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The Lives of American Communists After Communism

When history moved beyond the Cold War, it became possible for historians to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role of the Communist Party in American society. Books such as Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem during the Depression and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party during the Second World War treated party activists as men and women organically linked to the great conflicts of the 20th century in which they played major roles. There were of course scholars like Harvey Klehr who continued to insist that they were automatons serving almost as foreign agents but it was difficult to square that view with the evidence found in the new historiography or in films like “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight: Story of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in which people like Bill Bailey talked about their experiences in the party, including the time he tore down the Swastika flag from the mast of a German luxury liner in 1935—anticipating the young woman who recently tore down a Confederate flag in South Carolina.

As a former member of the Trotskyist movement I found myself identifying very strongly with the experiences of these dedicated veterans of the CP left even though I had a much different ideological background. When I read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism not long after dropping out of the Socialist Workers Party, I was struck by how similar my own experience was to that of ex-CP’ers, particularly those who took factory jobs in the hope of converting workers to the socialist cause. Gornick’s book combines her own reflections with oral histories, mostly those of rank-and-filers, including Karl Millens who recollects “Going into Industry” (a term we used as well) in brutally frank terms:

What can I tell you about the years in industry? They were, for me, slow, imperceptible, pointless death. I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for which I had no physical facility. Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be ready to move when a radically pregnant situation arose. Well, I was never close to the men and no situation arose, at least none I would ever know how to move into.

I looked up this passage in Gornick’s book a few days after I read what the late Gladys Scales had to say in A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales,  an oral history collected by Mickey Friedman that is an essential contribution to understanding the Communist experience.

The Party knew they had talented people and used their talents, yet many stupid things were done with people. One was a period of “industrial concentration,” where intellectuals and students were taken out of school and put into factory work. They were going to organize the workers. First of all, they stuck out like sore thumbs. You can’t take an intellectual and put blue jeans on him and make him look like a worker. The workers didn’t particularly trust him. They weren’t really at ease and neglected their own talents. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Gladys was married to Junius Scales, a man I met in 1997 at his mountaintop home in Pine Bush, NY about a half-hour’s drive from Woodridge, the tiny village where I grew up. Not long after I interviewed him, I read his memoir Cause at Heart: a Former Communist Remembers, a book that I consider to be the finest ever written about the Communist Party experience. Reading “A Red causeatheartFamily” reminded me of why Junius has remained a hero of mine ever since reading his memoir. Born into a blueblood family in North Carolina with a thirty-six room mansion, and with a grandfather who was a “big slaveowner”, Junius Scales seemed like the last person in the world to join the CP but as Karl Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalist crisis can often lead some to betray the class they were born into.

Like many privileged kids at Ivy League schools who became radicals in the 1960s, Scales got turned around at the University of North Carolina and especially from visits to a local bookstore that sold The Southern Worker put out by the CP. Not long after becoming convinced of the need for socialism, a system that held out the promise of putting Blacks and whites on an equal footing, he joined the party and went into industry himself. If most people in the 1960s had an experience in factories or mines like Karl Millens’s, Scales was fortunate enough to have bonded successfully with the workers even if he would eventually figure out that the CP was incapable of becoming the kind of vanguard their own propaganda called for.

Recalling the time spent working in a textile mill, Scales’s words have the lyricism and power of a Woody Guthrie song:

Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more verbal than the men generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.

As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.

I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.

Gladys Scales was born into a lower middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, NY, a CP stronghold in the 1930s. She joined the CP youth group when she was fourteen as a way of “helping people”. This decision was facilitated by the fact that party members were the brightest in her high school and that they were doing things that mattered to her, like supporting the Popular Front in Spain and opposing racism. Like many rank-and-filers, she was less susceptible to the kind of arrogance that came so easily to men and women in leadership positions in such parties. Since Junius Scales was about as self-effacing and decent a person that ever helped lead such a party, it was understandable why they would hit it off and get married in 1950.

