One day in my third year of college, my French teacher asked me to speak with her after class. I was surprised. My performance in her course had not seemed so wanting as to warrant a consultation. My surprise was even greater at her concern. “Peter,” she asked, “are you a socialist?”
“Well, I suppose I am,” I replied. Her disappointment was obvious. She was on a faculty group that nominated students for an honor society, and Dean X had blackballed me because of rumors that I was (can you imagine?) a socialist. Perhaps he had not yet recovered from the McCarthyism of a decade earlier. I assured her that I couldn’t care less about the honor society and that my socialism was entirely peaceful and no obstacle to an appreciation of Molière and Jean Anouilh.
I was not officially a socialist, of course. That came in the 1970s, a decade later, when I was an early recruit to Michael Harrington’s newly founded Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which in 1982 evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, a group then of modest size and influence, to put it generously, but currently resurgent behind the attractive persona, active Twitter presence, and disruptive politics of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I don’t recall quitting DSA—maybe I’m listed somewhere as a non-dues paying laggard—but sometime well before Harrington’s premature death in 1989, I simply faded away.
Socialism was not in my genes. It is true that in 1932, the struggling art student who would, about a decade later, become my father cast his first presidential vote for the Socialist Norman Thomas. But his father, a generally unsuccessful Jewish businessman, voted for Herbert Hoover. And my future maternal grandfather, a generally successful Irish-American businessman, voted for FDR. My future mother was too young to vote, although in Chicago that would not necessarily have stopped her.
By the time I reached the age of political reason, our family were basically New Deal Democrats. We were anti-Communist, fully sensible of Stalinism and the persecution of religion in the Soviet bloc, but at the same time very opposed to the redbaiting and blacklisting of the McCarthy years. Personally, I was a fierce defender of my private property, and John D. Rockefeller would have approved of the way I squirreled away the dimes from my weekly allowance and the few bills that came tucked in birthday cards from relatives. My favorite comic book hero was old Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s miserly uncle, pictured gleefully diving and swimming in his mighty pool of moola. Any feelings of solidarity with the world’s downtrodden did not extend much beyond vociferous protests against orders to vacuum the living room, rake the lawn, or dry the dishes.
My latent socialism awaited a growing awareness, at around age ten, that my self-employed father, who had dedicated his artistic talent to work in Catholic churches, was in economic and aesthetic competition with the plaster statues, conventional crucifixes, and other off-the-rack products of religious-goods houses. Suddenly I became a neo-medieval defender of the individual craftsman against capitalist mass production. My inner William Morris told me that work should be individual expression, not rote drudgery; it should be driven not by profit but by a calling. Such notions were in time nurtured by absorbing the family intake of the Catholic Worker and Commonweal (whose very name, I later learned, harkened back to Morris). Those pages also reported labor conflicts more serious than ones surrounding my household chores, and portrayed hungry families who would be only too happy to eat the food I didn’t like.
At some point I even took an adolescent delight in subscribing to the Weekly People, the Socialist Labor Party newspaper filled with pictures of full-bellied, cigar-smoking tycoons stomping on muscular but shackled workingmen. The illustrations were much more rousing than the Marxist ideology, which echoed the thought of an American socialist original, Daniel De Leon (1852–1914), and strove to remain simultaneously anti-capitalist, anti-Soviet, and revolutionary rather than reformist.
Marxist theory was of course unavoidable as the Sixties arrived. I drank in more than a little of it and have no regrets. Activists in the civil-rights and anti-war movements were searching for radical alternatives to what was then dismissed as “Cold War liberalism.” During the highly fraught twelve months that I spent in Paris researching a doctoral dissertation and participating in anti-war demonstrations, I joined the weekly gatherings of a Marxist discussion group at the reborn Shakespeare & Company bookstore near the Seine. We were a curious mix of diehard believers, intellectual explorers like myself, and members of Trotskyist sects (or so it seemed) who had noms de guerre and sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time. We conducted a long march through volumes one and two of Capital before the barricades of May 1968 gave us other priorities. I am not sure whether it was our discussion group or the events of May ’68 that explain why an American graduate student in history would later find an entry on me in French police files.