Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Did You Stay Communist So Long?

Chandler Davis has a new book out: It Walks in Beauty (ed. by Josh Lukin. Aqueduct Press, 2010). Last night there was a book launch at the Judy Merrill Science fiction library at the Toronto Public Library on College Street. Chandler's book includes both science fiction and essays in which he recounts his experience as a leftist in the United States during the forties and fifties. Eventually he went to jail for refusing to testify about belonging to the Communist Party while refraining from “taking the fifth amendment.” Then he joined the University of Toronto faculty as a mathematics professor. He has been an activist in peace work for his whole life and serves on Peace Magazine’s editorial board and as treasurer for Science for Peace. I like him and admire him greatly. I was one of the panelists discussing the book. I’ll print my comments here. To read Chan’s answers, I suggest that you obtain his book.

My comments

I enjoyed Chandler’s science fiction stories. Sci Fi is not something that I read often, but these stories are beautifully written—especially the one that sounds like an ethnographic field report. I kept trying to read it as an Aesopian commentary on contemporary Western civilization but I’m not good at that sort of thing so I turned to the more political essays.

What really grabbed me was his essay, “Shooting Rats in a Barrel.” It impels me to address the issues that were alive during the period of McCarthyism (which is not a term that Chandler uses, probably because the repression started long before McCarthy’s day).

The main point of Chandler’s essay is to urge us not to shut out the questions that the Left posed during his youth. I quite agree that we should not do so; they are important questions. However, there are ways of shutting out certain questions without engaging in political repression, and without sending anyone to jail. The main way is through politeness. We avoid certain discussions just to keep the peace and keep friendly relationships. I myself have been often avoided topics for that purpose, so let me re-open some of those questions now.

In 1949, a week after my 18th birthday, I moved to Berkeley and into a small coop. There was a boy’s house with about ten guys and a girl’s house with about eight of us; we cooked and ate and slept together. There was no housemother. Chan is the same age as the guy I slept with and married — five years older than myself.

Chan might have been part of that group, which was certainly tilted toward the left. Half or so were black (then properly called “negro”). I was told later that some of the members had been CP members at the time, but had kept it quiet. To this day I don’t know which ones they were.

The same week when I arrived in Berkeley a huge historic controversy arose. It was the year of the Loyalty Oath. Immediately I became involved in committee work to oppose the oath. I was entirely in favor of fraternizing with Communists and having them on the faculty. If Chandler had been part of my coop, we would not have argued. There was a norm of acceptance that involved not questioning each other with hard political questions. A Communist Chandler Davis would have been perfectly acceptable.

Chan’s article makes it sound as if the whole debate was between repressive Right-wingers and Left-wingers such as himself. He leaves out my type — liberal. The argument about the oath was based on the opinion of the Right that we must exclude political groups that themselves refuse to respect civil liberties. The Communist Party was (correctly) believed to be pro-Stalinist, hence willing to use undemocratic methods to pursue its own political goals. Unless a party would agree to the rules of democratic government, they should be excluded, said the Right.

As a liberal, I took the view that if you believe in freedom of speech and of academic freedom, then you have to include anti-democratic organizations too. I did not doubt that Communists would indeed be repressive themselves if they had the chance, but I believed as a liberal that our responsibility would be to counter their arguments from a democratic, civil libertarian perspective.

There are many, many authoritarian regimes in the world that do not respect civil liberties. The US was never the worst one. And today the same debate is going on about how to treat terrorists. I still hold the liberal view that you cannot repress your adversaries, even potential terrorists, without giving away what you prize most: freedom and democracy.

In 1949 I never would have asked Chan how he could belong to the Communist Party, knowing what it was doing to people in other countries. That would have been rude. However, I once did ask Anatol Rapoport that question. He had fled the Soviet Union at about age 10, skating across a frozen river, to escape persecution in Ukraine. During the nighttime, his family could hear what was going on. Yet Anatol stayed a Communist for many years thereafter, despite knowing what was going on in terms of human rights in the Soviet Union. I asked him what he had told himself to justify staying on and he said that he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t explain it anymore.

Now that we are old and have been friends so long, Chan, I am finally going to ask you this: Why were you a Communist so long?

(Chandler gave a credible reply, and his wife Natalie Zemon Davis also stopped me afterward to supply some more information —including the facts that Chan had been a “red diaper baby“; had never been a Stalinist; and had quit the party in 1953. But I won’t try to summarize their comments here. Read his book. Also, I’ll invite him to post his comments here. It’s a discussion we should never have postponed out of a misguided sense of politeness. Engagement in political discussions is a civic duty, in my opinion.)



Blogger Robin Collins said...

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3:53 PM  
Blogger Robin Collins said...

