From A Fine Old Conflict
Ed.’s note: Born into English nobility, Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) became one of the leading radical journalists of the 1960s; her best-known works are Hons and Rebels (1960), The American Way of Death (1963), and Kind and Unusual Punishment (1973). After moving to the Bay Area in the 1940s, Mitford joined the Communist Party [CP] U.S.A.
In the following excerpt from her memoir A Fine Old Conflict (1977), Mitford describes her life in postwar Oakland, where she and her husband Bob Treuhaft raised a family and became active in left-wing politics.
We moved to Oakland in 1947. After the war Bob had joined the firm of Gladsteins, Grossman, Sawyer & Edises (Gallstones, Gruesome, Sewer & Odious, as they were affectionately called by their intimates), labor lawyers among whose clients were the CIO, the Communist Party, the ILWU. They had earned an illustrious national reputation by their defense of Harry Bridges against the numerous and unremitting efforts of the Government to deport him to Australia. Many were the rallies we attended to protest against the threatened deportation and to join with the white-capped longshoremen in singing Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Harry Bridges”:
Oh the FBI is worried,
The bosses they are scared,
They can’t deport six million men they know;
We’re not going to let them send Harry over the seas,
We’ll fight for Harry Bridges and build the CIO.
Dinky [ed.’s note: her daughter], who was learning something about the economics of labor law practices, always rendered the last line as “We’ll fight for Harry Bridges and bill the CIO.”
At first Bob commuted from San Francisco to work with Bert Edises in the firm’s Oakland office. From this vantage point he watched the development of the unique general strike of 1946, first (and so far as I know last) of the postwar period in which a whole city was closed down.
The strike started in a small way with a walk-out of retail clerks at Kahn’s, one of the big department stores. Teamsters respected the picket line, refusing to take their delivery lorries through. One morning a battalion of armed police appeared to escort a convoy of scab-driven lorries through the line. This had an electric effect. The dissention which had characterized the labor movement in the immediate and the newly organized, left-led CIO unions—was forgotten in the wave of indignation set off by the police action. Union after union called its members out on strike in an unprecedented show of unity, and by the following day the shutdown was total.
After three days Kahn’s capitulated and the strike was over. But the various factions that had formed the victorious alliance held together long enough to mount a successful electoral challenge to the ultra-conservative Knowland machine, which until then had a total stranglehold on Oakland’s political structure.
Four out of five labor coalition candidates for City Council won seats in the next election, their slogan, “Take the Power out of the Tower!”, meaning the Tribune Tower, an Oakland landmark and headquarters of Joseph R. Knowland’s all-powerful newspaper, the Oakland Tribune.
Bob and Bert Edises were in the thick of it. On evenings, Bob would regale me with accounts of their work on the Join Labor Committee—a classic United Front operation in which leaders of the CIO unions, many of them Communists, held the uneasy coalition together with incredible tenacity, bringing to bear all their organizing skills to make it work for awhile.
It was not to last. All traces of the general strike and its political aftermath have long since vanished. The Tower soon regained (and to this day retains) its power. But at the time it looked like the dawning of a new era, the beginning of a worker-led rebellion against the established order that might spread through California and ultimately throughout the nation. Oakland, we decided, was the place for us.
Our new life in the wasteland of Oakland, across the bay from glamorous San Francisco, was by no means the purgatory that our Washington friends thought it would be. Anxious letters came, questioning our decisions—it’s like moving from Manhattan to Jersey City or Newark, one friend wrote, you’ll change your mind soon enough.
The comparison was apt. Whereas San Francisco was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, a labor town with an established and politically influential union base, Oakland was backward, provincial, a small town suddenly grown large, its population swollen in the 30s with the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and now once against bursting its bounds with the huge influx of war workers.
Oakland was San Francisco’s industrial appendage, unable to assimilate its surging population, its cultural barrenness the butt of jokes to San Franciscans. Gertrude Stein, once escaped from Oakland had said of her home town (when safely away in Paris), “There is no there there.”
