A Young Woman’s Dreams, Undiminished Seventy Years Later

The Sweetest Dream by Lillian Pollak. 376 pages, published by iUniverse.

Reviewed by Tom Barrett


In the pre–World War I Socialist Party, the loyal and dedicated rank-and-file party member was often referred to as “Jimmy Higgins.” Jimmy Higgins was never asked to give a public speech nor was ever nominated to run for elective office; he was content to sell the party newspaper (The Appeal to Reason before World War I), to hand out leaflets on the street corner, and to put away the chairs in the party hall after the meeting. Of course, there were many “Jennifer Higginses” as well as Jimmys; in fact, even to this day, women all too often do the necessary but unglamorous organizational tasks and get little recognition for what they do and even less for their thinking on political questions. Nearly forty years of a revived feminist movement have brought improvements but not true gender equality in the radical movement’s division of labor.

Lillian Pollak has been a proud “Jennifer Higgins” for over seventy years. She continues to participate in demonstrations for peace and justice, and she sings with the New York Metro Raging Grannies, whose clever song parodies shine a bright flashlight on the ironies of contemporary capitalist injustice. It is easy to commend a 93-year-old woman for putting her energy into the struggle for justice and to admire her for remaining true to the ideals of her youth. But when she publishes a novel based on her experiences, some may have doubts. After all, she is just a “Jennifer Higgins”; can she really write? Does she have anything important to say?

It may be surprising, but it should not be: Lillian Pollak has a lot to say, and it’s important. Her memories are clear, and her insights are quite profound. Furthermore, she has written a genuine page-turner. The characters and the plot twists keep the reader interested and indeed entertained through 376 pages. Speaking only for myself, The Sweetest Dream has kept me thinking even after finishing the book, about the problems and difficulties of building a revolutionary party out of real flesh-and-blood people, how to handle sharp programmatic debate, and the interaction between the broader demographic from which the party members are drawn and the ability of the group to understand and respond to the evolution of the class struggle.

New York City in the 1930s

There are many aspects of The Sweetest Dream that make it intriguing for the reader, but for me the most intriguing was its portrayal of life in New York during the 1930s. In so many respects, it is New York and the Great Depression which make the characters in the novel who they are.

For people of the post–World War II “Baby Boom” generation, of which I am one, the 1930s are the stuff of family legend, the time of our parents’ childhood. But my family’s 1930s could not have been more different than Pollak’s, except for the common thread of economic dislocation. My parents’ childhood reality was Dust Bowl Oklahoma. My father recalls living in a tent for a year as a five-year-old boy (in 1932). The family had come back to Oklahoma after migrating to Michigan after the central Oklahoma oil boom had gone bust. When they did not find the economic security that my grandfather was looking for, they were homeless. Fortunately, my great-grandparents owned their land near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, the town novelist John Steinbeck chose for the setting of The Grapes of Wrath. It was on that farm that my grandfather pitched his tent until they could build a house. By 1936 nearly everyone they knew had left for California when dust storms carried their topsoil away and their farms could no longer produce.

My mother and her sisters were dispersed to different relatives when their father could no longer care for all of them after their mother’s death in 1931 (when my mother was two years old). Her father had been a prosperous businessman, buying and selling real estate around Muskogee, Oklahoma, where oil had been discovered several decades earlier. When the price of oil collapsed after the stock crash, he kept a store with his father, and, as any good neighbor would, extended credit to the local farmers whose families otherwise would have quite literally starved to death. He went broke.

Pollak in her own way is telling her 1930s stories to us as though we are her children, and in many respects, we are. How different they are from the memories of my own parents! Instead of tent revival meetings, she hears her mother’s shabbes prayers. Instead of walking for miles along a dirt road, she hails cabs on the bustling streets or rides subway trains under them. She attends a large public school—with a number—instead of a two-room schoolhouse that the principal built with his own hands (as my grandfather did). She eats boiled beef and ruggeleh rather than corn bread, beans, and fried squirrels (if the shooting was successful). But for all but the very rich, the 1930s was a time when one did what one had to in order to survive. And that was what they all had in common.

