The Communist Party USA had its share of bureaucrats, morons, sectarians, and incompetents, writes longtime leftist Michael Myerson. But it also included some of the best, most principled, courageous, and heroic fighters for social justice in US history.
The Communist Party holds a banner at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, DC, November 15, 1969. (Leif Skoogfors / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)
My good friend Bob Kaufman once advised me, “It’s not paranoia if you’re being persecuted.” It’s advice I have had the opportunity to recall on several occasions over the course of my life.
So there I was, sitting in a luxurious hotel ballroom in Toronto, with several hundred chairs set up auditorium-style, listening to speakers drone on. It’s December 1984 at a meeting of the World Peace Council (WPC), an initiative of the Soviets which advocated for nuclear disarmament, anti-imperialism, and peaceful coexistence around the world. I was the director of the American section, the US Peace Council (USPC).
One-on-one, most of the folks in the room had interesting things to say, but the WPC had established a style that demanded formalistic speech — more proclamations than actual talking. During these meetings, I often recalled the Ring Lardner quote: “‘Shut up!’ he explained.”
At one point, WPC president Romesh Chandra paused the proceedings to make a presentation. He was awarding the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal of Peace, named for Nobel-winning physicist and WPC founding president Frédéric Joliot-Curie, to James Jackson.
In 1937, Jim was one of the founders and leaders of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which laid the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement. Working, often clandestinely, in the Jim Crow South, under KKK-enforced apartheid, Jim and his comrades led thousands of young black southerners in organizing workers into unions, voter registration drives, and economic boycotts. At the height of the Cold War, Jim was one of the many Communist Party leaders indicted and convicted (though later overturned by the US Supreme Court) under the Smith Act. After his conviction, Jim spent years working underground. Jim’s history was heroic.
But by the time I joined the Communist Party in 1966, Jim had for years been working at the party’s national headquarters in a series of positions removed from “mass work,” as we referred to the activity in labor unions and other popular movements that most members engaged in. While he remained a recognized leader of the party, he was largely unknown outside its ranks. Certainly this was true for the peace movement.
So when Chandra presented Jim with the WPC’s highest honor — the only Americans previously so honored were Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1950s and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1971 — I wondered to myself, “Hmmm. What’s that about?”
Later in the meeting, bored and tired, my friend and colleague Mark Solomon, a history professor in Boston and cochair of the US Peace Council, decided with me to head up to our room for a while. The in-house television system was showing Red Dawn, an action blockbuster that could only be produced by the creative genius of Hollywood. It was about the invasion of Colorado — Colorado! — by the Soviet army, aided by its Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, only to face the resistance of a group of adolescent students who called themselves “The Wolverines,” after their high school mascot. Seemed to me like the perfect intermission from the WPC meeting downstairs.
Movie over, we rejoined the gathering. Walking into the hall, we spotted our friend, Tair Tairov, the Uzbek secretary of the Soviet Peace Committee. Tair was always good company and enjoyed a laugh. We told him about Red Dawn, and he was fascinated.
Taking our seats, I saw Tair head for the dais where Yevgeny Primakov was sitting as part of the presidium. An Arabist scholar and journalist by profession, Primakov was the president of the Soviet Peace Committee. Tair knelt down to whisper in Primakov’s ear. The latter nodded, put on his jacket, and the two of them got up and left the hall to enjoy some fine film fare. (Several years later, Primakov became head of intelligence and Soviet foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev, and, very briefly, Russian prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin).
When they came back downstairs, Tairov pulled me aside to discuss Red Dawn. More seriously, he told me, “Watch your back. Romesh is going to try to get your party to remove you from the US Peace Council.” He said that Chandra had told Boris Ponomarev that I was a CIA agent.
Ponomarev was a member of the Political Bureau — the highest body — of the Soviet Communist Party, responsible for relations with communist parties throughout the world. I asked Tair, “I’m so important that I’m discussed at such a level?” He essentially said, “Important to Romesh. To the Soviets, not so much.”