We thought otherwise. And our sage friends, who had predicted that we would long to return to Eden, were wrong. Oakland was still at the frontier, where the issues were sharper, the corruption cruder, the enemy more easily identifiable—for years we enjoyed what almost amounted to a personal vendetta against the Oakland police chief and the Alameda County District Attorney. There was nothing abstract about the class struggle in Oakland.
The Party organization reflected the differences in the two areas. In San Francisco, Party leaders tended to move in a rather elite circle which included higher-ups in the labor movement, Party lawyers, architects, writers, and other professionals. The East Bay Party, under the leadership of Steve Nelson, a carpenter and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, was younger, less stratified, and made up largely of workers, many of them blacks, who soon formed the bulk of our acquaintances. Apart from Bert we knew not a soul in Oakland when we moved there. But within a week, when we had made contact with the East Bay comrades, we felt that we knew, or would soon know, everyone worth knowing.
We bought a house on Jean Street, in a middle-class neighborhood close to the Oakland municipal Rose Garden. We were as usual fairly close to the edge of poverty; Bob, not as yet a partner in the firm, drew a salary of $60 a week as a junior associate. One of my first moves was to apply for unemployment insurance. Having as financial director meticulously complied with the government requirements for social security deductions from the wages of our San Francisco staff, I was bent on recouping some of this good Communist money.
To qualify for unemployment benefits one had to prove that one was actively seeking work in one’s trade of occupation. I explained to the case worker to whom I was assigned that there was no work in my particular field; the Communist Party of Alameda County already had a financial director, and I had ascertained that the Republican and Democratic Party offices had no openings for me. Rather to my surprise, I was put on the rolls and I collected for several weeks. Eventually the supervisor called me in and said I was holding myself in too narrow a category; I had no other work experience? Yes, I had been an OPA investigator, but the OPA was all washed up after the war.
She offered me an opening at Kahn’s Department Store where my job would be to check, as an undercover investigator, on the loyalty and honesty of the sales force. I said I thought that was a shocking proposal; surely she realized that as a Communist my principles would prohibit me from spying on fellow-workers. This seemed to muddle her effectively and I continued to draw benefits for some weeks, when despite my vehement protests she cut me off for not actively seeking employment. “My husband’s law firm will appeal this all the way up to the Supreme Court!” I threatened. Nothing doing, said Bob and Bert, who were far too busy battling the real estate interests, the Oakland police department, the District Attorney.
Their practice was primarily in the field of labor law; they represented all the CIO unions in the East Bay and some statewide unions. The only left-wing lawyers in the country at that time, they were constantly in court fighting labor injunctions and defending oil refinery workers, warehousemen, auto assembly-line workers, in the post-war wave of strikes. They also served as unpaid counsel for the newly-organized Civil Rights Congress, whose twin objectives were defense of civil liberties of Communists and other radicals, and the struggle for Negro rights.
At the beginning of our life in Oakland I watched these activities from the sidelines, being preoccupied with the birth of our son Benjamin, a lovely fat jolly creature whose upbringing was quickly assumed by Dinky, now aged six. A firm religious believer in those days, she had been praying for a baby: “Your prayers have been answered,” I pointed out. “Here it is, so be an angel and look after it.” Dinky watched over the adored newcomer, fed him his breakfast, rushed home after school to play with him and taught him his first words: “Dinky’s always right, Benjy’s always wrong.”
For the first time in my life I was faced with serious housework, having hitherto clung to my amateur status in this respect by having a full-time job outside our home. Bob never ceased to marvel that I could have reached the age of 30s without mastering the rudiments of cooking, without gaining some minimal understanding of the properties and uses of various cleaning materials. He himself had from earliest childhood watched his grandmother and mother go about their household tasks, had absorbed the various techniques as by osmosis, and later applied them to practical advantage when sharing bachelor quarters in Washington.
But in my culturally disadvantaged childhood (I kept explaining), one did not actually see the housework done as it would have been finished early, before we came down in the morning. As Nancy said in The Pursuit of Love, “Housemaids are notoriously early risers, and can usually count upon three clear hours when a house belongs to them alone.” After my precipitate departure from this way of life Esmond and I had lived either in furnished rooms where the landlady did all or with friends who were adept homemakers, as the ladies’ mags call them.
