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American Communism Revisited

The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade

by Harvey Klehr
Basic Books, 511 pp., $26.50

A Long Journey

by George Charney
Quadrangle (1972, out of print)

A Long View from the Left

by Al Richmond
Houghton Mifflin (1972, out of print)

The Narrative of Hosea Hudson

by Nell Irvin Painter
Harvard University Press, 413 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist

by Harry Haywood
Lake View Press (Chicago, 1978), 700 pp., $9.95 (paper)

1.

American communism has become a minor academic industry. It was not always so. When I worked on the subject a quarter of a century ago, it was mainly of interest to those who had been in or around the communist and other “left” movements. Now that it has been taken over by a new academic generation, too young to have known what it was like to be for or against the communist movement in the 1930s or even 1950s, it is inevitably being reconsidered from different political perspectives and personal backgrounds.

By 1982, the subject had attracted enough academic attention to bring about the formation of an organization, Historians of American Communism, with about one hundred dues-paying members of varying political tendencies. Its newsletter indicates that twenty-three dissertations, thirty-five books, and fifty-eight articles have, in one way or another, been devoted to the subject between 1979 and 1984, with an additional eight dissertations in progress. Many more appeared before 1979. When I worked on the subject, there were perhaps two or three books on American communism worth reading.

Many of these new historians, as they like to call themselves, derive from political and personal backgrounds in the New Left of the 1960s. They were students then and are mainly assistant professors now. “During the last decade,” one of them explains, “scholars and former activists have begun to reexplore the history of American communism during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.”1 Another describes the reexploration as the work of “a new generation of historians, influenced by the New Left.”2 The New Left influence is often worn as if it were a badge of honor, immediately thrust on the reader to ensure that the right political credential has been established.

Curiously, the New Left in the 1960s was openly hostile to and contemptuous of the Old Left, which conspicuously included the Communist party. Yet these post–New Leftists have turned back to the Communist past in their search for a new faith and vision. The change in attitude, according to a leading spokesman, has come about because “the collapse of the apocalyptic expectations of the late 1960s created hunger among this new generation of left-wing activists for a tradition that could serve both as a source of political reference and inspiration in what suddenly looked like it was going to be a long struggle.”3 Such a usable tradition and inspiration might have been found or at least sought in other forms of American radicalism, such as the open, democratic pre–World War I Socialist party, the farmer–labor movement, or the syndicalist movement, all of which were far more indigenous and independent than the Communist party. But those new historians who have concentrated on the Communist party have done so as if the secret of a new radical rebirth were hidden in it.

I need mention only briefly here a wider setting, within which these more specialized new historians belong. Selfstyled Marxist academics are now active in virtually every discipline, especially in the social sciences. They have their own journals and caucuses. Such groups are reported to have more than 12,000 members, “the largest and most important cohort of left-wing scholars in American history.” It is said that “in certain fields, American history for example, Marxism is the mainstream.” Two recent presidents of the Organization of American Historians were “Marxists or at least marxisantes.” The larger Marxist professoriate also “constitute the intellectual legacy of the New Left, the political activists of the 1960s who turned to scholarship in the 1970s in order to make sense of their own experience.” With no mass political movement to sustain them any longer, “the temptation to trade the frustrations of politics for the pleasures of scholarship is strong, all the more so when the professional rewards for such a switch are all too obvious.”4

The new historians of American communism and the new breed of academic Marxists constitute a little-noted subdivision of the “Yuppie” social stratum. The assistant professors of today will be the associate and full professors of tomorrow; the new historians are waiting their turn or already have tenure at major institutions—Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Rutgers, Smith, Michigan State, and elsewhere. Most attention has been paid to the recent neoconservative trends, which have been the most fashionable. But while a new generation of intellectuals has gone mainly to the right, a less numerous, though substantial, group has moved to the left, as if a gap had been opening in the center. The two extremes, however, do not enjoy the same opportunities for advancement. The right-wing intellectual Yuppies have far more to gain by gravitating to the corporation-subsidized foundations and institutes or to job openings in Reaganite Washington. The left-wing intellectual Yuppies have few prospects for personal advantage and political gratification other than academic careers.

The post–New Left academics are, of course, far from having taken over the universities. An influx of them into a single specialized field can, however, make a considerable difference. This has happened to the history of American communism, as many of them have chosen to do their work in it. Moreover, the problems raised by the new historians do not merely concern the history of American communism. They also call attention to broader questions of historical method and academic fashions. The new history can sometimes be mistaken for the new intellectual couture.

2.

