One spring night in 1956, the scales fell from Dorothy Healey's eyes.
She and 100 fellow members of the Communist Party were meeting in an auditorium of the Jefferson School, a Marxist institute in New York, when a young man interrupted the proceedings to read a speech Nikita Khrushchev had given in Moscow two months earlier. The transcript had been smuggled through the British Communist Party to the meeting. Until then, no one in the United States had known about the Soviet leader's stunning indictment of Joseph Stalin, a renunciation couched in phrases such as "mass repressions" and "criminal murder."
"I was like everybody else I knew in the party," said Healey, who lives in Mount Pleasant and appears in the documentary film "Seeing Red," now showing at the West End Circle. "From the moment we joined, the Soviet Union symbolized possibility -- it was all that we could become -- and Stalin for us was the totality of wisdom and right. All of a sudden, we were told he was a butcher. And it wasn't just anyone saying it. It was the leader of the Soviet Union."
There had been other hard tests of faith, certainly. But like so many of her comrades, Healey had failed to react with much more than rationalization. The Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact of 1939, and the Soviet Union's annexation of eastern Europe and parts of Finland, were swiftly explained away. The party was absolutely convinced of the Soviet Union's pure intentions. "The Russians were the pioneers," Healey said. The western press, the party reasoned, lied about communist activities in the United States, so why should the reports from abroad of purges and mass starvation and cynical manipulation be believed?
But now these American party leaders were hearing the words of Khrushchev himself, and those words amounted to a scathing litany of Stalin's tyranny and purges. Before the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev charged his predecessor with "annihilations" of political opponents. He railed at "how the cult of the person of Stalin . . . became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of party principles, of party democracy, of revolutionary legality."
The effect was that of a saint proclaiming the weakness, the fallibility of his god.
"Within 15 minutes of hearing Khrushchev's speech read to us, I was overcome with sorrow and then revulsion," said Healey, who turned 70 last week. "The speech went on for four hours and I was reduced to tears after about 30 minutes. Fact after fact of monstrous things that had happened. It was a relentless account. But I believed it. There was no questioning its authenticity.
"The next day I was supposed to speak at a May Day rally. You always began those speeches by paying tribute to the Soviet Union. I was told not to tell anyone about what we had heard in New York, but I just couldn't ignore it. So I began by talking about how new societies are never built easily and how a society makes mistakes, even very bad mistakes. Well, the old communists were outraged. You just didn't say that. A large number of them thought (Khrushchev's speech) was just a capitalist plot."
"The Red Queen," as her friends used to call her, is a full-time grandmother these days. After a lifetime of activism in Southern California, Healey came to Washington last year to help care for the children of her son Richard, 41.
She is a tiny woman with striking light eyes and a voice weathered by cigarettes and a lifetime of soapbox speaking. She is warm, quick with a smile and an endearing greeting. Her mind is sharp and her reading comprehensive. The shelves are stuffed with a 45-volume edition of Lenin. She lives on the $12,000 a university paid for her papers and, after a lifetime of various jobs, a Social Security check.
"After a life living like I have, you don't need a lot to live on," she says.
Healey married and divorced three times -- "all of them good men" -- but the divorce that may have been most painful was from the party. After Khrushchev's speech in 1956, Healey tried to work within the party to reform it, democratize it, make it independent of the Soviet Union. It was not easy to give up the organization that comprised all the vision, romance and hope in so many people's lives. Nearly 1 million people had been party members at one time or another, with a peak of 100,000 between 1938 and 1945. The issue of communism and the party was surely the critical intellectual issue of that period.
"There was just simply no question at all in your mind about who you were and what you were and why you were," Healey says in "Seeing Red." "What was the meaning of life? You had that answer."
Membership levels endured the McCarthy era but dropped by 80 percent after the Khrushchev speech. Most of those who remained after 1956 continued to follow the Soviet line. Even as it became clearer every day that the Stalin era had been an unremitting blood bath and that his successors were interested only in tightening their grip on Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the other satellite countries, the prevailing American party leaders remained loyal to Moscow.
Healey's attempts to reform the party were frustrated and she finally quit in 1973 to join the Democratic Socialists of America, a far less doctrinaire group.
