In her book The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick, born into a communist family in New York City in the 1930s, conducts a series of interviews with former Communist Party USA (CPUSA) members in order to understand the experience of being a communist. The book’s second chapter, “They Came From Everywhere,” explores the backgrounds of the communists she interviewed, and specifically the question of how they became communists. As I read through the experiences of communists in the 20th century, I began to reflect on my own political development.
Even though I was born almost a century later than many of the individuals Gornick interviewed, my metamorphosis into becoming a communist was driven by the same feelings and instincts as them. Based on my conversations with friends and organizers, and through reading memoirs by other communists , I believe the process of becoming a communist is almost universal. In this essay, I recount my own journey, which was largely driven by the political and economic crises that have shaped my childhood and adolescence. I then compare my development with some of the figures in Romance of American Communism. In the process, I will explore the themes of enlightenment and disillusionment, and also touch on the organizational problems that led to widespread disillusionment both within the CPUSA and in contemporary organizing.
I don’t think I would be a communist if not for my father. He grew up poor on the outskirts of Boston, and even though he eventually ended up in a cushy office job, he never lost his sense of injustice about the world. I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, and even though my family was middle class, we were on the lower end of the wealth spectrum in my town. Most of my friends and peers had more expensive clothing than me and were able to get new technology when it came out. The other kids I played hockey with always had the latest equipment that rolled off the production line. My dad would always comment on this–noting that these other kids were spoiled and wouldn’t appreciate the expensive equipment and technology that was handed to them. I developed a sense of pride where, even though I couldn’t get everything I wanted, I earned anything I got, compared to my peers. I started working when I was fourteen, first as a scorekeeper for hockey games, and then eventually at a grocery store. When I was sixteen, I went on a student exchange trip to Italy, and all of my peers had their expenses paid for by their parents or grandparents who wanted their children to take a trip to the “homeland.” I, on the other hand, had spent my entire savings I earned through work. Instead of using the few thousand I had saved on a car, I decided to go to Italy, and I was proud that I was the only one there who was actually paying for myself. Of course, not being able to afford a car after the trip meant I was still taking the bus to high school as a senior or badgering my friends for a ride.
While I was always vaguely liberal politically due to my parents, I never actually understood or truly felt conviction in any of my “beliefs.” Politics in general was confusing to me and nothing really made sense. That was, until the buildup to the 2016 presidential election forced my attention. Presidential elections always gathered hype in school, but the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump pushed the hype to a new level, since neither of them were robotic like most politicians.
Since many of my peers jumped on the Bernie bandwagon, I took a closer look into him. I was always a liberal, so I was naturally more sympathetic to someone with his policies. At the same time I was also intrigued by socialism because we had learned about Karl Marx in my English class. Marx was presented as the bourgeoisie likes to present him: “his ideas are good in theory but they can never work in reality.” In my class we read Animal Farm, which was supposed to prove that Marxism reproduces the very inequality it criticizes through an allegory of the history of the Soviet Union. As a sixteen year old, the indoctrination worked. But something about socialism and communism was intriguing to me–I think people are naturally attracted to forbidden fruit. Regardless, Bernie Sanders declaring himself a democratic socialist and proposing things like nationalized healthcare and college made me genuinely believe that he would make America a good country.
Sanders’ loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Primary was a watershed moment. I was so convinced that Bernie was the only hope to change America, and Clinton’s victory obliterated that possibility. Even as a progressive, I knew Clinton was a continuation of the neo-liberal Democratic regime that I had grown to despise. If Bernie was the only hope to change America, then what now? If someone like Bernie can be viciously sabotaged by his own party, then what hope do we have of ever electing a socialist candidate? My response was complete abstention. I wanted no part in an election between Clinton and Trump, and I wanted to make it known how badly the Democrats fucked up.
