The Cultist Psyche, Lurking in All of Us


In homage to the passing of May Day this week, an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times featured an unusual paean to the Communist movement in Cold War America. Unusual, but instructive.

I say instructive, because there’s a lesson to be learned from it: the perils of emotional investment in a political movement.

Notwithstanding its purposely jarring title—When Communism Inspired Americans—the piece is an oddly touching outpouring of childhood nostalgia from the author, Vivian Gornick, who was raised in a tightknit community of socialists during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. In the piece, Gornick describes the blend of socialists, progressive sympathizers, and Communists that comprised her family’s social network:

“At the kitchen table they drank tea, ate black bread and herring, and talked ‘issues.’ I understood nothing of what they said, but I was always excited by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words that came pouring ceaselessly from them.”

Her reminiscences paint an emotional picture, a glimpse into the foundational experiences of her youth that would eventually bind her to a life of progressivism.

After describing the motivating ideals that drove her progressivist passion (“a moral authority that lent shape and structure…to an urgent sense of social injustice”), she makes a very revealing statement about her connection to the Communist movement:

“It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at this time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified. It was to this clarity of inner being that so many people became not only attached, but addicted. No reward of life, no love nor fame nor wealth, could compete with the experience.”

The author reveals, perhaps unintentionally, that her commitment to Marxism was not at its core an ideological one. Rather, it was borne of a deep desire to establish human connections, and to find a greater purpose in life.

Seen in this light, it’s actually not at all hard to understand the impetus to join such a movement, even removed as it is from its historical context. The need to belong—the drive for deeper meaning—is part of the universal human experience. The internal forces that drive each of us to join our own political causes are not simply intellectual, but are ineluctably a vast, complex brew of the emotional and psychological as well.

However, deriving the totality of one’s satisfaction and well-being in life from an intellectual movement is corrosive to the intellect. At its worst, it can become nothing more than zealotry.

And zealotry ultimately leads to disappointment. When self-identity becomes wholly tied to an abstract political philosophy, its inevitable upending by reality will cut deeply. Such was the case for Gornick, and for other American Marxists in the post-Stalinist era:

“I was 20 years old in February 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and revealed to the world the incalculable horror of Stalin’s rule. Night after night the people at my father’s kitchen table raged or wept or sat staring into space. I was beside myself with youthful rage…this couldn’t be the whole truth, it simply couldn’t be. But it was.”

It’s entirely understandable to feel a deep personal attachment to the values hewn from one’s youth, flaws and all. Indeed, one sympathizes with the author’s shock and trauma of having her world view shaken to the core. Yet, in this case, the worldview to which she had become so attached was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, for incomprehensible and enduring damage to humankind.

There, but for the grace of intellect, go I

One would think that such a mortifying experience would engender a personal life lesson on the dangers of political occultism. However, what’s disturbingly absent from the author’s telling is any recognition of the danger posed by such an enduring emotional attachment to a political cause. Indeed, Gornick ends her tale, not with a warning beacon, but with a portrayal of heroic martyrdom:

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans were Communists at one time or another during those 40 years. Many of these people endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment. They were two generations of Americans whose lives were formed by political history as were no other American lives save those of the original Revolutionists. History is in them—and they are in history.”

Movement Communists were utterly blinded by their emotional commitment and personal devotion. The economic and political calamity befalling the Soviet Union was hardly a secret before Khrushchev’s admission, yet adherents continued to believe the lie until it was impossible to do so. Even today, Communist political parties persist across the globe, and in the age of ubiquitous news there still remain rearguard apologists for the Communist regimes that exist today.

The allies of Marxism in the early 20th century were not so much victims of the American political system; rather, they were victims of their own psychological making.

The broader lesson here isn’t merely about the Communist movement, but the intrinsic dangers of political movements per se. We all subsume our intellectual beliefs to our emotions, to one degree or another. It’s part of what makes us human. But Ms. Gornick’s story should serve as a reminder that our emotional commitments must be subjected to regular introspection—an occasional reality check. We need always be mindful of our own personal biases, and once in awhile consider: how much of what we believe is rooted in verifiable truth, in some coherent intellectual framework? And how much is actually rooted in social bonding, sentimentality, and the inner workings of our own psyche?

I’m reminded of that old apocryphal line attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

That the author’s mind hasn’t seemed to change all that much down the years speaks volumes to the captivating, gripping, and yes, dangerous power that emotional appeal can hold in politics.

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