THE COLLAPSE of the stock market did not immediately affect my family for we had no money invested in stocks or bonds. Therefore it was not difficult for me to leave my post at Hunter College in 1930 to serve a clerkship for admission to the New York Bar. I worked at a nominal salary in the office of Howard Hilton Spellman, who was an excellent lawyer and at that time was writing several texts on corporation law.
During that year I saw a great deal of John Dodd whom I had met on my trip to Europe. At first it seemed we had little in common, for John had an engineer’s mind and I was disinterested in all machinery, regarding mechanical devices as a kind of black magic. But we soon discovered topics of common interest, such as our love for this country and an awareness of its problems.
John’s family lived in Floyd County, Georgia. Long before I visited his home I had heard him tell the story of how his people had gone into Indian territory and established themselves on the land sixty miles from Atlanta and in the direct line of Sherman’s march. He had told me of his grandfather who had lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh and of his grandmother who had outwitted Sherman’s men when they came to her farm; of how his father had turned his land into peach orchards and how he was ruined by railroad rate discrimination that forced Georgia peaches to rot at the siding while California fruit was favored.
When John asked me to marry him, I hesitated. I had given little thought to marriage. I was thinking about a career and those were still the days when women debated marriage or a career, and not marriage and a career. But already economic pressures had pushed many women into business and so limited their activities as homemakers. The women I knew were talking less of homes than they were of dissertations and research. However, I put my doubts aside and we decided to get married.
We did not plan to be married in a church, since John was bitterly anti-clerical. I did not mind the civil marriage; like John, I thought of myself as a freethinker.
One morning in late September we were married at the county clerk’s office in New York City. John stood tall and straight and blond, and I beside him, small and dark. Our witnesses were two of my friends — Beatrice Feldman and Dr. Louis Finkelstein.
When the clerk pronounced us man and wife, I had a sudden sinking feeling in my heart. Why? Had I rushed into marriage before I was ready? Was it that this ceremony was not what I had been taught made a marriage? I do not know. I do know that during the next months I grew to love John more than I had thought I was capable of loving anyone.
I knew how devoted he was to the South and its people and after our marriage we went to visit his home. I had never been South before, but I now realized why so many of its children went to Northern cities for a livelihood.
John’s people were not plantation owners nor did they have share croppers. They owned a lot of land and they worked it themselves. The women worked as hard as the men. I visited some of the Dodd children at the Martha Berry Schools near John’s home and I was struck by the independence and sturdiness of these people. Never after that first visit did I read morbid literature on the South without a sense of resentment at the twisted picture it gave of a section which has great reservoirs of strength, based not on material wealth but upon the integrity of its people.
John was ten years older than I. He had had a variety of experience, having worked in industrial centers, such as Akron and Detroit, and he had seen service as a flier first in the Canadian RAF and later in the American Air Force. In those days of World War I service in that branch was tantamount to joining a suicide squad. As a young soldier he saw many of his comrades killed. He, himself, was in a plane crash at Kelly Field and suffered a spinal injury which left him a highly nervous person.
By 1932 my family felt the results of the depression. My father’s business had come to a standstill. John, too, was meeting financial difficulties. I, therefore, decided to return to my post at Hunter College.
I was stunned by the fury of the impact of the depression on my family and those around me. I watched the line of pale, pinched faces of people who stood before the closed doors of the Bowery Savings Bank on Forty-Second Street. They reminded me of the anxious faces I had seen in Hamburg and Berlin a few years before. I saw men obviously once in good circumstances line up around the block for soup and coffee at mission houses. I saw them furtively pick up cigarette butts from the streets.
I had not been back at Hunter long before I found myself involved in discussions on the economic problems of the staff below professorial ranks. Many instructors and other staff members were underpaid and had no security of tenure or promotion. We organized the Hunter College Instructors Association and I became one of the leading forces in it. We won concessions for this group, and I was elected its representative to the faculty council.
The Instructors Association at Hunter was set up so that the two representatives on the faculty would have a guide as to how their colleagues wished them to vote. It was a new type of organization for college teachers — a grass-roots organization for immediate action on important questions of privilege and one in which discussion was uninhibited. Some of the older members of the professorial group were secretly happy to see a rebellious instructors’ group give the president a hard time, for there had been a change in that office too: we had a new and different type of president now.
When I first came to college President Davis, the incumbent, was an eminently correct scholar and gentleman. He was a Protestant, tolerant of all and removed from all. The faculty was permitted to do pretty much as they pleased because he and they belonged to a homogeneous group. It was a laissez-faire system in which the president selected the heads of departments and they in turn selected their teachers. They were permitted the widest kind of latitude in their personal lives and their methods of teaching. It was the recognized pattern of the liberal arts college of the day.
