Wissot: My aunt was a communist
I learned my Aunt Fanny was a communist one summer day in 1954. I was 9 at the time and overhead my parents and a few other relatives discussing the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee hearings then taking place in D.C. During the course of their conversation somebody remarked, “ Well, you know, Fanny was a Communist Party member back in the 1930s.”
It didn’t mean much to me at the time because I was too young to understand what it meant to be a communist. All I knew was my Aunt Fanny was this sweet old lady who had invited relatives to stay with her for a week in a converted chicken coop in Peekskill, New York. Nicknamed Chiquita, it slept t10 people and had a pond in the back where you could swim, fish and catch frogs.
For a kid from the Bronx, any respite from the sweltering heat and humidity of a two-bedroom fan-conditioned apartment was welcomed with giddy delight. I don’t think air conditioning had been invented, and if it had, the Bronx didn’t get the memo.
My aunt could have been a communist, a werewolf, a zombie, the Loch Ness monster, and it would have been fine with me. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin were not part of my political vocabulary yet.
Years later I learned the fact that Fanny Fundler, a social worker in New York City in the 1930s and another relative of mine, a cousin in Chicago who was a labor lawyer for the meatpackers union, had been card-carrying members of the Communist Party. This was not unusual. Thousands of Americans, particularly Jewish women like my aunt, were union members during the Great Depression years. These unions had been infiltrated by the Communist Party in America.
As one historian of the period noted, “It seems safe to say that Jewish women were one of the CP’s largest sectors during the Depression and war years.”
I tell you this because, in light of the current allegation that Democrats are moving closer and closer to socialism, there was a period in this country, the late 1920s and early 1930s, when being a communist was no more cause for alarm than being a Presbyterian. Disillusionment with Stalin’s brand of communism began in 1938 with the Moscow show trials in which thousands of his rivals were either executed or consigned to Siberian prison camps. Read Arthur Koestler’s excellent 1940 novel “Darkness at Noon” for insight into this period.
Today we view the totalitarianism once practiced in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China as a colossal disaster. But while communism failed miserably on both economic and political terms, it did not signal the triumph of democracy over tyranny. Capitalism emerged from the ashes as the go-to economic system of choice the world over, but democracy didn’t.
A glance at the current systems of governance operating in Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China reveal participation in free-market capitalism but disdain for the democratic principles related to the rule of law, a free press, and elective succession of power. Putin and Jinping are exemplars of autocratic capitalism. Capitalism isn’t the bogeyman there anymore but democratic rule still is.
The danger we need to guard against in advanced Western societies today is not socialism. The tragedy in Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela isn’t because socialism failed. Of course, it did because of falling oil prices along with rampant corruption and mismanagement by government officials. But it wasn’t socialism that led to martial law being invoked, the courts being rendered impotent, the constitution being rewritten to keep Madura in power, and the free press being shuttered. Chalk that up to despotism.
Despite the attempts by the president on Twitter to paint the Democratic party as socialists in sheep’s clothing, this country is not headed towards socialism. For that to even remotely occur, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would have to be the party nominee, beat Donald Trump in the general election, and benefit from the Democrats holding the House and taking control of the Senate.
The odds of all four happening are right up there with the president deleting his Twitter account.
What we need to worry about instead is creeping despotism as practiced by a leader who would prefer to be a monarch more than a president. Our capitalist economic system is not about to be toppled by progressive Democrats. But our adherence to the rule of law, the rights of a free press, respect for our courts, support for our intelligence services are all under siege.
Stop worrying about socialism.
Begin fretting over Trumpism.
My sweet communist aunt would agree. Having succumbed to the siren song of a brutal dictator in the 1930s, she would have no difficulty in pointing out the dangers of falling under the spell of a wannabe tyrant today.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.