Communist Feelings

Works by Doris Lessing and Vivian Gornick on the fall-out around 1956 uncover the passion that's missing from conventional political histories. What can we learn from them?

The fissure was not a place where we could live… We failed to make the revolution our permanent home.
But the spark is kept alive,
underground, waiting for the right conditions.
- Jackie Wang1

basalt. basalt. two sculptured heads. hongrie 1956. tanks. fire, hatred. disturbing the peace. It’s a filthy world. Archaeological perception reveals gunpowder deposits & so called insanity.
- Anna Mendelssohn2

This piece originated in a shared interest in 1956 as a turning point in British and US communism. We felt that the mass exodus from the Communist Party at that moment had retroactively become a taken-for-granted fact or familiar landmark in left-wing narratives, but the anguish, antagonisms and ambivalence that characterised it as a durational experience had become obscured with the passage of time3. 1956, as Stuart Hall reflected, “was a conjuncture, and not just a year”4. As we began writing, however, we found ourselves exploring broader conceptual questions that relate to contemporary struggles, which also allowed us to reflect on our own political experiences.

At stake here is a question of scale. We want to acknowledge the potentially damaging implications of political struggles which seem to encompass all aspects of activists’ lives and selves (and thus require individuals to “keep things in proportion” for the sake of their own well-being), whilst also insisting on the necessity for people on the left to think and act disproportionately, to refuse to be cowed by the enormity of the obstacles we face. When we first presented some of this material, a friend framed this as a tension between inadequacy and commitment5. Everything can feel so overwhelming; any individual attempt at political action can feel meagre or trivial. On the other hand, the experience of being caught up in political groups, however objectively tiny, can subjectively lend even the most mundane experiences a kind of grandeur or intensity; their meaning becomes magnified. We could have chosen other moments or movements to explore these themes but the examples of the CPGB and CPUSA in the wake of 1956 interested us because of a pronounced contradiction in those groups between the hyper-rationality of orthodox Marxist-Leninist discourse and the excessive emotional attachments and fraught interpersonal relationships that nonetheless characterised those organisations6.

Rather than presenting an exhaustive history of those parties, this article focuses on two texts that document the fall-out around 1956: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Vivian Gornick’s The Romance Of American Communism (a novel and oral history respectively). With their emphasis on communist feelings, these works depart from conventional political histories ‘from above’, which Gornick claimed failed to capture the distinct passion that characterised communist life:

Whatever the elements of that world in which I grew, whatever its deepest subterranean currents, only rarely do I glimpse them, as I knew and felt them, in the volumes and volumes that have sought to interpret that experience; and almost never do I see before me the flesh and blood people, or feel on the page the fierce emotional pull of that life–awesome, hungering, deeply moving–that they all led. That life which accumulated into Large Events–war, revolution, nationhood, foreign policy, realpolitik–which all these books are forever chronicling; that life that, very nearly, reverberated with metaphoric meaning… nothing has so induced in men and women all over the world a commonly held dream of passionate proportion as has communism7.

Partly functioning as attempts to address their authors’ own relationships to communism, we attempt to read these texts not only as sources for understanding the emotional histories of specific political groups at a particular historical moment but as potential models for writing histories of social movements and as reminders of the potential dangers of sidelining psychological questions within those movements.

About the history of our own movement

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962, the novel’s protagonist Anna Wulf describes the small communist party she joined while living in the country then called Southern Rhodesia after moving there to marry a tobacco farmer. Reflecting on her experience of that group, Anna details the splits that occurred shortly after its formation:

Any communist party anywhere exists and perhaps even flourishes by this process of discarding individuals or groups; not because of personal merits or demerits, but according to how they accord with the inner dynamism of the party at any given moment. Nothing happened in our small, amateur and indeed ludicrous group that hadn’t happened right back with the Iskra group in London at the beginning of the century, at the start of organised communism. If we had known anything at all about the history of our own movement we would have been saved from the cynicism, the frustration, the bewilderment8.

Anna’s group is characterised as ‘ludicrous’ because its small size so greatly contrasts with its enormous desires and ambitions. She suggests that the ‘inner dynamism’ of the group approximates the internal dramas and relations of the more historically significant group involved with the Iskra newspaper. This comparison is made not to trivialise her group, but to suggest that the problems that emerged therein might have been avoided, or at least better understood, had its members understood the history of their own movement. Yet the kind of history deemed worth knowing here would not be gleaned from examining the minutiae of political and organisational structures, strategies, logistics and decision-making. Instead, knowing the history of our own movement would necessitate attending to affective experiences and interpersonal dynamics within political groups to excavate histories of psychological investment and disillusionment.

Anna reflects that the people who directly participated in her small party were often “too emotional about communism”, too dogmatic and too preoccupied with pedantic theoretical disputes to appreciate the lasting effects of their organising9. Yet although Anna’s tiny group may have been “falling into inertia, or bewilderment or at best worked out of a sense of duty” something enduring and transformative nonetheless came from it because, Lessing writes, “a dedicated faith in humanity spreads ripples in all directions”10. Iskra used a different metaphor to express a similar sentiment; ‘Iskra’ means spark in Russian. Their motto was “From a spark a fire will flare up”. This line was itself drawn from the ‘spark’ of a previous revolutionary moment, the early nineteenth-century Decembrist uprising. We want to attend to such ripples or sparks of hope, to think of movements and struggles as continually layering and folding into one another, not so much through shared personnel, strategies, slogans, aims and vocabularies, but through experiential reverberations that spread out from the immediate contexts in which they originally emerged. This does not involve fetishising past struggles (although we do want to valorise a certain kind of revolutionary romanticism), but in analysing marginalised emotional histories, too often dismissed as negligible or considered as phenomena outside the realm of political struggle proper. Lessing describes how many on the left tended to associate emotions and desires with myopic, bourgeois individualism, but we want to insist that a commitment to radically transforming the existing state of things demands excessive emotional investment and wild leaps of imagination. Emotions and desires may be subjective but they are not insignificant, nor are they sealed off from collective experience. The Golden Notebook and The Romance Of American Communism describe small and scattered groups of comrades who hoped to bring about a global revolution. Those groups were comprised of people who argued, fell in love, and got exhausted, excited, aggressive, disillusioned or sentimental. There is nothing ludicrous about these experiences; this is part of the history of our own movement.

