By: David Gutmann Friday, November 25, 2005
My journey from Depression-era Communism to present-day conservativism.
I recently started attending meetings of a right-wing group in Rutland, Vermont that calls itself "the Republican Wing of the Republican party" and aims to restore the lost Conservatism of the GOP. As one who until recently voted straight Democrat, I write this memoir in order to lessen the culture shock that I still experience in their company.
Like most critical life events, my right-turn had early roots. I started out as a Depression-era kid in New York City, in neighborhoods where the Wars of the Jews - between Communists, Socialists and Trotskyites, between Labor Zionists and Communists, between Syndicalists and Socialists, etc. - were unendingly fought, and by all ages. Thus, eleven-year-olds would hotly and with Talmudic sophistication debate world revolution (Trotskyism) against revolution in one country at a time (Stalinism). While you could choose among the contending factions, the menu of options was restricted to the Red end of the political rainbow - the sprawling array of Leftist parties. A vote for FDR was about as far right as one could go without committing heresy; to vote Republican was inconceivable. The hand that cast that vote would certainly rot and fall off.
A well-behaved boy, I did the proper thing, and joined the Young Pioneers, the youth section of the Communist Party. Thus, while other Jewish boys spent their afternoons in Hebrew school, preparing for their Bar-Mitzvahs, I went off to learn "worker's" songs, preparing for the revolution.
The Marxist factional wars that agitated our Bronx neighborhood also troubled my childhood home. My stepmother was a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool fellow traveler, while my father, a loyal Zionist whose brothers were perennially at risk in Jewish Palestine, was at odds with all the Reds and Pinks like her, as these generally favored the Arabs over the Palestinian Jews. He also let me know that he did not approve of adults who recruited impressionable children into extremist movements that the kids were too young to evaluate. Once, when I asked him for subway fare to a Radical rally, he complied on one condition: that, on my return, I summarize for him the major points of the Marxist dialectic. I had no idea what a dialectic was, but I got his essential point: that I was silly and pretentious.
The memoirs of ex-Communists have been collected under the rather lurid title, "The God that Failed." In my case, the Twilight of the Gods began early. A "comrade," a girl that I had a crush on, gave a party for selected Young Pioneers, though without inviting me. Wounded, I complained that this was not comradely behavior, and after only one summer of treason left the Young Pioneers. Though my afternoons were now devoted to roller-skate hockey instead of poster-painting, I held onto the anti-Hitler sentiments that had led me to the Pioneers, and remained in touch with the neighborhood's chronic state of alarm over the fate of the Spanish Loyalists, the Czechs, the German Jews, and other targets of the Reich. But I was not prepared for the next lesson in the Left's politics of betrayal. It was taught by Vyacheslav Molotov as he announced, in the late summer of 1939, the USSR's nonaggression pact with Hitler's Germany. This was the agreement that set up the invasion and division of Poland, the fall of France, and the worst chapters of the Holocaust.
All politics we are told are local, so what really shocked me was the zombie reaction of the neighborhood comrades and their Red Diaper kids to these tectonic changes. A few defected from the Communist Party, but most clung stubbornly to the new party line, no matter how violently it whiplashed them.
His younger readers may have thought that Orwell's depiction, in 1984, of the IngSoc Ministry of Truth and its spinnings of political reality were too science-fiction-y, too fantastic; but the truth was no less strange than his fiction. In Orwell's account, when Big Brother's IngSoc party suddenly switches enemies, the Ministry of Truth declares, through all its media, "We have always been at war with EastAsia!!," and any evidence to the contrary goes down the memory hole. Orwell was spot on. Thus, in the Communist Party and its "Transmission Belt" media, all references to the struggle against Fascism were quickly and quietly excised, and the local front organizations changed their names accordingly. Almost overnight, the national "League Against War and Fascism" became the "League for Peace and Democracy;" and Britain took the place of Hitler's Germany in the Red iconography of evil. At home, my ex-comrades and Little Red schoolmates were trooped off to mass rallies against Britain's "imperialist war," and against Roosevelt's "warmongering" policy of aid to the Allies. Meanwhile, overseas, French Party members in the Grande Armee devoted themselves - quite successfully, it appears - to undercutting the morale of the Republic's soldiers.
Perhaps because of my loner father's Zionist example and my own habitual stubbornness, I remained immunized against the Agitprop, committed to the war against Hitler, and even had dreams of running off to join the French army. Luckily for me, the French army collapsed before I could act on these fantasies, but I did pay a social price for my loyalties to the Allied cause. For example, when I openly cheered the victories of the RAF in the Battle of Britain, I was hassled by high school classmates for believing "Churchill's lies."
