knew him from the 1970s, the days in which I belonged to the Anti-Revisionist Communist Movement. Or whatever you wanted to call it.
June told me once that after joining the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s, his naïve notions about unity and harmony were quickly and rudely stomped upon by the realities of everyday infighting. You join the movement, he told me, because you become aware of social injustice. You join because there are wrongs to be righted, righteous battles to be fought. You join a group of fellow-minded people in the hopeful expectation that, win or lose, reasonable disagreements aside, you and your friends, lovers and comrades, will bond, become indivisible, and stand shoulder to shoulder against a common foe.
You expect to be up against police, scabs, Republicans, FBI agents, and fascists of all kinds.
And Trotskyites, of course. They were the backers of Leon Trotsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party (and later murdered) for resisting Lenin’s successor, a guy named Joseph Stalin.
Trotskyites were the worst, June continued. Their existence encouraged the kind of suspicion that ruined all those visions of comrades standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Let’s say you asked what you thought was a logical question about the Party line, about, say, the difference between a “revolutionary” national bourgeoisie and a “counter-revolutionary” national bourgeoisie (like aren’t they the same people?). Suddenly, you’d find yourself in a little shitstorm of insider controversy. Your loyalty would be questioned, your personality dissected in search of hitherto unsuspected Trotskyite tendencies. If you were in Leningrad right now, one of your comrades would tell you, you’d already be dead.
June was so discouraged by this unhappy power struggle that he went to the old Jewish communist who’d recruited him, a short pugnacious cigar-chomping furrier worker by the name of Abe. He told Abe he was thinking of dropping out. Abe was amused. And then launched into a response for the ages.
“Whaddaya think, June? You join the Party, suddenly you’re in a different universe? This is the real world, bubbeleh. You thought maybe you were going to fight the bourgeoisie? I guarantee you’ll never see a bourgeoisie. Us is as close as you’ll ever get. You get to fight us, your good comrades, your fellow workers. The world is ruled by competition, cruelty, and greed. It infects everything, even us. Everybody needs to be better than someone, to have someone to boss around. The man has got to be the boss of his wife. The white worker thinks he’s better than the black worker. The black thinks he’s better than the spic. The spic thinks he’s better than the guinea. The guinea thinks he’s better than the mick and the chink. All of them think they are better than a Puerto Rican, and the Puerto Rican doesn’t necessarily think he’s better than the Jew, but he hates that kike anyway. And so does everybody else. You think all of that just goes away because you get a card that says you’re a commie?”
June thought about this and finally told Abe none of what he’d said was making him feel better.
So Abe asked him if he ever heard of the Cathars. The Cathars? June was a dishwasher with a second grade education. Of course he’d never heard of the Cathars. So Abe told him the story. The Cathars were a medieval Christian sect that clashed with the Catholic Church, rejecting the material world in all its forms and regarding the symbolism of Holy Water and Communion as mumbo jumbo dished out by a corrupt Church hierarchy. The Cathars, who were concentrated mostly in southern France and north Italy, didn’t call themselves Cathars. They called themselves bonhommes, the good (or pure) people. That was the point of Christianity, wasn’t it? To be good people?
This did not play well in Rome, which excommunicated them. Pope Innocent III called a 12th-century crusade against them, and promised any nobility aligned against them would be rewarded with possession of all their lands and property. The ensuing war drove all countryside people into the southern French town of Béziers, where the papal legate surrounded the town and made ready to cleanse the place of Cathars.
One of his underlings asked the legate how the crusaders would be able to distinguish the heretics from true Catholics. The legate responded, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
When it was over, the legate reported to Rome that 20,000 people had been put to the sword, every living soul in the town. The crusaders burnt the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire, which collapsed and killed those who had taken refuge inside. They broke into the church of Saint Mary Magdalen and massacred 7,000 more there. Elsewhere in the city, prisoners had their eyes gouged out. Others were dragged by horses. All in all, the purifiers had an entertaining time.
This is how Christians resolve their little differences, Abe told June.
“Aren’t we supposed to be better than Christians? Isn’t that the point?” June asked.
Abe said that as a Jew, he’d prefer not to answer that one.
“My point,” Abe concluded,” is that never in the history of the world has it ever been simple, friendly, all in fun. You and me could end up in some union hall, burned alive. That’s the way it is.”
Abe himself quit the Party when its chairman, Earl Browder, was expelled in 1946. June stayed on for another few years, until he was expelled as a Trotskyite sympathizer or something along those lines. He’d probably asked the wrong questions — again. That’s the way it is.