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American Communism: An Exchange

In response to:

Pie in the Sky from the May 10, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

My attention has been called to a review of Harvey Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism by Hal Draper [NYR, May 10]. I wish to object to certain statements in the review.

I was the Governor of Minnesota during 1937 and 1938, the beginning period of the Popular Front outlook of the Communist Party. I’m sure that communists did participate in the Farmer-Labor Party at this time and also in the farm and union movements. However, the statement in Draper’s review that the C.P. “took over” Floyd B. Olson, who preceded me as Governor, is sheer exaggeration. The reviewer’s further allegation that I “continued in Olson’s path, giving communist organizers money for organizing…” is a further elaboration of the same exaggeration. I don’t know if the basis for the innuendo that the Farmer-Labor Party became almost an extension of the Communist Party lies in the book itself or in the mind of the reviewer; but, in any event, the innuendo should not be allowed to stand without challenge.

Readers may wish to recall that the Farmer-Labor Party was founded in the early 1920s and that it developed into a powerful mass movement, taking control of the State of Minnesota with the election of Governor Olson in 1930. It was a party with radical roots, an amalgam of unionists, Farmer Nonpartisan Leaguers and socialists, from whom a wide range of political leadership emerged. It is ridiculous to suggest that the No. 1 political party of the state could be “taken over” by communists, overnight so to speak, after a handful of communists changed the party line in 1935 and 1936.

Also, readers might like to know that in 1934 the Farmer-Labor Party adopted a platform which declared in part: “We, therefore, declare that capitalism has failed and immediate steps must be taken to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful manner and that a new, sane and just society must be established…. Only a complete reorganization of our social structure into a cooperative commonwealth will bring economic security….” I think it is time to again look critically at our social system which has become military capitalism and seems to need ever increasing “shots in the arm” of war spending even to maintain stagflation. Hating the communists and the Russians comes in very handy on our side of the ocean for keeping the arms race going; and no doubt, hate and fear among Russians works to the same end. To my knowledge, every arms race in history has ended in war; and if this happens again with nuclear weapons, any survivors may live in caves and rummage through our trash dumps to sustain themselves. In the United States, our problem lies not with a small band of communists but rather with the real wielders of power, the Republicans and Democrats who have fostered the military-industrial complex into a cancer in our midst. As was the case in 1934, our system is again in a state of crisis, a crisis which is inflicting plenty of poverty and unemployment but which also threatens the very existence of the human race.

Elmer A. Benson

Bloomington, Minnesota

To the Editors:

Hal Draper’s review of Harvey Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism, even more than the book itself, typifies a not-so-new school of American historiography concerned with the Communist Party USA. The views of this school rest on two main assumptions:

  1. The CP was nothing but a tool of the Comintern. That is, its activities, from top to bottom, never derived even in part from its perception of American needs, but simply reflected the requirements of Stalin’s foreign policy.

  2. The CP, even during its heyday, played no constructive role whatever in American society.

As one example of this approach, Draper concedes that “The organizers supplied by the CP were, no doubt, a great convenience for the CIO’s early recruiting drives”—meaning, one might think, that the party had done something worthwhile. But no: Had these organizers not been available “the new unions would have developed other local leaders from their ranks….”

What Draper chooses to ignore is that the CP’s involvement in the growth of the CIO was not simply, or even primarily, a matter of supplying trained organizers and “local leaders.” What it supplied above all were literally hundreds of rank-and-file cadres who produced and distributed leaflets, proselytized and signed up new members, helped organize and man picket lines—and, not infrequently, got beaten up or jailed for their efforts. This information I have collected from (then)-Communists who were there.

Draper’s own information is not always that authentic; at times it seems to involve something close to omniscience. Thus he claims that “I can myself testify to the staggering impact of the [1935] Franco-Soviet pact…on [the party’s] ranks” (italics added). Since Draper was not a member of the CP in 1935 (nor, so far as I know, at any other time), and was by no means persona grata in its ranks, his testimony on what its 20,000 members were thinking is something less than convincing.

I myself can personally “testify” to the fallacy (to put it no higher) of another Draper statement: that after Pearl Harbor the party, “by enforcing the labor movement’s ‘no strike’ pledge…became the policeman inside labor, ready to put down any manifestations of class struggle.” My account is not based on gossip or on “what everyone knew” (another Draperism) but on what I myself saw and did.

