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Footprints: Our Communist Past

February 22, 2017


by Lawrence Bush This article is one of a series reflecting on the history of Jewish Currents on the occasion of our 65th anniversary (2010). You can find the other entries here. When Jewish Currents and the Workmen’s Circle joined forces in 2004, I heard through the grapevine that a muckety-muck at the American Jewish Congress had described me as a communist. While I was tickled that the guy even knew my name, I was appalled by his gossip, particularly since I thought it likely that to him, as to most Americans, being a communist is seen as morally equivalent to being a Nazi. I’m not a communist, but I’m a red-diaper baby and have known, admired, and loved plenty of communists, including my own parents and grandmother. I count these people as important contributors to the social good in America, particu
larly in the fields of labor organizing, anti-racist activism, folk music, and popular culture — and I have known many of them to be human beings of exceptional conscience, courage, and idealism. Yet I’ve also spent a good deal of energy wrestling with the fact that these very people were in thrall, at least during the more youthful part of their lives, to a virtual religion, with fundamental beliefs that deserve fundamental reexamination. Among those beliefs: that Marxism is a science; that a planned economy will exceed capitalism in both productivity and egalitarianism; that working-class rule will be enlightened and humane; that rulers of the capitalist system are selfish and benighted, while rulers of communist systems are good guys who sometimes make errors; that ‘bourgeois democracy’ is expendable; that human nature is highly malleable, and our personalities, outlooks and ethics are shaped almost exclusively by social influences; that class strug
gle is the motor force of history. To all of which I variously say, maybe, no way, could be, who knows? Reexamination was, in fact, one of the features of Jewish Currents that drew me to serve as its assistant editor back in 1978. In 1956, for example (when I was 4), Jewish Life, the predecessor magazine to JC, had issued a brave mea culpa for failing to recognize and acknowledge the Soviet repression of Jewish culture:
Why did this magazine in the past eight years fail to raise questions concerning the shutting down of Jewish cultural institutions in the Soviet Union? Why did we not suspect foul play in the disappearance of leading Soviet Yiddish writers? Why did we not detect the anti-Semitism injected in the Prague trial?... [W]e had no authoritative information; we had blind faith in the nationalities policies of the Soviet Union; the provable misrepresentations in some reports of anti-Semitism led us to the extreme of questioning the truth of all of them; and the cold war use to which these reports were put led us to reject them as part of the incitation of world war.... These reasons help to explain but not to excuse our failure to protest the anti-Semitism revealed in some reports and activities that should have been apparent to us [italics in the original].
As a refugee from the sectarianism of my own generation’s New Left, I admired the willingness of these old political warriors, with ash on their faces, to retain their idealism yet rethink their views rather than simply slinking away from engagement with the world. When I look back on it, however, their break with communism seems to me late in coming, slow-paced, and disappointingly limited primarily to horror about Stalinism. Their soul-searching might not even have taken place — no capitalist media would have been believed — had not the ‘trusted’ Yiddish communist Warsaw newspaper, Folks-Shtimme, issued its report on the grim fate of Soviet Jews (which Jewish Life published in redacted form in May, 1956). And while these ‘revelations’ about the destruction of Jewish culture in the USSR were shocking and shaming to the magazine’s editors, they never seemed to entertain the possibility, at least not in print, that what the Folks-Shtimme called the “personality cult” of Stalinism was a likely fulfillment, rather than an aberrant outcome, of communism’s most illiberal and widely empowered form, Marxism-Leninism. As late as 1979, Max Gordon — a former editor at the Daily Worker who quit the communist movement in 1958 and served as an advisor and occasional political analyst for Jewish Currents until his death in 1990 — would judge Stalin’s bloody methods to be “a sharp departure from Leninism in many ways,” and concluded (on a rather non-Marxist note) that “the individual’s role [in history] cannot be discounted.” Although JC had by then been publishing independently for more than twenty years, and Gordon had become very active in democratic socialist circles, he did not see fit to raise questions about the bottom-line morality of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ concept, about the vulnerability of a one-party system to 
human rights abuses and economic malfeasance, or about any other potential pitfalls of Marxist-Leninist theory. IN TRUTH, the pages in Jewish Life devoted to re-examination were far outnumbered by the pages that had reprinted the speeches of international communist leaders without analysis, certainly without dissent; that paid homage to Soviet Yiddish culture even while it was being obliterated; that defended the 1952 Slansky trial (in which fourteen Czech Communists, eleven of them Jews, were purged and executed) as well as the Doctors’ Plot, Stalin’s final terror campaign (judged by Jewish Life to be untinged by anti-Semitism and possibly rooted in the defendants’ guilt!); that insisted not only on the miscarriage of justice in the Rosenberg and Sobell trials but on the complete innocence of the defendants; that cried ‘fascism!’ about McCarthyism without ever raising alarms about the actual political murder going on simultaneously in the USSR. At the same time, however, Jewish Life also devoted large amounts of space to vital domestic American issues on which the communist movement took uniquely forthright and commendable stands. In the early 1950s, for example, the magazine annually marked ‘Negro History Week’ and detailed the hard centuries of African-American oppression with articles by W.E.B. DuBois and other scholars. In February, 1955, Jewish Life editor Louis Harap urged the Jewish community to go beyond legal briefs and rhetorical support for the nascent civil rights movement by building a Jewish mass movement for integrated housing, with an eye on the North, not just the South. “[I]t is quite usual,” Harap observed (“Why Jews Fight Segregation,” 1955),
... that movement of Negroes into white neighborhoods is often followed by the exodus of white people, including Jews. Jewish organizations should carry on intensive educational programs among their own members to change such attitudes... [and] carry on militant campaigns against Jim Crow housing... jointly with Negro and all democratic organizations.
