THE WAR YEARS made everything seem unreal, even the Party. There was, however, no lack of activity and sometimes the Party had an important part in it.
The leaders of our Teachers Union were unhappy because they were without labor affiliations, therefore I negotiated for affiliation with another communist-led union, the State County and Municipal Workers. We had been Local 5 of the A.F. of L.; now we became Local 555 of the CIO.
The Union set up new headquarters at 13 Astor Place in a building once owned by the Alexander Hamilton Institute and later owned by a corporation controlled by one of the wealthiest communist-led unions, Local 65 of the Warehousemen’s Union. It had renamed the building Tom Mooney Hall. Local 65 was renting floors to unions and left-wing organizations. The State County and Municipal Workers were on the seventh floor. The Teachers Union took over the fifth floor. It gave us plenty of space for professional and social activities.
The Union had assumed the obligation of helping the teachers and professors displaced by the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was proving difficult to do. Finally, after brooding over this problem, we decided to establish a liberal school for adults, thus making employment and spreading education at the same time.
The School for Democracy was established with Dr. Howard Selsam, formerly of the Philosophy Department of Brooklyn College, as director, and with David Goldway, formerly of Townsend Harris High School and also formerly state director of education for the Communist Party in New York, as secretary. It was to be housed also at 13 Astor Place and to use certain facilities jointly with the Teachers Union. I worked hard to get it organized.
The school was a success. Almost immediately our science teachers received well-paying jobs in experimental laboratories. But the Party observed our venture into education and made ready to bend it to its purposes.
Attached to the Party for some time had been a school called the Workers School, located at Party headquarters. This school was conducted by the Party for members and sympathizers. Its curriculum consisted largely of courses in Marxism-Leninism, courses in trade-union history, and courses in popularizing the current line of the Party. The school was frankly one for communist indoctrination and no compromise was made with bourgeois educational concepts. The school had a foreign atmosphere about it. It was run by old-time Communists, half-affectionately and half-contemptuously referred to as the “Nineteen Fivers.”
Earl Browder and the national leadership were busy striving to give the Communist Party the appearance of a native American party to prepare it for its new role in the war and in the postwar period when it was expected to play an even greater role. He was enthusiastic about the School for Democracy.
Often I had the feeling he was impatient with the overwhelming foreignness of the Party. Perhaps his days as child and young man in Kansas had had something to do with it. His slogan, “Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism,” had irked both the foreign-minded Communists and the native Americans who had felt it was an attempt to sell a bogus article. But with the war Browder could work with impunity to convert the Party into an acceptable American social and political organization.
In line with this it was decided to take over the School for Democracy with its core of professors, graduates of the most distinguished bourgeois colleges, and to join it to the hard core of communist teachers from the Workers School. Alexander Trachtenberg was put in charge of a committee to merge the Workers School and the School for Democracy. An astute Communist, a charter member of the Party and before that a revolutionary socialist, Trachtenberg was and is now one of the financial big wheels of the movement. He was also chief of the firm of International Publishers, which had a monopoly on the publication of communist books and pamphlets and on the distribution of Soviet books and pamphlets. This is a highly profitable undertaking.
He bought a beautiful building on the corner of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, a stone’s throw from St. Francis Xavier School, to house the new Marxist School. Plans were already on foot for a string of Marxist Adult Education schools which would have a patriotic look. The patriots of the American Revolution and of the Civil War were to be given a new sort of honor — a Marxist status. The new school in New York was named the Jefferson School of Social Research. In Chicago the school was named the Abraham Lincoln School, in Boston the John Adams School, and in New Rochelle, the Thomas Paine School. These schools were to play a part in the “third revolution” that was to destroy the nation.
Trachtenberg once said to me that when communism came to America it would come under the label of “progressive democracy.” “It will come,” he added, “in labels acceptable to the American people.”
The initial funds for the setting up of the Marxist schools were, ironically enough, contributed by wealthy business people who were personally invited to attend dinners at the homes of other men of wealth. They came to hear Earl Browder analyze current events and predict the future with emphasis on the role the Party would play.
There is no doubt that Earl Browder, as chief of the Communist Party, was close to the seats of world power in those days, and that he knew better than most Americans what was going on, except insofar as events were warped and refracted by his Marxist ideology. The men who paid their hundred-dollar admissions and contributed thus to the school funds became part of the group which Earl Browder was to call the “progressive businessmen,” meaning those who were willing to go along on an international program of communism. The lure was attractive: expanded profits from trade with the Soviets. The price to be paid was unimportant to these well-fed, well-heeled men, who felt the world was their oyster. The price was respectability for communism at home and leadership of the Soviets abroad.
