The history book group recently discussed A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Family by David Maraniss. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist, has written excellent histories and political and sports biographies. A Good American Family is, however, more personal; it is about his mother, Mary, and father, Elliott, who had been American communists. (A member of the discussion group, whose relatives had also been American communists, had urged us to read the book.)
Elliott Maraniss, raised on Coney Island, went to the University of Michigan in the late 1930s, where he met and later married Mary Cummins. Both were active communists. He enlisted in the army in World War II and as a captain headed a black salvage-and-repair company in the still-segregated army. He admired both FDR and Eisenhower and voted for Ike in 1952. After the war, the elder Maraniss became a newspaperman with a Detroit newspaper but apparently remained a communist and surreptitiously also wrote for a communist newspaper.
In 1952 Elliott was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was fired. For years after his dismissal he bounced around from job to job, often losing the work after the FBI visited his employer. He eventually ended up in a secure position at the Madison Capital Times published by one of my heroes, William Evjue. (While growing up, my family received two daily papers—the local The Sheboygan Press and the more worldly The Milwaukee Journal. Evjue published a weekly expanded edition of his paper with more political news and opinions than on other days, and our family got that weekly edition. My memory is not completely clear here, but I believe that the Capital Times was the first newspaper to publish a letter of mine. When a young man, Evjue had worked for the Madison newspaper the Wisconsin State Journal, but he founded the Capital Times when the State Journal opposed Robert M. La Follette, Sr. and the Progressive Party during World War I. Evjue was chair of the Wisconsin Progressive Party in the 1930s.)
Reading about Americans who were communists in the mid-twentieth century reminded me of Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, which I read shortly after it was published in 1977. I admit my memories of it are less than complete, but from what I remember Gornick, too, had parents who were communists, and this set her off on a nationwide journey in the 1970s to interview other Americans who had been communists.
The interviewees expressed the excitement, allure, drudgery and sacrifices of being a party member. These were people who felt that they were part of something bigger than themselves. They were seeking a better world not just or even necessarily for themselves individually, but they sought a more just world for workers generally. I was struck that several of the interviewees said that they had not expected significant changes to come in their lifetimes but believed that their work would lead to them eventually after they were gone. They had a faith, and to me it often seemed akin to a religious belief.
The American Marxist movement, broader than just the communist party, however, was schismatic. Socialists were Marxists but also anti-communists Even so, there were several socialist parties that differed with each other, and over time there was more than one American communist party. They battled each other over correct dogma, and these fights often seemed more important to them than the fights against their supposed common enemies—the capitalists and plutocrats. It reminded me of religious schisms—think Sunni and Shia, Roman and Orthodox Catholics, Catholics and Protestants, one Protestant denomination against another, each proclaiming the correct path to salvation and a better world.
The communist party also confronted something like what religious people have had to. How does the believer handle learning that those in authority have violated what had been their accepted beliefs? In Christian churches this has often involved sex and money, but for American communists the major test first came at the beginning of World War II with the Hitler-Stalin pact. There were good reasons to be entranced by communism in the 1930s, including a struggle promoting workers’ rights to a fairer economic system and fights for civil rights in a United States that oppressed racial minorities. And it seemed admirable that communists stood firmly against German fascism.
Overnight, however, with the pact between Germany and Russia, the communists were asked to abandon their fundamental tenet of anti-fascism. Gornick’s book makes clear the agony this produced for American communists. Many had their faith shattered, could not stomach the new directives from Moscow, and left the party. Others did mental gymnastics to accept the new direction, but for every American communist this was a gut-wrenching time. More disillusionment followed when the famous “secret” speech of Nikita Khruschev in1956 became public, openly acknowledging the purges, the anti-semitism, the needless starvation, and other abominations under Stalin’s dictatorship.
Maraniss’s book is lacking here. His father, an editor on the University of Michigan newspaper, defended the Hitler-Stalin pact, a position that the son-author labels “indefensible.” About the father who later wrote soviet propaganda under an assumed name, the son says, “I can appreciate his motivations, but I am confounded by his reasoning and his choices.” The adult son clearly wondered about Elliot’s decisions, but nothing in the book indicates that the author ever asked his father and mother about these issues. I understand that topics are often avoided in families, but that they were left unspoken in the Maraniss family leaves a hole in the book.
Concluded April 10.