Other articles urged socialist development and Cold War neutrality in the young state of Israel. They accurately viewed McCarthyism as hazardous not only to communists but to the entire fabric of American democracy. They celebrated Jewish resistance to Nazism, especially but not exclusively in the Warsaw Ghetto. They opposed the importation of Nazi emigres, including war criminals, into Cold War America. They uncovered the radical history of the Jewish labor movement. They celebrated folk culture, especially Yiddish folk culture. They consistently linked anti-Semitism to racism and the well-being of Jews to the well-being of other minority groups. Jewish Life thus embodied the admirable, build-a-better-world idealism and vigorous activism of the communist movement, alongside its obtuse, sectarian mindset. I DO NOT HOLD my family members, or the early editors of this magazine, in any way responsible for the mountains of corpses associated with Marxist-Leninist history, any more than I hold the average priest, nun or parishioner responsible for the Inquisition or the bloody religious imperialism of the Catholic Church over the course of centuries. Those corpses do, however, make apologias for the communist past seem obscene to me. The grim facts are that under one-party rule in the USSR, China, and in several other lands, thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands or even millions, were killed as ‘class enemies’ or ‘enemies of the state;’ tens of millions more died from famines caused by economic incompetence, class warfare, forced collectivization, brutally paced industrialization, and utopian economic schemes that no one dared to criticize, given the lack of a free press, free speech, an impartial judicial system, and meaningful elections. Over half a million people are reported to have died in the Soviet Union’s gulag during World War II — the great majority of them innocent of any significant misdeeds — and by the early 1950s, some two million people were enslaved there. A decade later, the mass mobilization of Chinese society in the name of industrialization (the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ 1958-1961) brought death by starvation to more than twenty million. Less than fifteen years after that, the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ and Kampuchea into hell, with the slaughter of a quarter of the population by murder or famine in less than four years. Estimates of these casualties vary widely, but even the low-end numbers (which I have presented here) are appalling, moving me to wish that progressive Jews would commemorate these losses even half as avidly as they commemorate the victims of fascism. Instead, I occasionally hear skepticism about the ‘reliability’ of such statistics expressed by ex-communists and Marxists, including readers of our magazine. These challenges are disturbingly analogous to Holocaust denial: to disbelieve the figures, you have to believe in a monumental conspiracy on the part of survivors and Zionists when it comes to the six million, and on the part of survivors, historians, journalists, and their paymasters, both here and in the former Soviet Union, when it comes to the casualties of communism. More often, folks on the left acknowledge the casualties but then point to the other mountain range of corpses, piled up by worldwide capitalism and its associated plagues, colonialism and imperialism: the millions enslaved in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the sixteen million killed in World War I, the two million deaths in the American war in Vietnam, the millions more killed or worked to death in the exploited and repressed lands of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. At the risk of sounding sophomoric, I tell them that two wrongs (or two hundred million wrongs) don’t make a right. The rejection of Marxist-Leninist communism need 
not signify an embrace of capitalism and its evils. The very idea that we must always ‘take sides’ and therefore withhold our critique of ‘our team’ was a major source of American communist enthrallment and should have been discarded decades ago. Others deny that the systems under scrutiny were communist or even socialist, and apply labels like ‘deformed socialism’ or ‘state capitalism’ to them. It was this perspective that led the East German leftist critic Rudolf Bahro to title his 1977 book, A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Socialism (which he could publish only in the West, for which he was sentenced to prison for eight years). As one Jewish proverb puts it, “If one person says you have ass’s ears, take no notice; if two say so, saddle up.” Call it what you will, what the world calls ‘communism’ is the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship model. Finally, most of the ex-communists I know tell me that they were never really that interested in communist ideology, but in the idealism, community, culture, and activism of communist life — what Vivian Gornick has called the “romance” of the movement. When the calamitous reality of Stalinism sunk into their hearts and minds, it felt like a profound betrayal of their ideals, their sense of virtue, and their excitement about being involved in building a better world. In the face of such disillusionment, however, it’s hard for me to believe that a response of ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again’ is really morally or psychologically adequate. Though I have been far more a witness to, than a participant in, this drama of disillusionment, I have felt required by the terrible reality of Marxist-Leninist history to undertake a more profound reconsideration of the whole communist gestalt — most especially as the editor of this magazine. My motives are political, not personal, and forward-looking, not backward-looking. Very simply, communism made a dirty word out of socialism in America (not to mention in most of the countries that have experienced the system at first hand). Public ownership of industry, social welfare programs, universal health insurance, secure jobs and pensions, public housing, government regulation, environmental protection — all of these devices for building a less anxious and more equitable society can today be pissed on by American