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Comrades

The inner life of American communism.

By Corey Robin

May 5, 2020

The Young Communist League, 1929.(Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images)

The communist stands at the crossroads of two ideas: one ancient, one modern. The ancient idea is that human beings are political animals. Our disposition is so public, our orientation so outward, we cannot be thought of apart from the polity. Even when we try to hide our vices, as a character in Plato’s Republic notes, we still require the assistance of “secret societies and political clubs.” That’s how present we are to other people and they to us.

The modern idea—that of work—posits a different value. Here Weber may be a better guide than Marx. For the communist, work means fidelity to a task, a stick-to-itiveness that requires clarity of purpose, persistence in the face of opposition or challenge, and a refusal of all distraction. It is more than an instrumental application of bodily power upon the material world or the rational alignment of means and ends (activities so ignoble, Aristotle thought, as to nearly disqualify the laborer from politics). It is a vocation, a revelation of self.

The communist brings to the public life of the ancients the methodism of modern work. In all things be political, says the communist, and in all political things be productive. Anything less is vanity. Like the ancients, the communist looks outward, but her insistence on doing only those actions that yield results is an emanation from within. Effectiveness is a statement of her integrity. The great sin of intellectuals, Lenin observed, is that they “undertake everything under the sun without finishing anything.” That failing is symptomatic of their character—their “slovenliness” and “carelessness,” their inability to remain true to whatever cause or concern they have professed. The communist does better. She gets the job done.

In their heyday, the communists were the most political and most intentional of people. That made them often the most terrifying of people, capable of violence on an unimaginable scale. Yet despite—and perhaps also because of—their ruthless sense of purpose, communism contains many lessons for us today. As a new generation of socialists, most born after the Cold War, discovers the challenges of parties and movements and the implications of involvement, the archive of communism, particularly American communism, has become newly relevant. So have two commentaries on that archive: Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, originally published in 1977 and reissued this year, and Jodi Dean’s Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging.

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I first read The Romance of American Communism in the summer of 1993. Gornick had already written her well-regarded memoir Fierce Attachments, as well as several other works of criticism. But at the time, she was largely a writer’s writer, known mostly to a smallish circle of dedicated readers. I was one of them. A graduate student in political science, I was living with my girlfriend, also a graduate student, in Tennessee. She was working on a dissertation on communities in Appalachia organizing—often unsuccessfully—against plant closings, which soon turned into a meditation on political failure. I was working on a dissertation on the political theory and practice of fear from Hobbes to McCarthyism and the Cold War.

As these topics suggest, it was a bad time for the left and not just in Tennessee. Bill Clinton and the Democrats were pivoting from deficit reduction to NAFTA. Marxism, one of my advisers told me on the first day of graduate school, was for antiquarians. Nobody was interested in an out-of-print oral history of American communism. I found Gornick’s book entirely by accident, in a used bookstore on a highway outside Knoxville, Tennessee, and in the course of trying to figure out who the communists were and why they frightened the American establishment so, I discovered how little they conformed to Cold War stereotypes, which, as it turns out, were also my own.

According to midcentury writers like Lionel Trilling and Arthur Koestler, communists were dead souls who had handed themselves over to an alien force, not out of any desire to see justice done or a world transformed but to escape the burdens of individuality and responsibility. Communism was an evacuation of self, an escape from freedom. Though many of these writers had once been communists—or probably because they had once been communists—they could not, looking back, reconstruct the felt experience of living people. Instead they pioneered a form, the autobiography of an ex-zombie, in which a desolation described from without reveals a desolation within, as if to say to the reader, as Gornick writes in the book’s opening chapter, “I can taste the ashes but I cannot recall the flame.”

Gornick’s task in Romance was clear. She wanted to rekindle that flame not for warmth but for illumination, to retrieve the truth of the communist experience, as it was lived from the inside, from the highbrow obscurantism of Cold War liberalism. Instead of othering and dehumanization, there would be humanism and recognition; instead of zombies, there would be a self, a person “who, in contact with a political vision, was made more human than he ever dreamed he could be.” The literary mode Gornick settled on—writerly profiles of more than 40 communists, in which a diversity of men and women (“They Came From Everywhere” is the title of an early chapter) speak in their own words (or Gornick’s version of their words) for pages at a time—also seemed drawn from the Cold War. With its confessional voice and authorial presence, the book could be read either as New Journalism from the 1960s and the 1970s (Hilton Kramer called it a “particularly odious” instance of the form) or as a forerunner of the social histories of the Communist Party that came out in the 1980s and sought to rescue the communist from the enormous incomprehension of posterity. The only way out of the Cold War, Romance seemed to suggest, was to work through it. That’s what Gornick offered: a passage through and exit from a long and lonely corridor of mind.

