Chapter XXIII: Amen
Russian tanks rolled down the streets of Budapest. Instead of meeting crowds of people showering them with confetti and flowers in comradely greeting, the tanks and their occupants were being showered with rocks, pieces of debris, and an occasional Molotov cocktail. It was not a pretty sight to stand back and watch tanks and armor produced by socialists in another socialist country being used against socialists in a neighboring country. It was downright disgraceful and painful, and I was furious. I repeated to myself, "The whole goddamned world is watching this, you stupid bastards. Is this socialism at work?" Why, oh why was this happening?
The wrath of the demonstrators was directed against the government, and in principle the Communist Party, that ruled Hungary. They had every reason to show their scorn. The Communist Party rulers were so rotten, so despotic in their actions in suppressing the slightest criticism of their rule, that there was no other way for the people to show their pent-up frustrations. If provocation for the fierce demonstration was needed, it sure was provided by the leadership of the Communist Party.
I remembered myself being furious many times before, but I always managed to turn my head the other way. I was furious when Browder wrote his stupid book Teheran and After but I turned my head on that and said, "This too will pass." I was furious when the Party leadership sent out word to all the Party people in the trade unions that it was important to stand up in their various trade union membership meetings and declare themselves members of the Communist Party. I turned my head on that one, too, and said, "Oh, well, some of us will pay for that stupid blunder." I was furious when the Party was gloating about some Trotskyists being rounded up and jailed during the war and charged with conspiracy under the Smith Act. Oh, how the Party cheered the government on! But only a few years later the government would be doing the same to the leadership in our Party as we screamed our heads off that it was harassment. Well, I turned my head on that one, too, and bit my lip in shame for being so docile. I was still more furious when the Party started to go underground in a fashion that should have been ridiculed from the start, since it took on the form of a Laurel and Hardy scenario. I was convinced that the FBI men had so entrenched themselves within the ranks of the Party that they had a fairly good idea where the underground leadership was hiding, anyway. But I turned my head on that fiasco, too, and was boiling mad about the news that some leaders had jumped bail in the East and, after a short time of enjoying their freedom, were finally caught by the FBI in, of all places, the Sierras. They were dressed in clothing more fitting for the atmosphere of Palm Beach than the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and their pockets were stacked with dollars, big ones--while I and my screened-out seamen were out begging for nickels and dimes to put out a trade union paper which we hoped would be an instrument to save their asses as well as our own. I was bitter, but I turned my head on that one, too, and maybe a lot of other things. But I sensed a long time ago that the Party had lost its zip and its integrity. Its growth had ceased. We were now feeding off what was left of us and that was a big letdown from when we were at our peak in numbers. After each major blunder, I felt the desire to get the hell out of the Party. Its effectiveness was gone. But it was never in my nature to fold under attack. The FBI and enemies of the Party had been hoping that once their attack on the Party took place, most members would run for cover and quit the movement. I did not intend to be one of them. I would not fold while the Party was under attack. I would not bring joy to the FBI by standing on the sidelines and applauding the chaos they helped cause within the Party.
But now the pressure was easing. The Party was coming out into the open more, with the Daily Worker and the People's Daily World functioning without any major hindrance. The press was relaxing its pressure against the Party, and it was time for a new appraisal of my political affiliations. The Hungarian uprising became the straw that broke the camel's back. Goddamn it, I said, I've had it. I've had enough. Enough. Enough. I stayed around long enough. No one could say I quit the Party while it was under attack. No one could say I kicked the Party while it was down and helpless, and no one could say I abandoned the pursuit of socialism. As far as I was concerned, those in charge of leading us on the road to socialism had abandoned me.
It was a Monday afternoon. The air was crisp and clean as I walked down Market Street toward the waterfront. The multitude of newspaper racks along Market Street all displayed banner headlines about Hungary. Most papers had pictures on their front pages of the Russian tanks and the people along the route cursing and screaming. I stopped for traffic to cross at Third Street when I ran into Walter.
Walter was a member of our seamen's Party group. He was also a member of the state Party committee. My greeting to him was friendly. We were both heading in the same direction, and our pace slackened. "Are we meeting in the same place Wednesday?" he asked.
"Walt, I don't know and I don't give a damn. I've attended my last meeting with the Party," I said.
"What?" he asked, shocked.
"Just what I said. I've attended my last Party meeting. That's it for me. I've had enough of the Party's stupidity and bungling. I'm out of it as of now. Get me? Now."
