A Life in the

American Communist Party

By Dorothy Healey and Maurice Isserman

Oxford University Press. 263 pp. $22.95

DOROTHY HEALEY was what they call a "red-diaper baby." Her mother, Barbara Rosenblum, was a charter member of the American Communist Party and a Socialist Party member before that. And so it was certainly not surprising that Dorothy Healey herself joined the Party, too. Even so, 14 must have been a pretty tender age even for a comrade in the Young Communist League. She wasn't pushed into it. Healey, who says she had attended 19 schools all over the West by the time she reached high school, had learned to take care of herself. She knew what she wanted -- to be a Communist.

This book is subtitled, "A Life in the American Communist Party," That is just what is presents. It is something between an oral history and a career-autobiography. The life it describes is a remarkable one by any measure. First arrested during a demonstration in Los Angeles on May Day, 1930, at the age of 15, Healey was soon plunged into the agricultural strikes in California's Imperial Valley and jailed there for three months. When she had finished high school, the Party ordered her up to San Jose to organize the canning workers there. Her mother wanted her to go on to college, but Healey accepted the assignment willingly. For her, the New Deal years were the "Red Decade."

Making mistakes -- she enumerates and documents them all -- she eventually became a skillful organizer at a very young age. Through a couple of marriages (there would eventually be a third -- all in the Party), a number of abortions, and the birth of one son, Richard, she continued her work. By the end of the '30s, she was sitting on the Congress of Industrial Organizations council of Los Angeles. She never hid her political affiliation then or later.

During the war, Healey was brought into the leadership of the Communist Party of Los Angeles. From about that point on, her record becomes a kind of insider's history of the American Communist Party. Her sketches of the leading players -- William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, John Gates, Gus Hall -- are incisive and, judging by other reports, quite accurate. She lets us know what she really thought of them and what she really said to them. From the time she was in a leadership position, she consistently opposed the sort of closed centralism in decision-making that had clearly been arranged on the Stalinist model; it stays in place to this day.

If, occasionally, she bogs down a bit in detail describing what may seem to the reader rather esoteric internal party conflicts, a few pages later she will bring the pages to life with an account of one of the many true crises faced by the American Communist Party during her long membership in it.

About the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, which instantly depleted the membership of the American party, Healey has this to say: "It was my opinion in 1939 and remains so today that the Soviet Union was justified in signing the Pact." She argues that in a Europe of weak and even hostile democracies, Russia had to look after herself. If that is her opinion, then that is her opinion. What is missing in her account, however, is any expression of shock or surprise at the suddenness of the move, the fact that the American Party was forced to do a complete U-turn in pursuit of Russian foreign policy: ". . . we were determined to stay on board." DURING THE Smith Act persecution of the American Party leadership in the early '50s, Dorothy Healey was jailed while awaiting trial. Eventually she and other West Coast leaders were found guilty of conspiring for the violent overthrow of the United States government; the Supreme Court eventually reversed the decision. Others, in separate trials on the East Coast, were not so lucky. The American Communist Party's reaction during the Smith Act episode was to become more and more secretive and security-conscious. "It was like a bad spy movie," she remarks. In fact, the CPUSA became more and more what it was portrayed to be by its persecutors. She is frank about all this but somehow fails to take proper note that the FBI-McCarthy attack on the Party, which intensified so at the beginning of the '50s, did not take place in a historical vacuum; the Korean War provided whatever justification they may have needed to go out Commie-bashing.

By the middle years of that decade, it is possible to read a real change in Dorothy Healey's attitude toward the Party and toward the Soviet Union. First the Khrushchev speech attacking Stalin and "the cult of personality" shocked her by putting into words what she already knew. Then Khrushchev shocked her again by ordering Russian tanks into Budapest to put down the popular uprising there. Publicly, she defended the Soviet Union's repression on the grounds that the West might otherwise have moved into Hungary; privately, however, she had differences with the Party leadership in New York -- with William Z. Foster and Eugene Dennis.

Many prominent Communist leaders including a few who had stood trial with Healey only a few years before, left the Party over the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956. It came to seem inevitable that she would eventually leave, too. Finally, it was the 1968 attack by the Russians on the Czechs, against Dubcek and his "socialism with a human face," that proved too much for her. Although she delayed the matter as long as possible, arguing with herself and others about it, she finally resigned from the American Communist Party on July 9, 1973 -- after 45 years as a member.

Because of its treatment of the big events in the history of American Communism, Dorothy Healey Remembers is a wonderfully informative book. It is not, however, a very personal one. This is odd, in a way, for she is a very personable woman, capable of great openness, humor and irony. She is a forceful public speaker and skilled, too, in one-on-one politicking.

Has she regrets? Certainly a few, as she makes clear along the way here, but she remains a Marxist in her orientation and calls herself a socialist today, firm in her faith that people "can change the world, but they can't do it as individuals alone." She quotes Schiller: "Bear respect for the dream of one's youth." And she adds, "For all my own criticisms of the Communist movement, I retain a great feeling of gratitude that those of us who were in it gained knowledge that we never could have gotten any other way."

Bruce Cook, a Los Angeles writer and critic, is the author of many works, including "Brecht in Hollywood."