"I was no longer proud of being a member," she said. "The sad thing is, about 90 percent of the people still left in the Communist Party -- and there are about 12,000 of them -- still think the purges were some sort of fiction. It's hard to believe anyone could be that blind.
"To leave was the hardest thing I've ever done. I'd devoted 40 years to the party but I had no more pride left in it. Four months after I resigned, I was expelled. All of a sudden I was the Wicked Witch of the West."
Warren Beatty used interviews with former communists and "fellow travelers" of the 1930s as a documentary counterpoint to his sentimental version of the life of John Reed. "Seeing Red," which was directed by James Klein and Julian Reichert, is pure documentary and, through interviews with people such as Dorothy Healey, it seeks a description of what it was like to become, and live the life of, a Communist Party member in America.
Healey's father was a traveling salesmen who brought the family to Los Angeles, and her mother, Barbara Nestor, was a socialist and worked to create the Communist Party in the United States. "She rebelled against the orthodoxy of her Jewish upbringing in Denver and she looked at the conditions around her more carefully than most," Healey said. "I remember one day we had bought a loaf of bread. Somehow we lost it and she sat on the curb for what seemed like forever, crying, saying, 'How will we eat?' "
Healey quit high school and began working in a peach processing factory for 12 cents an hour. When government labor inspectors visited the factory, Healey and the other workers under working age were forced to hide in the bathroom. "Conditions were appalling and we were paid nothing," Healey said. She joined the Young Communist League in 1928 and the party in 1932 at the age of 18.
"I recognized the total helplessness of workers without unions," she said. "The sanitary conditions were outrageous. As the Depression set in in 1930, we were leading huge hunger marches. There was no welfare for the unemployed. The unemployed were made to feel guilty, as if they'd failed the American Dream."
Healey, as the movie reveals, was a beautiful young woman. It is not hard to imagine the romantic figure she cut as she spoke on soapboxes and stages, in union halls and in the fields of California. To be a communist in the 1930s, to argue its ideology and practical political aims, was one of the most intense intellectual chapters in recent American history.
The 1930s in America, wrote cultural critic Robert Warshow, "was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party. If you were not somewhere within the party's wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition . . ."
Communists were instrumental in the development of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), combating lynchings in the South and drawing attention to all the social welfare problems that became the consuming project of Roosevelt's New Deal.
All the mistakes, all the erosion, all the costs of blinkered vision and a hierarchical organization lay ahead. The spying, the harassment, the arrests, the trials, the jailings, the appeals that were all constant facts of life for Healey only served to strengthen conviction and allegiance.
"Joining the party made you feel very special, that you were part of an organization that really understood things," Healey said. "It taught discipline, an organized way of living, the importance of self-study.
"I think back on those times with tremendous pride. It's not often when one can feel part of a movement that's doing something as important as organizing the unorganized and working against fascism. We made a lot of mistakes, there was a lot of short-sightedness, but we made history. There was no time for introverted thinking. You were an organic part of what was happening and shaping the future.
"The big difference between the '30s and the '60s was that in the '60s there were massive demonstrations against the war and everything, but very few people joined an organization. So television picked the leaders, preposterous people like Jerry Rubin. We had a vision."
There are puzzles and crayons and railroad tracks strewn across Dorothy Healey's rugs. The grandchildren take up most of her time now. But it would be a mistake to think Healey has left radical politics behind. She gives lectures and seminars, attends political rallies and runs a decidedly leftist radio show on WPFW-FM (Tuesdays, 12:30-1:30 p.m.).
Healey spends a lot of time now thinking about the status of The Left in America. The verdict does not begin on an encouraging note:
"Not only do we lack the numbers, there's no ennobling vision of who you are and what you're fighting for. There's been no response to this Republican vision. The Left is less relevant than it's been for decades. I think the best thing to do is vote for Mondale and, if he wins, go into immediate opposition the next day. For the moment, though, it looks like people are attracted to Reagan. Mondale keeps edging toward the conservative side to attract votes. At least Reagan has his own vision -- even though it's dead wrong.
"But I still believe in that old, old slogan: 'Optimism of the will and pessimism of the mind.' There is still that great need to pioneer, to ask new questions, to think the unthinkable."