had been wrong. But he wanted to correct himself and start anew. The old friends listened. They respected his transformation. They swallowed their own resentments. And they welcomed Joseph Clark, the former foreign editor of the Daily Worker, into their magazine as a writer and as a member of the editorial board. He became Dissent’s leading specialist on Communist topics.
What was the error that had led Joe Clark to devote his most vigorous years to the Communist Party? If you go to the Dissent website (and spend a few very reasonable dollars to access the articles), you can find his own explanations—e,g., in the eviscerating review that he wrote in the summer of 1978 of sentimental books about American Communism by Vivian Gornick and Jessica Mitford. I will offer my own explanation, from a greater distance. Joe Clark and his comrades in the Communist Party were people who entered the Communist movement out of a commitment to political ideals. But they allowed the roar of Communist ideology to drown out their common sense. They could no longer hear the sound of human suffering. The Communist leaders stipulated that it was right and proper to bring many millions of people to their deaths in order to achieve the triumph of the working class, and right and proper to deny that any such thing was going on; the militants of the cause accepted the idea. They could not hear how crazy were the slogans of their own leaders. Stalin murdered more Communists than Hitler ever did, but, as Joe Clark came to recognize, Communists like himself refused to believe anything of the sort. Death had become for them a mechanism, useful for achieving an end. In this way, they lost their own humanity.
On the other hand, as Joe Clark pointed out in Dissent, the members of the Communist movement did not lose their humanity entirely. He and his comrades in the party needed a word from Khrushchev, their own leader, to open their ears; yet once they began to listen, they could, in fact, take in the reality. They were horrified, of course. And they discovered that after many years they had not entirely lost the ability to rebel. They rebelled against their own commitment to the Communist cause. They rebelled against Communism itself. Communism was a mass movement, for a while, but the rebellion against Communism likewise became a mass movement, in time. So Joe Clark returned to his old friends and begged their forgiveness, and he did so because he had returned to his own political idealism, now in a lucid version.
Only, his story veered in a terrible new direction. Manny Geltman recounted to me that in 1969 (I think), Joe approached his Dissent comrades again and told them that he needed their help in regard to his daughter, Judy. She was a student at the University of Chicago, and she had gotten involved in left-wing protests. And the protests had gotten out of hand, and the university authorities had thrown her out and had turned against her. Couldn’t the Dissent people put in a word on Judy’s behalf to the university? The top editor was Irving Howe, who had a contact at Chicago dating back to Trotskyist times. This was Saul Bellow, not formally a Trotskyist himself back in the day, but close enough. Howe spoke to Bellow. And (according to Geltman) Bellow went to the university president and spoke to him on behalf of Joe Clark’s daughter. The president said to Bellow, “No. She’s a bad one.”
Joe Clark’s fate was to see his daughter disappear into the guerrilla mini-faction that emerged from the student New Left, the Weather Underground, and from there into the post-Weather micro-faction, the May 19th Communist Organization, which staged an armed holdup in Nyack, N.Y., in 1981. The purpose of the holdup was to fund a full-scale guerrilla army in the name of revolutionary Communism, with the goal of bringing liberation to, above all, the black people of America—and yet the only result was the murder of a security guard and two policemen, one of whom was the first black policeman to integrate the police department of Nyack. The Ku Klux Klan could not have done better. And Judy Clark, who drove the getaway car, did not manage to get away.
What was the error that led Joe Clark’s daughter into this crime? I have never met her, but I think I understand the error. It was the same error that her father had made. The “revolutionary Communists” had come to believe that death is a mechanism to be used for fanciful goals, and their belief deafened them to the realities. And how had Judy, in particular, arrived at that conjuncture, after her father’s admirable and idealistic self-correction—this shift in his political thinking that must have dominated family life for a good many years? I can guess. I know, at least, how other people with ideas like hers arrived at their view. They arrived at it because their wing of the New Left detested nothing more than Dissent magazine, with its combination of socialism and liberalism, its sobriety, its hostility to Communism, and its rational tone. The children of people who, like Joe Clark, had belonged to the Communist Party in the mid-20th century and then had turned against it—those children, the Red Diaper babies of a certain sort, hated Dissent and the middle-aged liberals and the social democrats with special intensity. They raged at their parents because they believed that in abandoning the Communist Party, the parents had abandoned principle, and the children considered themselves to be the custodians of principle. Therefore they became the champions of random violence and the defenders of various dictatorships around the world, and they goaded themselves into acting on their beliefs. In this fashion, the curse of Communism was handed down from one generation to the next.
Still, as Joe Clark observed, the Communists of his generation retained a spark of idealism and rebellion that allowed them to turn against their own error. And this turned out long ago to be true of his daughter, as well. Over the course of her many decades in prison, she rebelled against her own folly and her own crime. She came to understand that crime is crime; came to understand her own responsibility; came to understand that nothing can be said in her own defense. She adopted the logical consistency and the moral rigor that her father adopted in his anti-Communist articles for Dissent. There is nothing mealy-mouthed about her self-criticisms, nothing that hints of deception or the ambiguities of “but.” You can see this for yourself by looking up the comments she has made to people who have interviewed her—as reported by Tom Robbins in a superb article in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago and more recently in the Nyack News and Views (as interviewed by Jennifer Mancuso). You can see it in an article by Rabbi Felicia Sol in the Forward. Joe Clark, the father, proved the sincerity of his turn against Communism by offering in his contributions to Dissent a discussion of politics and his own errors that offered useful instruction and illumination to the world; the daughter has proved her own sincerity by the consistency and thoroughness of her own observations, which likewise offer instruction and illumination. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, having interviewed her, merely arrived at the view that other people had already adopted—that she was genuinely remorseful, that she had corrected herself. He commuted her sentence and made her eligible for parole because he believed what other people had come to believe even if, as Robbins has observed, there was no political advantage to him in doing so.
The parole board has decided against her, though. Some 10,000 people signed a petition demanding that the board refuse to release her. Relatives of the murdered men demanded that the board refuse. And, on April 21, the board refused. Only, why did those many people insist on a refusal? No one at all seems to believe that Judy Clark’s self-correction is false or thin. The reason to keep her in jail—the reason to ensure that her sentence will be a life sentence—is fidelity to something abstract. The 10,000 signatories want to keep her in jail out of a sense of justice, or of vengeance. It is a principle, for them. But what is the principle? I think it is a principle, implacable and unyielding, that renders people deaf to human suffering. It is a principle without a human element—a principle that chooses to overlook the human face and the details. It is the original sin in this tale of tragedy: heartless cruelty pursued in the name of a severe ideal. It is one more crime, on top of the other crimes—one more crime committed by people who, as they go about committing it, think all the better of themselves.
Paul Berman is author of The Flight of the Intellectuals, A Tale of Two Utopias, and a columnist for Tablet magazine.