But President Davis died in the later twenties, and Dr. John Kieran, a kindly old gentleman, who headed the
Department of Education at Hunter was appointed. Dr. Kieran was a Catholic and was regarded by certain members of the faculty as an unfortunate choice for president. But Dr. Kieran had powerful friends in City Hall and the trustees considered him an asset in the constant struggle for the finances which had to be sought from the city budget.
He did not, however, live long enough to make any changes in the administration. When young, vigorous Dr. Eugene Colligan, an Irish Catholic and straight from the public-school system, was chosen to be his successor, there was real consternation among the old guard. Submerged anti-Catholic embers were fanned to flame. The fact that he had come from the administration of a public high school was looked upon as a disaster for the college.
Dr. Colligan misread the nature of the reaction to him. Since he was young and vigorous and happy with his new position, he moved immediately to establish his leadership there, and began bringing in new ideas. But he soon found he was up against a stone wall. His troubles arose not only from the old guard among the faculty but also from the students and from the new type of city politics ushered in in 1932 by the election of Fiorello LaGuardia, which was to New York City what the Roosevelt administration was to the country.
The recognition in 1932 in Washington of the USSR brought a tremendous change in the activities of the communists on our college campus. Recognition brought respectability; it led to the organization of such groups as Friends of the Soviet Union, which was led by engineers and social workers and which soon extended to the world of art and science and to education in general.
At Hunter it brought about a completely changed situation among students, staff, and administration. In our college the initiative was not taken by any of the staff — and this included the younger teachers — for we had no known members of the Communist Party among us. But communist students went into action and before long had a tremendous impact on these same young teachers. One hears a great deal about the influence of teachers on their students. During this early period of communistic influence on the campus Hunter students and City College students had a much greater effect on the teachers.
Almost overnight and seemingly from nowhere organization arose. Groups of the Young Communist League and the League for Industrial Democracy — an organization originating in England among Fabians — appeared in our midst, small dedicated bands of young people. This soon led to mass groups of students who began clamoring for the right to meet on the campus; if permission was not granted, they met outside and protested very loudly.
I was very conscious of one thing: these organizations were not springing up spontaneously; some creating group was behind them. But it was true that the student answer was spontaneous and very immediate. Suddenly there had appeared on the indifferent campus a student group who seemed to care, to believe in things, to be willing to work and suffer for what they believed in and cared for. Before long they had infected the entire student body.
At the time I was deep in the struggle of the instructors for a modicum of economic security, and I felt a great kinship with these students. They were the “depression babies” who were now determined to take matters into their own hands. They were contemptuous of the previous generation which had bequeathed them a legacy of want and depression. They were offered no good hope of future careers. And now, through this new hope that was sweeping the campus, they were going to do something to help themselves.
What they were doing emerged very slowly but it was this: they were unconsciously beginning to ally themselves with the proletariat, with the workers. And from this was born the intellectual proletariat which in the next years was to be the backbone of hundreds of communist organizations — and which was, indeed, to provide active men and women for the mass movements of the next twenty years.
Others had heard of our successful organization of the Instructors Association and we were soon approached by representatives from the other city colleges for help. The result was a committee uniting the efforts of the instructors in all the municipally owned colleges of New York City.
Almost immediately this city-wide group was approached by a group from the private colleges. The approach came through Margaret Schlauch of New York University, who arranged meetings which included representatives of Columbia, Long Island University, and the city colleges. We held many meetings at which we discussed the plight of the intellectuals. The men and women gathered together included many able young people : Howard Selsam, now head of the Jefferson School of Social Science; Margaret Schlauch, today a professor in the University of Cracow; her younger sister Helen who later married Infels (an associate of Albert Einstein) who is also teaching in Poland. Sidney Hook stayed with the group a short while, and then left. Together we planned to form the American Association of University Teachers to fight for the breadand-butter issues of the lower ranks of college personnel.
For some unknown reason this organization was short-lived. To replace it Margaret Schlauch called together the remnants of the group and proposed a new type of organization. I did not then realize how the wheels within wheels moved but I did feel something new had come into the picture. Strange people were brought to the little gatherings at Margaret’s house and though the rest of us were all teachers and college employees, the new figures had nothing to do with the colleges. They began to enlist our group in the struggle against fascism.