The inevitable Party line reversal came quickly: In June 1941, the Wehrmacht invaded Russia, and the Left once again, literally overnight, hated Fascism. It embraced the cause of the imperialist, colonialist, Capitalist allies, while its obedient folk-singers hymned the British dead. The same True Believers as before demonstrated with their usual hectic righteousness in Union Square, but since "We have always been at war with West Asia," now their urgent placards called for the immediate opening of a Second Front in Europe. The Allies did test Hitler's WestWall defenses at Dieppe in 1942, but were repulsed with unacceptably heavy losses, and it was not until 1944 that we could establish a European beachhead; nevertheless, the cries from the Left got shriller, and the Allies were accused - by those who had earlier charged them with warmongering - of being defeatist, and of plotting to let the Soviets bleed alone.
Because the Left, along with most allied citizens, now supported the conflict, FDR and Churchill could lead united countries, and fight a ruthlessly total war, one that savaged German and Japanese civilians. The RAF fire-bombed German cities by night and the USAF fire-bombed (and finally Atom-Bombed) Japanese cities by day, ultimately killing somewhere in the neighborhood of two million enemy noncombatants. The Left, which is nowadays so quick and shrill to accuse U.S. (and Israeli) forces of war crimes against Arab civilians in Falluja, Jenin and Baghdad, had no complaint whatsoever then: after all, Axis civilians were Rightists, rather than Third World Victims, and de facto enemies of the Soviet Union to boot. So the Leftist press pilloried those who opposed the Strategic Bombing policy, calling them "defeatists" and "dupes of Fascism." By the same token, the Reds and Pinks did not, during WWII, indulge their current obsession with body bags - the daily tally of GI's fallen in the Iraq war. These days, the Bush-bashers count the bodies like misers over hoarded gold; and they could hardly wait for the Iraq casualty figure to reach the nice round number of two thousand dead. But in WWII, we took that many KIA and more in just one bloody day on the Normandy beachheads without any Leftist hand-wringing whatsoever.
The Left did not shift to its current posture of reflexively opposing all American military initiatives until WWII ended and the Cold War with the USSR began. Then the left reverted with happy alacrity to its pre-WWII Amerikkka-bashing Peacenik policies, and a new generation of marchers, parading under Picasso's doves, called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, for an end to the Marshall Plan, and for the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean front and Europe.
I personally witnessed this sequence, from popular front to America-bashing, as it played out during the war and postwar years, in my own Red-led seaman's union. I had been a Merchant Seaman from late 1943 until after WWII, and held a card in the National Maritime Union (NMU). During my sailing days, I was an amateur artist as well as a seaman and my products were on exhibit in the union hall. This "creative-Proletarian" cosmetic made me attractive to the union's radical Bohemian commissars, and I was rushed by them to join the Communist Party. My father had died, and I no longer had to please him; besides, as in the "Young Pioneer" days, I hoped to meet sexy girl comrades. So I went along with the recruitment program to the point of attending meetings of the CP's New York Waterfront Section. But once again, the Party frustrated my erotic designs: There were no sexy girls. Instead, save for a few rageful Valkyries, the attendees turned out to be the top officers of the NMU (ordinarily, a reclusive bunch) lined up in one small room as though for a Brady photograph of Lincoln's generals. The lurid accounts in the Capitalist press of Commie-dominated unions were being played out right in front of me.
During the US-Soviet wartime entente, the NMU had obeyed the Party Line, and had - despite heavy losses to the U-Boats of ships and crews - gone full-ahead to serve the war effort. This truce with Capitalism and "John Shipowner" was called off as soon as WWII ended and the Cold War began in earnest. By early 1946, my union brothers were being hustled out of the hiring hall to march in demonstrations, far from the New York waterfront, against US foreign policies that the Kremlin found objectionable, but that had nothing to do with "Pork Chop" issues - the welfare of seamen.
Observing once again these pretzel bendings of the party line, I was reminded of what I had temporarily forgotten - the dedicated, "Revolutionary" hypocrisy of the Communists and their "Useful Idiot" fellow-travellers. Once again pulling away from the Reds and the Pinks and looking for new Pole Stars, I discovered my political patrimony, my latent Zionist heritage, and volunteered to sail, as a marine engineer, on ships of the Jewish "Illegal immigration." These were the Hagana boats that were attempting, in 1946 and '47, to bring Jewish holocaust survivors to Palestine. Postwar, the Brits seemed to have taken over the Nazi's mission of keeping the remaining Jews out of human society, though now that their powers were spent by war, they limited their efforts to keeping the survivors of the Holocaust out of the Holy Land. To this end, the Royal Navy mounted a dense naval blockade of the Palestinian coast, herding the captured Jewish "queue jumpers" (as they were called in the Brit press) into fetid prison camps, mostly on the island of Cyprus.
