By Mike Ely
Someone recently made a comment about the Communist Party USA leader Gus Hall, and triggered the following memory:
I was invited (as a young high school student) by my sisters boyfriend to hear the CPUSA’s Gus Hall speak about a recent trip to the USSR. This was in the mid 60s and it was one of my very first political meeting.
It was held in an auditorium, and the turnout was respectable — this was (after all) New York City, and the CP had real roots and history.
I was first impressed by how truly frumpy and inbred the whole thing was — even the kids. They had no hint of the times, and were decked out in a very particular Pete Seeger-like subculture (with flannels and a lot of Russian embroidery). And the kids my age were mainly socializing with other red-diaper babies as if this was some boring church meeting that their parents made them attend.
Gus Hall started to speak about touring an autoplant in the USSR, and went off on a whole riff about how slowly the workers were moving. And he said he had remarked to his guide, that they “wouldn’t last a day” back in Detroit. His whole tone had an indignant and self-righteous disdain for the laziness of the Soviet workers, taking advantage of the (supposed) benevolence of their system and its bosses.
It was a moment of clarity for me. Because I felt (at that moment) that he was clearly not speaking as someone who connected with or represented those workers… He was on a hand-held VIP tour conducted by the plant manager — who Gus Hall was seeing as his “peer” and whose problems he was identifying with.
Gus Hall had been strutting around that Soviet plant soaked in the outlook of an aspiring future state capitalist, looking over those workers with his counterparts (in that plant and that country) — discussing the people as if they were so much flawed and frustrating raw material to be hammered and manipulated into doing their “work” (which was obviously NOT the work of ruling or even participating in power).
And he was (rather casually and unapologetically) sharing those thoughts with us — on the assumption (perhaps) that we would share and adopt them .
The whole scene — the deliberate and conservative cultural insularity of the crowd, the obligatory church-like attendance by bored youth, and the truly capitalist class stand of Gus Hall himself — impacted me deeply.
I just felt it was alien and hostile to the things we were trying to bring into being.