To one of the meetings Margaret brought an emaciated woman who talked about the underground movement against fascism. She spoke with an air of authority. Without it Harriet Silverman would have seemed plain to the point of ugliness, but she carried this air of authority like a magic cloak, and it transformed her. She proved a different sort of person from those I had met in organizational work. She talked about the man she called her husband, a man named Engdahl, who was then in Europe to propagandize the Scottsboro Case. Like herself, he was, I learned later, an international agent of the world communist movement.
Harriet singled me out almost from the first. At her invitation I promised to visit her at her home. When she stood up to go I looked at her threadbare tweed coat, her shapeless hat, and I was moved by her evident sense of dedication.
She was the new type of ascetic of our day, a type I was to find prevalent in the Communist Party. She lived in a small remodeled apartment on the East Side and I climbed four steep flights to reach it. The room had a cloistered atmosphere; it was lined with bookshelves on which I noticed Lenin’s complete works, Karl Marx, Engels, Stalin, Bimba’s History of the Labor Movement, and other books on sociology and labor. There was nothing trivial there. I noted no poetry. On one wall hung a large picture of Lenin, draped with Red flags bearing the hammer and sickle.
Harriet was ill the night I visited her. She sat in an old flannel bathrobe and talked with intensity of plans to remake the world. I was impressed by the fact that she was not concerned about her own poverty, and thought only of the working people of the world. Suddenly I felt that my efforts to increase salaries for a few college teachers were insignificant. She made me feel ashamed of having a good job and a comfortable apartment. So moved was I that I pressed on her all the money I had with me.
Harriet suggested that the group of college teachers gathered at Margaret’s house should organize an antifascist literature committee for the purpose of doing research, writing pamphlets, and raising funds.
She told me frankly she was a Communist. “I’m not afraid of labels,” I replied. “I’d join the devil himself to fight fascism.”
When I asked Harriet how the money contributed to the anti-fascist cause was distributed, she said, “Through the Party and its contacts.”
I may have looked skeptical, for she quickly asked, “Would you like to meet Earl Browder?” I replied in the affirmative, and we made an appointment to meet him the following week at the communist headquarters in Twelfth Street.
When Harriet and I went there we were taken up to the ninth floor in what was more a freight than a passenger elevator. About the whole shabby building I felt the same atmosphere of dedicated poverty that I had found in Harriet in her drab clothes and the drab tenement in which she lived. It was definitely of the people and for the people, I thought.
Earl Browder did not look as I had expected the leader of the Communist Party to look. With his quiet, thoughtful face and shock of gray hair he was exactly like the popular concept of a professor in a small Midwest college.
We talked about various things — of our anti-fascist committee, its part in the fight against tyranny, of the necessity of being on friendly terms with all nations which opposed fascism. It was a friendly, pleasant talk and when we left, Earl Browder went to the elevator with us, bidding us good-by with a friendly smile.
At the meetings of the Anti-Fascist Literature Committee we knew there were Communists in our midst, but it was considered bad form to ask questions, and they put on an elaborate display of nonpartisanship, perhaps to condition the rest of us. Our committee did write several pamphlets, but the important thing we did was to raise thousands of dollars for the cause and to spread its propaganda.
Little by little the college teachers who came to these increasingly interesting meetings felt the need of a larger dedication. It was a call to action of the innocents — and even today I do not know how many of them were among the innocents.
Sometimes when we grew excited, and when doubts came, Margaret would raise her cool voice, which was as prim and proper as was her D.A.R. background. She could always lessen tension and resolve doubts by some simple remark in her cultivated tones.
To carry out the work of the Anti-Fascist Literature Committee I embarked on a fund-raising campaign supervised by Harriet Silverman. I arranged for meetings and social affairs at my home where we dispensed refreshments and propaganda in return for cash. To these gatherings Harriet began bringing many well-dressed, sophisticated Communists. There were doctors and lawyers and businessmen among our new guests, and there were always a few functionaries of the Party, like Harriet, threadbare and with an ascetic and dedicated air that made the rest of us feel how much more they must be giving than we, the petty bourgeoisie. Other communist types also came, such as men and women in the arts - singers, musicians, dancers, who visited us between acts at night clubs or theaters and added a touch of glamor.
Mingled with these bourgeois elements was another group of Communists who lent a different kind of glamor to the assembled group. These were the real proletarians — longshoremen, painters, plumbers, shipping clerks, and sailors. The young college instructors who were the ostensible sponsors of these meetings were given a feeling of participating with the real forces of life. In this rubbing of elbows of Ph.D.s and plumbers’ helpers there was a leveling of distinctions. The common ground on which we met was that the past of society had been bad, the present was corrupt; and the future would be worth while only if it became collective.