For a few depressing months I stayed at home trying to cope with the tidal wave of washing and cleaning that daily threatened to engulf us. Bob taught me some texts on the subject, my favorite of which was Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a 2,200-page tome published in 1871. It was full of riveting information: “Menus for a Servants’-Hall Dinner for 12,”… “Duties of the Butler,”… “How to Select a Wet-Nurse”... “To clean ribbons: Mix together 1/2 pint gin, 1/2 lb. honey, 1/2 lb soft soap.”
Too often the end of the day found me curled up on the sofa poring over these instructions, so full of mystery and imagination, while the unwashed breakfast dishes lay drearily in the sink. Or, stimulated by Mrs. Beeton, I would try my hand at inventions for Bob to patent: “Blueprint for the One and Only Bedmaking Machine,” in which iron arms protrude from a large pot labeled “Machinery In Here,” with levers attached marked “Tuck,” “Strip,” “Top Sheet Only,” “Bottom Sheet Only,” and an intricate “Pillowcase Changing Attachment.” “Woman’s work is never done.” I would murmur sadly when Bob got home in the evening, so which his rejoinder was: “You can say that again, in this house.”
I copied out and hung above our kitchen sink a stirring passage from Lenin’s essay on The Woman Question:
You all know that even with the fullest equality, women are still in an actual position of inferiority because all housework is thrust upon them. Most of this housework is highly unproductive, most barbarous and most arduous, and it is performed by women. This labor is extremely petty and contains nothing that would in the slightest degree facilitate the development of women.
Dinky and I would recite this together as we pottered about the kitchen.
A perennial complaint of some wives we knew was that their husbands kept them tied to unproductive, barbarous, arduous, petty housework and so prevented them from taking their place besides men in the world of work and careers. Not so Bob who, declaring himself in fervent agreement with Lenin, positively drove me from the nest. He implored me to seek some outside employment and put the running of the household in more competent hands.
The opportunity to do so arose early in 1949 when a member of the [CP’s] State Committee came to call. “Comrade, we think it’s time you got some experience in mass work,” he said gravely. There was need for an assistant to Hursel Alexander, black organizer who was executive director of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress. “The last comrade who had this assignment found it too demanding, in fact he had a nervous breakdown and tried to jump off the bridge,” said the State Committee member. Later, I thought I saw why.
Hursel was a terrific charmer and a prodigious worker, with a mesmeric ability to wring the last ounce of effort from those within his orbit. He would get carried away with his own eloquence and fiddle around with the English language in the most innovative fashion: “We must move on this case before the Limit of Saturation runs out!” So much more descriptive, I thought, than Statute of Limitation. Or, “The defendant was tried in absentia!” It was my job to follow in Hursel’s wake and act as midwife to the innumerable projects he spawned, to investigate cases, raise money, organize meetings, and put his leaflets into more conventional English.
Our office secretary was a white woman in her early thirties called Kathleen Robinson (pronounced Kat’leen by Hursel), not quite, for her young face was haggard from perpetual overwork, but with ineffably sweet eyes like a saint’s. She was an absolute whizz at office work, producing daily miracles from our battered old mimeograph machine. From a background of working for insurance companies she knew all sorts of extraordinary tricks about the folding and stuffing of mass mailings. “Not one at a time, Decca,” she would patiently enjoin me, and under her skillful hands great mounds of beautifully folded letters would fall into place in a twinkling, like something in a speeded-up Charlie Chaplin movie. Sometimes her very speed would get the better of her. “But Kat’leen, you’ve put ‘untied front’ instead of ‘united front’ on all these thousands of leaflets,” I pointed out on one occasion. “Oh Kat’leen, Kat’leen, whatever shall we do wit’you?” Hursel chimed in, rolling his eyes heavenwards in mock despair. “What sort of loose-livin’, loose-moraled joint will they think we’re running here? Lordy, Lordy, united front indeed…” Patient, devoted Kat’leen was a perfect foil for Hursel’s high-spirited clowning.
