Dealing with the Communist Past
Artwork: "My Mother-in-Law," by Lawrence Bush
My 1983 novel, Bessie, is going to be published in paperback this Spring (Ben Yehuda Press), and I’ve been spending some time dipping into it to see how I’m going to feel to be represented, at age 55, by a novel that I wrote when I was not even quite 30.
Bessie tells of the life story of a Jewish communist — my grandmother — from the very early 20th Century until the civil rights movement’s March on Washington of 1963. The book embodies the kind of “romance of American communism” that Vivian Gornick wrote about years ago, a romance that you might hear about at a Jewish Currents community gathering when people are asked to introduce themselves. Our veteran readers will speak proudly of their hey-day of activism on labor issues, racial segregation and lynching, anti-fascism, and so on — with perhaps a rueful word about Stalinism and political sectarianism but without any sense of shame or regret that comes from the kishkes.
I do love these people. They are, as a rule, remarkable: highly literate, deeply caring, physically resilient, culturally bohemian, and usually quite open-minded. They were deeply, sometimes sacrificially, involved with some of the most important and successful social movements of our time — and they love Jewish Currents magazine as one of the last remaining embodiments of their idealism. When I re-read Bessie and get to ‘visit’ with my communist grandmother’s generation, I invariably choke up with tears (this is my bobe I'm channeling, after all) — and I get in touch, once again, with some of the reasons I dedicate my energies to Jewish Currents.
Still, there is the dark side, that very, very dark side, of the communist ‘romance,’ which my novel, with its elderly protagonist, only begins to address — as when she talks about Stalin’s murder of the Yiddish cultural figures in August, 1952:
“Not only do they get killed, but the newspapers don’t talk about it. Not in the Soviet Union. They just give the weather report, and they probably give credit to Stalin for making the weather, too.
“Can you imagine in America that such an important bunch of people should get killed and you don’t even read about it? In America, you find out what color underwear they’re wearing when they die. And I’d rather have this, I’d rather have all the gossip than have nothing at all.
“Look, I’m only getting started with Stalin. Never mind what he did to the Jews. Half his own Party he killed when he made his purges! Stalin executed maybe a million people even before the World War. Millions he sent to Siberia. Half the leaders in the army he killed . . .
“So here I meant to talk about McCarthy and the Smith Act and the blacklists and all that stuff in America and instead I talk about Stalin. ’Cause Stalin destroyed my Communist party, not McCarthy. I feel like I should have a heart attack for saying such a thing, but it’s true. And the truth I’m still learning, y’see. . . . It’s like getting a phone call one day that says your son is in jail for murder or rape or some kind of a terrible crime. The first thing you do is ask yourself, How can this be? And you look back at your whole life, and suddenly it feels worthless. You’ve been blind with your eyes open. You’ve been following orders like a dancing monkey. Even if you had a disagreement, you just figured there was something wrong with you — you’re bourgeois, you’re not revolutionary enough — or else you kept your mouth shut so you could keep your friends, and you maybe became a little less active, that’s all.”
While I can make such statements in a work of fiction and the book will still be embraced by the Jewish Currents community, as it was when first published in 1983. As editor of the magazine today, however, I somehow feel constrained about creating or soliciting articles that really delve deeply into issues of communist atrocities, and the sectarian mindset, and how truly blind to reality so many of my grandmother’s and parents’ generation were. I suppose, if our large new corps of Workmen’s Circle readers were actively engaged with the magazine, contributing funds and so on, I might feel a bit less constrained — but our most active base of support is still among our veterans. And I fear that they would be offended and personally attacked by articles that reflect not only the romance of American communism, but the horror show of American communism. Sure, Jewish Currents always acknowledges the crimes of Stalinism — but a deeper exploration about communist identity feels risky to undertake.
Why should any of this matter, since there is nothing but nothing “communist” about Jewish Currents any more? I think it matters, mostly, because until Jewish Currents engages with this discussion, it may still be considered a communist magazine by some in the Jewish mainstream — and by some of our own Workmen’s Circle readers. More importantly, I believe that until the left reckons deeply with its relationship to the atrocities of communism, it will be constipated and largely without new ideas.
When I first became editor of Jewish Currents four years ago, I heard from a friend at the American Jewish Congress that so-and-so at the AJC considered me to be a communist! I was appalled by this, first of all, because it’s nuts! I am a red-diaper baby, and I have called myself a socialist during parts of my life (and I remain a kind of emotional-spiritual socialist, though I am highly skeptical about it as an economic system), but I have never been a communist or an admirer of communism as an ideology or a system. But I was appalled even more to realize that to the guy who believed me to be a communist, I might just as well be a fascist! Because most American, including most American Jews, are not in touch with the “romance” of communism — rather, they think of communism as a system of mass murder akin to fascism.
Jewish ex-communists I know have not dealt fully with the reality of this perception. Their teshuvah, so to speak, seems very incomplete. The republication of Bessie in 2007 will put the issue on the table again for those who read or re-read the novel. But perhaps it's well past time to move that discussion out of the realm of fiction. Starting with this blog . . .