I served on two rust-buckets that attempted unsuccessfully to break the blockade, was twice caught and imprisoned by the Brits in His Majesty's gaols and Cypriot prison camps. Just as the Israeli War of Independence began, "David Gutmann" was released as a new immigrant - under the Hagana cover name "Shmuel Zauerman" - into Jewish Palestine. After serving as an engineering officer in the infant Israeli navy, I was reassigned to the immigrant boats that were bringing to the new Israeli state, now legally, the Jewish Holocaust survivors. I served in their engine rooms until the War of Independence was won, when I could return States-side to get a war-delayed education.
At the University of Chicago, I discovered to my surprise (and even covert chagrin) that Zionist Jews were culture heroes - except to the Leftists. I thought that I had witnessed in the War of Independence a victory of biblical proportions and import: the murdered Jewish people rising from the killing pits to shock the four corners of the world in arms. But the radicals saw it differently: the Palestinians, they helpfully informed me, were not a people devoted to continuing the unfinished work of the Holocaust, but victims of Zionist colonial ambitions. Despite all that had happened - the Holocaust, WWII and the birth of Israel - nothing for them had changed: the Pinks and their pilot fish were still fighting the anti-Zionist wars of my old Bronx neighborhood.
That really did it. If the Leftists were now into Israel-bashing, they had finally split from me. But I was still self-identified as a working stiff: I had been a farmhand, and a seaman; and I had dropped out of college for a while to work in the Gary Indiana steel mills and to be a roofer. In these tough trades, the class struggle was a daily reality, and I had no illusions about the benign nature of Capitalism. I understood that workers needed protection in the workplace and marketplace, but after my experience in the Red NMU, I could not trust the Socialist ideologues to supply it. Communist union leaders could work very hard to build a union, but whenever there was a conflict between party goals and the interests of the rank and file, the Reds would, without the slightest compunction, sell the brothers out.
Syndicalism - the doctrine of organized worker power - was the answer to the worker's dilemma. Strong trade and industrial unions brought the worker into the marketplace as an equal player, gave him the power to extract a fair price for his labor, and brought about a redistribution of income based on the value of his sweat, rather than his victim entitlements. Finally, syndicalism protected the working stiff from the predations of the capitalist, and from the totalitarian temptations of the socialist. It was completely compatible with Democracy, with my Zionist beliefs, and with what the Democratic Party stood for in the days of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Humphrey and Scoop Jackson: civil rights, a strong, proud working class at home, and a powerful but generally decent American presence in the world.
I have not really changed; I would still vote gladly for Truman or his heirs. But in the 60's the McGovernite wing gained power, and the Democratic party shifted leftward under my feet, back towards the hypocrisy and moral exhibitionism that had driven me away.
In addition, the New Democrats undermined their party's twin pillars of class struggle at home and active defense abroad, and this kept me voting Democratic.
Regarding defense, instead of containment, the New Democrats opted for retreat in the face of Soviet aggression, they voted for cutting defense spending to the point where retreat would be the only remaining strategic option, and they demanded that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle be treated in a more "even-handed" fashion. Increasingly, the Third World - no matter how bloody-minded its rulers - came to be seen as America's victim, just as the Palestinians were idealized as the Christ-like victims of the Israeli deicides.
I became a syndicalist because I had experienced the routine heroism of the average American working man: felling trees in the woods at twenty degrees below zero; going down into death-trap boiler rooms in U-Boat waters; or baking in asbestos suits while shoveling alloying metals into ladles of liquid steel in the Indiana summertime. But once the Left came to realize that the American workers would probably never opt for Socialism, and would remain doggedly anti-Communist, they left off portraying them as Heroes of Labor, and instead switched on their bitchy scorn.
Thus, on the domestic front, the white working-class was caricatured as a pack of racist, male-chauvinistic and homophobic Archie Bunkers, who gladly victimized women, minorities and gays. Smart young idealists no longer took jobs as union organizers, and left the weakened unions to become corrupt. Unions like the Teamsters were preyed on by the Mob, and came to display the worst features of the capitalist marketplace. Soon enough, the bright promise of Syndicalism was largely undone.