Under Hursel’s guiding hand, the East Bay Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was transformed from a small, sterile committee of aging, foreign-born whites into a dynamic, predominantly black organization with some 500 active dues-paying members, this at a time when the NAACP chapter in Oakland could muster no more than 50.
The black population of the East Bay was sharply divided between the old inhabitants, many of whose families had lived and to some extent prospered there for generations, and newcomers from the south who had flocked in with the advent of World War II seeking jobs in war industries.
During the war the Kaiser Corporation sent its agents into rural areas of the South to recruit men and women to work in the shipyards. The response was tremendous, and soon black workers by the trainload, many of them sharecroppers with no experience of city life, were pouring into the area. The shipyard unions were segregated, with the blacks in special auxiliaries, essentially vast dues-collecting organizations in which there was no semblance of union democracy or job security. After the war the black workers were relegated to menial jobs or flung into the ranks of unemployed and imprisoned in the decaying temporary war housing projects of the West Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond ghettos.
There had been a parallel migration of Southern whites into East Bay war industries. These now found employment in the building trades and other skilled occupations controlled by old-line craft unions from which blacks were excluded; many joined the Oakland police force.
Thus parts of Oakland seemed a microcosm of some Alabama or Louisiana town, replete with white prejudice in its most savage form. The transplanted blacks, having shaken the dust of the South off their feet, were in a mood to fight back. It was they who formed the backbone of our organization.
In deference to my recent motherhood it was agreed that I should work part-time and draw $5 a week to help pay for somebody to look after the children. Remuneration in Party assignments was roughly set on the principle of “to each according to his need”; as Bob was now a full partner in the law firm, he agreed to subsidize me in my new job. As it turned out, after drawing the $5 for a couple of weeks I relinquished any further claim to it, as every penny of our treasury was needed to finance the myriad campaigns embarked on by Hursel. Likewise, any illusion about part-time work was soon dispelled and I began devoting virtually all my waking hours to the absorbing exigencies of CRC.
Before I started working in CRC I had read much about “the Negro question,” as we used to call it, and thought I understood it fairly well. Wage differentials between black and white workers, the profits reaped by the real estate industry from both black and white because of segregated housing—I could hold forth quite knowledgeably on this sort of thing. From books like Herbert Aptheker’s pioneering work A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, I had learned something of the unceasing struggle carried on by blacks since slavery days against their oppressors. In CRC, thanks to Hursel and his entourage of young black militants, ghetto ministers and churchwomen, I began to fathom real-life implications of the statistics and the studies, to know black people as individuals, to breach the near-impenetrable barriers that separated whites from blacks, to be accepted into black homes, black churches.
In spite of the gaiety and energy with which Hursel infused the organization, his restless joie de vivre and nonstop optimism, horror underlay our work. At the time I joined his staff Hursel was in the process of accumulating a dossier on brutal police practices in Oakland, with a view to demanding an official investigation by the California state legislature. Complaints poured into the CRC office and into Bob and Bert’s law firm. I was often sent to get statements from witnesses, or from the family of the victim, which I would then incorporate into an account of the case for leaflets or mailings.
I found it hard to describe adequately the sense of monstrous beastliness, authority clothed in nighttime garb, that our investigations disclosed. We discovered that on Fridays, pay day for most workers, police would regularly lie in wait outside the West Oakland bars which served as banks for the cashing of paychecks, arrest those emerging on charges of drunkenness, and in the privacy of the prowl cars en route to the West Oakland police station beat them and rob them of their week’s pay.
