Communist memoirs sought
November 2, 2018 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Recommend me memoirs by communists. I will also accept memoirs by socialists and by genuinely radical activists associated with other political movements.

I have anarchist memoirs fairly well sorted.

I'm looking for memoirs rather than biographies but otherwise am open to anything published in English. I find it much easier both to choose and to read biographies after I've read a memoir, so leave out anything that's not actually memoir. In particular, as you value my mental health, do not recommend me Isaac Deutscher on Trotsky.

These need not all be admirable figures, nor need your recommendation be an endorsement of their every political action.

I'm especially interested in sort of secondary figures - people like Rewi Alley or Han Suyin.

I'd also be very interested in anyone who worked to establish the NHS or any of the big post-WWII social service initiatives in Europe.
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Being Red by Howard Fast.

I don't know anything about it other than that it's a memoir by a communist. My late mother bought it for me years ago, so it sits on my shelf and stares at me because I think someday I'll read it.

Doris Lessing was a communist and wrote an autobiography, available in two volumes. I don't know whether both volumes deal with her experience in the communist party.

Dorothy Day was an important figure in the Catholic worker movement during the 20th century. Her autobiography is The Long Loneliness. She was imprisoned as a suffragist before she converted to Catholicism. She remained an activist throughout her life and was arrested many times. The last arrest Wikipedia lists was when she was 75.
posted by FencingGal at 11:06 AM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's memoir of fighting on the side of the communists and socialists against fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
posted by General Malaise at 11:25 AM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are interested Rewi Alley, you may be interested in Anna Louise Strong in part because they overlapped as expats in Mao's China. Her main published autobiographical work is _I change worlds : the remaking of an American_
She was a pip and more people should know of her.

Are you including folks who were notorious in part because they renounced their Communist past?
Bella Dodd is a fascinating character in that group. Her major confessional work is School of Darkness
posted by Glomar response at 11:43 AM on November 2, 2018

Eric Hobsbawn's interesting times.
posted by 15L06 at 11:43 AM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I suspect you may have already read this, but Charles Denby's Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal is great.
posted by enn at 11:58 AM on November 2, 2018

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, while not exactly the thing you described is in the same, or .. a neighboring (?) alley. It's a memoir, an easy and at times very fun read that, in describing the rise of Fascism and Hitler (and the forces aligned against) , raises a lot of questions about this time we're in now, and how it might look when we're twenty years in the future, looking back.

I actually first heard of Jessica Mitford in an interview JK Rowling gave in which she cites Mitford's memoirs as among her favorite books and an early inspiration. And it's true, Jessica Mitford did have an extraordinary life (and a lot of talent for writing about it.)
posted by elgee at 12:04 PM on November 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Jimmy Reid, Reflections of a Clyde-Built Man
posted by Catseye at 12:08 PM on November 2, 2018

Milosz's The Captive Mind is not fully memoir but does contain significant autobiographical sections, IIRC.

Alexander Dubcek wrote an autobiography.

Jumping the world a bit, both Angela Davis and Assata Shakur wrote autobiographies.
posted by praemunire at 12:08 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Milovan Djilas! Conversations with Stalin is fascinating. Kind of a narrow-scope memoir concerning that part of his life. He also wrote a longer more general memoir (Memoir of a Revolutionary), but I haven't read it. Also, my grandmother was close friends with him.
posted by Aubergine at 12:20 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Trotsky's My Life an Attempt at Autobiography is a good place to start.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:31 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

W.Z. Foster's From Bryan to Stalin is a fascinating read. The timing of his political shifts always kept him near the action.

Fred Thompson and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were both IWWs in its heroic era, and took very different paths afterward. Both wrote memoirs.
posted by phrontist at 1:45 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. (You probably already know this, but Serge is a great writer in general, and all his books are worth reading.)

I don't know if members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party count as "communists" in your book, but Viktor Shklovsky's A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs 1917-1922 is a splendid book (and again, everything he wrote is worth reading).
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on November 2, 2018

> Milosz's The Captive Mind is not fully memoir

And Miłosz was not a communist; that's why he left Poland. Let's try to stick to the parameters of the question.
posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on November 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I liked Emma Goldman's Living My Life although in truth not enough to finish it.
posted by Smearcase at 1:56 PM on November 2, 2018

Emma Goldman: also not a communist! She was an anarchist, and I'm quite sure Frowner has already read her. Come on, people.
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on November 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Looking forward to the responses on this one! If the library doesn’t have what you want, Haymarket Books is currently running a massive sale (most ebooks just $1).
posted by mrcrow at 2:43 PM on November 2, 2018

And Miłosz was not a communist; that's why he left Poland.

Milosz actually worked for the postwar Polish government for a few years, and (IIRC) part of the book is trying to grapple with how he, and other leftist intellectuals, could have been tempted by the ideas on offer there. No one likes to think about how the rest of the left was vulnerable to the appeal of Communism-as-established for a long stretch of the twentieth century, but it certainly was.

Let's try to stick to the parameters of the question.