"It comes as a surprise, you quitting," he said. "I can understand these other weak characters folding, but, hell, not you. What brought all this on?"
"I won't go into the many years of Party bungling since that's water under the bridge. But what's happening in Hungary at the present time is too much to stomach."
"But, Bill, the CIA is involved in it up to their ass. That's where you should take your anger out, not on the Party."
"I don't see 'CIA' written all over the tanks, but I do see the Russian symbol."
"The tanks are there, Bill, to protect the workers' best interests. It's a CIA-inspired revolt that was meant to provoke the Soviet Union. Can't you see things as simple as that?" he asked.
"Baloney. It's some more from some characters who just refuse to allow sunlight to penetrate into what up to now has been a cave of darkness. I can understand some people being paranoid, especially when their country is surrounded by people they consider their enemies, but I'll be goddamned if the millions of Hungarian working men and women are supposed to be the enemies of the Russian people just because they came out into the streets to demonstrate to correct some wrongs."
"No," said Walt, "they are not really the enemies, but the agents among them are whipping up the fears of the people."
"I don't buy that line, either. I have always believed and have always preached that when the people can no longer have their grievances addressed through what channels they have, when all the doors of expression close shut on them, the next thing is to take to the streets and demonstrate. The Hungarian people had a grievance and none of the bureaucrats gave a damn about them or their hardships. So the Hungarians did what we have been telling everybody else to do, they hit the bricks. And damn it to hell, the one people that they idolized, the Russians, come at them with tanks and guns and everything they can get their hands on to beat the hell out of them. That's brotherhood? Or socialism? I don't know what you call it, but I call it the worst act of double-crossing and skulduggery I can think of. No sir, that's it for me. I've had it. No more will I sell the Russian form of socialism to anybody."
"Okay," said Walt, "I'm not going to stand here and waste my time trying to convince you you're wrong. But you are wrong, you know, and one day when this all blows over and the real truth comes out, you'll see how ridiculous your theory is."
"Yeah, like it was when Stalin took out all the generals and had them shot just because they had better ideas on how to run the army and Stalin thought they were conspiring to overthrow him. Then we watched a country almost get wiped out by the Nazi invasion, and we wondered how many more Russian soldiers would have lived had Stalin not removed and killed the generals. No, Walt, the Party can't make it under this sort of crap and dishonesty. It's about time I stop deluding myself that everything is great in the land of socialism. It's now clear that everything's all screwed up."
That night I told my girlfriend, in whose house I was staying, that I had resigned from the Party. She was not a Party member, although she had been asked on numerous occasions to join. "So you quit," she said. "How do you feel about it after so many years as a dues-paying member?"
"I suppose I should be feeling uncomfortable about it, like I copped out. Or at least that's what I think some of my friends would say. But, do you know, I feel that a very heavy weight has just been lifted from me. I feel lighter, like I have just been handed a whole new set of freedoms that I never had."
"Like what?" she asked.
"Like now I can talk to a lot of people I was prevented from talking to before. You know, all those people who were on the Party list of people not to associate with. Now I don't have to look over my shoulder for fear that someone will report me to the Party. It's such a shame that so much time has been wasted and so many decent people pushed to one side because their views differed from that of some Party bureaucrats. Well, that crap is over and done with."
Exactly three days later I was sitting down to dinner at her house, having worked all day in a hold of a ship, unloading frozen tuna fish from a Japanese reefer ship. A knock came at the door. She got up to answer it. My back was to the door.
When she opened it she faced two neatly-dressed young men. "Yes," she said. "What is it?"
"We would like to talk to Mr. Bailey," one said.
"And who shall I say is calling?" she asked politely.
"Just tell him two agents of the FBI."
"I don't think Mr. Bailey is anxious to talk to any members of the FBI," she replied.
"Well, we would sooner hear it coming from him, if you don't mind," he quickly replied, with a bit of sarcasm in his voice.
I marveled at Betty trying to protect me and at her dislike for these snoopers, but I felt she had contributed enough to this show and I should get up and relieve her before she slammed the door in their faces.
"Yes, I'm Bailey. What is it?"
"Bill," said the guy who was doing all the talking, "we just wanted to congratulate you on leaving the Party. It took a lot of courage. We thought that now you're out of the Party you would like to sit down and talk with us."
"Why don't you guys get lost? I'm not talking to anybody. Get the hell away from this door," and I slammed the door and returned to the table to finish my dinner. "Can you imagine that?" I said to Betty. "I'm only a couple of days out of the Party and they got the news already. Now that's a good communication system they got rigged up."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three