It’s common, and sometimes perilous, to overestimate the strength of the young socialist movement in America today (of which I count myself a member). Social media distorts and inflates our numbers; political affiliations are mutable and incoherent; we don’t even agree on what socialism is. But it’s easy too—amid the nearsighted thrill of living in tumultuous times—to forget just how marginal we were even ten years ago. Calling oneself a “socialist” in the early aughts was like being a model plane enthusiast, a stamp collector, a big fan of ragtime: legible from the outside only as an irrelevant but vaguely embarrassing anachronism. Our peers, those who noticed us, looked on with pity and indifference: Everyone has their thing, I guess.
In a new introduction to her 1977 book The Romance of American Communism, reissued in April of this year by Verso Books after several years as an out-of-print cult classic, Vivian Gornick appears to share my befuddlement. “Today the idea of socialism is peculiarly alive,” she writes, “especially among young people in the United States, in a way it has not been for decades.” I don’t share Gornick’s surprise, however, that Romance, an oral history of the American Communist Party told in the voices of a few dozen (breathtakingly articulate) ex-Party members, has inspired some of these very same radicals. As she told New York Magazine in January, “I don’t know why they want to read it.”
I think I do. When I first read Romance ten years ago (a worn, first-edition copy from my university library), I felt a shock of recognition. Against the regretful, didactic, and ironic tone that characterized accounts of the Party written in the ’50s and ’60s—epitomized by Arthur Koestler’s contribution to The God That Failed, a volume of essays by ex-Communists published in 1949, which together tend to convey, in Gornick’s view, an “atmosphere of ‘otherness’…as though something not quite recognizable, something vaguely nonhuman was being described”—she sought to excavate the passionate, embracing affair of Communism as it was lived by people like her mother and father, Jewish working-class “progressives” in the Bronx. “Only rarely do I glimpse them, as I knew and felt them, in the volumes and volumes that have sought to interpret the experience…” Gornick writes, “and almost never do I…feel on the page the fierce emotional pull of that life—awesome, hungering, deeply moving—they all led.”
Writing against the caricature of the Communist as either inhuman monster or a brainwashed naïf, Gornick was forced to get closer to the root of the matter, isolate the rudimentary features of radical attachment—an “intensity of illumination that tore at the soul”—from the slipshod narrative scaffolding of anti-Communist catechism. Romance, the distillate of this process, succeeds where most writing about political participation fails, capturing something of what it really feels like to be a radical, to believe in a better world, to glimpse and fight for it alongside people you love. Gornick’s Communists are not “robotized creatures enslaved by mindless authoritarianism,” but men and women awakened to a “longing…to take the incomparable risk of shared existence.”
To her contemporaries, however, this effort was indistinguishable from apologia, untimely and irresponsible. The book was panned by the likes of Joseph Clark and Irving Howe. (Howe’s vicious review, Gornick has said, “sent [her] to bed for a week.”) Communism was not a “romance;” it was inhumanity on a world historic scale—not love, but its opposite. An abnegation of the individual thinking and feeling self, Communist devotion destroys the conditions that make love possible. “Miss Gornick is more interested in togetherness, in the idea of community and self surrender and in something she calls ‘passion’ than in any thing resembling political experience,” wrote Hilton Kramer in a withering New York Times review. It was “odious” historical malpractice, Kramer thought, to separate that passion from its object: “serv[ing] the interests of the Soviet terror machine.”
What her critics missed, however, was that for Gornick, to call Communism a “romance” was not to diminish its insidiousness, but to elevate it. “Marxism was for those who became Communists what Helen was for Paris,” Gornick writes, “a hunger” with a powerful “life of its own.” If her portrait is “humanizing,” that’s only because she refuses to absolve the human. “[The Communists] were like everybody else, only more so,” Gornick writes. “What was in them is in all of us, only more so.… They feared, hungered, and cared more.”
In the encounter of the self with totalizing ethical demands (i.e., radicalism), the self has certain advantages. Only love, longing, passion can overcome the gap, stitch them together. It is for this reason, the stubborn persistence of human capacities, human whims, human jealousies and needs—not, as many anti-Communists would have it, their disavowal—that leftist movements are capable of cruelty and error. For Gornick, this is the tragic bind of the Communist romance: It is the irreducibly human dimensions of the radical life that are to be most cherished, and most feared.