As you are not the OP or a mod, I'm not entirely sure why you are policing answers here.
posted by praemunire at 2:57 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Strictly speaking an anarchist rather than a communist, but an important figure in general for the early-modern Japanese far left: Osugi Sakae. (The kids today would call him problematic in various ways, but I will never not be charmed by the letter in which he writes casually that when his six-year-old daughter wanted seeing home from school, he thought of getting the policeman assigned to tail him to escort her, "but it was a new guy she doesn't know so I went myself").
posted by huimangm at 3:04 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James
posted by Morpeth at 3:08 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
posted by Morpeth at 3:11 PM on November 2, 2018

'The Man Who Stayed Behind' is Sidney Rittenberg's memoir of his life as an American communist in Maoist China during the 'Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom' era and the subsequent purges.
posted by Selena777 at 3:16 PM on November 2, 2018

Red China Blues is by someone who was an idealistic young North American who went to China to participate in the Cultural Revolution, and who later became not so idealistic.

Parts of Fanshen are autobiographical, though the book as a whole is focused more on the history of the village that the author worked and struggled in.

Khrushchev Remembers, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, and Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes are vintage Khrushchev, a Communist like no other.
posted by clawsoon at 3:24 PM on November 2, 2018

I wasn't able to make the Internet Archive cough up very many of these, but the ones I found may count among interesting secondary figures (if not tertiary):

K. Damodaran, "Memoir of an Indian Communist"
Muzaffar Ahmad, Myself And The Communist Party Of India: 1920-1929
Epifanio Camacho, Autobiography of a Communist: Communists are Made not Born
Bert Whyte, Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:35 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Spider Eaters by Rae Yang is a great memoir of a girl born to an 'elite' intellectual family, who wholeheartedly joined the Cultural Revolution and became part of Mao's Red Guard and ended up working on a pig farm before eventually leaving for the West.
posted by Caravantea at 3:44 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Possibly The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. It is a novel, but based her life experiences.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 3:52 PM on November 2, 2018

Agnes Heller A Short History of my Philosphy

Benedict Anderson A Life Beyond Boundaries
posted by 15L06 at 4:18 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

The autobiographies ofMaxim Gorky?
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:18 PM on November 2, 2018

Did you ever read Bernadette Devlin's memoir, The Price of My Soul? She was still really young when she wrote it, and a "revolutionary socialist" not a communist, but it made an impression on me!

Have you checked out any of the Black Panther memoirs? Even though Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power got a lot of criticism from other Panthers for some big inaccuracies, I thought it was pretty readable and read along with other histories gives one perspective of what happened. I guess it's mostly in the cautionary tale subset of communist memoirs, since obviously the Panthers did not turn out to be the vanguard of a revolution in the US.

I very much look forward to reading the suggestions here of memoirs more deeply immersed in larger communist revolutionary movements.
posted by latkes at 11:20 PM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng wrote an autobiography. I read it a long time ago so I don't remember much, but it's kind of trying to recast the history of a defeated insurgency. The interesting bit is where he writes about ousting the former leader who turned out to be a triple agent for the British and Japanese.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 11:43 PM on November 2, 2018

Daniel Bensaid... French philosopher and leading figure in the events of 1968.

Bensaid's An Impatient Life: A Memoir

Great read!

EDIT: Did this post on a smartphone, links don't show. Regrets
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:28 AM on November 3, 2018

Nikolai Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered, 1932/1934.
A autobiographical novel in the style of socialist realism.
posted by Thug at 1:58 AM on November 3, 2018

I can suggest a few British ones. Depending on what you are looking for, the readability of these varies.


Mary Docherty: A Miner's Lass (interview)
Harry McShane (with Joan Smith): No Mean Fighter
Willie Gallacher: Revolt on the Clyde
Thomas Bell: Pioneering Days
Eric Heffer: Never A Yes Man: The Life and Politics of an adopted Liverpudlian (review)
A J Cook: A.J. Cook Tells His Own Story
Phil Piratin: Our Flag Stays Red (review)
John Saville: Memoirs from the Left (review)
Ernie Trory: Between the Wars: recollections of a Communist organiser (extract, and you might like this short film)


Hannah Mitchell (socialist, suffragist): The Hard Way Up
Ben Tillett (socialist, trade unionist): Memories and Reflections
Lynne Segal (socialist): Making Trouble (collective memoir) (review)
Helena Swanwick (suffragist): I Have Been Young (some extracts here)
George Lansbury (socialist): My Life
Mary Gawthorpe (socialist, suffragist): Up Hill to Holloway
posted by paduasoy at 4:40 AM on November 3, 2018

You asked for “genuinely radical activists associated with other political movements” - that’s Solzhenitsyn in my book - it’s totally antithetical I know, but Gulag Archepelago is a work of outstanding bravery and defiance - and an unrivalled piece of activism in waking the world up to one of the many horrors of Stalinism.
posted by Middlemarch at 5:43 PM on November 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

CPUSA memoirs:

Black Bolshevik by Harry Haywood
California Red by Dorothy Ray Healy
A Long View From the Left by Al Richmond
Steve Nelson, American Radical by Steve Nelson
From Bryan to Stalin and Pages From a Worker's Life by William Z. Foster
Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois
Various pieces in The God That Failed
The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick
First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant by James P. Cannon
Also see Wikipedia

Other US radical memoirs:

Behind the Urals by John Scott
The Story of My Life by Hellen Keller
The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW by Victor Reuther

European Communist memoirs:

The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman by Alexandra Kollontai
The History of a False Illusion-Memoirs on the Communist Movement in Poland, 1918-1938 by P. Minc
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:39 PM on February 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

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