Today, Gornick’s book reads differently, less bound by the genres and concerns of the Cold War. Her effort to reconstruct the communist experience seems less a rescue operation of the self than a reconfiguration of the self in classical terms. One former communist, for example, tells her that in the party there was little discussion of personal life; there was only politics. But despite knowing almost nothing of his comrades’ lives, he “felt an intimacy” with them that he will “never feel again.” His point is obvious: Members of the Communist Party may not have issued reports from the interior, but they did disclose themselves, through action, through the dailiness of their lived commitments. Though mindful of the psyche and the originality of its demands—one communist tells Gornick, “The party was down on Freud, but in the Bronx we said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but your mother’s important anyway’”—communists found their confessional in public life. People became “real to me only in political engagement,” says another communist.

Such testimony recalls the literature of ancient Greece, in which character is revealed, not destroyed, through political action. And if character is destroyed through politics, it is not because the actor has recklessly sought wholeness in a place where wholeness is not to be had, as liberal anti-communists so often have claimed. It is because politics is a compression chamber of the self. There we grapple with our conflicting duties to one another, cope with failure and loss, imagine and honor the presence of others, and struggle to distinguish what is from what must be, with no sheltering warmth of privacy, no safe rooms for experiment or error. Our everyday fumblings are enacted in the brightest, most unforgiving light. The pressure is enormous; the insight, nearly blinding. “The Communist experience is of epic proportions, arousing to pity and terror,” Gornick writes. “It is a metaphor for fear and desire on the grand scale, always telling us more—never less—of what it is to be human.” Her title invokes romance, but her content is also tragedy. Even her use of pseudonyms takes on an archaic cast: What seemed during the Cold War an effort to protect the anonymity of individuals ruined or threatened by the blacklist now appears as a gallery of archetypes, with resonant names like Blossom Sheed and Belle Rothman, whose suffering is less singular and whose knowledge (or failed attempt at knowledge) is less personal.

The Greeks believed that the political self is a philosophical self, someone who turns the world into a question in the hope of identifying what is amenable to political art and what lies beyond it, what is transitory and what is permanent. While the Greeks were assured of an ongoing, often aristocratic physical space for that reflection, the modern world finds that space in the serendipity of subaltern struggle. In the newly liberated zones of the decolonized world, people once again could, as Fanon put it, ask a set of “theoretical questions.” Schooled in a power they never thought they possessed, they could now begin to wonder, “Why did certain regions never see an orange before the war of liberation, whereas thousands of tons were shipped annually; why had so many Algerians never seen grapes, whereas millions of grapes were dispatched for the enjoyment of Europeans?”

So it goes with Gornick’s communists. One woman was obsessed with the question of why people are poor. Initially, she was alone with her thoughts; her husband refused to speculate about it with her, so she walked out on him and her child. But then she discovered that she could ask such questions in the party, and not only that: She could ask such questions in concert, sometimes with the immediacy of the Greeks but more often in the mediated spaces of modern politics. “There I was in West Virginia, for Chrissake,” one communist tells Gornick, but by reading the Daily Worker and attending party meetings, “I knew what was going on in New York, Moscow, Hungary.” Communism created a different agora on a different scale. It traversed the world, and it made work and the workplace—topics so charged for the Greeks that they approached them only with the greatest trepidation and confusion—the centerpieces of reflection and action. But communism also offered the closest approximation to the ancient intimacy between philosophy and politics the modern world has seen. “Marx was their Socrates,” writes Gornick, “the Party was their Plato, world socialism their Athens.”

Toward the end of Republic, the perfect city deteriorates into a variety of lesser regimes. People begin to care more for their own wealth and power than the well-being of the whole. The rot sets in with the family, where an alliance of ambition between sons and mothers conspires against the father who struggles, virtuously if haplessly, to hold on to civic values. If Platonic politics elicits an ever-wider consciousness of worlds beyond one’s own, the family sustains a competing enterprise, sapping the public of its civic energy. This was not the cause of communism’s undoing. But Gornick still locates a troubled family romance at the center of her book, one that focuses on the dyad between fathers and daughters.

Romance begins with a memory of Gornick’s father working hard all day and the sacred place of that work in the family lore. When she was 13, her father died. In 1956, Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes, and a twentysomething Gornick finds herself confronting her ambivalently left-wing mother and still-committed communist aunt; neither is willing to denounce Stalin or the Soviet Union. Her aunt responds with the most desperate curse she can imagine: “Louie Gornick must be turning over in his grave, that his daughter has become a Red-baiter.”

