America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Essays

Why I Am a Socialist

It is the irreducibly human dimensions of the radical life that are to be most cherished, and most feared.

Sam Adler-Bell

Icon created by the National Design Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America; THR illustration.

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.

Where Powerlessness and Possibility Meet

Before we had podcasts and canvassing for Bernie Sanders, digital media unions and functioning DSA chapters in every city, rose emojis and grousing about coverage of our exploits in the New York Times, the collective life of the radicals in my generation centered on much shabbier and more pathetic private rituals: annual conferences.

Attending these events, sponsored by labor-funded networks of student activists and the dregs of sectarian organizations, was a crucial rite, and not because any important organizing or theorizing was likely to occur. The socialist conferences I attended in my teens and early twenties felt more like trade-shows for obscure hobbyists than political conventions or illuminating salons; more Comic-Con than Third International. But they served an indispensible role. Our numbers were piddling. Convincing ourselves that anything approaching an actual anti-capitalist “movement” existed in America required gathering every single one of us in the same carpeted hotel banquet room at the same time.

It felt good then to be surrounded by comrades, to use the word “comrade” unironically, to permit ourselves the delusion that our antiquarian ideas would someday command serious attention from the majority of any other room. (“Whatever else we were or were not as Communists, we were not lonely,” one party member told Gornick.) And even so, chanting “sí se puede” in unison or fumbling our way through an old Wobbly song, our voices would barely fill the space, much less carry beyond its walls. After a few buoying days of historical cosplay (and, often, desperate, self-conscious flirting), we’d return to the steps of our campus libraries, where we’d go on struggling to collect petition signatures from our disinterested classmates, for whom “socialism,” not unreasonably, remained a moldy artifact of the previous century.

One thing I remember fondly about these confabs, however, was hearing other people’s stories: How had they ended up here? What drew them to “movement” work? What, in other words, had made them socialist? (In those days, a more unlikely outcome than it would seem today.) These weren’t just icebreakers, but an important philosophical revision. If past generations of radicals had perilously expunged the human from the socialist equation, we would make sure to keep the individual in sight, to honor personal experience and its relationship to the common struggle.

Most people had compelling answers: stories of childhood poverty, of fathers suffering workplace injuries, of mothers harassed at their minimum wage jobs, of working 40-hour weeks themselves, on top of classes, to pay for college. Others told stories that linked the labor struggle to other forms of oppression: to being ridiculed for their accents, called slurs, subject to homophobic taunts in high school. Some relayed even more intimate accounts of personal pain and subjection: physical abuse, sexual violence.

What I took from these conversations was not merely the fashionable shibboleth about the interconnectivity of oppressions, though I learned that too. (Good organizers come to appreciate the relationship between the particular and the universal by necessity.) Rather, I learned something about what draws people to collective politics at the gut level—what Gornick calls the “hook on the soul”—about its palliative effect on wounds that might appear orthogonal to the goals of the political work itself. The draw of socialist organizing is not merely moral abhorrence of injustice (as I had conceived it for myself) but a more fundamental, primordial experience of isolation and vulnerability.

In the second half of their stories, my peers narrated how participating in the labor movement, in protest and organizing, had fulfilled them, given them a sense of agency and possibility that their formative experiences of marginalization and exclusion had destroyed. They weren’t stories about victory, necessarily (we had few of those), but about the emotional and psychological reward of struggling toward it. Organizing a union, after all, wouldn’t bring one’s abuser to justice, but it might begin to restore the sense of autonomy and self-ownership that his abuse had undermined. And this wasn’t just a therapeutic metaphor. Radical socialist politics, I came to believe, begins precisely at this point, where personal powerlessness and collective possibility meet.

We are taught to experience our traumas, like our material conditions, as a personal burden: our own responsibility. We are subjected to our lives, encouraged to learn strategies for enduring them—alone. Organizing offers an alternative path: taking the risk of interdependence for the promise of self-sovereignty. Every moment that someone makes that bet—signs a union card, locks arms with a fellow marcher, joins in civil disobedience—is heartbreakingly beautiful to me. Romantic, even.