After the election of Donald Trump, I was bitter and angry because I believed that Bernie would have won. I was angry seeing people claim that Trump was a deviation from American history, while in reality his presidency was a logical development for a racist settler colony. I was angry seeing people claim that Hillary would’ve been better, because for those in countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and many others, it doesn’t matter which politician authorizes the bombs that destroy their countries. The election of Trump marked my break with mainstream American political discourse. I was done with electoralism, the traditional media, the deluded narratives of American history, and bourgeois political parties. That day the myth and prestige of America finally died for me, and not because of Trump himself–I already knew he was a fascist–but because the reaction to his election was so deluded that I knew no one in a position of power would do anything to stop him. I finally saw the transparency and idiocy of liberalism.
Breaking with the myths and prestige of America entails rejecting the dominant notions of the American political project: that America was founded by oppressed people seeking to break free from colonial rule, that America was founded on ideals of liberty and equality in reaction to the tyranny of the British, and that while America may not be perfect, things have gotten better over time. This last point is especially embraced by liberals who believe that suffrage and expanded rights are clear markers of progress. In reality, the American political project was built on white supremacy. America was founded on the genocide of Native Americans, its economy was built on the slavery of black people, the exploitation of the working class, and the subjugation of women; it perpetuates itself through the continued exploitation and oppression of these groups. Rejecting American myths, which liberalism and social democracy maintain, is a prerequisite for any radical.
In the months following, I began to embrace communist thought by researching Marx, Engels, and eventually Lenin. While I didn’t completely understand communist ideas initially, I found them infinitely more appealing than vague liberal ideas. Communist theory allowed me to articulate why I disliked the existing state of affairs, and I grew to embrace the idea of revolution and a communist society. During this period where I began to label myself a communist, I also began taking philosophy classes, and a course on existentialism really influenced me. Existentialism, in general, argues that as individuals we are free to do whatever we want. This freedom entails a certain anxiety because we are too free and there is no definitive guide for action and how to live life. It is up to individuals to figure things out for themselves, and existential theorists offer certain principles to guide us. This philosophy appealed to me because I was frustrated with bourgeois notions of morality and obligation. I was always told how to act, what I should want to do, who I was, etc. The idea that I could do whatever I want and become whoever I want was inspiring.
While reading theory allowed me to articulate why I hate capitalism while providing potential solutions in communism, I think the source of my politics remains my intuitive hatred of injustice that I inherited from my father. Hatred of injustice, inequality, exploitation, and oppression burns deep inside of me, and I don’t think that can ever be extinguished.
Returning to Gornick and The Romance of American Communism, some of her subjects, like myself, became communists by experiencing the injustice and inequality that is intrinsic to life under capitalism. One of these people was Blossom Sheed, who was born in Tennessee in 1909 and moved to California with her parents when she was two. Sheed’s parents had clashing values– her father was smart and unconventional, while her mother was a strict and devout Christian. Her father taught her to believe that she was as good, if not better, than any man. Her mother despised this and dragged the children to Church every Sunday to try to undo what their father had been teaching them. But it didn’t work, and Sheed grew to love her father and hate the Church. When she was eleven years old, she found a copy of The Appeal to Reason, a left-wing paper published in the late 19th and early 20th century, on her father’s desk. Reading it vindicated her own distrust of religion and the church, and set her on her political journey.
Sheed married when she was seventeen, but quickly realized that she didn’t love her husband. They mostly clashed politically and intellectually:
All around me everyone was poor. I mean suffering poor. No matter how hard they saved, no one could get ahead. I couldn't stop asking why. That drove my husband crazy. And my whole family, for that matter. They'd say to me, ‘People are poor because they're lazy or stupid.’ But that didn't sit right with me. I just knew that wasn't true, I just knew too many poor people who weren't either lazy or stupid for that to be true. I said no, and I kept on saying it. ‘No, that isn't why these people are poor. There's got to be another reason.’ My husband wasn't interested in asking why. My asking made him terribly uncomfortable. He wanted to know why I couldn't just help him work, and let things be.
