This article was first published in Bridges. Vol 13, No 2. (Indiana University)
THE LAST COMMUNIST IN THE UNITED STATES
Seeing statues of Stalin broken and lying on the ground at the close of the Cold War gripped my heart even though I had long relinquished him as my hero. Those images burrowed underground to the child side of the wall of disillusionment that divided my youth from my maturity. It wasn’t a brutal dictator who was shattered and hauled away; it was Uncle Joe . . . and Lenin and Marx and Santa Claus and Jesus, even. The Stalin that inhabited my childhood was a valiant man of the people who would usher in finally the Messianic Age promised ages ago. He was Staleen, who.alone in all the world would equalize the disparity between hungry peasants and avaricious rulers, between ruthless capitalists and oppressed laborers.
Staleen--was not just the savior for Russians. He wore the crown of the International, the global brotherhood of working men and women who took seriously the Communist manifesto “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” Stalin was going to reify this ideal--with his love for the people, his charisma, his undaunted defiance. A utopia of equality had already begun in Russia--the rich and powerful had been ejected from their mansions and palaces, and the soil of Russia, which they owned, was distributed to the peasants; the machinery of the capitalists had been seized by the workers and its profits distributed among them. Or so I was told. And this would happen worldwide, Communism promised, by revolution if necessary, more peacefully if, by example of the execution of the Czar and his ilk, the rich saw the errors of their greed and domination. “Comes the revolution,” my grandfather would say, (No kidding. He said “comes the revolution”) everyone would share equally in the bounty of the earth and the products of industry.
I am the grandchild of Russian-Jewish peasants who emigrated straight from the shtetl to Cleveland, Ohio: my grandfather in 1913 and my grandmother with their four children seven years later, stopping in the Bronx only long enough to lay eyes on her sister. I entered their household to live when I was three years old and it was there that my political ethos was formed. They were ardent Bolsheviks, revolutionaries who never revolted, my grandfather having come to America to avoid conscription into the Devil’s Army, Czar Nikolas’s army, thus avoiding the hot revolution. Understandably, my grandfather didn’t want to die for a government whose soldiers periodically killed Jews in their beds. Yet White or Red, Russia was the Motherland, and about it my grandparents spoke incessantly until it became the foil against which America appeared bleak and bloodless.
In my literary age of fairy tales, Russia was a mythical land--a Land of Oz--part dream, part history, part fiction, colder, vaster, more frightening, and more exciting than life. She had more faces than Eve, and each of her multiple personalities acted out their role in the drama in my mind. Hers was the story my imagination exercised itself upon: Russian soil was blacker and richer than any on earth and ready to burst into bloom with even the accidental sowing of last year’s seeds. Russian winters were brilliant and deadly in their frigid whiteness, sharp as glass and glorious as a shimmering moon. I saw Russian wolves roving in the woods, packs of them. Their green eyes or red eyes flickered like shards of the crystal chandeliers that lit the rooms where gorgeously gowned women danced with dashing men in polished boots on marble floors.
The wolves smelled like our huge mongrel German shepherd, Thunder, when he had been out all day in a winter thaw. But their wet canine fur mingled with the odor of blood on their jaws. One dare not walk alone in the woods after dusk, my grandmother told me. Children who strayed too far vanished into the carnivorous throats of those cat-eyed wolves. And there were the Russian bears, enormous and ferocious, yet amazingly tamable, led around the village on a chain to dance and collect pennies, comical and harmless as an organ grinder’s monkey--Uncle Joe in his animal incarnation, huge and powerful and adorable and kind.
There were two Russias: White and Red. The White one was bad and the Red one was good. This presented a challenge to my moral color scheme as I associated those colors with the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, in which the blonde “white” princess was gentle, kind, and loving, while the brunette “red” princess was selfish and jealous. But in Russia, the Czar was White, as were the Cossacks whose swords dripped with Jewish blood, while my grandfather was Red, as were all who cherished the ideal of human equality.
