[Marxism] Can Communists be good Americans?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 28 11:55:02 MDT 2019

Letters to the editor in today's NY Times Book Review section. The 
review they complain about is at the bottom.

American Communists
To the Editor:

Kevin Baker’s review of David Maraniss’s “A Good American Family: The 
Red Scare and My Father” (July 14) ends with Baker trying to puzzle out 
why in the world any “great American spirit” would be drawn to joining 
the Communist Party. After more than three decades of serious treatment 
by acclaimed historians and nonfiction writers, from Robin D. G. Kelley 
to Vivian Gornick, this subject is hardly one of life’s great mysteries.

Aside from being at the cutting edge of civil rights throughout the 
first half of the 20th century, American communism offered people like 
Maraniss’s father — working-class children of Jewish immigrants — the 
priceless feeling that they had become more than the sum of their life’s 
parts. But as historians of United States social movements, we know that 
communism did much more than light a fire in people’s imaginations: 
Scratch the surface of any significant progressive movement in this 
country over the last 100 years and you will find participants with ties 
to American communism. Instead of “dreary Russian dogma,” communism, for 
most Americans involved, was about committed and effective grass-roots 

Lana Dee Povitz
James Goodman
New York

The writers are, respectively, a visiting assistant professor of history 
at Middlebury College and a distinguished professor of history at 
Rutgers University, Newark.


To the Editor:

In his review of David Maraniss’s account of his parents’ involvement 
with the American Communist Party, Kevin Baker asks, “Just what were his 
parents, and especially his father, doing in the Communist Party in the 
first place?”

My parents were also involved in the Communist Party in the same time 
period. They joined because the party was one of the only organizations 
in the country fighting for civil rights, for a fair shake for working 
people and for many other causes of justice. When they finally 
understood the evils perpetrated by Stalinism, they left the party and 
continued to be active in civil rights and peace efforts. Their 
motivation, like that of so many thousands of others — including, I 
imagine, David Maraniss’s parents — is not hard to understand.

Jerry Rubin
Jamaica Plain, Mass.


To the Editor:

We’re wondering what thinking went into having Kevin Baker review David 
Maraniss’s book about his father’s experience with McCarthyism. Baker’s 
apparent cluelessness about why Americans joined the Communist Party, 
what being a Communist meant and the experience of being subject to the 
McCarthy fever seems a bit surprising.

It was this sentence especially that should at least have been 
questioned: “Throughout their long marriage Mary insisted on buying the 
homes the family lived in — strange behavior for an avowed communist.” 
Wait. What? It’s almost as though Baker got his idea from some of those 
old movies about the “red menace.”

Janice and Kenneth Bailey
Portland, Me.


A Son’s Memoir of His Father’s Radical Beliefs, Pursuit by the F.B.I. 
and Ardent Love for America
By Kevin Baker

The Red Scare and My Father
By David Maraniss
416 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

“Think of this story as a wheel,” David Maraniss writes in an author’s 
note at the beginning of his new book, “A Good American Family.” “The 
hearing in Room 740 is the hub where all the spokes connect.”

Room 740 in Detroit’s Federal Building was where Maraniss’s father, 
Elliott, was summoned to appear before the notorious House Un-American 
Activities Committee (HUAC) one day in 1952, to answer charges that he 
was a member of the Communist Party. Simply being subpoenaed to appear 
had already cost Elliott his job, and his refusal to cooperate with the 
committee’s questions would force him into years of desperate struggle 
to keep his family afloat.

Elliott Maraniss was no atomic spy or government mole. He was a rewrite 
man at The Detroit Times, a World War II vet with a wife and three kids. 
HUAC had come to Detroit hoping to find communists in the United Auto 
Workers, a powerful liberal institution; people such as Elliott and his 
wife’s brother, Bob Cummins, were just “collateral damage,” expected to 
make “a few acts of repentance and contrition” — bow their heads and 
name names of old friends and comrades in the ongoing theater of the Red 
scare. If they didn’t, they were dismissed after a brief interrogation 
with their lives in tatters. Elliott was not even permitted to read a 
prepared statement, though he was allowed to file it with the committee.

Now, David Maraniss, in his “long overdue attempt to understand what had 
happened to my father and our family and the country during what has 
come to be known as the McCarthy era,” has unearthed that statement, and 
that moment. A winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in journalism and one of 
our most talented biographers and historians, Maraniss has used his 
prodigious research skills to produce a story that leaves one aching 
with its poignancy, its finely wrought sense of what was lost, both in 
his home and in our nation. It is at the same time a book that, like his 
family, never gives in to self-pity but remains remarkably balanced, 
forthright and unwavering in its search for the truth.

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David’s father was “a liberal but undogmatic optimist,” whose mantra was 
“It could be worse.” He loved baseball and literature and funny songs; 
he once wrote a column under the moniker “the Ol’ Railbird”; and he had 
an abiding passion for nearly everything to do with the American 
heartland. He was, his son tells us, a brilliant newspaperman but also a 
constant “force for good … not only in my life and those of my 
siblings,” but also in the lives of everyone he knew.

So how does such a man end up writing Soviet propaganda under a fake 
name for The Michigan Worker? “I can appreciate his motivations, but I 
am confounded by his reasoning and his choices,” Maraniss confesses.

