Vivian Gornick’s eternal Stalinist nostalgia

Vivian Gornick

We last discussed Vivian Gornick a couple of months ago, when we took note of a piece she’d written for the New York Times romanticizing Stalinism. Gornick’s exercise in nostalgia, we observed, was pretty much a boiled-down version of her repulsive 1978 memoir The Romance of Communism. In her piece, as in her book, she portrayed American Communists as superior souls, driven by convictions that the non-Commie rabble were too ignoble to possess.

When we weighed in on Gornick’s Times essay, we hadn’t yet caught up with another recent item bearing her byline – namely, an article for the Nation entitled “Getting Even.” The subject was Diana Trilling (1905-96), the occasion a new biography of Trilling by Natalie Robins entitled The Untold Journal.

Diana Trilling

Who, you ask, was Diana Trilling? She belonged to a circle of midcentury Manhattan writers who went by various names – sometimes the New York intellectuals, sometimes the Partisan Review crowd, and sometimes (by insiders) The Family. Among her fellow Family members were Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and, not least, Trilling’s own husband, Lionel, who was a professor of literature at Columbia University and a highly respected literary critic.

Most of the New York intellectuals were leftists, but none of them were, like Gornick, Stalinists; several of them would have identified, for a time anyway, as Trotskyites, although the Trillings were more moderate in their politics, pretty much personifying the mainstream liberal anti-Communism of the day. Lionel’s most celebrated book, indeed, was a collection of essays entitled The Liberal Imagination.

Lionel Trilling

And Diana? She started out reviewing fiction for The Nation and went on to write social and cultural criticism and to publish three collections of essays, a biography (of a famous murderess), and a memoir. During her marriage to Lionel (who died in 1975), she also, as Gornick puts it, “kept house, organized their increasingly busy social life, and took an active hand in aiding her husband with his work.” That aid was by no means inconsiderable: Lionel was a subtle thinker but not a fluid writer, and Diana, by all accounts, edited him heavily and made him readable.

She called herself a “family feminist.” Any reasonable person would admire her as a model professional woman, one who managed to combine a respected career with a responsible family life. But this doesn’t do it for Gornick. In Gornick’s view, Diana Trilling wasn’t enough of a feminist – or, perhaps more accurately, wasn’t the right kind of feminist.

But even more troubling for Gornick than Diana’s take on feminism was her (and Lionel’s) view of Communism. Now, for any sensible person, the Trillings’ rock-solid anti-Communism is self-evidently admirable, especially given the tendency of many members of the New York crowd to look fondly on the Soviet Union (or, at the very least, to refuse to judge it harshly). Diana’s later distaste for the New Left and all its epiphenomena (hippies, student revolts, sit-ins, campus takeovers, the Black Power movement) also seems sane, mature, and prescient – especially, again, when viewed alongside the desperately puerile efforts by Family members like Norman Mailer to become a part of the youth movement and thus be seen as au courant, hip, with-it.

Joseph Stalin

It’s no surprise that Gornick, an old Stalinist, has a problem with Diana’s politics. Here’s what Gornick has to say on the topic:

Communism in the United States was the great bugaboo of Diana’s life. From the mid-’30s on, she saw it as a threat to American democracy worthy of the highest moral outrage. Making no distinction between communists in the Soviet Union and those in the United States, she described the Communist Party USA as the evil within that operated under a “chain of Communist command” and that was bent on “the entrapment of innocents.”

Whom does Gornick think she is fooling? It has long since been established that the American Communist Party’s every move was indeed directed by the Kremlin. Its members were, in a very real sense, in the service of evil. They were the tools of a monstrous totalitarianism. There was no operative distinction between Communists over here and over there. Diana Trilling understood that more than half a century ago; Vivian Gornick, now in her eighties, is still in some perverse kind of denial about it. Gornick’s indictment of Diana’s politics continues:

The Trillings

She often thought it more important to fight this evil within than to secure and protect civil liberties, and she could truly never understand why this made others see her as a reactionary. To read her today on communism (with either a lowercase or capital “C”) is jaw-dropping, alternately ludicrous and frightening. Not once in all of her red-baiting diatribes does an insight emanate from anything that might resemble an emotional imagination.

What is Gornick criticizing Diana Trilling for here? She’s criticizing her, apparently, for seeing Communism precisely for what it was, for looking at it with unblinkered eyes, for refusing to buy into any of the rose-colored propaganda that filled so many of the intellectual and literary journals of the time, for seeing through the efforts of American Communists to hide behind freedoms they had sworn to destroy. Gornick, whose view of Communism has been befogged by sentiment throughout her adult life, is criticizing Trilling for not sharing her own repellent delusions. Good for Trilling. Shame on Gornick. 

