Red diapers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 10 18:36:05 MST 1999

Published by H-Pol at (November, 1999)

Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, ed.  _Red Diapers: Growing Up in the
Communist Left_.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1998.  320
pp. Glossary. $49.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-252-06725-8.

Reviewed for H-Pol by Jennifer D. Keene <keene at>, Department
of History, University of Redlands

Historians, students, and the general public will all enjoy the
fascinating array of personal narratives Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro have
compiled in _Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left_.  Kaplan and
Shapiro ask what it meant to grow up as the American children of communist
activists.  Individual responses to this question generated the collection
of narratives compiled here.

A child's view of Marxist ideology, the close-knit radical community, and
the terror engendered by the state's persecution and harassment of their
parents proves riveting reading.  The book eschews the temptation to
classify one particular experience as "typical," though patterns
nonetheless emerge as the reader goes from one engrossing story to the
next.  The true success of this collection is its ability to retain the
integrity of individual experiences and showcase the humanity of those
involved in the twentieth century Communist movement, while at the same
time enabling a clearer portrait of the larger historical events and
trends to emerge.

In reading _Red Diapers_, one truly enters a different world.  Here, the
political is personal, the "right" are the Socialists, children join the
Young Pioneers instead of the Boy Scouts, and the FBI sits in an unmarked
car across the street.  These children grew up immersed in concern for
Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, and the Rosenbergs.  They spent
their summers together at cooperative communist camps, were kept out of
school by their parents on May Day, and learned all the songs in the
little Red Song Book by heart.  They lived in an integrated environment
where white and black activists met, socialized, and marched together.
The authors note with a touch of sadness the days of passing this radical
lineage from one generation to the next appear over with the demise of a
strong leftist movement in America.

The bulk of the red diaper baby stories focuses on the 1950s, but earlier
and later periods also receive their due.  Kaplan and Shapiro divide the
anthology into three sections.  The first, "Family Albums,"  explores the
daily lives of red diaper babies including relations with their parents,
the dual lives many children led trying to "fit in" with their peers in
school while spending their evenings and week-ends immersed in radical
activities, and their own judgements (as adults recalling their childhood)
of their parents' radical commitments.  The second, "Political Trauma as
Personal History," traces the effect of political persecution (arrests in
the middle of the night, constant surveillance by FBI agents, going
underground, fleeing the country, televised trials) on the children of
Communist activists.  The final section, "Claiming Our Heritage," explores
how red diaper children came to terms with their political upbringing.
This section reveals a generation at odds with their political heritage as
a result of the state's constant harassment of their parents and their own
parents' disillusionment with Communism in the wake of Khrushchev's
denunciation of Stalin in 1956.  This section tends to raise more
questions than it answers, and one misses the passion and idealism so
evident in earlier sections.  These adult children of former Communists
seem so much like us, leading respectable academic lives for the most
part, and for that reason their stories are less compelling.  The first
two sections, however, take the reader through an mesmerizing journey of
discovery into the recesses of the radical movement in America.

In "Family Albums," Sirkka Tuomi Holm explains the dual pressures felt by
many red diaper babies to conform.  Holm answers truthfully when a teacher
asks if there are any students who do not believe in God, and no one in
her public school speaks to her for the rest of the semester.  Convincing
her mother to transfer her to another school, Holm decides to keep quiet
when another teacher asks the same question of his class.  This time,
however, a boy on whom she has a crush denounces her before her Young
Pioneer after-school club mates by "...saying I was a coward in the face
of the enemy" (p. 38).  Her mother is crushed and humiliated before her
fellow communists.  Vowing to never be a coward again, Holm choses the
moment when a policemen is rushing towards her and her mother as they
picket with strikers outside a steel mill as the time to make her stand,
stepping in front of her mother to protect her.  The policeman stops dead
in his tracks and turns to hit another woman.  Holm feels redemption:
"Although I was scared, I thought, now I can make up for not raising my
hand in answer to the math teacher's question about God" (p.38).  Holm's
personal dilemma of the 1930s took on more sinister overtones by the 1950s
when the Second Red Scare was in full swing.  Now, parents taught their
children to conceal their identities to protect the family from
persecution under the Smith Act.  As teenagers, these red diaper babies
also felt extreme pressure not to get in trouble with school authorities
or the local police.  Even routine teenage pranks, they soon learned,
would become evidence for their parent's right-wing enemies to use when
charging them with undermining the moral fiber of American society.  Don
Amer's mother has no sympathy for a capitalistic giant like Woolworth, she
tells him when he confesses to shoplifting.  "'But,' she said, 'think of
what this would do to the important political work your father is doing if
it came out publicly that his son was a thief!'" (p. 240).

