The Devil and Bella Dodd: One Woman’s Struggle Against Communism and Her Redemption is a 2022 account of the career of Bella Dodd (1904-1969), once “the most important female communist in the United States.” Author Mary A. Nicholas is a physician and research librarian. Her co-author, Paul Kengor, is a political science professor, bestselling author, think tank director, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Tan Books is a Catholic publisher. The Devil and Bella Dodd is 422 pages long, inclusive of an index, a bibliography, and extensive footnotes.
Bella Dodd’s life story is so astounding that if it were fiction, readers could be forgiven for thinking that it could never have happened in real life. Maria Assunta Isabella Visono came to the US when she was five years old. She had been living with foster parents. Her parents and many siblings had already immigrated to the US, possibly when Dodd was two years old. She used the name “Bella” and eventually married a man named Dodd. The marriage ended because of her commitment to the Communist Party. Dodd received degrees from New York University and Columbia, an Ivy League school – remarkable for a female Italian American immigrant from a poor family. She became a professor, lawyer, and organizer. She described herself as a key figure who injected the Communist Party’s agenda into American public education. She claimed that she had placed over a thousand Party followers into Catholic seminaries. She began to have doubts about the Party in the 1940s. Her deteriorating attitude prompted her to be expelled in 1949.
A chance encounter brought the media star, bestselling author, and Catholic priest, Fulton J. Sheen, into her life. Sheen baptized Dodd in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1952. Dodd had previously devoted her very evident charisma and energy to expanding the power of the Communist Party. After her conversion, she began to work against the Communist Party. She testified before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ironically, she had previously worked to undermine the Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-42) which was formed to investigate CPUSA influence in New York’s schools. Dodd had worked hard to advance CPUSA influence in schools. When asked to provide lists of names to the Rapp-Coudert Committee, Dodd destroyed evidence by burning it. The Devil and Bella Dodd demonstrates beyond a doubt that Communist Party members have successfully focused on polluting American education from kindergarten right up to the university level.
Decades ago, leftists were deploying the same tactics they use today under the new sobriquet “Woke.” As soon as the Party had no more use for Bella Dodd, her former comrades turned on her and mounted a bogus campaign to accuse her falsely of “racism.” Leftists do the exact same thing today to anyone who does not march in lockstep with their totalitarian ideology. Of course today the Left would add the recently coined slur “transphobic.”
I’m glad I read this book because it educated me about material of which I was totally unaware. I had some problems with the writing style but those problems were not significant enough to interfere with my recommending the book to anyone who wants better to understand the war the Left is carrying out in this country, a war against your ability to think clearly.
Given the book’s title, I hoped for an intimate and complete portrait of Bella Dodd. Like her, I come from a peasant, immigrant, Catholic background. People like us were not disproportionately represented in the American Communist Party. Peasant, Catholic immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were, in the main, grateful to America, and eager to participate in capitalism and to achieve the American Dream. Catholicism was our intellectual, social, psychological, and emotional foundation, providing us with a warm, embracing, coherent worldview, identity, and social life. Many of us had relatives in the Old Country who reported first-hand accounts of Communist oppression.
What made Dodd different? How could someone who would later embrace the Catholic Church so fervently have supported anything as overtly evil as Stalin’s USSR? Soviets began committing atrocities early; see a handy list of massacres and genocides here. I craved a detailed portrait of Dodd’s inner life, and I didn’t feel satisfied by the biographical sketch in this book. Without that insight, I still ask, given that Dodd was once an active promoter of Communism, how can I have faith that her Catholicism was not as poorly supported as her previous Communism? If she had lived longer, would she have eventually left Catholicism in the same way that she left Communism? After all, Dodd did not exit the Communist Party of her own volition. She was kicked out by her former comrades. It appears that she did not seek out Catholicism on her own, either. Her encounter with Sheen seemed a matter of chance.
