WHEN THE POSITION OF CHAIRMAN of the Los Angeles Communist Party came open in the late 1940s, the two obvious candidates were Dorothy Healey, then the party’s organizational secretary, and Ben Dobbs, the party’s labor secretary. Both were smart and affable and had charisma to burn. They were also the best of friends, so — as Dorothy related the story in California Red, her quasi-autobiography cowritten with historian Maurice Isserman — they flipped a coin and it came up on the Dorothy-becomes-chairman side.
But Dobbs told Isserman a different tale. “I don’t recall flipping any coin,” he said. “She was so much smarter than me that there was never a question in my mind.” The remark smacks of Dobbs’ telltale selflessness, and having known them both, I’m certain the only skill at which Dorothy excelled Dobbs was intraparty maneuvering. The first of their two tragedies was that both had to spend so much of their vast talents on intraparty maneuvering. The second was that the party was the Communist Party.
It’s hard to grasp today just how important the Communist Party was in Los Angeles in the ’30s and ’40s — and how Healey’s brilliance and guts kept the party at least somewhat important through the ’60s. By the ’40s, the L.A. local of the party was the nation’s second largest, after only New York, and while New York also had a lively presence of Socialists and Trotskyists, L.A. had far fewer. The Communists were the linchpin of the L.A. left, and played key roles in countless elections and labor struggles, particularly during the Popular Front days when they became, in essence, the most active supporters of both the CIO and the New Deal.
And no one excelled, and reveled, at building this real-world left more than Dorothy, who died Sunday at age 91 in Washington, D.C., where she had moved in 1983. She had joined the Young Communist League at age 14 in Berkeley. By 19, she was leading a strike of Mexican agricultural workers in Imperial County, for which she did 180 days in jail. By 24, she was an international vice president of the cannery workers; and a year later, the head of the Labor Non-Partisan League — the CIO’s political operation — in L.A. She was, all the while, an open communist, who, unlike most of the party’s leaders, believed in and liked working in coalition with liberals. She and Dobbs were appalled when the party insisted on running candidates from Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party in 1948 for every office — meaning, in a spate of pre-Naderistic idiocy, against liberal Democratic officeholders. But good party ops that they were, they never made their dissent public.
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Dorothy was traumatized by Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s crimes; her long-repressed fears of the dreadful nature of the regime she’d defended were confirmed — and exceeded. The publication of that speech, and the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the uprising in Hungary later that year, provoked a false spring of open discussion and dissent within the party, but when the hard-liners prevailed, most of the reformers — about three-quarters of the party’s members — left. Only in the L.A. local did the reformers hold sway: Despite the efforts of the national leaders to remove Dorothy and Dobbs from their posts, the L.A. local stuck by them.
By then, Dorothy had become a local celebrity, appearing on radio talk shows, hosting her own show on KPFK, running in 1966 for county assessor on a platform of linking property-tax rates to homeowner incomes and winning 86,000 votes. She was probably the most compelling and attractive spokesperson the American communists ever had. (In her younger days, she’d been quite the looker, and among the many men she’d dated was a young assemblyman named Sam Yorty. Some contend that Yorty’s move rightward began when he couldn’t get very far with the fair Dorothy.)
DOROTHY’S RIFT WITH THE NATIONAL PARTY, the Soviet Union and actual existing communism became an unbridgeable chasm when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. The national party supported the invasion; the L.A. party opposed it. Dorothy had the bitter experience of seeing many of the ’60s activists she’d recruited to the party — Angela Davis in particular — side with the national party’s ossified Stalinist leaders. In the early ’70s, she and Dobbs and a group of their comrades left the party, later to join the overtly democratic socialists in the New American Movement and, eventually, the Democratic Socialists of America.
It was a home they should have found earlier. Dorothy and Dobbs and their comrades — housing and civil-liberties activist Frank Wilkinson and attorneys Ben Margolis and John McTernan most prominently — were among the most talented leftists L.A. has known, but their very real contributions to the city’s progressive character and infrastructure were ultimately undermined by their adherence to a top-down church whose often outrageous edicts they willingly, and then begrudgingly, defended, until finally they couldn’t defend them at all. Their legacy includes a number of the progressive leaders who shape L.A. today, for whom Dorothy’s allegiance to communism was one of life’s more appalling mysteries, but who were moved to lives of activism in no small part by the example of the courage, sacrifice and rage for justice that Dorothy and her comrades (particularly when they were fighting Stalinism and not promoting it) exemplified.