Sheed gave birth to her son the same day the Italian anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed by the state in Massachusetts. She discovered the news as she was being wheeled into the hospital to go into labor, and she was so disturbed that the doctors were worried it would harm the child. When she left the hospital, she decided to walk out on her family. She didn’t respect her husband, and thought she couldn’t be a good mother to her child if she wasn’t committed to the family.
Sheed joined the Co-Operative Movement in Los Angeles, a left-wing populist group. Of course, there were communists involved, and Sheed initially disliked them as they were always critical and claiming actions wouldn’t work.
‘But the Communists were right,’ Blossom sighs. ‘No matter what the Co-Op did it came up against the dead end of capitalist power and production ownership: Salinas Valley strikes, lettuce a penny a head, worker violations, the lot. There was no end to it, and the Co-Op couldn't make a dent.’ Finally, the Communists said to Blossom: ‘If you think we're on the wrong track, join us and make your opinions known.’ She did think they were on the wrong track, she thought despite its failures the Co-Operative Movement was right and that it would be stronger if the Communists would join it wholeheartedly, and maybe the thing to do was to join the Communists and make them see that. She joined the Communist Party in 1932 ‘to change them,’ and remained in the Party for twenty-five years taking, as she says, The Red Veil.
By the time she joined the CPUSA, Sheed had already been an organizer in the International Legal Defense Fund, a party organization that contributed to labor strikes. Sheed became general secretary of the fund, and was intensely involved in the labor struggles of the ‘30s.
Like Sheed, Jim Holbrook also became a communist through the experience of class inequality. Holbrook was born in Nebraska in 1919 to a family of tenant farmers, and his parents worked from dusk to dawn. His father was rebellious and argumentative and passed that down to his sons–every night at dinner they would debate politics, current affairs, art, and local gossip. When he was twelve, the family farm burnt down and the family moved to Kentucky to work as miners. Holbrook was enamored by the mining community and their rebellious spirit. He says,
They didn't know anything about politics, but they were political, all right. They talked about the mines - that is, before they got too drunk to talk about anything - they talked about the bosses, they talked about the Depression . . . like it was some mysterious thing that had been invented back East. And something inside me began listening to them with another ear, one I didn't know was there before. I figured it was a mystery, too, the way we were all living, but I thought: There's got to be some explanation for it, it's not like it's fire or flood, it's people doing this to other people.
The Holbrooks eventually moved to another mining community in West Virginia, and Holbrook and his brother would have long conversations about the mines with people in the town. One day, a miner told him that he sounded like a socialist.
I stared at him, and, I remember, I said real slow, ‘Well, maybe I am one.’ Mind you, I'd heard the word, I hardly knew what it meant, but after that I set out to find out what it did mean. I went to the library, read a book, slammed it shut, and said, ‘By god, that's what I am, a socialist.’ So then I set out to find some people I could talk socialism with. And that led me straight to the Communists. It was 1937, it was West Virginia. The only game in town was the Communist Party… But from the first I felt connected to the world, being in the CP, and I loved and needed that feeling. Why, there I was in West Virginia, for Chrissake. You'd get the Daily Worker, you'd get other CP literature, you'd get all fired up at meetings, why, you felt yourself piped into Joe Stalin! You were at the end of a long line, but you were at the end of a line. I knew what was going on in New York, Moscow, Hungary. I was part of the world. I felt sustained, supported.
Holbrook was in the CPUSA for twenty years, becoming a teacher and organizer. He eventually became disillusioned and left the party because he “began to see that something was wrong in the Party. Just as I had seen that something was wrong with capitalism back in Kentucky when I was a boy.” He came to disagree with the Party’s conception of Marxism and the way the Party treated its members. Regardless, he remained a communist and a Marxist at the time of Gornick’s interview.