As different as the culture of the urban Yiddish-speaking, first generation Jewish New Yorkers is from the rural Midwestern Fundamentalist culture of my family, the common bond of survival in the face of adversity is far greater than the differences. Woody Guthrie, a native of Okemah, Oklahoma, who came to New York in the early 1940s (and was way more than a singer-songwriter), wrote:

When I walk along and look at your faces
I set here in a Jewish delicatessen, I order a hot pastrami
Sandwich on rye bread and I hear the lady ask me
Would you like to have a portion of coleslaw on the side
And I knew when I heard her speak that
She spoke my voice
And I told her I would take my slaw on a side dish
And would like to have a glass of tea with lemon
And she knew that I was speaking her words
And a fellow sat across at a table near my wall
And spoke while he ate his salami and drank his beer
And somehow I had the feeling
As I heard him speak, and he spoke a long time,
But not one word was in my personal language,
And I could tell by the deep sound, by the full tone
Of his voice that he spoke my language. (from “Voice,” by Woody Guthrie)

When I first came to New York in 1971 and met socialists of Lillian Pollak’s generation for the first time, I experienced the same feeling of connection that Guthrie described in “Voice.” Reading The Sweetest Dream brought the memories of my first months in New York back to me in a flood. It made me remember my first taste of creamed herring and the first time I heard Yip Harburg’s social protest lyrics, including the song he wrote with Jay Gorney called “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” It was wonderful!

The Historical Backdrop—Trotsky’s Final Years and the Struggle Against Stalinism

Most Americans who were politically conscious before 1991 were well aware of the political injustices and economic deprivations caused by Soviet “Communism,” thanks to a capitalist government in our own country which successfully used those very real problems to discredit the socialist movement. However, very few know much about why a revolution whose aims were political democracy and an improved standard of living for the workers and peasants of Russia was transformed into a tyranny which presided over mass starvation and punished dissent with summary execution. And even fewer are aware that the disastrous transformation of the Russian Revolution met with considerable resistance, both within the Soviet Union itself and within the international communist movement as well. To Pollak and to her contemporary friends and comrades, these facts are more than common knowledge, for they themselves participated in the fight to reclaim the legacy of the Russian revolution from the usurping faction led by Joseph Stalin.

The author alternates chapters of her narrative with historic exposition, presented in italic type, explaining the world historical context, beginning with the Russian Revolution itself, then the death of the revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin in 1924, and the subsequent political defeat of Lenin’s colleague Leon Trotsky, including his expulsion from the Communist Party, his internal exile in 1928, and his deportation from the USSR shortly thereafter. One incident she does not include in her “plot exposition” is nevertheless one which is very important to her story: at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928, the translation commission made a mistake. Though by this time Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist Party and sent into internal exile in Alma Ata in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan, his criticism of the Draft Program of the Communist International (Comintern), which was up for discussion at the World Congress, was translated into English. Copies of that English translation were given to a delegate from the Communist Party USA, James P. Cannon of Kansas City, and to a delegate from the Canadian Communist Party, Maurice Spector. Both Cannon and Spector read Trotsky’s document thoroughly and were convinced that Trotsky was right. But they also knew that to say so openly in Moscow would have been fatal, possibly literally. So Cannon hid the manuscript in the stuffing of a toy teddy bear and brought it back to the United States. He shared it discreetly with comrades whom he could trust: his wife Rose Karsner, CP youth leaders Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, some comrades who had come to the CP from the Scandinavian Federation of the Socialist Party, such as Carl Skoglund and Arne Swabeck, and their fellow Minnesota Communists Vince, Grant, and Miles Dunne. It was only a matter of weeks before the CP leaders got wind of what Cannon and the others were doing: in November they were brought up on charges and expelled. Within days, they put out a four-page newspaper called The Militant, which bore the headline “For the Russian Opposition” over a statement by Cannon, Abern, and Shachtman declaring their support for Trotsky and his faction in the Communist movement. On the inside pages they published the first installment of a serialization of the document which Cannon had smuggled back from Russia.

