Deeper into sin

"Deeper into sin" Continued...

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

I survived to take up a reporting job at The Bulletin, a small daily newspaper in Bend, Ore. (population at that time: 13,000). Close to the Cascades with lakes, skiing, and hunting, it was another semi-Eden, but bites from the fruit of Marxism's tree led me to see it as a cauldron of class conflict. Harassing the Deschutes County commissioners for using an expensive car as their official vehicle, searching through wastepaper baskets to learn of a secret city council decision, writing a puff piece about a little-known leftist senator named George McGovern who came to Bend in the early stages of his presidential campaign . . . I did my bit to overthrow "the system."

The Bulletin's editor and publisher tolerated all of this, only to see me grandiosely resign in 1972 to protest the capitalist press and have the time to read more Marx and Lenin. I had it all figured out intellectually: Communists were the most enlightened heirs of the Enlightenment. No God who could change people from the inside out. Change would come by the outside in, by shifting the socioeconomic environment. The fast path was through dictatorial action by a wise collective of leaders who would act for the good of all.

Even in my nuttiness I didn't think the United States would have a revolution anytime soon, but other countries would. Listen to this grand talk from my 1972 political notebook: "Around the world revolutionary societies are developing; what is holding them back is the power of the American empire. The most we can do right now is to neutralize that power to enable revolutionary societies to spring up without hindrance."

Marxism by itself could have led me to any number of radical fringe parties, but that train of thought-stop American imperialism now!-led me to the Communist Party, USA (CP). Sure it was a Soviet subsidiary, but my thoughts were treasonous: It would take a big country to stop the big country I had bicycled across. The Soviet Union in 1972 seemed to be on a roll, with America heading out of Vietnam and apparently ready to retreat around the world. The big bear would offer me a ride.

To do due diligence I read a couple of anti-Communist books, but their reports of Communist brutality increased my zeal: Yes, Communists mean business. My political notebook: "People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. . . . Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can't understand that CP work is bad work which must be done, sin whose time has come. Communism may be sin, in its revolutionary power enthusiasm, but it is sin going somewhere."

Today I wonder where that use of "sin" came from, because that was not something learned at Yale. Ironically, Lenin wrote, "If you are not inclined to crawl in the mud on your belly, you are not a revolutionary but a chatterbox." Snakes have crawled on their bellies ever since the history contained in chapter 3 of Genesis, and now it was my turn. I wrote to CP headquarters in New York and went to Portland to meet with Gus Hall, the party's perennial presidential candidate.

Hall (1910-2000) was old school, born in northern Minnesota's Iron Range to parents who then helped to found the CP. He joined the party in 1927, gained arrest for allegedly transporting bomb materials to blow up a Republic Steel plant, and helped to found what became in 1943 the United Steelworkers of America. After World War II he spent eight years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary on charges of "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence."

Not doubting that he was guilty, I saw him as a genuine proletarian hero. I told Hall about my activities at Yale, my journalistic background, and my desire to be useful. What did he think about me, with my bushy beard and faux-worker's blue shirt? At age 62 he knew enough to hold his tongue. He said, "We can use someone like you"-and so my brief apprenticeship began.

One of Karl Marx's famous sentences concerns the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel's remark about facts and personages appearing twice in history: Marx wrote that Hegel "forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Hall's Communist Party experience was tragedy and mine was farce. I carried "Peace and Jobs" signs at a Saturday afternoon demonstration in a Portland park and distributed pamphlets on liberation theology themes outside the buildings of liberal churches following services.


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