The differences lay in our focus on trying to build a mass movement in our country and Chandra’s wanting to sit on top of a bureaucracy he controlled, but with little interest in mass movements.
Hopeless but not serious, as my friend Misha Altman told me years earlier in that Prague café. The USPC and I may have been a pain in the ass to Chandra, but we were certainly no threat to him. We actually had no serious ideological differences with him. The differences lay in our focus on trying to build a mass movement in our country and Chandra’s wanting to sit on top of a bureaucracy he controlled, but with little interest in mass movements which were, by their nature, messy and with many contradictions.
President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state Dean Rusk once said, regarding the US war against Vietnam, that the US goal was “to control every wave in the Pacific.” Exactly Chandra’s goal vis à vis the WPC. So my decade with the USPC was a decade-long war of attrition.
We were forceful in arguing our point of view. To Romesh, this was an affront that could not and would not be tolerated. He was quite brilliant and had decades of experience in Indian and international communist politics. But his expertise lay in the field of bureaucratic infighting which made him, among other things, a practiced liar.
Many years later, my friend Kay Anderson was sent by 1199SEIU as a delegate to an Anti A- and H-bomb conference in Japan. Not knowing my experience with the WPC, she approached Romesh to tell him that she and I were friends. He replied, “Wonderful. Myerson’s a great guy. Please give him my regards.” When Kay conveyed this to me, I told her, “One thing you should know about Romesh. He only lies. Never believe a word he says, including ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’”
The funny thing about this whole episode is that, while Chandra was telling the Soviets that I was a CIA agent, anti-communist journalist John Barron — using sources that were actually in the CIA — was accusing me in Reader’s Digest of being a KGB agent. Like a schmuck, I had been working for subminimum wages that would have embarrassed a monk. Here I was, passing up paychecks from the two wealthiest intelligence agencies in the world.
While Chandra was telling the Soviets that I was a CIA agent, anti-communist journalist John Barron — using sources that were actually in the CIA — was accusing me of being a KGB agent.
In any case, Chandra’s public celebration of Jim Jackson began to make sense. I assumed Jim would return from Toronto to tell the party leadership in New York that Romesh wanted me gone.
And it would easily have all come to pass — except for two things. In the first place, I understood what few others knew: Gus Hall, the US Communist Party’s general secretary (who of course had his own direct line to Ponomarev of the Soviet Communist Party), despised Romesh Chandra. Gus had little love for me either, but I was in his party, and if anyone was to get rid of me, it would be him, not Chandra.
The two of them, Gus and Romesh, were bureaucratic twins. Both demanded unquestioned loyalty, not to say idolatry, and both had pathologically inflated views of their own importance. In old Hollywood Westerns, there was often one gunfighter telling another, “there’s not room in this here town for you and me both.” For Gus and Romesh, there was not room in the entire New Orleans Superdome for either of their egos, let alone both.
The other problem was who to replace me with. Their obvious candidate was Sandy Pollack, my closest comrade and “deputy” in the USPC. Sandy of course would have had nothing to do with the idea. Quite aside from her loyalty to me and the fact that we shared an equally dim view of our antagonists, she had no interest in running the organization. Matter of fact, she was about to leave full-time work in the USPC and was considering going to law school.
Then on January 19, 1985, eight minutes after takeoff, Sandy’s flight from Havana to Managua went down, killing everyone on board. This was such an immense loss to the peace and solidarity movements, and of course devastating to her parents and closest friends and comrades, among whom no one was closer than my wife, Laura, and me.
For Jim Jackson and the party, her death presented a conundrum. Romesh had exacted a pledge to remove me from the USPC, but now there was no candidate to take my place. What to do?
Castigated by the Party
One thousand-plus friends, comrades, and family members crowded into the Riverside Church memorial meeting for Sandy. Most were activists in the peace, disarmament, and solidarity movements. Sandy, who invariably took a seat in the back of any hall rather than the dais, was nevertheless known to all. The roster of speakers was comprised of leaders of these same movements.