Unemployed councils were being set up on a countrywide basis. In New York the Ex-Servicemen’s League, which had organized the bonus march to Washington, was especially active. In working with this group on a program for relief and social security I began to meet some odd and interesting characters.
Perhaps Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW, a movement which had supposedly the opposite aims of communism. But in the early thirties all the people who were in unorthodox movements or who had lost their ties with society, whether muckrakers, syndicalists, anarchists, or socialists, were pulled along by the cyclonic fury of the organized communist movement. Without a positive program of their own they were drawn into the vortex of the well-integrated, well-financed movement which was suddenly legalized with the American recognition of the Soviet Union.
Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels. At his headquarters he interviewed the press and they found him good copy. Sometimes, I suppose, he put fresh courage in the hearts of his dispossessed citizens. He made them see themselves as a band of Robin Hoods and not as rejected failures.
In the process of preparing a country for revolution the Communist Party tries to enlist the masses. It seeks to enlist the unattached people, for they have little to lose and are the first to capitulate to organized excitement. But to Paddy freedom meant a great deal. He was willing to defend it with his fists. I doubt whether Paddy would long have served the communist world plan of slavery.
I heard one Party leader say of him: “He is a wonderful comrade to help make a revolution but after it is successful we are going to have to kill him because he would immediately proceed to unmake it.”
They did not have to kill him; another power did that. When World War II came, Paddy did not seek “union immunity”; he enlisted long before merchant ships had convoys or anti-aircraft guns for defense. His ship went down in burning oil and he with her. How he would have laughed to see the Government, at the insistence of his union and the communist press, name a liberty ship after him! For the Party was able to make use even of his memory to entrap others.
There were many others besides Paddy who were caught up in the Party either from need or desire. They included the unemployed councils, the fighters against fascism, the foreign-born, and the racial and religious minorities who came under its spell. Even today I can understand the attraction it had for the intellectual proletariat. It was as if a great family welcomed them as members.
I often marveled at the sacrifices made by these Communist Party members. In my classes at Hunter were Young Communist Leaguers who would go without lunch to buy paper and ink and other items for propaganda leaflets. Their emaciated faces made my heart ache. Their halfhearted participation in their studies, their frequent cutting of classes, their sacrifice of academic standing to fulfill some task assigned them, were sad to see. I saw college girls exploited by cold Party hacks. They were expendable, and in their places would come other wide-eyed, eager young people with a desire for sacrifice.
I remember especially an Irish “Catholic” girl, an organizer of the unemployed and a leader of mass demonstrations. Helen Lynch was tubercular, but she never stopped working for the Party until she died. Then the Communists claimed her as a martyr.
It was true that it was an infectious thing, this comradeship, for so often it helped in dire need such as Rent Parties where Communists gathered money to pay the rent of some comrade. This sort of personal aid did much to overcome the doctrinaire aridity of orders by the “functionaries,” the title given the bureaucrats, the skeleton staff which stands ready to take over when the Revolution comes to pass.
At Hunter I continued active in the Instructors Association to better the economic conditions of the college teachers. Soon I was invited by a number of communist teachers to attend meetings on lower Fifth Avenue where I met top executives of the so-called Class Room Teachers Association. Ostensibly this was a grass-roots movement of teachers, but they were being taught the techniques of mass action and were carefully organized on the basis of the class-struggle philosophy. They were a disciplined band secretly associated with the Trade Union Unity League led by William Z. Foster.
The Class Room Teachers had two tasks: to convert a considerable number of teachers to a revolutionary approach to problems, and to recruit for the Communist Party as many members as possible. Some of these teachers were also members of the Teachers Union Local 5 of the American Federation of Teachers and therein they formed an organized minority opposition to the prevailing noncommunist leadership.
Like all Red unions of the early thirties, the Class Room Teachers Association helped give publicity to the bread-and-butter problems acute at the time. There were many unemployed teachers in the city and a large number of substitute teachers who were hired by the Board of Education at a low daily wage year in and year out. On such issues the Red organization capitalized while the conservative organizations were too inept to act.
The Class Room Teachers sent mass delegations to the Board of Education. It issued attacks against the officials of the city and jibed at the then-respectable Teachers Union under the leadership of Lefkowitz and Linville. Teachers such as Celia Lewis, Clara Richer, and Max Diamond emerged as leaders of the Red minority within the A. F. of L. Teachers Union. By organizing the unemployed teachers and fighting to have them in the Union, it became clear that before long the Teachers Union would be controlled by the Reds.
