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COLUMN ONE : Gus Hall: Never Say Capitalism : The longtime leader of U.S. Communists keeps a stiff upper lip as, all around him, turmoil in the socialist world gives him ideological whiplash.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anonymous in a city of limousines, a chauffeur-driven Chevrolet sedan arrives each morning at a weathered seven-story building in Manhattan’s Chelsea section. The old man who emerges, a rumpled figure in cardigan sweater and knit tie, ambles inside, passing knots of aged workers, then rides a shuddering elevator to the top floor.

Once inside his wood-veneer vault of an office, Gus Hall, the patriarch of American communism, renews his lifelong struggle with capitalism under the frozen glare of Marx and Lenin.

The painted portraits were gifts to Hall, national chairman of the Communist Party U.S.A., from old comrades, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, now dead, and East German party boss Erich Honecker, recently toppled. Once, the three men gathered each year at international congresses as the dominant forces in their national parties. Only Hall, yearning for communism’s good old days, remains.

U.S. party chairman for 30 years, longer than any living world Communist leader, the 79-year-old Hall has never wavered from the official line. Undaunted by his shrunken ranks of American Communists, the ceaseless scrutiny of FBI agents and his party’s slow fade from public enemy to historic relic, Hall always has been able to turn to the Eastern Bloc for ideological consistency.

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Now, as epic turmoil in the communist world alters the party line almost daily, Hall and his fellow functionaries show signs of ideological whiplash. Straining to keep up, they praise change in the Soviet Union, but cautiously denounce its results. The rapid pace of upheaval has left them fumbling for answers, alternately blaming the exodus of East Germans on microwave ovens, expensive gasoline and rampant nudity on West German television. Even within their own party, Hall and his circle of elders face efforts by younger cadres and former members to align themselves with Eastern Europe’s pro-democracy movement.

“They want gadget socialism, videotapes, microwave ovens, computers, all kinds of gadgets,” Hall mutters about the disloyal East Germans, then tries to put a positive spin on communism’s troubles. “These pent-up feelings will pass,” he assures a radio talk show host calling from Chicago. “Communism is the next stage of human society--and that includes the United States.”

The insults to the monolithic and fraternal world movement that Gus Hall once knew have come in a dizzying rush: East German border guards now call each other “Mister” instead of “Comrade.” Saatchi & Saatchi advertising posters have sprouted on what remains of the Berlin Wall. Once-potent national Communist parties are dissolving; Hall’s counterpart in Italy wants followers to drop the very word Communist from their organization’s name.

“It has to be frightening to him to realize that he can no longer use the Soviet Union as the star to steer his course,” said Matthew Hallinan, a former top U.S. Communist official who now urges old comrades to defect to a new movement. “I don’t think Gus or any of his circle has a clue about how to deal with it.”

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For public consumption, Hall backs Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his troubled reforms as “changes that needed to be made.”

He may yearn for the days of Leonid Brezhnev as “the best time of Soviet leadership,” but Gus Hall is no fool. In a prominent spot on the wall behind his desk, he keeps a framed photograph of himself sharing a laugh with Gorbachev.

Yet it is the author of glasnost himself, according to Hallinan and other former U.S. Communists, who provided the most galling moment of all. Hall, a tireless traveler to international party congresses, sought to meet with Gorbachev during his most recent stay in Moscow--a favor usually accorded him in his role as America’s Communist patriarch.

This time, according to ex-Communists with contacts inside the party, Hall was rebuffed.

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“Gorbachev didn’t have the time for him,” said Hallinan, once the party’s national education secretary. “From the reports I heard, Gus ended up meeting with some functionary from the American section (of the Soviet bureaucracy). As you might expect, he raised hell.”

A genial man with the thick hands of the genuine proletarian he once was and the stolid bearing of a small-town burgher, Hall dismisses these accounts of internal troubles as “the big lie. Communism is not terminal and neither are we.” The movement’s chaos, he adds, is “a short-term adjustment.”

Since 1927, when he joined the U.S. Communist Party after stints as a lumberjack and ironworker, Gus Hall has built a career of such adjustments.

Over the party’s more than 70-year history, many American Communists grew disillusioned with constant ideological corrections, either quitting or ending up expelled after each new spasm. But Gus Hall stayed the course, enduring and rationalizing the Moscow show trials, Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler, the McCarthy era, Khrushchev’s rebuke of Stalin, Brezhnev’s internal repression and the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

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The ultimate loyalist knows no other life. Policies may change, coalitions may fraction, communism itself may be fraying. But the ordered routine of America’s top Communist proceeds--for now--as if has for three decades.

Hall is driven each day from his home in a bourgeois Yonkers neighborhood, where he grows organic vegetables and paints pictures of woodpeckers in his spare time. The perquisites, he says, were forced on him years ago. The house, which cost $21,000 when he bought it in 1969, was necessary because no landlord “would rent to a Communist leader.” The sedan and chauffeur were provided to him by the party after the New York state Legislature revoked his license in a fit of red-baiting pique. Since then, he has recovered the license. But driver and car--now equipped with cellular phone--continue to be necessary, Hall says, for “security reasons.”

