Michigan State & Left Politics
In June of 1947 I settled into Mason Hall, a large men’s dormitory at the east end of the Michigan State College campus. (It was many years later when college campus dorms became co-ed. At this time it was only true of the University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins’ chancellorship.) Bruno Dalmaso, my first roommate, was a most congenial chap, a WWII Amy vet, the son of an Italian-American immigrant mining family from Crystal Falls, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. Both parents were deceased, with his sister who was married to a Finnish man living in their old family home, built by the mining company on its Tobin Location.
Bruno was non-political but fun to hang out with. He was a business administration major in his first semester whose aim in life was to “make lots of money.” I was registered as a history major and in my interview with the department head that summer, he advised me that foreign language competency was required to obtain a liberal arts degree. So my plans were to take French starting in the fall semester.
I took several summer courses including one in biology. A comprehensive course was offered which included the theory of scientific method, whereby you arrived at hypotheses based on facts but never conclusive if contradicted by further factual evidence. This included library research on how to look for evidence in a systematic way and the Dewey Decimal System. We wrote several papers for that class which involved library research. My first paper was on a labor theme, “The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.” led by the Knights of Labor, predecessor to the American Federation of Labor. My second paper dealt with William Lloyd Garrison, the 19th century Massachusetts abolitionist against Black, or Negro, as we called it then, slavery. These papers included footnotes and bibliographies.
But my favorite course was a class on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Othello”, offered by a noted English Renaissance scholar, Dr. Herbert Weisinger. He turned out to be the best professor I’ve ever had, his classes turgid with stimulating discussion which he encouraged. For the final examination he told us to bring the text of the play to class along with a blue book, as it would be an open book essay exam, a new experience for me. The exam would consist of one question, which he wrote on the chalkboard on that fateful day: “Was Othello’s Downfall Justified” and “Why?” Professor Weisinger told us to use the text of the play freely for reference and to note our supporting arguments by sentence and page number in the bluebook. He then said to leave our blue books on his desk and left the room, wishing us a good summer. A thinking person’s exam on how well we understood the play. From then on I valued the essay form as the best kind of exam on what one actually digested and learned. When the grades for the final came out on self-addressed postcards we’d left him, I was honored to receive an A- and a straight A for the course.
OCCASIONAL BEER RUNS
No alcohol was sold in those years within East Lansing city limits. So Bruno and I and other classmates would trudge a mile or so east on Grand Avenue,which was the highway to Detroit to a hole-in-the-wall beer joint just beyond the city limits. We might quaff a pitcher or schooner of draft beer on the premises and then by a couple of bottles to go then costing 20 cents a piece, to drink on the way back to Mason Hall, sitting on the edge of a roadside ditch. Actually I didn’t do that much drinking that summer but stayed on top of my studies.
I made a number of dorm friends that summer, especially among foreign students. The Sarmiento brothers from Bolivia lived down the hall and occasionally I’d stop by and chat with them. From Hawaii I befriended Tadashi Tojo of Japanese descent who had fought with the celebrated and much-decorated 44th Infantry Battalion in Italy, made up of Japanese-Americans or Hawaiians, many of whom had been incarcerated as kids with their families in isolated concentration camps scattered throughout the Western States in racist act following Pearl Harbor by the Roosevelt Administration through demands of the political right. When the young men in the camps attained draft age, they were yanked out into the armed forces with their loyalty not questioned as many were assigned to the fighting 44th, as did Tad. He was signed up as a poultry major at MSC as he hoped to start a chicken ranch in Hawaii after graduation.
Tad’s best buddy at State was another Hawaiian Japanese, George Ariyoshi, a pre-law history major who remembered being called a Buddha-Head by his Hawaiian Caucasian contemporaries, a term of racist contempt. George had his eye on Harvard Law School, with ambitions to return to Hawaii and go as high as he could in Island politics. Much later as I read in the press after Statehood he was elected Democratic Party lieutenant-governor of Hawaii. Occasionally I’d go out and shoot pool with Tad and George at An East Lansing parlor. Both guys were terrific players and I frankly stank.
INDIAN INDEPENDENCE CELEBRATION
There were numerous students from India at MSC who I befriended, as well. I was greatly honored when Indian independence was declared, and they invited me as the only Caucasian student to join them in their community celebration of the fact in a small auditorium on campus with several speakers. There was great joy and optimism among those present over their freedom from British colonialism. But soon huge problems would assume with the breakaway formation of Pakistan and the complex difficulties of forming a new poetical democracy and the overwhelming economic obstacles to their well-being that persist to this day, including the question of Kashmir. But that day symbolized a new world being born to these students.
There was little student political activity on campus that summer. The only exception was a small progressive social group that met for picnics, games and dancing. It was strongly Communist-inspired. I and a Mason Hall dorm-mate, a wealthy Egyptian playboy of royal blood and a couple of his buddies attended one of its Sunday afternoon affairs. I don’t recall this student’s name but he was generally called the “Egyptian Camel Driver” by the Americans in the dorm. He was an entertaining but rather shallow sort whose main interest on campus seemed to be in scoring with white American young women. Leader of that social group that summer was a precocious 15-year-old girl, Jean Fagan, an East Lansing resident of radical family roots who was an academic scholarship freshman at State. After our folk dance and soda pop afternoon, Jean invited Camel Driver, his buddies and me for tea at her East Lansing home and to meet her mother.
