Home > 1990, 20th Century, American Literature, History of the USA, Novel, Roth Philip, TBR20 > I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.


  1. October 22, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    I agree that Communism simply is not the best system. History has shown it to be a failure.

    As for natural good in people I think that it is clearly there, along with a lot of natural bad 🙂

    Though I was not alive during the McCarthy witch hunts everything that I have studied about them indicate that they were very bad. While Some people were not touched at all, many decent people were ruined.


    • October 23, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a message.

      I also think there’s a lot of good in people, but not enough to base a political system on it. And a lot of the bad is not expressed because politeness and abiding to society rules prevail.

      I know the witch hunts have been very bad for the cinema but I can’t figure out how it impacted “small people”. What you’re saying comforts Roth’s position.


      • October 29, 2015 at 4:23 am

        BTW – This is Brian Joseph. Book girl is someone who I helped with an problem on her account about 4 years ago. Occasionally when I try to leave a comment her name pops up. Very bizarre! I need to get this straightened out! Sorry for the confusion!


        • November 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm

          So now you comment under another name! 🙂
          Sometimes IT tools are whimsical. WP wanted to trick you?


  2. October 22, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    You can’t read anything about the film industry from the period and not realize how many people were ruined. Vera Caspary, for example, was greylisted. She became communist for a brief period and then, like many, became disillusioned. That didn’t matter.


    • October 23, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      I knew about the disaster the witch hunt was for the film industry.
      What I wonder about is more about common people: did it affect them too?


  3. October 23, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Having lived through Communism, I can say that any ideology, however fine in theory, is going to be let down when humans put it into practice. I see that in capitalism, in religion, the corporate world (value/mission statement vs. what actually happens in organisations). Not that I’m defending Communism in any way…


  4. October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    “I can say that any ideology, however fine in theory, is going to be let down when humans put it into practice.” I totally agree with that: something happens when an idea becomes an action.

    Capitalism is far from being all hearts and flowers either.

    But still, when you need to forcefully shove your idealogy, religion or theory down people’s throats to have it accepted, I can’t help thinking it’s flawed somewhere. Otherwise, people would agree with you freely, no?


  5. October 30, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    In US politics there’s a tendency to conflate communism, socialism and social democracy into one lump when they’re very different things. That tends to make me a bit suspicious of quotes like these, they can often be terribly unsophisticated so that no real distinction is drawn between monsters like Mao or Stalin and systems like 1970s Sweden (which had its own problems, but not quite the same ones as 1930s Russia).

    The religious comparison rings true though. I think sometimes when one believes something absurd, often for reasons of personal identity and showing group solidarity, one has to proclaim that thing all the more forcefully. The force of one’s arguments aren’t necessarily to beat down the other side, but one’s own doubts.

    The comparison with sex seems much less persuasive. I’m just not sure I see it.


    • November 1, 2015 at 9:06 pm

      I think that Roth doesn’t confuse communism with socialism and social democracy. He’s talking here about the basic assumption of the ideology: the abolition of private property. He means that thinking that people would be ready to give up on private property is unrealistic and thus the ideology is flawed.

      The religious comparison rings true because you enter in the territory of beliefs. You can’t beat beliefs with logical reasoning however good you are. That’s why it’s difficult to discuss with a racist too. Racism has no scientific solid grounds and yet you can’t convince a racist that they’re wrong.

      Honestly, the comparison with sex went over my head. I don’t see where he wants to go with that.


  1. October 23, 2015 at 7:17 am
  2. May 23, 2018 at 9:24 pm

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