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Old Left, New Left, Nothing Left

JUMPING THE LINE: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical.\o7 By William Herrick (University of Wisconsin Press: 308 pp., $21.95)\f7 ; STEAL THIS DREAM: Abbie Hoffman and the Countercultural Revolution In America.\o7 By Larry Sloman (Doubleday: 440 pp., $27.50)\f7 ; SLEEPING WHERE I FALL: A Chronicle.\o7 By Peter Coyote (Counterpoint: 368 pp., $26)\f7 ; RED STAR SISTER: Between Madness and Utopia. \o7 By Leslie Brody (Hungry Mind Press: 212 pp., $16 paper)\f7 ; IMAGES OF AMERICAN RADICALISM.\o7 By Paul Buhle and Edmund B. Sullivan (Christopher Publishing House: 462 pp., $60)\f7

October 11, 1998|J. HOBERMAN | J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice and author of "Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds" and "The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism" (forthcoming from Temple University Press)

Some years ago, I heard through the family grapevine that a young relative had renounced everything, including the religion of his fathers, for an obscure New Age sect. Despite myself I felt annoyed. You want to join a cult, fine--why not a useful one like the Communist Party?

The most seductive secular faith of the short 20th century was communism (in all its poignant, savage and self-deluded permutations). The appeal was not solely utopian. Communism promised to enlist its enthusiasts in a movement that had been ordained to make history--although, in the cases of the American Old and New Lefts, it could be said that the formula was reversed. It was history (the Great Depression, the Vietnam War) that made the movement.

The most militant American radicals of the 1930s put their lives on the line, and if those of the 1960s staked mainly their lifestyles, they were no less committed to the notion that the enlightened individual was capable of participating in a vast, transfiguring human drama. But history, so we have been told, ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and now, in the 1990s, the survivors--not just of their individual epochs but of this grandiose project--attempt to remake it, in the post-historical fashion, by writing their memoirs.

Crusty octogenarian William Herrick recalls his life in the Communist Party and his disillusioning tour of duty fighting what he believed would be the good fight in the Spanish Civil War; ex-hippies Peter Coyote and Leslie Brody recount their adventures in the communes and crash pads of Vietnam-era Amerikkka; '60s tummler Abbie Hoffman, no longer here to regale us with his own story, is evoked by some 200 witnesses in Larry Sloman's hefty oral history.

Hoffman, Coyote and Brody were all participants in what was called the counterculture. But as is made clear in Paul Buhle and Edmund B. Sullivan's lovingly assembled "Images of American Radicalism," the Old Left was a counterculture as well--devoted to organizing against fascism and for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, confronting the so-called Jewish and Negro Questions and (above all) protecting the Soviet Union. In its totality, this working-class response to the Great Depression was based in the Communist Party--with its summer camps, individual cause committees and theater groups--but its world-view was supported by Popular Front fellow-travelers and even supplemented by a variety of splinter parties and dissidents.

Prophecy in reverse, Herrick's "Jumping the Line" belongs to the familiar genre of Communist disillusionment: "I lived in Spain some nine months . . . under the eyes of commissars and Party strong arms. . . . I might very well have been living in what later became an Eastern European Communist dictatorship." And yet, the memoir is not exactly a repudiation. Herrick laments the wasted "talent and energy" as well as the ideological failure of American communism. "If we had been an indigenous democratic American party instead of a Russian party parading as American, I wonder how far we could have gone in changing our society."

Proudly unsentimental, Herrick renders the Spanish Civil War as a sinister, chaotic tragedy: Those "remaining in the trenches were protected by the heaped dead bodies of the Bronx Young Communist League." The sardonic, assertively vernacular, workingman tone is a recognizable Old Left voice, and for archeologists, his book is a repository of Red gossip. While in Spain, Herrick has an affair with a beautiful older woman whom he discovers to be the first wife of the Hungarian Communist hero (and later martyr) Laszlo Rajk. The 22-year-old American received something more than amorous instruction when, after he casually questioned Soviet housing priorities (how's that for politically correct pillow talk?), his lover reported him to the chief of security. He received nothing stronger than a warning, but it was memorable. "One of the first lessons you learned when you joined a Party unit was the necessity for informing your organizer if one of your comrades uttered a critical word about the Party or the Soviet Union."

Herrick's heart of darkness is the tale, obliquely and painfully recounted, of three Lincoln comrades who fragged their disastrously inept commander during the bloody Brunete offensive. This visceral instance of the confusion and terror within the Republican forces is compounded by the additional irony that the incompetent commander was a black man. The story is a revelation that, as described by Paul Berman in his informative introduction, prompted a minor scandal and outraged denials among the surviving Old Leftists once Herrick broke his long silence in a 1986 interview that Berman published in the Village Voice.

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