Sarah Fagan was well-known in East Lansing and once was prominent in the Socialist Party of Michigan. She was the widow of Peter Fagan, also well-known in the Michigan SP, who had operated a printing plant in Lansing. So although most members of the SP-USA were hostile to the Communist Party, Sarah was more sympathetic, and would rent rooms in her home to CP women students who were enrolled at State. Several of her daughters including young Jean, were CP members at least during the early post-WWII years. The only exception was Ruth, a campus character at MSC during those years, who was a libertarian socialist. One daughter, Ann, an attorney was then married to Ray Ginger, author of a biography of Eugene Debs named “The Bending Cross” that won the Hopwood Prize for Literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Sarah was gracious to us all that afternoon in her living room and an articulate polemicist on many subjects. I hadn’t been exposed to such heady conversations since earlier that year at my cousin Lempi’s vacation retreat in New York State. It turned out Sarah had left the SP and was now involved in the nascent third-party efforts of former Vice President Henry Agard Wallace’s new Progressive Party for which he would run as President in 1948. The PP’s program was to pursue the most progressive of FDR’s New Deal goals and the pursuit of world peace as an alternative to President Harry Truman’s increasing Cold War politics against the USSR and its subordinate East European powers, which Truman saw as the main evil opposed to democracy and “the American way of life.”
So meeting Sarah and Jean opened up new avenues for me to explore in politics during my years at State. Unfortunately, I ignored the fundamental element of “doubt” inherent in the scientific analysis of social and political movements that led me to ideological and organizational commitments at MSC I grew to reject before my graduation in December, 1950.
Before the summer ended I bought a 1938 Chevy at a gas station on Grand Avenue leading out of East Lansing toward Detroit for around $200 from a young man who worked as station attendant there. I didn’t have a driver’s license but knew how to drive, though with limited road experience. Bruno invited me to join him on the UP* to stay with him at his sister’s house during the interval between the summer and fall quarters at State. (* UP stood for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan located north of the Mackinaw Straits which divided the State. At that time I hadn’t heard of the term “Yoopers” referring to residents of the UP. First I heard it was in the 1980s as the name of a traveling comic rockabilly band “Da Yoopers” founded in Ishpeming, MI in 1975. They started recording in 1986 and among their “good ole boy” favorites were “Second Week of Deer Camp” and “Rusty Chevrolet.” I suspect UP residents began to be called Yoopers based on the popularity of the band.)
Bruno pumped up my interest in the trip by telling of the almost nightly “Finn hops”’ held in Finnish halls still dotting small UP towns in the 1940s with many pretty single Finnish girls available to suit a young man’s fancy. Going to the UP wasn’t a hard decision to make and become familiar with an important part of Finnish-American culture still vibrant in the Northern Midwest. We drove north in my Chevy, alternating at the wheel through the vast lower part of the state until we hit the Mackinaw Straits. Since the bridge connecting the two parts of the state wasn’t built until 1957, we crossed by car ferry.
We stayed at Bruno’s sister’s and Finnish brother-in-law’s house on the old Tobin mining location in a wooded portion of Crystal Falls. First thing we did after settling in was to walk through the woods to Bruno’s uncle and aunt’s house, another old company town miner’s home. We were treated to a couple of glasses of tasty home-made Italian wine and some sandwiches. Our daytime hours were spent helping Bruno’s brother-in-law laying in new shingles on the roof of his house.
In the evening we’d hit the road for fun. There was an enormous Labor Day dance at a large outdoor lakeside pavilion in Iron Mountain. sponsored by the UP’s United Mine Workers Union. The bar sold beer at ten cents a bottle and whiskey at fifteen cents a shot. We danced and drank the night away. Other nights we attended the dances held at the Finn halls still dotting the countryside. We had some lively times. The halls closed down mostly during the ensuing years as the younger generations of Finns left the UP for college on the GI Bill or better job opportunities in the auto plants of Detroit or the steel mills of Chicago as the mining industry petered out.
The Finn halls originally were mostly pro-CP or Wobbly in their working class orientation with some non-political Temperance halls. Years later when driving through Bruce’s Crossing I noted an old Finnish co-op hall in the town. There was also a large more conservative Lutheran presence on the UP, influenced by Suomi College (now Finlandia University in Hancock). There was also a large doctrinaire immigrant Laestadian population with their families, which looked down on worldly pleasures like dancing, drinking, card-playing and motion pictures.
I was still driving around without a license so one day Bruno and I dropped by the county sheriff’s office in Iron Mountain, which doubled as a Michigan State DMV. I filled out all the paperwork, took an eye test and paid my fee. We had busted into the middle of a daytime poker game between the sheriff, his deputies and local cronies. One of the deputies asked the sheriff, “Shall I take him out for a road test now?” His retort: “Hell, no, he knows how to drive,” and stamped his approval on a Michigan state driver’s license for me.
