Those of you who may have read my memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, The New Left and the Leftover Left, already know that I attended a camp named Camp Woodland for Children, in Phoenicia, New York. I started as a camper, and continued to attend as a counselor. In the memoir, I tell some of the story about my experiences there in a chapter I titled “Commie Camp.” That, of course, is not how the official guardians of the camp’s memory describe the place. Their view is more similar to the description you will find here.
They talk instead of director Norman Studer’s devotion to “integration of African-American children” and his philosophy of “humanitarian values.” Nothing that any good minded person could be opposed to. Not a word about Communism, socialism, Marxism, or any of the other “values” I write about in my own book, that made the camp quite different from the hundreds of other summer camps in the New York of the 40’s and 50’s.
I don’t want to repeat any of the stories I tell in my memoir, but I give lots of examples of how the camp’s “progressive” agenda that it heralded was a code-word for the politics of the Popular Front, the Communist led coalition of liberals and Communists that formed the left-wing of FDR’s New Deal, and tried to stay together to fight the Cold War liberals in the period of Harry Truman’s presidency.
To celebrate the event, the museum and other sponsors asked the leftist historian Paul Mishler to speak. If you wonder about my characterization of him, here is how he himself describes the argument of the book he wrote about the left-wing camps, Raising Reds:
In Raising Reds, Mishler focuses on the era of 1920 to 1950. During this time the Communist Party was able to make significant inroads into American society. Communists were active in labor unions and universities, and they published their articles in popular newspapers. These activities were undermined and demonized in the early 1950s due to McCarthyism and the advent of the Cold War. However, Mishler contends that the Communist radicalism of the 1930s re-emerged in the New Left’s activism of the 1960s.
This result, as you imagine he would argue, was all to the good. And his main point is that Camp Woodland was itself an institution that trained and created a future generation of “Reds” who would carry on the struggle for socialism and world peace. And here is how Mishler characterizes the Catskill folk music that the campers learned and sang and its relevance to the struggle:
Further, in his book Mishler explores how, during the Great Depression, some Americans believed that the music of the people was being forced underground due to the rise of larger, more impersonal institutions of social, commercial and industrial development. Therefore, during the 1930s, the Communists and their allies sought to discover/construct/create an alternative America grounded in the roots of the country’s culture. Camp Woodland set in motion an experiment to bring this alternative democratic model into being. The camp’s organizers felt that the most important way for Woodland to establish new ground was via a celebration of folk music and early American folk values, and that this could be made the basis for societal change. Mishler contends that these same beliefs led to the activism of the 1960s, to the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, and beyond.
Look at those code-words: an “alternative democratic model;” i.e., a “People’s Democracy” that Stalin was building in Eastern Europe; to be inspired through “a celebration of folk music.” Once that was accomplished, it would become “the basis for societal change;” i.e., the movement for “socialism.”
So now let us skip to our present day, the 21st Century, when most people of sanity have shed their old illusions and moved on. They learned the lesson about the Gulag and the horrors of Communism a long time ago. One could have fond memories of old friends and good times at camp- even this particular camp- and have put aside the once cherished commitment to Stalinism.
Well, I thought briefly about going to the celebration. Fortunately, I made the right decision, and decided not to attend. I know this because in the past week, I have been flooded with e-mails from the camp alumni who did attend. So here, with the names removed, are some of the gems I received. Don’t laugh too hard, please:
First, of course, is the obligatory homage to those comrades who fought in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (sic) during the Spanish Civil war:
Dear Woodlanders: Believe you will be interested in a major event for the benefit of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion Archives featuring Pete Seeger, Patti Smith, Guy Davis and other significant participants that I, a Camp Woodland alum, is producing. The Notice is pasted below and I hope to see many of you there. Get in touch with me personally if you have any questions.
This alum only went to Camp Woodland: those they are celebrating at least fought and lost their lives in a real war, even though their idealism was in the service of a regime and a power that used them for its own purposes. All the Woodland group did was go to a damn Red summer camp- not quite the same thing.
