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The Communist Party: An Exchange

In response to:

The Party's Over from the November 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

In his review [NYR, November 18] of two recent books on the American Communist Party (CPUSA), Harvey Klehr suggests, correctly I think, that the New Left’s collapse a dozen years ago and the subsequent impotence of American radicalism have helped to “renew fascination” with the CP of the 1930s and 40s. But the review—of Steve Nelson’s memoir and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?—does not enlighten us as to why there has been this renewal of fascination. In fact, some one-sided observations tend to bury the reason. I specify below.

I was a CP organizer and journalist for nearly thirty years. Along with Steve Nelson and many other party veterans, I left a quarter century ago and have since studied and written on party history. Much of Klehr’s critique appears valid to me, but he is surprisingly off the mark in some crucial respects. In conversations with him and in reading some of his work, I had the impression of a more accurate sense of the movement.

Alone among developed capitalist nations, the US has no mass socialist party. Twice—before and during each world war—movements defining themselves as socialist did approach modest mass proportions and had some impact on American life. The second such movement—in the 1930s and 40s—was organized and led by the Communist Party. In mid-1939 the CP, with its youth affiliate, had close to 100,000 members, several hundred thousand sympathizers and wide influence among workers, blacks, youth, students, farmers, peace activists, professionals, intellectuals and cultural figures in a variety of callings. It was the mainspring of a dynamic and potent left. This, and the contrasting impotence of other socialist organizations then and now, explains the current renewed fascination with the party’s history.

Klehr, however, focuses on the features which limited the party’s growth and influence in its heyday and finally led to its disintegration, an easy prey to cold war persecution. His preoccupation with its Communist International (Comintern) and Soviet links, which he treats too simplistically, leaves no room for understanding its relative, and unique, success over two decades as a US socialist movement.

Comparison with the Socialist Party’s course is instructive. In 1930 the SP had some 10,000 members and the CP 7,000. By 1934 each had grown to about 21,000. But by 1936, the SP had slumped to about 15,000 whereas the CP had over 40,000 members. After the 1936 elections, in which the SP presidential vote dropped by more than 80 percent—from 885,000 in 1932 to 187,000—its membership collapsed to 6,500; the CP’s soared to over 75,000 in 1939, plus 20,000 in the Young Communist League. The SP never recovered.

Why the striking difference? Informed by the classic Marxist tactical approach in developed capitalist countries, the Communists applied themselves to organizing and aiding the struggle of a people stricken by the Depression—the unemployed, unorganized workers in mass industries, the oppressed blacks, aroused farmers and sharecroppers, etc. The motive force was the “line of action” projected by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto to which Engels, forty years later, attributed the successful rise of socialist parties throughout Western Europe. The Manifesto declared that communists “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims…the momentary interests of the workingclass; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement” [emphasis added]. The CP’s many-sided activities in organizing people to fight for their immediate needs and interests permitted it to build its party. No one doubted that it was a party of socialism.

The SP, which had campaigned in 1932 on a platform of immediate demands, decided in 1934 to make socialism the core of its anti-Depression program, thereby abandoning the “movement of the present.” The predictable result was disaster; socialist sloganeering did not provide the desperately needed relief from the ravages of the crisis. Thus, while the Communists were building a socialist movement, the Socialists found themselves isolated and reduced to a sect.

Klehr obscures the process. He writes that the CP “bitterly opposed” the New Deal’s Social Security Act (including unemployment insurance), the Wagner Labor Relations Act “and every other major piece of New Deal legislation until 1937.” He does not tell us that this opposition stemmed from the party’s perception of the inadequacies of early New Deal legislation—a rather widespread judgment of later history—and that the party campaigned strenuously and effectively for more generous measures. Thus Congress had before it, in addition to the Administration measure, the Communist-inspired Lundeen Social Insurance bill around which it had built a powerful support movement embracing large numbers of AFL and independent unions, unemployed groups, social worker and other professional and white collar organizations. Historians have noted that congressional fear of this movement forced conservatives into line for the Administration’s far more limited provisions.

Klehr also argues that the CP “fully endorsed” Roosevelt only after his famed “quarantine the aggressors” speech in 1937, indicating its greater concern with Soviet aims than with American workers’ needs. The record is simply incompatible with any implication that the CP’s concern over US workers’ needs was a secondary one. And the claim leaves inexplicable why the CP, alone among left movements, assumed mass proportions in the Depression.

Moreover, the CP’s endorsement of Roosevelt was a process; it could not be described as “full” until the 1944 elections. At the Seventh Comintern Congress in mid-1935—long before the FDR speech—Comintern head Georgi Dimitroff declared that in the US the threat of fascism emanated from the “finance capitalist forces” that were attacking Roosevelt, and failure to see this was “tantamount to misleading the workingclass.” The implication was obvious. In 1936, largely on the ground that a direct endorsement would hurt FDR’s reelection bid, the CP nominated its own ticket but centered activity around the slogan, “Vote for Browder; Defeat Landon [the GOP nominee] at all cost.” Communists and sympathizers were encouraged to campaign for Roosevelt in workplaces and communities, while casting their own votes for Browder. But they were critical of FDR’s neutrality policy abroad and thus greeted enthusiastically his “quarantine the aggressor” speech, which appeared to break with that policy. The party’s critical attitude toward Roosevelt remained, however, on the grounds that he continued to follow the lead of the British appeaser regime.