How to get this across to people? My leaflets, of which I was then moderately proud, have a pretty trite tone if I reread them now. Typical headlines such as “Thugs in Uniform,” “Defenseless Negro Victims of Police Brutality,” “It Can Happen Here,” would be followed by a distillation of the facts: “Leroy Johnson, 26-year-old Negro worker accused of drunkenness, beaten into unconsciousness and robbed by six Oakland policemen…” “James Washington, 15, assaulted and badly injured by Oakland cops on his way home from his newspaper route, charged with ‘loitering’…”
To gather the information I spent endless hours in West Oakland, or out at the county hospital where the more seriously inured were sometimes sent. I shall never forget the appalling accounts I heard. The colorless, almost monotonous recitation of Mrs. Washington in her tiny, crowded sitting room: “James never been in no trouble before, and then this law, he stop and say watcher doin’, nigger, real ugly, and then some more law they come and they beat up on him, and they carry him down to Juvenile, and when I seen him he was bleedin’ it look like from just about everywhere, his ribs broken and all bandaged up…”
Or Leroy Johnson, in the prison-like atmosphere of the county hospital, his head enclosed in a wire contraption that looked like a bee-keeper’s helmet—a surgical device to hold his broken jaw in place—his voice coming painfully through clenched teeth in a barely intelligible murmur: “I guess I had been drinking. Went out to get some air. Them law come up in a police car with them nightsticks and I don’t remember what happened until I woke up in here.”
Armed with this evidence, we led innumerable delegations of ministers and trade unionists to the Chief of Police, incongruously named Divine, to be met by this singularly glib, smooth-tongued individual with blanket denial that any transgressions had occurred in his department. How I grew to loathe him! And to long for his downfall. (It did eventually, some years later. Two of Divine’s lieutenants whom Bob was suing for damages in a police brutality case were caught receiving stolen goods. Divine, under suspicion of being involved in the thievery ring, hastily resigned “for reasons of health.”)
Bert and Bob assiduously brought each case to the attention of J. Frank Coakley, District Attorney of Alameda County, demanding that he prosecute the guilty policeman. This was done simply for the record, as there was no hope of redress from that quarter; the D.A. was strictly a creature of the Knowland machine, a far right-winger whose re-election every four years was assured by the unqualified support of the Oakland Tribune and by the fact that for 21 years, no lawyer had the temerity to oppose him for office except for Bert, who ran against him in 1951, and Bob, in 1966.
Likewise, not another lawyer in the country could be found to handle police brutality cases. Bob and Bert harried the self-styled liberals of the bar with pleas for help in the proliferating cases that threatened to swamp their small office—and to drive it with bankruptcy, as there was no expectation of fees in these cases. While many lawyers expressed in private their sympathy for the victims and disapprobation of the police department, they frankly admitted that they dared not risk antagonizing police and District Attorney: “I have to preserve a working relationship with the D.A.,” was the recurrent theme. To add insult to injury, frequently these lawyers would refer black clients of their own who had been assaulted by police to the Edises, Treuhaft law firm. “That’s the one kind of case where they never ask for a split of the fee,” Bob observed bitterly. (Today the picture has changed. By the mid-60s, this unseemly timidity no longer pervaded the bar. A new breed of lawyer was emerging from the law schools: gifted and able young men and women championing the oppressed, fighting the legal battles of welfare recipients, minorities, prisoners; but this was still far in the future.)
Hursel, with the backing of the more militant black churches and such left-led unions as ILWU and United Electrical Workers, was hammering on the doors of the State Assembly Committee on Crime and Correction, headed by Assemblyman Vernon Kilpatrick, a liberal democrat.
We did succeed in bringing the committee to Oakland—as the Peoples World reported, it was “the first time in the history of the nation that a specific probe has been conducted into the overall practices of a major police department toward minority groups.” To our frustration and fury, the Oakland Tribune and Hearst’s evening paper, the Post Enquirer, gave this historic event the silent treatment, printing not a line about it.; CRC countered by distributing 30,000 leaflets headlined, “Unholy Alliance between Police Department and Oakland Tribune!”
The committee’s investigator, Robert Powers, was a former police chief of Bakersfield. This sounded most inauspicious: appointing the fox to guard the chickens. Most of us in the Party would have reacted in reflex fashion, denouncing the committee for acting in bad faith by appointing such a person and disassociating ourselves from its deliberations. Not so Hursel, who has an extraordinary ability to work with all sorts and conditions of people, to see beyond labels, to extract the best from them. Judging Powers to be an honest man, he closeted himself with him for hours on end, feeding him information from our voluminous files, guiding the course of the investigation.
