Was That All There
Was to the Left?

Alice Kessler-Harris

In the wake of Pete Seeger’s death in January, eulogies, memorials, and obituaries routinely mentioned his youthful communist affiliation. The famous folk singer had, like many of his contemporaries in the world of arts and music, joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) as a young man. He did so in the late 1930s—a time when not to be a radical demonstrated a lack of social consciousness. By the late ’40s, tolerance for left-wing activity had disappeared, replaced by a bitter enmity between the United States and the Soviet Union that fueled fear amounting to panic about threats to the American way of life. Anything resembling socialism fell into the category of subversion. Nobody who had been red or even pink, not even Seeger, escaped the stain left by the revelation of the vicious deeds and rigid coercion that characterized Soviet Communism under Stalin.

To our knowledge, Seeger never formally withdrew from the Communist Party. He became a victim of McCarthyism in the ’50s, and was blacklisted for several years before he returned to popularity with the folk-music revival of the early 1960s. In the Party or out of it, Seeger continued to assert a utopian vision. He remained committed to socialist and social democratic values. And he used music in the folk tradition to rally the young and old to advocate for a shared commitment to justice. His causes began with trade unionism and moved through the civil rights movement to nuclear disarmament and to anti-war protest. In the 1970s, he embraced environmentalism. The recipient of a National Medal of Arts, Pete Seeger remained a man of the American Left, committed to making this world fairer, better, more equal. For this he was widely loved. Pete Seeger’s story is the tale of a good Left, one that stirred crowds to identify with social justice and moved individuals to protest and action.

Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens offers us a less comforting view of the Left. In his fictional world, the Communist Party is self-aggrandizing, deluded, bitterly factionalized, and torn by useless quarrels. Its continuing efforts to follow the lead of the Soviet Union tie the Party into knots. Its best instincts, including most especially anti-racism, succumb to the desire of leaders to control. Its rigidities render its most attractive causes (including support of the 1950s civil rights movement) ineffective. As Lethem has it in this sharp send-up of the 20th-century Left, even after its effective demise, the CPUSA cast a long shadow over its children and its children’s children. They were mothered, he tells us, “in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future.”

Pete Seeger Young Vs Old Album Cover / Scarlatti2004 / Flickr

Lethem describes the late ’50s folk music scene as an escape from the rigid rules of a fearful decade that offered only a confused “sketch for the better world that might be.” His passages recall the film Inside Llewyn Davis, which features an unfettered folk singer, eager for recognition in the coffee house culture of the period but without direction. Lethem imagines the free speech movement and the antiwar New Left as futile quests for self-realization rather than confrontations with a stifling culture. He dismisses feminism as little more than a meaningless search for women’s sexual freedom. Virginity, he asserts, was like an anchor, trailed around only to be “cast off before dawn.” He ridicules the dream of human rights as the source of much meaningless intervention in other people’s business.

Lethem’s greatest witticisms are reserved for affirmative action programs. Seen through the eyes of Cicero Lookins—a black, gay former protégé of white communist Rose Angrush Zimmer—affirmative action serve only to produce alienated and self-centered individuals. Lookins, himself a beneficiary of liberal largesse, has no loyalty to the community that enabled his successful incorporation into a white, heterosexual society. And finally, Lethem portrays a disorganized and purposeless Occupy movement as the only place where the grandchildren of the old Left can find peace.

That’s not to say that Lethem’s portrait doesn’t have a grain of truth or that the repeated barbs don’t strike home. Lethem is a very funny, very clever writer. He creates outrageous caricatures of left-wing commitment and mocks them until they disintegrate. His pen reduces communists to “moral bandits” who expel loyal party members even as they drink coffee from Meissen china. The folk musician emerges from coffee-house oblivion to become “an upstanding and engaged protest singer” with a record deal. Bohemian self-indulgence is revealed when one character tells another to stop singing about nameless black people and to feed the homeless living on the street downstairs. 

So effective is Lethem that dissident gardens leaves us wondering if that’s all there was to the American Left.