Speaking for the Communist Party was its chairperson, Henry Winston. “Winnie,” as he was known throughout the party, was born in Mississippi and raised in Kansas City. In the 1930s, he rose to become national organizing director of the Young Communist League (YCL) during the years that Gil Green was YCL chair. In the late 1940s, like Gil, he was one of the top eleven leaders of the party to be arrested, tried, and sentenced under the Smith Act for “teaching to advocate the overthrow of the government.” Not for overthrowing, not for advocating the overthrow, but for teaching.
With his codefendants, he was sentenced to five years in prison. But before surrendering, Winnie, Gil, and two others jumped bail and “went underground” to run the party while the others were imprisoned.
Two of the four, Bob Thompson and Gus Hall, were captured, but Gil and Winnie remained at large for several years before deciding to turn themselves in. Jailed, with extra years tacked onto their sentences, Gil was sent to Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas and Winnie to Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana. While imprisoned, Winnie developed a brain tumor that went untreated until it rendered him permanently blind. A widespread campaign for his release — Fidel Castro made a personal appeal to President John F. Kennedy — finally secured his freedom. Walking out of prison, Winnie declared, “I have lost my sight but not my vision.”
But the rampant sectarianism of the party under Hall left the leadership largely isolated from and therefore out of touch with mass movements. They didn’t speak the same language. The leaders largely confined themselves to talking to one another or to gatherings of party members.
The rampant sectarianism of the party under Hall left the leadership largely isolated from and therefore out of touch with mass movements.
So when Winnie spoke at Sandy’s memorial, he spoke with the formality of addressing a party congress, with political brushstrokes, but not talking about Sandy on a personal level. It was a shame, because of all the party’s leaders, Winnie was the warmest personality, always graciously asking about one’s health and family. The crowd at the church received his speech politely but not enthusiastically.
I was the final speaker at the memorial, and of course I knew hundreds of those gathered, mostly activists in the peace and solidarity movements. I didn’t note it at the time, but apparently my remarks were well and loudly received. This background is unimportant and forgettable — except that it provided the party leaders with a Plan B for dealing with me, having no readily available course of action to remove me from the Peace Council.
Early the following week, I was invited to a special meeting of the Political Bureau. (On paper and in theory, the party’s quadrennial convention elects the Central Committee, which is supposed to be the highest body of the party between conventions. The Central Committee in turn elects the Political Bureau, the top leaders who run the national party day to day. The Political Bureau in turn elects the General Secretary. In reality — at least in the CPUSA, which adhered to Josef Stalin’s formula — things were reversed: the General Secretary chose the Political Bureau, which chose the Central Committee, which determined who would be delegates to the Convention. Truth be told, most labor unions and the Democratic and Republican Parties adhere to a similar organizational model.)
The political bureau had a one-point agenda: what an uncomradely shit Myerson is. My latest unpardonable offense was in “showing up Comrade Winston” at Sandy’s memorial.
Around the conference table they went, the dozen or so comrades, each taking around five minutes saying what a bad boy I was. I was supposed to sit there while they took turns castigating me. One was particularly offended when, in my remarks at the memorial, I said that Sandy “always had my back.” This was “mobster language,” I was now being told. I had earlier confided in the one leader I considered a friend, telling her about what had happened in Toronto, Chandra’s demand that I be replaced, Jim Jackson’s coming home to convey the message, and Sandy’s loss leaving no obvious replacement for me. When it came her turn at the batting cage, she told the Political Bureau, more in sorrow than anger, that I had “betrayed Sandy’s memory.”
Early on in the session, I saw that they had nothing. They were not going to remove me from my job, but at least they could try to humiliate me.
And so it went. It was understood that none of those in attendance could remain silent; that piling on was the order of the day. But early on in the session, I saw that they had nothing. They were not going to remove me from my job, but at least they could try to humiliate me. So I would sit there silently and allow the insults to pile up, at the end of which I would say, humbly, that I had listened carefully to all their concerns, I would take them to heart and carefully consider everything that had been said. Then I would get the hell out of the building and go back to work.
