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 . . .


Blogger Reb Yudel said...

The word "sectarianism" jumps out to me from your post, because I suspect that to be the key issue, in terms of the personal and communal mechanisms that led to turning a blind eye to Communist crimes.

It was noble ideals that led to sectarian Communism... but it was that very sectarianism that enabled Communists to reject any criticism coming from outside.

I admit my knowledge of this era is very hazy -- my grandparents were liberals with capital -- but it seems a dynamic very similar to the (currently winding down?) era of Bushite sectarianism. Out of noble ideals, 30% of the American public have closed their eyes and ears to any reports that come from non-politically approved channels.

How do well-meaning people fall into such a cult? And how can they be extracted from it? These seem like very timely questions.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Lao Qiao said...

Stalin Shmalin. What about Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il? They all understood Marx perfectly. Marx wrote in "The German Ideology" that when the final stage of communism arrives, we "will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner." A philosophy that rejects human variety must suppress all differences among people.

11:22 PM  
Blogger irosenth said...

Dealing with the Communist Past is dealing with questions that still bedevil the Left.

Do ends justify means? Are voting rights, press freedom and civil rights things a society can give up to create a just society.

And then there is always the Jewish question in its many guises.

12:58 PM  
Blogger fivaproldzhe said...

Thanks to documents published since 1991 from formerly-secret Soviet archives, we can now see that Bessie’s version of the Stalin years – which is really the Khrushchev – Gorbachev version – is fundamentally wrong.

Some examples:

* Statements made in 1939 by NKVD chief Yezhov and Frinovsky, his right-hand man, and only published this year (2006) show that they falsified charges against thousands of people in order to cover up their own conspiracy to overthrow the Soviet government.

* Stalin and the Politburo investigated many cases of massive repression and murder, reversed the verdicts (often too late for the victims), and had those responsible arrested, tried, and punished.

* Khrushchev himself was one of the biggest “repressors”, responsible for maybe 50,000 deaths in Moscow alone.

* Marshal Tukhachevsky and the military leaders tried and executed with him in June 1937 were certainly guilty.

* In fact, there’s now excellent evidence that the defendants in the three Moscow Trials were guilty of, at least, what they confessed to, though perhaps not of everything the prosecutor charged them with.

As for the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, some leading members of which were tried, convicted, and executed in 1952, we now know much more:

* Solomon Lozovsky, old Bolshevik and the main defendant, confessed to Politburo members who went to the prison to verify the charges.

* Not Khrushchev, but Lavrenti Beria, exposed the anti-Semitism of the main investigator in this case, Riumin, and the overall responsibility of Ignat’ev, head of the MGB at the time. Beria did this the day before Khrushchev and others had him illegally arrested, and later judicially murdered.

* Khrushchev later reinstated Ignat’ev, and referred to him by name in his infamous 1956 “Secret Speech.”

* Not a single “revelation” against Stalin and Beria made in the “Secret Speech” was true! Amazing – but we can now prove this with formerly secret Soviet documents.

* There’s no evidence that Stalin had anything to do with this travesty of justice. Though he remained Head of State, after February 1951 Stalin was seldom involved in politics. A rubber stamp with his signature was used for official documents.

When Bessie says

“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.”

we can surely sympathize with her. Hundreds of thousands of communists the world over must have felt the same way.

But she was wrong. Khrushchev was lying.

Grover Furr
Montclair State U.

6:22 PM  
Blogger yedineh said...

This is my first comment on? for? in? a blog. (And what a word that is--combining all the charm of bog and blob.) First of all, stop worrying. These resilient, literate, bohemian and open-minded (well--not always) folks you're concerned about are tough. There's nothing you can tell them that they don't already know, or ought to know. You're not rubbing their noses in it. Nobody has to read your novel. (Too bad Larry, but that's the way it goes.)
Besides, it's a novel. It's fiction. Nowadays, with a little magic realism you can make your grandma Iosip Vissarionovich's girlfriend. (Did I spell that right?) No, I know you wouldn't do that to your bobe! But other writers do stuff like that. You can take refuge in the absurdities of modern fiction if you have to. If anyone complains just say "No, Comrade. I'm not dissing you. I'm just deconstructing you."

8:00 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

That was quite an honest blog --- which I guess blogs are wont to be.