From 1943 to 1945 I worked in a large New Jersey steel mill. When I was hired, the local union (United Steelworkers) was controlled by a coalition of company stooges (the local president was a foreman) and the “First Ward Boys”—a bunch of petty Newark gangsters who had been given the numbers, bookmaking and loan-sharking “concessions” in the plant in return for not fighting grievances too hard. Not surprisingly, rank and file morale was shot and union membership was declining (when I asked my departmental shop steward for a union application, he advised me not to waste my money).

Over the next several months, I and the handful of other Communists in the union, along with a dozen or so non-Communist militants, set about organizing an opposition slate for the forthcoming local elections. Despite the casting of several hundred phony ballots (the election machinery was in the hands of the old officials) we got 60 percent of the vote.

During the next year grievances were systematically filed, fought and—generally—won. We also made some progress in breaking down institutionalized racism in the plant, whereby the best-paid jobs had been reserved for whites. Thus when a group of white crane operators refused to work with three new black operators, they were told by their Communist shop steward to either work or quit. Given these “manifestations of class struggle,” morale surged among black—and most white—workers, and union membership rose sharply.

As one minor incident during this period, a shop steward—to the best of my knowledge, one of Mr. Draper’s Trotskyite colleagues—proposed that the union adopt a resolution, rather obscurely worded, which translated into a repudiation of the national CIO’s no-strike pledge. It was opposed by nearly all the local’s elected leadership, Communists and non-Communists alike, and was voted down over-whelmingly—without recourse to political policemen.

When the next election rolled around, we Communists and our allies had so successfully “put down any manifestations of class struggle” that we won 75 percent of the vote, even in the face of some surreptitious red-baiting and not-so-surreptitious racist propaganda.

In recounting this experience—which I do not for a moment believe to have been unique—I am less concerned with counter-posing my personal experience to Draper’s hearsay and dogmatic generalities, than with clarifying the historical character of the CPUSA—in particular, the substance of its policies and the relationship between its leaders and its rank and file. That the party leadership was at all times intellectually sub-servient to the Kremlin hardly requires proof. That the leadership’s policies were therefore, at all times and places, contrary to the interests of the American people or the “working class” is a non sequitur. And that the party rank and file was a mere puppet of the leadership is simply false; I and thousands of others know better.

Draper himself concedes that during the 1930s CP membership went from 7,000 to 75,000—and this at a time when other Marxist groups were either stagnating or (as with the Socialist Party) disintegrating. On the face of it, the party must have been doing something right.

The connections between the “party line” laid down in the Kremlin, its specific application to American conditions as laid down on the “Ninth Floor” of CP headquarters, and its actual execution by tens of thousands of rank and file militants in hundreds of different unions and other progressive groups, were both complex and (if Mr. Draper will excuse the term) dialectical. Had matters been otherwise, the CP would have remained merely another Marxist sect, comparable to the Socialist Workers Party and its various splinters, rather than what it actually became, if only for a few years: the only politically significant American radical group of our time.

It is always easier and simpler to write histories of radical groups from the top down: the sources, apart from being more accessible, are also quite limited—and therefore, perhaps, easier to interpret in ways that will not clash with the historian’s preconceptions. But histories which imply that events at the bottom were mere passive reflections of those at the top become not just simple but simplistic.

Robert Claiborne

New York City

Hal Draper replies:

It is a pity that Gov. Benson’s “attention has been called” only now to what has been written about his political role in the CP’s 1937-1938 Minnesota operation—material which Prof. Klehr’s history summarizes. Klehr’s account is based mainly on a 1978 doctoral dissertation (John Haynes, University of Minnesota); interviews with CP organizers and leaders in Minnesota (Nat Ross, Carl Ross, Sam Darcy) and with Earl Browder; contemporaneous internal CP documents now in the Browder Papers; a book on the FLP by Millard Gieske; and, not least, the public CP press of Benson’s halcyon days, when for a period his picture graced the Daily Worker nearly every day (as Klehr remarks). The single sentence about Benson in my review is only a fourthhand version of this material. He should not limit himself to a pro forma denial of a one-sentence précis.

Benson’s friends should urge him to write a serious discussion of his political past—a self-vindication or a reevaluation, as he chooses. As far as one can tell from his letter and from Klehr’s arsenal of references, he has not done so. It would be interesting to have it—if it is not limited to obfuscatory generalities. Klehr reports, by the way, that Benson had the reputation of being “stubborn, bellicose, short tempered and self-righteous”; but at this late date self-righteousness is of little use. It does him no good to “refute” his own fabrications: there was nothing in my review (or in Klehr) about the FLP being “almost an extension of the Communist Party,” or about the FLP being taken over “overnight so to speak.” If he undertakes the historical task, he can add even longer homilies about capitalism and the war danger, but he should not use these laudable opinions as smoke screens.