Speaking for everyone who ever went through experience of joining a “Marxist-Leninist” organization, Gladys Scales summed it up succinctly:

It couldn’t have been any organization. It couldn’t be the Republican Party. It couldn’t be a religious organization. It would have had to be a group that really felt the way we did about people, about humanity, about the guy who was at the low end of the stick. It might have been the Socialist Party, or it might have been the Trotskyites, I don’t know. … Maybe less so for Junie, because, again, his approach to the Party was much more cerebral than mine. I just happened to be pulled in there, you know. But it would have had to have been some kind of an activist organization, one that really tried to do something to help people. And really, of all the organizations at that time in our lives, the Communist Party was the largest and most influential and did, in many ways, the most to help our poorer people.

I know that once we left the Party I and, I think, both of us became part of the larger community. And in no way do I mean by compromising our ideals, because we still, at least I (and I’m sure Junie does also) believe in socialism. We believe in a better life. I think I was fooled about the way the Party was going about it, and I had no idea about what was going on at the top, but I still believe essentially in the same things that brought me into the Communist Party.

Junius and Gladys Scales made the wise decision to avoid indoctrinating their daughter Barbara, who was part of that “larger community” her mother alluded to above. In a certain sense, it is the unaffiliated left in the USA (and Canada, where Barbara lives) that is the real vanguard today in North America. Most of the thousands, if not millions, of people young and old who march for peace, social justice and racial equality understand that the organizational form bequeathed to us through the Russian Revolution has little to do with the realities of modern industrial society. While there is a widespread belief that corporate greed and a runaway industrial system poses a threat to civilization, if not the extinction of all life, there is no group on the scene that has the authority that the CP had in the 1930s, nor will there be a resurgence of the far left Trotskyist or Maoist groups that were dominant in the 1960s. Most people have wisely come to the conclusion that if there is to be a social and economic transformation, it will have to be based on the realities of North American society and not fantasies summoned up by the Russian, Cuban or Chinese past.

Barbara Scales sums it up in the final paragraph of “A Red Family”:

I feel very uncomfortable talking about ideology or calling politics by a name—not because I think there are no more labels or that they don’t count, that it’s the end of ideology, but because I don’t think it says anything. And I guess that’s what it all adds up to: from the hospital and over the course of the last year in Montreal, from the Quebecois, the people who struggle for socialist Quebec, the people working with the Panthers, young people in Berkeley, my friends Cat and Atina in New York. Politics isn’t a party or a name; it isn’t ideology or a slogan. It’s the way you live every moment of your life.

After having read A Red Family, I was inspired to have a fresh look at Cause at Heart: A Former Communist Remembers, a book I read about fifteen years ago and that remains one of my favorites both for its political lessons as well as its literary achievement, and also one that thankfully remains in print.

Co-authored by Richard Nickson, a close friend of Junius Scales, and with a forward by Telford Taylor, (new paper-only edition published posthumously, with new introduction) it describes a life led on the barricades for decades. Taylor played a critical role in Scales’s life, serving as his defense attorney in a landmark legal case when his client was arrested for violating the Smith Act in 1954. Taylor, best known for being part of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials, agreed to defend Scales in a highly publicized case that went on for seven years until the Supreme Court finally ruled against him in a 5-4 decision. After serving 15 months of a six year prison term, he was commuted by JFK in 1962 and rejoined his family. Much of Gladys’ oral history in “A Red Family” deals with her tireless work on behalf of her husband’s bid for freedom.

Whether or not it was the intention of the co-authors, the book often evokes the sensibility of film noir as Junius Scales describes life on the run as an underground leader of the southern section of the Communist Party. If the words are Junius Scales’s, it is easy to picture them coming out of the mouth of someone playing him like Sterling Hayden or Robert Mitchum if “Cause at Heart” had ever been made into a movie.

I doubt that any revolutionary, past, present or future, could have come up with an opening to a memoir this compelling in a chapter titled “The Chase”:

My alarm wristwatch woke me before dawn. The gray light outlined a shabby, third-rate hotel room of a sort that had lately become familiar to me. I yawned and stretched on the lumpy mattress; bed and springs creaked and squeaked sympathetically.