By this time, I had been a party member for more than fifteen years and pretty much knew my way around. I had already been “brought up on charges” several times — each time by a Central Committee or Political Bureau member, including three times around unauthorized international travel.
Several of these were for my visits to Cuba. My friend and “rabbi,” Gil Green, who had resigned his leadership positions in 1968 to protest the party’s support of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, still enjoyed great prestige among the membership and remained close to Winnie going back to their YCL days and later, as Smith Act defendants. After one of these “indictments” of me, Gil went to Winnie to suggest that it might not be wise to go after me, that I was close to Angela Davis, who at that time was ambivalent about her party membership, and “we wouldn’t want to do anything to drive her away.” That year, of course, Angela was on trial for her life and the heroine object of the largest international movement on behalf of a criminal trial defendant that the world had ever seen. It was true that Angela’s relationship to the party was problematic at times, but I would hardly be a deal-breaker for her. Nevertheless, Winnie took to heart Gil’s thinking, and the charges against me were dropped.
Gil pulled his magic trick with Winston and Hall on another occasion when I was on trial. This was at a point that the CPUSA was making nice in hopes of restoring its fractured fraternal relations with the Communist Party of Cuba. Gil suggested that going after me, whom the Cubans liked and trusted because of my years of work in solidarity with them, would be counterproductive to their hopes for a rapprochement. It seemed to have worked. Again, the charges against me disappeared.
The Communist Party also included the best, most principled, relentless, courageous, even heroic, fighters for economic and social justice in these United States.
To be clear, I did not and do not regret my years in the Communist Party. It certainly had its share of bureaucrats, morons, sectarians, and incompetents. But one only has to glance at a day’s news stories to understand that these maladies were hardly confined to the CPUSA. The party also included the best, most principled, relentless, courageous, even heroic, fighters for economic and social justice in these United States. And who were just good company. Several remain my lifelong best friends.
Not Dead. Not Yet.
Alden Whitman, a descendent of Walt Whitman and another former Red, was for many years the lead obituary writer for the New York Times. In that position, he pioneered the long-form obit, with quotations from the deceased’s acquaintances and experts in the field, as well as biographical details. He would tell funny stories about calling future subjects for interviews years in advance of their demise, building his files for future obituaries. “I was like the Grim Reaper,” he told me. Any number of people would ask him if he knew of health issues they themselves were unfamiliar with.
In a small way, I could identify with Alden. From an early age, I lost childhood pals. My three closest friends from ages nine to twelve each drowned. A junior high buddy was shot to death by a stray bullet. My best friend in my twenties died of pancreatic cancer. The same disease took one of my closest comrades during my thirties.
I count at least a dozen pals in the years before I turned forty who died from drugs, car wrecks, war, and disease. And of course, as I’ve grown older, the list has gotten longer. A decade ago, I’d lose at least one good friend a year; now it is two or three, a pace that is bound to accelerate. By now, I have fewer good friends remaining than those who are gone.
I’ve spoken at memorials of perhaps fifteen friends and, thinking back over them, I usually told humorous stories about these folks I loved. What I loved most about them, besides their feistiness and readiness to “spit in the eye” of those who would harm us, was that they were so much fun.
If you’re going to lead the life of a revolutionary during these decades of our late-stage capitalist shit show, you have to expect to have your heart broken. Then broken again. And again. What can you do but laugh? John Trudell, a fine poet and leader of the American Indian Movement, undoubtedly led a life far more difficult than my own. On his deathbed, his final words before closing his eyes for the last time were, “Oops. Looks like my ride is here.”
In Alain Resnais film La Guerre Est Finie, the exiled Spanish Communist hero says that the two essential qualities for a radical are “patience and a sense of irony.” I was never much good with patience; I think I more or less resembled an amusement-park bumper car just trucking along getting banged around and banging back. But irony, I’ve had in abundance.
The kind of life I was leading in my twenties, I really had no expectation of living past thirty. It wasn’t a premonition, just an assumption. And then I turned thirty-one and just kept going. And I ain’t dead yet.Original post