I first became aware of a group of about 30 to 40 leftists in my hometown in 1957 when I was in the seventh grade who were members of the CP and/or the American Labor Party. They were active in the NAACP and spearheading a drive to organize a trade union in the massive steam laundry serving the local hotels. Most people, including me, regarded them as an evil force almost like a witches’ coven.
I went to piano lessons briefly at Henrietta Neukreug, a member of the group. After noticing copies of Soviet Life on her coffee table, I asked her if she was a Communist. She threw me out. Years later when she discovered that I had become a red myself, she left me her library of books and pamphlets after her death.
I became obsessed with these people about 20 years ago, partly out of a desire to learn the secrets of my small town (my dad once told me that he was in the American Labor Party briefly himself) and partly to understand how people stay true to their beliefs through thick and thin.
A real breakthrough for me took place in 2001 when I attended a conference on the Catskills in a Woodridge hotel organized by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University whose parents worked in the hotels. I wrote a report titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm) on what I heard there. Here is an excerpt:
On Sunday afternoon, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on Jewish farmers in Sullivan County. The speaker was Clarence Steinberg, who co-authored "Jewish Farmers of the Catskills" with Abraham Lavender. Steinberg was a retired Public Affairs Specialist in the Department of Agriculture while Lavender is a sociology professor at Florida International University. Both grew up on farms in the Catskills.
Steinberg presented a Marxist analysis of Jewish farming in the area. He explained that Jews came to Sullivan County in the 1800s to become farmers as an expression of the "Enlightenment" tendency in Judaism during the period. Jews thought that it was important to get back to the land and become producers. Agricultural colonies were launched in Argentina, upstate New York, New Jersey and Palestine. The farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists. He said that small Jewish farming in the Catskills died out because of the concentration of capital.
The agrarian socialism of these settlers was very much influenced by the Utopian experiments of the 19th century. When the 20th century arrived, the farmers retained their left-wing culture but began to identify with the cooperative movement of the German Social Democracy instead. When they couldn't get fire insurance from anti-Semitic insurance companies, they started their own cooperative fire insurance company. When they needed cheap grain to feed their poultry, they started a cooperative feed-mill that bought grain directly from the National Farmers Union during the 1930s.
The feed-mill was down the road from my house and used to go down there on summer afternoons with my b-b gun to shoot at pigeons. (Yes, I have some of Sid Caesar's personality disorders, I'm afraid.) Everybody referred to it as the "coop" but I thought that this had something to do with chicken coops rather than politically-inspired cooperatives.
My best friend Bobby Wasserman's father Harry was head of the Fire Insurance Co-op. While browsing through Steinberg's book, I found a statement by Harry explaining the goals of the Co-op:
Cooperation does not charge that our profit system of production and distribution is malevolent, but does content that it is bungling and extravagant because it has no other way, other than by guessing, to measure, in advance of production, the kind, quantity and quality of goods which consumers want. So it produces more or less in the dark and tries to dispose of the products by acute competition, enormously expensive advertising, high pressure salesmanship and the battering down of consumers' sales resistance. Over-production and recessions necessarily occur, in cycles; and consumers pay all the bills--all the costs and all the profits.
Cooperation proposes to replace this profit system, not all at once or by any revolutionary method, with another system. This cooperative system calls for reorientation--substitution of production for the service and benefit of the producers and distributors. In other words, capital and industry are to be made the servants of the people and not their masters.
In all the time I spent at Bobby's house, I never heard a political word out of his dad's mouth. I was shocked to see that he was capable of writing something like this.
The PM article is a detailed account of both co-ops.