“Deep inside me I was a wounded, homeless person,” Selma Gardinsky, a Communist born into deep poverty in Brooklyn, tells Gornick. “The Party healed me, gave me the kind of home I could never have made with my husband.… It gave me a home inside myself. Inside.”

A Romance with the Self

Over the years, Gornick has taken pains to distance herself from Romance, which she recently described as “apprentice work.” She chastises herself in the book’s new introduction for the “thick” emotionalism of her prose, sentences “disfigured” by rote qualifiers, and (most of all) a nostalgic attachment to the world of her parents and their “progressive” neighbors, a fondness which, on the page, occludes the “complexity” of her human characters and their moral choices. “To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate,” Gornick writes. “To write about it romantically was not.”

For Gornick, to be romantic is to be compromised. Where ex-Communists in Koestler’s mold tend to speak of leaving the Party as a loss of faith, Gornick understood it as a loss of love. To cherish the “vision of loveliness” that was Marxism and then lose it, “to be thrown back, away from its light and heat” back to “the ordinary greyness of life,” Gornick writes, “was to know a kind of exaltation and dread that can be understood only, perhaps, by those who have loved deeply and suffered the crippling loss of that love.”

For Koestler, the allure of the Party was its promise of intellectual and moral certainty, an answer to every question; its peril was totality, a closed ethical and epistemological universe, in which anything was permitted and nothing was questioned. In Gornick’s view, the Party offered something more alluring, and more dangerous, than outward revelation. Like romantic love, Marxism’s “vision of loveliness” unlocked passionate longings, buried hungers that would steel the lover’s courage, open her to an immensity of experience, to contact with life’s richness and texture, to new depths of feeling, new intensities of thought; and like romance, Communism held the promise of situating—at the center of this thrilling existence, of exquisite sharpness and meaning—the self, fortified with a new capacity for self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-love.

For Gornick’s subjects, Communism was not just a love affair with a utopian eschaton or a beautiful struggle; it was a romance with their selves, with the people they were each and all together becoming. Gardinsky, who was expelled from the Party in 1948, still cherished a vision of “thousands of people, strong and united, made whole, marching beneath the Communist banner, toward a better world, toward their lives.”

“The Communist Party did a lot of terrible things,” Will Barnes, a Wobbly hobo turned Communist sailor tells Gornick, “but one thing I gotta give it: it took raw American clay and made a thinking human being out of it.”

“I saw them becoming as they never dreamed they could become,” said Marian Moran, of her time organizing among the California fruit pickers in the 1930s. “Day by day people were developing, transforming, communicating inarticulate dreams, discovering a force of being in themselves.” “Being and becoming,” Gornick writes, were essential to the appeal of Party work. As Corey Robin wrote in a recent essay on Romance, for Communists, “politics is a compression chamber of the self.”

The trouble with all this, for Gornick, is the same as the trouble with romantic love. That which initially promises intimacy and insight into the self becomes a means of avoiding it. Desire diminishes, passion fades. We stay devoted not so much out of commitment to the beloved object but out of desperate loyalty to the person we have become in relation to it—and out of dumb fear of being alone, ignorant again of ourselves, thrust back into the ambivalent muck of daily, solitary life.

This is why Communists stay. As evidence of Stalinist crimes grows, as directives from the Comintern become more and more capricious, less and less rational, as Party members are enlisted in rituals of expulsion and exposure against each other, it isn’t faith or even love that sustains them. It is dedication to the self they have become, fear of its dissolution. Moran tells Gornick she endured “the narrowness and the stupidity of the Party” for decades out of attachment to the “memory” of “total comradeship” she felt among the fruit pickers in the 1930s. “Nothing else,” she says, “has ever made me feel as alive, as coherent.”

