Communism was always meant to be joyful, at least to many in the Old Left. Emma Goldman famously envisioned a revolution with slamming dance parties. More quietly, for Maxim Gorky, recruitment to the revolutionary cause meant cultivating a collective environment in which “everything in a person opens itself out to you without fear or caution—just so, all of itself, the heart throws itself open to meet you.” Recalling his galvanizing contact with Oklahoma communists early in his career, Woody Guthrie wrote in 1947 that “they gave me as good a feeling as I ever got from being around anybody in my whole life.”
More achingly, American supporters of Spanish loyalists referred to the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War as “the wound of the heart.” Despite long-standing proclamations of the scientific nature of socialism and communism by Proudhon, Engels, and others, a neglected strain in this genealogy has stressed the appeal of these leftist projects as primarily emotional; in this view, leftist undertakings create affective environments, where positive and negative feelings contribute to the revolutionary cause. What would a leftist movement built of feelings look like?
Communism as a matter of the heart has no more eloquent literary advocate than Vivian Gornick, whose Romance of American Communism (originally published in 1977) conveyed touching, sympathetic, finely wrought accounts of party members’ individual experiences in the mid-20th century, the most storied period of the Old Left. Earlier this year, Verso reissued the book, presumably out of a sense that a significant number of hearts are again ready to feel communist—or at least Sandersian democratic socialism—and would be well served by some historical models.
The case for Gornick’s relevance in the present has also been championed by political theorists Corey Robin and Jodi Dean; the latter has spent much of the past decade aiming to rejuvenate communism by understanding it as an “enduring human feeling” rather than a set of specific principles. Indeed, Dean considers The Romance of American Communism to be an as yet “unsurpassed” document of “the rich emotional world of American communism.” And the 85-year-old Gornick herself winds up the preface to the new edition by noting her hope “that Romance, telling the story of how it was done sixty or seventy years ago, can act as a guide to those similarly stirred today,” at a time when “the idea of socialism is peculiarly alive.”
Verso’s reissue begs a dicey question: Is The Romance of American Communism useful to today’s left? And if so, how? Driven by frustration that the radicals of her parents’ generation had been caricatured as more robotic than human, Gornick intended to rehabilitate them as people, not necessarily as communists. Her distinctive method, a compelling one, is to show just how close these people came, for a time at least, to equating being communists with being fully human. But the book’s humanizing impulse—while admirable—risks prioritizing identity over ideology.
This risk is most evident when the book’s interest in feeling focuses on comrades’ individual self-actualization while downplaying their shared political goals and their work toward a common struggle. The 2020 reissue of The Romance of American Communism reflects a resurgent interest in the movement’s animating ideas, to be sure. Rereading it now—perceiving both its contributions and its limitations—could help a younger left build spaces where humane attachments and purposeful work can coexist.
When Gornick first published the book, in 1977, she intended it as an antidote to two decades of often cartoonish anticommunist screeds by liberal and conservative commentators alike (not a few of them former communists themselves). The likes of Arthur Koestler, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling, Gornick lamented, had tried to write Old Left communists into history as “vaguely nonhuman” beings, robotic dupes of the party and, in particular, Stalin’s Soviet Union.
As a corrective, Gornick—a “red diaper baby”—sought to reanimate the passionate figures who populated her youth. She begins the book with a vibrant, filmic description of her parents’ Bronx tenement kitchen, where “men named Max and Hymie, and women named Masha and Goldie” argued politics zealously in a “hot river of words.” These figures are rendered not as deities or devils, but as sincerely devoted “flesh and blood people” who decided, in the specific circumstances of the 1930s, to pledge themselves to achieving the egalitarian future envisioned by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
Gornick was committed to illustrating the diversity of the CPUSA—the membership of which grew steadily in the 1930s and early 1940s, surpassing 75,000 by 1947. She spent much of the mid-1970s traveling throughout North America, visiting Old Left alumni in Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, California, the Midwest, and the South, as well as the usual Northeastern urban centers. Her voyage through this diaspora brought her into contact with gentiles as well as Jews, deep-rooted Midwesterners as well as recent immigrants, middle-class as well as working-class folk, and a few people of color (a deficiency likely apparent to more readers today thanks to scholarship by Robin D. G. Kelley, Glenda Gilmore, and many others.)