The Devil and Bella Dodd, rather than following a straight-line narrative of one woman’s life story, interrupts Dodd’s life with tangents. There are introductions to leftist Columbia professor John Dewey, Fabian socialism, communal living experiments in the US, the Frankfurt School, the Marian apparition at Fatima, and Communism’s nihilistic approach to the family. These asides, though chock full of valuable information, interrupted the book’s flow.
The book raised questions for me that I wish the authors had answered, or at least raised. One thing is clear from the facts. Give her record, it is inarguable that Bella Dodd was a natural talent, and she was also someone very driven to do good. The book does not advance this theory, but it’s possible that Dodd’s urge to uplift the downtrodden was inspired by her own poverty, immigrant status, and also her own handicap. An accident resulted in amputation. She had to walk, with a limp, on a prosthesis. There’s also a possible inspiration for Dodd’s desire to be liked, and to belong, that the book hints at. Her parents left her in Italy when they went to the US. She lived with a shepherd she adored, and spent nights watching his sheep with him while sleeping out under the open sky. When forced to rejoin parents she had not seen in years and to leave her beloved shepherd “father,” little Bella was wracked by sobs. After her accident, she was hospitalized, again, apart from her family, for almost a year. I don’t know if these life events contributed to Dodd’s willingness to trade normal ethics for a sense of belonging and purpose, but it’s possible.
Students, comrades, and audiences loved Bella Dodd. She was able to organize people and orchestrate them to achieve the goals she wanted them to achieve. She also was highly intelligent. For an impoverished Italian immigrant girl in the 1920s and 1930s to receive an advanced degree from an Ivy League university and a JD from NYU is atypical. Bella Dodd was very idealistic. She cared about poor people. She wanted to resist rising fascism abroad and Jim Crow in the US. Communists, she thought, were “for the working class” and “for the underdog.” Communists were “fighting hunger and misery and fascism … neither of the major political parties nor the churches seemed to care.” Communism exploited Dodd’s humanitarian impulses. For example, one pro-communist publication ran an article titled, “Communism Puts Ideals of Christ into Practice.” Similar tactics are used today. The Left frequently circulates, on social media, the claim that Jesus was a communist.
Dodd was also personally ambitious. She worked long and hard to rise to leadership positions. The obvious question for me is why didn’t her natal religion have any place for Bella Dodd’s powerhouse energies and ideals? I suspect that the answer is that Dodd was a woman. Had she tried to harness her formidable gifts in leadership, public speaking, motivation and organization to serve her church, she might have been told to become a wife and mother, or a nun, most likely one who taught grammar school. Being a wife and a mother, and teaching grammar school, are all noble callings, but they aren’t everybody’s calling.
Dodd received a very different message from the Left. Her professor, Sarah Parks, noticed the considerable potential of her young student, Bella, and Parks took time out of her day to mentor Dodd. Parks consciously and overtly steered her student away from Christianity and toward the Communist Party. Uncounted leftist teachers are doing the very same thing with young, impressionable students in schools and on campuses all over the US right now. This reader very much wished that Bella Dodd, and millions of other misguided, vulnerable young people, had been effectively mentored and recruited by a Christian, a conservative, or someone who cherishes the Judeo-Christian tradition, rather than a suicidal leftist. Parks eventually committed suicide. In any case, Prof. Parks paying special attention to the potential in young Bella played a role in Dodd’s life course.
The Communist Party, no matter what real fate it had in store for this one woman or women in general, opened its door wide and announced to Bella Dodd loud and clear, “We believe in equality. We see that you are a born leader and organizer who can get people to perform towards a goal, and we are going to let you excel in that service. We are not going to force you to be a lifelong wife and mother if that is not what comes naturally to you. We will make you a leader who uses her energies to make the world a better place. With us, you can do your part against Jim Crow, fascism, poverty, and injustice.” Bella Dodd commented on this herself. “A nominal Christian with a memory of the cross can easily be twisted to the purposes of evil by men who masquerade as saviors … Communist leaders achieve their greatest strength and their cleverest snare when they use the will to goodness of their members.”
