Portrait of a Communist

downie_joelle-69
Photo by Edmund Downie.

His remembrances … are valuable for old and young alike, for they are a lesson of principle activity under difficult conditions in the cause of humanitarianism, against racism, for peace, labor unity, and radical social change.

-Joelle Fishman, forward to Saul Kreas: My Life and Struggle for a Better World

Thirty-seven Howe Street, or the New Haven People’s Center, is in a border zone of sorts, tucked just two blocks from the edge of Yale’s campus in the Dwight neighborhood. The building stands alone, cut off from its neighbors by a driveway on one side and a scraggly strip of asphalt on the other. Its structure dates back to 1851 and looks as if it were cut from a New York City tenement: blocky, with a flat roof and blackened bricks. Opposite, a small strip mall crouches beneath an open skyline, suburban encroachments that make the center seem even more isolated and more defiant.

I’m here to meet with People’s Center coordinator Joelle Fishman. Joelle is in her mid-50s, though the slight shuffle in her walk suggests someone older. Her salt-and-pepper hair runs down her back in a thick braid, and she tends to wear loose-fitting clothes — today, a pink-threaded denim jacket comfortably draped over a pink sweater. She speaks in a steady voice, never rushed, and her frequent smile is one of those so earnest that it creeps into her voice and softens the edges of her sentences.

First, some brief biography: Joelle was born in 1946 in the working- class town of Camden, New Jersey, to George and Edie Fishman, both children of Jewish immigrants from Philadelphia. After graduating from Douglass College, at that time the women’s college at Rutgers, Joelle moved to New Haven in 1968 and has lived in the West River area ever since. She met her husband Arthur in the early 1970s while taking classes in Manhattan, and they have been married for 36 years.

Right now, I know none of this. What I do know is that Joelle Fishman is not just the coordinator of the People’s Center. For nearly three decades, she’s also been the chairwoman of the Connecticut chapter of Communist Party USA (CPUSA), whose most recent program calls for the end of capitalism in America. Her mother, Edie, is a communist. Her father, George, was a communist. Her husband, Art, is a communist. And when Joelle says to you that someone is a plumber, or a carpenter, or a painter, she says it the same way that the well-heeled mother of an upper-class boy might tell you that her son is a lawyer — as if the profession were a testament to the person’s inner character.

To say that Joelle Fishman was destined to become a fixture of the New Haven left would be somewhat of an exaggeration. “If you had asked me when I was in high school, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, I think I [would have] said a teacher,” she tells me.

Even if Joelle wasn’t yet involved in politics in high school, growing up in the Fishman household meant she knew well the outlook of the working- class left. Both her parents came from immigrant families in Philadelphia, and her mother’s story, in particular, reads as a parable of the working- class struggle. Growing up in the Depression, Edie never finished high school; both her parents were ill, and she and her sister had to take turns staying home to take care of them. She worked unskilled jobs for most of her adult life, and it was only after Joelle graduated college that Edie could finish her own education and move up to a better job as an art teacher.

Edie and George met as members of the Young Communist League in the late 1930s, and their shared loyalties formed the foundation of a marriage that would last 67 years, until George’s passing in 2009. (In reflections he wrote in 2007 for his 90th birthday, he refers to her as his “comrade-in-arms.”) Their dedication to communism didn’t come without its drawbacks; in 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaigns forced George out of his job as a high school history teacher. But their commitment left a lasting impression on their daughter, who stresses to me how “fortunate” she feels to have grown up in a household committed to the values she espouses today.

To this day, the family remains close. Joelle tells me with a note of tenderness that, before George passed away, he and Edie were inseparable. Now, Joelle and her mother take a walk every day — three times around Wooster Square, when the weather’s good. Joelle is fiercely protective of her family, as I find out when I ask when Edie dropped out of school. Her response makes clear to me that’s none of my business.

Joelle’s shift into politics began at Douglass College, where she joined the local W.E.B. DuBois Club, a

CPUSA-sponsored youth group. She also tried her hand at journalism, editing the college newspaper and documenting life in the local housing projects. By the time graduation rolled around in 1968, she knew that her future would have little to do with her B.A. in speech pathology. “Doing that work required all of my energy and attention and skills,” she says. “It took everything out of me, and I didn’t want that to be my whole life.”

Upon graduating, Joelle moved to New Haven, where she met Sid Taylor, the plumber who then chaired the CPUSA’s Connecticut chapter (CT CPUSA). He organized her first job in the party, running the chapter’s bookstore on Broadway. Soon enough, she was commuting to New York for classes at a party-run school in Manhattan.

