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Read Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism

Based on interviews with former Communist Party members, Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism is a book full of emotional people who struggle to talk about their emotions. It shows how Party commitment gave everyday life an epic dimension — and made political defeats into personal traumas.

A group of men gather at a headquarters of the Communist Party USA following a protest demanding pay raise and an end to police brutality, US, circa 1920. Hirz / Archive Photos / Getty

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, journalist and critic Vivian Gornick published several long, impassioned articles in the Village Voice about her experiences in and impressions of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. Reflecting on that period of feminist revelation and agitation in 2015, she described a disavowed conflict “between the ardor of our revolutionary rhetoric and the dictates of flesh-and-blood reality … nearly every one of us became a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice.” This same theme inspired her 1977 work The Romance of American Communism, which comprises interviews conducted in the mid-1970s with former members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). In her new introduction to Verso’s reissue of the book (out this month), Gornick recalls that witnessing the emergence of dogmatic behavior at feminist meetings prompted her to revisit the Communist milieu of her childhood. In so doing, she sought to examine the contradictory ways people lived their political commitments within the constraints of the Party.

Gornick’s account begins by reflecting on memories of the Party members and fellow-travelers encountered at her family’s kitchen table in the Bronx: “They spoke and thought within a context that had world-making properties.” Beginning with a discussion of immigrant Jewish communities in New York, she then travels across the United States, emphasizing the varied backgrounds and life trajectories of Party members — “in the fields of California, in the auto plants of Flint, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the mines of West Virginia, in the electrical plants of Schenectady.” Some of those she speaks to were expelled from the Party, some were tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, some went underground when the threat of fascism seemed imminent. Others left of their own accord — many in the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in 1956, though some clung on until the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The Romance of American Comminism explores political engagement through the lens of “impulse, need, fear, doubt, and longing” — and Gornick’s prose drips with emotion. When the book was first published, it was not rapturously received by those on either the Left or the Right. In a review in the New York Review of Books, which Gornick claims sent her “to bed for a week,” Irving Howe pulled no punches:

For her it is all vibration, remembered fraternity, huddling together, “passion.” She has almost nothing to say about dual unionism, “social fascism,” the Popular Front, the Moscow Trials, the role of the NKVD, the expulsion of Browder, the Slansky trial, the Hungarian revolution. One sometimes has to remind oneself that in her evocation of coziness and warmth she is writing about the CP in the time of Stalin and not about a summer camp.

In her new introduction to the reissue, Gornick herself is scathing of the book’s style: “To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate; to write about it romantically was not.” She balks at the book’s effusive, occasionally florid language and recoils from the “emotionalism so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Certainly the book’s tone is sometimes overwrought. Political commitment is depicted as an energy, a force, a passion, an “electric sense of life, a fire — it flows, it glitters, it soars, it vibrates, it burns.” There are endless flowerings and flourishings and flames, while Communists glow, irradiate and shine. Everything is always “alive.” But the profusion of metaphors come as much from Gornick’s interviewees as they do from her — and seem appropriate to the expansive affective experiences the book seeks to convey.

Flesh on the Skeleton

Perhaps Howe was right that this would not be the best book to read to learn about the institutional history of the CPUSA, such as it related to US history or the history of Communism globally. Yet, Gornick deliberately set out to write something distinct from existing accounts of the Party, which failed to capture the passionate atmosphere she remembered enveloping the Communists of her youth. In her review of Howe’s memoir A Margin of Hope published in the Nation in 1983, Gornick observed that despite demonstrating “intellectual generosity” when discussing literature, his prose became immediately “dense, obsessive, unyielding and belligerent” when talking about politics.

Gornick does not dismiss such writers for their political opinions so much as for their lack of curiosity in left-wing political commitment as an experience — something they have in common with liberal journalists writing about the renewal of socialism today. American Communism, she insists, was a “vast, sprawling, fragmented, intensely various experience” irreducible to the violence of Soviet Stalinism. But its chroniclers — often self-castigating former Communists — tended to “deny the teeming, contradictory life” that characterized it, in favor of detached reproach. Gornick hoped that through her interviews, she could “put flesh on the skeleton” — reconnecting history with the people who made it.

Loneliness and solitude are themes in much of Gornick’s work — and in The Romance of American Communism, political engagement often functions as their antidote. Again and again, Gornick and her interview subjects refer to the “context” that the Party provided, indicating both the explanatory force of Marxism and experiences of daily involvement in political organizing. Many of her interviewees describe their isolation prior to joining the Party: “Deep inside myself I was a wounded, homeless person,” recalls one former Party member; “some awful angriness was there all the time, and it made me real lonely,” opines another. The Party was a source of comradeship and shared conviction that infused life with meaning: “Whatever else we were or were not as Communists, we were not lonely. This disease that’s slowly killing off everybody today, that’s killing me, this disease was unknown to us as Communists.”

Involvement with the Party figures in the book as a connection to others, and as a connection to the world as a whole: “from the first I felt connected to the world, being in the CP, and I loved and needed that feeling.” Many of the life stories recounted have the structure of conversion narratives, describing initial encounters with Communists or with “the transforming stuff” of Marxist thought: “their talk hypnotized me … I didn’t know what it meant, but somehow, they were touching that loneliness in me.” Although many of the people Gornick speaks with reflect bitterly on the Party’s failures to understand the realities of the American working classes, many were politicized by “the agitating presence” of injustice and immiseration in the United States. And not only were they struggling to create the classless postrevolutionary society of the future, but they also participated in creating an alternative social world in the present, within the Party: “It literally negated our deprivation. It was rich, warm, energetic, an exciting thickness in which our lives were wrapped. It nourished us when nothing else nourished us. It not only kept us alive, it made us powerful inside ourselves.”