At this time their aim was not to create a new party in place of the Communist Party but rather to convince the revolutionary-minded members of the CP that Trotsky’s criticisms were correct and that the party and Comintern needed to change direction in order to succeed in the revolutionary aims that all Communists shared. They attempted to attend CP public meetings and to hand out leaflets and copies of The Militant to CP members and supporters, and were often physically assaulted for doing so. This is what they are doing when Pollak introduces them to her readers in The Sweetest Dream.

A Three-Dimensional, Flesh-and-Blood Cast of Characters

At the core of the story is the friendship of two young women, Miriam Gold and Ketzel Ortega. As the novel begins they are in grade school, and by the end they are in their middle twenties. They are coming from quite different cultural and even economic circumstances. However, one of the wonders of New York, especially the Borough of Manhattan, is the way that it can throw vastly different people together and enable them to become friends. That was true in the 1930s, and it remains true to this day.

Miriam is the character from whose point of view the story is told, and is almost certainly based on Pollak herself. She is the daughter of a Jewish immigrant widowed mother named Clara. Ketzel, by contrast, is the daughter of a Mexican father, who is a successful writer, and a Jewish mother. They own the brownstone in which they live in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and are able to provide not only a comfortable life for their children but to steer them towards careers in the arts. Clearly Ketzel is a composite character, drawn partially from the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, though Kahlo herself plays a role in the story as well.

Ketzel’s parents, Jaime and Fanny Ortega, are members of the Communist Party and passionate in their beliefs. It is they who introduce Miriam to the ideals of socialism and to a party which they believe represents those ideals. Their home is a magnet for artists, writers, intellectuals, and all kinds of people to excite the imagination of an impressionable young person. The author names many real people among the guests in the Ortega home: John Dos Passos, Martha Graham, Langston Hughes, Max Eastman (who later became a supporter of Trotsky and the translator of Trotsky’s most important books) and many other artists and intellectuals.

When young supporters of Trotsky attempt to distribute leaflets and sell their newspaper outside a Communist Party–sponsored event, CP members physically attack them, destroy their leaflets and newspapers, and drive them away. Miriam hears Ketzel’s friends and parents speaking positively of such behavior, and it upsets her. How could a party promoting freedom of thought act in such a way towards those who profess to share its ideals but nevertheless have disagreements with it? Curious about what the “Trotskyites” believe, she engages a young member of the Communist League of America (CLA) in discussion, and ultimately she joins the group, soon to become the Workers Party of the United States, the organization which resulted from the merging of the CLA with the Workers Party of America, a socialist group led by A.J. Muste, who later went on to lead the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Her first encounter with Jim Cannon is not a positive one. The Workers Party members are discussing dissolving into the Socialist Party in order to meet young radicalizing workers and students who are joining the SP in order to convince them that their program and strategy are right. Miriam’s friends disagree with the proposal, and Miriam expresses her doubts to Cannon. Cannon’s response is patronizing, not taking seriously the thoughts of a rank-and-file comrade, and especially a female rank-and-file comrade. This incident actually happened to Pollak herself, and is drawn unchanged from her own experience.

There are no heroes in The Sweetest Dream and very few villains. Pollak, using Miriam to speak for herself, makes no secret of her opinion that Trotsky and his supporters are in the right, but the supporters of Stalin, especially the Ortegas, are not demonized. They are portrayed as people whose hearts are genuinely on the side of the oppressed, who are willing to commit their lives to the struggle for a fairer world and for a better life for the poor. When fascism threatens to take power in Spain, they are willing to lay down their lives to make Spain the graveyard of fascism. The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) overshadows the later chapters of The Sweetest Dream as it overshadowed the politics of the socialist movement during those years. Of course, Pollak’s story raises the question of how people whose hearts are “in the right place” can possibly acquiesce to the terrible crimes of which Stalin and his faction were incontrovertibly guilty. Her characters evolve as they are increasingly unable to deny that harsh reality.