I do take issue with some of your statements, though.

You say, “……….I believe that until the left reckons deeply with its relationship to the atrocities of communism……….”

After the shocking Khrushchev revelations of 1956, my friends and I were terribly ashamed, to put it mildly, to have uncritically and out-of-hand, dismissed all those earlier reports of Stalinist horrors.

During the 30's and 40's, it was felt we had to support the Soviet Union, since it was the only Socialist country in the world. There was such a voluminous amount of anti-Soviet propaganda before and after World War II, that never for a moment did we feel we could trust what the “bourgeois” press was saying. We thought, “after all, it was in their interest to say those things..........." We were wrong.

The Khrushchev report, coming from the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, someone who was there and party to it, finally made us believers. The revelations came as an atom bomb to the members of the American party and there was such a mass exodus from the organization shortly afterwards, that it was rendered, in effect, obsolete.

But the horrors of Stalinism overseas cannot be equated with the contributions that American Communists made in our own country.

The American Communists were at the forefront of the struggles during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s: The fight for unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, formation of unions. The battle against Jim Crow; the fight against McCarthyism. Were these “atrocities”?

Was I proud to be a part of many of the struggles? Absolutely! American Communism was not the horror show that you say it was.

Though the left made mistakes, there was so much accomplished which cannot and should not be discounted. To use an expression which I've always hated until now: “Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.”

12:42 PM  
Blogger Reb Yudel said...

Hmmm. So is this how sectarianism works?

On the left:

"During the 30's and 40's, it was felt we had to support the Soviet Union, since it was the only Socialist country in the world. There was such a voluminous amount of anti-Soviet propaganda before and after World War II, that never for a moment did we feel we could trust what the “bourgeois” press was saying. We thought, “after all, it was in their interest to say those things..........." We were wrong."

On the right:

"During the 90's and 00's, it was felt we had to support the United States, since it was the only free,anti-socialist country in the world. There was such a voluminous amount of anti-American propaganda before and after 9/11, that never for a moment did we feel we could trust what the “liberal” press was saying. We thought, “after all, it was in their interest to say those things..........." We were wrong."

10:36 AM  
Blogger yedineh said...

eThank you Reb Yudel, for making a very important point. While I sympathize with Ruth, it seems to me that many former (or curent?) CP members still have their heads in the sand, especially obvious in the comments by fivaaproldzhe. After reading this apologia for evil, I regret the flippant tone of my earlier comment. Alas, the confusion (to put it euphemistically) in the minds of some of the old left is much worse than I had realized.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Seth said...


The quote from Bessie -

"’Cause Stalin destroyed my Communist party, not McCarthy"

reminded me of something the late Dorothy Healy (a long-time Jewish Currents supporter, I think) wrote in her book about her years in the CP: "The great irony of the McCarthy period is that we did almost as much damage to ourselves, in the name of purifying our ranks, as Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover and all the other witch-hunters cominbed were able to do". It also reminds me of something another CP member once said to me - "I didn't leave the party because of Stalin. It was because of all the little Stalins in the party here."

Having grown up reading Jewish currents, and talking to older Jewish Currents readers, I have a hard time believing that anybody would object to a frank discussion of this topic.

However, I am not really sure what you mean about how Jewish Currents must "engage with this discussion" or how the left must "reckon deeply with its relationship to the atrocities of communism". At that level of generality, I just do not understand what you think needs to be discussed that hasn't already been discussed.

What I think would make an interesting topic is not so much the specifics of the activities of CP members, but rather the mindset that allows one to block off opposing views and follow a Party Line in such a way. And this, I think, is far from dead. It's just that the Party Line changes.

I know I have been guilty of this myself in various ways, and I am sure this exists all over the place. But it seems to me that the relationship of American Jews with Israel is a good example. I think it was the late Maxime Rodinson who wrote a long essay after he left the French CP, responding to critics that while he abandoned the mindset he had within the CP, they kept their mindset and applied to Israel instead of the Soviet Union, as the new Holy State.

And unfortunately, here I think Jewish Currents did its readers a disservice throughout the 90s. Schappes basically turned the magazine into a mouthpiece for the American Jewish Congress (so I find the comment you quote from the AJC person very ironic!). The AJC at the time had a far better position (in my view) than probably the vast majority of official American Jewish organizations, so that in itself didn't bother me too much. But what really bothered me was the way that alternative views were ignored or slandered.