Of course there have always been a minority of women who have been able to use their leadership skills in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day was Bella Dodd’s contemporary. But it will be a better world when such women don’t face as many closed doors and turned backs as I know from experience too many Catholic women do face when we offer to use our gifts for the church.
We can’t change the past. We can, though, learn from past failures. We can make clear to young seekers that conservatism offers a better solution for injustice than does the Left. We can educate ourselves about the incredible heritage we have been lucky enough to inherit, so that we can pass on that priceless legacy to the next generation. We can debate those ignorant and nihilistic voices poisoning young minds with the lie that their birthright, Western Civilization, offers them nothing of value. We can reach out to young people and invite them to use their energies to serve their ideals with the better solutions that conservatism offers.
The Devil and Bella Dodd is very much not exclusively about past history. On almost every page, the reader can see leftists in the past using the same tactics that leftists use today. Leftist ideas constantly adopt new labels as old labels become tarnished. Communism is always seeking that “human face” desired by the Czech philosopher Radovan Richta. Devil quotes CPUSA member Alexander Trachtenberg, “When communism comes to America, it will come under the label of ‘progressive democracy.’ It will come in labels acceptable to the American people.” That being the case, I wish the book had looked for the common denominators shared by Communism and other destructive worldviews. I know Woke people in 2023 who have much in common with Dodd and her comrades. Authors like Bruce Bawer, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose have traced Woke ideology back to Marxism. But there are significant departures. For example, classical Marxism would not support trans extremism, except as a method to undermine the West. Witness the dismal conditions for gay people in communist countries. And the Woke people I know do not perceive themselves as Marxists at all. Even as they cheer on blind violence and hateful identity politics, even as they support the elimination of free speech, and as they disseminate anti-Western hatred, they perceive themselves as “caring” and “idealistic,” as “anti-racist” and “kind.”
What is the structure underlying both the Communist Party that Bella Dodd joined and the Woke of my Woke social media contacts who really cannot conceive that Woke is anything but basic morality? A few features are common to both. Some of these features are also shared by Islam, Nazism, and cult distortions of Christianity. These common features include Utopianism, the conviction that the world is corrupt, and that it must be purged by a total belief system to be rendered acceptable. Utopians believe, falsely, that humans have it in their power to sweep away corruption and to usher in a new, pure, humanity and a new, better world.
Us and them thinking creates a line between worthy insiders and worthless outsiders. The insiders are pure. The outsiders are the cause of all the problems. Us and them thinking inevitably paves the way for an ethical system that is not universal. Insiders cannot lie to other insiders, but lying to or abusing outsiders is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. Dodd was able to justify the Holodomor because eliminating the “kulaks” made a communist Utopia possible. Lenin said that, yes, communists supported the elimination of morality and its replacement with the assessing of behavior on the basis of whether it served the Party or not. “Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.”
Another feature of systems that go by many names but must all be approached with caution is the attitude of “the ends justify the means.” Lenin did not originate the phrase, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” but that was certainly his ethical approach. Utopia was such a worthy goal that murdering millions of human beings was an acceptable price to pay.
The connections, the feelings of fellowship, between one insider and another are not based on the human individuality of each person. Insiders don’t value fellow insiders because of who they are. Insiders value fellow insiders because they are members of the group. Dodd wrote, “Affection, in that strange communist world, is never a personal emotion … you were loved or hated on the basis of group acceptance, and emotions were stirred or dulled by propaganda made by powerful people at the top.”
When insiders leave the group, they are punished with shunning or even death. “Everything has to be done to destroy that particular person,” Dodd said of those who left the Party. “What you do is gather information and use it to affect him emotionally. You try to drive him into a breakdown. You try to destroy him economically by making it impossible for him to be employed, and you also destroy his personality as a person.” In today’s Woke lingo, you “cancel” him.