In retrospect, I discern a pattern in that three-day hearing that with variations was to be repeated over and over again in the course of our work over the next several years.
Bob and Bert testified, as did a number of police victims whose cases they had investigated. Chief Divine, predictably, declared his department was “clean as a hound’s tooth.” The NAACP, which had stood on the sidelines throughout our year-long campaign, sent a representative who testified in generalities and called for co-operation between the police and responsible groups in the community. The committee eventually issued a wishy-washy report finding “some degree of truth” in the charges. Powers were fitted on the initiative of Republican committee members for having co-operated with CRC, a subversive organization.
To put it in context, by 1949 the Cold War was already three years old (Churchill had made his Iron Curtain speech in 1946, shortly after Roosevelt’s death) and we were heading into what is loosely called the McCarthy era. Actually, although in the aftermath of Watergate it has become fashionable to look back with fond nostalgia on good old liberal, honest, decent Harry Truman, a more accurate designation for that grotesque period in American history might well be the Truman era.
The soil for the noxious growth of McCarthyism had been well prepared by the Truman administration, and the anti-Communist crusade was well under way, long before the junior senator from Wisconsin himself appeared on the scene. Joseph McCarthy was virtually unknown outside his home state until February 9, 1950, when he made his celebrated speech alleging that the State Department was in the hands of Communists, which catapulted him into the national limelight he enjoyed for the next few years.
Some signposts on the road to McCarthyism: 1947, Truman established the federal loyalty oath, barring alleged subversives from government employment. States and universities follow suit. The Attorney General, under authority of a Presidential executive order, publishes a list of subversive, prescribed organizations. 1948: Ten Hollywood screenwriters sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for refusing to testify before the House Committee on the Un-American Activities about alleged subversion in the film industry. Mundt-Nixon bill introduced in Senate, requiring registration of Communists and members of “Communist fronts.” Henry Wallace’s campaign for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, into which the CP had thrown all its energy and forces, ends in disastrous defeat. 1949: Twelve top Communist leaders found guilty under the Smith Act of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence. Alger Hiss tried and convicted of perjury. Several of the largest left-led unions expelled form CIO.
Four months after McCarthy’s opening salvo, the Korean War broke out, bringing Truman’s foreign policy into harmony with his domestic drive against the Left and furnishing McCarthy with more ammunition for his anti-Communist crusade. In this climate, most liberals turned tail. Senator Hubert Humphrey proposed establishing concentration camps for subversives, and declared on the floor of Congress: “I want them (Communists) removed from the normal scene of American life, and taken into custody.” The American Civil Liberties Union, supposed guardian of First Amendment rights, instituted its own loyalty purge excluding from membership those suspected of harboring subversive ideas.
The NAACP at its 1950 convention passed a long anti-Communist resolution, denouncing any left-wing infiltration uncovered in any of its branches, and calling for the formulation of a committee to “investigate and study the ideological composition and trends of the membership…and if necessary to expel any unit which, in the judgment of the Board of Directors, comes under Communist or other political control and domination.”
Compliance with this resolution was by no means universal; in many parts of the country, local NAACP branches blinked it and welcomed the participation of the Left. But in Oakland the NAACP was a small and on the whole do-nothing organization, its membership a fraction of that of CRC. It was dominated by the old inhabitants of the black community who had worked out a modus vivendi with the whites and who resented and looked down on the clamorous hordes of recent black immigrants. It would have nothing to do with organizations labeled subversive.
The CRC occupied a prominent place on the Attorney General’s list of subversive, or Communist front, organizations. CRC’s relationship to the CP was, in fact, symbiotic. It had been created in 1946 at a meeting of the Communist leaders and close Party sympathizers from the remnants of the International Labor Defense, which in the 20s and 30s had led to the fight to free the Scottsboro boys and organize the defense of the embattled trade unionists, Communists, foreign-born victims of the Immigration Department’s repressive ministrations. The Party “assigned forces” to the fledgling CRC, meaning that it appointed Party members to assume positions of leadership in the organization and to guide its various campaigns. In line with United Front policy our every effort was bent towards involving non-Communists to recruit for CRC from the churches, the trade unions, the neighborhoods, and to promote these recruits into positions of responsibility.
