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The Russia News

May 26, 2022 4:14 pm

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Soviet Roulette: Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism


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Vivian Gornick, where have you been all my life?  As famous and prolific as she is, I don’t remember ever reading anything by Vivian Gornick before.  I actually just stumbled upon her this week when I encountered a short book of her insightful literary essays entitled, The Men in My Life.  Loving this small book, I moved on to a larger book, The Romance of American Communism.  This book is phenomenal.  A work of oral history, The Romance of American Communism traces the rise and fall of American Communism by relying on many of its surviving members.  Gornick was perfectly positioned to write this book.  A product of of the New York Jewish Left, Gornick grew up around every shade of American socialist, cooperative enthusiast,  trade unionist, Wobbly-descendent, and communist.  She also writes beautifully, and seems just how to conduct interviews that honor their subjects without a critical spirit of inquiry.  The variety of communist experience was of course vast, and Gornick captures that variety.  Still, Gornick’s respondents elucidate some big and unifying themes in the movement.  Many people were practically born into communism, especially those whose families emigrated from Tsarist Russia or other lands of poverty and persecution.  Others were appalled by the Depression and specific injustices, often in the California agriculture districts.  Many communists were attracted to the idea that they were participating in something larger themselves.  Interestingly, a great many men and women said communism helped them to “discover” politics for the first time.  In other words, prior to recruitment, these men and women had no way to explain their lives, and how those lives connected to communities, and how those communities connected to the world at large.  After recruitment, these men and women had a diagnosis for what was wrong in the world, and felt that they could make a difference.  Over time, communism was confronted with state-sanctioned harassment.  Also, Stalin’s Show Trials and later Soviet conduct in the Cold War did much to dampen the enthusiasm of American communists.  But even after the diminution and end of the American communist movement, former communists remembered how much the movement had meant to them.  Participation in the Party had given their lives meaning.  They had made friends and lovers by way of their political activity.  Some were disillusioned, but even many of these were convinced that nothing else in their lives had been so important, so meaningful.  

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