Claiborne’s letter has this in common with Benson’s: it represents the dupe’s-eye point of view, which he confuses with writing history “from the bottom up.” It is a valuable point of view, and Klehr often takes note of it; though Claiborne would have difficulty recognizing this fact since he is really interested in something else. And my review (which was not a history of the CP) described the nature of the CP’s “revolutionary” appeal. What the dupes may find more pleasing is the sort of thing they get instead in the film Seeing Red—a varnishment of good intentions, abstracted from real politics.

The “personal experience” that fills the foreground of Claiborne’s memory does not concern the real role that the CP played in sterilizing the potentialities for an American revolutionary movement; what he remembers are his good intentions, the good deeds that his local CP fraction made use of to gain the confidence of trade-unionists, and so on. But the CP’s “rank-and-file cadres who…helped organize and man picket lines [etc.]” were victims of the CP just as truly as non-Party workers who were crippled in crucial situations by the Party’s “left” or “right” swerves and switches in the service of an alien force, a force alien to the workers’ own movement.

Claiborne has one isolated sentence in which he gingerly peeks at the clay feet of his failed god: “That the party leadership was at all times intellectually subservient to the Kremlin hardly requires proof.” Intellectually subservient? Would he go so far as to agree—now—that this party which he helped to build, perhaps with red stars in his eyes, was operated as the tool of a force that regarded the trade-union movement as something to rule-or-ruin only in its own interests, not in the interests of the “rank-and-file cadres”? This proposition, which now “hardly requires proof,” is still indignantly rejected by the present dupes of the CP, is it not? Aren’t there political conclusions that flow from this disconcerting discovery?

Now, this is the point, not the rosy glow of an illusory past. The two “assumptions” that Claiborne lists at the beginning of his letter are examples, like Benson’s, of fabricated irrelevancies, carefully worded so as to miss the point. Still further from any useful point is silly talk about “omniscience,” but it betrays another illusion. Claiborne seems to think that one had to be a member of the CP in order to know what was going on. This is the theory that you become a meteorologist when you’re caught in a storm, or an authority on seismology when your house crashes around your ears in an earthquake. I never joined the CP (forgive me for boasting) because I knew then what Claiborne learned later to his dismay; and of course this was true of many socialists who fought the CP.

Claiborne looks back on his own activity with a rosy glow that dims out any larger picture. He has a remarkable passage in which, trying to refute my reference to the CP’s role as the “policeman inside labor” to enforce the no-strike pledge, he actually illustrates it. And it was all proved to be good because in this New Jersey steel mill his gang got 75 percent of the vote…. Really now! He glories all over again in the brief efflorescence of the CP “if only for a few years,” and this rosy glow drowns out recollection of what shortly happened to the 75,000 dupes who had swelled the ranks—

And he appears to have no sense of the tragedy of American socialism over which he is chortling. Let me state the essence of this tragedy.

For generations now, as elements and sections of American workers and intellectuals became radicalized, and as they moved toward a revolutionary socialist point of view, they were drawn into the orbit of the organization that purported to represent revolutionary dissent. Pulled into the Communist party, throbbing with revolutionary ardor and idealism, they were used—for another purpose (as Claiborne now knows). In levies of thousands and tens of thousands, they were used up, betrayed, sold out, eviscerated, disillusioned: they were processed through the CP machine, spitted, and then spit out. No one really knows how many hundreds of thousands, in all, were thus turned into sterilized “exes” or “former people”; perhaps as many as a couple million.

These are the people who in other countries built a mass leftist party of one type or another; these are the people who should have built the mass labor-based radical party which is lacking in America alone, of all major countries. It is the great historical fact-that-isn’t-there. The CP has acted like a siphon, to siphon out of the political movement all those who wanted to be revolutionists; or like a sifting magnet, to separate them out, only to exhaust their usefulness, break them, and drop them into the limbo of ex-radicals. This is not the place to analyze the social conditions within whose framework this sterilizing operation took place.

It is a piteous thing to see one of the dupes hug his rosy-glow memories to his bosom, consoling his conscience with the recollection that he once won a grievance for Smith or Jones as he gained their confidence in the “revolutionary” party that was using all of them for alien purposes. It is necessary to understand. In fact, that was the point I made about Klehr’s book: it is important not simply to expose the facts about the Communist party’s career, but to understand “the nature of the Stalinist party as a new type of political instrument.”

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