It was November 18, 1954, and I was in Cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio, I thought sleepily. That meant I was registered as Oliver Ingram: first name beginning with the first letter of the state, last name beginning with the second and third letters of the city. That was a system I’d developed to avoid registering twice in the same hotel under different names and to ensure remembering my identity when in a strange place.

The air was chilling when I reluctantly abandoned the covers, slipped into shoes, and shuffled naked across the worn, stained carpet to close the window and turn on the radiator. Through the dirty panes I looked out on only a blank wall. Shuddering, I threw on my topcoat, which doubled as a bathrobe: I had to sleep bare because pajamas would have consumed too much packing space. After rounding up all my loose papers and literature from the rickety night-stand, I put them into a briefcase, double-locked it, and then hid it in the middle drawer of a small cigarette-burned chest. Taking all my keys and my soap and towel, I locked the room and hurried down the corridor to the shower.

If this has a cinematic quality, you can be assured that the chapters that deal with prison life are the stuff of a Martin Scorsese film except with real life characters like Vincent “the Chin” Gigante who was incarcerated at Lewisburg prison the same time as Scales. Gigante was best known for shambling around Greenwich Village in a bathrobe, trying to give the impression of senility when his real purpose was to convince the cops that someone so enfeebled could not possibly be a mafia boss.

Identified as “Tony” in “Cause at Heart”, Gigante asks Scales if he was the “Commie” he had read about in the NY Post, adding that the photo made him look like his pecker was caught in a wringer. Scales had the good fortune to recommend Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology to Gigante, which included a chapter titled “The Myth of the Mafia”. Bell’s arguments proved so useful to Gigante’s lawyers that Scales became someone who was protected from abuse from other prisoners. Since Gigante was a hulking man who had boxed professionally and was given to violent fits of temper, Scales entered a charmed circle.

In addition to the stories about CP life and time spent in prison, the book is a source of many insights about the profound shake-up in the CP following the Khrushchev revelations in 1956. Since Junius Scales had always been uncomfortable with the turn away from Earl Browder’s more open style of leadership and the intensification of Stalinist norms under his replacement William Z. Foster, he was one of the first to reconsider the course he had taken. In many ways, this kind of soul-searching has taken place in the 1990s and onwards as veterans of the Trotskyist and Maoist movements tried to analyze what went wrong with movements so sure that revolution was on the immediate agenda.

Had my Communist experience been worthwhile, on balance? The Communist Party made me keenly aware of the danger of Fascism, the misery of the Negroes, the plight of the workers, and the desirability of democratic socialism. Elsewhere I might have found a satisfactory way of opposing Fascism, of aiding the organization of workers, or of promoting socialism. But when it came to opposing white supremacy, there was nowhere else to turn.

In my youth the most glaring injustice facing a southern white was the mistreatment of Negroes. The horror of it was palpable and everywhere. Because the Party showed me this horror firsthand, there was no alternative for me but to fight it. Many principled southern whites were unaware of the extent of the outrage that permeated every facet of their society, and they could look the other way, deplore racism privately, while applying their talents in admirable and creative ways. Unfortunately, most southern white liberals found that they could live with a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created [separate but] equal.” Thus they failed to attack the heart of Negro oppression, and abjectly helped to perpetuate the most corrosive wrong of our time.

Considering the battle taking place right now over the Confederate flag and the movement that insists that Black Lives Matter, Junius Scales’s words seem as relevant now as they were when they were written. In many ways, American capitalism rests upon a caste system that is a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. No matter how often pundits claim that we are living in a post-racial society, the terrible injustices that convinced Junius Scales to forsake a life of privilege stay with us. If there is no other way to eliminate racism except by eliminating capitalism, the moral and political imperative that he responded to are as urgent as ever. What remains on the agenda obviously is building a political alternative to the capitalist parties that can finally unite Gladys Scales’s “larger community” into a force capable of liberating the Americas and the entire planet. To understand the path ahead of us, there’s no better aid than reading the struggle of those who came before us starting with “A Red Family” and “Cause at Heart”.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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