A thumbs-up for (believe it or not) the New York Times

Peter Andreas

On this site, we’ve long been critical of the New York Times for its consistent readiness to publish op-eds, memoirs, and even news stories that whitewash Communism. In recent weeks, for example, we’ve singled out Peter Andreas’s affectionate recollection of his Maoist mother and Vivian Gornick’s nostalgia, as her title put it, for the days “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

Harvey Klehr

So when the Times runs something sensible on the topic, we feel obliged to give the Gray Lady a tip of the hat. Such is the case with veteran scholar Harvey Klehr’s splendid, comprehensive articleAmerican Reds, Soviet Stooges,” which appeared in the Times on July 3.

Dalton Trumbo

While the Times, like many other liberal mainstream media, routinely likes to portray American Communists (such as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) as essentially benign super-liberals who had little or or no real connection to the Soviet Union, Klehr, perhaps America’s leading expert on the topic, firmly corrects the record, stating flat-out that “the Communist Party of the United States of America was an instrument of Soviet foreign policy,” taking orders directly from the Kremlin on its policy positions and its choice of leaders.

Earl Browder

“In both 1929 and 1945, Moscow demanded, and got, a change of party leadership,” recalls Klehr. When Earl Browder fell afoul of Stalin and was ousted as party head, “virtually every Communist who had hailed Browder for years as the symbol of an Americanized Communism then shunned him. He was even forced to find a new dentist and a different insurance agent.”

Adolf Hitler

Klehr recounts other specific Kremlin-directed actions by the CPUSA, some of which we’ve discussed previously on this site – notably the Party’s shifting positions on FDR and the war with Hitler. “Anyone who remained a Communist for more than a few years,” notes Klehr, “had to be aware that the one constant [in the Party] was support for whatever policy the Soviet Union followed. Open criticism of the U.S.S.R. was grounds for expulsion.” Soviet lies were echoed faithfully. The CPUSA

insisted that the show trials during Stalin’s purges had uncovered a vast capitalist plot against the Soviet leader. Party members dutifully repeated Soviet fabrications that Trotsky had been in the pay of the Nazis. Worst of all, many Communists applauded the execution of tens of thousands of Soviet comrades, denouncing those who were executed as bourgeois spies and provocateurs. When Finnish-Americans who had returned to Soviet Karelia in the late 1920s and early ’30s to build socialism were purged, their American relatives were warned by party authorities to remain silent, and most did so.

Nikita Khrushchev

As Klehr notes, the CPUSA was funded by Soviet money – delivered, ironically, by two double agents who were really working for the FBI. Klehr also points out that hundreds of CPUSA members were also outright Soviet spies. As we’ve observed more than once here, it wasn’t until Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech,” in which he outlined in grisly detail the brutal crimes of Stalin, that many members of the CPUSA were convinced of what he had already been obvious for years to virtually all other sentient beings. Thanks to Khrushchev, CPUSA membership dropped from a high of nearly 100,000 to fewer than 3,000 in 1959.

Vivian Gornick

Peter Andreas to the contrary, American Communism wasn’t adorable. Vivian Gornick to the contrary, it wasn’t inspiring – except to a bunch of very troubled people whose twisted psyches caused them to prefer tyranny to freedom. A big thanks to Harvey Klehr for providing a timely reminder of the dark reality of the CPUSA – and, amazing though it sounds to say this, thanks, as well, to the New York Times for bringing his article to us.

A great mom – and a great Commie

On May 13, only two weeks after the New York Times ran a sentimental op-ed by Vivian Gornick about the good old days of American Stalinism (which we looked at yesterday), the editors of the Newspaper of Record – which has spent the last few months comparing Donald Trump to Hitler, Mussolini, and every other fascist it can think of – decided it was time for another piece eulogizing Communism.

Peter Andreas

Under the headline “Thanks to Mom, the Marxist Revolutionary,” Peter Andreas, a professor of political science at Brown, served up a cozy Mother’s Day tribute to his mom, “a 1950s Mennonite housewife from Kansas who became a 1960s radical promoting the overthrow of patriarchy and capitalism.” (The contributor’s note identifies him as the author of Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, and presumably this piece is an excerpt from the book.)

Cover of Andreas’s book, including a photo of him with his mother

Andreas informs us that during the years when he was of elementary-school age (it isn’t clear exactly much time he actually spent in school), his mother took him to Detroit, to “a Berkeley commune,” to “a socialist collective farm in Chile,” to “the coastal shantytowns of Peru,” and to the slums of Ecuador. She let him “play with a loaded gun” because it was “good training for the revolution.”

And, for her, that’s what it was all about: “the revolution.”

At some point, she divorced his dad, and after “a bitter court battle”– the particulars of which Andreas doesn’t go into – the dad won sole custody of him, which at the time was so extremely unusual that she must’ve really been one hell of a lousy mother. Andreas also mentions in passing her dodging of “arrest warrants,” but doesn’t go into detail about them, either. What crimes did she commit? One offense he does tell us about is that after losing custody of him, she defied the judge’s order and took her son out of the country.