Meanwhile, the best and the brightest marched for victim entitlements, rather than for the working proles. The Democrat Left did fight for black (but not for white) civil rights, but they also agitated for a menu of largely elitist issues: partial-birth abortion, assisted suicide, the abolition of date-rape and "sexual harassment," gay marriage, women in combat and gays in the military. What these causes had in common was not any compelling economic or civil rights concerns, but the din of the (usually radical-feminist) victim-babble that surrounded them. The more trivial the issue, the louder the squawks of grievance that it engenders. And as is so often true in human affairs, the volume of victim-babble hid the victim's own misdeeds.
Since childhood I had been hearing from the Leftist apologists for Stalin, Mao, Castro, Arafat and the Khmer Rouge, that our country was either sliding irreversibly into Fascism or - driven by McCarthy or Nixon or now Bush - we were already there. Yet when I considered the history of our times, it seemed to me that, since I was a kid, the nation's march had been, despite many setbacks, towards greater freedom, enhanced economic and civil rights, and greater tolerance for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. There was only one exception: the universities. I have been in academia as a psychologist since the 1950's (at Chicago, Harvard, Michigan and Northwestern) and as I noted the march of freedom in the larger society, I also watched the left take over the Liberal Arts and extinguish the hard-won academic freedoms of even great universities. As predicted by Allan Bloom, the American mind is closing: as the president of Harvard recently learned, there are now crucial topics in the social and biological sciences that - because they would offend the Left's favored victim constituencies - cannot be studied or even thought about in the universities. In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that promising and productive research and training projects of my own were deprived of funding because they did not fit the dominant PC orthodoxies.
The left preaches against mind control, but arrogantly practices it - always for the most impeccable reasons - wherever they have the power of enforcement. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Democratic party, like the proverbial "Good Germans," sits back and watches it happen.
Not all Democrats are of this stripe, and there are still some Truman era holdouts; but I pretty much stopped voting for them when I realized that even a reasonable presidential candidate heading the Democratic ticket would have to pay dues to his radical constituencies. I dreaded the parade of moral exhibitionists, America-bashers, Palestinian huggers, men haters, poverty pimps, unilateral disarmers, defeatists and other Great Souls that would inevitably troop into office as his appointees.
I do not mean to demonize the Democrats while idealizing the GOP. I knew early on that the GOP was the party of privilege, and what remains of my Syndicalist thinking has never changed on that score. But older now, I realize that the Democrats also have their favorite constituencies who - like their fat-cat republican counterparts - live high on the hog at the expense of the rest of us. Since 1967 some $9 trillion have been poured into assorted poverty programs, and the major results have been the culture of passive-aggressive dependency, the breakdown of minority families, the trashing of our inner cities, the McMansions of Colombian drug lords, and the obscene anarchy that followed Katrina. The Republican plutocrats put at least some of their ill-gotten gains into paying substantial taxes and into new, job-creating industries. When they rob us they at least do it gently, without mugging us in the process.
Nevertheless, despite my reservations, and my claim to being an Independent voter, I have come to feel a much stronger identity with the Republicans than with the Democrats, as now constituted. I was a Democrat as long as they backed the class struggle at home, and fought for Democracy abroad. Today's Republicans are closer to that ideal. They may not be champions of the working class - but neither are today's Democrats; and the Republicans do continue to project abroad the kind of American power that brought down the Soviet Union, and that will, I believe, defeat Islamic terrorism.
The Republicans still uphold at least the foreign policy half of my own agenda, while the Democrats have pretty much scrapped the whole package. A friend of mine who quit the Communist Party for ideological reasons admitted that he still "smells the incense, and hears the temple bells." I have no such nostalgia.
My few remaining liberal friends do complain that my politics put me "to the right of Genghis Khan," but this is a Coventry that I have inhabited since grade school days, and so I feel no great pain. For my part, I don't demonize my left-liberal friends, though I do abominate liberal Jews who bash Israel while genuflecting to the Palestinians. They are dhimmis-in-waiting, they are brown-nosed dedicated Jew-killers. They have discovered a fancy way to assimilate, to escape the Jewish peril, and I hate their guts.
Reading over the last few paragraphs, I realize that the Republican's appeal has private as well as political roots: they are not sentimentalists; and they are not afraid to build up and use our national strength in the service of decent goals. In short, they are the masculine, Patriarchal party. It strikes me that, as aging men like myself lose their own masculine capacities and cosmetics, they turn to external institutions to affirm their fading manhood. Some become Republicans, even hawkish NeoCons.
Finally, politics has irrational, subjective sources and it is no big news that political preferences can be a projection outwards of family and personality dynamics. Though my father never heard the term "NeoConservative" he would, I believe, approve of me as I am now, as his son.