I had no part in the group which planned this new Marxist educational empire, though I had been the moving spirit in establishing the School for Democracy. The trustees of the Jefferson School were not educators; they were key communist figures in the growing hierarchy of a native American leadership for the Communist Party. There were among them people with unbelievable backgrounds, some of them Moscow-trained, but they all had a surface of respectability, even though sometimes a blurred surface.
As I look back I see that I never ceased keeping for myself a small area of freedom into which my mind could escape. Some phases of my life I was perfectly willing to have controlled and even enslaved. I was conditioned to accept the view that the capitalist system was inefficient, greedy, immoral, and decadent. My schools and my reading and the depression had put me in agreement with President Roosevelt in wanting to drive the moneychangers from the Temple. I was also willing to follow the Party in its program of practical politics, for here, too, the attack was upon the grossness and stupidity of those in government who sat in the seats of power with no plan for the future. Willingly, too, I helped the Party gain in power in the field of American education through my work with the Teachers Union. I was always ready to help in the struggle for admission to the academic world of the intellectuals among our immigrant population who felt they faced discrimination.
But I was wary of the Party’s inner educational apparatus. I was not drawn to the dogmatic pedants of the Party’s schools. No doubt, subconsciously, I realized that all this was not education but propaganda, and at heart I was really still a student and a teacher. I wanted to read Marx and Engels and Lenin, but not under the tutelage of those drab, self-effacing figures who peopled the Party’s educational quarters.
The Party leaders made frequent attempts to get me to attend state and national training schools. I was approached repeatedly about the possibility of going to school in Moscow, but I always pleaded that the immediate emergencies of my work in the Union made it impossible for me to give time to such a duty. “Perhaps someday,” I told them.
I had seen teachers, sailors, furriers, subway conductors, housewives, some with third-grade education and some with college degrees, lumped together as students in these state and national training schools and I had seen them come out with the same stamp of dedicated uniformity. It was a leveling process that still gave them an odd sense of superiority, as if they were now priests of a new cult.
With the development of the new Marxist schools I tended to withdraw further from this phase of the work. I taught one class at the Jefferson School, but I found no joy in it. When I was offered the directorship of the California Labor School I refused it without hesitation. I had the vague fear that if I allowed myself to be drawn into this type of indoctrination the last small refuge where my mind found freedom would be gone.
The war years had produced interesting phenomena in communist-led left-wing circles, not the least of which was public renunciation of the class struggle. The Party announced that whole sections of the capitalist class had joined the “democratic front,” the so-called “Roosevelt camp of progress.”
The Daily Worker never wearied of enumerating those who were clasping hands in a common purpose, Communists, trade unions, sections of the Democratic Party, and progressive capitalists. These made a coalition, the Party stated, that would win the war and later the peace.
The Communist Party now assumed the responsibility for establishing a rigid discipline over the working class. No employer was more effective or more relentless in checking strikes among the workers, or in minimizing complaints of workers against inequities of wages and working conditions. Some employers were delighted with this assistance. It is startling to note that, while wages rose a little during those years, they did not compare with the rise in profits and in monopoly control of basic necessities.
In other circumstances, Communists would have blasted the fact that war production was chiefly in the hands of ten large corporations and that 80 per cent of the war production was in the hands of a hundred firms. Now the Communists carefully muted such information. Instead, they played on the workers’ feelings of patriotism.
It was sad to observe that in the interest of its objectives the Party even barred the protests of the Negro workers who felt that, now that they were needed in the war factories, they might win some rights. The Communists opposed the Negro demands violently. In fact, a campaign of vilification was begun. It was charged that the leaders of this Negro movement were Japanese agents.
The Party did all it could to induce women to go into industry. Its fashion designers created special styles for them and its song writers wrote special songs to spur them. Use of womanpower in the war industries was, of course, inevitable, but it also fitted into the communist long-range program. War-period conditions, they planned, were to become a permanent part of the future educational program. The bourgeois family as a social unit was to be made obsolete.
After the Teheran conference, the Party program for shelving strikes was projected into a permanent no-strike policy. Each time American political leaders emerged from an international conference, Crimea, Teheran, and Yalta, the Communist Party announced again its dedication to the win-the-war plan. Its leaders were driving for a strong war and peace unity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Everywhere the Party leadership was being placed in positions of importance so that they might direct the home-front segments of the coalition. Communist leadership was being consulted and utilized by those in power in government.