After reading the usual “capitalist house organs,” Hall faces long days of lectures, meetings and media appearances. Talks with party officials are booked in restaurants and hotel rooms to discourage FBI wiretaps. “We always assume they are snooping on us,” Hall said.

Interviews require less caution. Eager for exposure, Hall is a frequent guest on radio shows and a regular on the party’s own cable broadcast, “People Before Profit.” His press aide, Carole Marks, advertises party officials’ availability in a national speakers’ directory, urging bookers who want to “make your airwaves crackle” to present “real, live Communists on your show!”

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Hardly a firebrand, the watery-voiced Hall has appeared on the Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael programs to explain the party’s views of communist change. “They know if they want the Communist point of view, they can get it from the horse’s mouth,” Hall says.

But his hard-won air time has been overshadowed by the ready access provided to slicker Communist personalities like “Nightline” regular Vladimir Pozner and Gennady Gerasimov, a spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Hall does not hide his jealousy.

He claims that he was the original author of Gerasimov’s now-famous “Sinatra doctrine” line about Eastern Europe (“We let them do it their way”) and criticizes Russians “who come here giving a false picture of socialism. They think they can curry favor by being negative.”

Hall himself is openly uneasy about the results of glasnost and perestroika, which, he says, should unfold “more gradually.” He blames “intellectuals, students and the middle class” for excesses that threaten to introduce capitalism into the Soviet Union. And he warns that the same groups are goading Eastern Europeans into rejecting their Communist parties, laying the groundwork for homelessness, unemployment and other Western ills.

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“The disruptions set back their economies,” he says.

Unabashedly nostalgic for the Brezhnev era as “the best time of Soviet leadership” (“That man took what was destroyed in World War II in the Soviet Union and built it back up from scratch”), Hall reluctantly describes now-toppled party bosses from that era as men who had “become isolated.”

But as for East Germany’s Honecker, who gave Hall a birthday wristwatch just before he was placed under house arrest on treason charges, the party stalwart says: “He should not be treated the way they are treating him.”

Former party members say that such public discontent is unheard of--expressed only with great caution and after much internal hand-wringing. “We all made careers out of changing with the alacrity of acrobats,” said Dorothy Healey, 75, former leader of the California party until her disillusioned departure in 1973. “But these people are taking it to new heights--or depths. They are masters of collective amnesia.”

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In recent weeks, the pace of change in the communist world has come so rapidly that Hall and his circle of hard-liners have stumbled in their haste to react.

“East Germany was where they really came unglued,” Healey said.

Only weeks after the People’s Daily World--the party’s main media organ in the United States--had hailed Honecker on the anniversary of the party’s ascendance in East Germany, the newspaper was forced to reverse course, edgily approving the more democratic government that replaced him.

Veteran party-watchers say that the newspaper has also begun to reduce its once-extensive coverage of the Eastern Bloc and devote more space to staunch hard-line governments like Cuba and North Korea.

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And after thousands of East Germans streamed over the border into Hungary, then scaled the Berlin Wall, a People’s Daily World official first blamed the exodus on East Berliners’ insatiable need for cheap gas that could be found only in West Berlin. Then Hall complained about their obsession with televised nudity beamed from the West, only to revise that excuse, suggesting that they were victims of “gadget socialism.”

“I think some bad things have happened in the first days of euphoria,” Hall now says.

His official line may appear tangled, but it is still orthodoxy to the party faithful. Since 1959, when Hall was named national chairman of the U.S. Communist Party, his pronouncements from the national headquarters in New York have been taken as gospel by the comrades in the hinterlands.

Beyond Manhattan, America’s Communists are a ghostly presence, gathering in force only for ragtag annual May Day parades. Two years ago, the ranks of the Los Angeles party were so thin that they had to import party members from Oakland to march down Broadway, chanting, “Que viva comunista!” and “Death to fascists!”

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But making the pilgrimage to the national headquarters in lower Manhattan, party members can find security in numbers. Each morning, more than 200 Communist workers file past the Unity Book Center, where clerks have updated traditional Russophile items--Ukrainian folk tales and Leninist tomes--with compact disc recordings of Paul Robeson and the Red Army Choir.

Inside, loyalists work in shabby offices that seem furnished from Moscow’s ill-stocked GUM department store. Oversized metal desks are adorned with dog-eared peace posters. In the timeworn newsroom of the People’s Daily World--the party journal boasts headlines like “Cold War Wanes; Class War Continues"--Editor Barry Cohen, 40, laments that “our image has been of people who are rigid, dogmatic, undemocratic and out of touch.”

The party claims an active membership of 20,000--a far cry from its historical high-water mark of nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, the last era of any significant political influence. Even those numbers are in dispute. A 1989 U.S. State Department report describes the party as “relatively small,” with no more than 5,000 members. Academic observers of the American left suggest the number is closer to 10,000.

Blacks attracted by the party’s history of civil rights stands make up a large constituency, says UC Santa Barbara black studies professor Gerald Horne. There are also elements of 1960s radicals, younger activists and, particularly in California, Latino immigrants--"the one group where the party actually made some recent gains,” says Harvey Klehr, an Emory University political scientist who studies the left.

