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 FrauenFragen
 J. M. Simmel
 Tate Modern
 Britain and Europa
 Red-Diaper Baby
 Illusionstheater
 

 

Erica Manfred

I was a Red-Diaper-Baby
O.K., so my parents were Communists. But at least they believed in something.

I never thought I would feel nostalgic about Communism. As a 60's activist and child of lefty parents, I once took as gospel beliefs that now seem quaint: human beings are basically good; if people, not capitalists, owned the means of production, poverty would disappear; economic equality could cure all social ills. Misguided and dangerous though Communism was, the passion for social justice and compassion for working people that it represented is gone from the planet, and I, for one, miss it.

Although to their deaths they never admitted it to me, my parents were both card-carrying Communists. How do I know? I can't tell you. I was brought up never to reveal such information. When friends visited my parents, instead of telling me to put out the cheese and crackers, I was instructed to hide The National Guardian, a genuinely mind-numbing lefty publication. In addition to being told never to get into a car with a stranger, I was instructed never to answer a stranger's questions - the questioner might be F.B.I.

As a teen-ager, I was secretly disdainful of my peers because they were oblivious to the suffering of others. My family and I were part of a morally superior secret society that cared more about the fate of the world than did our bourgeois, materialistic neighbors. We - whose showplace home could have been in House and Garden - worried about poverty, racism and injustice, while they worried about how to keep up with the Joneses. Pursued by the evil forces of anti-Communism, we did not name names. As it happened, no one asked my parents to name anyone, but they swore they wouldn't have anyway.

My grandparents were socialists who escaped the ghettos of Russia to fight for the right to unionize in America. My parents were Communists who fought for social justice in the 1930's. As the third generation of this proud leftist family, I wanted to make good.

As an activist in the 60's, however, I lacked oomph. I missed out on the freedom rides - too obsessed with a guy in my math class. I overslept for a big civil rights demonstration. I did climb over the wall to the Pentagon in 1967 but was too chicken (and too cold) to stick around for the tear gas. I joined a women's consciousness-raising group but was so intimidated by all those fierce women that I dropped out.

In 1968, I went to Cuba and signed up for the Venceremos Brigade, American leftists who were invited to help with the sugar cane harvest. That experience was my reality check.

I'd spent my life on the ideological left in self-styled anarchist groups with utopian dreams of participatory democracy. I discovered that an actual Communist dictatorship bore no resemblance to my fantasy. While the Cubans mechanically spewed forth the party line, the notorious Weathermen, who had joined the brigade to recruit new members, used Maoist brainwashing techniques, like all-night criticism and self-criticism sessions, to induce us to sign up. I realized I'd rather be ruled by Richard Nixon than by the kids in the Weather tent. At least you could vote him out.

When I got back, I traded in my politics and went into therapy. But I feared disgracing my family. I felt disloyal about being more concerned with my own turmoil than the world's. My mother wanted to know who was supposed to carry the torch of radicalism into the next century. But what torch?
The Weatherpeople were clearly delusional as well as dangerous. My parents passionately believed that the Soviet Union was the promised land, another treacherous fantasy. I recognized that anarchism was a utopian crock. What was left? Did political passion, no matter how idealistic, inevitably lead to fanaticism? I became a cynic, disbelieving any group's claims to a corner of the truth.
What remains of the left in today's me-first political climate leaves no room for grand social visions. The younger generation of leftists has splintered into interest groups - each defending its turf with more arrogant political correctness than my die-hard Stalinist parents - without any unifying vision of a just and compassionate society.

Though I long ago dropped the torch, my upbringing has had certain long-term effects. I cannot cross a picket line. I am constitutionally averse to Republicans. I feel guilty every time I miss a demonstration for a good cause. (Lucky for me there aren't too many of those these days.) As with other wishy-washy liberals, my political life consists of voting for the least objectionable candidate.
I still long, though, for a political movement I could wholeheartedly embrace. In my fantasy party we would support the interests of the poor and working classes, not the rich; we would fight for the rights of animals and the environment; we would combat discrimination wherever we found it, and, most important, we would not only tolerate but encourage dissent.
Maybe the next generation.

1. März 2001

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