Reviewing Red: Love and Revolution
— Alan Wald
AT THE DAWN of the 1960s, the modest tradition of novels depicting men and women active in Marxist movements morphed abruptly from a comparatively marginal to a mainstream phenomenon.
What precipitated this new-won international stature of narratives of socialist commitment? Indisputably, a shifting political climate was essential for a renaissance in the quality and appreciation of art about the Left. Yet a correspondingly decisive explanation may reside in the choice by authors to take a more inspired and inventive turn in their literary representations of the intimate life of radical militants.
For the better part of the 20th century, fictionalized dramatizations of the tribulations of the organized radical movement would habitually follow the trajectory of a strike or political evolution of a young worker. The established literary forms of the Left reprised 19th century realistic portrayals of character and naturalist delineations of the environment, even when introducing brief modernist episodes in the fashion of the widely-imitated interchapters of John Dos Passos’ 1936-39 U.S.A. Trilogy (“Camera Eye” and “Newsreels”).
Pro-Communist writers, in particular, were up against pressures from self-proclaimed “Marxist critics” who dogged them relentlessly in Party publications. In light of the racism and elitism corrupting the governing culture, a few such critics adhered to a near-puritanical sense of decorum as to how candidly working class people and the oppressed might be depicted; others wrote against ambiguity, obscurity and allusiveness under the belief that plainness and directness were compulsory to reach the more plebeian population; and still others essayed to judge fictional texts by means of its relevance to current political tasks.
Yet the literary imagination doesn’t follow orders, and many older novels about socialist activists were riveting in their delineation of the revolutionary personality in crisis. One thinks of John Steinbeck’s Jim Dolan in In Dubious Battle (1936), which follows a young radical from the day he joins the Communist Party until his martyrdom in a violent strike of California agricultural workers. Or André Malraux’s Kyo Gisors and Katov in Man’s Fate (1933), which vivifies the ordeal of Communist militants in the 1927 Shanghai insurrection.
Love on Center Stage
For the past five decades, however, the most commonly-read and admired mode of fictionalizing the lives of committed radicals has elevated the ambiguities of love relationships to center stage by way of the more extensive use of themes and aesthetic strategies foregrounding subjectivity and memory. An unexpected number attained standing as international literary classics.
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) draws upon the 1956 political crisis over “de-Stalinization” of the British Communist Party as the setting for the emotional finale of the female protagonist’s love affair with an expatriate U.S. radical. Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter (1979) investigates the generational conflict between a recently-deceased South African Communist and his New Left daughter who is concurrently negotiating a love affair.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta portrays the search for the ultimately indeterminate truth about the life of a legendary gay Trotskyist revolutionary who led an insurrection in the Peruvian Andes in the late1950s. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (winner of the Booker Prize when it was published in 2000) reveals the extra-marital affair of the narrator with a Canadian Communist science fiction writer turned strike leader and then volunteer in the Spanish Civil War.
In the United States, a list of comparable novels about Marxist commitment by major authors would include E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp (1985), and Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist (1988). Lesser-known novels of uncommon skill about love and the old Left are K. B. Gilden’s Between the Hills and the Sea (1971) and John Sanford’s A Very Good Land to Fall With (1987). The prevailing political backdrop in all of these is Communism, indisputably the big story about the organized U.S. Left in mid-century.
To be sure, the post-‘60s turn toward intimate life is not lacking precedent. Agnes Smedley’s 1929 Daughter of Earth describes a searing love affair between the narrator and a revolutionary from India; Josephine Herbst’s Rope of Gold (1939) traces the unraveling of a marriage in the turmoil of Communist activism; Thomas Bell’s 1946 All Brides Are Beautiful depicts a young couple amidst a background of labor organizing; Chester Himes’ 1946 The Lonely Crusade features a Black worker torn between his African-American wife and a white Communist militant; and Alexander Saxton’s 1948 The Great Midland includes a love triangle involving a Spanish Civil War veteran.
Nevertheless, the foremost works of the late twentieth-century phase of the tradition draw more creatively upon a range of modern techniques to candidly explore emotions and subjectivity. Thus Doris Lessing et al evoke Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and James Joyce far more than Emile Zola, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis.
No doubt an increasingly skeptical view of the smug political culture of the Old Left, and the opening of Marxist literary criticism to the libertarian ethos of the burgeoning New Left, assisted the forging of new paths toward authors’ and readers’ understanding of the greater part played in political life by emotions; the capacity of even the most well-intended political ideology to install blinders; and at least a partial embrace of Bertolt Brecht’s aesthetic of fomenting a critical consciousness of society by unsettling the reader.
This new esteem for the weight of personal life in the maelstrom of political activism is apparent in many levels of cultural production, even when the aesthetic ambitions may be less ground-breaking. Such is the case with many small press publications that too often go unnoticed by the readership that may be potentially most receptive.
Back in 2000, Glad Day publishers brought out Eva Kollisch’s ingenious and delightful Girl in Movement (reviewed in Against the Current by Lillian Pollak in the January-February 2004 issue), an autobiographical novel of a woman active in Max Shachtman’s Workers Party in New York and Detroit just before and during World War II.
