Can the Left Be Counted On?
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Published in: May-June 2022 issue.


IN HIS RECENT, RICH BOOK Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture (2021), Aaron S. Lecklider summarized its subject in a single line: “The vigorous opposition to homosexuality in American culture was often recapitulated on the Left.” So it was, “often”—but not uniformly, as Lecklider himself documents. Particularly in the 1930s to the ’40s, some heterosexual lefties (the number can easily be exaggerated) regarded homosexuals as at least potential allies, as members of the dispossessed class in its struggle against capitalism. Yet the fact remains: the Communist Party USA was for most of its history culturally conservative, with known homosexuals discouraged from joining or booted out once discovered. Socialism, on the other hand, has at various times in its history been far more welcoming.

            In the interest of brevity I’ve chosen to encapsulate the complex issues at stake in the history of two individuals that I happened to know personally: Dorothy Healey, for a time head of the Communist Party in L.A.; and David McReynolds, who ran for U.S. president on the ticket of the Socialist Party USA (the left wing of the old Socialist Party) in 1980 and again in 2000. My contact with Dorothy was limited to a single afternoon and a long interview I did with her when researching my biography of Paul Robeson. I knew David much longer and better. Both are deceased.

            To step back for a moment, in 1981 Paul Robeson Jr. invited me to undertake his father’s biography and offered unrestricted access to the vast family archives previously closed to scholars. (It will be recalled that Paul Robeson was a concert singer and film actor who became a major activist in leftist causes in the postwar era.) Delighted at the offer, I set to work immediately, alternating archival research with intervals of travel and interviewing. Some of the people I met along the way were wonderfully open and forthcoming, while others, having had the courage to live unconventional lives, seemed retrospectively hellbent on covering their tracks. Oral history is a tricky enterprise. Interview someone on a day when their bursitis is kicking up, and memory can turn acidic; two days later, symptom-free, bitterness gives way to warmth and compassion.


Dorothy Healey: Unorthodox Communist

Of the many remarkable people I’ve met over the years, none impressed me more than Dorothy Healey, the one-time leader of the Communist Party (CP) in California. When I walked into her apartment that spring day early in 1982, she was from the outset feisty and free of affectation—far removed from the standard caricature of the rigid, dogmatic Communist, though a devoted Party member she had indeed been (until 1968). Throughout the period of her membership, the CP leadership had been overwhelmingly male, and policy decisions descended from the National Board down to the rank-and-file. Yet Dorothy had managed to rise to the head of the Party’s large L.A. branch—the Los Angeles Mirror dubbed her the city’s “No. 1 Red”—and by the late ’50s she’d been elected to the CP’s National Board.

Dorothy Healey, 1961. Herald Examiner Collection.

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Martin Duberman’s recent books includeAndrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary andHas the Gay Movement Failed?