For me, the new work on American communism has been the occasion for a return to a subject that I had given up many years ago. So much has appeared since my last book on American communism was published in 1960 that I cannot possibly attempt to do justice to all of it. My interest here is in those works that claim to present a new interpretation of American communist history. Even at that, my focus is necessarily more limited. One such book deals with the autoworkers unions, another with Harlem in the 1930s, and so on. A number of them are not without solid research, even if they are seasoned with political partisanship. By originating as doctoral dissertations, they were required to satisfy at least minimal academic standards. Thus I will be concerned mainly with the political line and historical bias that have come to be the distinguishing marks of the new historians. They themselves make no secret of their line and bias, and often in the most belligerent and provocative manner.

In order for there to be a new history, there must be an old history to be fought and vanquished. There must be a new generation of historians versus an old. It also helps if there is a new methodology allegedly superior to the old. And to make the struggle between the new and old particularly sharp and heated, historical differences should be treated as political conflicts, preferably among radicals, liberals, and conservatives.

For all these reasons, I have found myself after all these years drawn into a struggle over the historical significance of American communism.

The time has come for me to declare an interest. I first became aware of the part I had been assigned to play in the political drama staged by the new history in 1981. The editor of the Wesleyan University Press asked me to give an opinion of a manuscript submitted to the press by Maurice Isserman. It was later published as Which Side Were You On? and subtitled “The American Communist Party During the Second World War.” I agreed reluctantly; after all, I was expected to spend a week or more away from my own work with a pittance for compensation.

To my astonishment, my name appeared on the very first page of the preface. The author had decided to set me up as the prime example of what had been wrong with the old history. Several themes emerged from this preface. One was that the difference between the old and the new had its roots in a generational conflict. Isserman proudly announced that he “shared a common political and intellectual background with this post–New Left generation of historians as well as family ties to the older Left.” The new generation had its “roots in the student movement of the 1960s,” which “had initially ignored the CP’s bitter and complicated history.” Isserman also announced that he was taking a “generational approach” to American communist history, the generation being those communists “who joined the CP in the early years of the Depression and remained in it until 1956.” Above all, he took issue with something I had written in The Roots of American Communism, published in 1957.

The fighting ground was provided by the following passage from my book:

A rhythmic rotation from Communist sectarianism to Americanized opportunism was set in motion at the outset and has been going on ever since. The periodic rediscovery of “Americanization” by the American Communists has only superficially represented a more independent policy; it has been in reality merely another type of American response to a Russian stimulus. A Russian initiative has always effectively begun and ended it. For this reason, “Americanized” American Communism has been sporadic, superficial, and short-lived. It has corresponded to the fluctuations of Russians policy; it has not obeyed a compelling need within the American Communists themselves.

The issue of Soviet influence, through the Communist International or Comintern, on American communism inevitably turns up in other writings by the new historians. For the present, it is enough to note that Isserman had set out to do battle with the idea that the Communist party responded “blindly to external stimuli,” though in the end he conceded so much to this view that his own position was finally far from clear. In any case, the preface promised far more than the book itself delivered. Except for a few general pages at the beginning and end the work, which had its origin as a dissertation, dealt solely with the war years, 1939 to 1945. In that period, Isserman willy-nilly showed how the American Communists had been “doggedly loyal to the current Soviet line,” whatever it was. Following the Nazi–Soviet pact, they described the war in Europe as an imperialist war; following the Nazi attack on Russia, it became an all-out antifascist war; then, after the French Communist leader Jacques Duclos published an article attacking the position of Earl Browder, and Browder was expelled from the Party, they subscribed to the Soviets’ version of the cold war. Despite my reservations about the appropriateness of the preface and about claims that went beyond the substance of the book itself, I recommended that it should be published, because I felt that the main body was substantial enough to merit publication. My criticisms of the preface were ignored in the published version of the book.

The publication in 1984 of The Heyday of American Communism by Harvey Klehr also brought my name into the controversy stirred up by the new historians. As Klehr noted in his preface, I had made my collection of materials on Communism available to him. That was all; I had nothing to do with his book until it was completed; only then did I read the manuscript, when it was sent to me for an opinion by the publisher. What I thought of the book may be gathered from my recommendation: “It is meticulously documented, politically acute, and remarkably thorough. No one who wishes to be informed about this vexed subject can afford to ignore it.” Several published reviews agreed with me.

  1. 1

    Kenneth Waltzer, Reviews in American History (June 1983), p. 259.

  2. 2

    Gary Gerstle, Reviews in American History (December 1984), p. 560.

  3. 3

    Maurice Isserman, Radical America, vol. 14 (1980), p. 44.

  4. 4

    Ellen Schrecker, Humanities in Society (Spring/Summer 1983), p. 139.

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