Everything’s cracking-up

The Golden Notebook opens in a London flat in 1957. The first section of the book ‘Free Women 1’ begins with Anna Wulf making the following oblique remark to her friend Molly: “The point is that as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up11.” This statement hangs ominously over the pair’s initial dialogue but we soon learn that the ‘cracking up’ to which Anna refers does indeed seem to extend to everything in their lives, even to the room in which they are talking, where “grains of substance could be heard trickling behind clean surfaces of paint,” and the “ceiling had a crack across it12.” Molly and Anna wryly discuss their status as ‘free’ (i.e. unmarried) women; they gossip about former lovers and Molly’s increasingly conservative ex-husband, Richard. They mention their shared psychoanalyst Mrs Marks13 and Anna reveals that, although a published writer, she has been experiencing writer’s block. She speaks of her “awful moral exhaustion” and describes herself as feeling “so bored, so bored, so bored”14.

They also discuss their relationship to the Communist Party, which they both left in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (as did Lessing herself). Faith in the Communist project was eroded when the brutalities and repressions of the Stalinist regime were acknowledged in Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous ‘secret speech’ in February 1956. This disillusionment was compounded when Khrushchev betrayed his own asserted break with his predecessor’s legacy by sending tanks into Budapest to crush a popular uprising in November of the same year. Lessing recalls in her autobiography that this was the culmination of a series of events beginning with the crushing of a workers’ uprising in East Berlin in 1953. As she describes, discussion of these events within the Party took on a peculiar tenor, combining cool-headed descriptions of historical facts with vociferous, emotionally-charged denials and almost baroque forms of justification15. Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain had risen to around 56,000 by the end of the Second World War, but following the Soviet invasion of Hungary approximately one third of the party’s members had either left or been expelled.

The Golden Notebook is preoccupied with its characters’ failed efforts to neatly carve up their lives into discrete elements: “Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love.”16 In an attempt to navigate the “chaos” she claims has recently pervaded her life, Anna keeps four differently coloured notebooks, each devoted to distinct spheres of experience: the black notebook documents her experiences in Southern Rhodesia, the red her relationship to the Communist Party, the yellow the end of a love affair and the blue her dreams and emotions. The novel intersperses extracts from these notebooks with omnisciently narrated chapters entitled Free Women 1-5. The Golden Notebook reproduces Anna’s efforts to cordon off certain aspects of existence from others in order to expose the impossibility of doing so. As Lessing later reflected in her autobiography Walking in the Shade, her intention was to demonstrate through the novel’s formal structure “that to divide off and compartmentalise living was dangerous and led to nothing but trouble.”17 The attempts at compartmentalisation Lessing narrates are often simultaneously exercises in relativisation and proportionality; experiences are not only boxed up but are also measured according to a constantly shifting moral scale. Lessing’s characters persistently berate themselves for obsessing over ‘small’ (individual hence insignificant) things at the expense of ‘big’ (macro-historical hence important) things. But the imagined ratios are unstable and everything is cracking up together. The Golden Notebook demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to classify and quantify experience in this manner through the novel’s structural oscillation between Anna’s notebooks and the ‘Free Women’ chapters in which experiences of the romantic, the sexual, the psychological, the creative and the political are narrated as overlapping and intertwined. Only in the final ‘golden notebook’, after experiencing a catastrophic breakdown, does Anna come to recognise this “fusion” herself18.

Anna tells Mrs Marks she kept no diary of their sessions but instead describes how she cut articles out of newspapers and kept them in scrapbooks as a record of the period. She claims that this helped her to keep her own feelings about her “precious soul” in “proportion”, insisting that these articles about “war, murder, chaos, misery” served to remind her of a reality “bigger” and more significant than her own19. She says that nothing she could possibly write would ever be adequate to all the things she read daily in the news. By situating her misery in relation to the miseries of the world she seems to want to lessen her own pain, to make it feel less overwhelming, but she is also castigating herself for acknowledging her suffering in the first place by reminding herself that the world is full of far more serious forms of suffering: “I haven’t been tortured, murdered, starved to death or died in a prison20.” However, in seeking to relativise her own pain in relation to the world, she represses the origins of her pain in the world. Reading the news does not diminish her pain but makes it more acute because she is using it as a distraction from her own distress. Instead of being able to keep the realms apart, she finds herself dreaming about the things that she read in newspapers as though they were part of her personal experiences.

Towards the end of the novel she dreams she is both an Algerian soldier and a Chinese peasant but these generic political archetypes rub up against real figures from her past such as the “mad” Charlie Themba, a trade union leader she knew from her time in Africa. Although early in the book Anna describes to Mrs Marks the pleasure she gets from her dreams, later on, their lucidity contributes to feelings of disintegration. Dreams also permeate Anna’s relationships with other characters, such as her lovers Michael and Saul, both of whom share the feeling that their unconscious has been invaded by news reports and their own memories of political events. Michael rouses from a nightmare and in response to Anna’s look of distress says “My dear Anna, if you insist on sleeping with a man who is the history of Europe over the last twenty years you mustn’t complain if he has uneasy dreams21.” He is history; it is not external to or larger than him. Michael, an Eastern European refugee, lost several family members to the Holocaust, and many friends in the Communist purges. His relationship with Anna is shaped by a dynamic in which he plays the “exile, ex-revolutionary, toughened by real political experience”, casting Anna as a “political innocent”22. She reflects that he resents her for being sheltered from trauma but she also knows that he needs her for exactly the same reason: “I wasn’t part of it and I haven’t had something destroyed in me23.” She watches him sleep and just as when reading the newspapers attempts to “imagine it, so that it was part of my own experience” and berates herself for her inability to do so24. Yet in this relationship her distance from those traumatic political events is precisely what allows her to provide support and care that might otherwise be impossible. That is no small thing.

