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A Man for All Seasons

Percy Brazil lives in Connecticut and is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

Carl Marzani, The Education of a Reluctant Radical, Book 5, Reconstruction (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 285 pages, cloth $24.95, paper $16.95.

In recent years four remarkable and quite disparate stalwarts of the left have died, but not without each leaving his own quintessential and characteristic hallmark. Although each was profoundly different from the others, they had much in common for, as I will argue, their core was identical.

The four horsemen of the left were Paul Sweezy, Angus Cameron, Daniel Singer, and the subject of this review, Carl Marzani. I knew them all; they were my close friends.

Sweezy, the son of a vice president of the First National Bank of New York, was born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, where J. P. Morgan and other financial types lived. He went to Harvard and earned degrees in economics. While there, he became an enthusiast of the Boston Red Sox. Cameron was an American born descendant of Scottish Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians). Singer was a Jewish, Polish, English, French, middle-European secularist. And Marzani was a sui generis Catholic, Italian-American firecracker.

What was it that they had in common? What was their core? Sweezy was a nonsectarian Marxist whose only political party involvement was with the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace. Cameron distrusted political parties although he too was a Wallace activist in the 1948 presidential race. Singer, a disciple of Isaac Deutscher, described himself as a Luxemburgian socialist, and Marzani was a Gramscian ideologue. Of the four, only Marzani had a flirtation with a communist party (the British Communist Party, 1937–1938 and the Communist Party U.S.A., 1939–1941).

Marzani was born in Rome in 1912, attended Catholic school, and was at one time an altar boy at a Dominican monastery. He and his family migrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1924. His father worked as a coal miner, a laborer on the railroad, and finally a presser in the garment industry. His mother was a knitting machine worker. Carl went to school in Scranton and, although he spoke no English when he arrived in the United States, six years later he was offered scholarships at Hamilton College in New York (for $190) and Williams College in Massachusetts (for $450). He accepted the latter.

His classmates included Richard Helms (who later achieved fame and notoriety in the CIA) and Herb Stein (who became chair of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors). In the class elections of 1935, Helms was perceptively voted “most likely to succeed,” receiving 52 votes to 7 for Marzani. In the “most brilliant” category, Marzani won with 42 votes to 23 for Helms, and Stein got 19. Years later, Helms, who lied under oath before a Congressional committee, received a slap on the wrist. Marzani, on joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, withheld any mention of his earlier membership in the Communist Party. He did this with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the people involved in hiring him, all of whom were aware of his political past. The result was he was sent to prison for three years.

The story of how and when Marzani became a political activist is of great interest. As the most brilliant student of the year, Williams College sent him to Oxford University. He wanted to become a playwright, and at Oxford he immersed himself in drama (writing, directing, and producing plays). The August 4, 1938, 0xford Mail has a page describing a presentation of Chaucer’s “Nonnes Preestes Tale,” with Professor J. R. R. Tolkein, and produced by Marzani. Hitler, Mussolini, and the Spanish Civil War made 1938 a year of ferment in Europe. I suspect the drama of those times made Marzani interested in politics, and he started attending Communist Party meetings at the university. He applied for, and obtained, membership in the British Communist Party. During the summer he vacationed in the south of France and crossed the border into Spain to see what was going on. He went to the front and joined up with the anarchist Durruti Column. The leaders of the column thought he was a Comintern agent and told him that he’d better get out of the country. He was in Spain all of three days.

It turned out that he was at the same front as George Orwell, who came back from Spain a dedicated anticommunist. Marzani, however, came back from Spain a dedicated antifascist.

Nobody ever got rich being a lefty. Society rarely rewards such misguided souls. On the contrary, a pound of flesh is usually required, and each of our four stalwarts had to pay. At Harvard, Sweezy was passed over for appointment to a tenured professorship, despite Joseph Schumpeter’s campaign on his behalf. Cameron lost his job as editor in chief at Little Brown. Singer left his job at the Economist in order to write Prelude to Revolution in 1968. Marzani was sent to prison for three years.

Nothing daunted them. Sweezy, who had already written the classic Theory of Capitalist Development, went on to write (with Paul Baran) Monopoly Capital, and with Leo Huberman founded Monthly Review in 1948. Harry Magdoff came on board in 1968 as coeditor of MR and together Sweezy and Magdoff wrote Reviews of the Month for MR, many of which were reprinted as pamphlets or collected into books.

Cameron spent ten years fishing, hunting, and writing books on the economy and globalization, and then started a publishing company (which Marzani later joined). Cameron also wrote the famous L. L. Bean Game and Fish Cook Book—the proceeds of which, he told me, enabled him to live a most comfortable life in old age and guaranteed his pleasure in a daily pre-lunch martini.