The drive for the second front brought Earl Browder into national prominence, and we realized that he was being consulted by such national leaders as Sumner Welles. Government officials were utilizing Communists to pull together divergent groups.
When the Russian War Relief was begun, a glittering array of names of outstanding citizens adorned its elegant stationery. Sumptuous affairs launched Russian relief in America. These were attended by people prominent in society and government.
The Communist Party made the most of this. Now there emerged the Russian Institute with its imposing headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a sophisticated propaganda agency; it brought American educators, public officials, artists, young people of families of wealth into this left-wing world. Famous names, Vanderbilt, Lamont, Whitney, Morgan, mingled with those of communist leaders. The Russian Institute was so respectable that it was allowed to give in-service courses to New York City schoolteachers for credit.
In Albany and in Washington a new crop of young, native American Communists swarmed into the legislative halls as legislative representatives and public-relation and research aides to legislators. With inside information on what was happening, they were able to guide legislators in the direction of Soviet-American unity. They helped to produce dozens of important public figures at Madison
Square Garden rallies, organized under various labels but filled by the rank and file of devoted Party members. It was a glittering society that was emerging, made up of Russian diplomats and Russian business agents, of Americans in evening clothes, and artistic Bohemians in careless dungarees, all of them cheering the repeated avowals of friendship with the Soviet Motherland.
When in 1943 Stalin announced the dissolution of the Communist International, a great impetus was given to the drive to build the Communist Party into a native American party. This dissolution was a tactic meant to lessen fear in those Americans who did not believe that Soviet-American unity could be achieved without danger to American sovereignty.
When I arrived in Albany for the legislative session of 1943 I was besieged with questions. Everywhere I explained the new policy of peace, the new era that was coming to the world because of this communist policy of amity. When some days later I spoke at a budget hearing to a packed hall, ostensibly for my Union, I was in reality putting across the Party’s unity line in terms of the taxation problem. I received congratulations from Republicans, Democrats, and representatives of the taxpayers’ organization.
Afterward Gil Green, New York State chairman of the Communist Party, and Si Gerson, its legislative representative, congratulated me on my speech. Then Gil said decidedly: “The time has come, Bella, when you ought to come forward openly as a leader of the Party.” Si Gerson, he added, was going into the Army soon and there would be need of a new legislative representative of the Party. “And we want you.”
We had supper in the grill at the De Witt Clinton Hotel and there we were joined by CIO men, by local labor lawyers, and a representative of the Farmers Union. My favorite waiter, a Party member, took our order. I was only half-listening to the talk of the people milling around our table, for Gil Green had startled me by his abrupt suggestion, which I knew was almost a command. I liked Gil. He wore shabby, worn suits and he reminded me of Harriet Silverman and Rose Wortis and the other self-sacrificing, dedicated people.
In the Party I was beginning to see many people of a different stripe. During the war period I saw how opportunism and selfishness engulfed many comrades. They wore expensive clothes, lived in fine apartments, took long vacations at places provided by men of wealth. There was, for one, William Wiener, former treasurer of the Party, manipulator for a score of business enterprises, who wore Brooks Brothers suits, smoked expensive cigars, and lunched only at the best places. There were the tradeunion Communists who rubbed elbows with underworld characters at communist-financed night clubs, and labor lawyers who were given patronage by the Party by assignment to communist-led trade unions and now were well established and comfortable.
But it was shabby, serious-faced Gil Green who was for me a visible reassurance that the Communist Party was still what I had originally thought it. His proposal had come to me at a time when I was tired of the varying grades of protection which the Party gave to its members, and tired of seeing the comfortable way of life of some who were in powerful places, where they had the support of the Party but faced none of the disadvantages of belonging to it.
Before I left him I promised Gil that I would think seriously about his proposal. I had personal problems to consider if I took it, for it was in a way an irrevocable step.
For one thing, I would be giving up a certain area of freedom, since I would be giving up fields of work not open to an avowed Communist.
In everything except name I was a Communist. I accepted discipline and attended meetings. I gave a full measure of devotion to Party works, and I felt a deep attachment and loyalty to the people in its ranks. I considered myself as part of a group looking and driving toward the day when socialism would triumph.
Even more significant was the fact that I had made their hates my hates. This was what established me as a full-fledged Communist. In the long ago I had been unable to hate anyone; I suffered desperately when someone was mistreated; I was regarded as a peacemaker. Now, little by little, I had acquired a whole mass of people to hate: the groups and individuals who fought the Party. How it came about I cannot tell. All I know as I look back to that time is that my mind had responded to Marxist conditioning. For it is a fact, true and terrible, that the Party establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue. It claims such sovereignty even over conscience as to dictate when it shall hate.
