Deeper into sin
A misguided search for meaning led a young radical to the Communist Party in 1972
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This year is bringing not only the 20th anniversary of the 1989 fall of Communism in Eastern Europe but articles arguing that Marxism is on the rise again. How can that be? Haven't we learned? Does each generation need to make its own mistakes? Or, when the fool says "There is no God," do sad consequences inevitably follow?
I've written previously in WORLD (Aug. 9 and Oct. 18, 2008) about 1968-1970, weird years in American history and my own life-and readers have asked for more. In 1971 I kept moving to the left. Yale University was and is a semi-Eden for people who like to read, think, and write, yet I was desperate to leave it. Not wanting to come to grips with my own sickness of soul, I pretended that my desperation grew out of sympathy with those oppressed by the economic and cultural power that Yale represented.
Eager to escape the garden, I literally turned my back on Yale's tree of historical knowledge, the Beineke Rare Book Library, home to Jonathan Edwards' manuscripts. For five spring days in 1971, I sat with my back against the library wall, facing Yale's administration building, not eating but feeling extremely virtuous.
A few other radical students and I were ostentatiously supporting Yale cafeteria workers on strike for higher wages. We didn't know much about those workers and didn't take time to find out-to me they were pawns, not people-but students walking by complimented us on our "sacrifice." It wasn't that hard after the first day, especially because the Yale Film Society set up a screen and showed us movies such as Wild in the Streets where we sat.
What differentiated fasters such as myself from the students who slowly walked by? Negatively, resentment. Positively, a desire to find purpose and meaning in life. Marxism was the faith I encountered at Yale that professed to answer hard questions: Why war and poverty? What is the nature of human personality and moral feelings? How can we be regenerated? They weren't bad questions, but my back was to the good answers Jonathan Edwards offered, and my brain clung to Karl Marx instead.
Added spice during the first half of 1971 was part-time work as New Haven correspondent for the Boston Globe, where I had interned the previous summer. In a malign form of Harold Abrahams publicizing his own efforts in Chariots of Fire, I could propagandize about mine. I wrote about the strike and also about a professor who did military research in Yale's Klein Biology Tower-except I mumbled on the phone while phoning in the story, and the anti-war Globe serendipitously printed the location as the Crime Biology Tower.
No cap and gown for me on graduation day in June: I wore jeans and a sign protesting the honorary doctorate Yale was awarding to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor who also garnered that year's Nobel Peace Prize. Oddly, Brandt was a long-time socialist, and my comrades and I were criticizing him from the left-but for what? Don't remember now, didn't know much then-but my alienation from God, country, and Yale was on display. Then I wrote a story for the Globe praising the graduation protest.
A disciplined revolutionary would have accepted the job the Globe offered me upon graduation, but looking for adventure I headed westward the day after graduation on a 10-speed bicycle, with panniers mounted above the rear tire to carry a sleeping bag, a small tent, and one change of clothes. I bicycled across upstate New York, then across Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, 50 miles per day.
I ate mostly bread and cheese, filling up my water bottle at gas stations. Farm dogs chased but did not catch me; three flat tires and a broken handlebar delayed but did not stop me. South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming, Montana . . . America was beautiful not only for its spacious skies and fruited plains but for its hospitality. Sometimes I slept hidden amid brush beside highways, sometimes in small town parks that allowed camping, and sometimes in the backyards or homes of people who learned the length of my journey.
Did that experience change my heart? Nope. In my mind, flush with anti-American rhetoric, I was touring an empire on the eve of destruction and describing what soon would be ruins. Despite me, God was merciful. After toiling up to the continental divide at Lolo Pass, I spiraled into Idaho down hairpin turns with 200-foot drop-offs, my speedometer hitting 45 mph. One flat tire would have been the end of me, but having worked so hard and come so far, at that moment I didn't care.
I survived to take up a reporting job at The Bulletin, a small daily newspaper in Bend, Ore. (population at that time: 13,000). Close to the Cascades with lakes, skiing, and hunting, it was another semi-Eden, but bites from the fruit of Marxism's tree led me to see it as a cauldron of class conflict. Harassing the Deschutes County commissioners for using an expensive car as their official vehicle, searching through wastepaper baskets to learn of a secret city council decision, writing a puff piece about a little-known leftist senator named George McGovern who came to Bend in the early stages of his presidential campaign . . . I did my bit to overthrow "the system."
The Bulletin's editor and publisher tolerated all of this, only to see me grandiosely resign in 1972 to protest the capitalist press and have the time to read more Marx and Lenin. I had it all figured out intellectually: Communists were the most enlightened heirs of the Enlightenment. No God who could change people from the inside out. Change would come by the outside in, by shifting the socioeconomic environment. The fast path was through dictatorial action by a wise collective of leaders who would act for the good of all.