In her life and work, Gornick has repeatedly come to the same conclusion: that seeking personal wholeness in external attachments is a fool’s errand. It always ends in the same place. “One day I woke up to realize the excitement, the longing, the expectation of community was over,” Gornick writes in Approaching Eye Level (1996), of her disillusionment with organized feminist politics. “Like romantic love, the discrepancy between desire and actuality was too large to overcome.” The answer to the riddle of the self, to the question of how to live with dignity and clarity, was not to be found in communion. Just the opposite. The act of forging a self, Gornick concludes, “is a solitary one, more akin to the act of making art than of making family. It acknowledges, even courts, loneliness. Love, on the other hand, fears loneliness, turns sharply away from it.”

Gornick settles on an ethos of radical, rationalist detachment: “Only one’s own working mind, breaks the solitude of the self.”

Behind Gornick’s apparent sympathy for the Communists in her book—her appreciation for their beauty, their courage, their all-too-humanness—is a deeper scorn than Howe, Kramer, or Koestler could summon. It is a loathing born of proximity and self-recognition, and it calls into question the very possibility of collective politics.

Organizing or Manipulating?

I was never good at answering that question, “Why did you become a socialist?” Born into the comfortable economic and ideological clutches of the professional managerial class—my parents are both progressive lawyers, one a union-side labor lawyer, the other, legal aid—becoming a socialist required neither a wholesale rejection nor embrace of my family’s politics. (Either of which would, at least, have provided some fodder for self-narrative.) I experienced traumas, like everyone else, but none to which I could convincingly attach political significance. I was a socialist, I thought, for very simple reasons, arrived at through reading and intellection. It was wrong for the many to toil—their creativity crushed, their capacity for creativity, love, and growth systematically constrained—while the few enjoy the spoils of their productivity. What more should I say?

This was an illusion, of course. My discomfort with the exercise was symptomatic. What was being asked of me was to narrate a legible self, an identity forged through a series of trials and triumphs, and I couldn’t do it. I resented being asked. I was a socialist, wasn’t that enough? I had found, in activism, a sense of self-comfort and security I had never known before. The other leftists I met became my best friends, and in their eyes I was coherent: a radical, an organizer, like them. To reconcile who I was before—ambivalent, fragile, self-loathing, confused—with who I had become was antithetical to the whole enterprise. I am a socialist because I am a socialist. Because it was intolerable to be nothing at all.

A few years later, the union I was interning for—Unite Here, the hotel and service workers union—was accused by former employees of using manipulative, cult-like methods to enforce loyalty and obedience. The tactic went like this: Managers would encourage lower-level organizers to divulge personal information, often stories about past hardships. Later, if the employee ever questioned the dictates of leadership, expressed doubt about a course of action, or complained about the severity of their workload, managers would remind their subordinate about the obstacles they had overcome as a motivation technique. As three former Unite Here organizers put it in an open letter, managers would use the information to convince junior organizers, as well as union members and unorganized workers, that “by following the lead’s direction, they are confronting their fears and insecurities and becoming a stronger person, just like when they dealt with personal hardship in the past.”

One hotel worker turned organizer told the New York Times she was pressured to reveal that her father had sexually abused her and then ordered to “recount her tale of abuse again and again to workers they were trying to unionize.” The practice was known as “pink-sheeting,” after the color of the paper on which private details were recorded; the files were made available to the whole organizing department.

I wasn’t much disturbed by these revelations at the time. At work, I was told that while some organizers might have stepped over the line, the majority of the accusations of pink-sheeting were politically motivated, emanating from partisans in an ongoing turf-war with another service sector union. That made sense to me. Plus, I had experienced firsthand an innocuous analog to the nefarious behavior described in the Times. With remarkable speed, I had developed intimate relationships with my local, both staff and members. Naturally, my lead organizer was interested in me, in my history, but I never felt private details were being solicited, much less coerced. And over time, they helped me tell a story, as I had been loath to do, that linked my core beliefs to my experiences—one I could tell others, so that they too could have access to the well of confidence and commitment inside of them.

This didn’t feel like manipulation; it felt like good organizing. Our tactics, I decided, were being translated through a fog of implication by our rivals and misapprehended by the press. How could a reporter at the Times ever fathom the level of trust, the courage, and sense of mutual obligation required to win a union campaign among low-wage immigrant workers? The very thing being vilified was what made Unite Here so effective: We appreciated the deeper human longings that drove political commitment, not just wages and words, but a desire for liberation from material, emotional, and psychological subjection that can only be achieved in concert.