My story parallels Sheed and Holbrook’s. Like Sheed, I always questioned why some people were poor while others were rich. Seeing homeless people was deeply unsettling to me as a child. I was so confused as to why some people did not have a home and were left begging in the street. The fact that most people just ignored them as if they didn’t even exist was also disturbing. Why couldn’t someone just offer them a home? Or buy them a meal? Or even just give them some money? I was told that they are usually drug addicts and would use any money they were given to buy more drugs. That explanation did not satisfy me either. Throughout my life, anytime I questioned class inequalities I was mostly told “that’s just the way it is.” Even my parents, who understood the immorality of class relations, believed that it was unfixable and that all an individual can do is make the system work for themself. Only the discovery of communist theory provided me with satisfying answers to my questions, just like Sheed and Holbrook. Only once I learned about communism did I realize that inequality and injustice were intrinsic to capitalism, and that only a revolution throughout society could change things.
While some become communists through observing the brutality of the capitalist system, others, like Ben Saltzman and Dick Nikowsski, become communists through the direct experience of class exploitation. The hub of the CPUSA at its peak in the 1930s was New York City and the Jewish working class. Ben Saltzman, a garment worker in New York, was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900’s. Saltzman’s early years were defined by religious repression:
All I knew was the Lord wouldn't let me play baseball, the Lord wouldn't let me go out with girls, the Lord wouldn't let me live. But I was afraid of my father and the family… I would never have dared say no to my father… I felt myself alone in the family, but I obeyed my father, I went to the synagogue, and inside myself I hated it, and hoped somehow I could escape someday.
During the Great Depression, Saltzman was forced to find a job to help support his family and began working at a men’s clothing factory. He quickly realized that he was being exploited at work and says, “I hated that boss with a passion. That boss… he made me a Communist.”
Saltzman also grew frustrated by union bureaucracy, as he was technically ineligible for his job’s union and thus made less than half the hourly wage of his union counterparts. When he met a union official in his family’s congregation and pleaded for help, he was met with “the time is not right, but we promise it will be soon.” Saltzman made about ten trips back to the union office and was met with the same response every time. Thus, he grew “to hate the unions, too. I saw they would do nothing for the working man, they were going hand in hand with the bosses.”
Saltzman eventually joined a shipping clerks’ union and would regularly attend meetings. He never spoke due to his shy nature, but when workers would say things he agreed with, he would acknowledge them after meetings. One night, three workers who would regularly say the “right” things met up with him after a meeting and told him they wanted to introduce him to some people.
Saltzman grew frightened. Who, after all, were these men? Just workers in the shop. What did he know about them? Nothing. God knew where they were taking him, what they might do with him. But he continued climbing the stairs. At last, they stopped and pushed open a door. Inside a large, bare, badly lit room a group of men sat on hard chairs in a circle. The men from the shop pushed Saltzman forward. One of the men in the circle rose and came forward, his hand outstretched. ‘We are members of the Communist Party,’ he said. ‘We'd like you to join us.”
Saltzman knew if he joined the communists, his family would be terrified. It was a massive commitment for him to make, yet he also knew that the communists were right. So:
I joined them. I put my fear in my pocket and I joined them. And you know what happened? After a while I wasn't afraid anymore. I had the Party and I had my comrades, and they made me strong, strong on my feet. Oh, in those days! In those days I had an answer for everything. Everything! I became outspoken, I could hardly believe it was me talking. In the family, in the shop, among my comrades. I talked! I had opinions. And yes, I knew what I was talking about. The Party sent me to school, I learned. The Party taught me how to demonstrate, in a crowd I didn't lose myself. Everything in my life became one. Everywhere, I was the same person.
Of course, Saltzman is no longer a party member, as the world of the party fell apart after Kruschchev’s secret speech in 1956.
His [Saltzman] mouth trembles, and in a single horrifying instant two coarse tears gather at the inner corners of his eyes, threatening disaster. The tears fall of their own weight and stream down on either side of his nose. ‘Now,’ he says softly, ‘I'm like I was before. Afraid. Afraid of everything. Everything seems always to be falling apart.
