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The past three posts have referred to Bella Dodd an ex-Communist who rediscovered her Roman Catholic faith.  Whilst she was a Communist, she testified to having placed 1200 agents in Catholic seminaries to become priests.

The next several posts will feature brief excerpts from Bella Dodd’s book, School of Darkness, in which she meticulously details her relationship with the Communist Party in New York.

Bella Dodd (1904-1969) was an Italian immigrant, having arrived in the United States as a girl. She graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan, where she began her drift into socialism.  She later earned a law degree from New York University School of Law.  She had a career as an instructor at Hunter, as a unionist and sat on the Communist Party of the United States of America’s national board between 1944 and 1948.  Her expulsion from the CPUSA was part of a greater purge following a change of General Secretary.  A few years later, she turned to Christ.  Bishop Fulton J Sheen gave her instruction in rediscovering Christianity.

School of Darkness, published in 1954, is of a different genre than Richard Wurmbrand’s Marx and Satan.  And, unfortunately, we do not find out anything Church-related.  However, what the book does tell us is how young people — women, in particular — are attracted to Marxism.  It also describes how the Communist Party works from the inside through our institutions, especially through the education system.

The first seven chapters of School of Darkness are available free online here.  Emphases mine below.

Chapters 1 and 2 concern Bella Visono’s childhood in Italy and in the Bronx.

Chapter 3

At high school I could not take the usual physical-education courses so I was allowed a study hour with Miss Genevieve O’Connell, the gym teacher, who gave me courses in anatomy and hygiene.  She was the only religious influence I encountered in high school.  When she learned I was a Catholic, she invited me to attend with her the meetings of a girls’ club at the Cenacle of St. Regis in New York City.  On Saturday afternoons she and I met a small group of girls and went to the convent at 140th Street and Riverside Drive …

I was so untaught in things spiritual and so ignorant of matters of the Faith that I could get no meaning from the spiritual readings given by the nun assigned to guide me.

… though my heart wanted to accept that which I felt stirring within me I could not, for I already had an encrusted pride in my own intellect which rejected what I felt was unscientific.  In this I reflected the superficial patter, prevalent in educational circles of that time, about science being opposed to religion.

In the autumn I entered Hunter, the New York City college for women.  I had decided to become a teacher …

The teacher who affected me most as a person was Sarah Parks, who taught freshman English.  Her teaching had little of the past; it was of the present and the future.  She was different from the rest of the well-mannered faculty members.  More unorthodox than any of the students dared to be, she came to school without a hat, her straight blond hair flying in the wind as she rode along Park Avenue on her bicycle …

During my first year at Hunter I joined the Newman Club, only to lose interest in it very quickly, for aside from its social aspect all its other activities seemed purely formal.  There was little serious discussion of the tenets of the Faith and almost no emphasis on Catholic participation in the affairs of the world.  In my young arrogance I regarded its atmosphere as anti-intellectual

I was finding it difficult to determine where I belonged.  For the first time I began to feel uneasy.

I drifted into another circle of friends, girls with a strong intellectual drive permeated with a sense of responsibility for social reform.  My best friend was Ruth Goldstein.  Often I went to her home where her mother, a wise, fine woman with an Old Testament air about her, fed us with her good cooking and gave us sound advice …

At Hunter College there were also the children of many foreign-born people.  I became friendly with several girls whose parents had been in the Russian Revolution of 1905They had grown up hearing their parents discuss socialist and Marxist theories.  Though they sometimes laughed at their parents they were the nucleus of the communist activities to come, full of their parents’ frustrated idealism and their sense of a Messianic mission.

My friends at Hunter College were from all groups.  I was received by all but felt part of none … we developed a sort of intellectual proletariat of our own.  We discussed revolution, sex, philosophy, religion, unguided by any standard of right and wrong.  We talked of a future “unity of forces of the mind,” a “new tradition,” a “new world” which we were going to help build out of the present selfish one.

Since we had no common basis of belief, we drifted into laissez-faire thinking, with agnosticism for our religion and pragmatism for our philosophy

My own religious training had been superficial.  As a child I had gone to church with Mamarella.  I had been taught to say my prayers.  In our house hung various holy pictures and the crucifix.  But I knew nothing of the doctrines of my faith.  I knew much more of the dogmas of English composition.  If I held any belief it was that we should dedicate ourselves to love of our fellow man.

Sarah Parks spurred us on to the new and the untried.  From her I first heard favorable talk about the Russian Revolution.  She compared it with the French Revolution which she said had had a great liberalizing effect on European culture, something which the revolution in Russia would also one day accomplishIt was she who had brought to class books on communism and loaned them to those of us who wanted to read them ...

