Protest, Passion, Politics (Review Essay)Historians in the News
tags: Communism, radicalism, left politics
What a difference forty-five years makes! Gornick’s book is now rereleased by Verso, the premier leftwing book publisher of our time. Jacobin has already published two congratulatory pieces by Hannah Proctor and Laura Tanenbaum and hosted a podcast about it. The Nation, which had been fairly critical in its original review by Ronald Radosh (the ex-Communist, ex-leftist, almost ex-Radosh), has now published a fiercely admiring one by political theorist Corey Robin, and the New Republic, which had formerly been warm albeit critical of factual errors in a fine appraisal by David Caute, has revisited the book with a wholly laudatory one by Sophie Pinkham. In These Times and Dissent have similarly published second reviews, the former by Micah Uetricht, completely admiring, and the latter by Alyssa Battistoni, generous and thoughtful. In December the Los Angeles Review of Books as well devoted considerable space to a celebratory commentary on it by Lana Dee Povitz. The titles tell it all: “The Humanity of American Communism,” “What Today’s Socialists Can Learn From the Heyday of American Communism,” “What Vivian Gornick Got Right,” “How Vivian Gornick Reinvigorated Political Writing,” and so on. This generation gets it.
The question remains, however, whether this reception might also translate the lessons of the book into the serious business of building a new socialist movement. In the 1960s hundreds of thousands of young people were drawn to an activist left, and in the 1970s a variety of new revolutionary groups popped up, while old ones revived like both flowers and toadstools after a spring rain. Nevertheless, all went into steep decline during subsequent decades of backlash. Even so, as social movements diminished in size, Marxist ideas remained a permanent and dynamic fixture of the intellectual landscape as a Third Wave of feminism became ascendant, Gay Liberation moved toward LGBTQ rights, and intersectionality became de rigueur among anti-racists.
The pattern of history suggests that intervals of retreat and repression come and go, while the radical tradition hangs around to be rediscovered and revived when the population is prodded by dramatic events. This nudging transpired as the new millennium generated a steady march of endless war in the Middle East, grotesque financial mismanagement and heightened inequality, environmental disaster, and the ability to record police murders of African Americans on video. The evolving sequence of domestic protests—together with the opening to discuss class politics afforded by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign—has now metamorphosed into a yearning for a fresh take on socialism by the best and the brightest young people of our time. And many of them mean business.
A year ago New Left Review hosted a symposium of such activists members of the once ultra-moderate Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), now 66,000-strong (not far behind CPUSA’s peak membership of 85,000), in which the first participant explained: “only organized socialists can consolidate the gains of the class struggle, assimilate the lessons of the international working class and bring these to a new generation.” To old-time ’68ers like myself, this is a familiar truism; some of us have devoted much of our lives to addressing the problem and failed miserably to achieve anything that could even compare to the heyday of the Old Left. Since we live under the long shadow of memories of the disastrous fate of the relatively unstructured and extemporaneous Arab Spring in Egypt, it’d hard not to agree that this formula—organized socialists—encapsulates the foremost challenge faced by the present far left. Massive new protests are erupting but they are as yet without clear-cut national leadership, have been (understandably) organized on the fly, and are driven by slogans that can evolve in various but not yet fully determined directions. This situation goes a long way toward explaining why The Romance of American Communism still matters.
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