Reviewing Red: Women’s Lives on the Left

Posted February 29, 2004

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES BY WOMEN affiliated with Communist and socialist organizations are a marvelous resource for investigating radical political practice and culture beyond the perimeters of official doctrine and party resolutions.

Such narratives usually interweave episodes in left-wing history with details about the personal and daily lives of militant women variously seeking their own liberation in the context of fighting to abolish capitalist exploitation, patriarchy and white supremacy.

Historically, the genre is dominated by two strains.  First came the bitter anti-Communist confessions of disillusioned female informers, such as Out of Bondage (1951) by Elizabeth Bentley and School of Darkness (1954) by Bella Dodd.

Subsequently there appeared more balanced appraisals by former Communist women who held positions of authority within the movement, such as The Autobiography of an American Communist (1977) by Peggy Dennis and Dorothy Healey Remembers (1990) by Dorothy Healey and Maurice Isserman.

More recently the scope has been expanded to include memoirs by female targets of the Hollywood Blacklist, such as Jean Rouveral’s Refugees From Hollywood (2000) and Norma Barzman’s The Red and the Blacklist (2002).

Finally, a short while ago, the first book-length memoirs of women activists associated with the U.S. Trotskyist movement surfaced, Living for Change (1998) by Grace Lee Boggs and Girl in Movement (2000) by Eva Kollisch.  (The latter work was reviewed by Lillian Pollak in our previous issue, ATC 108.)

Now three stimulating contributions are available that provide even more diverse perspectives.  The newest and most focused is Constance Webb’s recollection of her romance with C.L.R.  James and her years in the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Trotskyist movement, Not Without Love: Memoirs (Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2003).

A more expansive narrative is found in Judith Merril’s autobiographical reminiscences (co-authored with her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary) about her germination as a young Trotskyist activist in New York and Philadelphia to become a leading Science Fiction writer in the 1950s and after, Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002).

Finally, there is Gerda Lerner’s passionate Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), narrating Lerner’s decades as a devoted Communist fellow traveler and then Party member, in order to establish the repercussions of her training as a grassroots organizer for her ensuing achievements as a founder of the women’s history movement in the United States.

Constance Webb’s Story

Webb is already admired for a pioneering biography of the African- American novelist friend of herself and James, Richard Wright: A Biography (1969).  However, her skills as a memoirist are equally imposing, for she has the capacity to vividly recreate scenes of meetings and discussions that occurred nearly seventy years ago.

For example, at the age of fifteen, when Webb was recruited to the Trotskyist grouping within the Socialist Party in Fresno, California, she attended a meeting at the home of Charles Cornell, the local leader (and later a guard in Trotsky’s compound in Mexico).

In recreating this event, Webb is able to specify not only the topic for political discussion (Germany), but to describe the seating positions and posture of almost every person in the room, the food that was served, the order of the speakers’ list, and the questions that were asked!

For readers previously well-versed in the history of the Trotskyist movement in general, and the political tendency led by C.L.R. James (“Johnson”) and Raya Dunayevskaya (“Forest”) in particular, the narrative will insert many new details.  Moreover, sundry individuals whose names are today known mainly as the authors of documents and articles will be fleshed out a bit and placed in the history of the organization.

More difficult to comprehend will be the specific contributions to political economy and philosophy that have earned the tendency a unique place in the history of the anti-Stalinist left. Also mystifying will be the reason why the organization was involved in so many schisms, until its complete dissolution just at the time when James himself was convinced that a worldwide upheaval of the working class was on the agenda, and on the eve of the new radicalization in the 1960s.

Indeed, and perhaps by intention, Webb’s memoir, while utterly respectful of the intellect and devotion of James, provides considerable documentation to suggest that the organization had many features of a cult.

In Webb’s rendition, the central leaders—James along with Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee, both of whom are depicted as being in love with James—operate without accountability to the membership.

James himself simultaneously engaged in sexual relations with a substantial number of women in the organization, including married ones. He was financially supported by a stipend from a wealthy member, Lyman Paine, and frequently waited on by others; members would sometimes sit at his feet while he reclined on a bed.

When the Johnson-Forest tendency decided to leave the Socialist Workers Party in 1951, the plan was kept a secret so that the tendency members might dramatically rise en masse to depart from their branch meetings at the exact same moment.  (For an informative study of the phenomenon of political cults, see Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 2000.)