Klehr asserts that the Russians, preoccupied with the fascist threat, countenanced a considerable flexibility in CP tactics. The historian can observe flexibility in CP tactics, as well as Russian preoccupation with the fascist danger. But the conclusion that the flexibility was due to Russian preoccupation elsewhere comes not from observation but from an assumption that the CPUSA, under presumed rigid Russian control, would not normally be allowed flexibility. Klehr shares this mechanical assumption with other historians of the party who do not customarily study CP, Comintern and Soviet interrelations as actually practiced, but accept the stereotype as given. Within the framework of broad policy shaped by the Comintern, the various parties had considerable tactical latitude. And policy decisions themselves were often determined after intensely debated differences, including input from the parties. Thus, the Popular Front tactic—a profound change of direction following the disastrous “third period” line adopted in 1928—was the subject of intense discussion all through 1934 and was strongly influenced by the experience of French, Spanish, and US party initiatives domestically. Relationships were more complex than described by Klehr.

But Klehr rightly indicates the fatal flaws in the relationship: the socialism propagated was modeled after the USSR, which was above criticism; the policies advanced had to be broadly followed by all parties irrespective of national variations; on some highly crucial occasions, Comintern decisions were arrived at not by the needs of its affiliates but by the parochial interests of the USSR as Stalin conceived them. This, as noted, limited the CP’s growth at all times and ultimately reduced it to a sect. Yet its pre-cold war successes despite the obstacles merit the current “renewed fascination” in the form of sober study.

Max Gordon

New York, New York

Harvey Klehr replies:

Like many people who study American Communism I have been the beneficiary of Max Gordon’s knowledge and kindness. My interpretation of the Party’s history is not based on a “mechanical assumption” about Comintern-CPUSA-Soviet ties but on a careful examination, not only of his views but of the historical record.

Contrary to Gordon’s claim, the Comintern did not routinely give its constituent parties tactical flexibility. Prior to the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1935, CI directives, often printed in the Party press, contained explicit and detailed instructions on issues ranging from trade union policy to the slogans used in unemployed work. In a revealing sentence, the official Soviet history of the Comintern proudly notes that after 1935 “the day-to-day management of the parties passed directly into the hands of the parties themselves.”1

The CPUSA-CI relationship after 1935 was not simple and I did not claim it was. But at every crucial point in Party life, its leaders trooped off to Moscow to settle their disputes and solve their problems. Earl Browder, William Foster, and Sam Darcy consulted with Georgi Dimitrov early in 1936 to decide on strategy for the presidential election. Browder and Foster visited Moscow in June 1937 to thrash out Party policy about a Farmer-Labor Party before Comintern leaders. They were back in December to discuss the Communist relationship with the New Deal. No one doubted who had the final word and CPUSA Political Committee minutes confirm that the Comintern’s approval was crucial.

Gordon’s account of the CP’s view of the New Deal is also flawed. The Lundeen Bill hardly frightened congressional conservatives into supporting the administration’s provisions on unemployment insurance. It did contribute to agitation for unemployment insurance but much of its support came from the Party and its “fronts” which wildly exaggerated their influence (one witness on behalf of the Lundeen Bill, Manning Johnson, later a government informer, claimed to speak for 136,000 members of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a CP group with perhaps 5,000 members). When it was offered as an amendment to the Social Security Act, the Lundeen measure lost 204-252, with most of its support coming from conservatives hoping that attaching it to the bill would scuttle the whole measure (among other things, it provided that unemployment insurance be administered by workers’ councils). Moreover, Congressmen Lundeen and Marcantonio, the Communist Party’s closest allies in the House, then proceeded to vote against the final version of Social Security and unemployment insurance.

The party’s opposition to New Deal measures was not motivated by their perceived “inadequacies.” Until the Seventh Congress, FDR was being denounced for leading the country toward fascism and the New Deal described as “masked fascization.”2 After 1935 the view of Roosevelt shifted but not until the Quarantine speech did Browder give his unqualified endorsement of FDR’s domestic policy: the survival of democracy depended on “the economic reforms and the peace program of President Roosevelt.”3 By late 1937, however, the New Deal was already in retreat. “Inadequacies” that had once earned FDR a “fascist” label suddenly were blamed on industrialists or, in foreign affairs, laid at the doorstep of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The Party’s endorsement of the president was every bit as enthusiastic between 1937 and 1939 as it was in 1944.

Finally, Gordon’s figures on Party membership conceal the fact that the CPUSA enjoyed its most spectacular growth only after it jumped on the Roosevelt bandwagon. Just prior to the Seventh Congress, there were around 30,000 communists, fewer than there had been in 1919 and an increase of only 23,000 after five years of the worst depression in American history. In June 1937 the Central Committee reported a membership of a “little over 40,000” and lamented that it had been stagnant for several months. Then came the Quarantine speech and the Party’s enthusiastic embrace of FDR. Membership was 62,000 by December, 75,000 in February and 82,000 at the end of 1938.

The Communist Party did not grow just because it became an advocate of the New Deal. Any analysis of its successes in the last half of the 1930s must consider the Party’s role in building the CIO and the public perception of its antifascism, particularly in Spain. Its growth and prosperity, however, owe a great deal to its willingness to jettison policies and views that brought it into conflict with the administration.

  1. 1

    Outline History of the Communist International (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), p. 403.

  2. 2

    Daily Worker, July 6, 1935, p. 8.

  3. 3

    Earl Browder, “The People’s Front Moves Forward,” Communist, December 1937, p. 1086.

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