Our Time & The Left
by Harvey Swados.
Doubleday. 656 pp. $8.95.
One comes away from Harvey Swados’s new novel with the impression that it was once the most natural thing in the world for normal and even conventional people—and people, by the way, without any notable political culture—to adhere to the Trotskyist political philosophy. Now Trotskyism, during World War II, opposed the support of America and England, denied that it was possible for the democracies to defeat totalitarianism, and generally aimed at replacing all persons then occupying the world’s seats of power. With whom? With leading figures of the Trotskyist sect, which probably never numbered more than a thousand American members.
Such are the views of Harvey Swados’s Trotskyists in Standing Fast, and such were indeed the views of the Trotskyists I myself knew and was personally friendly to before and during the war years. But if there are many likenesses, there is also one difference. The Trotskyists I myself knew had an intellectual interest in political ideas, while the Trotskyists in Standing Fast do not. Carmie, for example, is talking about a play she has just seen, Sartre’s Red Gloves, in which Charles Boyer starred on Broadway. We are told: “She seemed more struck by Boyer’s baldness than by Sartre’s philosophy.” Now there is very little of Sartre’s philosophy in the play for anyone to be struck by, and what is more, this is a political play, and probably the best political play written during the last half century. Moreover, it was inspired at least in part by the story of Trotsky’s assassination, as told to Simone de Beauvoir by Bernard Wolfe, who for a time had been Trotsky’s secretary; in fact, the one attractive figure in the play was modeled on the revolutionary killed in Mexico. Now how could all this have been missed by a Trotskyist? Carmie, to be sure, is not a party member though one of the group, and is presented by the novelist as peculiarly uninterested in ideas. But are the other characters much more interested?
Anne says to Joe, “All that talk about seafaring, labor, Marxism. What’s it got to do with me?” Joe asks, “Don’t you know?” Anne replies, “I don’t want to know.” To Big Boy she says, “I’ve got a confession to make. I don’t care a damn about poetry. And what’s more, I don’t care a damn about politics.” Of Norm we are told that he “. . . had fled the endless theorizing and the tiresome theological certitudes of his intellectual friends at Ann Arbor for the uncomplicated pleasures of the football field.” Though his wife is pregnant and he could claim exemption, he refuses to do so and is drafted into the army. His justification is certainly better than that of the pacifist seaman Polonsky, who has joined the navy and explains that if the war had been limited to its Asian theater, he might have remained true to his ideas and been a conscientious objector. He puts it this way: “The Japs never did me anything—it’s one more imperialist war, Pearl Harbor or no Pearl Harbor. But with Hitler, the momser, you got a horse of a different color. I’ll tell you something else. . . . I didn’t have the guts to go CO. I was afraid to face the folks on my block.”
Norm’s explanation to Sy for not claiming exemption is a good deal manlier, but hardly sharper intellectually. He says: “I don’t believe in the war. I don’t think they’re really fighting fascism. But Sy . . . where the dying is, that’s where the living is. Not here.” To be sure, there is also Harry Sturm, who is somewhat more intellectual than the other Trotskyists, but he is dismissed by Norm as peculiar, almost pathological, in fact in terms quite like those with which the generality of Americans during the 30’s and 40’s dismissed all Trotskyists. Norm describes Harry—and here I think he has the author’s support—as having the voice of a virgin “. . . married to a sick old dad, his chemical engineering handbooks, his files of Marxist periodicals.”
Now it is simply not the case that in this country people whose interest in politics was moral rather than political—as is normal with most Americans—ever tended in any real numbers to become Trotskyists. I do not mean to suggest, though, that there is untruthfulness to fact in this superbly written and utterly authentic novel. It is, however, a realistic novel; and is it realistic to believe—this is what the novel seems to assert—that Trotskyism was a perfectly natural option for the people it describes? We have heard recently from Miss Bernardine Dohrn that “freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks,” and the odor of pot over groups of campus radicals and war resisters may seem to bear her out. And we have been told by Charles Reich, in The Greening of America, that it is possible for us to freak ourselves toward socialism as it was once said by antinomian Christians that men could sin themselves to Jesus. At the present time the association of political radicalism with moral and psychological oddity, and even abnormality, seems quite inevitable. Now there is nothing at all freakish about the characters in Standing Fast, just as there is little about them that is especially intellectual. Yet Norm and Carmie and Anne and Joe, like Irwin and Vito and Big Boy and Fred, were Trotskyists at a time when it was unfashionable to be Trotskyist, and also intellectually difficult. Their moral and psychological normalcy, considering the extremity of their radicalism, cannot but seem anomalous. Is it really?
If we do not at once believe what Harvey Swados is saying, yet we do believe in his characters. But they ask us to believe what he is saying, political appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Certainly their dramatic persuasiveness is an argument, and a powerful one, for the truth of his vision.