Then, of course, there are those who want the Red alumni to march in every forthcoming leftist protest with a Woodland banner; i.e., this request:
Well I guess I screwed that last post up by asking “Anyone going to DC on the 29th?” I meant Oct 2, not “the 29th.” I will have to look back at my other posts to this list to see if I botched them too But I have Sept 29 on my mind because that is the day Spanish workers are calling for a General Strike. There is also currently a march across Spain, France and Low Countries to encourage workers in those countries to join the strike. Any thoughts about a “Woodland” gathering to support that General Strike? Campers Unite,
Gee, I don’t know about you, Comrade, but I’m a bit more concerned with the growing threat of radical Islam than showing solidarity with a General Strike that probably won’t occur. If it does, it is because even the socialist government of Spain realizes that its workers have to give in and prevent Spain’s economy from totally collapsing by accepting some retrenchments on benefits the welfare state can no longer afford. But I’m sure the various grouplets that still exist will thank Woodland profusely for its important solidarity.
Then, some of the Woodland comrades can’t make it, because their other commitments to the class struggle take precedence, as this camp alumni reveals:
Sorry, I have candidate engagements all day Sat for Socialist Party(SP) candidates and Independents. I’m the SP candidate for the US Senate-VT But I’m anxious for more face to face gatherings with Woodland campers, maybe after the elections.
Well, it is Vermont, and I imagine that one Bernie Sanders isn’t enough- and maybe this guy could actually win! Then the alumni can get private tickets from him for a White House tour after they protest Obama as a corporate sell-out.
Yes, but buses are indeed being chartered for the demo on Oct.2nd. (Bet they’ll get so much less than Glenn Beck did that no one will even notice.) This camp alumni is reassuring:
Cde. Chuck … says there is room remaining. There are 19 busses… from Syracuse area, Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for governor, I believe will be able to provide a bus reservation contact.
Good to know the Green Party can be depended upon to hire old buses and spread more carbon emissions.
And finally, the whopper of them all. This one truly deserves special attention:
You all have no idea how thrilled I am to have spent some time with you this afternoon. You have given my spirits a great lift. You are inspiring. On the drive back to Brattleboro, I envisioned a DC demonstration for Peace and Justice(No justice, no peace) and a bunch of us with a Woodland Banner. Our history should not just be behind us, but in front of us as well. With ironic smiles, we could sing, “We are the youth, and our voice proclaims our song of truth.” There is a union, Veterans for Peace, SP, and others sponsored DC Demo scheduled for Oct. 2 with busses leaving from Albany and points south. Cheapest ride to DC you will ever see, union subsidized: $10 round trip. Time to bring children and grandchildren. If our history is in front of us, it is in them as much, no more, than in us. Doris and 3 others from Vt-NH already ticketed to leave from Albany late Fri nite, return by early Sun morn. Volunteers to make the banner? I will get and forward email and phone contact info. Camp Woodland Political Action Committee could be a next step. Campers unite!
One point of explanation. The song he has a few words from was known as “The World Youth Song,” and was the official anthem of the world Communist youth movement in the late 40’s and 50’s, and was sung at the Soviet run World Youth Festivals that took place every year. It was written, or forced upon him by Stalin, by the Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovitch. It promised, as I wrote in my memoir, a “bright, lyrical tune promising better tomorrows when all would live in peace and harmony under socialism.” The writer of the e mail says they will sing it with “ironic smiles,” NOT BECAUSE of its outdated message, which he still adheres too, but because now this guy is somewhere in his 70’s or 80’s, and is no longer a youth!
So my question, Comrade, is this? Can I form a Camp Woodland PAC to elect someone like Chris Christie, whom I would love to run for President? After all, I went to the camp as long as many of you. And if not- one word of advice- tell the bus drivers to shut off the engine at every traffic light. After all, you don’t want to spread too many of those dangerous emissions as you drive to DC from up North. Maybe, with luck, you’ll go slow and get there after the demo is over. But you can still get that tour of the White House from Bernie Sanders.