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No, We Should Not Admire Communists for Their Passion

Vivian Gornick’s oral history of American communism is meant to help inspire today’s radicals. They should instead take it as a warning.
April 7, 2020
No, We Should Not Admire Communists for Their Passion
Women members of the Communist Party Majority Group celebrate May Day in New York City, 1930. (George Rinhart / Corbis / Getty)

The Romance of American Communism
(paperback re-release)
by Vivian Gornick
Verso, 265 pp., $19.95

Vivian Gornick, now 84, is experiencing a literary renaissance. Not since her bestselling memoir Fierce Attachments was published in 1987 has she received so much attention. The New York Times Book Review recently placed that book at the very top of a list of the best memoirs of the past 50 years. Her latest book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and two of her many other books have been reissued: last month, an e-book of her 1997 essay collection The End of the Novel of Love and now a new paperback of her 1977 oral history, The Romance of American Communism. In the past few months, Gornick has been the subject of articles appearing in several major magazines: Alexandra Schwartz’s profile in the New Yorker, Nora Caplan-Bricker’s in New York Magazine’s The Cut, Lana Dee Povitz’s in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and John Freeman’s in LitHub. And this past Friday her new introduction to The Romance of American Communism was published on the New York Review of Books website. It is a remarkable burst of attention in such a short time period.

In an email publicizing Gornick’s new introduction on the NYRB website, the NYRB’s Matt Seaton explains that The Romance of Communism “spoke to me anew, and as powerfully, for the poignant nobility Gornick found in her subjects.” Admitting that the Communists’ ideology had “fatal flaws,” he argues that “their sense of higher purpose, of solidarity, of sacrifice for a cause were nevertheless inspiring.” To Mr. Seaton I say that there are many individuals who are just as passionate in the causes they fight for, such as those active today in the pro-life movement. They, and other supporters of causes that the left abhors, feel the same kind of solidarity that the Communists felt: Their cause defines their lives and they feel wholeness in actively working for the American people to adopt their way of looking at the world. Does he accept that passion, and hence would he praise them and ignore what they are working for? Somehow I doubt it.

Vivian Gornick (Courtesy Verso Books)

It is strange, moreover, that this particular book has received so much attention, when Gornick’s others are more important and show that she is an excellent writer. As Caplan-Bricker notes, “Of all the books she has in the offing, the one receiving the most buzz in literary circles is a reissue of Romance.” Povitz offers a reason as to why the book is being published now in a new edition: It seeks “to close gaps in understanding between activist generations,” and particularly to “build a literary bridge between American communists and later generations of political radicals.” Gornick’s goal, Povitz writes, is “to use her own experience to illuminate the truth as she saw it—that, while it operated, communism allowed people to become more than the sum of their life’s parts.”

Indeed, Gornick exalts Communists’ passion. Every Communist she knew “experienced a kind of inner radiance: some intensity of illumination that tore at the soul.” In the end it “twisted them down” and left them bereft.

Gornick experienced this romance firsthand, having grown up in the Bronx “in a leftwing home where the Daily Worker was read, worker politics (global and local) was discussed at the dinner table, and progressives of every type regularly came and went.” They were largely (Ashkenazi) working-class Jews, most of whom were Communist Party (CPUSA) members or fellow travelers like her parents.

She was 20 in 1956 when the Khrushchev report came out revealing Joseph Stalin’s crimes. Gornick had had her doubts about the party and its dogma for years, but this was the last straw. She vehemently argued with her mother and her aunt; her mother was confused but her aunt “remained adamantly Stalinist.” Finally, Gornick let loose:

“Lies!” I screamed at my aunt. “Lies and treachery and murder. A maniac has been sitting there in Moscow! A maniac has been sitting there in the name of socialism. In the name of socialism! And all of you—all these years—have undone yourselves over and over again in the service of this maniac. Millions of Russians have been destroyed! Millions of Communists have betrayed themselves and each other!”