Finally, it was time for me to leave the UP’s fun and games. I left by myself as Bruno wanted to hang around home until time to return to East Lansing for Fall school registration. I decided to drive north to Suomi College in Hancock to see the only advanced Finnish-run Lutheran Missouri Synod educational institution in the United States. It not only still included a seminary to train clergy but was a two year liberal arts community college. It was possible to study the Finnish language there. While I am not religious myself I was curious to learn more directly about all aspects of the North American Finnish community. The seminary was discontinued years back and it now exists as Finlandia University.
Along the way I picked up a young hitchhiker and gave him a ride for a few miles to his parents’ farm. A Finn kid, his name was Giles Ekola and was also an MSC student. Later, he transferred from MSC to Suomi College and became a Lutheran minister. I ran into Giles decades later at an annual FinnFest cultural festival at Minott, North Dakota.
I explored the Suomi campus and talked to a biology professor who showed me around his lab. I then continued on to Ironwood, Michigan where my IWW uncle Antti Saikkonen had first come to the United States at 16 in 1908 or so to work in the mines. From Ironwood I crossed a river to Hurley, Wisconsin which was notorious in its booming earlier heyday for its miners’ bars and brothels. From there I drove Southeast through the state of Wisconsin where I’d never been. I drove toward Milwaukee and Chicago, camping out at night in state parks on canned food that I ate cold.
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
I had a near-death experience in South Eastern Wisconsin while night driving on a paved blacktop two-laned country road. I saw a bright white light far up the road ahead of me. As an inexperienced driver I kept getting closer to the light and didn’t slow down. As I got close I noticed it was a man on a tractor with a bright light in the rear moving in the same direction as I. I slammed on the brakes in panic, just missing rear-ending him. If I hadn’t stopped then and there I would have died then in my 21st year which would have been the grisly end to my story.
I did continue though badly shaken. It was nightfall as I approached Chicago which I wanted to see. So I pulled next to a park in Evanston and slept the night in the car before continuing into the Windy City. I had a suit stashed in the car which I put on to go dancing in a Chicago South Side ballroom. That was my last memory of that trip until I reached East Lansing.
Before the semester started I got a construction laborer’s job in helping build a new dorm on the MSC campus for about three weeks. The campus was growing rapidly and new classroom buildings and new dorms needed to be built and fast to accommodate the burgeoning post-WWII student population. So I signed up with the Hod Carriers and Construction Laborers Union in Lansing for that period. Ever since I could remember I’d been pro-labor with my Finnish socialist family background. But during this brief period was the first time I’d been affiliated to a trade union, until I registered for the Fall quarter at State.
During this work stint I slept in my car in the countryside near East Lansing, usually parking at a pasture gate. I ate many an evening meal consisting of a cold can of baked beans. A decent restaurant meal in those days ran at about 75 cents so I alternated between them and my cold canned meal fare. My first GI subsistence check wouldn’t arrive until well after the Fall quarter started.
Fall Quarter — 1947
This was the quarter I signed up for Freshman French in which I did well.. I was also pleased to sign up for Dr. Herbert Weisinger’s Shakespeare series which this time around dealt with its history plays. These sessions proved as stimulating as ever. I moved back into Mason Hall. This time my roommate was Emerson Bottrell, a witty agreeable chap who was the son of a small town Michigan clergyman, though Emerson was quite secular and irreverent, and also a WWII vet.
Dating was a problem on campus because of the 4-1 ratio of men over women with the massive influx of ex-GIs to MSC. This made it especially difficult for someone as girl-shy as me. My studies went well and I made the Dean’s List quite consistently with my academic success. That was until my increasing beer drinking episodes began to affect my grades somewhat although they remained well above average during the duration of my college years. Em Bottrell was a cigarette smoker and soon as a collegiate male’s fashion statement, I took up the pipe myself. Our tiny dorm room was enveloped in stale tobacco smoke at all times. Talk about second hand smoke, the real dangers of which we were unaware in those years.
Since an American Veterans Committee chapter functioned on campus I joined and became quite actively involved. It was considerably influenced by Communist Party actives although most of its fast-growing membership were New Dealish progressives or liberals. Nationally AVC grew by leaps and bounds until at its height around 1949 it had reached 100,000. Our chapter was activist and issue-oriented. There was also a campus American Legion Post which wasn’t too active. Its chairman lived in my dorm, was quite conservative but a decent sort.
During the same quarter supporters of an independent campaign to elect Henry Wallace as president on a third party ticket formed the Michigan State Progressive Party Club. Since I was opposed to Truman and his Cold War politics I began to attend its meetings. Again the club was under considerable CP influence although most of the students it attracted were progressives and left liberals. Since the US had been allies with the USSR in defeating fascism in WWII these progressives were to one degree or another in the fellow traveling camp.
Another campus liberal group, Students for Democratic Action, led by a student named Doug Kelly, was the youth affiliate of the New Dealish liberal Americans for Democratic Action which was anti-communist and hostile to the Henry Wallace Progressives. The SDA was pro-Democratic Party but was also supportive of social democracy in Europe and Canada.
