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Oct05

Musings of a Red Diaper Baby

My mother, father, stepfather, and an aunt and uncle from both sides of the family, were all communists back in their day.  And I  mean members of the CPUSA, though, as is typical of red diaper babies, I don’t know the exact years, or even whether they carried cards.  So when I checked out Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers—How the Left Changed a Nation from the library, I turned to immediately to Chapter Five, “The Paradox of American Communism, 1920s-1950s.”

The New York Review of Books article on Kazin’s book had already pissed me off, though.  In it SeanWeilentz took great pains to say that this history of the left should not have focused on leftists at all, but instead on liberals, who had accomplished so much good for our nation.  Call me crazy, but I expected him to focus on the actual topic of the book.

Liberals often exhibit an unrelenting hostility toward those to their left; American social democrats do the same toward American communists; and of course, that doesn’t even get to the numerous groups so tiny that their endless arguments truly seem meaningless.  The right, of course, is totally out of hand as they label Obama a socialist/communist/fascist.  In all this everyone, including Kazin,  exacts their pound of flesh from the fact that the American CP idolized the Soviet Union under Stalin.

For example, the “anti-racist rigor” exhibited by the CP at a time when that was virtually nonexistent in the rest of white America?   According to Kazin,  “Like any noteworthy stance the Party adopted, (it)  was stamped with the imprimatur of Moscow.”  (p. 167)

Okay, okay–but what about the courage of party members who went South to protest lynchings?   (See Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict.)   What about the beauty of raising communist children in the midst of  segregation to use the word “Negro,” instead of “nigra” or “colored?”  To argue with their schoolmates every time a phrase like “jungle bunny” was used?  To never ever utter the original words to “eeney-meeney-miney-mo” aloud?

Furthermore, per Kazin, “the downfall of the CP cannot be blamed primarily on the wave of legal and extralegal repression that began in the Truman era and ended during the Eisenhower presidency.”  (p. 204).

Oh, really?  Well, try this.

Listen to your mother brag about how the only thing she was ever scared about was the Red Squad and their threats to deport her children (all born in the U.S.).  Have your collection of Children’s Digests, brought to school at your teacher’s request, purloined and destroyed by the school.  Were they considered left-wing, or what?  Go with your mother down to the principal’s office, to request an explanation which she never receives.

Listen to your mother talk about becoming indispensable before the FBI showed up on each new job, so she wouldn’t get fired.  Then discover out that your parents’ best friend, with whom they bought a home for the first time in their lives, is an FBI snitch.  Home sold; move again.

Be dogged by nightmares about trucks running down union organizers in dark alleys, repetitive fears of a wounded man dragging himself up the stairs.

Explain to the kids in junior high why your mom is on the front page of the LA Times telling HUAC  it can go “flummox itself.”   Listen to your parents worry about how all this will affect your sister in high school.  Five years later, explain to your own high-school history teacher, in front of the class, why you thought it was wrong to assign J.  Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit as required reading.

Be honest with your teenage girlfriends about the fact that you liked a black boy.  Find a cardboard cross burned on your locker door.  Go with your mother when she storms into the principal’s office, to demand an apology.  Move to a different part of town, where she won’t be afraid that you will get hurt.

Realize just recently, way way into your adult life, that if Dewey had won against Truman–and remember, the nation went to sleep that election night believing he had–J. Edgar had detailed plans for interning 12,000 communists, and was working on the facilities to detain 12,000 more.  Would your parents, with you as a baby, have been in the first wave or the second?

You’re right, Kazin.  We weren’t, by and large, jailed (though some were, of course), killed or tortured.  But a bunch of stuff did happen to us and it hurt, so it’s hard to have that wave of repression dismissed so easily.

Where is a lyrical description of the  American communists’ hard-bitten dedication to counter-acting “the outrageous misery of the Depression?” (p. 158)  Where is the wonder that some people are so troubled by material inequality that they struggle all their lives, against impossible odds, for the notion that everyone on this planet should have enough to eat, clothes on their back, a place to live, education and medical care?  Where is the sense that this tenacity is admirable–spiritual, even?

No.  Here is Kazin’s conclusion:   “Nothing (the CP) did mattered as much as their allegiance to a foreign power, and when that allegiance became a serious handicap, the CP was finished.” (p. 207)  Simple, right?

Well, when I think about Marx, Darwin and Freud, it seems they all wrote in a time of searching for the one unified theory that would explain the troubles of humankind.  Sexual instincts repressed in childhood morphed into every family’s history.  The survival of the fittest became the perfect justification for this dog-eat-dog world.

Then there was the way the bosses took the surplus value of their workers’ labor for personal profit.  So, the communists decided if the workers could only throw off their chains, things would progress.  And, to them, in Russia that had occurred, notwithstanding unremitting hostility from the capitalist classes of Europe and America, which helped goad a ruthless civil war.