Fathers figure in many of the stories Gornick hears from the women she interviews. Some are remembered as inspirations, loving examples of proletarian virtue that the daughters try to honor in their party work. Others are remembered as tyrants whom these women have to overthrow in order to become their communist selves. But whether the fathers’ contributions are negative or positive—and most of the stories here are positive—they are a critical element in the political formation of their daughters. “Oh, these Communist women and their fathers!” Gornick writes. She dedicates the book “to the memory of Louis Gornick.” That, it turns out, may be the real romance of American communism.

But if the bond between fathers and daughters is a romance, it is also a threat. The promise of the communist experience was, in part, the offer of a new identity that would unfasten ties of kinship and family. Not only would the party become the “overriding element of identity, the one which subsumed all others,” but it would also be an identity that men and women could partake in equally. All that mattered was doing the work. It didn’t matter if the work was high or low, intellectual or manual; all work had “the same value,” as long as it contributed to the cause. What these stories of fathers and daughters reveal, then, is not just the differential impact of gender on self—Gornick shows that the inspiration of the father in the family does not always mitigate the subordination of the daughter in the party—but the persistence of competing forms of identity as well, including, as Benjamin Nathans wrote in The New York Review of Books several years ago, the most ancient one of all: the family.

In Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka, three Soviet officials are sent to Paris on a mission. But instead of doing the work, they’re bewitched and bourgeoised by the City of Lights. They drink, they dance, they stay out late. Moscow dispatches an envoy to set the rogues straight. They anxiously await the envoy’s arrival at the train station. When they discover the envoy is a striking woman nicknamed Ninotchka (played by Greta Garbo), they’re enchanted. A “lady comrade!” one exclaims. But Ninotchka is not amused. “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood,” she tells them. “We’re here for work, all of us.”

That struggle—between an identity based on gender (or nation, race, or class) and the solidarity of doing the work—is at the heart of Jodi Dean’s Comrade. One of the most innovative and imaginative political theorists on the contemporary scene, Dean uses this scene in Ninotchka and a thoughtfully curated library of other texts, from the writings of the Soviet avant-garde to oral histories of the Black Belt, to argue for a communism that is stringent yet pleasurable, joyous yet disciplined. Like Ninotchka, Dean’s here for the work. Like Lubitsch, she makes it fun.

Comrade is part of a trilogy of texts Dean has written over the past decade on the political theory of communism. In The Communist Horizon, she identified the transcendence of capitalism as the ambit of the left’s actions. In Crowds and Party, she located those actions in the party form. In Comrade, she examines the relation between members of the party. That relation creates two force fields. The first lies between members of the party, where a regulative ideal of being a “good comrade” not only governs the actions of each but also binds the actions of all. That binding creates a massive amount of power, which then projects a second force field—against the agents and institutions of capitalism that comrades seek to overthrow. The attraction of the first force field is necessary for the repulsion of the second. Seasoned union organizers know the truth of these force fields all too well; as Dean shows, so did anti-communists like George Orwell. Yet it is a truth many on the left ignore or evade. “If the left is as committed to radical change as we claim,” Dean insists, “we have to be comrades.”

All politics require a space—a place where people can assemble, deliberate, and if necessary, move—and domains of action, which may include the economy, religion, sexuality, health, and more. What makes comrades unique is that it is the relationship among them that creates both types of space: where they assemble and what they assemble for. The word “comrade,” Dean explains, “derives from camera, the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault.” (Much like “cadre,” from the Latin quadrum, or square.) Rooms and vaults can be identical and easily reproducible. They provide cover or shelter. They differentiate those within from those without. Comrades create all of these effects by their affect, “a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity,” and by their activity. Whereas work in a capitalist society is sustained by the coercion of the market, the work of comrades is powered by their commitment to one another, which derives from their close quarters (psychically speaking) and their commitment to the task at hand. The two commitments are mutually reinforcing. “One wants to do political work,” Dean writes, because of one’s attachment to one’s comrades, and one is attached to one’s comrades because one wants to do the work.

Yet comradeship exceeds those affects and attachments. It must, for our sympathies are momentary, our purposes inchoate. Sometimes we fly to the assemblies, ready to do the work of the collective; other times, we laze about at home, succumbing to other desires or hesitation about our aims. Comradeship turns longing into intention and sustains that intention after the originating rush has dissipated. Comradeship extends the life of the crowd. It fulfills the function that labor historians have ascribed to the best union bureaucracies, which prolong solidarity after the strike, and that Arendt ascribed to constitutions, which institutionalize the aims and ambitions of the revolutionary moment after that moment has ceased. Comradeship does that work without the law or the state. It is instead an “ego ideal,” to use Dean’s Freudian language, maintained by the comrades themselves.