More recently, in 2008, two books from iUniverse, Inc., appeared that variously convey this turn toward greater attention to intimate life in the fictionalized re-enactment of political memory. Lillian Pollak’s The Sweetest Dream: Love, Lies and Assassination is a abundantly-detailed journey through love and revolution in the late 1920s and 1930s, and Lois Young-Tulin’s The Ghost of Leon Trotsky is a subtly-crafted meditation on the romantic attachments and political hopes of an eighty-year-old Trotskyist.
The intensity of Pollak’s novel lies in its inexorable march through a 15-year period in which we follow the trail of two girlhood friends in New York, Miriam and Ketzel (Yiddish for “kitten”). Ketzel’s family is half-Jewish and half-Mexican, and by the mid-1920s part of the cultural milieu around the Communist Party.
Over the next few years Ketzel follows in the footsteps of her parents to become a Left-wing dancer, eventually joining a company led by Anna Sokolow, and Miriam gravitates toward the Young Communist League. But a string of events in the early 1930s sets Miriam on a new course. She empathizes with a young radical harassed by Communist Party supporters; learns that neighbors who went to the USSR have been persecuted; and gradually discovers Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
By the middle of the decade Miriam is a committed Trotskyist in the newly-formed Socialist Workers Party, and her friendship with Ketzel’s family is deeply strained. Complicating the political tensions, Ketzel’s father, Jaime Ortega, a handsome and charismatic writer, falls in love with Miriam following the death of his wife. Miriam also develops a friendship with a young Trotskyist, Sylvia Ageloff, who unwittingly embarks on an international love affair with the Soviet agent, Ramón Mercader, who will ultimately carry out the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940.
Lamentably, a dreadful job of proofreading renders a close reading of Pollak’s novel rather difficult. All publications have a few mistakes, but here the misplaced (or missing) quotation marks and typos abound. On one page, Max Shachtman’s last name is spelled three different ways (Shachtman, Schahtman, and Schachtman). Is “Burke Cochran” the same as Bert Cochran? Did James P. Cannon really call the USSR “a degenerative workers’ state”? Chapter 20 is said to occur in March 1940, followed by Chapter 21 in Summer 1939 and Chapter 22 in Fall 1939; is this an experiment in chronology in the fashion of Magical Realism, or just a goof-up in the galleys?
Some of the historical facts seem incorrect as well. Did the Communists’ Jefferson School, said by scholarly records to have been founded in 1943, actually exist under that name in 1931? Did the John Reed Club, founded in October 1929, really operate in 1926? Could Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People,” conventionally dated 1942, have been recited by African-American Communist Louise Patterson at a political meeting in 1932?
These are small matters, but this is a book about historical political controversy (especially Communist perfidy) that bases its truth claims in historical accuracy.
Nonetheless, from what I can tell, Pollak’s narrative is consistent with the documented record in the events surrounding the Trotsky assassination (more particulars can be found in Isaac Don Levine’s 1959 The Mind of Assassin), and the new specifics she provides about the tragic figure of Sylvia Ageloff are surely conceivable. But the freshness of the novel is chiefly in the panoramic whirlwind of characteristic events depicted through the eyes of a young woman who is far more engaged in feelings and desires than in fine points of political doctrine.
The reader witnesses the strained discussions that occur among friends and lovers who are torn by violent political disagreements, against a background of street meetings and radical cultural events. Italicized paragraphs align the activities of the semi-fictionalized protagonists with central incidents in Trotsky’s life — political and personal — from 1917 to 1940.
Ghosts of Memory
The material in The Sweetest Dream is unabashedly drawn from Pollak’s private life and revolutionary commitments, written in a very competent albeit conventional style. Lois Young-Tulin’s The Ghost of Leon Trotsky is indirectly based on the experiences of her friend Milton J. Lesnik (1915-1994), and its chapters (starting with the second one) are a blend of third-person narrative and a first-person journal between July 16 and September 13, 1990.
In the Great Depression, Lesnik had traveled from his birthplace in Newark, New Jersey, to attend college at the University of Texas in Austin, where he was recruited to the Communist movement. During a visit home, however, he was converted to Trotskyism by a young woman, Myra. They married and afterward visited the Trotsky villa in Coyoacán, Mexico, at a time overlapping with the assassination.
Young-Tulin extrapolates from this background material, imagining her protagonist — in the novel called Byron Lerner — as battling to overcome a writer’s block in July 1990 in order to produce a memoir. Living in Philadelphia and nearing his eightieth birthday, he receives a message via his brother-in-law that his first wife, called Verna Swartz in the novel, has expressed a desire to see him five decades after their bitter divorce. Then he learns that a group of the guards and others who were staying at the Trotsky villa on the day of the assassination have planned at reunion in Los Angeles to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the event.