Anna feels guilty and bourgeois for being so preoccupied with her “precious soul” but this guilt only compounds her psychological problems and becomes its own form of narcissistic self-involvement. This has counter-intuitive political implications: she feels suspicious of emphasising individual, psychological problems at the expense of ‘bigger’ political concerns but her guilt only leads to those problems deepening and thus precludes her from participating in collective political activity. These confusions of scale between politics and emotions recall the opening scene of the novel in which Molly remarks approvingly that Anna attends to “what’s real” rather than writing “little novels about the emotions”25. Although this seems to agree with Anna’s own position in relation to Mrs Marks, she instead bristles at this characterisation of her work, accusing Molly of unthinkingly reproducing a trite Communist Party position26. In contrast to her behaviour with her psychoanalyst, she insists that emotions are neither insignificant nor distinct from reality. To bracket off “economics and machine guns”27 from people’s experiences, feelings and actions as though they existed on some higher or larger plain of actuality neglects to consider that people shape and are shaped by the world they inhabit. This, as Anna points out, is ironically an argument consistent with Marxism, obscured by Molly’s automatic recitation of CP dogma. Anna’s conflict over subjective feelings versus political facts thus shifts in relation to whom she is speaking: with her psychoanalyst she downplays the psychological, but with her comrade she emphasises personal feelings. Despite their limitations and their mutual incompatibility, both psychoanalysis and Marxism retain qualities to be defended.

World within a world

A similar sense of skewed proportions and blurrings of categories of experience runs through the oral histories with American Communist Party members and fellow travellers in Vivian Gornick’s The Romance Of American Communism. Like The Golden Notebook, Gornick’s book presents an insight into the psychic investments of people in a marginal Communist Party outside the Eastern bloc, and similarly documents tensions between concrete experiences of collective organising in small communist groups and grand, abstract visions of communist society. Gornick’s decision to compile this material arose from an almost therapeutic desire to understand her own previous involvement with and commitment to the party, which like Doris Lessing (along with many of the characters in The Golden Notebook and The Romance Of American Communism), her family terminated after 1956. Written in an effusive, metaphor-laden and occasionally florid style appropriate to the grand passions and world-altering ambitions that characterised the “affective life of the Communist Party USA”, The Romance Of American Communism was Gornick’s attempt to counter “abstract and alienating” histories of the CPUSA that reductively portrayed Communists as “rubber-stamped robots” and the Party as an oppressive monolith28. She instead sought to convey the history of the movement as she remembered it: “teeming, contradictory… vast, sprawling, intensely various”29. After conducting her interviews, Gornick wrote up the stories of former CPUSA members and anonymised their accounts with pseudonyms. This writing process thus involves a degree of fictionalisation in which her own perceptions and preoccupations merged with those of the people she interviewed.

As in Lessing’s description of Molly’s cracked kitchen wall, Gornick describes how domestic spaces seemed to replicate in miniature the world beyond. In the aftermath of 1956, she describes how she sat with her mother and her aunt “in this crumbling house to face the crumbling world outside the kitchen”30. Her father and her uncle were already dead, so these three women sat together trying to comprehend the recent past and the disintegration of their Jewish, Communist, New York world. Whilst Gornick was adamant that “Hitler had destroyed half of our world, now Stalin had destroyed the other half”, her aunt remained a loyal Stalinist, accusing her niece of becoming a red-baiter31. At the age of twenty, Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress and the Soviet invasion of Hungary shredded the remnants of Gornick’s faith in the Communist Party, with this political disillusionment inseparable from historical trauma and familial loss.

Proceeding outwards from her own experiences of the “ingrown world” of the New York working-class Jewish left, Gornick crisscrossed the United States during the mid-1970s interviewing former Communists, many of whom provide more uplifting counterparts to the melancholic kitchen scenario that captured her own break with the Party. Loneliness, as one of Gornick’s interviewees describes, was not an emotion experienced often within communist life, instead, commitment, purpose and solidarity dominated. Norma Raymond, who was a member of the Communist Party in San Francisco, describes the daily practicalities through which this solidarity was produced and lived:

All my life, from the time I was fifteen years old, the Party was an enormous support system which came through in every crisis, political and personal, with love and comradeship. The Party was always there for me, always ready to come to my rescue. When [her husband] Charlie went underground people in the Party brought everything from chicken soup to apartments to clothes for the children to airplane tickets… you name it, they brought it. And even beyond that, beyond crisis, it was a total world, from the schools to which I sent my children to family mores to social life to the quality of our friendships to the doctor, the dentist and the cleaner. There was an underpinning to everything in our lives that affected the entire variety of daily decision, reference, observation, everything!32

Across the narratives collected by Gornick, Communism was a world elsewhere (the distant Soviet Union) and a world to come (a grand dream world) but it was also a world within a world (an immediate, quotidian, social world). People in the CPUSA were united by real, shared experiences of collectivity and not only by their imaginings of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the Soviet Union or of a utopian communist society of the future. Raphael Samuel similarly attests in The Lost World of British Communism, that his eponymous world, though far smaller than the world it hoped to transform, was a real one nonetheless, “the simulacrum of a complete society”33. Or as Lessing put it “I lived in a pack, was one of a pack”; the party functioned as “a club, or a home, a family34.” Samuel describes Communism in Britain as a “complete social identity” and a means of “practicing togetherness”, with its own distinctive rituals, practices and vocabularies:

We maintained intense neighbourhood networks and little workplace conventicles. We patronized regular cafés (Communists met in cafés rather than pubs: there was quite a strong inhibition against drink). We went out together on weekend and Sunday rambles. We took our holidays together, at Socialist Youth Camps (the one I remember best was in the New Forest), at Communist Guest houses, such as Netherwood, hiking with the YHA (hostels where the warden was rumoured to be a ‘sympathizer’ were a draw) or, if you could afford the £5, taking a week’s climbing holiday with the Workers Travel Association in the Lake District or the Trossachs. We had our own particular speech – a jargon which, for all my political enthusiasm, I was somehow never able to master, a sing-song rhetoric in speechmaking, not a rant, but a rhythmically-controlled address35.

