Chapter XII: Studying Marxism, Falling
Fifteen of us piled into a special unmarked bus and headed up Broadway. As we passed the Times Building on Times Square, we could see news headlines appearing on a monitor on the building. One item caught our attention: "Kirov, member of Soviet Political Bureau, assassinated. Scores arrested. Fear strikes Russian leadership."
We were shocked. Kirov was a likable leader. He was young, perhaps the youngest member of the small group that made up the top leaders. Who would do such a thing, and why? We pondered this as the bus headed into the New Jersey countryside.
It was late when we arrived at the Nature Friends Camp about 60 miles outside of New York City. We drove up the pathway to what would be our home for the next six weeks. A large building housed the dormitory; the lodge and dining room were in another building not far away. The camp had been built by German anti-fascists who loved the outdoors. With winter at the doorstep, it was now reserved for us and the school. For the next six weeks we would eat our share of good food, abide in good comradeship, and immerse ourselves in books of class-struggle theory. No stone would be left unturned in the effort to make better Communists of us.
Of the thirteen male students, three were seamen. The rest were steel, auto and mine workers, along with one old man who was a sharecropper from the South. There were two women, one from the needle trades and the other an organizer in the Chicago stockyards.
Sometimes I felt like I was wasting my time at the school. I felt that too much of the stuff flew too high over my head. On several occasions I felt like throwing in the towel and taking off. But though in the beginning it did seem like I would never grasp the full meaning of what was being taught, in the following days it became easier. The teachers were outstanding, especially one we affectionately called "Pop" Mindel. He looked like Josef Stalin, with the same moustache and sharp penetrating eyes that gave the impression he could reach into the depths of your soul and read your innermost thoughts. We all learned to love and respect this man, and we suffered when he caught a cold.
After a hearty breakfast and a brisk walk in the cold air, we would settle down to the day's grind in class. Let no one say that the study of Marxism is easy for a grammar-school dropout. What rang a bell for me through all the theory was the study of the United States' and world trade union movements. This was something easy for me to sink my teeth into. It was Marx's theory that the trade unions were the tools and instruments of the class struggle. The trade union was the first school that a worker entered. Marx contended that the trade unions should be the best schools of Communism and would prepare the workers with the knowledge needed to wrest control of their own destiny. But, I knew, even the trade union movement had long ago been captured by agents of the capitalists, and in many cases they had been subverted into class-collaborating organizations. While I didn't absorb as much as I would have liked, I did learn enough to make future reading of theory a lot easier.
The two women were excellent students. Ann came from a family of needle trade workers. She started out in the woolen mills early, as a youngster, and quickly developed tuberculosis. (In fact, a few years after our school experience she became very ill and died.) The other woman, Pele, was extremely attractive, vibrant and in her early twenties. She personified health and beauty and had a brilliant mind. Sometimes she sat in front of me in class, and it was all I could do to keep my mind on the lectures. I was forever staring at her. As a Communist abiding by strict Communist discipline, however, I knew that all the wonderful dreaming I was doing about this luscious woman was, in fact, just dreaming. I suffered, too, from an inferiority complex which did not encourage the remote idea of sharing any part of her life. Yet she was a sheer delight to look at.
When the weather was good, one could climb a small mountaintop which was accessible by walking a short distance through the woods and then for ten minutes up to the ridge crest. From the ridge one could see the brilliant glow of the new York City skyline on a clear night. The air was always sharp, clean and invigorating. Most of us climbed this ridge many times a week, stared at the landscape, then made our ways back to the lodge. One moonlit night, Pele and I found ourselves walking back alone through a foot of snow toward the lodge. It was as if some magic force was at work when, halfway down the mountain, we both stopped. Something happened that I had only dreamed of. I looked her squarely in the eyes and we embraced and kissed. My nose ran from the cold mountain air and my heart pounded against my ribs as I held her as tightly as I could, making it almost impossible for her to breathe. She opened her eyes, quickly regained her posture, then nudged me away. "Don't try to be some smart ass," she said as she continued down the hill with me behind her.
I said nothing but continued to walk. My mind was racing with excitement and I could not control the beating of my heart. I felt that it could be heard miles away. If a man could grow taller with elation, then I felt as tall as the tallest tree in the woods. I had kissed the most beautiful woman in the world. When we were close to the lodge, she stopped and looked at me. She raised her arms, and we hugged and kissed for a few moments which seemed like an eternity. Then, as before, she composed herself and nudged me away. "Don't do that again," she said a bit threateningly. Her face flushed red and her eyes sparkled in the moonlight.
That night I rolled and tossed in a restless sleep. God, I felt so happy! Then, in the next moment, I would enter a fit of despair. Perhaps this would be the end of it. I would take giant steps in one moment, then fall back into a quagmire of self-doubt. This kept up all night. I was a wreck as I sat down to breakfast the next morning. I had eyes and thoughts only for Pele, who managed to cast a glance at me once in a while. I had always believed in an ability to transport thoughts to another person, and now I put my whole being into trying.
We met the next night and the night after, taking our long walk up to the mountain peak. When no one was around we hugged and kissed. In class we found ways of passing little messages of endearment to each other, even blinking with our eyes the most magical of words, "I love you."