Despite the seemingly ethnographic undertones of the project, the book Gornick produced from her travels is decidedly more of a literary work than a piece of oral history. It’s a book by an attuned reader, if not writer, of novels. A Village Voice reporter when she undertook Romance, Gornick is today known widely as an accomplished memoirist and essayist. In the book, she details her subjects’ appearance—someone’s “eyes a rich, startling blue,” another’s “hair a prematurely white aureole”—and describes the cluttered apartments, bare Southwestern houses, and coffee shops in which she encountered them. Their words appear in quotation marks, but the sentences attributed to them are so consistently lucid and eloquent that one wonders how much authorial massaging has occurred. Even those Gornick claims have trouble articulating their feelings manage to articulate this failure with panache.
Although the later sections of the book include many stories of disillusionment, particularly in the wake of revelations about Stalin’s atrocities, its first half or so, in which people discuss the party’s initial, salutary impact on their lives, is clearly where Gornick’s heart lies. She depicts an atmosphere of enchantment, and she dearly cherishes the stories her interviewees tell about the purpose, education, and social worlds the party cultivated for them, finding that “most” of her interviewees “were immediately alive to what I was asking as though I had retrieved in them an exiled being.” From a literary perspective, it’s striking to encounter the upbeat mood around this topic; even sympathetic novels of the Old Left, from Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (1962) to Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (2013), tend to be steeped in melancholy and regret.
Well into Romance, Gornick’s subjects describe the party as a vital balm for loneliness. One narrates his young adulthood as riddled with sexual insecurities, until the party offered him an alternate way to be taken seriously as a man. People meet friends, spouses, and lovers through party channels. Gornick describes the atmosphere of the 1930s Young Communist League: “Leninist-Marxist theory all mixed up with baseball, screwing, dancing, selling the Daily Worker, bullshitting, and living the American-Jewish street life.”
But Gornick’s drive to equate being communist with being fully human has both literary and political limits. Over time, the approach produces a sameness: an accumulation of individual epiphanies, “transforming moment[s] of clarity,” that led members of this crowd to throw in with the CPUSA cause. Gornick is determined to write this history in the language of identity—of people finding themselves.
Although she interviewed working- and middle-class people, miners, factory workers, lawyers, union staffers, and so on, the diversity of her subjects’ backgrounds and experiences collapses around claims like her assertion that communism was, for all of them, “the overriding element of identity, the one that subsumed all others.” Any difference in the stories narrows with every repeated reference to the subjects’ discovery of an “inner life,” their party-inspired experience of how it felt “to be lit from within.”
Yes, the party offered a world in which people—or, at least, working people—learned to see themselves as proletarians. But, for Gornick, the important and exhilarating part of this lesson is that they were able “suddenly to ‘see’ themselves.” She is more committed to familiar narrative tropes than to any political expediencies—indeed, her sense of what being fully human means is far more literary than political. This is never clearer than when she describes a party in which “people ceased to be what they objectively were—immigrant Jews, disenfranchised workers—and, indeed, they became thinkers, writers, and poets.”
To be clear, as a literary reader, I find a lot to love about this book. It is tirelessly generous to its maligned subjects, and many of the individual stories are moving and heartening. I even have a favorite, related by one “Eric Lanzetti” (Gornick uses pseudonyms throughout), a former section organizer on the Lower East Side. One evening after a meeting in the early 1940s, a young Jewish woman and regular attendee, “Lilly,” approaches Lanzetti and asks to talk. She tells him that she has taken a Chinese man as a lover and plans to marry him, but is terrified of how her Orthodox, widower father—for whom she spends hours each day housekeeping and cooking—will react to the news.
Lanzetti is at first confused. It seems a bizarre matter to bring up in a party context. But rather than demurring, he offers to accompany Lilly when she goes to tell her father—or, better yet, to bring “a delegation” of party members over to her home. When she next appears at a meeting, she is “beaming from ear to ear.” She informs Lanzetti that after their conversation, she felt brave enough to confront her father—whose response to her plans was to threaten to kill her. With the sense that “the whole Communist Party was right there in the room,” she asked her father, “If you kill me, who’ll cook your eggs?” The old man had no answer, and the marriage had been scheduled for the following week.
At first, I wasn’t sure why this story was sticking with me longer than others in the book. Eventually I realized that it runs slightly, but significantly, against the grain of most of Romance. It doesn’t describe an all-consuming transformative epiphany. Though by no means unserious, it’s actually a quirky encounter with a hint of playfulness. Lilly spits out a personal concern of dubious importance to class struggle, in a possibly inappropriate context, and Lanzetti responds to the odd problem not by shrugging it off, or by referencing doctrine, or even by giving it much thought; instead, he offers a quick, intuitive suggestion.