It would be years before I changed my mind about this. Only after getting to know other former Unite Here organizers from other locals did the perversity of the pink-sheeting scandal come into focus. The union had mechanized a process for compelling allegiance through trauma. They had taken what was genuinely beautiful about solidarity in action—that meeting place between personal helplessness and collective strength—and used it as a tool of submission. What they leveraged was not the mere threat of losing one’s job (that was the capitalist’s game), but the threat of losing one’s identity, of betraying one’s self, the strong and capable hard-won self, fashioned through struggle.

These were the means of coercion of the Communist Party too. In his contribution to The God That Failed, the novelist Richard Wright recounts attending the trial of a friend, Ross, who is to be expelled from the Party. After a litany of exaggerated offenses—betrayals of their common cause—recounted by his former friends, it is Ross’s turn to speak:

“Comrades,” he said in a low, charged voice, “I’m guilty of all the charges, all of them.” His voice broke in a sob. No one prodded him. No one tortured him. No one threatened him. He was free to go out of the hall and never see another Communist. But he did not want to. He could not. The vision of a communal world had sunk down into his soul and it would never leave him until life left him.

Gornick makes much of this passage. What Ross can’t let go of, she writes, is the moment when the “vision of a communal world endowed his life with moral meaning”:

For in that moment there quickened to conscious life in him the longing to give over his own isolation, to take the incomparable risk of shared existence. That moment touched naked need: an unconscious wound made suddenly conscious.11xVivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2020), 17. Originally published 1997.

Ross’s becoming, his “profound self-recognition,” is “inextricably bound up with Marxism and the Party; “the two have become welded together in his emotions; to lose one is of necessity to lose the other.” To lose the Party was to lose himself.

Gornick saw all this among the Communists, and I’ve see it in my life—in the fierceness with which I took to calling myself a socialist, not (entirely) out of moral conviction, but out of desperate need for a community that could fill the empty, sluggish, unknowingness inside me; the feeling of togetherness and fiery hope I have felt, even when our movement was pathetically small; the people transformed, become themselves, by the experience of collective action; and, indeed, in the ways the threat of losing these gifts can be used for acts of cruelty.

For Gornick, the only place to go from here is inward. “Power over one’s own life comes only through the steady command of one’s own thought,” she writes. To her credit, Gornick’s hard-hearted verdict cannot be confused with resignation or sour grapes, a philosophy of the lover scorned. If her work valorizes loneliness, it does so in a particular way, as George Scialabba wrote in a review of Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love, “Not loneliness as deprivation but loneliness as integrity; the possible price…of uncompromised, fully conscious individuality.”22xGeorge Scialabba, “Review of The End of the Novel of Love,” Boston Review, December 1997–January 1998, http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR22.6/Scialabba.html.

But loneliness—or aloneness, at least—can deprive too, in a manner unimagined by the Enlightenment rationalists in whose cause Gornick has become an ambivalent enlistee. To be alone, in a world built around the fictive construct of an unencumbered individualist subject, is to be powerless. And this, I believe, is the essential lesson of the socialist project (and indeed, of the capital-R Romantic project from which it draws energy): that people are denied mastery over their own lives, not primarily by becoming entangled in the amorous affairs of others, but by their bosses, their landlords, by poverty and illness and bad luck. We suffer the loss of selfhood every day, in a million unchosen relationships of domination and subjugation, conditions of unfreedom and want that we can’t think our way out of.

We live now, as did the Communists, in a society that reserves the pleasures of independent self-making for those blessed with material abundance. For the rest, mutuality and interdependence are not choices, but a life-or-death necessity. We might grant that Gornick intends her maxim only for those whose material needs are met. But then we encounter the intractable problem. Creating those material conditions for more people—so that everyone might have a chance to feel a sense of autonomy through independent thought—will require collective action, the toppling of hierarchies that have only ever been challenged by masses of people organized collectively, animated by shared longings and dreams.

And in acting together, there is inevitably the risk of falling in love.