Suppose, though, we shift our perspective and question just one political notion, whose truth we may have simply assumed. What notion? One dear to the radical Right, which claims that it alone represents the American interest, a claim which is agreed with by the radical Left, which is today for the most part anti-American. What if this claim is quite unjustified? What if it is simply false? What if the American interest can only be truly represented by the Left? This view would give coherence to a number of facts which the alternative view makes it harder to understand: the persistent radicalism of our youth; the absence of a white backlash in the South; the weakness of the Wallace movement, with whose menace to us we were constantly threatened; and finally the political impossibility in this country of recruiting a right-wing intelligentsia, that is to say, one of any real quality. But now if we accept the view that this country despite all appearances is essentially leftist, and if we look from our new perspective into Swados’s novel once more, the radicalism of its characters will not seem implausible. If it is normal for Americans to be on the Left, then it is not at all implausible to think that a handful of normal Americans at a moment of historical crisis were to be found at the Trotskyist pole.
What is the truth of the matter? I think the truth is to be found in Swados’s artistic vision and not in present appearances, or in the extreme views of right- and left-wing ideologists. I gave as one argument for Swados’s vision the livingness of his characters. But there are other arguments.
The French intellectual, Dionys Mascolo, writing in a 1955 special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to analyzing and defining the Left and leftism, wrote as follows:
America, taken as a whole, is on the Left. No one who observed the life habits of the American soldiers of 1944—45 could doubt this. And Europeans who have lived in America have all been struck by the democratic tone prevailing there in manners and customs. Why, then, does the most democratic of Americans take on in Europe the air of a boss? America, in fact, since the war, has behaved like the rich man of the globe. . . . It discovered then [after the war] that the rest of the world was poor. It was terrified by this discovery, which even made it sick, and it has not yet recovered.
Now it is one thing to think of the United States as the leading counterrevolutionary country of the world (this has been Conor Cruise O’Brien’s charge), and quite another to think of this country as Mascolo described it in 1955: somewhat sickened to find itself on the political Right, having lost touch, through affluence, with its naturally leftist bent. And from these two very different judgments of America, two very different judgments of abnormality and freakishness may be derived. One may think of abnormality and freakishness as the penalty Americans have to pay for trying to be radical in a right-wing country; alternatively, one may think of this country as freakish and abnormal insofar as it has not been true to itself, that is to say, to its inherent radicalism.
I suspect that Harvey Swados would find this second view of the United States rather closer to the judgment he himself makes: Swados’s novel, though, never touches on the contemporary alignments of freakishness with radicalism; his book ends with the present age. I am sure he began this novel a good while back; it is expressive of earlier and more politically salubrious times. The truth is, I do not think he throws much light on the present epoch, though he does try to connect with our age the past from which his characters emerged. It is to be noted that the figure he has chosen to connect us with the past is the rather sickly if sympathetic Paul, the talented, guilt-ridden, and morally sentimental son of Carmie and Irwin (who has, by the way, become what radicals are never supposed to become, a dentist). Paul, having left Columbia where he did brilliantly, voluntarily embraces poverty, working as a delivery and errand boy. He chooses to live in Harlem, to be close to those who are not poor by choice. His motives, of course, are misunderstood. One night he is cornered by three young blacks, who take his wallet, reproach him because it contains only nine dollars, accuse him of living in Harlem because he is “hot for nigger boys,” and then kill him. Here is the end of the event as Swados sets it before us:
Paul leaped forward. As he grappled for the taunting hand a tremendous blow in the back staggered him. He fell forward and a boot flashed at his head. He could not avoid it, it caught him on the temple, and spun him down half a flight of steps to a black cellar areaway.
Groping, he gripped the concrete steps with his fingertips and began to work his way up. One, two, if he could reach the sidewalk he would make his way to the streetlamps, to life. But then, with the sound of high shrill laughter and fleeting footsteps fading as he strained to lift his ear from the concrete, something gigantic, overwhelming, a huge wave-like force, arose within him. He opened his mouth to release it and blood came gushing forth as he slid back down the steps into darkness.
