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RIchard Wright said, "There was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist Party." Although it is a pity and a legacy of the great cold war repression of communism in this country, that Vivian Gornick used pseudonyms for her interviewees whose oral histories form the basis of this book, still the value of this book is immeasurable. The communist party in this country was a remarkable phenomena and the people who were attracted to it, were in some ways, the best and brightest of their time. Being a communist meant hard work and lots of it, and the capacity to endure drudgery, sometimes obnoxious leadership, conflicting policies, cult-of-the-leader tendencies, a special cultic insider language, and a generally unsupporting society. But people in their tens of thousands put up with the downsides for the sake of the idealism that motivated them. Gornick interviews a cross-section of such idealists and the more one reads, the more one is impressed with the youthful idealism and bright hopes of the communists, the disappointments and disillusionments, and the coming to terms with the failure of the movement. The story has never been told fully, but through the stories Gornick collects, one sees a little of how the work of the communists in this society both in labor unions, farm workers, and in the deep South, was almost entirely to the benefit of the people, and how little harm was done by this savagely repressed band of people, who, in the final analysis, only wanted to leave the country better off than when they found it. It can be argued that if fools rushed in where angels feared to tread then the communists in America were fools, There were places like the Imperial Valley in California where people were beaten and jailed for merely asking for decent conditions, and their lawyers were beaten and jailed. There were places in the mills of the south and the ironworks of the north where to petitition peacefully for better conditions could mean a trip to the hospital or worse. These most dangerous spots were where the communists dared to go when all other reform organizations proved faint of heart. It cannot be argued that America isn't better off that it had a strong communist party at one time. This is the lesson between the pages of this book and now that the cold war is long over perhaps we Americans can recapture a part of our past that needs to be reexamined from a calmer, more humane perspective. This book is a good way to start that process.
Anyone who enjoyed this book, should also direct their attention to Kaplan and Shapiro's book: Red Diapers: Growing Up in the American Left, which uses the same oral history approach to bring forth the stories of the children of the generation that Gornick interviewed.