The pain and loss described by former party members resulted from the “cracking up” or crumbling of both a uniting ideal and of concrete communities of comrades who shared that ideal. The loss of one entailed the loss of the other and this in turn precipitated forms of psychological breakdown. What remained were fraught relationships shorn of their political milieu, lacking both the basis of a shared political vision and, more mundanely, the structures, events, meetings, demonstrations and languages that brought people together as party members.

The loss of this “total world” or “complete society” of Communism after people left the Party frequently settled into a deep well of loneliness, as recorded by Gornick. This was not only produced through the severing of relationships with former comrades, but also emerged through the breaking up of the shared consciousness which had provided the “underpinning” described by Norma Raymond. Like Lessing’s portrayal of the Party as a home, for Selma Gardinsky, the Communist Party had provided a “home inside” herself that was founded upon the idea of remaking the world. Despite becoming more psychologically grounded and aware of her own needs in the years after leaving the Party, Gardinsky stresses that “there is such a loneliness to this understanding! A loneliness that was entirely absent from my life while I was a Communist36.” Similarly, for David Ross, his studies, marriage and friendships were all “strained through the liquid flow of Marxist thought” during his time as a CPUSA member between 1941 and 195637. Described as an essential life-blood, the drying up of this dynamic liquid after Khrushchev’s revelations led to the world becoming arid, barren, bitter. Ross ceased functioning, unable to respond to the traffic light turning green, let alone continue his work as a physical chemist38. Lessing similarly describes “comrades whose hearts were breaking, who were ill with shock”39, she even claims she knew comrades who died “from the pain of disillusionment40.”

In addressing experiences within the CPUSA, Gornick’s narrative not only has to deal with the impact of withdrawing from the party after 1956, but also the profound terror produced by McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Several of her interviewees went underground, others suffered anti-communist aggression, and almost all recalled the terrible paranoia and suspicion that permeated their relationships with comrades, family and friends, undermining both psychological and practical solidarity. In 1951, over two thousand Communists went underground for around four years following the Smith Act trials against the Party’s leadership in 1949, and the passage of the McCarren Act in 1950, which sought prosecution of the Party as a foreign agent41. In this environment, loyal Party members were sure that American fascism was pending.

For Hugh Armstrong, an African-American who became a courier in the CP underground, the paranoia of that period looked absurd in hindsight, as did the notion that they could hide from the surveillance of the FBI: he described the couriers as “running around like rats in a maze42.” This image of trapped isolation is a stark counterpart to the almost cosy-seeming social worlds described in Gornick’s interview with Norma Raymond and by Samuel, a reminder that spaces of collectivity and feelings of solidarity were always under threat; a comrade could always be an undercover cop, the togetherness of a demonstration could always lead to the atomisation of a prison cell. Reflections on life underground also underline that the forms of interpersonal relationships forged in these movements were not identical with those outside them; there were strains, demands and intensities that were specific to them and which were exacerbated by external, social pressures. After leaving the Party, Hugh Armstrong’s feelings towards Communism were not only shaped by 1956, but also recognition of the significant limitations of the CPUSA in addressing and confronting racism43. A black nationalist by the time Gornick interviewed him, Hugh Armstrong regretted his years in the CPUSA, and the “rigidity with which I acted out this half-imaginary war” while underground44. Gornick’s book is filled with tales of how Party members dealt with accusations by comrades of being government agents, the hostility people experienced from former friends after leaving the Party, as well as their subjection to cruel processes of collectively enforced self-criticism. As Joseph Starobin makes clear, the experience of going underground prompted doubts and suspicion about the CPUSA and in many cases led to breakdowns and severe atomisation. Disconnected from communist kitchens, dentists and Socialist Youth Camps, comrades who went underground began to doubt the strength of the glue holding their fragile world together. This prepared the way for the mass exodus from the Party between mid-1956 and mid-1957 when almost the entirety of this underground—those who had surely been the most committed cadre—left the CPUSA.

Experiences of life underground, as well as contending with the brutal realities of Stalinism, led some people to abandon their belief in communism as an ideal (and also made them reflect on cultures of cruelty, dogmatism, racism and misogyny within the Party), but a grand shared dream had also created the conditions for real gestures of solidarity – chicken soups, clothes for children etc. As Lessing notes, people did not only stay in the CPGB because of a misplaced faith in the Soviet Union but also because of the concrete forms of comradeship it provided: “one of the reasons some found it hard to leave the Party was precisely because there were so many colourful, extraordinary people in it. Good people, generous, kind, clever45.” Perhaps those experiences – however small-scale and fleeting they may have been – provided sustenance for future struggles, even as the specific infrastructures and investments of the Communist Party came into question or were undermined during the intense repressions of the McCarthy era. After all, people’s desertion of the party did not necessarily lead to a complete retreat from all forms of political activism but also to forms of political reorientation. Though some became rabid anti-Communists, Gornick’s interviews variously detail entries into union work, feminism, Black Nationalism and peace activism. Engagements in subsequent social movements by former Communists were informed by their negative and positive experiences in the Party; people reacted against the past and also drew inspiration from it but rarely left it behind altogether. The “conjuncture” of 1956 Hall identified was characterised by both rupture and continuity46. In The Golden Notebook, reflecting on her experiences in the small party in Southern Rhodesia, Anna notes that “people or groups of people who don’t even know it have been inspired, or animated, or given a new push into life because of the Communist Party47.” Ripples continued to spread long after the original object that disturbed the water had vanished from sight.