Even in my nuttiness I didn't think the United States would have a revolution anytime soon, but other countries would. Listen to this grand talk from my 1972 political notebook: "Around the world revolutionary societies are developing; what is holding them back is the power of the American empire. The most we can do right now is to neutralize that power to enable revolutionary societies to spring up without hindrance."
Marxism by itself could have led me to any number of radical fringe parties, but that train of thought-stop American imperialism now!-led me to the Communist Party, USA (CP). Sure it was a Soviet subsidiary, but my thoughts were treasonous: It would take a big country to stop the big country I had bicycled across. The Soviet Union in 1972 seemed to be on a roll, with America heading out of Vietnam and apparently ready to retreat around the world. The big bear would offer me a ride.
To do due diligence I read a couple of anti-Communist books, but their reports of Communist brutality increased my zeal: Yes, Communists mean business. My political notebook: "People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. . . . Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can't understand that CP work is bad work which must be done, sin whose time has come. Communism may be sin, in its revolutionary power enthusiasm, but it is sin going somewhere."
Today I wonder where that use of "sin" came from, because that was not something learned at Yale. Ironically, Lenin wrote, "If you are not inclined to crawl in the mud on your belly, you are not a revolutionary but a chatterbox." Snakes have crawled on their bellies ever since the history contained in chapter 3 of Genesis, and now it was my turn. I wrote to CP headquarters in New York and went to Portland to meet with Gus Hall, the party's perennial presidential candidate.
Hall (1910-2000) was old school, born in northern Minnesota's Iron Range to parents who then helped to found the CP. He joined the party in 1927, gained arrest for allegedly transporting bomb materials to blow up a Republic Steel plant, and helped to found what became in 1943 the United Steelworkers of America. After World War II he spent eight years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary on charges of "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence."
Not doubting that he was guilty, I saw him as a genuine proletarian hero. I told Hall about my activities at Yale, my journalistic background, and my desire to be useful. What did he think about me, with my bushy beard and faux-worker's blue shirt? At age 62 he knew enough to hold his tongue. He said, "We can use someone like you"-and so my brief apprenticeship began.
One of Karl Marx's famous sentences concerns the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel's remark about facts and personages appearing twice in history: Marx wrote that Hegel "forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Hall's Communist Party experience was tragedy and mine was farce. I carried "Peace and Jobs" signs at a Saturday afternoon demonstration in a Portland park and distributed pamphlets on liberation theology themes outside the buildings of liberal churches following services.
There were few takers, but Jarvis Tyner, the CP candidate for VP that year, consoled me: "Just remind them that Jesus' daddy was a carpenter, so Jesus came from working class stock." One member of the small Oregon CP did come from a proletarian background and was known as "the man who fixes cars." The others were "red diaper babies" still loyal to the faith of their fathers, or discombobulated bourgeois kids like me.
But there was always a greater sucker. One Saturday afternoon, knocking on doors for signatures on a petition to get the Communist Party on the ballot in Oregon, I interrupted a man watching baseball on television. He did not want to sign the petition, but after we discussed the Boston Red Sox pitching staff he agreed to sign, saying, "If Communists like baseball they can't be all bad." (Ask Cubans who suffered under failed pitcher Fidel Castro for half a century.)
In August 1972, I hitchhiked 600 miles to San Francisco to talk with comrades on People's World, the party's West Coast newspaper, and to take part in a demonstration commemorating (and scorning) use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima. My attitudes were politically correct-on the trip down I slept one night on the grass at an Interstate rest stop but woke up at 6 a.m. cursing that fascist governor, Ronald Reagan, for turning on the sprinklers and soaking me.
In San Francisco I passed out copies of People's World outside a union hall during a strike, played chess in the evenings, and stayed in the apartment of a young Communist woman. Two weeks later, hitchhiking back to Oregon along the coastal highway, I went to sleep on a beach and awoke surrounded by fog so thick my hand in front of my face was invisible. That wasn't the only thing I couldn't see, even in bright sunlight.
To build better ties with my Russian comrades, I then traveled across the Pacific on a Soviet freighter. By day crew members taught me Russian. The evening brought chess matches against Mischa, the ship's chess champion, while other sailors looked on and made jokes about Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer-then rivals for the world chess championship-going at it. Sometimes we watched Soviet movies, particularly action pictures-Bolsheviks vs. Czarists-that were like knockoffs of bad Westerns.
The sailors told me that the ship's commissar bugged their rooms, but that seemed justifiable to me: Exposed to capitalism in ports, the sailors needed help to avoid bourgeois thinking. When I crossed Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, several Russians at stops stuck in my hands pieces of paper with their names on them, hoping that an American would get word of their plight or continued existence to relatives or Westerners, but I threw away those notes.
Then the train pulled into Moscow. It was time for some meetings.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.
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