No doubt Paul can be taken to represent the moral and political attitudes held by youthful idealists during the early days of the SDS. But even that period seems ancient nowadays. And I do not think even that time is seen very clearly by the novelist. His glance is definitely on a remoter past, being caught by what might be called the halcyon days of radical suffering, when leftists stood for the right thing but were outnumbered, when they did not have to win in the present to believe the future would be theirs. Swados’s Trotskyists confront the draft, the union bureaucrats, war politics, the McCarthyism of the postwar years, and are finally attacked by the powers of affluence and social decay. Their pathos is to have had less effect on history than time has had on them. They grow old, and lose their beliefs. By 1963, with the assassination of Kennedy, when the novel ends, socialism for Norm is “as dead as God.” At the funeral for his son Paul—which he tries to keep his wife Carmie from attending—Irwin judges his ex-Trotskyist comrades thus: “You know what all of us are? Not even a footnote. . . . Roosevelt and the war that you were against, Truman and the war that you were against, Eisenhower and the McCarthyism that you were against, Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs that you were against. . . . Who cared what you thought? Nobody but a handful of cranks and psychopaths. Nuts, freaks, unhappy slobs like me. And kids like my son.” Instead of making the revolution he has hoped to lead, Joe Link now hopes to write a book about the black revolution which he cannot lead. Only Vito, who has achieved something in painting (it is something which does not require the help of others), does not seem diminished by the pain time inflicts on him. No doubt Carmie’s rather comical and hopeless desire to create something is justified by her obscure perception of the terrible inequality between what time can do to one (always drastic) and what one can do to society (less than one expects, even in the most favorable period).
The complaint against time of those who want to make history, this is the theme of Swados’s novel, and it is, of course, one of the classical themes of radical literature. It is the theme of one of the very best modern plays, Arnold Wesker’s Their Very Own and Golden City, in which Andrew Cobham, a radical and an architect, has been dealing with the Labour government; his plan is to erect five golden cities. He has been made a counter-offer:
Kate. so, they offered you the glory of another fact-finding committee, did they? Asked you to compromise with one voice and told you they loved you and needed you with another. Clever. Clever boys. What was your answer? (No reply) Andy, what was your answer?
Paul. What did you tell them, Andy?
Stoney. you didn’t agree?
Kate. Leave him answer.
Paul. Andy, You didn’t agree, did you?
Kate. Leave him answer, I say.
Stoney. But he couldn’t agree. There’s five other committees, they’ve got sites, all that work, those architects, all that money invested—
Paul. They didn’t promise to finance even one city.
Stoney. Haven’t we compromised enough, Andy?
Paul. Or shall we compromise even on our self-deception?
(Andy turns to them)
Stoney. My God, how old you look just now.
Andy. How old we all look. We’ll be very old soon, boys.
Kate. Andrew Cobham, when Brian Cambridge asked you to drop the five Golden Cities, what did you say?
Andy (defiantly) . I said—aye.
There is no talk as finely eloquent in the dialogue of Standing Fast. On the other hand, Swados’s realistic novel is a more powerful means for expressing his theme than is the not always realistic play of Arnold Wesker. First of all, the passage of time has a deeper relation to the form of the novel than to that of the play, which tends to transform everything into present time. Then, too, the play form is too narrow, I think, to counterpose time against history. In Wesker’s play, for instance, we do indeed watch Andrew Cobham growing older, so we see time’s effect on him directly. But we do not see history being made. The first act ends just before World War II, and the second act begins when it is over. Swados, on the other hand, is able to make vivid the historical events which his main characters direct themselves toward: The beginnings of World War II, McCarthyism, reaction in the labor movement, the execution of the Rosenbergs, and the beginnings of the civil-rights movement. Norm, for instance, is present at the rioting in Little Rock when the courts ordered the desegregation of the schools there. Ham and Paul participate in the Washington march addressed by Martin Luther King. We get the immediacy of the event and also the inadequate relation to that event of Swados’s characters.
They, deprived of their ideals by time, remain for the most part normal people, and quite unadapted to this present era, which may be said to have begun at the very point where their story ends. They are perfectly adapted, though, to the realistic style Swados has called on to describe them, and most of them, had they become novelists, would, I think, have written realistic novels such as the one they are in. To be sure, from the perspective we now take, they do seem oddly normal. But I am rather sure that the radicals Swados actually knew and took as models for his characters tried to be more normal than they actually were; that is the way radicals behaved in periods when society was less shaken than it is now. In any case, their normalcy makes it possible for the characters in Standing Fast to express in their pathos a classical theme. Time, which cripples, is more of an enemy to the athlete than to the crippled. And it is more hurtful to the moral athlete than to the moral cripple. Swados’s characters stand humanly a little closer to the former than to the latter.
And as they are able to represent one of the classical themes of radical literature, even so I think they represent what has to be the major theme of radical politics. Normal people like Swados’s radicals are in fact indispensable to any radical movement which is not to end in social catastrophe. No doubt we shall see for some time yet the prominent positions on the Left occupied by characters very different from those Harvey Swados has set before us. But finally, unless the Left is not to amount to anything, leftists will once against express some true commitment to the real. From the notion that revolutionaries are freakish it is only a step to the view now held by many that freakishness is revolutionary. But the further step, to revolution, is going to be a good deal more difficult. For after all, the problem of social change is to persuade the vast majority. One has to persuade them. It is no use trying to kill them. And who would want to make them all “gay”?