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The largest element, according to observers, comes from a generation of aging Jewish activists who joined decades ago and still faithfully attend “culture club” meetings in retirement communities in New York and Miami. They are in great evidence in the dim corridors of the party’s national headquarters.

“Many of them, like me, are on Social Security,” Hall said.

In its fund-raising drives, the party even reaches into the grave. “Wills are a big item for us,” Hall says. “People want their ideas to continue when they pass away.” One recently deceased Communist made certain that the party would receive his $20,000 bequest by making out his final testament to “the Communist Party of Gus Hall.”

There are a few younger voices among the geriatric revolutionaries. Jason Rabinowitz, 22, a scruffy-haired Bronx native in polished wing tips, is proffered as the party’s future. He gained notoriety two years ago when, running as a member of the Young Communist League, he was elected student president at the University of Massachusetts.

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Attracted to Marxism as the “only answer to the problems of young people,” Rabinowitz helps edit “The Dynamic,” a party youth magazine. Off-hours, he attends parties with music provided by the SuperDynamics, “a deejay collective.” The dance mix is Bob Marley, the Police and Madonna.

Outside the New York headquarters, young party organizers are less eager to talk about their lives in the service of the Marxist cause. They cling to secrecy to protect careers in unions and social service agencies.

Los Angeles trade union organizer Leon Berry (not his real name) worries that his unmasking would cost him his job. “We try to be as open as we can,” he says. “But I’m not about to show up in the middle of some contract negotiation and say, ‘Hi! I’m Leon the Communist!’ ”

Berry carries his party card with him, though stuffed deep in his wallet. The red CPUSA card contains rows of hammer-and-sickle stamps for each month that he has paid his $5 “sustainer pledge.” Berry leaves it at home only “when I’m about to be arrested.”

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It is Berry’s younger generation of Communists who quietly hope that the winter revolutions in Eastern Europe will eventually spread to their own party. While Berry says he respects Hall “for the work he’s done,” he also approves of the democratic socialist movement. “What’s going on is wonderful,” he says. “We can all benefit from an infusion of fresh blood from the non-communist world.”

Several party clubs even dared to suggest changes at home when they delivered reports at a party ideological conference in Chicago last summer. Berry’s own 15-member cell urged the party apparatus to jettison its decades-old jargon, an antiquated code that hearkens back to Marx’s original Communist Manifesto. Berry describes it as “communist-speak.”

Former Communists suggest that the time is ripe for American Communists to abandon the old party altogether. With other leftists in the Berkeley area, Matthew Hallinan has begun exploring the creation of a new movement borrowing the style and aims of democratic socialist parties in Eastern Europe.

“What’s needed is something new and pluralistic, with a healthy dose of skepticism and no dogma,” Hallinan says. “I see a real showdown brewing inside the party. There are forces demanding a de-Stalinzation. People are saying, ‘Let’s get rid of the garbage.’ ”

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His reception has been positive, Hallinan claims, although momentum is not building as fast as it did in Prague or East Berlin. Plans for a recent Bay Area conference to fashion a platform for the new movement fell through. When the conference is held, he promises, Communists will be invited.

Even the FBI has come to the conclusion that the party’s only hope for long-range survival may be to link up with the Communist reform movement. One top counterintelligence expert with the bureau said recently that the party “will mirror whatever happens to the Communist parties in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It can’t stay like it is.”

The bureau, which once was said to have 1,500 informants in the U.S. party in 1962 (roughly 17% of the party’s entire membership), continues its surveillance of Communist activity, justifying its interest by claiming that the party still acts as a propaganda front for the Soviet Bloc.

Although FBI officials decline to detail their work or say how much they spend each year, they volunteer a prediction. It will not be long, they say, before Gus Hall, ripe for retirement, is removed as party boss.

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“He won’t be around in 10 more years,” the bureau’s counterintelligence expert says.

Hall scoffs at the notion of retirement--forced or otherwise. “We keep looking at it,” he says, “but I don’t see myself as a political force leaving.”

After 30 years as communism’s point man in the heart of world capitalism, he has mastered his life style of a man under suspicion. The triumph of communism may not be in sight, but there are smaller satisfactions.

A wall exhibit of political campaign buttons outside his office attests to Hall’s four quixotic tries for the U.S. presidency. His office is stocked with mementos from his old friends in the communist movement--an ivory vase from Ho Chi Minh, a model of Lenin’s old telephone from the Soviet party, a tapestry of Marx from the disgraced Honecker.

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And there is still work to do to prepare for the inevitable trend of history, the end of capitalism. So many pressing matters--a major report due for the semiannual meeting of the party’s National Committee, speeches to local party organizations, lectures to visiting members of the Young Communist League, more congresses to attend.

At this moment, Hall tells an interviewer, he is running late for a lunch with party officials. He glances impatiently at his East German-made wristwatch, his gift from Honecker.

“Time’s up,” Hall announces.

Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow in the Washington bureau contributed to this story.

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