Flooded with feelings and memories, Lerner discovers that his writing flows as he interrelates the defining events of both his political and romantic life. Soon he is embarked on trip to New York in an endeavor to rekindle his first love, with Verna. Later he flies to California to attend the reunion with a political objective: The USSR had collapsed the previous year, and Lerner plans to exploit publicity around the anniversary of the assassination to point out that the historic program of Trotsky’s Fourth International has been thoroughly vindicated.
Both efforts turn out disastrously. Verna, he discovers, has been mentally ill and is still in therapy; following a divorce from her second husband, a Trotskyist comrade with whom she had been unfaithful to Byron. She attempted suicide, was confined to an institution, and recently underwent treatment with lithium. During this psychological ordeal she became completely estranged from her son, now a gay English professor at UC Berkeley.
Soon after seducing Verna, Byron realizes that he wants no part of a relationship with someone he regards as unbalanced, and heads back to Philadelphia. Likewise, his journey to Los Angeles concludes in a catastrophic manner when he grasps that the one-time chief guard at Coyoacán, Marcus Goodwin, is convinced that Byron collaborated with the Soviet secret police to facilitate the assassination. (Goodwin bears a strong resemblance to the actual chief guard Harold Robins, who in 1976 joined with the British sectarian Trotskyist leader Gerry Healey to falsely accuse SWP member Joseph Hansen of being a Soviet agent.)
The Ghost of Leon Trotsky has features of a Black Comedy, but the portrait of Lerner is touching and compelling. What is poignant is not only Lerner’s dual and impossible fantasy of rekindling both the love he had lost as well as the moment when his political life seemed to have a palpable significance. It is also Lerner’s inability to advance emotionally and intellectually to new terrain in the decades traveled since the defining moments of his divorce and the assassination.
In the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s Lerner has engaged in new love relations and maintained his support for the Socialist Workers Party even as he served in World War II, proletarianized in the auto industry on the West Coast, and suffered blacklisting as a public school teacher. Yet his intimate life remained hollow while his ideological commitments evolved into increasingly mechanical rituals and self-righteous posturing.
Looking Back and Ahead
Both these novels, so closely derived from biography and history, end on contrasting notes. Miriam discovers that her impossible love, Jaime, now in Mexico with a new family, has bequeathed her his house in New York; in it she finds a book open to an inspiring passage by Trotsky. Torn between her political agreement with Max Shachtman’s faction and greater confidence in James P. Cannon’s leadership, Miriam seems to be withdrawing from party organization even as she is unshaken in her revolutionary idealism.
Imagining that her new house might become a joyous commune for all her radical friends, Miriam neither repudiates the political moment that formed her outlook, nor allows herself to be dominated by its more sectarian and orthodox limitations. While the closing date of the novel is late August 1940, one senses that the optimism and fighting spirit Pollak ascribes to Miriam is projected as a heritage for readers of today.
Byron, in contrast, remains buried in the ideological past; he fails to rethink anything, even when confronted with the madness — in the form of Marcus Goodwin — that seems one way or another connected with an obsession about Trotsky and his legacy.
But Byron does receive proof of his innocence of the charges made by Goodwin. When he dies two years later, in his final moments he experiences a delusion that Trotsky’s ghost has come to visit. He has no heirs, but is mourned by his nurse, Mabel, a younger woman whom he had secretly married as part of a bargain to guarantee medical care during his old age while she received his pension.
Verna, in the meantime, has moved on; during the Los Angeles reunion episode she had hooked up with another of the guards, Jake Kahn, and subsequently took off to Chicago to try a new life with him.
More vital to the theme of the novel is the degree to which Byron had deeply affected Mabel, even as he treated her as a near non-entity. Mabel not only receives Byron’s generous retirement fund, but goes forward to live a rewarding life due to all that Byron has taught her.
These novels, a sub-genre of works about the Trotskyist movement, are thereby atypical of the tradition of writing about the Left. Furthermore, nearly all earlier illustrations of this species in the United Staes are scarcely remembered, including Bernard Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died (1959) and Harvey Swados’s Standing Fast (1970). The inference is that, like the Trotskyist movement itself, novels addressing Trotskyism do not constitute a subject matter likely to expand in any dramatic way.
Even a fast-moving and politically sophisticated work such as Tariq Ali’s Fear of Mirrors (1988) remains little-known in the U.S., and, so far, the acclaim that met Australian-born Meaghan Delahunt’s In the Casa Azul: A Novel of Betrayal and Revolution (2001) in England and Scotland has not migrated across the Atlantic.
Nonetheless, there are worthy exceptions to this disregard of Trotskyist themes and subjects in eminent literature. Norman Mailer’s Kafkaesque meditation on post-World War II revolutionary yearning, Barbary Shore (1953), is still in print and the recipient of thought-provoking scholarship. Peter Weiss’s drama, Trotsky in Exile (1969), remains admired for both its historical accuracy and unvarnished personal portrait.
All in all, the vein of imaginative writing about Trotskyism finds value not as an autonomous artistic effort but as a constituent of the larger trend of writing about revolutionary activists that so powerfully established itself in the 20th century and may yet evolve in the years of social change that lie ahead.
ATC 140, May/June 2009