conservatives as ‘socialism,’ which, thanks to Marxist-Leninist history, is linked in the public mind with the loss of freedom and prosperity. Yet the future of our civilization and our planet clearly depends upon the diminishment of corporate power and the enhancement of public accountability, the diminishment of the wealth gap and the enhancement of working-class power, the diminishment of ‘rugged individualism’ and the enhancement of a communal sensibility — in other words, the diminishment of the capitalist spirit and the enhancement of the socialist spirit. Martin Buber, the great socialist Zionist philosopher, put it beautifully: “We will not persist in existence,” he warned nearly a century ago, “if we do not learn anew to persist in it as a genuine We.” CULTIVATING THAT “GENUINE WE” is the work of socialists. We do not need Marxist analysis, or a ‘dialectical materialist outlook,’ or ‘democratic centralism,’ or any of the other shibboleths of communism to pursue that work effectively. It is therefore long past time for us to unlink our socialist aspirations from our ineradicably compromised communist histories, and to seek other sources of support for our affirmations of human interdependence. Such affirmations can be rooted in contemporary science, for example — real science — which points to humanity’s shared homeland, Africa, our shared mitochondrial mother, and the insignificance of skin color. They can also be rooted in the reality of family: the fact that we were each parented, born through the blending of human beings, raised through the efforts of human community. A socialist outlook is even embodied in what people often call spirituality, our capacity to transcend the self through love, nature, group singing, political struggle, etc. At bottom, ‘spirituality’ is simply the surging recognition that we are interconnected in a fabric of life. Cultivating the “genuine We” is also a central obsession of Judaism. Ours is not a faith of individual salvation but a tradition that assumes, as Judith Plaskow has put it, that “to be a person is to find oneself from the beginning... shaped, nourished and sustained in community...” This is strongly expressed in the all-important economic realm, in which Judaism consistently subordinates private property to the needs of the larger social network. There is the Torah tradition of the Jubilee year, which assures that the rising of some families into wealth and the sinking of others into poverty gets curbed through the redistribution of land every half century. (Imagine such a system of redistribution in America!) There is the everyday tradition of tsedoke, the mandatory redistribution of wealth in the name of justice, which the Talmud calls “equal to all the other commandments.” (Imagine that attitude towards taxation in America!) There are numerous proclamations of the full humanity of both rich and poor, and of the whole community’s responsibility for social and economic uplift. (Imagine that attitude in our cruel and individualistic country.) Ancient Jewish laws about agricultural land consistently compromise private property rights to allow the community to share in nature’s resources. Other laws ban predatory marketplace practices such as false advertising, windfall profiteering, and worker exploitation. There are laws against armaments sales and other forms of assistance to “perpetrators of evil deeds,” and there are laws that can be readily interpreted in opposition to union-busting, excessive compensation, wholesale layoffs and other forms of corporate abuse. (Imagine...) And if all of this is just too religious or theoretical for you, we have two and a half centuries of secular Jewish history, activist Jews pursuing the social good in real life, as activists, union organizers, democratizing capitalists, creative artists, progressive philanthropists. From A to Z, we can construct a very full history of the pursuit of the the “genuine We” in America just by filling in Jewish names. Many of them were Marxist-Leninists, bless their souls, but not nearly all. I’m not making some utopian claim here that Jewish life through the ages has been one of justice, harmony and equal opportunity for all — only that socialist theory, or a theory of human interdependence, has rich sources other than Marxist literature. Those sources include Jewish texts, which a Jewish magazine like ours would be well-advised to plumb as part of our search for usable, progressive alternatives to the current individualistic, unsustainable system. IN AN EDITORIAL in the last issue of JC, we quoted Rabbi Leo Baeck describing the Jewish people as “sons of the revolution, daughters of the revolution.” This remains the taproot of my Jewish identity: Unlike other red-diaper babies who became disillusioned with the illusions of their parents, I have not cast my lot with conservatives and capitalists but remain a “son of the revolution,” a critic of the status quo, a believer in the idea that human beings, working and planning together, can achieve far more good than is yielded by the anarchic power-struggles of the so-called ‘marketplace.’ The revolutions that I consider to be my inheritance, however, and the ones that I believe should most inform our magazine, are not the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese, but the uprising against slavery that we Jews celebrate each year at Passover — and the American revolution, which has been slowly unfolding since July 4th, 1776. And that’s just a start. World history is replete with examples of non-Marxist socialism, from the communal practices of the early Christians, to Robert Owen’s New Harmony society in early 19th-century America, to the Diggers of 17th-century England and 20th-century San Francisco, to the Abahlali baseMjondolo, or ‘shackdwellers movement,’ in post-apartheid South Africa. The State of Israel, too, was socialist in its original design, and modern Europe has balanced its capitalism with social democratic innovations of all kinds. These experiments, and dozens of other approaches to socialist economics, culture and consciousness, have been consigned to oblivion in the U.S. by the dark shadows of Marxism-Leninism. It is high time to bring them into the light again. Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.