Lethem seems to harbor special animus towards the pacifism of Quakers. As Cicero describes them, they consist of “a bunch of neatened up, rustical hippies” who had emerged from the ’60s counterculture with full-time jobs. He mocks their search for the light as a vehicle of self-satisfaction, a way of turning their faith in disarmament and peace into an abstract struggle that ignores warring forces within. Women are metaphorically exhibited as communists, their ample breasts alternately described as, speckled, or “aflame with rage and inspiration” and as smothering those who resist women’s efforts at conversion and indoctrination. So effective is Lethem that Dissident Gardens leaves us wondering if that’s all there was to the American Left. If Lethem’s portrait of everything Left—communism, the New Left, the anti-war and anti-corporate left—is accurate, what then of all our utopian visions? Were they merely absurd?

Rose Angrush Zimmer, the book’s most resonant figure, seems to answer in the positive. Not much older than Seeger, who joined the party in the 1930s, Rose is the stereotypical loud-mouthed Jewish woman. She marries a fellow communist, and moves into a cooperative community in Queens. The apartment complex, Sunnyside Gardens, closely resembles the Allerton Avenue communities in the Bronx memorably recalled by Vivian Gornick in The Romance of American Communism, a work Lethem fully acknowledges. Rose’s daughter is born and raised in Sunnyside Gardens; Rose herself is expelled from the Party in a 1955 meeting that takes place on its grounds and unfolds in her kitchen. Rose has been sleeping with a black cop who is probably a Republican and definitely married. She accepts her expulsion angrily, believing it to have been engineered by a former lover who was jealous of her new relationship. Lethem is skeptical. “Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black,” he tells us, “but it wasn’t. It was between Commie and cop.”

“Banner for the Communist League of America.” Published in The Militant, 1934. / Wikipedia

Rose remains determined to pursue her visions of social justice in her own way. She denounces the Party for the petty tribune it has become and continues in her roles of block watcher and library monitor even though the Party no longer wants her there. She remains the die-hard party ideologue, filled with political rage, at the center of every protest and unable to come to terms with a vision that had died. She talks too much, sleeps around, even into old age, and can’t imagine compromise of any kind.

Known by allies as “the Red mayor of Sunnyside,” and by opponents as “the scourge of Sunnyside,” she becomes the community’s civic consciousness. Everyone relies on her to organize garbage pick-ups and plant the community gardens, but they also resent her bossiness.  In her loud voice, she berates those who litter, leave gates open, and mention Sputnik in a negative context. She also takes on the education of small Cicero Lookins (the child of the black police officer with whom she has a long affair), whom she educates to be smart, cynical and intellectual. But this seemingly altruistic effort has its own purposes. Rose, Lethem tells us, “reveled in the dismay and indignation generated by [Cicero’s] presence at her side, the outlandish enlistment of the black boy as the righteous commie-Jew divorcee’s right hand.” Cicero grows up to recollect the “warpages and loathings decorating [her] intelligence like thorns.” Redeeming Rose’s actions, reminding herself and readers that communism was American at its core, is the shrine to Abraham Lincoln that she keeps in her living room. 

Rose’s daughter Miriam distances herself from her mother as soon as possible. By the time she is 15 she chooses to sleep at the homes of friends. She absorbs much of Rose's underlying ideology of social justice, though not enough to satisfy her mother. When Miriam, aged 17 and already a “Queens College freshman-dropout,” brings home a boy to share her first experience of sex, her sexually liberated mother fights back. In a scene that captures the contradictions in Rose’s personality and resonates through the book, Rose demonstrates her despair by sticking her head in the oven and turning on the gas. Bewildered by Miriam’s nonchalance at the act, she emerges from the oven and then pushes her daughter into it, up to the shoulders. The scene captures the force of Rose’s personality, her overpowering ideological commitment that seems to have replaced love as the root of nurturance. Indeed, Lethem has drawn a Jewish mother who is stereotypical in her domineering pushiness but without an ounce of the love that the stereotype typically grants—not for the husband who abandons her, the daughter who chooses to go her own way, or the young son of the police officer whom she prepares for Ivy League success.

Miriam luckily grows up just in time to catch the first wave of the late 1950s hootenanny movement and to create a niche for herself and her folk-singer husband in the Greenwich Village of the 1960s, where they raise a son, Sergius, in communal living quarters that house like-minded souls. Sergius is left in the care of a Quaker boarding school when his parents depart for Sandinista-torn Nicaragua where they are killed on a night filled with folk music. What did they hope to accomplish there? Are they murdered by the rebel Sandinistas they have come to help, or by government troops?  We never find out. But the eight-year-old boy is left in the charge of his Quaker keepers, in part to keep him out of the hands of his grandmother, Rose.