From its early stages, the party proved a breeding ground for some of the most important friendships in Joelle’s life. One was with Sid Taylor, who acted as her mentor during her early years in the party. Every day for the four years she ran the bookstore, she would call him at 4:00 p.m. and pick his brain on current events. “He was a fabulous human being,” she says, “a worker-scholar.” Meanwhile, down in Manhattan, she became friends with a party organizer from Westchester County named Arthur Perlo, and they eventually married. (Interestingly, Arthur’s father Victor Perlo was a world-famous Marxist economist as well as a suspected Soviet spy. Joelle tells me the former but not the latter.)

But Joelle wasn’t in the CPUSA to make friends. She was there because she thought they were right. Marx was right, she tells me, in predicting the end of capitalism, to be replaced by socialism and then communism. “I believe people will see,” she says. “If they don’t, well,” — she chuckles resignedly — “but I really think that objective conditions kind of force the issue.”

The Party bookstore left Broadway in 1974, but Sid already had Joelle taking on a much bigger project: running for Congress, or, as she jokingly puts it, “baptism by fire.” Joelle was, in some ways, an improbable choice — just 28 years old, and not a campaign type by nature. (“When I joined the Communist Party, I doubt there was anybody who was more quiet.”) Yet she would run for Congress in Connecticut’s Third District every two years from 1974 to 1982, with her best campaign in 1976, when she received 1.7% of the vote.

The CPUSA has not put up candidates for the seat since Joelle topped running. She speaks highly of 1982 victor Bruce Morrison and his successor, current Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and she’s also a steadfast supporter of Barack Obama, a man who has lost much of the left’s confidence since he took office in 2009. She went door- to-door for him in 2008, writing on CT CPUSA’s blog that his election represented a chance to “uproot ultra- right corporate political dominance.” Today, she sees the Tea Party as the real villains of the past three years. “When you look at the things that have been accomplished in the face of that,” she says, “I find it amazing.”

Defending Obama brings out in Joelle an ideological flexibility surprising for a leader of a movement often caricatured for rigid thinking. Conservative efforts to label Obama a socialist are “ridiculous,” she says angrily, “because that’s not what he is. But it’s also ridiculous,” she continues, because it’s suggesting that “socialism is a bad word, which it’s not, and which loads of people in this country are coming to understand.” Joelle believes that Obama is only the first step. The real change will come later.

In 1968, when Joelle arrived in New Haven, she went to Yale to apply for jobs. She thought her college degree would give her a shot at a relatively high-level position. The staffer present told her that she couldn’t hope for anything more than a clerical job. “I said, ‘But I just worked my way through college with clerical jobs,’” she says. “And she said, ‘Then go look somewhere else, Miss Fishman.’” The way the staffer spat out Joelle’s last name made it clear, Joelle says, she wasn’t interested in hiring any Jews. Telling this story, Joelle catches herself. “That’s not a big feature of my life. I don’t know why I’m going into that.”

It’s hard to find elements of Joelle’s life that both matter to her and don’t involve her politics. She’s a secular Jew, but it’s clearly not a big part of her identity. (About the Holocaust, she says, “They did go for the Communists first, and the trade unionists, and that isn’t always fully appreciated and known — that it was beyond Jewish people.”) She calls the friends she’s made through activism her “extended family.” And she considers politics the foundation of her relationship with her husband, as it was for her father and mother. “What [Art] thinks is important,” she says. “We share those values, and I think that creates a really strong bond in a marriage.”

In fact, it’s thanks to Art that she has been able to devote herself to politics at all. The CPUSA used to cobble together a $50 stipend each week for her, but she tells me that ended some 25 years ago. She and Art live mostly on the income he earned working at Yale over the past thirty-five years. Volunteering full-time “is a risky thing to do in terms of your later years — you don’t have the same equity buildup,” she admits. “But I just feel that I’ve been given an opportunity to do something I love.”

Today Joelle shows little evidence of the reticence that inhibited her in her pre- campaign days. Thirty-eight years as an activist have left Joelle quite at ease asserting communist viewpoints such as the inevitable collapse of capitalism, the pervasive racial inequalities in America today, and the revolutionary promise of socialism. Buttressing this ideological framework is a host of anecdotes that she relates with the ease of a seasoned activist — stories about the night Yale workers unionized, about Sid Taylor’s first years in the Party, about legislation that CT CPUSA helped design to ease the lives of New Haven’s working class.

Memories unattached to this network of stories can sometimes elude her. She can’t remember when she became chairwoman of the Communist Party (“sometime in the mid-1980s”). Once, she even asks me when “nine-one-one” happened. It’s as if there’s not a place in her head for this sort of extraneous noise, not when a revolution is on the way.

