Over the weekend the New York Times published a piece titled “When communism inspired Americans.” It offers a first-hand account of the “richness” of American communism in the first half of the 20th century. The piece is part of an ongoing series titled “Red Century” which has reviewed various aspects of communism’s history. The series is not extolling communism, but this particular entry strays into a kind of gauzy nostalgia that seems wildly inappropriate for a worldview that, during the 20th century, killed more people than the Third Reich.
The people who came to our Bronx apartment or were present at the fund-raising parties we attended, the rallies we went to, and the May Day parades we marched in were all simply progressives. At the kitchen table they drank tea, ate black bread and herring, and talked “issues.” I understood nothing of what they said, but I was always excited by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words that came pouring ceaselessly from them.
They were voyagers on that river, these plumbers, pressers and sewing machine operators; and they took with them on their journey not only their own narrow, impoverished experience but also a set of abstractions with transformative powers. When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them. They spoke and thought within a context that lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity into which they had been born, and gave them the conviction that they had rights as well as obligations. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians with a founding myth of their own (the Russian Revolution) and a civilizing worldview (Marxism)…
It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified.
This is, admittedly, a child’s view of communism, but clearly a very sympathetic one. The author portrays communism as something that ennobled the lives of ordinary people. That may be an accurate account of how people felt at the time but in the context of the many millions of lives communism ended in the 20th century, it seems a bit like dancing on people’s graves. Eventually, the author does get to his own moment of realization that communist Russia had been a horror:
I was 20 years old in April 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and revealed to the world the incalculable horror of Stalin’s rule. Night after night the people at my father’s kitchen table raged or wept or sat staring into space. I was beside myself with youthful rage. “Lies!” I screamed at them. “Lies and treachery and murder. And all in the name of socialism! In the name of socialism!” Confused and heartbroken, they pleaded with me to wait and see, this couldn’t be the whole truth, it simply couldn’t be. But it was.
This paragraph certainly helps, yet the author closes with more sympathy for the true believers who rallied to this murderous ideology: “Hundreds of thousands of Americans were Communists at one time or another during those 40 years. Many of these people endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment.”
Are they really the victims here? To put this in perspective, consider the same approach to a piece about Americans who were inspired by Hitler in the 1930s, i.e. people who felt passionate about what he meant for the future of Germany and the world. A child listening to those conversations among adults may have been similarly impressed, but it would be jarring, to say the least, to have someone write fondly of those years in the NY Times.
Should we lament the social isolation and professional ruin of American communists? I don’t think so. And given the NY Times’ horrible record on this issue, you would think the paper would be especially careful about downplaying communism’s record of brutality.