I was still raw to the organized American left scene and maintained the basic values of the Finnish immigrant Socialist Party community of the 1930s, but considered the conservative drift of Raivaaja and the Finnish-American League for Democracy in the 1940s to be too right wing for my evolving tastes with its hard line against the communist movement which I felt was too obsessive. I had applauded the huge victory of the British Labor Party over Churchill’s Tories near the end of WWII. I was enthused with the actions of the new Clement Attlee Labor government in creating free universal health care in the UK, housing for the working masses, and socialization of rail transit, consistent with the thinking of my Finnish-American socialist legacy.
So I attended a couple of SDA meetings as well, particularly one addressed by British MP Jenny Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, popular leader of the BLP’s left wing and architect of the British program of socialized health care. There was a young woman tabling at this SDA event and I asked her about the organization and possibilities of joining. She immediately responded with an apprehensive look: “You’re not a Communist, are you?” I thought that was a helluva negative way to answer a simple innocent inquiry, with a touch of paranoia. Doug Kelly and his associates were ideologically anti-CP but the tone of the group left a sour note as I had gotten to know some of the CPers in AVC and the campus Progressive Club and considered them as perfectly decent sorts.
I did enjoy Jenny Lee’s speech about Britain’s Labor Government and its policies. During the question period the one heckler who challenged Lee was Ruth Fagan.. Her remark disturbed the speaker which came out of some sectarian left field which I’ve forgotten. This was the first time I’d seen Ruth, a tall lanky angular woman with homely features, but sharp and smart as a whip. She was not enrolled as a student but was a campus “character” who’d walk into classes at random and cut in and raise provocative issues during discussions. She was tolerated as a “townie” critter so no one bothered to challenge her classroom intrusions. After all it was only Ruth who was an integral part of the school tapestry with her tart incisive tongue.
AVC TACKLES RACE DISCRIMINATION
Probably the most outstanding accomplishment of our AVC chapter was its campaign to end racial discrimination at a prominent Eat Lansing barber shop. There was a state law in Michigan called the Diggs Act “making discriminatory service based on color, race or creed a misdemeanor.” It had been introduced an early African-American state senator Charles Diggs Sr., of Detroit and adopted by the legislature. We had a trendy barber shop in the center of East Lansing that catered to college students except for people of color. So AVC took on the project to see that the law was enforced. It was a classic test case. First, a black man walked into the shop, asked for a haircut and was refused. Then we had a white man enter and he was accommodated immediately. Thus we won an open and shut case. It put AVC on the campus map as an activist organization. The Michigan State News for which I volunteered as an editorial intern, gave us excellent coverage.
I don’t remember exactly who we sent in to test the waters, but it may well have been AVC member Dick Trent who I had befriended at the start of the semester. Dick was a black working class kid from Detroit who had been an Army Air Force fighter pilot in WWII, serving in a segregated unit. He was a very bright psychology major I kept in touch with after graduation who became a social worker in New York.
AVC took on any number of social issues but the most significant one during the winter quarter 1948 was the national campaign to raise GI Bill living allotments, in which the MSC chapter played a leading role. The culmination was a national lobbying trip to Washington DC from many campuses which included renting charter buses by the student communities. I represented our own AVC Chapter on the Washington DC trip, my second visit ever to the nation’s capital. Our legislative proposals were eventually successful and we got our raises. I was proud of our AVC chapter for the role it played here.
HOWLAND HOUSE COOPERATIVE
During the Fall quarter, Michigan State News carried an announcement that a new men’s residential housing cooperative was being formed in East Lansing. There were some already standing co-ops like Ulrey House, Ellsworth House, Kendrick House and several women’s co-ops. A family-owned students’ boarding house centrally located at 323 Ann Street was up for sale and a student group was formed to buy it. With my Finnish family co-op background this was a project I wanted to join and pitched in. We’d meet in campus classrooms to pursue our purchase and plan.
It was a well-coordinated student effort and we secured a loan to seal the deal. An essential part of the financing was a revolving fund made up of $150 deposits by all 55 of us applicants. It was to be returned when as individuals we moved out after graduation or otherwise, replaced by $150 revolving deposits of incoming residents. We had a fully-equipped kitchen and dining room plus a spacious first floor general living room. There were three floors of bedrooms with already existing bunk beds and a parking lot in the back. It would be an entirely student self-managed operation subject to university rules governing approved student housing. A democratic constitution was adopted.
We moved in during the winter quarter of 1948 when I left Mason Hall dorm. We were mostly veterans and initially we had only one Black resident, Iverson Bell, who was a veterinary medicine major. and a courteous moderate Republican. among a majority bunch of Democrats, liberals and progressives. We even had a fundamentalist Protestant Christian group led by divinity student and later Reverend Vern Carvey,who led bible classes in their five-man room. In searching for a name for our house, we accepted the suggestion of Dr. Harold Ulrey, an agricultural economics professor and a prominent ADA liberal Democrat and named it Howland House after a former Agriculture School professor. named Arthur Howland.