In the autumn I returned to Hunter.  I was a different girl in many ways from the one I was when I entered college the year before.  In a year my thinking had changed.  I now talked glibly of science and the evolution of man and society and I was skeptical of religious concepts.  I had drifted into an acceptance of the idea that those who believed in a Creator were anti-intellectual, and that belief in an afterlife was unscientific.  I was tolerant of all religions.  They were fine, I said, for those who needed them, but for a human being who was able to think for herself there was no need of something to lean on.  One could stand erect alone.  This new approach to life was a heady thing.  It caught me up and held me ...

Miss Parks led a busy life because so many of us wanted to consult her.  She was an important factor in preparing us to accept a materialist philosophy by mercilessly deriding what she called “dry rot” of existing society.  I am sure she did help some students, but she did little for those who were already so emptied of convictions that they believed in nothing.  These could only turn their steps toward the great delusion of our time, toward the socialist-communist philosophy of Karl Marx.

She questioned existing patterns of moral behavior and diverted some of us into a blind alley by her pragmatic approach to moral problems …

In my junior year I was elected president of my class … Our little group grew vocally indignant as we read of fortunes amassed by people whose hardest labor was pulling the ticker tape in a Wall Street office.  It was a period of ostentatious vulgarity in the city, and our group became almost ascetic to show its scorn of things material.

As I look back on that febrile group, so eager to help the world, looking about for something to spend themselves on, our earnestness appears pathetic … We had no real goals because we had no sound view of man’s nature and destiny.  We had feelings and emotions, but no standards by which to chart the future ...

In my senior year I was elected president of Student Council.  That year I led the movement to establish the honor system at Hunter.  Also in that year I brought politics into student self-government by conducting the first straw vote in the presidential elections.  A little later I upset Dean Hickenbottom by insisting on a series of lectures on social hygiene.  I was supported by a group of school politicians and I learned the value of a tightly organized group and was exhilarated by the power it gave.

During the previous year Professor Hannah Egan, who taught in the Education Department, stopped me one day in the hall.  “Why don’t you ever come to the Newman Club?” she asked.

I tried to find a polite excuse as well as a valid one.  Noting my confusion, she said sternly, “Bella Visono, ever since you were elected to Student Council and became popular you have been heading straight for hell.”

I was flabbergasted.  This, I thought, seemed very old-fashioned.  But I was dismayed too.  I consoled myself by repeating a line from Abu Ben Adhem: “Then write me as one who loves his fellow men.” That idea cheered me considerably.  I threw off the personal responsibility Miss Egan was trying to load on me.  The important thing, I said, was to love my fellow man.

This was the new creed, the creed of fellowship, and it was clear the world needed it badly.  It was a fine phrase which kept some of the significance of the Cross even while it denied the divinity of the Crucified.  It was a creed that willingly accepted pain and self-immolation; but it was skeptical of a promised redemption.  I kept reassuring myself that I did not need the old-fashioned Creed any more.  I was modern.  I was a follower of science.  I was going to spend my life serving my fellow men.

In June 1925 I was graduated with honors.  Commencement had brought the necessity of thinking about my immediate future.  I had already taken the examinations for teaching in both elementary and high schools in New York City and because of the scarcity of teachers I was certain of a position.

For some time I had known that I must have further surgery on my foot.  Now that I was free from school work I made a sudden decision.  I went to St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx.  Why I chose that hospital I do not know …

I was in excellent hands.  The Franciscan nurses in charge were competent and so were the lay nurse assistants.  When I entered the hospital and was questioned as to my religion I said I had been a Catholic but was now a freethinker, making the statement no doubt with youthful bravado.

As I look back on that time I think it was a pity that no one paid attention to my statement regarding religion.  The nuns went in and out of my room and were efficient and friendly.  Once or twice I saw a priest go by, but none came in to talk to me.  No one spoke to me of religious matters while I was there.  Had they done so, I might have responded.

Six weeks after I went home I was walking well, as Dr. Edgerton had promised.  I soon obtained a position as a substitute teacher in the History Department of Seward Park High School which, with discipline at a low ebb, was considered a hard school.  I was to have six classes in medieval and European history …

The school term at Seward Park was to end at the beginning of February.  Sometime after the turn of the new year in 1926, Dr. Dawson, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Hunter College, called and offered me a post at the college.  I began teaching at Hunter College in February 1926.

Chapter Four

THAT SPRING of 1926 I had a full teaching program of fifteen hours a week in freshman political science.  Classes were large, and we were crowded for space.