The White was further divided into two distinct Russias: one was a wasted, sweeping, frozen netherworld where good men were sent to work interminably as punishment--for having done what?--defending the poor, upholding the rights of the working man, stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child--Siberia--dreaded penal colony from which no one returned, or returned dying of T.B., having spent years axing blocks of ice from a frozen tundra. I personally saw these blocks of ice stacked in the wooden beds of the ice trucks that rumbled down our street, from which I stole shining spears to suck on. How they kept these icicles from melting all the way from Siberia, or how they cut them into such perfect large squares, I didn’t know. But that they were from Siberia I never doubted. Didn’t the evil-looking ice pick the iceman carried prove it?
That the White contained a second, totally different image I found no more perplexing than that fierce ogres and golden geese, black dungeons and sunny gardens inhabited the same fairy tale. Russia’s extremes were part of its enchantment. This White Russia reached into the sky with golden spires as exotic and unreal as those in the glossy pastels of the children’s Bible I surreptitiously leafed through at the library. This Russia was very beautiful but as evil as Siberia. It distributed opium to the people every Sunday in church, so they wouldn’t care how bad the Czar was on earth for they would be going to heaven.
And there was Red Russia, which would right all wrongs. It contained the names of the men who played out the greatest story of our time: Marx, a Jew (a fact greatly appreciated by me) whose words stirred up the downtrodden of the world; Lenin, the brilliant forefather of Stalin, with his sensitive, finely chiseled face; Trotsky, the leader of the Russian Revolutionary Army (and, according to my grandfather, the Judas Iscariot of Communist discipleship), and finally Staleen, a figure utterly superior to any American hero: like George Washington he freed his people from the tyranny of a king, yet he wore no powdered peruke or glittering epaulets or foppy ruffles. Brown-clad and unadorned, he smiled benignly beneath his swatch of a mustache. He was greater than Abraham Lincoln for he freed all the people, not just black slaves. And he was alive right now to put into practice the historical inevitability forecast by the genius Jew.
Yet as much as I loved and romanticized these Bolsheviks, I was able to love and romanticize those they displaced. There were fascinating stories of lost princes and princesses: Anastasia, the Czar’s beautiful young daughter, living somewhere incognito, sad and destitute, pretending to be an ordinary woman so that the Communists would not find her and kill her. And her brother, driven out of his country and forced to exchange his royal garments for the uniform of a doorman at a fancy restaurant in New York City, yet so rightfully deposed and disposed. My first taste of tragic irony.
And Russia was the place from which erupted great writers with names difficult to pronounce (I didn’t know until later that my family’s Nachmanovitch became Miller at Ellis Island--the immigrant name for the day), which my “learned” and favorite aunt uttered with reverence: Turgenev and Tolstoi, Pushkin and Gogol--whose books I vowed to read as soon as I was old enough to be admitted into the locked, glass-doored bookcase where they reposed next to Anthony Adverse, Daniel Dorando and volumes of Josephus’s History of the Jews. These books were outside my grandparents’ Yiddish only literacy, or they might have expanded their concepts of Czarist Russia to include the soulful, more gentle landlords of Chekov.
The ideals passed to me in my childhood were painted with the broadest brush. Such mundane Communist goals as the electrification of rural areas either were not mentioned, or, carrying no emotional weight, made no impression on my young romantic mind. These are the precepts upon which I was raised: In communism a garbage collector would earn as much as a doctor, the men who laid the bricks, like my grandfather, would earn as much as the foreman. The workers would own the factory and the construction company. Everyone would work hard and willingly within the absolute equality of individual value, knowing that no person at the top was sucking up their wages. It all sounded unassailably just and fair to me. I didn’t know until much later to factor in human greed and self-aggrandizement. Indeed, if those negative thoughts had entered my mind, my grandfather would have countered with his truth: greed and self-aggrandizement are formed and fostered by capitalism. In a Communist system, there is security and equality, both virtues that make human beings look kindly upon one another.
