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Communism Re-Revisited

In response to:

American Communism Revisited from the May 9, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

In 1981, according to his own account, Theodore Draper recommended that Wesleyan University Press publish my book, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War. In 1985 he finds my work (along with that of other new historians of American Communism) “appallingly sloppy,” displaying a “sloppiness that is politically motivated” [NYR, May 9]. Those are very ugly charges, and a careful reader will note that they are not substantiated anywhere in his review: all he proves, at least to his own satisfaction, is that I am guilty of misinterpreting one anecdote which appears in the preface of my book. But if Draper could substantiate his case, it would raise interesting questions about his own earlier recommendation to Wesleyan. Why didn’t he point out my alleged politically motivated “sloppiness” in 1981? Wasn’t that part of his responsibility as a manuscript reviewer? If a publisher asked my opinion of a manuscript, and I thought its author was deliberately distorting the historical record for partisan purposes, I wouldn’t recommend its publication in the first place.

I will not attempt a full-scale defense of my own work in this space. I’ve seen how Draper operates in these letter-column exchanges before. He gets the last word, and just as he distorted the argument of my book, I’m sure he is equally capable of distorting any point-by-point response I might now offer. I will not fight on his terrain nor use his tactics. Anyone who is interested in what I really have to say on the subject of the Communist Party can read my book, or the articles and reviews which Draper cited.

But I would like to respond to one theme which surfaces repeatedly in both parts of Draper’s attack on the new historians of American Communism. Draper believes he is the victim of a “vendetta” [May 30, p. 49], that the new historians have gone out of their way to “pick a quarrel” with him [May 9, p. 37], and that in general we have conducted ourselves “in the most belligerent and provocative manner” [May 9, p. 32]. He sets out to prove this by providing the reader with quotes from reviews of Harvey Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism, in which the new historians supposedly berate Klehr for his connection with Draper. He quotes three words from my review of Klehr’s book [In These Times, April 4–10, 1984]: I say that Klehr “echoes Draper” and this is evidence of Klehr’s “myopia.” The words are indeed from my review. What Draper does not quote is the preceding paragraph: “Klehr’s book shares some virtues of Draper’s predecessor volumes. It is carefully researched and clearly written. [Klehr] proceeds to marshall an impressive amount of detail to support his case. Just as no one has been able to write about American Communism in the ‘20s without having Draper’s two volumes close at hand, likewise The Heyday of American Communism will claim equal consideration from anyone trying to make sense of the Communist movement in the ‘30s.” Only then do I criticize Klehr, the criticism that Draper finds so objectionable: “Unfortunately, some of Draper’s virtues don’t wear as well in Klehr’s account.” That’s belligerence? That’s provocation? No one will ever say of Theodore Draper that he is a man who is slow to take offense.

The only truly belligerent review Draper manages to come up with is by Norman Markowitz in Political Affairs. Markowitz compares Draper to Midge Decter and other members of the “cold war establishment,” which is truly a grave and unwarranted insult. But Political Affairs is hardly the place one goes to look for “new historians” of American Communism. Nor does Draper mention that Markowitz, a somewhat compulsive designator of strange bedfellows, wrote in Political Affairs six months earlier: “A new group of anti-Communist caretakers, Maurice Isserman, William O’Neill, Ronald Radosh and Harvey Klehr among them, seem to be moving into position to replace Howe, Schlesinger, Hook and Draper” [Political Affairs, October 1983]. To Draper I’m Markowitz’s comrade. To Markowitz I’m Draper’s comrade. Logically (at least according to the logic of those like Markowitz and Draper who are unable or unwilling to make subtle distinctions) that makes Markowitz and Draper comrades. So what’s all the fuss about?

Maurice Isserman

Smith College

Northampton, Massachusetts

Theodore Draper replies:

If Maurice Isserman would calm down, he might read more carefully. My reference to “sloppy” work was not aimed at him; it came directly after I had discussed another book by someone else (see NYR, May 9, p. 37, col. 1). I had characterized Isserman’s book previously (p. 33, col. 1), so that there should have been no doubt about what I thought of it. “Sloppy” work was not implied there; my interest was mainly in his preface, to which I added that “the main body [of his book] was substantial enough to merit publication.” If I remember rightly, I made quite a few recommendations for changes in his text, but I was sufficiently impressed by it to support its publication, which I would certainly not have done if I had thought it was overall a “sloppy” work.

I would have found his letter more interesting and challenging if he had made clear just how I “distorted the argument” in his book. That would be something worth discussing. Actually, I limited myself to the argument in his preface, which had little to do with the implied argument of his book as a whole. To charge “distortion” without specifying what was distorted is the easy way out, not worthy of such a display of righteous indignation.

The tactic used by the new historians has been to acknowledge the value of my own books, while aiming their fire at a central finding in them, exemplified by my title, American Communism and Soviet Russia. Isserman cites himself but not any of the others. Even here, however, he is too angry to get everything straight. He writes: “I [Isserman] say that Klehr ‘echoes Draper’ and this is evidence of Klehr’s ‘myopia.’ ” If he will read my paragraph again (p. 33, col. 2), he will see that he has merged two sentences that were originally distinct. The paragraph is made up of several sentences, each separately summing up Isserman’s critique of Klehr’s book. Isserman has chosen to read the second sentence as if it referred to me, whereas it clearly referred to Klehr, as do all the subsequent sentences. The case of Markowitz is not worth discussing at such length; I threw it in as comic relief, which is all that it deserves.

But Isserman asks: “So what’s all the fuss about?”

Since he wants to know, I will now tell him what all the fuss is about. It is not about what he seems to think it is—the joke, or nonsense, about the Markowitz–Draper “comradeship.”

Is it right to make historical differences of interpretation depend so much, as he did, on a “generational approach,” as if the way to do history in the right way rests on belonging to the right generation?

Is it right to hold, as he did, that the disillusionment of the Communists of 1956–1958 had its roots in their nostalgia for the Popular Front instead of in their disenchantment with the Soviet Union?

Is it right to downplay, as has been done, the extent to which American Communism was a political satellite of Soviet Russia?

These are matters worth fussing about. They are not the kind of matters that Isserman or most of the other irate letter-writers in the August 15 issue wish to face.

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