CONTINUE NEXT COLUMN
We elected senior Bill Lee as our first president, a vice president and 18-year-old Eugene Kiezel, a Polish kid from the Hamtramck part of Detroit, as our recording secretary. Frank Covert from Detroit became our first food planner buyer to be followed later by Tim Tanzer of New Jersey. We’d buy a whole side of beef to be kept in a Lansing storage locker and order chunks to be delivered for our evening dinners at the house. We’d share upkeep duties including cooking for breakfasts and dinners, cleaning of common areas, carpentry, painting and repair, grounds maintenance and a two-person laundry detail which would wash our sheets, pillow cases and towels in our washer, dryer combination. I started out dish and pot washing, serving ,and bussing, graduating to assistant cook by graduation.
There were 55 of us young men as residents, who paid $11.50 a week for room and board. We had a varied membership, and among our veterans even a chap who had been a POW in Germany during WWII,who’d occasionally have nightmares from his experiences. My good friends Harry Doehne from Connecticut and Tony Radspieler from Muskegon, MI had been Merchant Merchant Marine radiomen during WWII. Both were responsible for their own tuition as they weren’t military vets though both faced wartime hazards at sea. Harry and Tony organized a Merchant Marine club on campus to lobby to include merchant seaman under the vets’ GI Bill, without success during our college years. Both were accepted as members of our campus AVC club.
Jerry Kaneko was a California Nisei farm boy who had spent his younger years in the Japanese-American concentration camps in the US, before being drafted for the highly-decorated 44th Infantry Battalion of American Japanese who fought with such courage in Italy. Jerry was a pre-vet student who never got accepted into the MSC veterinary medicine department, but was accepted at UC Davis to which he transferred. He later became the head of the Vet Med Department at Davis from which he later retired.
Us Howland House “Howlers” played in informal inter-mural touch football games, had parties, and drank beer in Lansing taverns and elsewhere. Unfortunately, these beer runs exacerbated me into alcoholism, a family genetic trait which plagued me into my middle years before I achieved long-term sobriety. Overall, Howland House was a wonderful experience, and still exists at another location as a student housing co-op. It was the first successful cooperative enterprise in which I was a co-founder and has been there for the long haul, serving many generations of students.
JIM ZARICHNY and JOINING CP
I have been diagnosed with macular degeneration in my left eye and it’s beginning to have its blurring effect particularly in artificial light so I have to quit my leisurely pace on this memoir (since 2003) and speed things up while I can still see. At nearly 89, I don’t know how much time I have left to continue this story so I’ll try to stick to pivotal themes, and skip a lot of detail. My college life until the middle of my last semester at State before graduation after the fall of 1950 will be focused on my involvement with the Communist Party. I call it my “Political Moonie” period as it was a pretty dumb move but a great learning experience.
In the fall of 1947 while I was still living in Mason Hall, I befriended James P. (Jim, Jimmy) Zarichny, a math major about two years my senior and about the only open undergraduate Communist Party member on campus. I frequently ate breakfast and dinner with him in the Mason Hall dining room. Jim hailed from Flint, Michigan, the son of Ukrainian immigrant parents. His father was an auto worker who was involved in the great United Auto Workers’ sit-down strike in 1936. His mother worked in the volunteer women’s strike support group during this historic event.
Radicals of all stripes were part of this strike: Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, and Wobblies, that culminated in the recognition victory of the UAW which became the most militant union in the newly-emerging CIO. There was a fair-sized Communist Party branch in Flint, consisting of mostly auto workers and their families, served by a full-time party organizer. So Jimmy joined the Young Communist League at age 15 and later the adult CP before he was drafted into the Army where he served in the Asian Theater.
Jim was a somewhat shy, soft-spoken, but articulate guy who was quite sincere in his beliefs. He was then quite dogmatic in his Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism and was what Eric Hoffer later called “a true believer.” We had some lively conversations in which I told him of my Finnish immigrant Socialist Party community background. He was reasonable and understanding in his responses and told me about his political history as well as the fascinating story of the great Flint sit-down strike.
MY CHANGED OUTLOOK ON USSR
From my totally supportive earlier outlook of Finland in the Soviet attack on Finland in the Winter War of 1939-40 which I still hold, after Operation Barbarossa when Nazi Germany massively attacked the USSR, I grew to respect the popular Russian people’s resistance in the invasion of their homeland, which went beyond any official ideology. Their courage in turning the fortunes of the Eastern Front at Stalingrad was heroic whatever I thought of Stalin. I appreciated the fact that the loss of 20 million Russian lives in World War II was the greatest sacrifice of any country. My attitude toward Finland in joining with the Nazis in the invasion of Russia during the Continuation War cooled my view to the politics of the Finnish ruling class in that military alliance. I began to be swayed toward the communist line here.
Jimmy didn’t try to sign me up then and I wasn’t about to do so immediately. I was still in a state of political flux. Had there been an SP Yipsel or Trotskyist group on campus I could have easily moved toward them, but there was only Jim and his small CP cohort, outside of the SDA which no longer held any attraction for me. I was that green and pliable.
I did get to know the other Party members on the campus. some of whom were active in the Progressive Party to elect Henry Wallace president and in AVC. They were generally a sincere idealistic lot, “true believers” in a politics which in an important focus centered on the existence of the Soviet Union as a socialist society which in reality was a despotic totalitarian dictatorship to which these young people in their misplaced faith were completely blind. Including me increasingly. Then and now I rejected the global corporate capitalist system which exploits the world, for power, profit and plunder, but in my naiveté failed to apply the same critical lens to Leninist and Stalinist politics at that confused time of my life.
