It looks as though the Soviet Union, or the pieces that it may soon become, will embrace capitalism, or fall into a severe authoritarianism, or undergo both of those fates.footnote That is not an original thought. While a certain amount of humane socialist rhetoric survives even now in the Soviet Union, few observers believe that from its present crisis there will emerge a state, or states, characterized by an attractive form of socialism. But it costs me a lot to endorse that unoriginal thought, and I want to explain why.

In 1912 my mother was born, in Kharkov, to secular Jewish parents of ample means, her father being a successful timber merchant. When she was just five years old, the Bolshevik revolution occurred. My grandfather’s business continued to provide well for the family during the period of the New Economic Policy,footnote1 and my mother was consequently quite well-heeled, with plenty to lose, but she nevertheless developed, across the course of the nineteen-twenties, in schools and in youth organizations, a full-hearted commitment to the Bolshevik cause. This she took with her in 1930 when, the nep having given way to a regime less amenable to bourgeois existence, her parents decided to immigrate to Canada, and she left the Soviet Union, not because she wanted to, but because she did not want to part with her emigrating parents and sister.

In Montreal, my mother, who could not speak English, and without, at eighteen, an advanced education, tumbled down the class ladder to a proletarian position. She took employment as a sewing-machine operator in a garment factory. Before long, she met my father, a dress cutter, who, unlike her, had an impeccably proletarian pedigree (his father was a poor tailor from Lithuania), and no secondary education. Their courtship unrolled in the context of long hours of factory work, struggles to build unionism in the garment trade, and summer weekends at the country camp some forty miles from town that was set up by and for left-wing Jewish workers. My parents married in 1936 and I appeared, their first-born, in 1941.

My mother was proud to be—to have become—working class, and through the thirties and forties, and until 1958, she was an active member of the Canadian Communist Party. My father belonged to the United Jewish People’s Order, most of whose members were antireligious, anti-Zionist, and strongly pro-Soviet. He was not in the Party itself, not because he had ideological reservations, but because his personality was not conducive to Party membership. Members of the Communist Party were expected to express themselves with confidence and with regularity at branch meetings, and my father was an unusually reticent man with little capacity for self-expression.

Because of my parents’ convictions, my upbringing was intensely political. My first school, which I entered in 1946, was named after Morris Winchewsky, a Jewish proletarian poet. At Morris Winchewsky we learned standard primary school things in the mornings, from non-communist gentile women teachers;footnote2 but, in the afternoons, we were taught Jewish (and other) history and Yiddish language and literature, by left-wing Jews and Jewesses whose first (and in some cases, so it seemed, only) language was Yiddish. The instruction we got from them, even when they narrated Old Testament stories, was suffused with vernacular Marxist seasoning: nothing heavy or pedantic, just good Yiddish revolutionary common sense. Our report cards were folded down the middle, with English subjects on the left-hand side and Yiddish on the right, because of the directions in which the two languages are written. One of the Yiddish subjects was Geschichte fun Klassen Kamf (History of Class Struggle), at which, I am pleased to note, I scored a straight aleph in 1949.

One Friday in 1952, the Anti-Subversive (or, as it was commonly known, the Red) Squad of the Province of Quebec Provincial Police raided Morris Winchewsky and turned it inside out, in a search for incriminating left-wing literature. We were in school when they came, but, whatever happened in other classes, the raid was not frightening for those of us who were then in Lehrerin (‘teacheress’) Asher’s charge, because, having left the room for a moment in response to the knock on the door, she soon returned, clapped her hands with simulated exuberance, and announced, in English: ‘Children, the Board of Health is inspecting the school and you can all go home for the rest of the day!’ So we scurried down the stairs, and lurking at the entrance were four men, each of them tall and very fat, all of them eyes down, and looking sheepish.

In the event, no compromising materials were found, since the school had been careful to keep itself clean, but a parallel raid on the premises of the United Jewish People’s Order, which ran the school, did expose pamphlets and the like. Those premises were consequently padlocked by the police and their owners were denied access to them, within the terms of a Quebec law later struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. And, although Morris Winchewsky was not forbidden to continue, the raids caused enough parents to withdraw their children from the school to make its further full-time operation impractical.