The East Bay chapter executive committee of about 20 members was largely made up of non-Communists: black ministers and church mothers, white Unitarians and Quakers, recruited in the course of the police brutality campaign, and other local CRC activities. Our president was a black member of the Laborers’ Union, our recording secretary a young Unitarian woman. Among the Communists on the Board were Buddy Green, black reporter on the People’s World, a white doctor and his wife, a black housewife. Either Bob or Bert would generally attend as ex-officio members, to report on the legal status of various cases. We strove to make the CRC a living example of racial integration and equality.
Did we mislead the non-Party members as to the genesis and leadership of the CRC? This was a perpetual dilemma, for much as some of us would have liked to proclaim our Party membership from the housetops, to do so in the charged atmosphere of the times would, we felt, scare people off and destroy our effectiveness.
It was the same dilemma faced by Communists in the trade unions, the professions, the “board” organizations, and one that was solved pragmatically, by confiding only in those non-party members whom we felt to be trustworthy, unflappable and likely to be sympathetic to the Party’s aims.
The motive of our dissembling was not only one of saving our own skins, rather it grew out of the whole concept of the United Front and the political realities of the time. By 1950 the Party had been virtually outlawed by the Smith Act prosecutions and passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act (successor to the Mundt-Nixon bill) requiring Communists to register. Nobody knew how far, or how fast, the Government was prepared to go. The New York Times speculated that Smith Act prosecutions might mount into the thousands; there was documented proof that the FBI had concentration camps in readiness to accommodate up to 100,000 subversives.
In any event the CRC membership was well aware that the organization, and many of us as individuals, were frequently and prominently labeled Communist in the press. Whenever the Oakland Tribune had occasion to mention Bob or Bert, no matter what the context, the words “lawyers who represent Communists” would appear after their names. After Bob and I were subpoenaed by HUAC in the early 50s, the words “identified Communist” always followed any reference to either of us in the Tribune, a policy of that newspaper that ended only after publication of the American Way of Death in 1963. If this tended to isolate us in the white community, it had the opposite effect in the black. It was not that these relative newcomers from the deep South were knowledgeable about or sympathetic to the Party as such, but rather that they sympathized with us as members of yet another persecuted minority.
Looking back, it seems that in the 40s and 50s the Party had become essentially a self-defense organization—or rather has been maneuvered into that position by the unremitting attacks on it. By the time Bob and I joined, the glorious days of the CIO organizing drive and the San Francisco waterfront strike, when the CP was on the offensive, had reached into history; with few exceptions, Communists had been effectively driven from union leadership. This sense of being beleaguered and embattled created a “fortress mentality,” in which the Party became increasingly turned inward. The morale and élan that marked its days of achievement and growth during the 30s was gone; morale was sustained by faith alone, and inevitably in this circumstance faith became a dogma.
While there was much exhortation to “broaden out,” to seek contract among the masses (and in CRC we had to some extent succeeded in this), Bob and I found that our circle of really close personal friends was becoming more and more limited to other Party members. This was partly due to the successful efforts of the Government to isolate us, but it was also partly our fault: we tended to drop our friends and associates from pre-Party days because we now had so little in common with them. Furthermore I fear we were tiresomely self-righteous (or should it be leftous?). Taking a superior and patronizing attitude to those of our acquaintance who had not seen the light as we had.
And yet, what other organizations were responding seriously to what seemed to us the urgent issues? The liberals, with a few glowing exceptions (such as I.F. Stone, Alexander Meiklejohn, Clifford and Virginia Durr) has fallen back in disarray and in effect joined the Cold Warriors. Despite all evident drawbacks, I can hardly imagine living in America in those days and not being a Party member.
© Jessica Mitford, 1977. Special thanks to Katie Edwards and the Mitford Estate.
Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) was an English author, journalist and political campaigner.
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