Selective outrage is related to an ethical system based on insiders and outsiders rather than universal ethics. American Communists announced their rejection of Hitlerian fascism but they did not object to aspects of Stalinism that were similar to Nazism, including concentration camps, a cult of personality, intense propaganda, brainwashing, and massacres. Hypocrisy is another feature of both 1930s Communism and 2023’s Woke. Bella Dodd said she cared about the starving masses, but it wasn’t Bella Dodd or the CPUSA that was feeding the hungry. It was largely the US government and the very Christian charities the CPUSA would have happily liquidated.
Selective outrage, hypocrisy, and a division of humanity into insiders and outsiders are all related to motivation. Both the CPUSA and Woke are motivated by hate rather than love. They work to destroy something they hate rather than to nurture something they love. Both adopt black people as their cause. They do not do this because they love black people. Neither the Communist Party nor the Woke have done anything concrete for black people. Rather, they choose which groups they will verbally champion based on how that rhetoric will hurt those persons and entities they hate. Insisting that America is a “structurally racist” country demeans America while doing nothing to help blacks; in fact, in the long run, such tearing down hurts blacks.
Devil quotes Maxim Gorky. “A genuine, sincere revolutionary of the USSR must feel conscious, active, heroic hatred for his vile enemy.” The book also quotes Lenin. “Hatred is truly the ‘beginning of all wisdom.'” Lenin parodies Proverbs 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Devil also quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, “Hatred of God is the principal driving force” “within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin.” And also Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. “We Christians love Communists as human beings and potential fellows in Christ’s Mystical Body … Yet, you Communists hate capitalists as well as capitalism.” After Dodd left the Communist Party, “I had to drain the hate and venom from my system.”
Dodd wrote of how this motivation from a desire to hurt and destroy what one hates rather than a desire to nurture what one loves affected her students. She began to “tear apart before my students many respected public groups – charity, church, and other organizations.” She admitted that her teaching “had a destructive effect … there was nothing left for them to believe in.” Attacking the Judeo-Christian tradition was a central part of this push. After she left the Party, Dodd said, “The God is Dead movement is … a cutting off of the underpinnings of our civilization.”
There are more qualities that Communism, Woke, and other destructive movements share in common. In these destructive entities, group members must practice unquestioning obedience to a human authority figure, rather than practice reflective adherence to a value system. Devil quotes Trotsky. “None of us desires or is able to dispute the will of the Party.” And Stalin, “The scientific concept of dictatorship means nothing more or less than unrestricted power, absolutely unimpeded by laws or regulations … based on force and not on law.” In contrast to this, Christians, Jews, and Americans are all equal to their fellows because all commit to shared ideals, rather than to a strongman leader. There are, for example, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Constitution. Theoretically, each group member has equal access to these values, and can debate them with other group members.
Destructive movements lack corrective mechanisms that factor in human fallibility. Destructive movements insist not only on their own perfection, but also on the perfect interpretation of them by the strongman. Jews and Christians know that God is perfect, but man is not, and the Bible must be studied and discussed generation after generation. The Founding Fathers factored human fallibility into founding documents. The Constitution can be amended. America is based on a system that allows for change. A country some of whose founders owned slaves became the first country where the free majority fought to liberate the enslaved minority. Similarly, Christianity demands constant self-examination, in rituals called “examination of conscience” and “confession.” Communist Party members couldn’t even question after the abomination of the Molotov-Rippentrop pact.
There’s another feature that the Communist Party, Woke, and Nazism have in common. As Bella Dodd and her fellow Party members make clear over and over again, as do the authors of Devil, a minority of any group can dominate a group and twist it to their purpose if they are fanatical and the group is disorganized and passive. Most New York City school teachers in the middle decades of the twentieth century were not Communist Party members, but Dodd and her comrades were able to twist the entire educational establishment to their will. Similarly, Hitler never won the majority of votes. And most Americans today do not accept trans extremism.