The key political event for red diaper babies in the 1950s was the
execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  For many this event triggered
their first immersion in political activism.  Marching in parades, signing
petitions, and writing letters developed a strong sense of connection to
the Rosenbergs.  Dorothy M. Zellner noted in some respects she "...cared
more for them than for some people in my life" (p.85).  A child's logic in
deducing the personal meaning of this event appears again and again.  "I
wondered who was taking care of Michael and Robby...I concluded that if
the Rosenbergs were in jail because they passed out leaflets, my mother,
who also passed out leaflets, might be arrested, too," recalls Miriam
Zahler (p. 206).  "I was terrified by the executions," Stephanie Allan
writes, "and frantic my parents would be killed." (p. 118).  The account
by one of the Rosenberg's children, Robert Meeropol, however, is strangely
unmoving.  Meeropol's contribution comes from a public speech.  It rings
with broad political pronouncements but reveals little of his personal
hardships as the most famous red diaper baby of all.  For this reason, his
reaction to his own parents' death seems somewhat detached, in sharp
contrast to the other accounts which evoke the passionate and emotional
reactions of children and teenagers experiencing their first
disillusionment and loss.

Two contributors, David Wellman and Miriam Zahler, use the government's
surveillance of their families to their own advantage, retrieving a copy
of their parent's police files under the Freedom of Information Act to
fill in the gaps apparent in a child's impressionistic and piecemeal
understanding of his parents' political activities.  For Wellman, the
files provided a startling realization.  The files focused on public
meetings and events, with scant detail of their daily lives.  His parents'
concerns over bugs in their dining room, taps of their phones, and
distrust of any stranger, proved groundless.  "We were experiencing and
internalizing state terror, an American version of totalitarianism,"
Wellman recalls of his family's fear that their every action and utterance
was being recorded by unseen and unknown forces (p.  174).  Rather than
accusing his parents of over-reacting, Wellman concludes their reactions
fit perfectly with the intentions of the Detroit Red Squad.  The police
became an ever-present force in their lives, Wellman asserts, because
"...the Detroit Red Squad was practicing state terrorism.  They were
trying to put the fear of police power in the minds of the people they
spied on.  To a large degree it worked" (p.  174).

The painful memories of childhood encompass more than fears of betraying
the family's communist convictions or nightmares the police would drag
away one's parents in the middle of the night.  As parents, the couples
portrayed here are a mixed lot.  Some are loving, caring parents but other
red diaper babies express anger and jealousy over their parents'
single-minded devotion to the cause of international revolution.  More
than a few cite their desire to win their parents' attention and love as
the reason for their interest in radical causes as they entered puberty.
Maxine DeFelice recounts the most disturbing story of how parental
obsession with radical causes sometimes blinded parents to their
children's needs.  With remarkable candor, DeFelice describes coming home
disheveled after being gang raped on her way from school, walking over to
her mother who was conducting a meeting in the living room, only to be
told " know better than to interrupt a meeting.  Go to your bedroom"
(p. 92).

Critiques emerge, not only of their parents' child rearing skills but also
of some of the doctrinaire and authoritarian impulses in the movement.
Mark Lapin contributes a wonderful short story to the collection in which
he, his sister, and her friend, Simone, play Party Meetings in his
sister's room.  Representing the rank and file, Mark knew he had to tread
carefully or risk being brought up on charges before the review committee
and the expelled if he answered poorly when asked to report on the
problems of the day such as the Woman Question or the Peace Question.
Asked to give an update on the Negro Question he replied:

"'The Negro Question's getting a lot better,' I said. 'Because before they
wouldn't even let Jackie Robinson play in the majors.  But now we've got
five Negroes just on the Dodgers alone.'...'I think we have to bring him
up on charges,' Vera said.  'White Chauvinism if I ever heard it,' nodded
Simone.  'Don't you know that even if they let Negroes play a stupid game
and get traded for money like slaves, they're still lynching them in the
south?' Vera asked me. 'Haven't you even read your own father's articles
on the Emmett Till case?' 'And what about Male Chauvinism?' said Simone,
waving her ruler at me.  'Did you ever stop to think that all your
precious ballplayers are men?' What about the plight of the colored
woman?' 'He's left deviationist and right opportunist both at the same
time,' said Vera.  'Clear cause for expulsion,' said Simone.  'Out,'
shouted Vera, pointing to the door.  'Most definitely and incontrovertibly
and irrevocably, out!'" (p. 138).

The other revelation of _Red Diapers_ concerns the strong community in
which most of these children grew up.  This "movement culture" reveals how
being a communist meant more than embracing a Marxist critique of
capitalist culture.  It also meant, in most cases, belonging to a
close-knit community who debated, celebrated, educated, and organized in
their social halls.  It is impossible to read _Red Diapers_ and not feel a
certain nostalgia for the days when leftists religiously attended the
Jefferson School in New York or the Labor Lyceum in Minneapolis to draw
inspiration and comradeship in their efforts to build a better world.

_Red Diapers_ is essential reading for all historians of twentieth century
America.  In addition, instructors will find this book useful in courses
devoted to American political history, the history of children, or the
history of radical movements.  Besides the specific contextual insights
offered into movement cultures and American-style state terrorism, Red
Diapers gives instructors the ability to guide students through the
process of weighing the usefulness and problems with memories as
historical evidence.

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Louis Proyect
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