Lost in Yonkers

In a way Gus Hall truly was, as has often been said, a genuinely American Communist -- not so much because he was a sentimental patriot, but because he combined the heedless optimism of a Chamber of Commerce booster with an unwavering belief that he was always completely right. It‘s easy to ridicule Hall as one of the 20th century’s forgotten men, but there is also an undeniable pathos -- and lesson -- to his story. Neither a theoretician nor a statesman, he perhaps most resembled Arthur Miller‘s doomed salesman Willy Loman, a tragicomic figure who is brushed aside by history and whose end approaches after his sense of direction fails him while driving in Yonkers. What Hall was selling was American Communism, and somewhere on the road to Utopia he lost sight of what this country’s workers really wanted, increasingly substituting, instead, what Moscow said they needed.

Give him credit, Hall was no parlor pink -- he didn‘t get his Marxism from books or by listening to the radio. His Finnish parents were radical Wobblies who lived a gaunt existence in Minnesota and became early members of the CPUSA. Their son grew up to be a lumberjack and steelworker in the 1920s before becoming a professional Communist, moving from Moscow’s Lenin Institute (a kind of West Point for foreign party activists and guerillas) to working as a labor organizer and protest leader in the Midwest during the Depression. After World War II, Hall would join 10 other leaders indicted under the Smith Act (which the CP had supported when it was first used against rival Trotskyites) for advocating the violent overthrow of the American government, and eventually served six years in Leavenworth.

Hall, who passed away last week from diabetic complications, remained in the CP for 73 years -- he‘d been its general secretary and chairman since 1959 -- yet his political outlook remained virtually unchanged from the moment he joined the party; his commitment to Stalinism was total. He abandoned his real name (Arvo Halberg), his personal identity and the acceptance of his fellow citizens. His dogged rise as an apparatchik took him past party leaders who, like Earl Browder, were more popular or, like William Z. Foster, more revered. If he felt any inward turmoil over the bombshells that rocked the world communist movement during his lifetime (the Moscow Purge trials, the Stalin-Hitler pact, Khrushchev’s 20th and 22nd Party Congress speeches, Hungary, Czechoslovakia), he never let on.

The truth is that much of the world Hall would face after leaving prison must have been incomprehensible to him. Israel, women‘s liberation, gay rights, ecology, the youth revolt -- these realities were moon rocks to him, as, probably, was a 1981 New York Review of Books article revealing that infant mortality in the USSR was rising. He should have seen it as a quite different red flag -- an early omen for the demise of Soviet communism, a system that had spiritually and financially nurtured Hall and his comrades all their lives.

I only saw Hall a few times, at various rallies in the early 1970s. I remember him as a robust and surprisingly dapper figure in a rather shiny, double-breasted grey suit, whose voice bore an unsettling resemblance to Gerald Ford’s. Once, at the International Longshoremen‘s and Warehousemen’s Union‘s San Francisco headquarters, he addressed a California primary rally for party members that had been merged with a welcoming for Angela Davis, who had just been released from jail. After delivering the obligatory praise to the Soviet Union, he crowed that George McGovern’s victory that night was due to the activists in the CP. To his mind, the Communist Party had put McGovern over the top, just as he believed it was the historic role of the CP to act as a left-handed caddy for the Democratic Party.

Since 1962, Hall lived with his wife in, ironically, Yonkers, an avuncular figurehead presiding over the shards of his party and bemoaning the curse of perestroika. ”This is a great country,“ he once said at the end of a televised interview during one of his four presidential runs, and, in the end, America granted him our country‘s most sweeping pardon -- its forgetfulness. Unlike Big Bill Haywood and John Reed, Gus Hall will not rest in an expatriate’s grave in the Kremlin Wall -- rather, in the land he so loved but to whose people he remained a complete foreigner.

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