Communist romance

The grand dream of communism imbued day-to-day experiences, friendships, familial relationships and romances with political significance and thus seemed to elevate, inflate or heighten those experiences until they took on an almost world-historical aspect. While the The Golden Notebook and The Romance Of American Communism both situate crumbling kitchens as a synecdoche for crumbling worlds and crumbling senses of self, Lessing also describes how cramped and insalubrious kitchens in London could take on epic, global dimensions. As she explains, the atmosphere among her comrades “made every encounter, every conversation, important, because if you were a communist, then the future of the world depended on you—you and your friends and people like you all over the world48”. As Gornick writes of the same period: “When these people sat down at the kitchen table to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them, above all, History sat down with them49.” Unlike in Anna Wulf’s psychoanalytic sessions, these ‘small’ experiences do not seem frivolous or insignificant because they are swept up in a grand historical movement, reaching outwards to other cramped kitchens of comrades around the world and stretching forwards to an imagined future of communal kitchens.

Within the miniature worlds of the CPGB and the CPUSA, friendships and romantic relationships were often experienced as though through a kind of magnifying glass, as if they were being conducted on a scale appropriate to the grandiosity of revolutionary political goals. A former Party member interviewed by Gornick recalled:

How can I really explain to you what it was like to fall in love in the Communist Party? I can’t. It’s impossible to capture the full flavour, to make you experience as we did emotions and circumstances that streamed together and were so strong you literally could not sort them out. Our love affairs blossomed, entirely entwined with the Party and Party affairs and our identities as Party members. We felt tremendous surges of comradeship, political excitement, the pity and beauty of human suffering, the mad wild joy of revolutionary expectation. We lived with these emotions daily. We shared them with each other. That was our intimacy. And, often, when a man and a woman shared these emotions things got all mixed up, and they took these feelings for romantic love50.

“Things got all mixed up”; communism was a kind of love affair. Across many of the accounts collected by Gornick, former Communists describe their intellectual and political awakening as inspired by important relationships they formed with existing party members. Dick Nikowsski, a Polish first generation immigrant who became a Chicago slaughterhouse worker, recalls meeting Eddie, a man who introduced him to socialism and encouraged his reading of Marx. They became roommates and close friends; as Dick Nikowsski describes, their conversations were “so exciting it was almost a physical pain. I was high all the time. I was discovering I had a mind....You know, that’s one thing almost all Communists share, the memory of what it first felt like to read Marx, like fireworks exploding in your head, and the love you felt for the human intelligence51.” Analysing these relationships, Dick Nikowsski goes as far to suggest that without Communism, he “would never have loved anybody in this life52.” The metaphor of liquidity used by David Ross to describe the flow of Marxist thought that tragically dried up is reversed in an account provided by Will Barnes, a man born in a mining camp in Idaho who had been a hobo and a member of the IWW, before becoming a sailor. Whilst working onboard a ship, Will Barnes heard a CPUSA organiser speak. He describes this as precipitating a total transformation in his life, shifting the “lonely” “leaky misery” he had inside him into something “dry” and “light”, “soggy branches” suddenly becoming “kindling wood”53. Like Nikowsski’s description of reading Marx, Will Barnes links his conversion to Communism with the fact that the Party enabled him to think, a process inspired by the friendship he developed with the organiser. Like fireworks or kindling, both of these accounts describe friendships as igniting transformative intellectual experiences that could collectively start a political blaze.

The fugitive existence of former CPUSA members during the anti-Communist 1950s carries through into the narrative of The Golden Notebook, where Molly and Anna describe a group of exiled Americans in London somewhat sardonically as ‘the colony’. Yet, around halfway into the novel, Anna provides the kind of solidarity described in many of Gornick’s accounts by taking in one of these exiled Americans—a writer called Saul Green (a loosely fictionalised version of the writer Clancy Sigal)—as a lodger. We learn he was kicked out of the CPUSA for “premature anti-Stalinism”, and then left the USA after being blacklisted in Hollywood as a ‘red’ despite his earlier expulsion from the party. Shortly after Saul moves in, he and Anna begin an affair which sees them oscillating between moments of tenderness and “crazy and cruel” behaviour54. When their conversation falls back into a shared communist vocabulary, this forms a kind of barrier that temporarily restores some sense of superficial normality to their troubled relationship. Yet for Anna, who has fallen in love with Saul, such utterances are simply “stock from the red cupboard”55; choice phrases that come to represent their relationship as a “cocoon of madness” through their inability to describe or change their unhappy situation56. Anna identifies Saul’s “compulsive talking” as a means to “hold himself together” through the rearticulation of various positions. While Anna recognises Saul’s various voices as “Communist, American, 1954. Communist, English, 1956. Trotskyist, American, early 19-fifties. Premature anti-Stalinist, 1954” the order and arrangement is all wrong, expressed as “jumbling phrases, jargon, disconnected remarks57.” These conversations—like Anna’s notebooks—attempt to seal off politics from emotion, but inevitably these realms merge:

We began discussing the state of the left in Europe, the fragmentation of socialist movements everywhere. We had of course discussed all this before, often; but never so calmly and clearly. I remember thinking it was strange that we were able to be so detachedly intelligent when we were both sick with tension and anxiety58.

The communist vocabulary Anna and Saul share acts as a bond, just as Communism provided Norma Raymond with an “underpinning to everything”. Yet the structure of that “liquid flow”—international solidarity—has dried up. Their formulaic communist language seems suspended over a void, detached from the material world it proclaimed to describe and thus increasingly incoherent and meaningless. Their coming to terms with this loss is completely enmeshed with the cruelty and mutual loneliness of their brief and damaging relationship.

Love and desire are not external to political struggle; the romanticisation of politics goes hand in hand with the politicisation of romance. “How can I really explain to you what it was like to fall in love in the Communist Party?” But when the dream ‘cracked up’ it brought those interpersonal experiences crashing down to earth, deflated them; they no longer seemed to bear any relation to anything beyond or greater than themselves and people found themselves atomised, wondering whether they had anything much in common with their former comrades anymore. People who had been oriented towards building a gleaming international future were now contemplating the small and scattered ruins of the past. In the opening pages of The Romance Of American Communism Gornick observes that the intense passion she witnessed in communists and the crushing experience of their subsequent loss might be understood as analogous to heartbreak:

Each and every one of them experienced a kind of inner radiance: some intensity of illumination that tore at the soul. To know that radiance, to be lit from within, and then to lose it; to be thrown back, from its light and heat; to know thereafter the ordinary greyness of life, black and lightless; that was to know a kind of exaltation and dread that can be understood only, perhaps, by those who have loved deeply and suffered the crippling loss of that love59.