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4:10 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Metta, Peter Rosenthal also addressed your question at the book event: I hope to blog about it soon.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Yes, he did. Quite cogently too. I have a lot of respect for Peter Rosenthal. Let me know where you discuss this if in a different blog.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Chandler Davis said...

I said in the book --yes, I second Metta's motion that everybody read my book!-- that I especially welcome those times and milieux where comrades can work together while exploring their differences. One was the science-fiction community in Manhattan 1942-1951, another was the youthful New Left in Toronto 1963-66. (The Canadian counterpart to SDS self-destructed even earlier than SDS did, as you may recall.) I'd have thought a student co-op at Berkeley in 1949 would be open in the same way, and if you didn't find it so, Metta, I assure you that part of the reason for not admitting pro- and anti-Communism to the bull sessions there was fear of the thought police. But there are these charmed islands of open discourse. Outside them, we live in alliances based on some shared tenets while other parts of our belief systems remain private.

I was a loyal Red for a number of years, up to 1953. From 1953 to 1968, I valued many of the alliances I had built up, and I valued the presence of CPers in the communities and campaigns which were my life. When the Red-hunters came calling, as I knew they would again, I knew that I wouldn't want them plucking out those they considered subversive-- even if they spared me. Do you understand this, Metta? I felt this out of personal loyalty and radicalism; call it liberal if you like (that's a slippery word), but it surely is stronger and deeper than what is usually called liberalism. Some of my comrades continued to believe that the Soviet Union was leading the world's advance to socialism; I didn't see how it or any regime criminalizing dissent could lead our movement, and sometimes I would broach that issue with some of them. Was it reprehensible over-politeness not to hammer on it every time?

In 1951-54 I thought a lot about the role of freedom of discussion in creating democracy. I understood it (I still think) better than most self-styled liberals do. Likely Anatol Rapoport did from early on, too. But you know, Metta-- capitalism is really foul, and it is really imperative to fight it. When that fight is being led by the Reds, or partly by them, we should all be at their side. Those of us who understand that freedom of speech is essential to the society we're trying to build, and to the process of building it, are caught in a contradiction. Okay. Marxists know that contradictions are sometimes fruitful (though not relaxing).

If I had stayed in the CPUSA in this spirit in 1953, perhaps the contradiction would have led me to resign later, or to be expelled, but I can't imagine myself embracing the dogmatic right-wing ideology that was called loyalty then.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Metta, I mention it here (note also links to my unreliable memories of Chan's talk in Buffalo). Possibly I'll challenge a couple of lines from your statement in a future blog post, but rest assured that I'm grateful for your having opened the discussion in the way you did.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I distinguish between two different moral issues, Chandler. First is the question of "ratting" on comrades. I certainly respect and admire your refusal to blame other party members so save your own skin. That is quite apart from the rightness of the CP cause.
I was never a Marxist, but I doubt that Marx would have joined any CP because he thought capitalism had to emerge first. Scarcity meant that people would fight over material necessities, but capitalism would eliminate scarcity and thereby make socialism possible. However, no capitalist societies have become socialist; instead they adopt equalization practices as welfare states.
To judge capitalism as foul I have to ask: in comparison to what? I have a thousand suggestions for improving it but socialism is not be one of them.
Still, as Peter Rosenthal pointed out, Communists stood for many, many positive changes and deserve credit for them. My Berkeley co-op members would have supported most Communists because of their progressive ideas. (I don't know why the real CP members did not tell us about belonging, since that would have been okay with us all.)
Nevertheless, gradually the facts about Stalinist and Maoist repressions became so well known that I can't imagine continuing as a member, if I had ever been one. That's the question I was asking you: not "why did you join?" but "why didn't you quit earlier?"
Natalie said you had never been a Stalinist. Knowing you, I think that must has been true. But staying in a party that condoned Stalinism was a bad idea, I think. That is my real question.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous jeffry house said...

The Law Union of Ontario has recently had an ongoing list-serve conversation about Chandler Davis's interview "The Origins of America's Intellectual Vacuum", in which he blames the repression of the left in the 40s and 50s for the present uninspiring political scene.

While there exists much respect for Chandler Davis among Law Union people including me, I felt his analysis was marred by an inability to criticize Soviet style socialism. For example, he said that the repression of himself
and other CPers was less violent than what occurred in ...El Salvador. The more obvious parallel, and the more significant one, remained unexpressed.

Similarly, Prof.Davis' blaming of "repression" for the failure of the left is a way to avoid a self-critique. It is hard to avoid noticing that somehow, even harsher repression of "capitalist-roaders" in China and the USSR did not prevent these ideas from returning with a vengance.

I have no doubt that some of the ideas Chandler Davis supported live on, but the main idea, communism, died because it failed.

I could never be "at the side" of a struggle led by Reds, as Professor Davis wishes, because the society they are working towards is an autocracy with pie-in-the-sky economic plan that never worked in practice.

7:56 PM  

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