Dick Nikowsski was born in Poland in the late 19th century to a peasant mother terrified of her alcoholic husband. Their life was bleak and miserable–all they could do was work, and Nikowsski says the idea of joy was foreign to him as a child. When he was seventeen, he, his mother, and his two siblings emigrated to the United States. But their life wasn’t much better there, as they were still poor and were forced to work in brutal conditions just to survive. On top of that, they couldn’t speak English and were socially isolated. Nikowsski was working sixty hours a week just to survive after finding a job at a slaughterhouse in Chicago. One of his co-workers was a socialist who spoke endlessly about “the bosses,” but Nikowsski usually had no idea what he was talking about and was worried he would get him in trouble. But he liked his co-worker because he sensed his passion, and anytime there was a dispute with the bosses, the socialist would always stick up for the workers.
On one hot, sweltering summer day in the factory, the socialist asked Nikowsski if he knew where the bosses were. He replied “no,” and the socialist showed him a page from the newspaper depicting their bosses at the beach. Seeing the picture transformed Nikowsski:
Suddenly it was as if everything that socialist had been saying all those months clicked into place somewhere in my head, and I saw me behind that picture, I saw me knee-deep in blood and shit all my life so that that picture could be taken. I don't know how to describe it to you, I don't think I even knew what it was that was happening, I certainly couldn't have put it into words, but something came rising up in me, so swift and so strong it nearly took the breath out of my body. I can still feel it, the way I felt it then. As if it was coming right out of the center of me, as if it had been waiting there all that time, all my life, and now it had - just that fast! - run out of time.
Nikowsski eventually moved in with his co-worker and some fellow communists, and they spent their nights having intense discussions about Marxist theory. Becoming a communist changed Nikowsski’s life. Before, his life was gray and the world was dark and miserable. He was depressed and impoverished, and life was a constant struggle that he thought was inescapable. After discovering socialism, his life became rich with meaning and purpose:
It was so exciting it was almost physical pain. I was high all the time. I was discovering I had a mind, I could think, and I was doing it! Not only that, the sheer intellectual joy of reading Marx. . . . You know, that's one thing almost all Communists share, the memory of what it was first like to read Marx, like fireworks exploding in your head, and the love you felt for the human intelligence. . . . God, I have never felt so free in my life as I did 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… And then, too, it was like I was discovering the world for the first time. It was like I'd never seen anything before, and now all of a sudden I was seeing everything. The shapes of the buildings, the way the streets looked after a rain, the expressions on people's faces, the length of the women's dresses, the way Lake Michigan looked different at six in the morning, and then again at noon, and then again at twilight .... As though the world had been a blurred photograph and now suddenly I was seeing a clear print.
Nikowsski and Saltzman became communists through their everyday experience of class struggle. Saltzman realized he was being exploited at work and that the union alone wouldn’t help him, which led him to the Party. Nikowsski realized he was being exploited while his bosses were able to hang out at the beach on a summer’s day.
While I was mostly driven to communism due to the hatred of inequality and injustice that I inherited from my father, I began to experience class exploitation the last few years as a student and a worker. While I have been working from a pretty young age, I still grew up relatively privileged and only ever worked under ten hours a week. I was also able to save all of my earnings since I didn’t have to pay for rent or a car. It was only towards the second half of my undergraduate life that the reality of working full-time and paying off student loans for the next few decades began to dawn on me.
During my junior year, I worked twenty-fours a week at a local coffee chain on top of being a full time student. Usually, there were only two or three of us working at once, and there was a strict no phone policy. Workers were also highly encouraged to do side work if it wasn’t busy, and all of this translated into seven and a half hours of working on your feet, while also being subjected to the whims of high-maintenance customers. That was the most grueling semester I had in college - my life was a constant cycle of working at the cafe, going to class, and doing homework. I made the choice to work in libraries again after that, where there is a lower degree of exploitation, but that semester opened my eyes to the reality of working-class life (and to reiterate, I was still privileged!). One of my coworkers was working two full-time jobs, both in the service industry, and I can’t even imagine how physically exhausting his work life was. Now, I work full-time at a low wage and have to pay off hundreds of dollars of student loans every month, all while paying high rents to live in Boston (which is my own choice, but still).
