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Strawberries and Cream

The Romance of American Communism By Vivian Gornick Basic Books, 165 pp., $10.00

By Joanne L. Kenen

VIVIAN GORNICK MUST have been a precocious child. By the age of five she had adopted a world view; unfortunately she kept it intact through four decades. Born during the mid-1930s in a Jewish enclave of the Bronx, Gornick identified with her father's working class bonds long before she recognized the significance of her religion or sex. While her more orthodox peers studied the Commandments, she memorized the basic formulae for good and evil: "Labor=Socialism, Capital=Nationalism."

Years away from the Bronx made her only a slightly more sophisticated analyst. She is as deeply mired in objective determinism on a personal level as the ex-Communists whose lives she recounts were on a world historical plane. She blames emotional vacuums in her political life on her place in history. Had she been born a decade earlier, to use Gornick's own gushing framework, her adolescent crush on the Old Left may have developed into a mature passion. Ten years in the other direction and she could have "realized herself" in the glorious Sixties. Instead, she grew up as a mildly disgruntled member of the silent generation, rousing herself to march sluggishly in the Rear Guard of the New Left. Then feminism revolutionized her life. She re-examined her political roots and the result is The Romance of American Communism.

INTERVIEWS WITH 47 AGING ex-Communist Party members are sandwiched between Gornick's nostalgic memories of the Bronx and her subsequent experience as a radical feminist. Her childhood taught her that optimistic left-wing ideology could soothe the pain of voiceless poverty: "People sat down at the kitchen table to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them, above all, History sat down with them." During her teens, she joined the Communist-affiliated Labor Youth League, but she recalls, "I had often been in a state of dismay as I felt the weight of simplistic socialist explanations pressing upon my growing inner life."

The 1956 Khrushchev report confirmed truths about Stalinism that Gornick believes many Communists and sympathizers already suspected but could not face. For her, the 20th Congress Report "snapped the last thread in a fabric of belief that was already worn to near disintegration." As a feminist 15 years later, she watched closely as consciousness succumbed to rigid rhetoric. But for Gornick, the knowledge that "dogma was the kiss of death for all thought" was cathartic. At long last, she forgave the Communists for their mistakes and began again to love them for their passion.

Through the material Gornick extracts from the interviews, she presents a fairly standard interpretation of the Party's appeal in the '30s, when many of her subjects signed on. Time and time again, the former Party members recall the Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of European fascism. Communism seemed a viable alternative. Looking back 40 years later, a surprising number of those she interviewed still believed that Revolution--not merely Prosperity--then lurked around the corner.

IF GORNICK SET OUT to prove that Communists were ordinary human beings who responded to their times in what they deemed an appropriate manner, she succeeds. One wishes, however, that she chose some other manner to do so. Gornick believes that these people became Communists simply because they "cared more." They cared about the people in the mills and the mines, about the migrant workers, about the immigrants who sought a bright new life and found only a dank tenement. But instead of stressing the moral or political outrage that fed their "caring," she harps on their emotional needs. Human beings, she tells us in a remarkable burst of insight, need to find meaning in life. Moreover, she reveals, people need to overcome feelings of isolation. The Party was an elixir for those seekers of passion and politics:

It was the Party whose awesome structure harnessed that inchoate emotion which, with the force of a tidal wave, drove millions of people around the globe toward Marxism. It was the Party whose moral authority gave shape and substance to an abstraction, thereby making of it a powerful human experience. It was the Party that brought to astonishing life the deepest sense of their own humanness, allowing them to love themselves through the act of loving each other.

Yet, she insists, the Party failed. Certainly Communists did not mobilize masses of workers or save the migrants. In retrospect, some of the Communists now note that they failed to see America through American eyes and were thus unable to weather Stalinism or McCarthyism. But Gornick downplays the social and political context of these failures, although the best sections of the interviews address precisely these issues. She dwells instead on the Party's loss of humanity. Marriages suffered, friendships were severed and psyches were bruised. Communists, she tells us sadly, did bad things to one another.

Gornick's insistent sentimentality is not the book's only flaw. It is, after all, difficult to weave numerous interviews together in a readable fashion. One wishes, nonetheless, that Gornick devised transitions more imaginative than bulletins announcing with which ex-Communist she drank coffee and with whom she guzzled Scotch. Descriptions of living room decor also fail to enhance the reader's understanding of American Communism's nature, romantic or otherwise. And, in most instances, her discourses on her subjects' family histories are of interest only to an eager parlor Freudian.

Despite these encumbrances, however, some of the profiles do come alive. Will Barnes, for example, recalls life in an Idaho mining camp, where his mother's five husbands "slammed her around, beat her kids, stole her money, drank themselves blind and in the end either deserted her or ran down the road with my mother shooting in the doorway after them." A Party member for 30 years and an organizer in the National Maritime Union, Barnes is still suffering from the aftermath of the witch-hunting America of the 1950s.

Barnes is amongst the handful or individuals whose stories counteract the sagas of others who babble on in Gornickese about "moral adventures" and the "pull of connectedness."

GORNICK IS BY NO MEANS a stupid woman and one regrets that she is so dogmatically silly. Nonetheless, she does remain free of the stereotypes that have ensnared past analysts. She does not, for example, attempt to prove that all Communists are busily repenting the error of their ways, nor does she argue that all Communists are busily repenting the error of their ways, not does she argue that all Communists are misunderstood saints. In fact, she successfully shows that Communists came from--and return to--all types of intellectual, cultural and economic strata.

Gornick's own politics are clearly to the left of center. She wants to believe that men and women will continue to struggle to overcome the "warring elements of the race to humanize itself." She turns to passion and hope as a means to this end. The Romance of American Communism lacks coherence, though, because of its purgative function for the author. Gornick cannot overcome the contradictions inherent in her dual role as an intellectual critic and a sentimental admirer. For despite her ideological opposition to American Communism as she has known it, she remains an emotional fellow traveler.

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