Barney Kadish lost his right eye early in his career as a labor organizer. But he won the struggle in which his eye was an incidental casualty, and he gained an emblem. For the rest of his life, which ended in 1968, Barney was easy to identify. Love him or hate him--and few were neutral--everyone in New York's garment district knew who the man with the eye patch was and what he stood for.
As an element in this very accomplished first novel, the eye patch naturally has an added dimension: Barney Kadish's one eye neatly symbolizes the single-mindedness that was both his strength and his weakness. Through most of his 68 years, Kadish's eye was fixed firmly on revolution--"the revolution that never comes," as his friend and colleague and fellow-Communist Gus Constantinou often describes it.
To the idea of revolution and a new government that would give justice to the workers, Barney Kadish also sacrificed his soul, his energy and his family life--even, when the circumstances seemed to demand it, his basic human decency. "It's not clean, this world we live in," is his final justification, near the end of his life, for a political murder that had helped to build his union's strength. "A radical learns. First he learns there is no God and then he learns there is no people either and finally he learns that there's nothing but the self he's already given to the cause."
But earlier, in his long heyday between the Red-baiting periods after World Wars I and II, Barney was a man of action, and his mind was too occupied with tactics to worry much about philosophical questions. Kriegel writes well on all aspects of this many-faceted life, but he seems best in the early years, when Barney had a clearly defined and cruelly difficult job: to take over and clean up a small, struggling union whose members can hardly speak English, to put this union on its feet and make it a power in the volatile garment industry.
He was surrounded by enemies: penny-squeezing employers, corrupt union officials and, most formidable of all, the Hats--the gangsters who had taken this small union as an easy target for shakedowns. And he was able to stand up to them and finally beat them not only because he was tough and smart, but because above all he saw himself as an agent of inexorable historic processes.
The tragedy of Barney Kadish's life was that other, larger agents of history did not fill their roles as well as he did. Lenin died too soon, and so did Trotsky, exiled, with an ax in his skull. Stalin, having seized total power, made himself more of a czar than a leader of world revolution. The Communist Party became, in large measure, foreign agents for the new Russian empire, and true believers like Barney Kadish were left with nowhere to turn. He stayed--even through the assassination of Trotsky, the purge of the Old Bolsheviks in the '30s and, worst of all, the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. Belief is what matters ultimately, not a few clauses in a contract.
After the Hitler-Stalin pact, Barney has one of his periodic confrontations with Marty Altschuler, a colleague who was with him at the beginning and remained a labor organizer, but never joined the party. "Are you really willing to give your soul for 20 cents an hour?" Barney asks Marty. "Do you really think you can achieve socialism without us?"
"Hitler-Stalin. The Trials. It's a mockery of belief, Barney, this system of yours," Marty answers, but Barney knows that: "I have no illusions, Marty. Do you think I don't know it's a sellout?" But "there's no other place to go. . . . I'm not you, Marty. The labor movement isn't enough."
So Barney Kadish sticks, through World War II and into the McCarthy era. He leaves the party, at least nominally, after the Taft-Hartley Act makes it impossible for a Communist to be the president of a labor union, but when he is called up before a congressional hearing, he tells it as he sees it:
"Are you calling for the destruction of the United States?" asks a congressman from Indiana, and Barney answers honestly: "I'm calling for a change in the United States . . . I want a country in which the working class gets a better shake. I want a socialist country because socialism is justice for the workers. I don't expect you to understand that. But it's what I want." It may be his finest moment, but it is also the end. He is removed from the leadership of the union that was his life, and spends the next 15 years until his death helpless in a kind of political exile.
Eventually, he rejoins the party, but all he does for the rest of his life is pay dues. "Even Marxism," he muses in his declining years, "comes down to a choice of humiliations." But he goes out true to form in his last encounter with Marty, his polar opposite: "The forces of history. That's what you never understood. No man is worth a damn. Of course, the party doesn't care about me. That is its glory, its strength. It uses what it can use. Then discards it. Like an old shoe . . . Most people, they let the forces of history rain down on them. I didn't. That's what the party gave me."
Like so many things in the life of Barney Kadish, this is probably a self-deception. For a while, he may have thought he was sitting astride history like a knight on a white stallion, but in the end he suffered the common fate of those who assume that position: He was thrown into the mud and trampled. In his search for the meaning of his life (a traditional preoccupation of old men), Barney Kadish ultimately had to invent one.
This does not mean that the life was without meaning; if anything, it had so many meanings that they tend to contradict one another and lose focus--but that is what life does, even to the single-minded, even to those who can examine it only through one eye. Leonard Kriegel presumably has two eyes, and in his first novel he presents a three-dimensional picture of a one-dimensional person.