To write the book, Gornick traveled the country and interviewed many Communists and ex-Communists. She wanted to know how being in the party had shaped their lives and to understand the “emotional meaning of [their] political experience.” Her questions to these individuals—whom she gives pseudonyms in the book—were intended to reveal “the extraordinary political experience that their lives both embrace and illuminate.” In this she was successful, but by focusing on their emotional experience for good or ill she neglected to put their stories in a larger political context.

At the time of its original publication, Gornick’s book and her approach to the subject received many critical reviews including those in Commentary, the Nation, the New Leader, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times. Gornick writes in her new introduction that she was very upset, to put it mildly; she tells Alexandra Schwartz that the reviews “shocked and frightened” her. Gornick was reluctant to have the book reissued. She believes that it was written badly and says she was only “persuaded against my better judgment” to allow the new edition to be published.

Gornick singles out four reviewers—she calls them “intellectual heavyweights”—whose assessment of Romance really bothered her: Irving Howe, Theodore Draper, Hilton Kramer, and me. (I am proud to be in such illustrious company.) We were, Gornick writes, “all violent anti-Communists.” One would think that by now, even Gornick would realize that being strongly opposed to Communism is not a bad thing. Moreover, my review appeared not in a right-wing publication, but in the pages of the Nation (see “Life of the Party,” Jan. 28, 1978), then a publication of liberals and the moderate non-Communist Left. Undoubtedly, Gornick expected better than I had given her in a leftist publication. (Ironically, Theodore Draper wrote me a note saying that he didn’t understand how I could put up with the book and be so nice to her.)

To Gornick, Communists were most often doing good, while anti-Communists were—and are—beyond the pale. She argues that the esteemed writers whose essays filled the old best-selling book The God That Failed were “committing human falsifications.” There is, she claims, a “teeming, contradictory life” behind the word “Stalinism.” The anti-Communists, however, made “the J. Edgar Hoovers of this world nod with pleasure.” Perhaps they did. Nowhere does Gornick point out that there were both liberal and left-wing anti-Communist movements, each with its own passionate members. Just because Hoover was an anti-Communist doesn’t mean that there weren’t good reasons to be one.

Perhaps I was too critical in 1978, although re-reading my review in the Nation, I see nothing particularly hostile in making a judgment about a book in which the author did not discuss the Communist Party’s actual policies and goals, writing only about what she called its members’ “humanizing” “journey.” It struck me as “sentimental emoting” and “passion without politics.” I indeed called her thesis “ludicrous,” because I thought—and still think today—that it was American Communists’ passion that allowed them to support a monstrous totalitarian regime and to find rationales to justify everything done by Stalin and his successors. Moreover, it was their very passion that drove their commitment to the party, with all its damaging consequences.

In her new introduction, Gornick has seemingly reconsidered her initial approach. She makes points that agree with much of the criticism the other three reviewers and I made in the ’70s, writing that while the party inspired ordinary men and women to live passionately and “made life feel large: large and clarified” it also turned them into

true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith. . . . The CPUSA was a dues-paying member of the Comintern (the International Communist organization run from Moscow) and as such, it was accountable to the Soviets who intimidated communist parties around the world into adopting policies, both domestic and foreign, that most often served the needs of the Soviet Union. . . . As a result, the CPUSA turned itself inside out, time and again, to accommodate what American communists saw as the one and only socialist country in the world they were required to support at all costs.

Gornick now makes major concessions:

To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was . . . legitimate; to write about it romantically was not. Romantically insured that the complexity of my subjects’ lives would not be explored; there would be no presentation of the branch leader who loved humanity yet ruthlessly sacrificed one comrade after another to party rigidities; or, equally, the section head who could quote Marx reverentially by the hour, then call for the expulsion of a CP member who had served watermelon at a party; or, worse yet, much worse yet, the party organizer who forced some directive originating in the Soviet Union on a local labor union when, clearly, that directive meant a betrayal of its membership.

Gornick’s problem is that she would have it two ways. She wants to be critical of the Communists and says, as in the passage quoted above, essentially the same thing all her critics said. Yet she also still wants to say that the Communists were heroes and should be emulated by today’s radicals and socialists.