Even before I joined I was invited to attend study classes on Marxism-Leninism that the campus CP club sponsored in members’ residences. The first two pamphlets we studied were by Karl Marx himself on economics: “Wage-Labor and Capital” and “Value, Price and Profit,” which predated the emergence of Bolshevik Leninism on the scene. In fact these same works were studied in classes operated by the Socialist Party in Los Angeles, having joined the SP-USA in Chicago in 1952 after my 1950 break from the CP. . Another book that excited us at State was John Reed’s passionate “Ten Days That Shook the World (1919) which was a romantic celebration of the Bolshevik 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Reed died in the early 1920s and did not live to see the negatives which emerged early in Bolshevism. But “Ten Days” served to embellish our illusions of our “Big Rock Candy Mountain” in the East.
Another book that we CPers and fellow-traveling periphery were encouraged to read was Michael Sayers’ and Albert E. Kahn’s “The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War against the Soviet Union,” Boni & Gaer, 1946. It’s a matter of historical record that Western capital did everything in its power to destroy this revolution it feared as a growing rival for world domination during its ascendancy. Both authors were anti-fascist writers and Stalinist in their politics. But even the standard Wikipedia account of it casts doubt on their defense of an increasingly paranoid Joseph Stalin’s showcase trials against his old Bolshevik comrades in the 1930s that ended in their imprisonment and executions. Bukharin, Zinoviev, Radek and others are tar-brushed as Trotskyist, fascist, and capitalist collaborators with Stalin emerging as the saint who saved the Soviet Union from their treachery. Because of the authors’ credibility in others of their anti-fascist writings, we greenhorns in search of our political “faith” and indoctrinated CP veterans didn’t pay much attention to the travesty of these trials.
But Nikita Krushchev blew Kahn’s and Sayer’s falsehoods on this issue out of the water in his secret 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU (B) by blaming Stalin for his frame-up and execution of his old Bolshevik comrades. Many thousands of CP members were in shock at these revelations all over the world and walked out of their parties in disgust. CPUSA lost a goodly chunk of its membership, including John Gates, the long time editor of their Daily Worker newspaper. I had lost touch with Jimmy Zarichny after he had departed Michigan State, but decades later we again communicated after friends had put us in touch. Jimmy had also resigned from the CP in that pivotal year 1956. But he opted for a more democratic form of radicalism, including the saner wing of Students for a Democratic Society. Jim died at age 89 in Boulder, Colorado in early 2013.
IMPACT of LENIN’s ‘STATE & REVOLUTION’
But the book that caused me to ask Jimmy to apply for CP membership was V.I. Lenin’s “State and Revolution,” the closest the prime architect of Bolshevism came to anarchism in any of his polemical writings. With my innate anti-authoritarian leanings, this was the closer for me to join this leading political movement of the authoritarian left. Lenin talks of an “armed proletariat” guarding the gains of the revolution from a comeback of the old capitalist ruling class to return to power. As soon as this was irrevocably accomplished, the “withering away of the state” would gradually ensue with the associated producers becoming the masters of production and distribution in a truly communist society. That’s not how it turned out even in Lenin’s time. The “armed proletariat” quickly morphed into a Czechist army under the rule of a centralized Bolshevik command which not only got rid of the remnants of the old order but of the other anti-capitalist parties and organizations of the left., including the Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks right and left, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists who became outlawed, imprisoned or executed. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” became the dictatorship of one party, and then its central committee where a life and death contest emerged among the strong men who would lead the committee. Lenin was no democrat. And this was the “bed of roses” this idealistic New England Finnish co-op kid allowed himself to be immersed in. My application was accepted.
Perhaps it’s appropriate now to insert the late novelist William Herrick’s description of what it was like to be a CP insider in the 1930s and certainly in the 1940s: “I was suckled on Communism. I could recite the party line like a catechism and when the line changed, I changed right along with it. I was a believer, a fundamentalist. I hated doubt. The Party was my faith, my family, my tribe.” After leaving the CP in the late 1930s, Herrick “had to learn to live again. It took years.” — (New York Review of Books on Jonathan Latin’s review of “Dissident Gardens,” by Michael Greenley.)
I GOT RELIGION
Since I could formulate things for myself I have considered myself an atheist, and/or secular humanist. I had witnessed secular rational intelligent people undergo epiphanies or some temporal neurological disorders that transformed them into hardcore Christian fundamentalists whose blind faith could not be penetrated by any form of critical reasoning. One version of Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer.” My immersion into a political “faith” in the CP also fit Hoffer’s description, the full dynamics of which I don’t still understand.
One area where I differed with Herrick, was that deep inside I was unable to vanquish the seeds of doubt. My attempts to persuade my friends at Howland House of my new political identity were pretty much unsuccessful. Like Herrick I knew the Party line, which didn’t get all that much support from my progressive housemates, and I really ended up in trying to convince myself of the righteousness of that political line rather than prevailing over their cogent criticisms of my arguments. So the seeds of doubt kept trying to emerge despite the ideological shell in which I tried to bury them. And I was a lousy salesman. I was fairly popular at the co-op but many people kept their distance from my politics, suggesting: “Harry’s a real nice guy but his political thinking is all fucked up.” Even Christian evangelist housemate Vern Carvey was always friendly toward me.