I needed clarification. “But grandpa,” I queried, “would a garbage collector make as much as Lana Turner or Clark Gable? Would Mr. Porbitsky (our milkman neighbor) make as much as Pushkin?” They would all make the same amount, my grandfather insisted. They are already blessed with beauty or genius. Should they be doubly blessed with wealth? “Even Einstein?” I pestered. I had to get this concept straight. “Should he only make as much as--I was going to say a bricklayer--a truck driver?” Absolutely, my grandfather said. Just because god gave him a big brain, does that mean he should make more money?
My grandfather used the word god only as a figure of speech. Being a Communist necessitated being an atheist. My grandfather was a Marxist idealist but a religious pragmatist. There was no god in the world of Realpolitik: Jews had been killed in pogroms; they were often hungry; their children died of disease, and these conditions existed worldwide. Where was god, anyway? What was he doing? I was a closet, inchoate believer from a young age and I am now an intransigent believer, and in many ways my religious beliefs are manifestations of leftover Communist idealism.
Communism was the source of my happiest childhood occasions--there were few in my grandparent’ home. In the summertime there were picnics with Earl Browder, the secretary general of the Communist Party, and parties at the Workman’s Circle in the winter. Earl Browder’s long-winded speeches were peripheral hearing, easily ignored while my tongue worked over Popsicles, free and in many colors, and fudgsicles, all you could stomach. My hand clutched a long-stringed helium balloon. And I was free to wander all over the park, my only instruction being to return to the indicated spot by the bandstand. The Workman’s Circle was equally wonderful, handing out pop and cookies and supplying a wooden floor resined for dancing and perfect for sliding on.
I didn’t know quite what to make of the Workman’s Circle. My grandfather constructed an uneasy alliance with it, and I heard both his approval and displeasure. As socialists they were of course on the right side of the divide, but they didn’t go nearly far enough in their model of a new world; they wanted to restructure, whereas the Communists wanted to tear down and construct anew: they compromised with capitalism, whereas Communists wanted to entirely wipe out Robber Barons. Some socialists even read the Jewish Daily Forward, Forverts, at that time a mildly socialist, unionist newspaper that, in my grandfather’s eyes, was so far from the communism of the Frieheit as to be practically fascistic. I remember my grandfather arguing as vociferously with the “unionists” at the Workman’s Circle as he would have with a Russian aristocrat. Yet in the absence of a full-fledged revolution, unions were the only reformist tool available to Communists in a country that was after all not split into peasants and aristocrats. To boot, both Socialists and Communists mingled at the picnics and the Circle, where in unison they sang the Internationale.
My grandfather was never, as far as I know, a card carrying Communist, not a member of a cell or a bund. But he and his cronies carried on heated arguments in our kitchen, complete with fist-banging on the kitchen table and periodic slugs of the schnapps my grandfather distilled in our basement (left colorless if it was supposed to resemble vodka, colored with Lipton tea if it was supposed to evoke whiskey). They held ideas they were passionate about. Politeness did not, as it does today, dampen and smother the feelings that generate action.
On a dining room wall of my childhood home hung the well-known picture of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at Yalta, cut out of the Morning Frieheit, and my grandfather rarely passed it without muttering “Russia won the war,” as though obligated to degrade the two imposters whose countries, along with France, had checked in on the side of the Czar during the Russian Revolution. Roosevelt and Churchill were “aristocrats,” he told me, though he did harbor a soft spot for the American president who had instituted socialist programs in America during the Depression I heard so much about--like “relief” for the unemployed and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided jobs for able-bodied men. There could be no Depression in Russia, I heard, once the workers owned the factories and the peasants owned the land. Depression was caused by the machinations of the rich.
The idealized communism that permeated my world not only made our poverty more palatable, it made our colorless lives picturesque and tinted with heroism. It was not for nothing we were poor: we were poor as exemplars of the way things shouldn’t be; we were poor as a historical, sociological, evolutionary movement.