She “joined street protests and picket lines, and wrote passionately about the oppression of the poor and powerless. With me by her side, we battled the bad ‘isms’ (imperialism, fascism, sexism and consumerism) and we fought for the good ones (communism, feminism and egalitarianism). When we secretly returned to the United States, we lived in hiding in Denver, where my mother changed her name so that my father could not find us.”

He admits that all this running around and living in hiding took its toll on him. Though he “enjoyed feeling like I was part of a cause, even if I had only a vague sense of what that meant,” he “hungered for stability.” When he didn’t grow up into a radical, she grieved over his “betrayal of class struggle.” As for her parenting skills, she thought she was a terrific mother – she was bringing her son up to be a servant of the revolution, and if she had let him grow up with his father in a more stable environment she’d have been, in her mind, exhibiting disloyalty to the revolution. As Andreas puts it, his mother “saw her rejection of traditional ‘good mothering’ – constrained by the nuclear family and the creature comforts of capitalism – as proof itself that she was a good mother.”

Andreas admits that he is raising his own daughters “very differently” from the way he was raised. “And yet,” he concludes, “I would not trade my life with her for a thousand ‘normal’ childhoods. My mother’s approach to parenting was deeply rooted in her commitment to transformative social change.” She exposed him to “the world’s enormous inequalities” and gave him “a passion for politics” and a “devotion to creating a more just world.” A commitment to transformative social change; a devotion to creating a just world: such is the twisted language that so many Times contributors and academics routinely use to describe a fanatical dedication to a totalitarian system that killed more people than Nazism.

Who exactly was Peter Andreas’s mother? Curiously enough, he doesn’t mention her name in the article. But her name was Carol Andreas, and we’ll learn more about her tomorrow, from sources other than her son.  

The Gray Lady – or the Lady in Red?

The headline could hardly have been more repulsive: “When Communism Inspired Americans.” It appeared in the New York Times on April 29. The article, by Vivian Gornick, was an unashamed exercise in nostalgia for the good old days of American Stalinism.

Vivian Gornick

The piece was reprehensible, but it should not have been surprising. After all, the Times, which is often referred to as the Gray Lady, has often, over the decades, seemed to deserve, rather, the nickname “The Lady in Red.” Recall, for example, that it was the home base of none other than Stalin-era Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, this website’s own mascot, who, as we wrote in our mission statement, “did more than any of his contemporaries to spread Soviet propaganda under the guise of news – and to discredit colleagues who dared to tell the truth about the brutality of Stalin’s regime.”

Walter Duranty

Duranty, as we pointed out, “defended the Gulag (in which millions died), the forced collectivization of peasants (ditto), and the 1938 show trials (used by Stalin to wipe out potential opponents). He also vigorously denied the reality of the Holmodor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which was deliberately engineered by Stalin and which also resulted in millions of deaths.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a Moscow correspondent at the same time, later maintained that the Times had published Duranty’s pro-Stalin propaganda even though it was “so evidently nonsensically untrue” not “because the Times was deceived” but because “it wanted to be so deceived.”

And Duranty was just the beginning. As Frances Martel noted at Breitbart, Duranty’s “style of fabrication” about Communism “continued well into the 1960s when writer Herbert Matthews leveraged his newspaper’s influence to promote the Cuban Revolution.” Throughout Castro’s reign, Martel observed, the Times “regaled Castro – who sent thousands, including Christians, LGBT Cubans, writers, and dissidents generally, to labor camps and killed thousands of others using firing squads – as a ‘victorious guerrilla commander in 1959’ and lauded the alleged ‘medical advances’ and ‘racial equality’ of communist Cuba in November when the Cuban government claimed Castro had finally died.”

Josef Stalin

The Times‘s publication of Gornick’s April 29 piece reminds us that the paper hasn’t changed its stripes. Nor has Gornick. The author of a 1978 book called The Romance of Communism, what she offered in her Times piece, all these decades later, was basically a thumbnail version of that book. She didn’t exactly defend or deny any of Stalin’s atrocities – she just swept them under the rug. Or, rather, she acted as if she and her family and their intimate circle of Communist Party members in New York had been totally unaware of all these well-publicized crimes against humanity until Khrushchev gave his so-called “secret speech” in February 1956. Yet despite those crimes, she sought, just as in her 1978 book, to depict mid-century American Communists not as totalitarians or world-class dupes but as moral exemplars – indeed, as the very noblest of souls.

Communism is every bit as vile an ideology as Nazism. Stalin took more even lives than Hitler. But while no self-respecting American newspaper would publish an old Nazi’s affectionate memoir of the Third Reich, the Times has always treated Communism differently. If Gornick’s piece wasn’t a good enough reminder of the Times‘s double standards on the Berlin and Moscow versions of totalitarianism, the newspaper actually published yet another such piece only a couple of weeks later. We’ll look at it tomorrow.