Forty years after the Red Scare, American communism remains a subject of fascination and controversy. The latest book that seeks to illuminate the communist experience is "Loyalties" by Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who exposed the Watergate scandal, although lately, his amorous exploits have attracted more attention than his journalistic ones.
Touted as a comeback, "Loyalties" is not likely to restore Bernstein's literary reputation. Part memoir, part investigation of the human toll exacted by McCarthyism, "Loyalties" fails both as autobiography and as political analysis. The first half shuttles awkwardly between Bernstein's childhood and present--reduced here to his difficulties in writing the book. The second, more absorbing part describes the government hearings in which his father defended 500 public employees accused of disloyalty, but says little about the political commitment animating the Old Left.
Bernstein's parents were among the thousands radicalized during the 1930s. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Al Bernstein went to Washington and threw himself into the movement to unionize government workers. His wife, Sylvia, was drawn into left-wing politics by the Spanish Civil War. Both felt they were carrying out the principles of the New Deal.
The Bernsteins joined the Communist Party while living in San Francisco in 1942 and left (why is not explained) around 1947. Whether in the party or out, they spent their lives within the broad Old Left community. Both were interrogated by congressional committees and saw friendships shatter and job prospects disappear. For some years, Al Bernstein ran a Washington Laundromat; he later made a living as a fund-raiser for the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Growing up on the Old Left has been explored by many writers, most insightfully, perhaps, Jonah Raskin in "Out of the Whale." Their recollections highlight the double life of "red diaper babies," who played Little League and enjoyed rock parties even as they realized they were members of families that didn't quite "belong."
Most children of Communists eventually came to terms with their parents. Bernstein, however, cannot exorcise the "vast reservoir of anger" his upbringing created. His complaint is that political commitment diverts people from the day-to-day business of living. He sees the decision by his parents to join the party in 1942 (when it was at the peak of its popularity) as recklessly endangering the family's prospects, including his own--although he had yet to be conceived. Instead of organizing to save the Rosenbergs, his mother should have organized her "chaotic" household.
A rebel in the cause of normalcy, young Bernstein demanded that his parents join a country club and devoted his energy to an apolitical Jewish youth organization. He became completely and, it seems, permanently self-absorbed. Part of the problem with "Loyalties" is that Bernstein cannot relinquish center stage, even temporarily, to either his parents or his two sisters, who might have brought a different perspective to bear on his childhood.
In a way, Bernstein deserves credit for candor in offering so unflattering a self-portrait. But his self-investigation failed to yield self-understanding. It seems almost fitting that the son of California Communists played a central role in bringing down Richard Nixon. But it apparently never occurred to Bernstein that his relentless pursuit of Nixon was linked in any way to the injustices his parents suffered.
Bernstein seems slightly uncomfortable with his parents' fervent commitment to black rights, which led them to volunteer 7-year-old Carl for interracial sit-ins at Washington cafeterias. "Loyalties" reminds us of unsung heroes like Annie Stein, who organized those now forgotten demonstrations. But Bernstein never reflects on why it was that Communists took the lead in the pre-Martin Luther King civil rights movement.
If self-discovery eludes him, "Loyalties" does chronicle Bernstein's developing understanding of the politics of anti-communism. The Bernsteins' huge FBI file reveals the bureau as, among other things, a colossal waste of taxpayers' money. The 2,500 pages consist entirely of mapping the family's associations--who they visited and spoke with on the phone, which bookstores they frequented. At no point is there the slightest suggestion of disloyalty. Yet the FBI not only continued its surveillance for 30 years, but included the Bernsteins on a list of those to be herded into detention camps in a "national emergency."
Even more revealing are the records of the loyalty board hearings. Despite his Watergate investigations, Bernstein appears to have been genuinely shocked by the disregard for individual liberties and callous abuse of power by the Truman Administration. In this Kafkaesque world, the charge of "disloyalty" was never defined, and the defendant, denied the right to cross-examine his anonymous accusers, was presumed guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, as Truman's adviser Clark Clifford admitted to Bernstein, the President knew that no threat to internal security existed; the boards were established in 1947 to fend off Republican charges of being "soft" on communism.
This is Bernstein's real discovery. Throughout the book, he ponders whether to acknowledge his parents' party membership. Conservatives, argues Al Bernstein, would pounce on such an admission to justify McCarthyism--a prediction borne out by some reviews of "Loyalties." (Here, as elsewhere, Bernstein senior turns out to have a more penetrating understanding of American politics than his famous son.) Eventually, Carl realizes that his father is right about the witch hunts--the Communists' "crime" was not membership in a disloyal party but union organizing, civil rights work and other political activities. The target of McCarthyism was not a conspiracy to overthrow the government, but the legacy of the New Deal.
For all its flaws, "Loyalties" does drive home a truly subversive idea: Rather than a nest of spies, the Communist Party was an integral and honorable part of the American radical tradition.