The Trotskyists are also portrayed as young people committed to struggling for a better world, but they are not made into heroes. Some are willing to talk for hours in meetings but unwilling to do much of anything in the way of concrete action. Others are willing to dislocate their lives and travel to Mexico to participate in the armed defense of Leon Trotsky. Pollak herself knew many of Trotsky’s guards, and she herself traveled to Mexico and met the “Old Man” (Trotsky), “Aunt” (his wife Natalia), and their grandson Seva (Vsevolod, now Esteban, Volkov). One of her friends, who appears in The Sweetest Dream, was Sylvia Ageloff, who tragically introduced the assassin Ramón Mercader into the Trotsky household. The murder of Trotsky in 1940 serves as the climax of Pollak’s tale, as all the energy generated by broad historical forces, power-hungry leaders, and romantic-minded young people blinded by love, creates a perfect storm with terrible consequences.

Indeed, one of the best qualities of Pollak’s writing is her portrayal of youthful romance—and sometimes not so youthful—among her characters, whether fictional or not. Miriam’s excitement and trepidation at the prospect of a forbidden liaison is contrasted with her boredom with the young man who shares her apartment and is always there for her. The blinds are even pulled back from Trotsky’s bedroom window, as Pollak includes his brief affair with Frida Kahlo in her narrative, and alludes to other women with whom he shared an intimate embrace. How little such matters have changed over the years, even in this age of casual “hook-ups”! Every reader who has a heart, especially a heart that has at some time been broken, will recognize the intense feelings of euphoria, jealousy, warm contentment, deep loneliness, and hopeless abandonment that have been a part of the human sexual experience since before the dawn of history.

A Secondary Backdrop—the 1940 Factional Struggle and Split in the Socialist Workers Party

The factional debate in the Socialist Workers Party in 1940 is not central to the plot of The Sweetest Dream by any means. However, Pollak’s portrayal of this chapter of socialist history is illustrative of many things, and they are important things to those who are wondering today how socialists can build on the foundations laid by those who came before us and achieve the success that eluded not only Pollak’s generation of the 1930s and 1940s but our generation of the 1960s and 1970s. Within the broad population of the United States or even within the broad population of the American working class, this may be only a handful of people. But it is this handful of people who are reading and appreciating The Sweetest Dream.

For those readers who are not familiar with the events: as we see in Pollak’s story, in 1936 the Workers Party of the United States made the decision to dissolve itself into the Socialist Party. During the period 1936–1938 the Trotskyists recruited hundreds of young workers and students to their revolutionary program while working inside the SP. By 1938 the process had essentially run its course, and the SP leadership used the Trotskyists’ refusal to support the candidacy of Fiorello LaGuardia for Mayor of New York as a pretext to expel them en masse from the Socialist Party. Later that year, the expellees held a convention to establish the Socialist Workers Party. In the same year, Trotskyists met in a World Congress to establish the World Party of Socialist Revolution, usually known as the Fourth International. Trotsky himself wrote the political resolution for that World Congress, a document called “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.” Often called “The Transitional Program,” it remains one of the most useful guides to revolutionary action in the socialist library. Frank Lovell, a contemporary and friend of Lillian Pollak’s, often called The Transitional Program the sequel to The Communist Manifesto.

At the time that the SWP and Fourth International were founded, the Communist International was pursuing a program of “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialist “democracies,” such as Britain, France, and the United States, as an alliance against fascist Germany and Italy and their ally Japan. It meant that national Communist Parties pursued alliances with liberal capitalist forces in their own countries, alliances that were usually called “People’s Front” or “Popular Front,” or some other variation on the theme. However, in 1939 that policy changed: Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov met with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and when they were finished they had signed a Nonaggression Pact between the German Third Reich and the Soviet Union. The entire radical movement was thrown into confusion. Stalin’s détente with Hitler allowed Germany to attack Poland and occupy it completely within two weeks. The Second World War was under way.

In 1940 the Soviet Union took its own opportunity and sent its troops westward into Finland. However, their conquest was not nearly so easy as Germany’s conquest of Poland. The Finns, many fighting on skis, inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, whose best military leaders had been executed on Stalin’s orders just months earlier. Public opinion in the United States, Britain, and other non-fascist capitalist countries turned sharply against the Soviets, who were perceived as traitors for signing a pact with Hitler and as aggressors against a smaller and weaker country.