One night I found her hastily writing a letter. "I'm writing to my boyfriend in Chicago, telling him I'm in love with a big scrawny character and that's just the way it is. See the mess you got me into?"
Since I did not know the man, I was indifferent to the suffering he might have to go through. Each day we grew closer to each other, and I worried about what might happen to us once school was over. There wasn't the slightest doubt that we loved each other; something would have to be done to keep us together.
One day a comrade named Peters appeared at our school. He was to lecture us on "Agitation and Propaganda." He was a short, neatly-dressed, handsome man with a likable style. He spent three days with us, and when he was not lecturing he was working on a pamphlet that later would be called, "Handbook on Party Organization," an easy-to-read manual on Party structure. He came to me with the first section. "I want you to read this. If you have any trouble understanding it, if there is even so much as one troublesome word, I must know." I read the material and was fascinated by it.
"I want this pamphlet to be easily understood by the workers who read it. Too many of our people write stuff and get carried away with their own egotistical verbiage, using phrases and words that I can't understand, and I've been around a long time. A worker does not understand, for example, what we mean when we use the phrase `the withering of the State.' We have to make our material easily understood, otherwise it will fall on deaf ears. Since you only went to the fifth grade in school, I feel that if you can understand it, then the average worker will, too."
The course came to an end. Now we were to return and apply our new knowledge to our daily activities. Pele and I made plans before she left New York for Chicago. We were to write often to each other, and I was going to make plans to get assigned to work in maritime on the Great Lakes so I could be close to her. It was a sad departure, but it was made easier by the fact that we were both disciplined Communists. We understood that the Party and our work took priority over our feelings. We would go on writing the most passionate letters to each other, always attesting our love for each other. Never had I found so much joy in writing letters.
In the real world of things, the West Coast strike had ended. The strikers had won. A new era of organizing was underway. The unions had come back into their own. They were here to stay, to be recognized aboard every West Coast ship. The maritime workers had taken a vote for what union they wanted to represent them. It was a foregone conclusion that they would vote for the old International Seamen's Union, since the striking rank and file had taken over most of the local's leadership and were on their way to making the union a worthwhile organization once again. However, the East Coast locals remained in the hands of the conservatives.
In view of the West Coast developments, the MWIU would have to dissolve. Its members would be asked to join the accepted union. A meeting was called of all the leaders of the MWIU. Men came to New York from all the ports in the United States where there was a branch. For two tiresome days, some 25 men who formed the backbone of the union argued about where to go from the present point. Should we stay in business despite the fact that all the West Coast seamen were now becoming members of the International Seamen's Union? Would we be a dual organization in the true sense? Should we disband the revolutionary MWIU and take our chances and join the ISU, hoping to make it a proud, progressive union in the long run?
There was no doubt, except in the heads of a few old diehards, of where we were headed. The consensus was that we had made our presence felt among the ranks, and now it was time to disband. We would urge all our members to use whatever means possible to join the conservative ISU on the East and Gulf coasts and fight like hell to make it a good organization. Now we had only to contact our members and carry out the plan. We would close the branch offices and turn over a new page in our history. It was at this point that I consulted a few leaders about my status. "I wish to be assigned to work on the Great Lakes, especially around Chicago," I said.
The reply was devastating. "No, your immediate assignment is to get into the ISU and ship out and create a base. We have enough people working on the Great Lakes." Poor Pele. I was forever saying, "Soon, soon we'll be together." But she would understand my predicament. She was a good Communist. She knew what Party responsibility was all about.
I was hurt by her curt and cold reply. A few days later I talked about the situation to an old comrade, Robbie. "Look," he said in the tender way he was noted for, "I can't understand why some of our people are as cold as a cup of yesterday's coffee, either. Maybe they don't knew any better, or maybe they don't give a damn, or maybe they're just robots devoid of feeling. I know how you feel about this gal, and if it were up to me, I'd say go up there. But it's not up to me, and I couldn't win a fight with these jackals if I tried.
They feel that if you have no strings tying you down, you'll perform better and be ready for any assignment. If you have a girlfriend who keeps urging you to hang around, you'll give up the industry and end up in some tin can factory just so you can rush home every night. If you're unattached, you'll be out on the ships where they think you belong. It's as simple as that. You and I know that if you go to Chicago, you'll go with the best intentions in the world. But if the girlfriend should ask you to stay around and find some other work to do, hell . . . you could even end up in the slaughterhouse clunking steers over the head just to be near her."
"What the hell am I supposed to do the rest of my life? Spend it going to whorehouses?" I asked bitterly.
"Give it a little more time. Something may work out. If it's good, it will hold."
Years later I learned that what Robbie had said was true. There was an organized, methodical reasoning among some of the maritime leadership that bordered on the sinister, a belief that kept most of the full-time Communist functionaries from becoming attached. It was cruel, even more so because it was nourished by leaders who told all who would hear that the Communist society was the ideal society and the only one in which the family was truly revered and held together. To question their decisions was to exhibit a "lack of Communist discipline."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two