Remembering Dorothy Healey: An Activist with Vision

— Robbie Lieberman

DOROTHY HEALEY HAD a grand vision of a world in which there was no poverty, racism, or war, a world of genuine democracy. To me she represented what was most appealing about the Old Left — commitment, dedication, selflessness.

It has been more than 20 years since I first interviewed Dorothy in her small house in Los Angeles. I saw her a few times after that, including another interview nearly 10 years later in Washington, D.C. These visits made a strong impression on me. I still remember just how much fun she was to talk to, frank and open about her activities, thoughtful in her analysis of the meaning and significance of her years as a Communist party organizer.

Perhaps she was particularly willing to be open with me because she knew my parents and grandparents, but I’m not sure about this. I think this was just her way.  She was both confident and engaging, and yet part of her appeal was a sort of lack of ego that is typical of some Old Left activists. They took for granted that their activism mattered —indeed in retrospect it is clear they overstated the way they were on the side of History.

At the same time, this sense of importance was impersonal, implying a sort of selflessness that one couldn’t help but admire in people like Dorothy.

She wasn’t looking for personal liberation, but to make the lives of poor and minority people better. Despite the lack of democracy within the Old Left, at least on the national level, she and her peers worked to extend democratic rights to those who were traditionally excluded.

My other distinct memory of Dorothy comes from the film “Seeing Red.” At one point she says to the New Left filmmaker interviewing her, “You think you had a counterculture. We had a counterculture.” She is not bragging or putting down the interviewer, or even simply correcting the historical record.  She is explaining to a broader audience that the sixties was not exactly the birth of the counterculture.

What she meant is that the Old Left was for many a total world, a culture that differed from the mainstream in profound ways and in which, (at least sometimes), alternative lifestyles were more accepted. This counterculture included values, music and ideas about the meaning of life, but again it wasn’t self-consciously aimed at “liberating” its participants. It had to do with creating community, and Dorothy was one who understood the importance of music, in particular, in sustaining community.

She always loved my dad’s singing [the author’s father Ernie Lieberman was a member of People’s Songs and an editor of the magazine Sing Out — ed.] and always brought music into the conversation somehow.  In our first interview she talked about how “It was the songs that united people, that gave them a sense of identity.”

While many activists and scholars tend to dismiss people who stayed with the Communist party, especially after 1956, Dorothy stayed with it for many more years [leaving after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia — ed.]. Less important than the choices she made about party membership, however, was the fact that she continued to work on the issues and to reevaluate her own views and commitments. She thus was able to serve as an important bridge between the Old Left and the New Left, providing a perspective on the Vietnam War, the Black freedom movement, the oppression of farm workers, free speech rights, and so on.

I’m pretty sure she was in the southern California Peace Crusade, which pointed out the dangers of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as 1954, asking “Do you want American boys to fight and die in Indo-China jungles?” And she was still there, protesting against the war in Vietnam 10, 15 years later. She shared her long-range perspective with activists and scholars alike, enriching our sense of the Old Left and its place in U.S. radical traditions.

When I asked Dorothy about the Communists’ reputation for taking over organizations and destroying them (the context was the peace movement of the 1930s), one of her responses was to say that other people “join” organizations, only Communists “infiltrate” — a defensive comment, perhaps, but also provocative and insightful. She was remarkable in her ability to look back on her own experience and activities in the Communist Party with a critical perspective and a sense of humor.

She could make fun of some of the slogans and jargon used by Communists, while not letting go of the ideals that had motivated her to join the party in the first place. Of the Communist demand for a return to “Big Three unity” after World War II, she said, “It was a bad slogan, but it was the slogan. . . . It was a very simple manner of thinking, that peace in the world depended upon U.S./Soviet/British peace and leadership.”

More revealing of her dry sense of humor was her description of the Nazi-Soviet pact period as “not the happiest, most glorious moment of Communist history.” But being critical of slogans, tactics, strategies, and even the party line never caused her to give up on the issues. In devoting herself to working for peace, and against economic and racial inequality, she provided a fantastic model for the rest of us. I will always remember her fondly.

ATC 125, November-December 2006