Celebrating Communism at the New York Times

Bruce Bawer,

A century after the Bolshevik Revolution, Vivian Gornick is still a fan.

On Sunday night I was up late writing, and so on Monday I slept right up until the moment I was awakened, sometime around midday, by the blaring sound of a marching band in the street. I didn’t need to look out the window to know what was going on. The music was The Internationale. The date was May 1. In the small Norwegian town where I live, the May Day parade was passing by. 

The New York Times commemorated the Communist holiday in its own way – with an essay by Vivian Gornick, now eighty-one, a card-carrying member of the old New York intellectual crowd and author of a 2011 biography of anarchist heroine Emma Goldman. The piece – entitled “When Communism Inspired Americans” – is the latest example of what has long since become a genre all its own: the fond look back at American Stalinism. 

The essay isn’t Gornick’s first contribution to the genre. Her 1977 book The Romance of American Communism, a collection of interviews with old Party members, was described by Commentary reviewer Marion Magid as an “adoring account” that depicts their perfidy “as a romantic episode in American history.” In the book, Gornick portrayed these old Communists as “the golden children called to Marxism” and claimed that they “feared, hungered, and cared more” than other people and possessed a “wisdom passion alone can purchase.” Noting that most of Gornick’s interviewees were Jews, Magid quite rightly challenged the idea that there was any “wisdom” in their “slavish support of the Soviet Union throughout the long period of Stalinist treachery and the calculated destruction of Soviet Jewish life.” 

Nor was there anything “golden” about their ability to keep their Communism intact despite (this is Magid’s list) “The Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Doctors’ Plot, the takeover in Czechoslovakia, the Slansky Trial, the murdered writers, the labor camps, and all the rest.” Not only did American Communists accept all these abominations, noted Magid, “they justified it, those wonderful couples, ‘hungry for justice,’ rushing off to protest meetings and ‘peace’ rallies and picket lines while supper cooled on the stove at home and bullets met their mark in the cellars of the Lubianka. To read this book along with, say, the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam is to become almost physically ill. The romance of Communism, indeed. It is an apology that is required—not an elegy.”

One can understand Magid’s disgust. Back when it was first published, The Romance of American Communism was part of a new wave of books, movies, articles, and other material that treated that subject with sympathy. In The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Public Life (1991), Guenter Lewy cited Gornick’s book, along with films like The Front and Lillian Hellman’s memoir Scoundrel Time (both 1976), as part of a “new attitude” and “revisionist history” that represented American Communists “as persecuted defenders of American democracy.” Lewy quoted historian William O’Neill: “One would not know from seeing such films as The Front or reading books like The Romance of American Communism…that the heroes in them were apologists for Stalin’s death machine.” 

Gornick’s contribution to this week’s Sunday Times is essentially a synopsis of her 1977 book – and everything Magid (who died in 1993) said about the book forty years ago is true of this newly minted essay. Ignoring the vile nature of American Communists’ ideology, Gornick chooses instead to applaud their supposed idealism. She begins by citing a 1962 rally at which left-wing journalist Murray Kempton praised “old Reds” for remaining “gallant and pleasant and unbroken” despite having been arrested, tailed, and bugged. And she quotes, with obvious approval, her Communist mother’s assertion that she and her pals had “prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was.” This is, needless to say, tantamount to equating poison with medicine. 

Far from disagreeing with this manifest hogwash, Gornick poeticizes it all: when she was a child and her parents’ Party chums came over and sat around the kitchen table, she “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.” Their ideology? It was, she assures us, “a set of abstractions with transformative powers.” Transformative indeed! It caused the murder of millions. But what did that matter, when it made them – all working-class types – feel more important, “lifted them out of…nameless, faceless obscurity”? As Gornick puts it: “When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them.”

Yes, history like that cited by Magid in her review – the Moscow trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and so on. 

Given that Gornick was born in 1935, any conversations of which she has such vivid memories must have taken place well after those terrible events – not to mention after the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, purposely engineered by Stalin, that took the lives of millions, and the inhuman 1939 Katyn massacre of 25,000 Polish military officers. And yet Gornick manages to maintain – in all seriousness, and in soaring language – that “the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent shape and substance, through its passion for structure and the eloquence of its rhetoric, to an urgent sense of social injustice.” And on and on she goes, oozing empathy about how “the Marxist vision of world solidarity” could give an ordinary schlub “a sense of one’s own humanity that ran deep.” It could also send millions to the Gulag. 

As in most contributions to this genre, Gornick includes a passage acknowledging (albeit briefly) that American Communism wasn’t really the greatest idea, after all. She recounts the explosive impact on her parents and their friends of Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” about Stalin’s horrors. Gornick herself, then age twenty, burst into hysterics. Of course, it had long been clear to sane observers that Communism was as much a form of totalitarianism as Nazism, Stalin as much of a monster as Hitler, and the Soviet Union a prison – a somewhat less horrible prison under Khrushchev than under Stalin, but still a prison. Why did it take Khrushchev’s speech to make Gornick, her parents, and their friends snap out of it? Gornick doesn’t explain. All we know is that they, and she, felt that a dream had died. And they, in their sense of loss, were the victims.

Yet the simple truth is that Gornick’s parents and their Commie friends were bad guys – fanatical, uncompromising supporters of a cold-blooded totalitarian system bent on mass murder and world conquest. But Gornick, even now, isn’t about to admit anything like that. Nowhere in her piece is there the remotest hint of guilt, regret, or remorse – whether on her part or on the part of her parents and their kitchen-table collaborators. Just as Magid contrasted Gornick’s memoirs to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s, one can’t read Gornick’s Times piece without thinking about David Horowitz, who, also raised among Americans Communists, has spent most of his adult life reflecting on that experience and has produced a wise and massive body of work that cannot be excelled for the insight it offers into the subject. 

Meanwhile, during the last forty years Gornick would appear not to have devoted so much as ten minutes’ serious thought to her Communist upbringing. All this time, apparently, she has clung to the positive feelings and pushed away the negative thoughts. Despite her advanced age, she is still, essentially, the callow teenager who found Communism cozy. She can’t even bring herself, at the end, to focus on the fact that Stalin ultimately proved to be a bloodthirsty tyrant. No, in her closing sentences the villains turn out to be – guess who? – the American government and American society, thanks to whom stateside Commies “endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment.” Gornick actually insults non-Commie Americans by suggesting that they lacked some admirable attribute that the Commies did possess: the lives of the latter, in her words, “were formed by political history as were no other American lives save those of the original Revolutionists. History is in them — and they are in history.” 

What exactly is this supposed to mean? Who isn’t “in history”? And hey, what about all those Americans (and Brits, too) who worshiped Hitler in the 1930s – people like Diana Mitford? Weren’t they, too, dedicated to a “abstractions with transformative powers”? Weren’t they “in history”? (Hitler himself was the guest of honor at Mitford’s wedding.) Wasn’t it true of them, as it was of Stalin’s foreign disciples, that when they “sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them”? Whatever that means?

How dispiriting that at her advanced age, four decades after writing her reprehensible book, Vivian Gornick hasn’t budged the slightest in her view of all this despicable treachery. And how appalling – though hardly surprising – that the New York Times is still willing to give space to this sort of puerile bilge. It goes without saying, of course, that the Gray Lady would never publish a piece that sentimentalized Nazis. But it plainly has no intention of rethinking its decades-long habit of romanticizing people who vehemently denied the Holodomor and defended the Gulag.