Lessing similarly identified a form of communist heartbreak experienced by former party members, claiming that the loss of faith in communism “is exactly paralleled by people in love who cannot let their dream of love go”60. But Lessing’s presentation of Anna and Saul’s relationship in The Golden Notebook complicates this observation because their romantic breakup is not merely a metaphor for understanding political disillusionment. Here the two forms of heartbreak do not run in parallel but bleed into and shape one another.

Vehicles for collective desire

In Walking in the Shade, Lessing often describes her own investment in communism as a form of madness or psychosis. She is preoccupied by the contrast between the kindness and commitment of communists she knew in Britain and their disavowal of the brutalities of Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union. Yet her insistence on pathologising this contradiction seems like a form of disavowal in its own right, especially as so many of her comrades did attempt to reckon with the realities of the Stalin era. She seems to suggest that the forms of solidarity she experienced first-hand were cancelled out by the horrors that took place in the Soviet Union. But wouldn’t it be possible to acknowledge both? Indeed, it should also be possible to perceive that the Soviet experience was itself characterised by contradiction, irreducible to the worst extremes of Stalinism61. In Partisans of an Uncertain World: The Psychoanalysis of Engagement, which like The Golden Notebook and The Romance Of American Communism responds to personal experiences of political organising62, Paul Hoggett observes that psychoanalysis has traditionally tended to pathologise political groups, characterising them as inherently dangerous and regressive, but he cautions against throwing the “group-baby” out with the “mob-bathwater” in the manner proposed by Lessing63. Instead, he suggests that the corrosive, regressive, aggressive and fracturing tendencies of social movements should be acknowledged, understood and evaluated in order to mitigate against their effects. To reject political groups as reactionary as such is itself reactionary, he claims, and can only serve to perpetuate the existing state of things.

Hoggett argues that a kind of inflation of ambition is necessary for imagining the possibility of revolutionary politics: “When a group breaks parameters its power can be out of proportion to its size”64. For Hoggett, this collective move from an idea to its realisation produces the “real meaning of that enigmatic phrase ‘the association of labour’, a form of grouping or social bonding accomplished, not by terror… but through a kind of act of love65.” Like romantic love this act also requires a terrifying leap of faith into the unknown, a commitment to an uncertain future, and also has a kind of magnitude that exceeds conventional measurement66. But from a spark a fire may flare up. Hoggett goes on to reflect that in his “experience many organisations are held together by guilt and terror; many more are held together by bureaucracy and self-limiting assumptions. Just a few (and they are worth waiting for) are vehicles for collective desire67.” The British and American Communist Parties were held together by a strange combination of guilt, bureaucracy, and a fantastical, damaging disavowal of the realities of Stalinism, but they were also vehicles for collective desire - even if that desire turned out to be misplaced, its object fundamentally misunderstood. We want to hold on to Hoggett’s insistence on the need for a grandiosity of imagination that exceeds the literal size of a group. This also entails a rejection of rationalism in favour of a valorisation of imagination, not as a distraction from or ornamental addition to political struggle but as a necessity for overturning the extant social order. Lessing’s novel complains about the constraints of socialist realism as a literary form and this literary constraint has a counterpart in socialist dismissals of psychic life, as Hoggett observes:

All forms of socialist thought… have been excessively rationalistic. They have placed faith in analysis, in programme, in having ‘the correct ideas’ and have lost sight of the role of faith, imagination, desire and the unconscious as sources of both mobilization and passion and of passivity and self-subjugation68.

When children grow up into adults, Hoggett notes, they never fully abandon the illusions of omnipotence that characterised their infancy, similarly “the group should beware of those ‘friends’ who warn it against illusions of grandeur69.” Without grand illusions the oppressive structures of the world will remain undisturbed.

Revolutionary tenderness

In The Golden Notebook, Molly’s rich and newly conservative ex-husband Richard is repulsed by her emotional messiness, which he associates with her radical political convictions. As Anna describes: “His revulsion against left-wing politics, which was sudden, coincided with his decision that Molly was immoral, sloppy and bohemian70.” Richard’s misogynistic revulsion at Molly aligns her supposedly unrealistic left-wing political views with her “sloppiness”, yet Anna conversely reflects that the political culture of the CPGB, and their experiences of living in 1950s Britain as ‘free’ women, had actually encouraged them to overly validate their own toughness and capacity to get over things quickly:

“I mean - a marriage breaks up, well, we say, our marriage was a failure, too bad. A man ditches us – too bad we say, it’s not important. We bring up kids without men – nothing to it, we say, we can cope. We spend years in the communist party and then we say, Well, well, we made a mistake, too bad71.”

But, Anna suggests, moving casually from one commitment to the next is not as easy as they have liked to imagine; perhaps this toughness is a pretence or a defence, and one which could, paradoxically, be damaging in its own right. Anna remarks to Saul in the closing pages of the novel: “That’s what’s wrong with us all. All our strongest emotions are buttoned up, one after another. For some reason, they’re irrelevant to the time we live in72.” This perceived irrelevance causes all the buttons to fly off suddenly and violently, rather than allowing for a process of gradual unloosening.

In a damning review of Gornick’s book by Irving Howe, we can find further evidence of an affirmation of toughness and clarity (coded as masculine) over romance and desire (coded as feminine) as the supposedly necessary qualities for a leftist intellectual and activist. After admonishing Gornick for her lack of “discipline of mind and language”, Howe sneers that where her book should be “dry, it is damp; where hard, soft”, and criticises Gornick’s “breathy, hyped-up style73.” He chastises the “passion” and “vibration” of her account, and its failure to critically examine the real CPUSA history of ‘dual unionism’, ‘social fascism’, the Popular Front, the Moscow Trials, the role of the NKVD, the expulsion of Browder, the Slansky trial, the Hungarian revolution74.” Despite his dismissal of Communism, Howe’s attempt to impose a ‘correct’ line on the past over Gornick’s romanticism mirrors the damaging control the Party sought to maintain over its members. His criticisms precisely recall the mode of history writing that Gornick hoped to counteract as she felt that reducing the experience of American Communism to a recitation of major events “freezes over” life and removes the warmth from “flesh-and-blood reality”75.

