Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist. She has been a feature writer for The Guardian to which she contributes regularly, and she has also written for The Observer, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. Her The Cast Iron Shore (1996) won the David Higham First Novel Award and her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. Linda's most recent novel, Still Here, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Here she writes about Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism.
Linda Grant on The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick
Last year a friend on the Pacific coast died of breast cancer and I was at last relieved of a guilty obligation, to return to her a book that I had borrowed in 1982 and had hung on to, because I didn't want to give it back, I wanted to keep it for myself. It is long out of print, though easily available on internet second-hand book sites.
Every year I have either re-read or looked at some part of The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick. It is a book about idealism, and it eventually inspired me to write three novels about three types of idealism and their inevitable shortcomings: communism, Zionism and feminism. Gornick, born in the 1930s, grew up in a working-class Jewish communist New York home. She was what they call in America a red diaper baby: 'Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew that I was a member of the working class,' the book opens. And she remains to this day imprinted with a lesson, taught to her by her Yiddish teacher:
Ideas, dolly, ideas. Without them, life is nothing. With them, life is everything.The men and women who gathered in the evenings at the Gornick house were all immigrants, arguing in Yiddish about Marxism, class history and the single overriding question addressed to every topic: 'Is it good for the workers?' Vivian would point to the people round the table and ask, 'Who is this one? Who is that one?' And her mother would whisper, 'He is a writer. She is a poet. He is a thinker.' Of course, the writer drove a bakery truck, the poet was a sewing machine operator and the thinker stood pressing dresses all day long in a sweat shop, but because they were in the Communist Party they were no longer nameless drones, without rights; they were linked up to something really big which extended to every part of the world, the revolution round the corner. A better world.
In 1956 the teenage Gornick broke with the Party after the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising and the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin. Her own family called her a lousy Red-baiter, a traitor to the working class. Twenty years passed. Gornick became involved in the early second-wave feminist movement and the rancorous rows and recriminations that would split that movement, too. Looking back on her childhood she came to understand something about the communists, despite their belief in a leader and a cause that sank into blood-soaked dictatorship - 'their passion and their deep desire to have a life of meaning, a moral meaning'. And what it meant to be cast out into the ordinary greyness of life when so much of that meaning, or the terms by which it struggled to become real, was revealed as squalid, brutal, destructive and fake.
Gornick set out to interview former members of the Party, to find out what happened to them next. The remainder of her book, a series of meetings across America, traces the development of the first recruits to American communism and the terrible struggle that ensued for the Party's soul: the vicious rancorous battles, the exploitation, the cruelty, but also the romance that had ignited each individual. When the book appeared, Irving Howe dismissed it in a review as 'soap opera', but he was quite wrong.
Gornick's story is of how idealism shapes us, brings out the best and the worst. That hook on the soul turned ordinary men and women, living in a kind of animal twilight, into people who felt themselves no longer alone but intimately connected with the fate of all humanity. My favourite interview is with 'Diane Michaels' (Gornick uses pseudonyms), who came from a wealthy Jewish family which expected her to marry well. She joined the Party in the 1930s while a student at the University of Michigan, and left in the 1950s when she read a Stalinist position paper on psychoanalysis and suddenly saw it was nonsense. She became a lawyer, and in her fifties, beautifully dressed, elegant, bourgeois, told Gornick, 'I was a Communist. And being a Communist made me better than I was. It was the greatest moral adventure of my life. I wouldn't - not then, not now - have traded it for anything. There's nothing else in my life of which I can say that.'
Starting my first novel, The Cast Iron Shore in the early 1990s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, I thought back to Diane Michaels and all of those who had struggled towards the light, and how they felt now, watching the dream of the century destroyed before their eyes. Later I would become close friends with Russian Jews living in Israel, who had experienced at first hand that dream and its endless nightmare. I felt ashamed to tell them what I had thought and felt during my own period of radicalization. They could not have understood a Diane Michaels, or the character in my novel, Sybil Ross, a vain shallow young girl who travels to America after the war and joins the Communist Party.
Gornick pierces the soul of radicalism. She sees it as born of an innate need to defeat isolation, the struggle of us all to humanize ourselves and what that leads to, engagement. But engagement itself can lead to violence, and violence leads to the very isolation that radicalism seeks to overcome. Political emotions are as much a part of the political experience as the actions that are a consequence of them. The Romance of American Communism has been the text that has been the hook on my own soul, that inability to let go of the passion for a better world, and the distrust I feel for the dogma that socialism always hardens into, moved far beyond that originating light. For what Gornick exposes is the cruelty of the communist movement, how the leadership always hardens into hierarchy. One former member confides:
I had been a devout Christian and now I was a devout Communist. I have always responded to structured authority in this way, once the idea behind the authority seemed absolutely right to me.The Party denounced, humiliated, spat out its members. They landed, dazed, bewildered and wounded back in Eisenhower America, and suffered for the rest of their lives the pain of that loss.
Gornick writes of the 'eternally frustrated pursuit of the ideal'. These marvellous stories of American Communists, these human stories, are Shakespearean in their tragic dimensions. One of the few Black members recalls the period of the early 1950s, the McCarthy period, when the Party was convinced that America was about to turn fascist and it sent its key organizers underground:
When I think back on it the thing that haunts me the most is the innocent people I involved, the people I pushed, bullied, nagged into helping me. If they had known what they were doing, if they'd been caught, their lives might have been ruined... But for the Party I was willing to ruin anybody, anywhere... Afterwards, it was hard to remember the frame of mind that had made it seem the only right, real, reasonable thing to do at the time... the rigidity with which I acted out this half-imaginary war. And the twenty-five years of feeling patronized and used came crashing in on me, and I couldn't forgive, no I couldn't forgive.[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]