I did not become a Communist overnight. It came a little at a time. I had been conditioned by my education and association to accept this materialistic philosophy. Now came new reasons for acceptance. I was grateful for communist support in the struggles of the Instructors Association. I admired the selfless dedication of many who belonged to the Party. They took me into their fraternal circle and made me feel at home. I was not interested in any long-range Party objectives but I did welcome their assistance on immediate issues, and I admired them for their courage. Most of all I respected the way they fought for the forgotten man of the city. So I did not argue with them about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which they talked about, or about its implications.
Of course some of my friends were unhappy about my new course. One day when Ruth Goldstein and I were walking down Sixty-eighth Street she spoke bitterly about my new affiliations.
“You are getting too involved, Bella,” she said. “You will get hurt. Wait and see!”
I laughed at her. “Oh, Ruth, you are too concerned about promotions and tenures. There are other things in life.” “What about this one-party system that they favor?” she demanded.
“Well, you know we really have only a one-party system in America right now,” I retorted. “Remember the Harvard professor who says that both political parties resemble empty bottles with different labels?”
Ruth continued arguing and I finally said: “Oh, Ruth, I am only interested in the present. What the Communist Party says about the future is not important to me. The sanity of the American people will assert itself. But these people are about the only ones who are doing anything about the rotten conditions of today. That is why I am with them, and,” I ended truculently, “I will stay with them.”
Of course I was not the only American who thought one could go along with the good things the Communists did and then reject their objectives. It was a naive idea and many of us were naive. It took a long time for me to know that once you march with them there is no easy return. I learned over the years that if you stumbled from weariness they had no time to pick up a fallen comrade. They simply marched over him.
The saddest situation I saw in the Party were the hundreds of young people eager to be used. And the Party did use this mass of anonymous people for its immediate purposes. And so young people were burned out before they could reach maturity. But I saw, too, how inexhaustible was the supply of human beings willing to be sacrificed. Much of the strength of the Party, of course, is derived from this very ruthlessness in exploiting people.
On various occasions I was approached to join the Party as a regular member. When I agreed to do so I learned to my surprise that Harriet Silverman had put a stop to it. I was her contact; she said she had taken the matter up with “the center” and it was decided I was not to join. I must riot be seen at secret Party gatherings. Harriet would give me Marxist literature and my instructions. I was not to be known as a Communist.
I had never indulged in double dealing. It seemed to me that if I agreed with the Party the best way to show it was by joining it. However, I reluctantly accepted discipline. Since I knew something of the struggle to organize the labor movement in America, by analogy the Party began to represent in my thinking an organization of workers who were likewise being hounded by men of wealth and power.
I could not at that time know, as I did later, how men of wealth use the communist movement to bend workers to their will. So I quite willingly adopted the clichés about secrecy being necessary because of the brutality and savagery of the working-class enemies. I soon learned that the members exposed to the public were not the important Communists.
Harriet consoled me about my status in relation to the Party, saying I must be saved for real tasks and must not at this time be exposed. So I became not a member of an idealistic group of which I was proud, but the tool of a secret, well-organized world power. Harriet brought me literature, took the financial contributions I collected, gave me orders.
One day I ran by chance into one of our neighbors, Christopher McGrath, now the Surrogate of Bronx County. I remembered him as a boy on our street who had pulled my hair when I was a child. At the time of this chance meeting he was married and was chairman of the Education Committee of the Assembly for that year.
We chatted about old times, and I asked his aid with our instructors. He was willing to help. Of course he knew nothing of my communist sympathy. Next day at his office we drafted a bill on college teachers’ tenure which he promised to introduce the following Monday night.
I was surprised at the speed of this and even more at the speed with which word of the bill got around the Hunter College campus. Soon afterward I was called down to President Colligan’s office and learned that our bill had given tenure to everybody on the staff except the President!
We reworked the bill and eventually the new form satisfied the President, too, and now included professors, instructors, and other college personnel. But the interesting thing was the way I was now looked up to on my campus. In those days teachers were far removed from the legislative process and knew little of it and regarded it as a beneficent kind of black magic.
The fight to pass this bill gave new impetus to the citywide organizations of college teachers. I had some stormy sessions in my home with communist representatives from the three city colleges. We argued until late into the night about amendments. This matter of having to argue with pettifogging perfectionists was to become a common experience in communist life; reports and resolutions were always prepared by a group and the comrades fought over each word so as to achieve an exactitude of political expression.
However, as a result of our combined efforts, the tenure bill was passed and the joint Instructors Associations held a victory luncheon at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The bill was signed in due course by Governor Lehman.
I now found myself regarded as a legislative expert. My success served to catapult me into a new post, that of legislative representative of the Teachers Union Local 5. I was now an officer of an A.F. of L. union and for this reason more important to the Party.