The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  It was the popular way of talking and a point of view fatal to any moral force or any clear view of issues; it was only a kind of catchphrase, but a symptom of the confusion of the times, the loss and denial of standards, the scumbling of boundary lines, and the whole evil trend toward reducing everything human to the mud of the lowest common demoninator.

  A certain hotel near the Boston Common had been quite taken over by several separate and often rather hostile organizers of the demonstrations and I was prepared to fall eagerly and with a light heart into the atmosphere I found established there—even though it held a menace I could not instantly define—of monastic discipline, obedience, the community spirit, everybody working toward a common end, with faith in their cause and in each other. In this last, I was somewhat mistaken, as I was very soon to find out. The air was stiff with the cold, mindless, irrational compliance with orders from “higher up.” The whole atmosphere was rank with intrigue and deceit and the chilling realization that any one of them would have sold another to please superiors and to move himself up the ladder.

  Politically I was mistaken in my hopes, also. For I see now that they were only that, based on early training in ethics and government, courses which I have not seen lately in any curriculum. Based on these teachings, I never believed that this country would alienate China in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; or that we would not help France chase Hitler out of the Ruhr, as Mussolini had chased him single-handedly out of the Polish Corridor (and Mussolini himself was receiving heavy financial and political support from very powerful people in this country); or that we would let the Communists dupe us into deserting Republican Spain; or that we would aid and abet Franco; or let Czechoslovakia, a republic we had helped to found, fall to Soviet Russia. It is quite obvious by now that my political thinking was the lamentable “political illiteracy” of a liberal idealist—we might say, a species of Jeffersonian.

  In the reckless phrase of the confirmed joiner in the fight for whatever relief oppressed humanity was fighting for, I had volunteered “to be useful wherever and however I could best serve,” and was drafted into a Communist outfit all unknowing; this is no doubt because my name was on the list of contributors to funds in aid of Sacco and Vanzetti for several years. Even from Mexico, I sent what bits of money I could, when I could, to whatever group solicited at the moment: I never inquired as to the shades of political belief because that was not what was important to me in that cause, which concerned common humanity. In the same way, I went with the first organization that invited me, and at the Boston boat at the foot of Christopher Street was pleasantly surprised to see several quite good friends there, none of whom had any more definite political opinions than I had. I was then, as now, a registered voting member of the Democratic Party, a convinced liberal—not then a word of contempt—and a sympathizer with the new (to me) doctrines brought out of Russia from 1919 to 1920 onward by enthusiastic, sentimental, misguided men and women who were looking for a New Religion of Humanity, as one of them expressed it, and were carrying the gospel that the New Jerusalem could be expected to rise any minute in Moscow or thereabouts.

  It is hard to explain, harder no doubt for a new generation to understand, how the “intellectuals” and “artists” in our country leaped with such abandoned, fanatic credulity into the Russian hell-on-earth of 1920. They quoted the stale catch-phrases and slogans. They were lifted to starry patriotism by the fraudulent Communist organization called the Lincoln Brigade. The holy name was a charm which insured safety and victory. The bullet struck your Bible instead of your heart. Not all of them merit being enclosed in the pejorative quotation marks; they were quite simply the most conventionally brought-up, middle-class people of no intellectual or other pretensions. There was a Bessie Beatty who was all for the Revolution, capital “R,” but who meanwhile did nicely in New York as editor of a popular magazine for women; Albert Rhys Williams, a minister’s son, very religious himself, whose main recognition was based on the amusing story of how he had spent the first three days of the fall of the Russian Empire in complete formal attire—white tie, wing collar, tails—and was somewhat the worse for wear when the third day appeared. (Nobody ever explained to me how anyone, no matter how sympathetic, could have survived a true Communist revolt in that dress belonging to the most criminal of the classes of society, or how Mr. Williams, a dedicated fellow traveler, should have had occasion to appear in that outfit.) But let us go on. There was Frank Tannenbaum, Jewish by birth, a good journalist, really trying to help build a New Jerusalem anywhere and everywhere and believing firmly that the foundation stone had at last been laid in Moscow.

  “For me and others like me, the Kremlin meant the Third International, and this meant the organization of the ‘workers of the world’ to vindicate their human rights against everything we hated in contemporary society.”* Edmund Wilson wrote that, as well and clearly expressed as it has been until now.

