A Communist in Mecca

Scene: Peggy Dennis, a Communist activist, arrives in Moscow on Party orders to join her husband, who had fled there months before, also on Party orders, to escape a prison sentence in America.

Our train slowly crossed the border onto Soviet soil. With face pressed against the window, heart pounding, I hugged Tim tightly in my arms and my eyes blurred with tears. High above, the wooden arch through which our car moved proclaimed: “Workers of the World Unite.” I was in mecca.

When the uniformed border control with the Red Star insignia on their fur hats came to collect passports, I barely resisted giving them the clenched fist salute. I wanted to hand them my Party identificationa more fitting entry permit into the Land of Socialism.

Reunion with Gene, awaited so eagerly, was almost eclipsed by my excitement at being in Moscow. I wandered the streets at every opportunity. Every detail had special significance: the broken, cobblestoned sidewalks and boarded-up empty storessymbols of a painful past; Red Army platoons marching down the street, lustily singing revolutionary songssymbol of a land where the people’s army had triumphed. I smiled broadly at every beshawled peasant woman shuffling by in her knee-high, shapeless, stiff felt boots, the valenki I was soon to wear. I wanted to clasp the hand of each man and woman I passed. I wanted to shout “tovarich!” to all Moscow. Six thousand miles from home, I was Home. Here everything was truly “nahsh”ours, everyone was “nahsh braht”our brothers. After the last two years, the exhilaration at being one of the working class ruling majority was particularly gratifying.

Being an outsider, I sentimentalized the harsh realities of daily life. Life was tough and elemental that winter of 1931. Each day was a struggle to survive–personally, economically, politically. Stalin had declared: “We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in ten years or we shall be crushed.” The socialist countries which were to follow could afford a slower pace; the first socialist state could not.

The First Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize a backward, underdeveloped giant was being compressed into four years. The rest of the world, floundering in economic crisis, scoffed at this mad dream. Even more unrealistic, they said, was Moscow’s insistence that socialism would achieve this miracle of industrial growth without private foreign capital investment. There were no Italian Fiat plants in 1931, only the first Soviet AMO auto plant. There were no U.S. banks with branch offices in Moscow. Capital investment was squeezed out of a Soviet people who for many years were ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fedbuilding for the future.

Yet even in those lean years there existed the concept of social benefits as an individual right. Free medical clinics, child care centers in factories, free education, rest homes, infinitesimally low rentsthese were available to all. Back in the States twenty million were out of work, millions more were hungry and homeless, social security was a revolutionary demand being fought for in the streets.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

Private foreign capital investment is one matter; private foreign capital support, in the manner of Olof Aschberg, is another. (Speaking of Olof Aschberg, Peggy Dennis isn’t the only Communist to have inherited the cause from her parentshere’s what Aschberg’s grandson is up to these days.)

But that’s beside the point.

Read the excerpt closely. Take note of all the social dynamics at work.

Aren’t humans interesting?

As for her claim that she was “one of the working class ruling majority”, she later writes:

Exhilarated at living in this international milieu, I was slow to realize that we were completely isolated from ordinary Soviet life. We did not even know any Soviet persons, except for Boris and Bob who lived in the Luxe and worked in the Comintern with Gene. All of the comrades living there and working at the Comintern were divorced from Soviet life. We were living in Moscow, but were not a part of it. No one could give me a plausible reason why this was so; no one I knew seemed to really care that it was so. …

Boris and [his wife] Musa had recently returned from Comintern assignment in China and Bob and [his wife] Valerie had been to India. The discussions in our room ranged from their experiences abroad to our asking them questions about Soviet life. But they were not typical Soviet citizens and our isolation was not lessened by them.

Upon our return to Moscow in 1937, we could find no trace of them. No one would or could tell us anything. During my third return trip in 1941, I saw Valerie walking towards me on Gorky Street. I started to greet her warmly, but she passed me with a slight flicker of recognition. Insisting upon answers from comrades, I was told that Bob had been executed and Valerie, only recently released from prison, carefully stayed away from all foreign comrades. I was told for her sake to leave her alone. We never heard anything at all about Boris and Musa. In the purges of the Comintern in 1937 and 1938, the very international activity and foreign travel demanded by the Comintern became the basis of charges of “foreign agent” that sent hundreds of Soviet and European Comintern workers to labor camps and firing squads.

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4 responses to “A Communist in Mecca

  1. soapjackal July 17, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for that. It is a necessity to read and try to understand, if not why, how such a monstrous thing as communism functioned in that place. This quote was particularly provoking:

    “Every detail had special significance: the broken, cobblestoned sidewalks and boarded-up empty stores—symbols of a painful past; Red Army platoons marching down the street, lustily singing revolutionary songs—symbol of a land where the people’s army had triumphed”

    This does not appear to be a positive observation. Sounds more like the first line in a dystopian work.

  2. Pingback: A Communist in Mecca | Reaction Times

  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/07/19) | The Reactivity Place

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