Elliott was the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Latvia, a Boy 
Scout who grew up in Coney Island, an outstanding student and editor of 
the school paper at Abraham Lincoln High School — a place almost painful 
to behold in its glowing idealism and dedication to learning, even in 
the midst of the Depression. A fellow student was Arthur Miller, whose 
own encounters with communism and the Red scare are another “spoke” 
connected to Room 740. Like Miller, Elliott went on to the University of 
Michigan, then “in one of its own golden periods” of scholarship, where 
he discovered his great love for the Midwest.

He also encountered a key influence on his political development: 
17-year-old Mary Cummins, a wisp of a girl with strawberry blond hair 
and deeply held radical convictions. The Cumminses were another 
remarkable American family, originally dirt-poor Kansas homesteaders 
living in a one-room dugout cut out of a hillside. Mary’s father was a 
civil engineer who couldn’t afford to finish his degree, but made enough 
money to drive a Cadillac and send his five children to college. The 
courtship of Elliott and Mary included strolls through Ann Arbor to gaze 
at a “little blue house on Stadium Boulevard” they dreamed of owning one 
day. Throughout their long marriage Mary insisted on buying the homes 
the family lived in — strange behavior for an avowed communist.

By 1939, as editorial director of The Michigan Daily, Elliott was 
defending the monstrous Stalin-Hitler pact that triggered World War II — 
a stance that outraged and mystified many of his readers and friends, as 
well as his son, who calls it one of Elliott’s “indefensible positions.” 
When the war reached the United States, Stalin was back on the side of 
the Allies and both Maranisses threw themselves into the struggle. 
Elliott enlisted, while Mary helped build B-17s, and advocated for civil 
rights at her plant.

Rising to the rank of captain, Elliott was put in charge of a black 
salvage-and-repair company in the still segregated Army, arriving in 
Okinawa in July 1945, just after the terrible battle there. He excelled 
in his position, and the experience seemed to fill him with patriotic 
ardor. He wrote passionately to his wife about Franklin Delano 
Roosevelt, General MacArthur and especially Dwight Eisenhower, whom he 
would later admit to having voted for in 1952. He always harbored, it 
seemed, a desire to belong to a wider America, even as he saw its 

Unbeknown to Elliott, though, his assignment to command black troops was 
the end result of a desire by military intelligence, wary of his 
“communistic” tendencies, to exclude him from sensitive work while in 
the Army. Before his file was finally sealed, some 14 F.B.I. agents 
would interview 39 “confidential informants” about him. Their 
investigation would culminate in Room 740, but it would not end there. 
Even after HUAC had finished with him, the F.B.I. sent agents to 
interview Elliott’s employers whenever he got a job, knowing it would 
likely cost him the position. The consequence was a series of agonizing 
sojourns back and forth across the country, as Elliott sought to find 
and keep gainful employment, badly straining his family and his nerves.

“A Good American Family” is intercut with Maraniss’s deep dives into the 
lives and backgrounds of all those other “spokes,” before, during and 
after the hearing in Room 740 — an effort to explore one congressman’s 
amazement that even some communists hailed from “good American 
families.” Here are his father’s radical friends who went to fight (and 
die) in Spain, along with his lawyer, fellow witnesses, the professional 
informer — a five-foot grandmother and high school dropout — who had 
ratted out Elliott, along with the prosecutor and leading inquisitors on 
the committee. Maraniss is able to spare some sympathy for the corrupt, 
drunken Democratic chairman of HUAC at the time, Representative John 
Stephens Wood, an inveterate racist with an appalling secret in his past 
— whose society wife would have little to do with him after she 
discovered his Cherokee ancestry.

This is, in the end, a fascinating confluence of America, and if the 
story drags in places — we don’t really need to know that there were 
17,000 varieties of American apple by 1905 — more often one is bowled 
over by the vibrancy of that vanished nation. It’s a world where David’s 
sister listens to a new song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and the 
family watches mesmerized as exquisite lines of Detroit cars appear 
every summer. Elliott’s wanderings take him to an Iowa newspaper that 
grew out of a strike by union typographers. Later, he sees his revered 
new publisher, William T. Evjue of The Capital Times, in Madison, 
talking and laughing in his office with Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd 
Wright. Did we ever live in such an America? Did we just dream it?

After a long travail, Elliott and Mary Maraniss and their children would 
come through, buoyed by their unflagging optimism and faith. 
(Remarkably, the book’s cover photo, of the Maranisses posing in front 
of the Statue of Liberty, was taken after Elliott’s ordeal in Room 740.)

For all of Maraniss’s research, a mystery remains at the heart of “A 
Good American Family”: Just what were his parents, and especially his 
father, doing in the Communist Party in the first place? This is a 
question Maraniss cannot answer, because his parents, for one reason or 
another — shame? embarrassment? an effort to spare their children? — 
rarely spoke of it. About the furthest his father would go was to admit 
that he had been “stubborn in his ignorance about the horrors of the 
Soviet Union.” But this gives us little insight into how this great 
American spirit ended up stuffing himself into a closet of dreary 
Russian dogma.

In the end, even in the best of families, some things remain secret.

Kevin Baker is currently finishing a book on the history of New York 
City baseball.

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