An example of what I mean: At the time of the Oslo accords, Matti Peled said (and here I am quoting from Michael Warschawski's great book On the Border, which btw should really be reviewed in Jewish Currents):

"Stop dreaming, the implementation of the accords is not a done deal, and I know what I'm talking about: Rabin and I are from the same generation, we ate in the same mess. No Israeli government will ever agree to withdraw from the occupied territories or to dismantle the settlements on its own, unless it is forced to. There has to be immense pressure for it to agree to respect the accords as the Palestinians and we ourselves understand them - international pressure as well as pressure from the Israeli peace movement, without which they will do everything to strip these accords of their meaning."

I read Jewish Currents all through the 90s, and I do not recall this view ever being expressed or barely even acknowledged. Instead we got articles like "Edward Said vs. Peace" and so on.

As it happened, the perspectives that were being put forward in magazines like Z, or Israeli groups like the Alternative Information Centre were far more on target than the endless Schappes "Support the peace process" editorials. It was still a Party Line, just a different one.

Anyway, I don't mean to go on about Middle East politics. It is more that the Party Line mindset is what I think should be the real focus of attention. I don't really know how that can be discussed, though. And it's hard to avoid. Perhaps it's something in the very nature of people or political organizations.

9:45 PM  
Blogger SJGluck said...

Dear Larry,

This is sort of a response to your request for comments on your attitude towards "Communism."

Continuing to be an "emotional socialist" does have a future. I'm 90 and will probably not see as much as you who has an entire generation and more still ahead. It is unfortunate that Stalin's leadership, which did succeed in militarily building up Russia so it could defend itself against fascism practically without the help of the allied Second Front, but whose socialism was a command society rather than a democratic one as would probably have been the case had Lenin not died. After all, Lenin did propose a new economic policy that intended to take advantage of the best of capitalist investment and the promotion of individual entrepreneurism within a socialist milieu. This is something that Marx had anticipated when he noted that bourgeois right would remain for a long period after a socialist revolution.

The problem with most of the people on the Left is a failure to learn the philosophical and methodological aspects of dialectical and historical materialism and apply it in various times and places in their infinite national varieties. I’m working on a book, largely based on China, and just finished a future chapter that deals with the role of China in changing international relations in the 21st century in which there are critical areas on the Soviet Union and its influence on China’s earlier revolutionary development. One of the articles is critical of the USSR’s Marxism and the other of Deng Xiaoping’s so-called Marxism. The success of the Communist Party in building a modern economy in a quarter to a third of their country simultaneously neglected social considerations of their workers and peasants and had to face a growing number of demonstrations against its rule beginning in the year 2000 and increasing geometrically up to 90,000 in 2005. The Communist Party, in order to stay in power, has had to shift from its pro-capitalist road to one that continues to build the economy but is now beginning to give equal consideration to the social conditions of its people with a promise to have 90% of its 1.4 billion people under social security by that time (note: at the turn of the century it was 1.3 billion but in 20 years will be 1.4).

I have several chapters written for the book but until it’s completed I would not want it given out except for publication; but I’d be very happy to spend time discussing the legitimacy of socialist feelings in the era of the transformation of the capitalist system into something new which can only be described at the moment as an economy that socially plans its development as distinct from private corporate planning and domination of the direction of the system that enables them to develop without economic crises. At least that was typical of what Communist regimes had been able to establish so far. How they developed democratic participation and avoid the dominance of private interest is a big challenge and a lot depends on how the Party handles it.

You will be surprised to learn that the CCP did not undertake any serious independent studies of Marxism and political economy until January of 2003, I repeat 2003, when the new regime established a commission to study the cause of economic cycles since they faced distortions in their development and established for the first time in Tsinghua University, a department for the study of Classical Marxism and its application to specific national conditions.

It is no accident that by mid-2006 they changed their slogan from “To Get Rich is Glorious” to “A Harmonious Society and the Welfare of All” and are in the process of building a Socialist Welfare State. If diplomacy can win over US pension for war, you will see a bipolar world in which imperialist US super-power will be the last of its kind in history. This is the era in which we are living. Capitalism has little more to offer to human progress, only more billions, mergers, poverty and planetary destruction.



12:05 PM  

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