Monday, June 18, 2007

Review: Red Diapers, Growing Up in the Communist Left

Josh's older sister's farvourite game was 'Party Meeting' she played it with her friend Simone. Vera and Simone were the party leaders, teddy bears and younger brothers were the rank and file:

"Tonight," said Simone, "we will hear a report on the Negro Question from our junior member, who" - she scowled at me - "needs considerable education on the subject." She tapped her slide rule of Vera's desk and nodded at me to begin.

"The Negro Question's getting a lot better,' I said. "Because before they wouldn't even let Jackie Robinson play in the majors. But now we've got five Negroes just in the Dodgers alone." I counted them off on my fingers.

"There's Jackie, and Campanella behind the plate, and Newcombe and Black on the mound, and this season Junior Guilliam at second base. And he might even win Rook of the Year."

Vera and Simone looked at each other, shaking their heads and making tsk tsk sounds through their closed lips.

"I think we have to bring him up on charges," Vera said.

"White Chauvinism if I ever heard it," nodded Simone.

"Don't you know that even if they let Negores play a stupid game and get traded for money like slaves, they're still lynching them in the south?" Vera asked me. "Haven't you read your own father's articles on the Emmett Till case?"

"And what about Male Chauvanism?" said Simone, waving her ruler at me. "Did you ever stop to think that all your previous ballplayers are men? What about the plight of the colored woman?"

"He's left deviationist and right opportunist both at the same time," said Vera.

"Clear cause for explusion." said Simone"
That is from one of the almost 50 accounts from the children of communistsin Red Diapers. Having so many short accounts, gives a real depth to the book. There's a tapestry of experiences, with common threads, but also real differences.

I'm fascinated by the history of the Communist party of America, particularly in the 1950s, when the organisation was so persecuted. Partly because it is so foreign to the way I do politics, their way of organising wasn't just not my cup of tea, it was clearly counter productive to growing. The party line was often ridiculous (particularly during the war, my grandfather left the British Communist Party over the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the pro-war line that followed wasn't any better). Despite all these reservations, the Americans of the 1940s and 1950s I most admire were all in the Communist part. It was the only game in town - no one else was prepared to fight.

I loved these child eyes view of the fight. Both for the politics - in some tenements in New York everyone was either linke (Left) and Communist or rechte (right) Socialist - and for the common threads of childhood. Many of the children write about how terrified they were once Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, they knew their parents were communists, would they be put to death too? Communist children didn't just have common fears they developed their own sub-culture. rather than 'pinky swears' they'd say "By my Pioneer Honour, Touch Red" - and each child would touch something red.

There are some terrible parents, of course, and some awful hypocrisy. One girl's father spent his time doing party work, and when his wife (who earnt all the money) was back late he asks his 11 year old daughter where the food is kept, and demands she makes his coffee. Mostly I think the communism and the parenting skills weren't particularly related, the good parents would have always been good parents, the bad parents would always have been parents. Although I suspect for some children, the more their fathers (the most controlling, abusive behaviour in these accounts were always from the fathers) portrayed themselves as righteous, the harder it would have been for the child to understand their behaviour within the family.

There were some really sweet family moments as well. One of the writers came from a Finnish-American community, where the Party had run the annual Christmas Eve event. One year, the party leaders decided that the consumerism and Christianity of the ceremony was a problem, so instead there was a winter celebration without presents. When they got home their parents gave them presents, and told them not to tell anyone. Years later they learned that every single one of their friends' parents had done the same thing.

The most heart-breaking memoir was from Bettina Aptheker. I'd heard of her, she was involved in the Berkley Free Speech Movement. When the right accused her of being a communist, she wrote a letter back saying "Yes, I am a communist, and I'm proud to be a communist." She's one of the many figures of the 1960s that I admired, without knowing too much about.
When I am in my late twenties an older comrade whom I dearly love confides in me. She tells me that in the early 1950s she had been instructed by the party leadership to question women in the Party about their sexuality. In particular she was to ask them if they'd ever had a homosexual liaison. If the answer was yes she was instructed to ask them to voluntarily resign from the Party of face expulsion. "Even if it was only once," the comrade says to me. "Even if they had since married." She goes on, explaining "It was to protect the Party from potential informers. If they were desperate enough to hide their sexual encounters, the FBI could force them into becoming informers." There is a silence into which I say nothing. "I'm so ashamed of myself," She tells me. "It was wrong." Now as I remember this comrade's confession I think that I must have known of this as a child. I must have heard these discussion around me known the consequences of my feelings for women as I reached adolescence: to be made an FBI informer or be expelled from the party/my family, to be cast out.
I am going to read her memoir, I want to know more about her story.

Bettina Aptheker, is not the exception, most of the contributors are still fighting for a better world, in their different ways. Communists have largely been written out of American history, and their legacy ignored. Few people mention that the almost all the young northern white people involved in the Civil Rights Movements were red diaper babies. Carl Bernstein, who contributed to the book, is rarely placed within his radical, fighting legacy. Many of the writers gain real strength from their heritage. The sense that we are all part of a long chain of resistance has particular meaning when the link is so intimate. It gives them direct access to the strength and hope we can all draw from the history of those who fought back.

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