Before 1935, for instance, the Party had preached hatred of John L. Lewis as a labor dictator. No stories about him were too vile. He was accused of murder and pillage in his march to power in the Miners Union. Suddenly, in 1936, Lewis became the hero of the Communist Party. Again in 1940, when the Party decided to support Roosevelt against Willkie, and John L. Lewis risked his leadership in the CIO by calling on the unions to vote for Willkie, the Communists screamed invective, and in private meetings Roy Hudson and William Z. Foster, in charge of labor for the Politburo, vilified Lewis. When the Communists shifted their support, Lewis was dropped as president of the CIO and Philip Murray was elected in his place. During my years in the Teachers Union I gradually got used to these bitter expressions of hate. And since hate begets hate, often those under attack also responded with hate. Hearing them, I began to take sides and in the end accepted the Party’s hates as my own.
Once at the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers in 1938 I was assigned to attack a resolution introduced by the socialists in support of a Fred Beals, once a Communist, and indicted for murder in the Gastonia textile strike. He had jumped bail and escaped to Russia but he did not like life in the Soviet Union and insisted on returning to the United States even though it meant standing trial. The socialists were defending him and asking trades-union support for him because the indictment had grown out of a labor dispute.
I did not know Fred Beals, and from a purely labor point of view I should have been sympathetic. Instead, I accepted the assignment to speak against the resolution to help him. I had begun to adopt the hates of a group.
This is the peculiar paradox of modern totalitarianism. This is the key to the mental enslavement of mankind: that the individual is made into nothing, that he operates as the physical part of what is considered a higher group intelligence and acts at the will of that higher intelligence, that he has no awareness of the plans the higher intelligence has for utilizing him. When a person conditioned by a totalitarian group talks about the right not to incriminate himself, he really means the right not to incriminate the communist group of which he is only a nerve end. When he talks of freedom of speech, he means freedom for the communist group to speak as a group through the mouth of the individual who has been selected by the higher intelligence.
The Bill of Rights of the American Constitution was written to protect individuals against centralized power. The Communists pervert this safeguard by first enslaving the individual so that he becomes the marionette of the centralized power.
This kind of conditioning had something to do with my decision to become a card-carrying Communist. In March, 1943, I gave my consent to Gil Green’s proposal to become an open Party leader. I took over Si Gerson’s position as legislative representative for the New York district. Gil was pleased and insisted that I begin the transition immediately, so I spent some time in Party headquarters and attended all meetings.
Now I found myself faced with two tasks: to prepare myself for my new life, and to effect an orderly withdrawal from the Teachers Union.
For several years I had purposely helped to bring forward new Party members for posts of responsibility in the Teachers Union leadership. One of these was Rose Russell, who had taught French in Thomas Jefferson High School. Rose had a fine mind and had had some training in newspaper work. She had a human approach to people and problems. She was not as yet stamped into the obvious Communist Party mold. She was personable and well-liked, and the old guard in the Party fraction in the Union would not, I knew, dare oppose her openly. She was my choice as successor to the post I had loved, and with the approval of Gil and Rose Wortis we got the necessary approval by the communist leadership of the teachers. It was then an easy matter to bring her forth as a candidate for the Union elections of 1944.
Technically I was to remain as the legislative representative of the Teachers Union until the elections were held and until Rose Russell was installed publicly. The Union gave a farewell affair in my honor in June 1944. It was a fine illustration of the kind of unity which this Union, now a sturdy arm of the Communist Party, was able to establish.
The farewell party was called “A Tribute to Dear Bella.” As I read today the blurbs on the program I can but shake my head sadly. I read there of the “inspiring and untiring leadership in behalf of all the children — all the teachers — the improvement in public education — the fight against racial intolerance.” The chairman was my old friend, Professor Margaret Schlauch of New York University.
Telegrams were read from scores of assemblymen and state senators, from trade-union leaders, both communist and noncommunist, congressmen, and judges. On the platform were outstanding leaders come to honor me, for I had won many of these people to a tolerance for the Union by a sincere espousal of the needs of the schools. Among the people who greeted me were Charles Hendley, Honorable Hulan Jack, then in the Assembly, and Judge Anna Kross, whom I had grown to respect and love.
Rose Russell presented me with a gift from the Union, a modernistic water color which still hangs on my law-office wall. It is a good reminder, in its complete confusion of subject matter, of the distortion of the actual, the confusion and meaninglessness of this part of my life.