As Irving Howe wrote in his 1978 review, even when the Communists were wrong, to Gornick, “they were more passionate, more committed, than other people . . . ‘they feared, hungered, and cared more.’” Balancing the good and the bad, Gornick concludes that the passion is what counted, and hence, the Communists’ politics can be, if not excused, at least ignored.

Had Gornick not been invested in her overarching argument about the romance and passion of communism, she might have said more about the many Communist Party members who were expelled for “white chauvinism,” the term used by the party for racism. These accusations were usually unjust, used to boot competitors for positions out of the party or to make one seem more serious and thus worthy because he could make such a charge, although he and others knew it was false. Many lives of committed rank-and-file party members were ruined. Gornick mentions this practice, and rightly condemns it, but only very briefly.

One of the people Gornick should have interviewed—but did not—was the ex-Communist and former party journalist Joseph Starobin, who died in 1976. His book American Communism in Crisis was published in 1957, twenty years before Gornick’s. Had she read it, she would have found evidence of how obeying every twist and turn demanded by Moscow destroyed the lives of some of the party’s once-most-trusted members.

For example, Starobin tells the story of John Lautner. During the Second World War, Lautner had served in the O.S.S. (forerunner to the CIA), and after the war, he held a leadership position in an important New York City branch of the Communist Party. After a party trade-union leader, Louis Weinstock, visited Communist Hungary, he came back to the United States with reports that during a purge of Jewish Hungarian government officials, some of the accused supposedly fingered Lautner as a spy for the FBI or CIA. Then this happened:

[Lautner] was lured to Cleveland, confronted with the charge, threatened with a revolver, and interrogated at length by a group of most trusted figures in the Party’s security apparatus, but he continued to deny his guilt. [These interrogators threatened to kill Lautner if he did not admit that he was an FBI officer or CIA agent.] Thereafter he was expelled. He was publicly charged with treachery and suffered total ostracism. Lautner’s wife left him—more faithful to the Party’s dictates than to her husband.

There is not much romance in the reality of Lautner’s grim and grotesque story.

Gornick mentions in passing the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, calling their prosecution and 1953 execution part of “one of the most repressive periods in American history.” But two decades after Gornick’s book was originally published, we received definitive evidence—in the first release of the Venona Papers in 1995—confirming that Julius Rosenberg, with his wife’s knowledge and participation, had given Moscow top-secret military information, including atomic secrets stolen from Los Alamos.

In the 1950s, the CPUSA had made the case that the Rosenbergs were innocent, and for more than two years the large movement to stop their death sentence and demand a new trial became the major work of the party. As one Communist told me, “The party pulled out all the stops” to free the couple. The campaign and the propaganda used by the party was developed for it by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), and served to call attention away from the actual purge trials and frame-ups taking place in the Eastern European satellite states of Moscow, which, as in Hungary, had Jews as a majority of their falsely accused victims.

Party members gave up all other concerns to make the Rosenbergs their main action until the day the couple—“the sacred couple,” Communist Party leader Gus Hall referred to them years later—went to their deaths. I wonder how many of the party members still alive after the Venona revelations felt betrayed to learn that Moscow used their passion and commitment in the service of a lie.

It is worth taking a moment to look closely at Gornick’s interviews with and comments about the Communist Party leader to whom she gave the pseudonym “Eric Lanzetti.” It was apparent to anyone on the left when her book first came out that the figure she was talking about was Carl Marzani, a man well known to the entire “progressive” left in the New York City area. She calls him an “intellectual of the Left.” Her strong feelings for him are quite clear in what she writes; she makes him the hero of her book. In fact, she partially dedicated the book to “the spirit of Carl Marzani.” What she didn’t tell her readers, although she owed them this truth, is that at the time she was writing the book she was having a very public intimate relationship with Marzani.

“There is about Eric Lanzetti,” she writes, “a remarkable wholeness of being; he is the most perfectly integrated Communist I know. Everything he has learned in a long eventful life . . . flows into his politics.” And “conversely, the live nature of his politics informs the character of his personal life, tempering his daily judgements, widening the scope of his relationships, making all things human intensely interesting to him.”