As I was reading The Devil and Bella Dodd, I kept struggling to understand how someone like her could have accepted, say, an atrocity like the Holodomor. I also struggled to understand when social media contacts who give every indication of being conventionally nice people cheer on atrocities. I’m thinking of men and women who have expansive suburban homes, who go on cruises, who appear quite normal, who cheered on the irrational and often sadistic violence in the streets in the US in the summer of 2020. I would confront them overtly. I asked if they could sanction, for example, the May, 2020, stoning and beating, apparently to death, of a white man by a black mob in Dallas, Texas. The victim’s crumpled body lay in a pool of blood on the street after the mob attack. I showed this video to very nice, white, suburban women who, yes, approved. And they approved of this savage sadism in the name of their values: kindness, tolerance, peace, human dignity, equality, justice.
What is the honey that draws flies into toxic systems? I can only guess, but based on what I read of Bella Dodd, and what I’ve seen of Woke social media contacts, I think psychological factors that help are narcissism and arrogance. Utopian systems have tireless propaganda arms. “Virtue signaling” is a thing. My Woke social media contacts never tire of publicly announcing how much better they are than those they despise – Christians, white people, Americans in general, even though they are white Americans themselves.
Humans confront overwhelming mystery and majesty. Our existence is beyond our comprehension. The vastness of space confounds us. The miracles of the natural world, the key-in-lock relationships between living things, astound any honest mind. Many of us think that a higher power is behind it all; that mere chance could not have produced not just the tiny flagellar motor but also the Big Bang; not just the relationship between hummingbird bills and flower design but also human consciousness. Believers recognize that we are not just not the ultimate creators; we are not even, and can never be, the ultimate explainers. We recognize our own limitations; we are capable of humility.
I think that psychological traits that underlie every one of the above features of toxic systems include arrogance and narcissism. Rather than recognizing that forces beyond the self formed the world and humanity and will outlast any individual life, the participant in toxic systems seeks special status above the mass of humanity. It is the Judeo-Christian tradition and the West’s very success and wide acceptance that renders both unattractive. To believe, with the masses, that the family is a good and that giving in to one’s impulses for violence and hate are bad is just too common for the narcissist. He needs to be special, different, part of a select group.
Authors Kengor and Nicholas, in their own way, say something like this. They say that the true face behind the Communist Party was not the face of Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, or Marx. Rather, it was, according to Bella herself, Lucifer. Lucifer is, in his “origin story,” revealed to be both arrogant and a narcissist. Satan uses narcissism to lure humans to commit heinous acts. Those human narcissists attract followers. Narcissists are notoriously alluring.
I don’t know if arrogance and narcissism were the lures for Dodd, but there are hints in the book. She was an exceptionally intelligent and charming girl from a humble background. She achieved well beyond her ethnic and economic peers. She attracted the mentorship of an admired professor. To me the sharpest indication of a perhaps exaggerated sense of self was what Dodd said after she left the CPUSA and became Catholic. Dodd said to Fulton Sheen, “Monsignor, I have committed such grave sins. It is my greatest wish to enter the most severe order to do penance.” By “severe order” Dodd presumably meant an order of nuns that engage in strict self-mortification. Dodd’s statement, which merely mimics true humility, smacks of grandiosity.
I know that in my attempt to list features that Bella Dodd’s CPUSA has in common with Woke and with other destructive systems I am making a big demand of the authors of The Devil and Bella Dodd. I do this, though, because the book stridently, and rightly, identifies the Communist Party as a menace. But every Communist Party member in the US could tear up his or her membership card and these same features would still be part of the tool kit of every human being. We are all tempted to surrender to us / them thinking, to a non-universal ethical system that allows us to mistreat those we identify as other, and to act on our hate, rather than our love. Nicholas and Kengor are entirely serious when they identify Lucifer as the head of the CPUSA. Lucifer would not be defeated if the Communist Party were defeated. He’d just, as the authors so rightly point out, change his costume. He’d use the same tools to fuel new destructive belief systems that he used to fuel the CPUSA. We need to name and recognize those tools, no matter what costume they wear.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.