Red Summer

by Joan Wallach Scott

RAISING REDS : THE YOUNG PIONEERS, RADICAL SUMMER CAMPS, AND COMMUNIST POLITICAL CULTURE IN THE UNIT • by Paul C. Mishler • Columbia University Press • 192 pp • $45 • $17.50 pb • March 1999

RED DIAPERS; GROWING UP IN THE COMMUNIST LEFT • Edited by Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro • University of Illinois Press • 336 pp • $49.95 • $19.95 pb • 1998

As the Cold War is replayed in the national press by historians with new access to Kremlin archives, another, less sensational story about American communism has come to light. Told by those who grew up in communist families, it presents a more complex and varied experience than was depicted in the Manichaean polemics that, until recently, characterized most public discussions of American communism. The easing of Cold War tensions has enabled "red diaper" children to break the silence their families had imposed as a means of protection in the McCarthy era, when the revelation of membership in the Communist Party or even association with "known communists" could mean the loss of a job, public denunciation, or worse. The result is an outpouring of information, much of it autobiographical, that explores American communist political culture from the perspective of childhood.

Although some of this work is marked by uncritical nostalgia (and in that way is the counterpart to the Oedipal fury of ex--red diaper babies such as David Horowitz who have repudiated every aspect of their communist parents' lives), much of it is more balanced and more ironic, less apology than dispassionate analysis of childhood experience. The experience itself was unusual because political considerations loomed large in the lives even of very young children. According to Paul Mishler's informative history, the party had a children's policy, which was influenced both by its pedagogical theories (a blend of Soviet, European socialist, and American reformist ideas) and by its approach to the Americanization of the immigrant populations that were a large portion of its constituency. Children were acculturated to communist ideas by the specialized literature and institutions (clubs and summer camps) that the party established. As the memoirs in Red Diapers make clear, one aspect of this process was to de-emphasize notions of childish innocence and demand political responsibility at an early age.

In the 1920s, the militant leaders of the Communist Party defined the family as a crucible of class struggle, with children likened to workers and their parents to capitalists, even if the parents were communists. The party assumed that children would inevitably feel antagonism toward their parents but sought to redirect these feelings to the appropriate class issues. Under the aegis of the Young Pioneers of America, autonomous children's organizations were created to nurture pure revolutionary consciousness. There were, of course, adults at the helm of these organizations, but their role was not conceived as a parental one; if children were the workers, adults (in this application of Leninist theory) were the party.

Established in rural areas across the country, Pioneer summer camps were probably the most effective means of implementing the party's views about the revolutionary potential of children. These camps were adjacent to cities where the party was strong. They enrolled thousands of workers' children for token tuition or at no cost for one or two weeks during the summer. Participation in camp governance was an integral part of the vacation experience: "Squads" of children directed their own recreational and political activities and elected members to serve on adult committees and on the "camp soviet," the highest decision-making body at the camp. In addition to sports, drama, and arts and crafts, children's activities included raising money to support strikers and circulating petitions at neighboring camps.

In the 1930s, when the Popular Front led to alliances with noncommunists in the political and economic arenas, party theorists recast the family as a model for working- class cooperation. The struggle for proletarian emancipation would override all social distinctions, including those between skilled and unskilled workers and between parents and children. "Our education," wrote a director of children's programs for the International Workers Order (IWO), "aims at creating the same unity and harmony within the working-class family that should exist within the working class as a whole." Achieving this objective required high levels of political engagement from children, who were treated as junior "comrades" by their parents. Amy Swerdlow, who as a child was a Young Pioneer and as an adult was a founder of Women Strike for Peace and, until she retired in 1994, the director of women's studies at Sarah Law rence College, remembers:

From the age of six, I would have to stand up in class at my parents' behest and tell the teacher that I would be out of school on May Day because it was a workers' holiday.... In the eighth grade my stomach churned and I thought I would faint as I had to stand up on the auditorium stage and refuse a bronze medal [sponsored by the Hearst newspaper chain] for coming in third in a potato race with the statement "I cannot accept a medal from William Randolph Hearst." Fortunately, there were a few other children also refusing, some with more politically profound statements--and gold medals to boot.

For children, being a communist had conflicting connotations: It meant being visible as nonconformists in situations where they wanted nothing more than to fit in, but it also meant conforming to the ideals of their parents' political community; it meant concealing family activities from school friends who came from outside communist circles, but it also carried the excitement of belonging to a secret brotherhood; it meant feeling uncertain about participating in the ordinary activities of childhood but also feeling superior to classmates who lacked what communists considered a truer and better understanding of how the world operated.