I believe that the conditions of capitalism intrinsically create the possibilities for one to become a communist. Most individuals become communists through experiencing the effects of capitalism in one way or another (exploitation on the job, high rents, inequality, injustice of all sorts). Étienne Balibar says that “class consciousness is contained in potentia in the conditions which first objectively unify the working class.” Since workers experience the class struggle everyday, the potential for politicization is always present.
However, it takes more than experiencing exploitation to become a communist. After all, if the conditions of capitalism alone created communists, then revolutionary stirrings would be more frequent. In order to become a communist, one must encounter other communists. There must also be some form of organization to maintain one’s commitment, as it’s much easier to commit to an idea when it’s realized in the form of institutions and concrete practices. Saltzman, Nikowsski, and Sheed all encountered other communists and party organizers who helped them onto their path. While Holbrook sought out communism more proactively, there was still a party apparatus for him to join in rural West Virginia. It seemed as if it was easier to become a communist a century ago due to the widespread presence of the CPUSA throughout the country. Any person beginning to question capitalism would inevitably meet a party organizer.
This is why one of the biggest problems for contemporary socialists today is the absence of widespread communist organization. While there are socialists organizations of varying popularity, there really aren’t too many great options for newer communists to organize and learn in. The problem for communists is a lack of organization, and more often than not, the people who claim to be socialists and communists don’t know what to do.
Many of my friends and peers are largely sympathetic towards communism, but most of them are not involved in organizing and struggle to find the time to engage with theory. It’s difficult to prioritize organizing when you’re already busy with work or school, spending time with family and friends, and just having a life in general. One response is that a communist should sacrifice some of their personal life for their politics, but to me that’s not very convincing. It implies that one could live a normal, happy life if they weren’t a communist, and being a communist forces one to sacrifice some of that. But life under capitalism will always be somewhat unfulfilling, exploitative, and alienating, and you can’t live a “normal” life under capitalism divorced from its effects. So the argument communists should make is that individuals are already experiencing class struggle every day: exploitation/burnout at work, unfulfillment and a lack of purpose, and feelings of social isolation. The argument is that it doesn’t have to be this way, as the existing world is not necessary. This, Badiou argues, is the communist hypothesis.
There are also cultural problems within contemporary socialist organizing. Racism has historically divided the left in the United States, and that tension is still felt today. Many left organizations are predominantly white and struggle to recruit individuals of color. Sexual harassment and assault are also pervasive within many socialist organizations, and individuals can become disillusioned from organizing in the process. Burnout is common within the left, as trying to balance organizing with the rest of one’s life can be very difficult. Unfortunately, trauma and disillusionment within organizations are not unique to our conjuncture. Gornick establishes a clear trajectory most individuals in the CPUSA experienced:
- The romance of youth and the discovery of communism via the Party →
- The rigors of party life: putting in the work everyday, no matter how minute, for a cause must larger than oneself →
- Betrayal and disillusionment.
Much of the betrayal and disillusionment came in the ‘50s during the Red Scare when most party members were forced to go underground. Kruschchev’s secret speech in 1956 was the breaking point, as party members were shocked and horrified to learn the model they had been following was a deeply oppressive one. Many individuals were expelled in the aftermath for criticizing the party; most of the individuals Gornick interviewed had left the party by the ‘60s.
For most CPUSA members, communism was about the relationships they formed within the Party and the lifestyle of being a party member. Once these relationships disintegrated, and they were either expelled from the party or left on their own accord, there was no longer a basis for them to believe in communism. While some still maintained a belief in the necessity of communism or socialism by the time of their interviews, many had adopted entirely new political ideologies or became apolitical altogether.