A GAY COMMUNIST
While we’re on the subject of religiosity, one of my new campus CP comrades was a pleasant, high-humored Southern WWII fellow Navy vet Gil — from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was relaxed and fun to be around and the first gay communist I’d ever met — a rarity then. Gil was a history major like me at that time, and supplemented his GI bill income by working as a busboy and dishwasher in a East Lansing coffee house and sandwich shop many of us patronized. There were mixed feelings about him in our student branch though he was generally well-liked. Through this cheerful happy-go-lucky comrade I met others of the Lansing gay men’s community, particularly from among the bar crowd Gil hung out with.
Gil’s entry to left politics came about through his social gospel Christian background growing up in Chapel Hill, shaped by the Golden Rule, rather than Marxist dialectics, as Jim Zarichny was quick to point out. Jim saw him as more of a humanist rather than Marxist yet the CP did tolerate him because of his warm comradeship toward other Party members. There was considerable homophobia within the student CP, one person describing homosexuality as bourgeois degeneracy and a disease of social decadence that supposedly brought about the downfall of the Greek and Roman empires.
Because of his warm genuine humanity, I felt closer to Gil than to the more dogmatic “straight” CPers with their tougher Marxist-Leninist stances, particularly the hard line bureaucrats from Detroit I was never quite comfortable with and who I grew increasingly apprehensive about over time as my doubts about the “correct line” began to grow. Although I kept them under the controls of denial, I found myself having erotic stirrings through knowing Gil that I had never pronouncedly felt before. Gil never tried to “hit up on” me as he had several lovers in his entourage who kept him occupied. But I’m sure his acute radar sensed I wasn’t as straight as I appeared. It was years before I gave into such inner cravings, finally coming to terms with my pan or bisexuality which terms I was unfamiliar with until my sixties.
I lost track of Gil after graduating, but suspect he was purged with other CP gays and lesbians when McCarthyist repression bore down on the Stalinists, according to former CPer Bettina Aptheker in her memoir: “Intimate Politics.” I believe Gil would have been happier in the more permissive,democratic environment of the Socialist Party than in the autocratic straightjacket of the “democratic centralism” that marked the CP and other Leninist groups who expelled those they considered their unreliable “petty bourgeois” members as the government crackdown of the CP accelerated into the 1950s.
A NORMAN THOMAS VOTER
Two of my roommates in our five bed room at Howland House worked full-time night shift at the Oldsmobile auto plant in Lansing and only took morning classes at State with enough of a study load in units to be considered full time students. Gerald (Jerry) Wyckoff was a WWII Coast Guard vet who hailed from Traverse City, Michigan. Dick Scott, a 19-year old from nearby Eaton Rapids was too young to serve in WWII and was responsible to finance his own education with parental assistance besides his wages at the Olds plant.
Most of the left-leaning progressive guys at Howland were excited by the candidacy of Henry Wallace’s Third Party campaign for President, many sporting Wallace buttons on their lapels. There was little visible support or interest for President Harry Truman’s re-election at the House. But we had one chap who declared himself as planning to vote for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas for the Presidency in his last of several campaigns for the job. That was Jerry Wyckoff, not an SP member but an ardent admirer of Thomas. Although I was committed to Wallace and now a CPer I could hardly be hostile for Jerry’s preference as it expressed the politics of my own family and Finnish community background in Massachusetts.
I had a number of discussions with Jerry about our Presidential preferences. He was critical of Wallace, thinking he was too much under Communist influence during his campaign and too naive about the politics of the Soviet Union, .in other words, “being used”. Later on, after I had left CP politics and read radical critic Dwight McDonalds’ criticism of his campaign I had to agree. But then as a “true believer” I considered Jerry as talking nonsense. When I opted for democratic socialism later I wish I had supported Thomas instead of Wallace in 1948 who was a bit of a fool who later wised up.
Norman Thomas did show up in the spring of 1948 to speak on the MSC campus so I accompanied Jerry to listen to him. He was an eloquent speaker with considerable charisma. He spoke in support of the Marshall Plan as helping Western Europe back on its feet following its wartime devastation. Of course, our CP was opposed to it as an anti-Soviet move seeking to restore capitalism in those badly damaged countries with their hungry people. I accepted the party line on this. Thomas was hardly an exponent of capitalism, but he argued for the massive Marshall plan assistance as a humanitarian necessity. This would also help Europe’s battered social democratic and labor parties to recover and take part in the democratic political process there again, as he intimated. At that time I had a blind eye toward the burgeoning Soviet Union’s takeover of the similarly battered Eastern European nations and turn them into its servile satellite states. The wartime honeymoon between USA and USSR was over, with the Cold War now the reality as undesirable as that might be. But I remained strongly in favor of peaceful co-existence between the two blocs and world peace with a favorable glimmer toward the Eastern positions. We left the meeting, both Jerry and I still strongly in favor of our own choices of Wallace or Thomas in our Third Party preferences.