Trotsky called on revolutionists throughout the world to rally to the defense of the Soviet Union in the world war, which surely the USSR could not avoid. He had nearly twenty years earlier served as the Soviet Union’s Minister of War. He recognized the strategic value of Soviet occupation of Finland and refused to join in the chorus of denunciations of Moscow’s military action. This was too much for a section of the Socialist Workers Party’s membership, especially to those in the academic environment, whether university students or faculty members. Professor James Burnham denounced Trotsky’s position, rejected the notion that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, and rejected the unconditional defense of the USSR in time of war. Allied with him were Cannon’s oldest associates, Martin Abern and Max Shachtman. Their faction also had forty percent of the party’s national membership, including large majorities of the New York City branches.

In The Sweetest Dream Miriam and most of her friends are allied with Abern. Sydney, her sexual companion and apartment-mate (with whom she is most definitely not in love) supports the Cannon faction, which is in agreement with Trotsky. Miriam herself expresses her belief that the Soviet Union is not a workers’ state, and among her SWP friends is a growing demoralization with the socialist cause as a whole, as their easy moral absolutes are challenged by the harsh complexities of the real world. After all, these are young people who came to socialism because of an emotional gut-level desire for peace and justice and a romantic solidarity with the oppressed throughout the world. There was no way to square such feelings with any alliance, however temporary, with the likes of Hitler. Moreover, what more romantic heroes could there be than the brave Finns on their skis, winning impossible victories against a much more powerful enemy?

The party members who had made hard decisions in strike situations during the 1930s understood the reality much better than the student youth, but their strength was in the Midwestern branches, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toledo, and Flint. These workers were the hard core of Cannon’s faction, but they are not to be seen in The Sweetest Dream.

What we do see in The Sweetest Dream is marathon meetings in which the issues are debated, but we do not see them from the inside. Miriam is basically not interested, and she becomes increasingly bored with Sydney and his commitment to the party and to his faction. Ultimately the SWP split, much to Trotsky’s chagrin. As the young radicals become less young, their romances evolve into marriages, and they can no longer avoid the complexities of real life and the practical decisions that life dictates. What the Baby-Boomer reader of The Sweetest Dream suddenly recognizes is that the generations are not so different. Just as the cultural and regional differences between the Midwesterner and the New Yorker are not as significant as the things which unite them, the same is true across the generational lines: what unites us is bigger than that which divides us.

That may seem like good news, but it is also a challenge: when I came to New York at age 21 I fully expected my party to lead a socialist revolution and probably within my lifetime. I became educated about what we called the “Shachtman Fight”; Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism and Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which contain their respective contributions to the debate, were important books in our socialist syllabus. However, by the time I was 28 years old I realized that my party would never be able to lead the working people in any kind of struggle, let alone a revolution. Its marathon meetings, newspaper sales drives, and frequent uprooting—transferring people before they had a chance to integrate into any kind of social network—were things which drove away even those who were sympathetic to our aims. I saw it happen too many times. I blamed the party leadership at the time, and to be sure, they deserved it. But The Sweetest Dream shows that there was no “golden age.” We can point the finger at SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes for harebrained schemes that reduced our small party by about ninety percent, but maybe there were also deeper problems at work. Moreover, as Lillian Pollak shows us in The Sweetest Dream, there are no pure heroes or villains. This woman’s insight into ordinary people and how they act under extraordinary conditions is nothing short of remarkable.

The Sweetest Dream is an entertaining book, a novel to be enjoyed. However, it is much more than that. It challenges the reader to think—for herself or himself—and to question the “party line,” regardless of which party promotes it. It challenges the reader to ask the hard questions, the inconvenient questions, the questions which cannot be answered with a quotation or a historical parallel. To accomplish such a thing with a pot-boiling, page turning story of young women coming of age is a feat to be congratulated, almost like making Brussels sprouts taste good! The Sweetest Dream can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here. I recommend doing it.