If Lethem skewers Rose for her personality, he turns Miriam into an emblem of a New Left whose only vision is to oppose authority. 

If Lethem skewers Rose for her personality, he turns Miriam into an emblem of a New Left whose only vision is to oppose authority. Her politics are rooted in a search for freedom, antagonism to the corporate world, and a negation of material things. As a young married woman embedded in Greenwich Village’s beatnik community, she takes her mother’s protégé Cicero Lookins, then 13, to a chess café, where he loses badly. In proving to the boy (and to herself) that Rose is wrong about his talents, Miriam cruelly shatters his dreams. Once again, Lethem catches us by surprise. Even as she adopts a rebellious lifestyle, Miriam deliberately sabotages Rose’s hopes for the child in a way that reveals her own disillusionment with the Left. Her decision to disappear into revolutionary Nicaragua seems to have no purpose except to provide her husband with new material for his folk songs. Nor does 8-year-old Sergius, so readily abandoned, inherit any of his grandmother’s politics.

Sergius, raised in the Quaker school, goes on to become a singer himself. In his 40s, he sets out to make music out of what he imagines to have been a meaningful Left. Searching for his mother’s history and that of grandmother Rose, he comes across Cicero Lookins—now a relatively comfortable, tenured professor of literature and a self-described “triple token” (black, fat and homosexual) teaching at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Cicero has no patience for Sergius, or for the Left in any form. He is happy to have escaped from Rose’s clutches, cynical about the opportunities provided to him by the Princeton, Harvard education for which Rose’s careful attention to his intellect prepared him, and eager to put Sunnyside Gardens far behind him. But he does send Sergius off to visit his still-living grandmother. A few minutes into the visit, Sergius finds his stomach churning, and leaves, vomiting.

Women get the worst of it in this tale: Lethem writes into their characters all the cynicism and disillusionment that he imagines communism left behind. Rose, Miriam, and Miriam’s friend Stella Kim (a minor character who tries to keep Sergius from his grandmother) are all frustrated and frustrating figures. The men don’t get off easy either, but Lethem lavishes less attention on them and thus on their failings. Miriam’s husband is a well-meaning, somewhat wishy-washy character who has an unrequited faith in the music he writes and in the meaningless words that accompany it. Cousin Lenny, who, like Rose, cannot leave communism behind, continues to revere Rose as the “last communist.” He loses his life in a meaningless shooting. Cicero, the policeman’s son, achieves the Ivy League for which Rose has prepared him, only to despise the home from which he came and Rose, who pushed him out of it.

Occupy Wall Street / Paul Stein / Flickr

The world that Lethem draws effectively captures the factionalism and pettiness of the old Left, and its often mindless ideological suasion. It pours well-deserved scorn on the often mechanical search for utopia that has characterized the American Left. And yet, more than once, I wondered sadly if this was how the American Left would be seen by history. Were we, and all our progeny, simply the laughingstock of the 20th century? 

This isn’t to say that the American Left did not demonstrate generous quantities of the qualities that Lethem finds so amusing. But were we quite as absurd as Lethem represents us? Acknowledging the short-sightedness of a hardcore group that continued to justify the murderous behavior of the Soviet Union, can we so easily wipe out the contributions of diverse and diffuse utopian visionaries of all kinds? After all, generations of young people sang the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to their children, and in the process imbued in them a residue of brotherhood and community. Over the years, the left has not been without significance or accomplishment. Abolitionists who spearheaded the movement to abolish slavery; feminists who fought for women’s property rights and the vote; social democrats who compromised with politicians to achieve the New Deal: all these and more are achievements of visionaries and utopians. 

As well, we can attribute at least some of the courage and unity and national momentum that inspired the continuing movement for African American civil rights to men and women of the Left who founded the Highlander school and helped to organize protest marches? What about the fight to end the questionable war in Vietnam? Surely its momentum, if not its successful conclusion, drew strength from a left-wing spirit to which youthful leaders were indebted, even as they rebelled against it. Arguably, too, the second wave women’s movement, following on the heels of civil rights and long before Occupy, reminded the nation that equality and democracy were among its most desired, and yet elusive, goals. Of all these, Lethem tells us nothing. Let us then respect, even admire, Lethem’s skill as we remember that Dissident Gardens reflects the stance of a narrow portion of the American Left, whose wider and much more positive influence we have yet to fully appreciate.