Was there too much reliance on the Soviet Union as an example of virtue?  You bet!  Just watch the documentary Seeing Red, and you’ll hear the communists say it themselves.

All this before human beings were able to tabulate instantaneously endless amounts of data; before we saw images of our planet from space; before we realized we were the smallest dot in an infinite field of galaxies.  Now thoughtful people know better–this situation of the human species is too complex for a unitary analysis.

As for that pesky Marxism, though, revolutions threatened moneyed interests at the core, and whew–is the ruling class relieved that communism didn’t succeed!  The profiteers profit on, their gobs of money threatening the sustainability of the very planet we all depend on.  (If you doubt it, this blog’s post from July 30th and check out Bill McKibben’s math on how the oil companies are trading in our weather for their profit.)

The liberals have made progress on alleviating poverty, yes.  And so have the socialists, by creating/defending social safety nets and continuing to insist that all this matters.  As for communism, as an economic system it has disappeared everywhere except Cuba and North Korea.  So why do we have to choose?  Why can’t we form a respectful spectrum, from center to left, struggling to find solutions to that ever-present inequality, now confronted by an emergent understanding of the need for sustainable practices.

Yet–although the people in my family, all unionists, spent more time organizing workers than praising Russia–let me make my position clear.  One should never ever apologize for a dictator like Stalin.   It’s bad to murder millions!  There should be endless acknowledgment, and everyone needs to search their respective souls right now about what to do to stop this incessant human slaughter, whether perpetrated by left, right or center.

But during those decades of CP denial of Stalin’s crimes, weren’t the liberals in denial also?  How many apologies were there around that time about the internment of the Japanese, Jim Crow, genocide of the American Indian?

When did you last hear a right-winger  slam all those who idolize murderous dictators during the endless cycle of modern America war?  In this current crazy season, how often do those right of center lay into the Santorums, the Huckabees, the survivalists, the Timothy McVeys, those who murder the abortionists, those multitudes who support the murder of abortionists.  No—those right of center go relatively easy on each other.  You’ll never catch me saying this again, but perhaps we can learn something here.

So, Kazin, I admire all the work you’ve put into this book–I really do.  But I probably won’t read more than the one chapter.  Something about where is the love…

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19 Comments

  1. Harriet Stern Braden

    Barb,
    I appreciate this posting and your synthesis, as well as hearing of your experiences. As you may know, my parents were somewhat less open with me, so my childhood and youth were less overtly tumultuous, but perhaps more inwardly distressing, as I tried to integrate the external and internal terrors.
    I look forward to more conversations with you.
    Harriet

    1. barbararhine

      Hi Harriet,
      I very much want to hear about how all these themes played out for you during childhood, and am looking forward to your visit a lot! “External and internal terrors!” These themes were so intense…I value our connection, springing from the distant past to the vivid present. Thanks for your comment.
      Barbara

  2. Alonzo

    Reading this on this federal holiday prompts me to say again:
    Columbus Did Not Discover America

    1. barbararhine

      How long it has taken for society to acknowledge that there were already people here! So self evident, yet so elusive. The power of denial is never to be under-estimated. Re climate change, for example…

  3. Jack Kurzweil

    I read Kazin’s book and was puzzled at it’s general shallowness in understanding the complexity of the relationship between utopianism and struggle in the histories of the different American lefts.

    He sees the connection of abolitionism to the Great Awakening, but not to the petition drives against slavery that so infuriated the slaveowners in congress that they instituted the gag rule and interference with the US mail. Nor does he understand the relationship between the underground railroad and the Fugitive Slave law. He only sees the absolutist part of the abolitionists, not their mass politics.

    Similarly, he cannot really see beyond the relationship of the Communist Party to the Soviet Union. So he is simply nonplussed by the emergence of the CP as a major political force in the 1930′s. And he therefore cannot really understand how crucial the red scare was to turning back the organizing capacity of the unions.

    Poor Kazin. So smart and yet so ignorant.

    1. barbararhine

      With “Musings of a Red Diaper Baby,” I may have finally left behind any interest in all the analyses that seem to claim that history has already ended. That the right has won the day, for example, or that the left is no longer viable. Or that those who sought to ground social justice principles in spirituality/religion have simply been defeated now by right-wing evangelicals. Don’t we just have to live our lives in accord with what we believe in, to the best of our ability? History is long indeed, and How It Will All Come Out is always shrouded in the unknown future…

  4. paul harris

    outstanding description of the commitment and idealism of american Communists, who fought for all the things we now take for granted: social security, medicare, unemployment insurance, welfare, workers compensation, integration, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, right of workers to organize and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. and they did this when it was not popular, and many, like the author and her family, suffered the consequences.