Webb’s memoir furthermore provides vivid details about her work as a model and aspiring actress, as well a harrowing narrative of her visit to Monroe, North Carolina, to cover the famous “Kissing Case,” a major civil rights case that involved NAACP militant Robert F. Williams.

There are also descriptions of Webb’s passionate love affairs with comedian Jack Gilford, a devoted Communist, and Militant editor Jules Geller, later associated with American Socialist and Monthly Review.

Some readers may be surprised at the graphic details about James’s love-making technique and post-coital behavior, but these clearly derive from first-hand experience.  More puzzling may be the disclosures about Webb’s bitter enemy, Grace Lee. These are based on revelations by an ex-lover of Lee—a notoriously unreliable source in such matters!—and seem to be included mainly for purposes of score-settling.

From Politics to Science Fiction

Judith Merril’s Not Without Love, with a title similar to Webb’s Better to Have Loved, symmetrically accentuates interpersonal relations and sexual fulfillment.

As a writer, Merril achieved celebrity for her short story of nuclear fallout, “Only a Mother” (1951), and the novel Shadow on the Hearth (1950).  She was born Josephine Judith Grossman in Boston in 1923, subsequently moving to Manhattan.  Her father had been a promising writer on Jewish culture, but committed suicide when she was six, due to the after-effects of an illness.

At age thirteen she was drawn to the Young People’s Socialist League, then under Trotskyist leadership.  A few years later she married a comrade, Dan Zissman, who introduced her to science fiction.

When Zissman joined the Navy, Merril moved with her daughter to Greenwich Village.  Soon she began an affair with John Michel, a Communist who was a key figure among radical science fiction writers of the time.

Michel’s associates were originally called “Michelsians” but today are better known as the “Futurians.”  The early Futurian Society encompassed other young authors around the Communist movement such as Donald Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth and Isaac Asimov, but proliferated to embody more heterogeneous radicals.

Merril soon began publishing magazine stories, creating her pseudonym by joining her middle name (Judith) to her daughter’s first name (Merril).

Better to Have Loved is something of a pastiche of assorted episodes.  The early sections are assembled from an unfinished autobiographical manuscript; some of the later sections are consolidated from various published works, interviews, and documents.

Although Merril affirms that Trotskyism remained a key element in her world outlook, there are few details about her political activities or about the political ideas she extracted, beyond a fervent independence from both the capitalist USA and the Stalinist USSR.

The number and rapidity of her romances are competitive with those in Webb’s story, and there are painful episodes involving a struggle over child custody.  The most informative sections of the memoir comprise the narrative of her career as a writer, which includes matters such as the details about her collaboration on two novels with Cyril Kornbluth, and her observations about the radical and feminist themes that animate her stories and novels.

Gerda Lerner’s Journey

Fireweed, the work of a professional historian, provides the most panoramic story of these three volumes, worthy of a big screen production such as the Barbara Streisand movie “The Way We Were” (1973).

It tells of a Viennese Jewish teenager, Gerda Kronstein, who becomes radicalized by her experiences with Austrian fascism.  After imprisonment and exile, she arrives by herself in New York City during the midst of the Great Depression.

Although Kronstein had experienced some romantic episodes and an unsatisfactory marriage, she soon meets the unquestionable love of her life, Carl Lerner.  Lerner was at that time a Communist film editor and director who is today best known for “Twelve Angry Men” (1957).  Gerda remained a close fellow traveler of the Party until she joined in 1946, persisting as a member until the late 1950s.

For the next three decades Gerda and Carl lived the lives of committed activists who consumed their days with efforts to unionize the film industry in Hollywood, fight the blacklist, and work for world peace and civil rights.

With Carl’s death of a heart attack in 1973, Gerda, who had already published the novel No Farewell (1955) and had returned to the university to earn a doctorate, devoted herself fulltime to women’s history.  She went on to produce major books such as The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), Women and History (1986), The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993) and the esteemed documentary collection, Black Women in White America (1972).

Prior to Fireweed, Lerner resembled many academics of her generation in downplaying or even denying their Communist pasts.  But now Lerner is refreshingly frank about her former life and unabashed about its role in making her career possible:

My academic career is an open book. But I have been silent about my political past during the years of my academic success.  And such silence, for all its complex reasons, distorts the truth .  .  .  .  The students I have taught, the audiences who have applauded my lectures, the readers who have enjoyed my books, are entitled to know how I became the person they knew and honored.  I do not want to end my life within a closet of my own making.  (p.  3)

In a thoughtful essay in the Nation, “Rethinking the Second Wave” (October 14, 2002), Northwestern University historian Nancy Maclean contrasts the career of Lerner with that of the better known Betty Friedan.