Singer went on to write three major works, The Road to Gdansk; Is Socialism Doomed?; and his last and defining book Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? He also was the European correspondent for the Nation for some twenty years. Gore Vidal wrote of Singer that he was “one of the best, and certainly the sanest, interpreters of things European for American readers.”

When Marzani came out of jail he decided to forego his ambition of becoming a playwright and would instead spend the rest of his life defending and promoting democracy. In the dark days of Truman, McCarthy, Jenner, Dulles, Parnell Thomas, and Eastland, he thought of himself as being part of the “American resistance.” This book, Reconstruction, is the fifth book of his extended memoirs, which are collectively titled, The Education of a Reluctant Radical. The preceding volumes, Roman Childhood, Growing Up American, Munich and Dying Empires, and From Pentagon to Penitentiary combine to describe not only his life but also his times—what Eric Hobsbawm has called “the extraordinary and terrible world of the past century.” Marzani takes you through his own involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the Communist movement of the late 1930s and early ’40s; his work in the OSS during the war and on the staff of the U.S. State Department after the war; his documentary filmmaking for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Union (UE); his indictment and trials all the way up to the Supreme Court; his three years in jail; and then his becoming a writer.

His first book was We Can Be Friends: Origins of the Cold War, followed by a semi-autobiographical novel, The Survivor, and a book on ecology, The Wounded Earth. Altogether, after coming out of prison, Marzani wrote eleven books, many pamphlets, essays in Monthly Review, the Nation, and In These Times, and a biweekly Letter from America in Ethnos, a Greek newspaper. He also made five documentary films.

Some have written that Orwell was the man of the century, but I submit that Marzani was a better man. When he was indicted in January 1947 his father was dead and his mother, a religious Italian immigrant woman without much formal education, was living with Carl and his family. She was terrified that her son might be sent to prison and cried inconsolably. Carl, in an attempt to mollify her, said, “All right, if you’re going to break down I’ll fix it. I’ll go to the government and make a bargain. I’ll tell them about my Communist friends.” His mother turned to him and cried out, “Oh, no. You can’t, you can’t do that.” It was the sanction Marzani needed, and he accepted his punishment. In contrast Orwell, who has been described as a supremely honest man, an honorable man, did not hesitate to inform on his friends to British intelligence. Which is more honorable? To go to prison, or to be a stool pigeon?

Italo Calvino, the renowned Italian journalist, resistance fighter during the Second World War, and one of the most important Italian fiction writers of the twentieth century, has written that Marzani was “The only man truthfully and completely in love with the United States….a unique man…of hard coherence. He has succeeded in thinking in such a completely American idiom because he succeeds in making operative the enormous difference between Americans and Europeans.”

Those fortunate enough to have known Carl will remember that he was a conversationalist par excellence and a great raconteur. True to form this book is full of anecdotes about his encounters with such luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, Che Guevara, Fidel, Nehru, Ghandi, Gerhardt Eisler, Arthur Garfield Hays, Howard Fast, General Donovan, Henry Wallace, Chief Justice Vinson, Justice William Douglas, John Ford and many others. When he was jailed, more than a thousand prominent Americans signed a petition for his release, including three Nobel Prize winners (Einstein, Shapley, and Thomas Mann), and professors from Harvard, Amherst, Columbia, Yale, and Stanford. Also many clergy, lawyers, and writers such as Norman Mailer, Louis Untermeyer, and Millen Brand, and theater folk including Garson Kanin signed the petition. Why did all these people petition for his release? Well, simply because an enormous injustice had taken place.

It is instructive to consider the circumstances leading up to the Marzani indictment. After the Second World War, Congress enacted the False Claim Statute, which extended the usual statute of limitations and was intended as a means of prosecuting those corporations and businesses which had overcharged and defrauded the government during the war.

Marzani had already resigned from the State Department and had made a documentary for the UE. The movie, Deadline for Action, described how the J. P. Morgan Group controlled General Electric, U.S. Steel, and AT&T, and how the crippling of trade unions in 1919 had opened the doors to the pro-business administrations of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and ultimately to the Great Depression. Leo Huberman called it “the best labor film ever made.”

General Electric bought eleven prints of the film, and it was reported that someone in corporate America had approached the Treasury Department seeking retribution. Apparently one of the lawyers on the staff of the Treasury Department came up with the theory that Marzani could be indicted for defrauding the government during the war, when he received a sergeant’s pay in the OSS, for making a false and fraudulent statement by failing to disclose that he had previously been a member of the Communist Party. As Carl writes in this book, “The OSS was fully aware of my political past, before I was hired. All my superiors knew.” This has been confirmed by Professor Edward S. Mason of Harvard University who was the OSS representative in the intelligence arm of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs. Mason was responsible to General Donovan, and he had to approve Carl’s employment.

