The Popular Front Revisited

The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade

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

The American Communist Party: A Critical History

by Irving Howe, by Lewis Coser
Da Capo, 612 pp., $59.50

Communists in Harlem During the Depression

by Mark Naison
Grove Press, 355 pp., $7.95 (paper)

The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions

by Roger Keeran
Indiana University Press, 352 pp., $25.00

The Romance of American Communism

by Vivian Gornick
Basic Books

Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists

a film by Julia Reichert, by James Klein

The View from Inside: A French Communist Cell in Crisis

by Jane Jenson, by George Ross
University of California Press, 346 pp., $28.50

An unprecedented outburst of academic interest in the history of American Communism has occurred in recent years. It has produced more doctoral dissertations, books, and articles on the subject during the past five years than in all the previous sixty years of American Communist history. This curious phenomenon has been concentrated in colleges and universities by younger faculty members, many of whom teach labor and social history. Their work appears mainly in academic and radical journals or in university press publications. Most of them have graduated from the student New Left of the 1960s to the professoriat of the 1980s, still imbued with a need to find an outlet for their radical sympathies or, as one spokesman has put it, “a source of political reference and inspiration.” Unlikely as it would have seemed to the New Leftists of yesterday, with their superior contempt for anything contaminated by the old left, this source has been found in the history of American communism, and especially in its short-lived experiment with the Popular Front in the late 1930s.

As I noted in my article “American Communism Revisited” in the previous issue, the new historians of American Communism have been invoking the Popular Front as if they were rediscovering a once promised land. It appeals to them as the one time American Communists had really and truly Americanized themselves, had taken on the features of a mass party, and had shown promise of becoming a major force in American life and politics—the long-awaited apotheosis of American radicalism.

The Popular Front phase lasted only about four years, from 1935 to 1939. The American Communist movement was formed in 1919 and has existed in one form or another for sixty-six years. The Popular Front, therefore, occupied less than one-sixteenth of the Party’s entire history. It may be of peculiar interest as a token of what the Party might have been, if it had been a different kind of party; it cannot be seen as more than a short, aborted interlude. As such, its significance for any basic generalization about the Communist movement is strictly limited.

One reason the Popular Front holds such charms for the new historians is that they think it demonstrated an independent American Communist “capacity for independent thinking” and gave “American Communists the opportunity to act on their genuinely felt desires to adapt their radicalism to American political traditions and practice.”

Here again it is best to examine how a new historian goes about making good on these claims.

Professor Gary Gerstle cites two examples of independent thinking. One is that of Sam Darcy, the Party organizer in California, in 1934. Gerstle knows as much about it as he learned from Harvey Klehr’s book The Heyday of American Communism. Klehr used, in part, an interview I had with Darcy. This is Gerstle’s version:

Yet as early as 1934 a number of American Communists had begun to experiment with popular fronts of their own. Klehr recounts the efforts …

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