It wasn’t until I was twelve that I ventured into neighborhoods where the rich lived. One of my four aunts married a man who owned a grocery store, which permitted them to buy a house in ”The Heights,” a brick colonial into which she placed a silk couch with feather pillows and Chinese-style coffee tables and lamps. The kitchen had a place especially set aside for eating--a breakfast nook--truly the mark of a mansion. When I went to visit her on the number thirty-two bus to the Heights, I was exposed to the actualities of the rich--the finer quality of clothing worn by the people who hung on the overhead straps. Their coats were heavier, the cuffs cleaner, the buttonholes sewn with no unraveling threads. On that bus I didn’t see pimples on chins or blackheads strewn like freckles across the nose, or clubfeet, or rotten teeth. These people weren’t Communists, I thought. And that conclusion clothed my shabbiness and insignificance with superiority
The British and American intellectual Left had turned against Russian Communism as early as 1949, but I was not aware of their apostasy and its causes until I got to college. They spoke about their Russian peers being muffled, gagged and railroaded into mental asylums, incarcerated or interred, and their writings began to lift my ideological monolith. They supplied me with a lever and someplace to stand, and I moved communism from Left to Wrong.
I felt no sadness when the Berlin Wall came down. Even though this was an anti-faschistische Schutzwal, under which lay the ruins of Gestapo buildings (a wall erected, ironically, at Potsdamplatz, almost exactly where Stalin, Truman, and Churchill assembled to denazify and divide Germany in the aftermath of the “only just war in history”) I watched its piece-by-piece, hole-by-hole destruction without a pang, Robert Frost’s words repeating in my head: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Long After Stalin revealed himself to be a monomaniac whose devouring will consumed the Marxist vision, I met again the unnamed other children I had played with at the Earl Browder picnics and Workman’s Circle. I met them at Civil Rights marches, Anti-Vietnam teach-ins, Earth Day protests, and ERA demonstrations. I’m sure that these other red diaper babies transferred to those causes the communist idealism they heard in their homes. And they and their children are the ones who assail the explosion of power of the multinational corporations that now control the economies of the planet--the BPs, the Goldman Sachs’s, the Dow Chemicals, the Monsantos and their cousins in the global Fortune 100 who have no allegiance but to themselves.
Walls go up and wall come down. Statues are erected and statues are demolished. I have become an almost thoroughgoing political cynic. But it takes a long time before the countervailing of mere fact destroys the early resonances of the heart. Disillusionment is an intellectual event. We see Peter Pan get his wings chopped off, Santa Claus disappears in a blizzard, and Sleeping Beauty proves to be dead, but the fairy tale remains untrammeled in a virgin part of the brain. Stalin, the brute, the murderous egoist didn’t even breathe into my childhood dream.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, dormant capitalists who had been ripening under the enforced repression of a half-century sprang to life. Who knows what is really going on in Russia today-- reversion to the Secret Police--blackmail, torture, assassination--devolution into . . . what? corrupt capitalism or corrupt communism? Revolutions are fought and revolutions are fought again, usually in the same spot and for the same reason as the previous one; the wretched masses, white, black, brown, or yellow, rise up against the Powers-that-be that exploit and repress them. The French Revolution’s shot heard round the world didn’t explode in Russia for almost a century and didn’t reach Indian ears for almost another century when, in the early 1970s, the serfdoms of Maharajas were abolished. Our era’s Powers are corporations.
In America there are no longer the categories proletariat and bourgeoisie. There are enormously rich individuals, including those individuals called corporations, and there are the rest of us. The progressive “rest of us,” can only win particular battles like Roe-Wade and the curtailment of tuna fishing, and these usually only temporarily before the battle has to be fought again. Issues that somehow have fallen within the purview of the Left, like cessation of Abu Ghraib crimes and abolition of the death penalty, may well be accomplished. Because these are kid’s play. The power of corporations is impervious to “leftist” changes of this kind.
I said I was almost a thoroughgoing political cynic. If the United States Congress redeems democracy by outlawing corporate lobbyists. corporate campaign contributions, and the revolving door from government positions to corporate management, thus weakening corporate stranglehold on government, it would be the most important people’s revolution of modern times.
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