While communism and Marxism are fundamentally different in content from religion, and most attempts to conflate them are done so in a derisive way to claim that communists are brainwashed, there are parallels between them. After all, both communism and religions are forms of ethics which entail their own practices, theories, and institutions. Many former party members that Gornick interviewed (and herself to a degree) were born to parents who were party members and grew up attending party functions, had family and friends who were party-affiliated, and became active in the Youth Communist League. Their entire world was dominated by the Party, and like many of those born into religious families once they grew older they would reject the values imposed on them by their parents. In fact, Gornick observes that those who most dogmatically absorbed party dogma became the most fervent anti-communists after leaving the party. She says,
I have found that those Communists who, consciously or unconsciously, said, ‘This far I go, and no farther,’ live in decent relation to their CP past; whereas, those who were most rigidly orthodox, those who were practically willing to commit murder for the Party, are those who now beat their breasts with a scalding Lady Macbeth-like inner revulsion, reflecting–still–the most neurotic element of idealism as it manifested itself in countless Communists.
Regardless, the following contradiction seems to form in organizations: on the one hand, since communism is defined by its practices, theories, and institutions, party members associate communism with their relationships and experiences in the party. When individuals experience traumatic events in organizations, this can shatter their faith in communism. On the other hand, the CPUSA practiced a very specific interpretation of communism and Marxism–one that was dictated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). There is no necessary correspondence between communism in general and these specific parties, so one could still be a communist while rejecting the practices of an organization.
While there are many lessons to learn from the experiences of twentieth century communists, two in particular stand out to me.
1. It’s necessary to build healthy organizational cultures and practices that encourage opposing points of view, that take interpersonal harm seriously, and develop accountability. There’s always a balance to be found between debate and decisive decision making, as having no debate is unhealthy but having too much to the point where nothing ever gets done is also counterproductive to the organization. In the CPUSA, any internal dissent was stifled at best, and at worst met with potential expulsion. The problem of misogyny has also run rampant within the left both historically and contemporarily, and many organizations or organizational caucuses of DSA have imploded over their failures to adequately deal with cases of harassment or assault. Any form of oppression or exploitation ought to be opposed by communists, and there should be no tolerance for anyone that harrasses or assaults others. Additionally, failing to adequately deal with these cases also can disillusion those within the organization, while turning off potential recruits.
2. Having a healthy relationship with your own beliefs is essential, and I don’t think anyone should base their entire identity on their beliefs alone. For example, I believe in communism and try to practice it the best I can through my political and personal activities, but my sense of self is not entirely bound up with communism. My identity is defined by the aggregate of my experiences, relationships, and beliefs, and changes in these beliefs will not destroy my entire identity. In contemporary leftist culture, there is a fixation on political identity. Just peruse through Twitter and you will find thousands of bios with the descriptors “Marxist-Leninist,” “MLM,” “Anarcho-Communist,” and so on. When one identifies their personality with their beliefs, any challenge to those beliefs may feel like an attack on their own personality. And as demonstrated by the mid-century communists interviewed by Gornick, political disillusionment can crush one’s entire sense of self.
- The Comrade From Milan by Rossanna Rossanda explores similar themes.
- Blossom Sheed, The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick, (London: Verso, 2020), 75.
- Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism, 77.
- Jim Holbrook, in The Romance of American Communism, 82.
- Holbrook, 83.
- Holbrook, 84.
- Gornick, Romance of American Communism, 28-30.
- Ben Saltzman, in The Romance of American Communism, 34.
- Saltzman, 35.
- Gornick, 36.
- Saltzman, 36-37.
- Gornick, 37.
- Dick Nikowsski, in The Romance of American Communism, 64.
- Nikowsski, 65.
- Étienne Balibar, “From Class Struggle to Struggle Without Classes?” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, Volume 14, no.1 (1991), 13.
- Alain Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review 49 (January and February 2008), 34-35.
- I recognize that not every communist might label it an ethics, but I believe that communism is fundamentally a political ideology based on ethical principles. I elaborate on that argument in, “What is Communism,” The Philosophy of Construction, August 2021.
- Gornick, 168.