Marxism for Marzani is a “piece of truth that lives inside him with such sure knowledge it is not necessary for him to sacrifice reality to theory.” He is, indeed, one whose Marxism is “the personification of his sense of Communism as a live, changing, responding force metaphorically akin to a force of nature.” No other subject of her book receives such adulation. Now readers of this review know why he was the hero of Gornick’s book—although it is striking that this fact remains unacknowledged even in her new introduction to the reissued book.

Gornick tells us that fighting in the Spanish Civil War “politicized” Marzani and made him a Marxist. Back in New York in 1938, he became a section organizer of the CPUSA for the important Lower East Side in New York City. In 1941, the party made him head of a Popular Front organization which Gornick does not name. He was so successful as a party organizer, she writes, that “everyone on the Lower East Side knew the Communists, and the Communists knew everyone plus.” His party section “was powerful enough during the Thirties” that it “could veto the Democratic Party’s candidates for any local office on the Lower East Side.”

During the Second World War, Marzani worked for the O.S.S. (He was hired by O.S.S. director William Donovan himself; Donovan purposefully recruited many Communist Party members, since they had ties with European Communists that could prove helpful in fighting the Nazis.) In 1947, Marzani became “famous overnight,” as Gornick puts it, when he was indicted for having lied under oath when he worked with the O.S.S. and later the State Department. (As Marzani’s Wikipedia entry tells us, he “was indicted for defrauding the government by receiving government pay while concealing CPUSA membership. He was convicted on 22 June 1947, but nine counts were overturned on appeal.”) He served most of a 36-month prison sentence. (I remember hearing Marzani sometime around the early 1950s at a fellow travelers event getting a standing ovation when he said that the congressman who had interrogated him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, J. Parnell Thomas, had served time for payroll fraud alongside him in the same federal prison.)

Gornick tells us that Marzani was “a member of the Party for only three years,” yet “his attachment to Communism burns as fiercely today [in 1977] as it did thirty years ago.” Some explained this by saying he must have been a leader in the secret CPUSA underground. She never gives any reason for his apparent departure from the party’s ranks. He even swallowed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, she tells readers, when he knew it was morally wrong. She quotes from an autobiography he never published: The pact, Marzani wrote,  “strengthened my confidence in Stalin’s adroitness,” while it also “eroded my dependence on his ideology.” Marzani would no longer, he claimed, be “a prisoner of my ideology.”

If he actually quit the party, Marzani never acknowledged it. But later, he wrote the very first Cold War revisionist book—We Can Be Friendsin which he argued that the Cold War was the fault of the United States and that Stalin only took the harsh measures he did to save socialism from the American attempt to destroy it. Whether or not Marzani remained formally a party member, he always said he was a Communist and Gornick concludes he was “a Communist with a deep, fluid sense of the spirit of the movement but a developed human distaste for the narrow meanness of its doctrinaire policies.” A more accurate way of putting it would be that Marzani may have been a dissenter in the privacy of his own mind but in public he was a defender of the party and its policies.

When he got out of jail, Marzani started a publishing firm (Marzani & Munsell) and a book club for leftist books called “The Liberty Book Club.” In 1994, the same year Marzani died, ex-KGB officer Oleg Kalugin identified him as an agent whose publishing house had been paid for by the Soviet intelligence agency. The Soviet Union got more than it paid him for—with effects that have continued to ripple into our own era: In 2012, a much-heralded TV documentary about the Cold War by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick was, as I showed in the Weekly Standard, largely a rehash of We Can Be Friends, Marzani’s old book of Soviet propaganda.

In the 1970s, Gornick might have been excused for writing about Marzani as she did. But given what we now know—about him, about the Communist Party, and about the rather simple procedure followed by many Communists of formally quitting their party membership while engaging in Soviet intelligence activities they euphemistically called “secret work”—she has no excuse for not adding this fact to her narrative in the new reissued edition, or at least addressing this matter in her new introduction.

