Given how many times Vivian Gornick has elaborated on the faults of her 1977 oral history, The Romance of American Communism, I feel a little unsophisticated for finding it so compelling. The things she has said of the book – that it is 'strangely over-written' and that there is a tendency to romanticise – are true. Everyone should have someone in their lives who looks at them the way Gornick looks at her former communists ... This isn’t a book about dangerous revolutionaries or what a communist America might actually have looked like – it isn’t even exactly about politics. Instead it is about people whom Gornick regards as 'honest dissenters', and how communism made them feel. As such, it is far from complete as a history of American communism but it is a fascinating and enlightening contribution to one.
The Romance of American Comminism explores political engagement through the lens of “impulse, need, fear, doubt, and longing” — and Gornick’s prose drips with emotion ... In her new introduction to the reissue, Gornick herself is scathing of the book’s style ... Certainly the book’s tone is sometimes overwrought. Political commitment is depicted as an energy, a force, a passion ... There are endless flowerings and flourishings and flames, while Communists glow, irradiate and shine. Everything is always 'alive.' But the profusion of metaphors come as much from Gornick’s interviewees as they do from her — and seem appropriate to the expansive affective experiences the book seeks to convey ... Gornick is adept at drawing out the contradictions inherent to her subject: the coexistence of collectivity and paranoia, solidarity and vindictiveness. The book counterposes an image of vibrant political consciousness with the kind of 'arid, dead' jargon-spouting 'jerk who talks like the Little Lenin Library.' This is a book about emotions full of emotional people who nonetheless struggle to talk explicitly about their emotions.
The only way out of the Cold War, Romance seemed to suggest, was to work through it. That’s what Gornick offered: a passage through and exit from a long and lonely corridor of mind ... Today, Gornick’s book reads differently, less bound by the genres and concerns of the Cold War. Her effort to reconstruct the communist experience seems less a rescue operation of the self than a reconfiguration of the self in classical terms ... Today’s left...is legitimately fearful of repeating the repression of the past; it is understandably, if less legitimately, fearful of taking on the responsibility—and judgment of history—that power entails. As a result, the left struggles to generate those force fields, seeking the warmth of solidarity without the cold and sometimes cruel poles of attraction and repulsion that sustain it ...This hesitation has liberated the left from the need to reconcile freedom and constraint. But it has also left it without power. At some point, that may change. The left may become intentional; it may become dangerous. If it does, these questions of freedom and discipline will once again become salient. For better and for worse.