The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick review – a flawed masterpiece
Gornick admits that her 1977 oral history, now reissued, has faults. But it’s a brilliant evocation of the exhilaration of conversion and of finding a cause
Fri 1 May 2020
Given how many times Vivian Gornick has elaborated on the faults of her 1977 oral history, The Romance of American Communism, I feel a little unsophisticated for finding it so compelling. The things she has said of the book – that it is “strangely over-written” and that there is a tendency to romanticise – are true. Everyone should have someone in their lives who looks at them the way Gornick looks at her former communists. “I have dark eyes, longish grey hair, and my face even unfurrowed looks anxious,” one tells her before they meet. His “dark eyes are beautiful”, she corrects, “his grey hair poetic, and his unfurrowed indeed anxious face is the face of a man rich with inner life”. This isn’t a book about dangerous revolutionaries or what a communist America might actually have looked like – it isn’t even exactly about politics. Instead it is about people whom Gornick regards as “honest dissenters”, and how communism made them feel. As such, it is far from complete as a history of American communism but it is a fascinating and enlightening contribution to one.
Gornick’s personal investment is upfront and always palpable. These are her people: her parents – Jewish, working class – were fellow travellers, and her memories are of grownups crowded into the kitchen of their tenement apartment in the Bronx, debating long into the night. The rallies, the May Day parades, the canvassing and hawking The Daily Worker:it is a community and a culture that she knows intimately. This familiarity gives her an authority about the lives and the psychology of her subjects; it also makes her instinctively protective towards them.
Membership of the American Communist party peaked in the 1930s and 40s, before going into abrupt decline with Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th congress of the Communist party of the USSR in Moscow in 1956, though it took until the Prague Spring for some of Gornick’s interviewees to make the break. She claims that before then more than a million Americans were communists “at one time or another”. Reading this book, we can understand why.
Some of the most potent recollections are of the desperate and degrading poverty that formed the background to communist activism. In this, the book is partly a history of one country’s failure to acknowledge, or even exist for great swathes of its population. The Communist party gained recruits by appearing to be the only organisation doing effective work. It helped striking Californian farm labourers when the established unions wouldn’t go near them; it infiltrated communities and engaged with their experiences; it took an active stance on such critical causes as the Scottsboro trials. When one interviewee describes witnessing the Centralia massacre of Wobblies in 1919 we begin to suspect that communism seemed viable enough to put one’s hopes in precisely because it was as ruthless and efficient as the powers that crushed milder reform movements.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Most brilliantly evoked, however, is the exhilaration of conversion and the soul-expanding experience of finding a cause. Even in her self-flagellating new introduction, Gornick doesn’t disavow her admiration for her subjects. Their lives, she tells us, were “impassioned by an ideal of social justice … irradiated by a kind of expressiveness that made them feel brilliantly centred. This centredness glowed in the dark: it was what made them beautiful, well spoken and often heroic.” The point is made cumulatively: again and again people speak of the sense of purpose and meaning they derived from being communists; they speak of a process of “becoming” and a sense of “wholeness”: a cohesion between what they believed in and what they poured their life’s efforts into. “It gave me a home inside myself,” one of them tells her, “Inside. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
They describe the democratic pleasures of intellectual engagement, the revelatory introductions to Marx (“like fireworks exploding in your head”), the dawning of new understandings. Communism gave them a way to make sense of their lives and the systems that formed them. In doing so, it gave them a context and a role in history. In the years of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, a politicised life comes across as an imperative of the age. Many felt a moral compulsion to do their part; paradoxically, communism made its converts feel individually significant in a way that the dehumanising forces of unchecked capitalism couldn’t. “Who were we? We were nothing!” one recalls, and yet they were part of a vast international movement that was going to remake society. This is another way of understanding political engagement, one that goes beyond dutifully voting in elections (or referendums) and becomes something that animates your every day. It’s easy to appreciate the thrill of this grand-scale ambition. “Hon,” one woman says to Gornick, “we were in the world-changing business. You can’t get much better than that.”
There are chilling descriptions of trials and mutual surveillance, of old comrades turning against honest dissenters
It would be a mistake to assume that this experience is representative: Gornick’s interviewees were chosen exactly because they shared her sense of the awesome significance of communism in their lives. Being a communist was not always as exhilarating as becoming one. There was drudgery and endless, endless meetings. For all the scope and ambition of the movement, being a party member also required a kind of narrowness. There are chilling descriptions of trials and mutual surveillance, of old comrades turning against honest dissenters. What Gornick calls the “all-in-allness” of membership meant that the party became members’ only frame of reference, enabling a wilful blindness – to the reality of life in the Soviet bloc and the authoritarianism of the party at home, but also to the achievements by other means of movements with which they might have found common cause.Advertisement
Gornick’s own adult life was powered not by socialism but by second wave feminism, and one way to read this book is as a warning to the women’s movement of the 70s. Seeing the invigorating tumult of its early days give way to “feminist dogma”, she tells us, Gornick found herself reconsidering these old radicals of her youth.
Yet feminism has managed to exert influence without control: it may not have converted everyone to a single concept of equality but it has changed the way we think, given us lasting interpretive resources. This book is a testament, too, to the contribution of communists to American life – and to lives dedicated to a romance. Despite its shortcomings, Gornick says that she allowed this reissue as a “guide” for those drawn today to socialism. She has also expressed concern that the book reportedly resonates with younger readers, ie those lacking an appreciation of the cruelty and oppression of 20th century communism. But in our polarised age, when many of the rights and principles we have taken for granted are under renewed threat, it seems little wonder that the idea of politics as a life or death matter (an idea that arguably only the privileged can afford to disdain) no longer seems so distant.
It is striking how often interviewees in this book describe the worst years as the best, as if the hardship and threats of the 1930s and 40s distilled everything that mattered into sustaining, all-encompassing, certainties. “Oh, in those days,” one interviewee recalls, “in those days I had an answer for everything.” Doesn’t that sound nice?