  “I have seen the future and it works.” Lincoln Steffens is reported to have said this, though it has been much denied. It is claimed that he did not ever say such a reckless thing. He was there, on the spot, admiring everything in Russia at the time of William Bullitt’s 1919 visit to Russia, carrying on a delightful social life, although no one says quite how it was done in that particular atmosphere. I can say, once for all, that he may not have said this in Russia, but I heard him say it in Mexico in 1922 at a victorious desert celebration where the President, the Cabinet, “Congress,” and all the radical politicians in the government were holding a great fiesta on a wonderful hot dusty day, where there were dozens of mariachi bands playing—drums and trumpets going—and all of us were sitting on the ground in a joyous picnic spirit eating mole, the national dish. I was with a party with which Mr. Steffens had come to see what a true revolution could do for people who needed a revolution. He was frightfully unhappy and uncomfortable. He did not like sitting on the ground and he did not see the beauty and the picturesqueness of the Indians’ figures and clothing, and he referred to them as “uncivilized.” He could not endure the sight, the taste, the smell, or even the presence of the mole; it was very peppery. The rest of the party were eating and scraping up the sauce with savory folded tortillas. His eyes behind their thick glasses swiveled around once at us and he said, “I wish you could see your mouths—you would rub your faces in the sand to clean them up.”

  It was some time later that afternoon when we were discussing world events, and all of us wanted to know how in the world Russian people could survive the latest disaster to their government, and he said: “All progress takes its toll in human life. Russia is the coming power of the world. I have seen the future and it works.” So much for that. No matter how sad it may seem now, Mr. Steffens said it then, jovially, but in earnest. I wrote it down word for word, then and there, in my notebook.

  My group was headed by Rosa Baron, a dry, fanatical little woman who wore thick-lensed spectacles over her blue, accusing eyes—a born whip hand, who talked an almost impenetrable jargon of party dogma. Her “approach” to every “question” (and everything was a question) was “purely dialectical.” Phrases such as “capitalistic imperialism,” “bourgeois morality,” “slave mentality,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “the historical imperative” (meaning more or less, I gathered, that history makes man and not the other way around), “the triumph of the workers,” “social consciousness,” and “political illiteracy” flew from her dry lips all day long. She viewed a “political illiterate” as a conventional mind might a person of those long-ago days born out of wedlock: an unfortunate condition, but reprehensible and without remedy even for its victim. Conservative was only a slightly less pejorative term than Reactionary, and as for Liberal, it was a dirty word, quite often linked in speech with other vaguely descriptive words, even dirtier, if possible. There were many such groups, for this demonstration had been agitated for and prepared for many years by the Communists. They had not originated the protest, I believe, but had jo
ined in and tried to take over, as their policy was, and is. Their presence created the same confusion, beclouding the issue and discrediting the cause as it always had done and as they intended it to do. It appeared in its true form and on its most disastrous scale in Spain later. They were well organized to promote disorder and to prevent any question ever being settled—but I had not then discovered this; I remarked to our Communist leader that even then, at that late time, I still hoped the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti might be saved and that they would be granted another trial. “Saved,” she said, ringing a change on her favorite answer to political illiteracy, “who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?”

  I was another of those bourgeois liberals who got in the way of serious business, yet we were needed, by the thousands if possible, for this great agitation must be made to appear to be a spontaneous uprising of the American people, and for practical reasons, the more non-Communists, the better. They were all sentimental bleeders, easily impressed.

  Rosa Baron’s young brother once presumed to argue with her on some point of doctrine when I was present. “I’ll report you to the Committee,” she said, “if you talk about Party business before outsiders.” This was the first time I had ever come face to face, here and now personally, with the Inquisitorial spirit hard at work.

  “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his need.”

  Lenin was known to think little of people who let their human feelings for decency get in the way of the revolution which was to save mankind; he spoke contemptuously of the “saints” who kept getting underfoot; he had only harsh words for those “weak sisters” who flew off the “locomotive of history” every time it rounded a sharp curve. History was whatever was happening in Russia, and the weak sisters, who sometimes called themselves “fellow travelers,” were perhaps, many of them, jolted by the collision with what appeared to be a dream of the ideal society come true, dazzled by the bright colors of a false dawn.

  I flew off Lenin’s locomotive and his vision of history in a wide arc in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1927; it was two days before the putting to death of Sacco and Vanzetti, to the great ideological satisfaction of the Communist-headed group with which I had gone up to Boston. It was exactly what they had hoped for and predicted from the first: another injustice of the iniquitous capitalistic system against the working class.

  Toasts were drunk at parties “To the Red Dawn”—a very pretty image indeed. “See you on the barricades!” friends would say at the end of an evening of dancing in Harlem. Nobody thought any of this strange; in those days the confusion on this subject by true believers, though not great, was not quite so bad and certainly not so sinister as it is now. It was not then subversive to associate with Communists, nor even treasonable to belong to the Communist Party. It is true that Communists, or a lot of people who thought themselves Communists—and it is astonishing how many of them have rightabout-faced since they got a look at the real thing in action—held loud meetings in Union Square, and they often managed to get a few heads cracked by the police—all the better! Just the proof they needed of the brutalities of the American Gestapo. On the other hand, they could gather thousands of “sympathizers” of every shade of political and religious belief and every known nationality and carry off great May Day parades peaceably under police protection. The innocent fellow travelers of this country were kept in a state of excited philanthropy by carefully planted stories of the struggle that the great Russian reformers were having against local rebellious peasants, blasted crops, and plagues of various kinds, bringing the government almost to starvation. Our fellow travelers picketed, rebuking our government for failure to send food and other necessaries to aid the great cause in that courageous country. I do not dare say that our government responded to these childish appeals, but tons upon tons of good winter wheat and other supplies were sent in fabulous quantities. It turned out that the threatened famine took place there—it was real—under orders from Lenin, who directed a great famine or an occasional massacre by way of bringing dissidence under the yoke, and I remember one blood-curdling sentence from a letter of his to a subordinate, directing him to conduct a certain massacre as “a model of mercilessness.”