That attempt to create a political space without relying on the law or the state is where we find the most intense unity of the ancients in all their outwardness and the moderns in all their inwardness. It is also where communism—and left politics in general—is most vulnerable to criticism and complaint.

The effort of comrades to create and sustain a public space entirely through the psychic mechanisms of the ego ideal puts tremendous, almost inhuman pressure on them and their work. Without the customary supports of public life—whether the institutions of the state (after communism comes into power is a different story) or familiar sources of identity and attachment—comrades must ensure that each and every waking hour of their lives is dedicated to the common work of comrades. It is a demanding and unforgiving ideal, for much is at stake in any one person’s withdrawal from it. Yes, the work is performed in common with comrades, and the force field between them is mighty in its effects. Yet the force field is vulnerable to the competing energy of other forms of identification and attachment.

Our other identities and attachments don’t simply disappear because the comrade declares them gone. They constantly clamor for our attention. Conversely, if those identities and attachments don’t sap the comrade of her energy and commitment, they may become all too tempting substitutes for the true work of comradeship. How many communists and leftists have taken this shortcut, forsaking political argument for simpleminded appeals to a worker’s identity or to national citizenship or gender or ethnic affiliation as the basis for action? How many activists have spoken those words of promise and threat—“You’re one of us”—that are so resonant in families yet so dangerous to politics? Tribalism comes in many varieties, and it would be foolish to think the comrade is not immune to its calls.

That moment of Ninotchka’s arrival in the Paris train station offers Dean another instructive mise-en-scène. As the three Soviets scan the platform, wondering who the comrade from Moscow might be, they spy a passenger who fits their expectations. They’re just about to extend a welcome when the passenger greets someone else, with a salute of “Heil Hitler.” The Soviets freeze. “That’s not him,” one of them says. Their mistake is productive for Dean. They’re assuming the comrade is a specifiable type—a gender, a face, a look—but comrades are “generic”; they don’t look like anyone or anything. They don’t have a specific identity. Comrades can be anybody, though not, Dean adds wryly, with a nod to that fascist, everybody. Anybody can do the work, and anyone who does the work will enjoy the solidarity of comrades. “We don’t even need to know each other’s names,” an activist tells her. “We’re comrades.”

The solidarity of political work is not a subject well examined in the canonical literature of politics—Weber, one of the few theorists to think about politics as work, focused almost exclusively on charismatic leaders, not collectives—but it is a concern of vital interest to the left. Socialists of varying stripes have often looked to the workplace (or warfare) as laboratories of solidarity. So taken by the coordinated nature of modern work were the Saint-Simonians, for example, that they designed vests with buttons in the back so that no one could dress without the cooperation of others. In the physicality of concerted labor, many a socialist has caught a glimpse of a more solidaristic future.

Dean’s model derives from neither the workplace nor warfare but from the political work and testimony of communists themselves, which yields an eclectic blend of voices—part republican, part romantic. On the basis of that testimony, she concludes that comradeship enables us to take on the perspective of others, to see our actions “through their eyes,” which “remakes the place from which one sees.” That enlarged perspective has been the calling card of thinkers ranging from Rousseau and Kant to Arendt and Habermas. Whereas these thinkers often find that perspective in the legislative institutions of the state or the organs of public opinion or the heroic moments of civic action, Dean locates it, as does Gornick, in the slow boring of hard boards, in the work of politics that escapes the limelight but where comrades dedicate themselves to a task and hold themselves accountable to its completion.

Through that work, comrades can come to experience the joy of collective action and the enjoyment of one another. The joy is so intense that it spills onto other entities. Drawing on the work of artists and writers from the early Soviet avant-garde, which she compares to the poetry of Whitman, Dean describes an extension of ecstasy to “comrade objects” and “comrade things.” When the “love and respect” among comrades is “so great that it can’t be contained in human relations,” it “spans to include insects and galaxies (bees and stars).”