Down to Earth

Gornick’s interviews capture the coexistence of comradery with the day-to-day drudgery of mimeographs, newspaper selling, and “endless fucking meetings.” She also describes how life in the Party blended with people’s experiences in workplaces, trade unions, co-ops, neighborhoods, and households – “Leninist-Marxist theory all mixed up with baseball, screwing, dancing, selling the Daily Worker, bullshitting, and living the American-Jewish street life.” A recurring theme throughout the interviews is the sense that quotidian life was swept up in global history and acquired a sense of grandeur and interconnection as a result: “The world was around you all the time …. The sense of history that you lived with daily. The sense of remaking the world.”

In “Communist Feelings,” a piece I co-wrote with Larne Abse Gogarty, which discussed Gornick’s book alongside Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, we were interested in how the confusions of scale Gornick described are useful for thinking about experiences in political movements today, acknowledging

the potentially damaging implications of political struggles which seem to encompass all aspects of activists’ lives and selves (and thus require individuals to “keep things in proportion” for the sake of their own well-being), whilst also insisting on the necessity for people on the left to think and act disproportionately, to refuse to be cowed by the enormity of the obstacles we face.

For Gornick, “the Communist experience is of epic proportions.” Relationships forged in the Party, both friendships and romances, were entangled with the grandiosity of the Communist vision: “it was though as if we broke up we were betraying the revolution.” As we wrote in “Communist Feelings”:

The grand dream of communism imbued day-to-day experiences, friendships, familial relationships and romances with political significance and thus seemed to elevate, inflate or heighten those experiences until they took on an almost world-historical aspect …. But when the dream ‘cracked up’ it brought those interpersonal experiences crashing down to earth, deflated them.

Loneliness not only preceded people’s involvement with the Party, but sometimes accompanied or followed it: the desolate isolation of life underground, the sudden coldness experienced by those who were expelled, as well as the sense of loss described by many who chose to leave. She meets one couple who claim to be held together only by the “wounds of the past.”

She encounters people mourning the loss of their political community and, in some cases, their political commitments: “inside them grief began to flow, pure grief: the grief of loss, death, passion turned in on itself.” Many are still unable to acknowledge or account for the cruelty they witnessed and participated in. Gornick identifies in one interviewee “a shattered sense of things, some voided wholeness into which the shabby bewilderments fall.” People who once shared a coherent worldview now seem lost, adrift from the certainties that had connected them to a global struggle, and isolated from their former comrades.

Remaining Human

Gornick is adept at drawing out the contradictions inherent to her subject: the coexistence of collectivity and paranoia, solidarity and vindictiveness. The book counterposes an image of vibrant political consciousness with the kind of “arid, dead” jargon-spouting “jerk who talks like the Little Lenin Library.” This is a book about emotions full of emotional people who nonetheless struggle to talk explicitly about their emotions. The passionate feelings evoked by the Party and vividly recalled by its former members, remain in tension with the Party’s discursive disinterest in passionate feeling as a political force: “ask him a political question and he comes to instant, vibrant life, ask him a question having to do with his own feelings or emotional experience and he draws a painful, quizzical blank.”

Some of the intereviewees reflect on the psychic effect of the Party’s dismissal of individual psychology — and there are multiple examples of former Party members who eventually turned to psychoanalysis or psychotherapy: “The very fact that in the Party everything personal was suppressed and despised began to make it impossible for me to ignore the personal.” Yet, for some, this turn to the personal raised as many problems as it solved. Even those who confronted the brutalities of Stalinism and became critical of the rigidity and dogma of Party life still bemoaned the loss of the unique social bonds it had created:

Everybody’s in analysis, everybody’s confessing their lives to each other day and night …. And yet, it is really odd. I don’t feel intimate with these people. And I know I never will. And with people from the Party, I felt intimate. I couldn’t tell them anything about what we call my ‘personal life’ but I felt an intimacy with them I also know I’ll never feel again with anyone else.

Gornick was in her thirties when she conducted her interviews; most of the people she spoke to were then in their sixties. Although she encountered people who became black nationalists or feminists, many former Party members were baffled by — and sometimes actively hostile to — the New Left “movement” politics of the moment: “I wanted to listen …. But it was no use …. They were a bunch of middle-class anarchic kids with no base, no structure, no sense of history, no program, no party, no nothing.”

Stuart Hall remarked that differences between political generations are “not of age but of formation.” But despite these differences, Gornick succeeded in finding experiential resonances across generations — ones which continue to echo into the present. Now in her eighties, in a recent interview Gornick wryly expressed her reservations about Bernie Sanders. Yet, she addresses the concluding paragraph of her new introduction to young people “stirred” by socialism today. And for a generation politicized after the so-called “end of history,” histories like Gornick’s remain a crucial resource.

One woman Gornick interviewed expressed frustration at being told by younger activists that “remaking yourself from the inside out is a political act.” Yet, Gornick’s interviews demonstrate that neglecting psychological questions entirely could be equally detrimental to political movements. The enduring insight of The Romance of American Communism chimes with lines from a 1987 piece by Gornick on Rosa Luxemburg: “revolutionaries must re­main human throughout their struggle. Oth­erwise, what kind of revolution would these angry, repressed people make? Whom would it serve?”