  What struck me later was that I had already met and talked to refugees from Russia in Mexico who had got out with their lives and never ceased to be amazed at it. In New York I saw picketing in Times Square and Wall Street, solemn placard-carrying processions of second-generation descendants of those desolate, ragged, hopeful people who had landed on Ellis Island from almost every country in the West, escaping from the dreadful fates now being suffered by their blood kin in Russia and other parts of the world. Not one of them apparently could see that the starvation and disease and utter misery were brought on methodically and most successfully for the best of political and economic reasons without any help from us, while the Party was being fed richly with our wheat.

  Then there was AMTORG, headquartered in New York, managed by a Russian Jewish businessman of the cold steel variety, advertised as a perfectly legal business organization for honest, aboveboard trade with the Soviets.

  There was ROSTA (later TASS), the official Russian news agency and propaganda center in America, run by an American citizen, Kenneth Durant, who enjoyed perfect immunity in every Red scare of the period when dozens of suspects were arrested—not he. I assisted the editor of ROSTA for a short time and I know the subsidy was small, although the agency was accused of enjoying floods of “Moscow gold.” If this was so, I don’t know where it went. The editor claimed that Moscow gold was passed out at the rate of $75.00 a week for salaries (he took $50.00 and gave me $25.00). A perennial candidate for President of the United States popped up every four years regularly on the Communist ticket—an honest man. I knew nothing of his private politics, but his public life was admirable and his doctrine was pure Christian theory.

  Once on the picket line, I took a good look at the crowd moving slowly forward. I wouldn’t have expected to see some of them on the same street, much less the same picket line and in the same jail. I knew very few people in that first picket line, but I remember Lola Ridge, John Dos Passos, Paxton Hibben, Michael Gold, Helen O’Lochlainn Crowe, James Rorty, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willie Gropper, Grace Lumpkin, all very well known then and mostly favorably—most of them have vanished, and I wonder who but me is alive to remember them now? I have a strangely tender memory of them all, as well as the faces of strangers who were being led away by the police.

  We were as miscellaneous, improbable, almost entirely unassorted a gathering of people to one place in one cause as ever happened in this country. I say almost because among the pickets I did not see anyone identifiably a workingman, or “proletarian,” as our Marxist “dialecticians” insisted on calling everybody who worked for his living in a factory, or as they said, “sweatshop,” or “slave mill,” or “salt mine.” It is true that these were workdays and maybe all the workingmen were at their jobs. Suppose one of them said to his boss, “I want a day off, with pay, to picket for Sacco and Vanzetti.” He would be free to picket at his leisure from then on, no doubt. There were plenty of people of the working class there, but they had risen in the world and had become professional paid proletarians, recruits to the intelligentsia, dabbling in ideas as editors, lawyers, agitators, writers who dressed and behaved and looked quite a lot like the bourgeoisie they were out to annihilate. What a vocabulary—proletarian, intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, dialectic —pure exotics transplanted from the never-never-land of the theoretically classless society which could not take root and finally withered on the stalk. Yet, they had three classes of their own and were drawing the lines shrewdly. During that time I went to a meeting of radicals of all kinds and shades, most of them workers, but not all by any means; and Michael Gold made a speech and kept repeating: “Stick to your class, damn it, stick to your class.” It struck me as being such good advice that I decided to take it and tiptoed out the wa
y one leaves church before the end.

  Each morning I left the hotel, walked into the blazing August sun, and dropped into the picket line before the State House; the police would allow us to march around once or twice, then close in and make the arrests we invited; indeed, what else were we there for? My elbow was always taken quietly by the same mild little blond officer, day after day; he was very Irish, very patient, very damned bored with the whole incomprehensible show. We always greeted each other politely. It was generally understood that the Pink Tea Squad, white cotton gloves and all, had been assigned to this job, well instructed that in no circumstance were they to forget themselves and whack a lady with their truncheons, no matter how far she forgot herself in rudeness and contrariety. In fact, I never saw a lady—or a gentleman either—being rude to a policeman in that picket line, nor any act of rudeness from a single policeman. That sort of thing was to come later, from officers on different duty. The first time I was arrested, my policeman and I walked along stealing perplexed, questioning glances at each other; the gulf between us was fixed, but not impassable; neither of us wished to deny that the other was a human being; there was no natural hostility between us. I had been brought up in the fixed social belief that the whole police system existed to protect and befriend me and all my kind. Without giving this theory any attention, I had found no reason to doubt it.

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