We have followed Gornick in insisting that if we confine ourselves to an approach to the history of the left ‘from above’, we cannot begin to capture the paranoia and solidarity, cruelty and care that marked (and still mark) relationships between comrades. In Lessing’s narrative, and in the narratives gathered by Gornick, 1956 stands as the paradigmatic prompt for leaving the party, but we also glimpse the frustrations and limitations of communist language, of the Party’s failings with regards to race and gender, of the damaging contortions that characterised many Party members’ image of the Soviet Union, and of the suspicious forms of interpersonal relations that played out before, behind and beyond that landmark date. But we also get a sense of the ways in which these experiences were combined with passionate commitments (based not only in ideological delusions but in material analyses of life under capitalism), intense intellectual debates and lived forms of solidarity.

Rather than attempting to sweep away these contradictions to instate a vision of collectivity that erases despair, disappointment and difference, it is necessary to acknowledge those experiences. Doing so need not detract from the nourishing aspects of the communist dream that could ripple or spark into the present. Experiences of disillusionment, distress and paranoia are perhaps never avoidable within left-wing political groups but their effects might be mitigated if collective forms of care, mutual support and attention to emotional life can be developed as part of political organising. At the end of The Golden Notebook Anna comes to see that the things she had previously discounted as ‘small’ require the most courage and realises that this courage is not tough or spectacular but tender and quotidian: “It’s a small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life… the small endurance that is bigger than anything76.” We should not diminish interpersonal commitments, antagonisms and emotional experiences but rather seek to recognise that they have their own magnitude, especially in arenas of inflated political imagination. These kinds of psychic investments in each other rest upon a relentless desire for something other than the world that we currently inhabit.

  1. Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018, pp. 301-302. 

  2. Anna Mendelssohn, untitled, Implacable Art, Cambridge: Salt, 2000, p. 71. Thanks to Eleanor Careless for sending us this reference. 

  3. For example, John Akomfrah’s 2013 film The Stuart Hall Project presents 1956 as a key turning point for the left in Britain, citing the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary as the key events of that year which precipitated a major shift in orientation. But the moment attains a kind of neatness and even inevitability in hindsight, which fails to convey the complex experiential aspects of the period (which are addressed in Hall’s article cited below). 

  4. Stuart Hall, ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’, NLR, 61, January-February 2010, 

  5. Thanks to Lucie Mercier for this insight and to Hannah Black for inviting us to participate in an event connected to her exhibition ‘Some Context’ at the Chisenhale Gallery in London in October 2017 where we discussed some of these questions in relation to the situation of the dream. 

  6. The tension between politics and emotions also took on a particular quality because of the distance from ‘actually existing socialism’, which produced a conflict between the partially imagined object in which people collectively invested and the immediate, actually existing contexts of their day-to-day lives as Party members. We follow in the footsteps of Raphael Samuel’s Lost World of British Communism in our emphasis on “Communist mentality” and “the secret sources of moral energy and the psychology of self-perception – including self-deception – upon which political activity, of whatever kind, must rest.” Raphael Samuel, The Lost World of British Communism, London: Verso, 2006, 2017, p. 113. 

  7. Vivian Gornick, The Romance Of American Communism, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1978, p. 5. 

  8. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, London: Fourth Estate, 2014, p. 85. 

  9. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 84. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 25. 

  12. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 65. 

  13. That Marks is a homophone of Marx is presumably no coincidence. 

  14. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 63. 

  15. In her novel Sleepless Nights Elizabeth Hardwick (who, like Gornick, had a brief dalliance with the CPUSA) likens the attachment of American communists to the Soviet Union and their capacity to overlook its faults to the relationship of a parent to their first child: “their vigilant passion for… that huge land mass had long ago aroused in them the blood loyalty and tenderness felt for a first child. And what are a child’s ‘few mistakes’?” Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights, New York Review Books, New York, 2001.  

  16. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 63. 

  17. Lessing, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of my Autobiography, HarperCollins: London, 1997, p. 338. She notes of the structure of her autobiography: “I have been tempted to write a chapter headed ‘Politics’, so that it could be skipped by people who find the whole subject boring, but politics permeated everything.” p. 58. 

  18. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 611. 

  19. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 251. 

  20. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 251. 

  21. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 328.  

  22. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 167. 

  23. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 328. 

  24. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 328. 

  25. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 61. 

  26. Lessing responded to a critical letter from E.P. Thompson defending her novel against accusations that it was overly subjective in the following terms: “I do not understand how anyone could describe the G.N. as subjective—subjective attitudes are objectivised and related to society—or that is what I tried to do… It was a novel about the kind of intellectual and emotional attitudes produced now, that people have now, and their relation to each other. Call that subjectivism and you confess you didn’t read the book…” Lessing, Walking in the Shade, pp. 343-344.  

  27. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 61. 

  28. Gornick, p. 23, p. 19. Although interestingly memoirs and oral histories have subsequently become a common genre for narrating histories of the Communist Party. See, for example, Judy Kaplan and Lynn Shapiro, Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, University of Illonois Press: Chicago, IL, 1998. 

  29. Gornick, pp. 19-20.  

  30. Gornick, p.11. 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Gornick, pp. 115-116. The sense of this “ingrown world” can also be gleaned from the little advertisements at the back of CPUSA associated publications such as New Masses: for restaurants with “comradely atmospheres”, politically sympathetic doctors, cafés offering “Light Lunch at Proletarian Prices” and summer camps such as Camp Nitgedaiget. 

  33. Samuel, p. 47. 

  34. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 24, p. 93. 