Up to the 1990s, Dean’s commitment to the generic nature of the comrade would have raised the hackles of those in the liberal center and on the right, who would have seen it as a threat to the individual. Today, it will press buttons for some on the left, who will see it as a challenge to the claims of certain forms of identity. The comrade, Dean insists, seeks to equalize relationships across race, class, nation, religion, ethnicity, and gender. It creates a sameness, the sameness of those who are doing the work. The only difference that remains salient is between those who are on one side of the struggle and those who are on the opposite side. The mobility of that metaphor—of being on one side or the other—allows Dean to insist on forms of affiliation and attachment that are neither identitarian nor exclusive. Anyone can be a comrade; all one has to do is move to the other side. Though this quote from a Washington Post report on the Bernie Sanders campaign arrived too late for Dean to use, it offers a helpful instantiation of her claim: “Sanders is a candidate who presents himself less as a personality than a conduit for a movement. And in the Bernie bubble, [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez is seen as the future of the movement embodied. What makes her so effective as a surrogate, beyond her star power, is that if you campaign on electing a movement rather [than] a person, there’s no difference between hearing the message from the 78-year-old white male candidate or his 30-year-old Latina supporter.”

The comrade, Dean makes clear, is not a description but an ideal. Comrades do not eliminate gender or race or conflicts. But what they can do is name a common horizon; they can state a destination to which they are collectively heading, an aim toward which they are working. Comradeship is the announcement of another way of being: not one in which difference is eliminated but in which it becomes the stuff of political art, of mediating conflicts in order to do the work for which all have come. Though it is anarchists who are best known for emphasizing the prefigurative elements of radical politics—arguing that how we do the work now will shape the society to come—Dean’s analysis also has a prefigurative element, with Lenin as its seer. The discipline of comrades, he said, “is a victory over our own conservatism, indiscipline, petty-bourgeois egoism, a victory over the habits left as a heritage to the worker and peasant by accursed capitalism.” The comrade contains within herself the defeat of the old regime.

The left has good reason to be wary of the stern antinomies of the comrade. The freedom that goes by the name of discipline, the suppression of difference in the name of solidarity, the words of emancipation as window dressing for authoritarian constraint—we’ve been down this road before. We know where it ends, and neither Gornick nor Dean denies that ending. Nor do they provide an easy way around or out of it.

Gornick interprets the tragedy of communism through Greek myth. Helen awakens in Paris an intense love, one he never knew before. He is turned outward, directed to another soul in a way he is not accustomed to. He becomes larger than himself. Then the love takes on a life of its own, eclipsing its object. Love becomes the object, the feeling and need; Helen disappears from view. All manner of mayhem and destruction follow. Dean interprets the tragedy through psychoanalysis: The healthy ego ideal of the comrade becomes the ravenous superego. In the same way that the superego feeds off the transgressions of the id, growing ever more powerful from the punishment of impurity, so do comrades turn inward, generating a feeding frenzy of their own. Collective power, once a source of freedom, becomes a prison.

There’s a reason Gornick and Dean turn to myth and psychoanalysis, respectively. Each, in its way, is a story of unhappy endings, in which the conclusion is written from the start. Yet even if we don’t head down the path of authoritarian communism, even if we avoid that unhappy ending, we’re still left with other bad endings that neither psychoanalysis nor myth can account for. Not only has capitalism run rampant since the fall of communism, and not only has the left yet to find a replacement for the parties and movements that once created socialism in all its varieties, but even the contemporary left has not left behind the challenge of reconciling freedom and constraint.

Today, many on the left deploy a robust vocabulary of personal liberty—of expression, relationships, difference—that would have been simply unthinkable to cadres past, whether in communist Eastern Europe or working-class Detroit. At the same time, some on the left are ready, at least online, to enforce norms of mutual respect and personal dignity through practices of ostracism and collective shaming. This is hardly a criticism of the left, and nowhere do these sanctions rise to the level of repression claimed by the liberal center and the right. It is simply a recognition of the challenge the left faces: how to steer toward emancipation with tools that necessarily involve some element of discipline and constraint.

In the past, the left brought together these elements of freedom and constraint. It had no choice. Whether it was contesting for state power or wielding that power, the left was serious about its purposes. It intended to do the work. It sought to generate those force fields. It imposed discipline, and by doing so, it created power.

Today’s left is more hesitant, for reasons good and bad, about state power. It is legitimately fearful of repeating the repression of the past; it is understandably, if less legitimately, fearful of taking on the responsibility—and judgment of history—that power entails. As a result, the left struggles to generate those force fields, seeking the warmth of solidarity without the cold and sometimes cruel poles of attraction and repulsion that sustain it.

This hesitation has liberated the left from the need to reconcile freedom and constraint. But it has also left it without power. At some point, that may change. The left may become intentional; it may become dangerous. If it does, these questions of freedom and discipline will once again become salient. For better and for worse.

Corey RobinCorey Robin teaches at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent book is The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.


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