In her short introduction to the new edition, Gornick acknowledges that the Communists were “true believers who could not face up to the police state corruption at the heart of their faith.” She detested the party’s dogma which turned people into apparatchiks. So why then herald them for what they did in the past? Why make heroes of people like Marzani, whom I once heard brag that “the Soviet Union built socialism without the Trotskyists”? Gornick’s conclusion is that, despite all, “the Communists mattered when I wrote about them, and they matter still.” It was their “centeredness” that “glowed in the dark,” that still commands her attention; “it was what made them beautiful, well spoken, and often heroic.” She sees them as part of a necessary evolutionary chain: First came the “visionary socialists of the nineteenth century,” then “the fierce politicalness of the Communists,” and in the 1970s “the unaffiliated Marxist consciousness of contemporary radicals.” Each phase had been necessary in the development of American radicalism, and each had “grown organically out of the other.” They speak directly to our own age, where we still have racial injustice, economic inequality, and other problems that “remain unsolved.”

That is presumably why Verso Books, a left-wing publisher, wanted a new edition. It is meant to be marketed to folks like the 50,000-plus member Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Gornick believes that in “telling the story of how it was done some sixty or seventy years ago,” her subjects can “act as a guide to those similarly stirred today.” If anything, though, her book should act as a warning. The example of the Communist Party is one of sectarianism, the enforcement of doctrine, the demand of total adherence. If DSA members and Bernie Sanders’s devoted followers read Gornick’s book, it will only help them move more quickly to irrelevance.

Gornick’s book is not ultimately about what Communists really stood for—although she does invoke the great causes they supported, like civil rights for African Americans, that are nowadays not in contention. What Gornick honors, however, is not just these good fights. She praises the wholeness they felt when they joined the party; the passion with which they fought for what they believed would be a society in which all were equal; their belief that, despite its horrors, the Soviet Union was the model for the future Communist society. Many of her interviewees, as Irving Howe noted, keep returning to “the emotion of total comradeship,” the feeling of having achieved “wholeness” in their lives. Although she does not explicitly acknowledge this or even seem to think of it, Gornick’s text suggests that joining the Communist movement was in fact similar to joining a religious organization, with mandatory obedience to strict, unchanging rules.

It is obvious why Gornick says nothing about the various party policies that kept changing in the 1940s and through the Cold War—such as the cry that Socialist Party members were “social fascists” during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, only to shift to being their allies when the United States fought alongside the Soviet Union. Nor does she ask her Communist interviewees what they believed during the purge trials of the 1930s in Moscow. To do so would have revealed the passion with which these people fought on behalf of terror and murder.

This is the dissonance of Gornick’s thought. She celebrates her interviewees’ heroic feelings and their sense of commitment and of being more alive when they are loyal and fighting for their movement. But at the same time, she disapproves of what these movements become. She doesn’t really reconcile this contradiction, or even acknowledge that their very passion and commitment led them to unabashedly and without reservation endorse all the murder that Stalin ordered Communists to unreservedly support.

Gornick understands that the “unyielding devotion to Soviet Russia allowed American communists to deceive themselves repeatedly through the 30s and 40s and much of the 50s as the Soviet Union rolled over Eastern Europe and became steadily more totalitarian.” But she seems not to understand that the Soviet Union had by then already become a totalitarian state that was morally the equivalent of Nazi Germany. The USSR was not merely an example of “police state corruption,” as she claims. Indeed, Stalin’s goal of creating Communist nations was meant to expand to Western Europe, by taking over both France and Italy, where the Communists were a strong political force, and for which the Soviet Union gladly financed their activities.

It is not surprising that Gornick ended her original text on the same point with which she concludes her new introduction. She believed in 1977 that the Communist experience was necessary for American radicalism to evolve. That is similar to the position the Polish-born Marxist intellectual Isaac Deutscher took: that Stalin, as evil as he was, took the measures necessary so that decades later, the Soviet Union would become a democratic Communist nation. It’s the old adage—the ends justify the means.

Ron Radosh

Ronald Radosh is a professor emeritus of history at CUNY, and the author and co-author of many books, including A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (with Allis Radosh) and Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Twitter: @RonRadosh.