An insightful analysis of radicalism: From Norm Geras’ Writer’s choice 4: Linda Grant

[Linda Grant, novelist and journalist, discusses Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism.]

The men and women who gathered in the evenings at the Gornick house were all immigrants, arguing in Yiddish about Marxism, class history and the single overriding question addressed to every topic: ‘Is it good for the workers?’ Vivian would point to the people round the table and ask, ‘Who is this one? Who is that one?’ And her mother would whisper, ‘He is a writer. She is a poet. He is a thinker.’ Of course, the writer drove a bakery truck, the poet was a sewing machine operator and the thinker stood pressing dresses all day long in a sweat shop, but because they were in the Communist Party they were no longer nameless drones, without rights; they were linked up to something really big which extended to every part of the world, the revolution round the corner. A better world…

Gornick pierces the soul of radicalism. She sees it as born of an innate need to defeat isolation, the struggle of us all to humanize ourselves and what that leads to, engagement. But engagement itself can lead to violence, and violence leads to the very isolation that radicalism seeks to overcome. Political emotions are as much a part of the political experience as the actions that are a consequence of them. The Romance of American Communism has been the text that has been the hook on my own soul, that inability to let go of the passion for a better world, and the distrust I feel for the dogma that socialism always hardens into, moved far beyond that originating light. For what Gornick exposes is the cruelty of the communist movement, how the leadership always hardens into hierarchy. One former member confides:

I had been a devout Christian and now I was a devout Communist. I have always responded to structured authority in this way, once the idea behind the authority seemed absolutely right to me.

The Party denounced, humiliated, spat out its members. They landed, dazed, bewildered and wounded back in Eisenhower America, and suffered for the rest of their lives the pain of that loss.

Gornick writes of the ‘eternally frustrated pursuit of the ideal’.