And it is on the way, by some definition or another. “I think we’re living in — well, if you want to use the word ‘revolution’ to mean ‘change’ — I think we’re living in revolutionary times,” she says. She pulls out a favorite talking point, a December 2011 Pew Center poll showing that Americans aged 18-29 view socialism more favorably than capitalism. “The extremity of the control of wealth in just such a few hands and what that means for the living conditions and the shattered hopes and dreams of millions of people — it’s an objective force that’s bringing people together.” In the Party, she sees that force made real. “It’s so frequent,” she tells me, “that someone will join the Communist Party and they’ll say, ‘Wow, I’ve really been a communist all my life, but I never knew it.’”

In the eyes of many on America’s left, 2012 has not been a kind year. The number of Occupy camps shrinks each week. The economy continues to sag. Obamacare could fall within the month. All of the local victories over the past few decades that Joelle says CT CPUSA helped to secure — a civilian review board to oversee policing in Hartford, more democratic ballot access regulations in Connecticut, a six-year skirmish in tandem with unions to prevent the closing of the Winchester rifle factory — may seem small in the face of these setbacks. But she finds strength in her conviction that capitalism should fall, that it will fall, that it must fall — because the people demand it.

In keeping with the communist tradition of self-education, the People’s Center contains an

impressive collection of leftist books and pamphlets that spill out from the third-floor library, past the art gallery, and all the way down to the People’s World office. After one of our interviews, Joelle takes me upstairs into the thick of this collection, to a stack of boxes on the near wall of the art gallery. She’s got something to show me; she knows I lean left in my politics, and, like any good activist, she doesn’t pass up opportunities to advance the movement.

Bending down, she pulls out from one of the boxes a spare-looking white book, titled, “Saul Kreas: My Life and Struggle for a Better World.” Joelle put this book together on Saul’s behalf back in the 1970s by taking dictation from Saul for five years, one hour each week. She assumes he asked her because she was an organizer for the Party. As for why he wanted his biography written, she says, “He knew that he had a lot of important experiences. That’s all.” Her face is blank and somewhat impatient, as if she doesn’t understand why I would ask these questions.

It is not just anyone who would volunteer an hour each week for five years to take dictation for another person’s autobiography because of his politics. Nor is it just anyone who would have the strength of purpose to devote a lifetime’s work to a party that most Americans consider either a relic of the past or a threat to American values. Even at a time when CPUSA

membership figures are hovering at just a few thousand, she wants to talk about the Party’s future — about breaking down barriers between races, about empowering a wave of young people restless for change, about helping to unite the world around the promise of a better tomorrow.

At the end of our first interview, after fielding 50 minutes of questions about her past, Joelle asks me if she can address a different topic. “Before we finish, I want to say a little bit more about today,” she tells me, “about these times.” She will do the same at the end of our final interview, to make sure that we have fully covered the subject. It is the only thing that she explicitly asks to address, the last message she feels the need to share. After all, these are revolutionary times.

Comments

  • YaleHistorian

    The People’s Center is a vital resource for a range of groups serving the New Haven community. But the building on Howe St. is in urgent need of interior and exterior renovations, totaling many thousands of dollars. Check out the blog to learn more or get involved: [peoplescenter.blogspot.com][1]

    [1]: http://peoplescenter.blogspot.com/

  • Dancer

    I’m curious that the author treats his interviewee as if she is disconnected, except theoretically, from 2012. Or does that honor belong to the editor?

    What philosophy, what reducing lens does the YDN choose in presenting an article about a community activist that excludes her current activities? What struggles is she engaged in now that might ring a bell with some Yale students, that might enlighten an inquiring mind why anyone would be a leader of, much less join, that “relic of the past or a threat to American values,” the Communist Party? What values might those be? What struggles?

    Is it possible that Joelle Fishman is engaged in the fight for women’s rights, workers’ rights, universal health care, an end to the endless wars? An end to violent attacks on African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, gays? The right for everyone to gain a quality, affordable education? The right to vote? The recent local political uprising? The fight for the 99%? Why do those activities, or their absence, not fit into the article? How are they irrelevant to portraying a living, engaged community activist?

    Is it personal, or could there be something about a Yale education that leads a young journalist biographer away from providing concrete evidence of a current Communist’s work to painting the portrait as if by an abstract artist?

    Or perhaps there will be a follow up article. One that will put something you can sink your political, emotional, intellectual teeth into. Something that might induce a reader to say to herself, “I’d like to meet this Joelle person. She’s doing interesting – relevant – stuff.” Yeah.

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