Dr. Dawson, chairman of the department, a Virginian, had been my teacher in all my classes in political science.  I knew his temper and his methods.  He was a well-mannered gentleman whose method of teaching was unusual, for he simply directed his students to the library and told them to read …

I had been one of his favorite students because, while many students did little work when given freedom of working, I had thrown myself heart and soul into endless hours of reading in the library …

Ruth Goldstein, Margaret Gustaferro, and I became assistants to Dr. Dawson.  In 1926 the avalanche of freshmen found the college unprepared.  Facilities were inadequate.  We three taught our classes at the same time in different sections of the auditorium which had been used as a chapel.  We three young teachers had been close friends at college.  Now we worked together, developing curricula, bibliographies, and new techniques.  All of us enrolled in the graduate school at Columbia University for graduate work in political science …

It was also a time when Columbia professors fresh from the London School of Economics [founded by the Fabian Society] and from the Brookings Institute were discovering the importance of current activity in political parties and practical politics.  Some were beginning to enlist in local political battles.  These sent students through the city, climbing stairs and ringing doorbells, to teach them the democratic process by actual research …

In our enthusiasm we passed on to our students at Hunter what we had learned.  We challenged the traditional thinking they had brought to college with them.  We sent out girls to political clubs, too.  Soon political leaders began to call Hunter to find out what the idea was of sending the “kids” to their clubs …

Before long we were saying — and not yet realizing it was merely a rather meaningless cliché — that the radicals of today are the conservatives of tomorrow, that there could be no progress if there were no radicals.

In the days that have gone since we enunciated these statements so confidently I have had many occasions to see that this cataloging of people as either “right” or “left” has led to more confusion in American life than perhaps any other false concept.  It sounds so simple and so right.  By using this schematic device one puts the communists on the left and then one regards them as advanced liberals -after which it is easy to regard them as the enzyme necessary for progress.

Communists usurp the position of the left, but when one examines them in the light of what they really stand for, one sees them as the rankest kind of reactionaries and communism as the most reactionary backward leap in the long history of social movements.  It is one which seeks to obliterate in one revolutionary wave two thousand years of man’s progress.

During the afternoons and evenings I continued my work at Columbia …

As a result of that year’s study of American history and national politics, as well as in the direct experience of my students and myself in local politics, I now began to tear apart before my students many respected public groups -charity, church, and other organizations -that were trying to better conditions in old-fashioned ways.  This sort of talk had a destructive effect on myself, I now realize, and it had an even worse effect on my more sensitive students.  If they followed where I led, there was nothing left for them to believe in.  I had tried to wreck their former ways of thought and I had given them no new paths to follow.  The reason was simple: I had none myself, because I really didn’t know where I was going.

Later when, in the Communist Party, I met one of these former students of mine, it was always with the feeling that I was responsible for her present way of life; it was through me that they had accepted this cold, hard faith they lived by.

But in 1926 I had little thought of the communists except that I did not preclude theirs as a solution of problems.  I was merely goading my pupils and myself on to feel that we must do something to help set aright the things wrong in the world.  When I became emotional in my talks it was because I was angered at those who had money without working for it and who did not help to lessen the increasing misery of the working population …

That year I learned that George Counts, an associate of John Dewey, like him a philosopher and theorist on education, had gone to Russia.  He had, of course, been there before.  In fact, he had set up the educational system of the revolutionary period for the Russian Government.  He had translated the Russian Primer into English and was eager to have the American teachers study it carefully.  He promised a report on Russian schools when he returned …

That summer gave me my first opportunity to talk to people of other countries and to learn that they, too, were filled with a passionate desire to better their own countries and the world.  I began, under the impetus of such talk, to feel in me a desire to be a citizen of the world.  It was a desire that made it easy and natural for me to accept communism and its emphasis on internationalism

A teacher cannot help but transmit to her students something of what she is and what she believes and I know I did much damage.  But the saving grace in my destructive teaching of that time was that in my personal relationships with these students I retained within me something of the essence of what God had meant me to be — a woman, a mother.  I loved my students, all of them, the dull, the weak, the strong, the conniving, the twisted.  I loved them because they were young and alive, because they were in the process of becoming and had not yet been frozen into a mold by a cynical society or by a conniving power …

I did not realize what I now know, and have come to know through much turmoil of spirit, that significance is all about us and that it comes from order.  There was no order in my life.  I had no pattern by which to arrange it.  I was moved by feelings and emotions and an accumulation of knowledge which brought me no joy of living.

After I had delivered my dissertations and received my Master of Arts degree in the summer of 1927, Ruth Goldstein and I, both tired out from the year’s hard work, decided to take a cottage for the summer and get away from New York …

One of the pleasantest events of that summer in the Adirondacks was meeting the Finkelsteins, Louis and Carmel, and their children …

My friendship with the Finkelsteins was to continue for years …

That fall I made a sharp switch in my career.  Tired of the sterility of graduate work, Ruth Goldstein and I entered New York University Law School.  I taught morning and also evening classes at Hunter College and attended my law classes in the afternoons …

For it was true that while the substance of the law intrigued me, because it was a reflection of the past of society which helped me to understand the present, I was not interested in legal procedure, which I felt was intended to preserve an outmoded status quoMy constant preoccupation with the need to change the status quo made me almost impatient with much of the last year of law school.  But I did not expect to practice law.  I thought of myself as a teacher.

Tomorrow: Chapters Five and Six

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