There were eleven counts in the indictment, nine of which were thrown out. The remaining two had to do with the exit interview which Marzani had with a State Department officer, at which no notes were taken. The officer alleged that in the interview Marzani had denied his membership in the Communist Party. Marzani was found guilty. The Appeals Court upheld the conviction (despite a vigorous defense by Arthur Garfield Hays), and the case wound up in the Supreme Court. The Court at the time consisted of Chief Justice Vinson, and Justices Frankfurter, Black, Murphy, Rutledge, Reed, Jackson, Burton, and William O. Douglas. The Court split four to four, with Justice Douglas abstaining. A few weeks later the Court agreed to a second hearing of the case (only the eighth time in the history of the Court that it agreed to a rehearing). Marzani felt encouraged and believed that Douglas had changed his mind and was prepared to vote. When the Court reconvened, Douglas gathered up his papers and left the bench. Once again the Court split four to four, and Marzani went to jail.

Why did Douglas, a well known liberal who almost always voted with Black, recuse himself? It is believed that Douglas was positioning himself to be a presidential candidate in 1948 and did not want to be accused of being “soft on communists.” Apparently the Court was no less political then, than it is now.

As I have said, all of our four stalwarts were my friends. They were all quite different, but they all shared the conviction that the world can be and must be made a better place. They arrived at this conviction through different routes: Sweezy from a thoroughgoing analysis of capital; Cameron through literature and simple humanity; Singer as a journalist and historian; and Marzani through politics and the struggle for civil liberties. I saw them frequently and visited with all of them when they were near the end of their lives. Sweezy, at age 93, was very much at peace and did not speak much, content to let his record and that of MR as a whole speak for themselves, but when I asked him what he thought of a certain radical thinker he was as sharp and critical as ever. Cameron told me that the great disappointment of his life was that he did not live to see the establishment of socialism in the United States. In the last week of his life, Singer said to me and my wife Gladys that humanity has for the first time in history, the ability to destroy itself, and may very well do so. (This view is echoed by Sir Martin Rees, The British Astronomer Royal, in his recent book, Our Final Hour, where he warns that humankind is potentially the maker of its own demise, and in this century.) Singer went on to say that to prevent such destruction of humanity it was essential for the people of the world to change the world system, and that unless someone came up with something better, he opted for socialism. He repeated a phrase that is now well known, “It is either one world, or no world.”

Marzani and I were very close friends for over forty years. He neither regretted nor apologized for his membership in the Communist Party. Like so many in those years, he was radicalized, not so much by left-wing ideology, as by the reality of the Great Depression—because capitalism could not address the needs of the people of the world and it was not interested in doing so.

He left the party because of the arbitrary way it functioned, but chose not to follow the path of others who became professional anticommunists. Instead he chose the path of becoming an outspoken advocate of civil liberties, democracy, and a defender of human rights. This book which covers the period 1949–1989 includes his “Prison Notebooks” (180 pages) which detail much of his life and activities in jail, and the events leading up to his indictment. In the last year of his life, Carl was quite ill, and he wrote and dictated much of this book while in bed. His wife, Charlotte Pomerantz Marzani, has marvelously and lovingly edited his words and, with the assistance of Carl’s son Tony, has published this concluding volume of Carl’s memoirs.

This book describes how he became a documentary filmmaker for the UE and then became editor of that union’s newspaper, the U.E. Steward. He tells how he went on to become a book publisher (for both Liberty Book Club and Prometheus Books) and published and distributed books by Ring Lardner Jr., John Wexley, Claude Bowers, C. Wright Mills, Curtis MacDougall, Richard Boyer, Herbert Morais, Fred Cook, Rex Tugwell, Isaac Deutscher, Dalton Trumbo, William Appleman Williams, Alexander Solzehenitsyn, and W. E. B. Du Bois. That is quite a list.

Marzani also translated books. In 1957 he translated and annotated a collection of writings by Antonio Gramsci. The publication of The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci introduced Gramsci to the English speaking world. Carl spoke across the country for progressive causes. In addition to all this, he used his carpentry and plumbing skills to build the houses in which he and his family (and friends) lived: on Fire Island, in New York City, New Paltz, and Guanica, Puerto Rico. He was truly a man for all seasons.

There is an old adage that the essential meaning of life is to try and figure out who you are before you die. Carl told me that the reason he started writing his memoirs was so that he could figure out why he always ended up on the left. This book, and the preceding four, provide the answer. The complete memoirs of a remarkable life are now available. Now, to answer the initial question: What did these four stalwarts of the left have in common? Well, I will tell you swiftly. What they had in common was a core which they all shared, and that core, the very essence of their being is the soul of socialism.