For the children of immigrant parents, a sense of political and ethnic foreignness made identification as an American a particularly complicated process. These complications stemmed directly from Communist Party policies that both encouraged the preservation of ethnic language and culture and sought to Americanize immigrant workers so that an automatically American revolutionary working-class would be created. The identification of communism with central myths was a means to the end of Americanizing immigrants. One children's primer, written in the 1930s, reads as follows:

The Hungarian people have a rich background of struggle and national achievement. Time and again they have risen up to free their nation from the iron heel of foreign domination, to release the peasantry from exploiting landlords. From their ranks have emerged heroes, mighty as those heroes who made their mark in history at Lexington and Gettysburg, fighting for independence and democracy.

Here the proud heritage of Hungarian immigrants makes them fit to be American radical heroes.

The party's amalgam of separatist and assimilationist approaches resulted in part from the fact that the IWO, a federation of ethnic mutual-benefit societies, was the largest of the Communist Party mass organizations in the 1930s. In IWO-sponsored schools and sum mer camps, the teaching of ethnic languages and the preservation of immigrant culture were combined with the symbolic politics of internationalism and Americanization. Students pledged to the red flag ("I pledge allegiance to the worker's flag and to the cause for which it stands, one aim throughout our lives, freedom for the working class") and sang American union and folk songs.

In fact, the Americanization of the campers was a significant aspect of the summer experience, and it took myriad forms. The camps' sports programs were often based on those of the Boy Scouts--otherwise denounced as proto-fascist class enemies. Clubs and summer camps that were based on a single ethnicity often took a stand against racism by including blacks in their programs. Blacks were at once Americans and oppressed; by identifying with them, radical immigrants could assimilate without joining the mainstream. To take only one example, the IWO's Jewish Camp Kinderland (in Dutchess County, New York) gave Paul Robeson a hero's welcome whenever he visited during the summer, and children learned to sing Negro spirituals along with Yiddish songs of protest.

Mishler mentions in passing that tensions resulted from these efforts at integration, but he stresses the importance of providing children with interracial experiences in a racially divided society. I wish he had said more about the tensions. It is certainly true that white children in left-wing summer camps learned a great deal from the presence of blacks and from the emphasis on racial equality Indeed, having been one of those campers myself, I can attest to the long-lasting positive effects this had on me. But it is also true that integration was far from complete. Black campers faced the additional difficulty of being not just kids from different backgrounds but symbols of both noble oppression and white radical goodness.

As Mishler points out, what these camps had in common was an emphasis on the principles associated with communism rather than any explicit indoctrination. Thus heroic struggles of "the people" were celebrated in song and dance, but there were no lessons in socialist economics. At Camp Kinderland, campers learned about Jewish history and literature, not Soviet history; at Camp Woodland (in the Catskills region of New York), they collected folk music and built a museum to honor craftsmen and their crafts. Above all, these camps were alternative institutions, places where children were affirmed in the difference of their backgrounds. At the same time, they typified a more general American phenomenon: the development of children's camping as summer recreation in the United States. (It would have been useful for Mishler to place his story in this larger context; in that way, the relationship of party culture to American culture might have been more fully illuminated.)

Mishler reminds us that "summertime is a utopian season," and it is clear that even those who remember their communist childhoods with ambivalence found much of value at camp. Those who sang lustily with Pete Seeger about workers' struggles or learned about what the construction of a dam had meant for local farmers often carried into later life a belief that the attainment of justice required their political action.

I would say that this legacy was the result less of politically correct attitudes and behaviors imposed from above than of the campers' daily experience. For children of radicals, camp was usually a safe haven, a place where nothing had to be hidden from friends and where a common experience of having been different at school and on the street became the basis for deep personal ties. For these children, summer camp seemed to realize, in intimate, emotionally satisfying ways, the utopian dream that had inspired their parents' radical activism. That the dream might be illusory did not matter. Having lived it, many former campers tried to implement a version of it in the adult world. When they could not do so, such red-diaper children sometimes founded new summer camps for their own children. In these changed times, however, camp became something quite different--a condensed form of left-wing political culture, a summer vacation from the pressures and pleasures of (usually) middle-class, liberal American urban childhoods. •

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