Lilly then solves her problem not because she sees herself reflected in Lanzetti or her comrades; she doesn’t, for instance, think about how other party members have faced forms of ethnic and racial discrimination and how the party is addressing these issues. What inspires her, rather, is how Lanzetti’s response embodies a party-rooted willingness to act—or, in the case of her father’s eggs, not to act. The anecdote suggests that there are unanticipated pockets of hope out there in everyday life, and that the party can help people find them. Perhaps most poignantly, Lilly feels the party there with her, rather than a sense that she has affirmed the truth of her individual being. In this episode, whether intentionally or not, Gornick portrays communism as a set of social relations with simmering potential for strategic mobilization.
Gornick’s distinctive method is to show just how close these people came to equating being communists with being fully human.
Jodi Dean, perhaps today’s most eminent intellectual voice on the matter of communist feelings, also finds something alluring in the Lilly/Lanzetti anecdote. In Crowds and Party (2016), the first of her three recent books sketching “the political horizon as communist,” she focuses insightfully on the fact that when Lilly first approached him, Lanzetti expected her to ask his approval for having premarital sex—essentially addressing him as a substitute father and affirming patriarchal authority. That this wasn’t her concern pushes him to step outside a conventional form of identity. Dean credits an affective “sense of the Party” with allowing both Lilly and Lanzetti to open themselves to the unknown, creating a space in which such encounters can occur.
Given her repeated citations of the book, Dean clearly finds Gornick’s work (which, if I’m interpreting a footnote correctly, she seems to have encountered only a few years ago) a precursor to her own project, not least because Romance provides her with plenty of accounts of the things radical leftists do with and for each other, and how they feel while doing them, in “sensorially vivid terms.” But Dean’s praise for Gornick’s writerly acumen only goes so far; her broader ideas point to the limitations of Romance as a text of the present. In particular, Dean’s eloquent and stirring model of the comrade, while described in the register of emotions, refuses any accommodation with the language of identity and self-realization so fundamental to Gornick’s sense of communist history.
“Comrades don’t love themselves as uniquely special individuals,” Dean posits in Comrade (2019). Indeed, she argues that the notion of identity betrays a “pathological … attachment to a fantasy of wholeness or certainty, to the illusion of that pure site that can guarantee that we are right”; identity “tells us nothing about [a person’s] politics.” Dean is skeptical of categories like allyship, and even friendship, for similar reasons. She sees them, like identity, as ultimately about finding comfort in a retreat from politics into individual safety. In contrast, the “relation [of comrades] to each other is outward-facing, oriented toward the project they want to realize, the future they want to bring into being. They cherish one another as shared instruments in common struggle.”
Throughout Romance, Gornick lovingly presents her Old Left alums as always readily expressive (“thinkers, writers, poets”), the core truths of their selves ceaselessly available. Part of the impetus for doing so is to move beyond history, toward communism as (she believes) a flawed yet still genuine attempt to realize a timeless humanity.
But 40 years on from the book’s original publication, the historical specificity of its subject is unmistakeable. The Old Left drew its spirit and culture from two towering historical phenomena: the Soviet Union and the fight against fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan. Particularly during the Second World War, as American communists worked in tandem with people from across the political spectrum, it was possible for CPUSA members to see themselves as actors in a singular unfolding history, literal and figurative soldiers battling for the universal realization of capital-j Justice.
The left that succeeded Gornick’s shifted its focus to difference and stigma—to a minoritizing understanding of identity seeking to redress ongoing historical injustices to specific demographics: women, African Americans, colonized people, indigenous people, queer people, disabled people, and more. Now, as “fascism” reemerges as a distressingly appropriate term for what the wealthy and powerful inflict on the rest of us, it seems more vital than ever that various social-justice and liberation movements converge and fight in unison to undermine fundamental structures of inequality. One way to imagine this is through theories of intersectionality; one way to do it, it seems to me, is outlined by Dean in Comrade. In that book, she calls for a common struggle that, without requiring that people become the same, at least suspends “attachments to the fantasy of self-sufficiency, hierarchy, and individual uniqueness.”
No doubt, Gornick’s approach remains original and unique, and Romance still makes for an absorbing, vivid read. But, in 2020, it arrives less as a practical guidebook and more as a beautifully written historical novel, full of characters whose individual narratives are often inspiring. Despite her fondness for Gornick, Dean, in Comrade, offers something even more crucial right now: a plausible suggestion for how to recognize differences in race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identity categories, in the process of cultivating the undeniable strength of a larger mass movement.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
Featured image: Grip. Photograph by ian dooley / Unsplash