  35. Samuel, p. 46.  

  36. Gornick, p. 41. 

  37. Gornick uses a similar metaphor in the opening pages of the book: “this solidarity, produced in me pride and excitement; it dissolved the numbness and transformed the pain back into a moving, stirring agitating element.” p. 4. 

  38. Gornick, p. 201. 

  39. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 194. 

  40. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 218. 

  41. Joseph Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957, Berkeley, CA 1975, p. 219. The prosecution of the party as a foreign agent never actually happened, and between 1951-1956 there was a dual leadership of the Party; those who were operating publicly, and those who were underground. See Starobin for an account of the events leading to the decision for Party members to go underground. Lessing emphasised the differences between American and British communists, relating this to the severity of state repression in the US: “The American communists were more communist, fanatical, partyline, and paranoid than anyone I ever knew in Britain. They produced more of what the Communist Party itself called the ‘one hundred and fifty percenters’—and certainly not with admiration, for they knew that the extreme communist flipped over easily into his or her opposite, the communist-hater. No British communist was ever treated with the harshness the American government used towards Paul Robeson and some other American communists”. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 167. 

  42. Gornick, p. 166. Indeed, the FBI had a firm sense of the CPUSA underground, and was following its activities closely. As Starobin writes, “It was often unnerving to a good cadre to be confronted by an F.B.I. man who asked what these manouveurs were all about. The fact that government agents seemed to know all about it utterly undermined its credibility.” Starobin, p.223 

  43. Notoriously, the African American writers Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes and Richard Wright all published books and articles which critically addressed their experiences within the CPUSA. Although beyond the scope of this article, we could think of these literary voices (despite their political and stylistic divergences) as forming another genre that addresses the experience of being invested in and subsequently leaving the Party, which alongside the events of 1956, take the CPUSA’s approach to racism as the failing that shattered their commitment.  

  44. Gornick, p. 166. 

  45. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 62. 

  46. In a final chapter entitled ‘Ruptures and Continuities, 1956 Onward’ Erik S. McDuffie traces some of the divergent paths taken by black women who had been active in the Communist Party USA, many of whom went on to become central figures in civil rights, Black Power, Third World and feminist movements. He traces connections between the Popular Front era and the political movements of the 1960s and stresses the importance of intergenerational relationships (citing, for example, Angela Davis’s friendship with Charlene Mitchell). See, Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism, Durham, NC 2011 pp. 193-220. Kate Weigand traces intergenerational relationships between the CPUSA and second wave feminism in Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation, Baltimore, MD 2001. Ben Miller has addressed Harry Hay’s place as founder of the Mattachine Society, one of America’s earliest LGBT organisations as linked with his early experiences in the Los Angeles CPUSA. See Ben Miller, “Remembering Harry Hay” 10/04/2017 Jacobin, 

  47. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 84. 

  48. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 23. 

  49. Gornick, p. 7. Another interviewee reflects similarly: ‘“We felt that what we thought and spoke and decided upon in those basement rooms in the Bronx was going to have an important effect on the entire world out there.”’ Gornick, p. 56. 

  50. Gornick, p. 57. 

  51. Gornick, p. 65. 

  52. Gornick, p. 66. 

  53. Gornick, p. 72  

  54. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 566. 

  55. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 547. 

  56. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 562. Lessing remarks in her autobiography: “Unhappy with communism, I was unhappiest with its language, with the labelling of everything, and the vindictive or automatic stereotypes.” Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 40. One of Gornick’s interviewees exclaims simply: ‘God! That language.’ Gornick, p. 148. 

  57. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 570. 

  58. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 571. 

  59. Gornick, p. 4. 

  60. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, p. 193. See also p. 265. 

  61. Indeed, the kinds of paradoxes Lessing identifies in British communism recall those that Alexei Yurchak insists characterised the late Soviet experience: fear, coercion and cynicism coexisted with a commitment to community, creativity and a concern for the future. See, Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. 2006. 

  62. “I would say that the trouble with socialism, and thus the trouble with socialists, has been a lack of humanity and of imagination. The lack of humanity has always seemed obvious to me right from the time I first became politically active through the Trotskyist movement in the early 1970s… What I found most striking about this experience was the way in which such socialists displayed so little interest in the individual. The mysteries of life and death, of feeling and passion, of dreaming and imagination, of love and terror–it was as if these things didn’t exist. Yet, in terms of the life of the organizations to which I belonged, they were so obviously central to the real, as opposed to formal, dynamic of these peculiar human communities.” Hoggett, pp. 2-3  

  63. Hoggett, p. 146. 

  64. Hoggett, p. 31. Eric Hobsbawm makes a similar point regarding scale in a 2007 review of memoirs of the Communist Party including Samuel’s: “How modest the numbers were is often forgotten.” Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Cadres’, London Review of Books, 29/8, 26 April 2007, pp. 23-25, p. 23. 

  65. Hoggett, p. 31 

  66. McDuffie, who also explores slippages between personal and political libidinal attachments, cites a letter between comrades that reads: “I miss you Sweetheart, unendingly, and love you in immeasurable, geometric proportions”, p. 126. 

  67. Hoggett, p. 31. 

  68. Hoggett, p. 147.  

  69. Hoggett, p. 148. 

  70. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 37. Lessing notes a misogynistic aspect to the reception of The Golden Notebook. She recalls a friend who complained “that the men of this new revolutionary movement treated the women as dogs-bodies and she was sick of it.” Her friend had wanted to review The Golden Notebook for New Left Review but they refused: “They were interested only in theories and academic ideas.” Lessing, Walking in the Shade. p. 298.  

  71. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 70.  

  72. Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 602. 

  73. Irving Howe, “Some Romance!” New York Review of Books, 25/5, April 6 1978, 

  74. Ibid.  

  75. Gornick, p. 19. 


Hannah Proctor (@hhnnccnnll)

Hannah Proctor is an academic based at the ICI Berlin working on histories and theories of radical psychiatry.

Larne Abse Gogarty

Larne Abse Gogarty is a Lecturer in History and Theory of Art at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. Her primary research interests lie in modern and contemporary art, theories of history, marxism, black studies and feminist theory.