Friedan had misrepresented her own past in The Feminine Mystique (1962), where she obliterates her prior political training in the pro-Communist left to reinvent herself as a conventional middle-class housewife.  This, in turn, assisted the myth that “Second Wave” feminism had no debt to predecessor female activists in the class battles and anti-racist struggles of the 1940s and 1950s.

Lerner’s work fully redeems that older tradition, especially in the central role she gives to the postwar Congress of American Women (CAW).  (An animated discussion of this legacy of pre-Second Wave women activists in the Communist movement was recently published in “Red Feminism: A Symposium,” in the Winter 2002-2003 issue of Science & Society 66, no. 4.)

Confronting the Past

Fireweed is replete with superb insights into the travails of political commitment.  Lerner is particularly hard on herself for her blindness to Soviet totalitarianism, which she characterizes as “complicity in studied ignorance.”  (370)

Yet there are some odd features to her self-scrutiny as well. For example, in light of the prominence given to the Soviet Union and the person of Stalin in all of Communist Party literature in the 1940s and early 1950s, it is somewhat hard to grasp her claim that, as a Party member, “I had no particular love for the Soviet Union” and “My attitude toward the Soviet Union was never an important aspect of my decision about becoming a Communist.”  (255)

True enough, one could become a Marxist, a socialist, and a revolutionary in the 1930s and 1940s with no strong love for—even an antipathy toward!—the USSR. But the Communist Party was specifically devoted to vaunting the Soviet utopia and the supposedly glorious contributions of Stalin in the face of criticisms from the left as well as right.

There is also her description of her reaction to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.  In her view, the thinking that allowed the United States to commit such an act—the rationalization that the murder of 160,000 Japanese civilians was necessary to potentially save the lives of U.S. soldiers—was “close to the `reasoning’ of the Nazi regime and its concept of the superiority of the German `race.’”

She saw this as “the kind of thinking that made fascism possible” and those who saw “the Hiroshima bombing as morally justifiable” were in her eyes very “close to the reaction of the `good Germans’ to Hitler .  .  .”  (244)

The problem is that the Communist Party—which she joined immediately afterwards—shared enthusiastically in this celebration of the bomb. On August 8, the Daily Worker declared:

We are lucky, we have found The Thing and are able to speed the war against the Japanese before the enemy can devise countermeasures.  Thank God for that .  .  .  .  So let us not greet our atomic device with a shudder, but with the elation and admiration which the genius of man deserves.

Additional celebratory articles appeared under such titles as “American Labor Contributed Its Share in Creating the Atom Bomb.”

In contrast, the Militant, newspaper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, ran the following headlines on August 11:





Such sentiments were shared by other components of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left, such as the Workers Party’s Labor Action and Dwight Macdonald’s Politics. (A richly-documented survey of the U.S. left’s response to the atomic bomb can be found in Paul F. Boller, Jr., “Hiroshima and the American Left,” International Social Science Review 57, 1 [Winter 1982].)

One wonders if Lerner, recollecting her reaction to the bomb, might be retrospectively ascribing her post-Communist views.  If not, how could she then draw closer to an organization promoting the kind of thinking that made fascism possible?

Marxism to Blame?

Following her disillusionment with the Soviet Union in 1956, Gerda Lerner concluded that “the so-called errors of Communist leadership in the Soviet Union were structural and built into the very fabric of Marxist doctrine.”  (370)

Yet one wonders why it is Marxist doctrine itself that is to blame, rather than its misunderstanding, misapplication, or transformation under historical conditions?  Moreover, Lerner has already protested that pro-Sovietism was never even central to her identity as a Communist, so why should the policies of Soviet officials be the litmus test of Marxism in practice?

On the other hand, as we have seen, there existed alternative Marxist trends that took dramatically different approaches to some of the very political issues that vexed her, and early on explained the failures of Communist leadership that she would eventually acknowledge.

Thus Fireweed, once again, reminds us of the sad consequences of the intimate identification between Marxism and Soviet Communism for so many committed activists in the last century.