    1. barbararhine

      Thanks for the acknowledgment. My family by no means suffered the most, but they were working class unionists, and not particularly in touch with the trendy elements of CP life, such as they were. And we were in places like Denver Colorado and Butte Montana and Louisville Kentucky, rather than New York with the Ethical Culture Society and the summer camps where kids at least found others like themselves. Yet I met the Wilkinsons as a kid, and my sister has a photo of herself sitting on Paul Robeson’s lap, and my mother was called before HUAC with classical musicians from the L.A. Philharmonic, so it all had its compensations. Then there was Anytown, USA, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which finally broaded my horizons, and changed my life.

  5. Mildred Trouillo

    How many times have we heard that in the war on terrorism we can’t destroy the same American principles that we profess to be defending. Here in your musings as a red diaper baby you expose a hidden practice of the 1950’s when the US government was doing just that. Writing from the perspective of a child makes it all the more powerful: kids learning one thing, living another. How hard is that? People can understand (not accept) persecution suffered by advocates of minority political positions – blacklisting, illegal arrests, illegal surveillance, etc. – but the residual (and direct) suffering of their children is not always evident. Nor do we hear enough about what children face when they live a set of convictions (based on their parents’ politics) that stands against the norm. Your example about ‘eeny meeny miney mo…’ said it all. What you and children of politically engaged parents experienced is the direct result of a refusal to allow for, or see ANY human virtue in the OTHER; a readiness to DE-HUMANIZE in order to justify the most extreme kind of violence and debasement. I really enjoyed this post and hope that you will be writing more about your growing up experiences as a red diaper baby.

    1. barbararhine

      There are so many trials involved in raising kids in a politically-charged atmosphere, and yet I would not give up these basic themes that have molded us for that conventional world that was so out of reach. Since I came of age and began to get over that pressing need to fit in, I have loved the margins, where the various peoples of the world meet, and been bored by the static centers, where people cling to their narrow groups. Thank you for opening your heart with this comment.

  6. Derek Rusch

    Barbara, I seem so far out of the loop, I find your blog to be disjointed and hard to follow, but I tend to believe that my misunderstandings come from my own lack of education. Thanks for trying to express yourself, and bring on a little modern interpretation. Keep on trucking

    1. barbararhine

      Hey Derek. Try the post on Climate Change–the one might be easier to follow.

  7. Lenore Paula Weiss

    Enjoyed your post. I have a similar story to your own. I plan to keep coming back. Thanks!

    1. barbararhine

      Thanks so much Lenore. Just posted on Joe Sacco’s cartoons yesterday, Nov. 19th. Plan to trey to find a regular pattern soon, so you will know when to check in for something new. Love being in touch with fellow writers this way!

  8. Steve Bingham

    Thanks for sharing this Barbara. I’ll try to find the time to read more thoroughly. My immediate thought skimming through it is that you skip too quickly from one amazing event in your (or your parents”) past to another. I thirst to know more. You should put all these red diaper musings into a book. Your parents’ story sounds incredible. And as Paul wrote, their story validates so many of the incredible social reforms that we all take for granted now that were the hallmark of so much of the CPs work when such reforms were not at all popular. Regardless of legitimate criticism that can be levelled at the CP, honest history cannot take that reality away from the CP. I think you’d find as much interest in that real story as the fictional one that’s ready for publishing.

    1. barbararhine

      Thanks for your support, Steve. But I believe there is definitely a place for fiction, aside from memoir. Fiction is where the author gets to go inside the characters to explore their deeper truths, free of the censorship that comes from having to stick to fact. Many think it is the truest truth for this reason. As for me, I believe it is all good, but have always had more interest in reading and writing fiction than memoir.

  9. barbararhine

    Ah, you motivate me with this promise, Lenore, and I will turn to new updates soon!

  10. Joan Kramer

    Thanks, Barbara. I don’t even think I would have had the courage to open Kazin’s book, much less read it. My childhood was more one of terror of the unknown as my mother didn’t think we children should know. But babies feel their parents’ pain and I assumed that I was the cause (little narcissists we are when young). Nursery school playmates stopped playing with me, stones were thrown at me by teens from another town, a constant nagging fear that had no name until I was “old enough” to know the truth of the persecution. And then, they never did tell me if they were members. And I said, you mean only the FBI will know? This is wonderful and I hope you continue with more musings.

    1. barbararhine

      Ah, Joan, what peculiar forms of suffering we Red Diaper babies endured, no? Still and all, what a heroic identity to have and explore throughout our own lives, when the terms of all this have been so transformed. Sorry for the literal persecution you suffered, though. The damage done by that sort of stuff is nasty and lasting. Maybe the current exploration of bullying in the schools will result in much less tolerance for such awful conduct?

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