A political bombshell hit our campus in Spring, 1948. Republican State Senator Matthew Callahan, representing a wealthy suburban Detroit district, headed the Senate’s Un-American Activities Committee, decided to initiate a Red witch hunt at Michigan State. He had a subpoena issued to the one open Communist Party member of the student body, my friend Jim Zarichny, to appear at a hearing of his committee. The word spread like wildfire across US university campuses, possibly the first such student indictment in the post-WWII period, as an early salvo against CP influences in academia. This sent shock waves throughout our Party ranks and we began to mobilize against it. The Michigan State News gave the issue good coverage. Jimmy was assigned a pro bono attorney by the Detroit Lawyers Guild, a young man recently admitted to the bar. Campus civil liberties advocates organized in his support. Jimmy was an AVC member and our chapter joined in the campaign with press releases and other support. As publicity chair of the campus AVC chapter I drew two satirical cartoons about the Callahan committee which we passed out as flyers on the campus. Instead of fear pervading our student CP ranks, our membership grew from eight or nine to two dozen as a reaction, which Callahan probably did not expect.
The State Senate balcony was packed with students and others in Lansing’s State Capitol building. Jimmy and his attorney sat by themselves at a desk on the main floor. Then came the $64 question from the inquisitor: “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party-USA?” The response was as cut and dry as the question: “I plead the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution so as to not incriminate myself.” This became a standard response to most such cases before Federal and State Un-American Activities bodies for the next decade when Communists were being charged and jailed. Jimmy was found guilty for his non-cooperation and sentenced to one day in jail which he never served.
A panicky MSC Administration edict was also pronounced for Jimmy. He was not expelled from school but was forbidden to belong to any campus organization, attend its meetings or participate in its activities. He was just to hit the books in his chosen field in order to graduate. He had a married sister living in East Lansing, and left the dorm to live at her home for the reminder of his time at State.
GOVERNMENT REPRESSION INTENSIFIES
The Zarichny case was but one of many crackdowns that escalated over the following decade as the Cold War intensified which eventually became hot on the Korean Peninsula, involving the United States and it client South Korean government and North Korean and Chinese Communist armies. Persecution of U.S. Communists escalated by numerous government investigative and judicial bodies, resulted in prison terms, firings as security risks, and blacklists, culminating in the Smith Act trials of top and secondary CP leaders.
In 1947, a Republican-led Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Law which circumscribed the activities of labor unions. One of its features was the introduction of anti-Communist loyalty oaths by labor leaders which unions had to comply with in order to utilize National Labor Relations Board services. In the CIO, a number of unions which were under CP or pro-CP leadership were purged from the Federation by the majority anti-Communist union bureaucracies controlling the CIO.
Witch-hunts deprived thousands of teachers and professors of their jobs, suspected of heretical political views. Professor Sidney Hook, a former leading Marxist, who became a virulently anti-Communist right wing social democrat, coined his watchword: “Heresy, yes, conspiracy no,” in which he favored the firing of teachers who were CP members as their prime loyalty was allegedly to the USSR, and could not be expected to be objective in teaching young people. Federal government legislative committees had a particular animus for the Hollywood film industry, causing the firing, blacklisting or jailing of hundreds of film actors, directors, screen writers and others ruining the careers of many great talents. The CP was favored by many of these Hollywood folks influenced by the anti-fascism of the Popular Front and the politics of the Spanish Civil War. Former Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan was enlisted by the FBI to spy on CP members and sympathizers in the film industry.
The infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin drove fear into the hearts of countless liberals and radicals who were government employees through his Senate Committee, deliberately lying about their loyalty in accusing them of wholesale conspiracy and subversion. Not only were CPers affected but other progressives and liberals who ended up losing their jobs. These included numerous courageous non-CP dissenters who defended civil liberties by refusing to submit to loyalty oaths and political persecution.
This Memoir will not focus on all of this horrid history, only where it concerns the life journey of its author during these times. Readers interested in exploring this period of history have ample resources available in the form of books, magazine and newspaper articles, films, records of committee reports, court hearings and other documents, and Internet research to pursue these subjects.
LOOKING FOR SUMMER VACATION JOBS
Jimmy and I had become good personal friends as well as political allies during this tumultuous spring. So we were looking for employment possibilities to earn money after the spring’s final exams during the summer respite from school. Shipping as seamen on the Great Lakes ore boats seemed like a great idea. So we both went to Detroit to secure our seamen’s cards through the Coast Guard. I believe there were both rival seamen’s unions on the Lakes, an older AFL affiliate and the CIO’s National Maritime Union. We preferred sailing union, but if neither was available the employer-run non- and anti-union Lake Carriers Association was also possible.
To our consternation, we discovered that the ship’s crews were generally hired earlier in the spring at Detroit well before our final school exams had even begun. So work would be negligible for us out of Detroit. Jim learned that Sarah Fagan’s daughter Ann Fagan Ginger was working as an attorney for the National Maritime Union at the Port of Cleveland and our chances of scoring berths there might be better. So after our finals we set off hitch-hiking to that Lake Erie port city. Installment #9 will continue this saga.
End of Installment 8