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The Life of the Party

As a result, the Young Communist League left the National Student League largely alone in its formative period. The NSL was so idiosyncratic that it even admitted Trotskyists—a tolerance unthinkable in other Communist organizations; I must have spent—or wasted—many hours arguing the finer points of Leninist doctrine with our resident Trotskyist, Emanuel Geltman, later the executive editor of Dissent and a stalwart of Irving Howe’s faithful band of democratic socialists. It was not until the NSL began to bring out masses of students in May Day demonstrations and engage in activities which brought publicity in the newspapers that the YCL began to take a serious interest in its student members. Neglect forced the new NSLers to find their own way.

In such front organizations, Communist strategy dictated that activity should be based on “immediate issues,” not on Communist doctrine in the abstract. Two such issues became the NSL’s chief stock-in-trade—protests against student fees, which particularly concerned CCNY, and agitation against “war and fascism,” which had the widest appeal. Fascism was already in power in Italy and fast approaching in Germany; war was assumed to be bound up with fascism and the older menace of imperialism. It was easy to tell “which side the NSL was on,” because Communists were so active in it and nothing critical of the Communist Party or the Soviet Union was permissible. Communism as such, however, stayed largely in the background, though one point in the NSL program insisted on “the historic obligation of popularizing the achievements of the Soviet Union.”

The attraction of Communism was not based merely on the propaganda that the Soviet Union was successfully building a prosperous classless society; it owed as much to the idea that communism was the only available alternative to a capitalism that was visibly collapsing from top to bottom. The NSL arose from disillusionment with capitalism as much as from illusions about communism.

What did the Communists get out of it? When the YCL woke up to the usefulness of the NSL, the YCL began to boast of its influence among students, among whom it was doing better than among young workers. But the Communists mainly used the NSL and other front organizations as recruiting grounds. The Communists claimed to be “the best fighters for the immediate issues,” and thus established a link between fighting against fees and propagating communism. It was a tenuous link, but it served the immediate purpose. An NSL member who joined the YCL was immediately rewarded with a sense of superiority which came from attending the YCL “fraction” meetings at which NSL activity was decided in advance. One former NSLer told Cohen that he had joined the YCL when he discovered that that was where the decisions were made, and if you weren’t in the YCL, “you weren’t where the action was.”

Nevertheless, daily life in the NSL was almost wholly devoted to student affairs, not to Communist propaganda. This concentration on “immediate issues” has made it possible for the recent historians of the American Communist movement to emphasize what good trade unionists or community organizers the Communists were and to dismiss their communism as if it hardly mattered. During the past few years, academic survivors of the “New Left” of the 1960s have created a genre of books about Communists-without-communism or of communism as just another part of the American radical tradition, not different in kind from any other.

But communism mattered. Communists worked in these organizations for the ultimate benefit of the Party. They often worked harder than others, who had no comparable political incentive, and they aspired more than others to leadership. How much it mattered always came out when the Communists took over the leadership of a union or organization in accord with one Party line and then had to shift over, sometimes almost overnight, to another Party line. Sooner or later, they had to choose between their dual loyalties. American Communist crises invariably arose out of such changes of line, all the more demoralizing because they originated in Moscow and had little or nothing to do with American conditions.

This is exactly what happened to the student movement. One of its characteristics was that its active membership was much smaller than the numbers that turned out for an occasional “Strike for Peace” or some other demonstration. According to Cohen, the NSL and SLID had a combined membership of only about 5,000 at the time the ASU was founded in 1935, the year they were able to bring out an estimated 175,000 students in a “peace strike.” The membership figures hardly suggest that there was a mass student movement before 1935. My memory is that we considered ourselves to be an embattled, slightly heroic few, struggling against great odds.


The ASU and the American Youth Congress (AYC), an even broader movement founded in 1934, more nearly resembled mass organizations. The ASU is said to have reached a maximum membership of 20,000; the AYC, a loose coalition of youth organizations, did not have individual membership but claimed to represent 4.5 million American youths.3 They achieved these numbers by watering down the anticapitalist ideology of the NSL and SLID and by adopting the rhetoric of the New Deal and Popular Front. The AYC’s greatest coup was winning the support of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited its leaders to tea at the White House, and President Roosevelt himself once told them that “I am glad of what you are doing.”

But the Communists were always behind the scenes in both the ASU and the AYC. In fact, they completely controlled both organizations and were behind the scenes only in the sense that they did not openly reveal their Party membership. In the ASU, the two leading figures, Joseph Lash and James Wechsler, were recruited into the Communist Party, as were many others. Communists or fellow travelers monopolized the leadership of the AYC. Cohen does not flinch from passing judgment on this phenomenon:

The real problem with this recruitment and infiltration was not its scope, but its secrecy. Had the communists been open about their identity and influence they would have been operating within parameters of democratic process—since they, like all other members of such a federation, have the right to compete for power. Unfortunately, this was not done openly. Instead [Gil] Green [head of YCL] secretly recruited the top Youth Congress officers; the YCL clandestinely stacked the Congress’ key committees; and the Youth Congress secretly became a communist-dominated organization. These communist machinations led to political misrepresentation. At the very time when the Popular Front and its rhetoric made the Youth Congress seem more liberal and mainstream it was actually growing more communist-controlled.

As long as the Communists wanted the ASU and AYC to seem more liberal and mainstream, there was no real problem. Difficulties for the leaders began to grow as soon as the Communist line changed from the Popular Front to the old sectarianism and ultrarevolutionism brought on by the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the initial Communist line that the Western powers were waging an imperialist war against Nazi Germany. The line changed almost overnight from antifascism to anti-antifascism. At this point, the real problem emerged—communism mattered. It separated those who had sincerely believed in what the ASU and AYC had stood for and those who had believed what the Party line had told them to believe.

A hitherto unknown story about the Communists in the AYU has recently been published in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism. It was told by Gil Green, the YCL leader, about his experiences in Moscow in 1934. In November of that year, he attended a meeting of the Young Communist International at which he and the French delegate were accused of participating “in a mixed-class movement.” In the American case, the accusation referred to the AYC, in the leadership of which the YCL was represented. Green says that he refused to plead guilty despite three weeks of debate and the threat that he would be removed. To his surprise, the charges were dropped when they were referred to the Comintern secretariat. According to Green, the turnabout came because the Comintern representative in Germany, the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, had just returned to Moscow as a hero after his famous trial in Leipzig, and had argued for a policy of “left and progressive unity” to prevent the spread of fascism. It was the first indication of the new Popular Front line that was officially launched the following year.4 If the decision had gone the other way, Green would have come home in disgrace and the Communists in the AYC would have broken with it.

Cohen tells the rest of the story with sadness and bitterness, as if he had lived through it. The Communists in the ASU and AYC were ruthless in their takeover. Anyone who refused to go along, including even Lash and Wechsler, was driven out. The real problem was fully revealed—the secret recruitment and infiltration leading to the Communists’ control. It was such control that enabled the Communists to decide the fate of the ASU and AYC. By 1940, they were empty shells. Paradoxically, if the Communists had waited for the next change of line, after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941, they could have saved both organizations for their own benefit.

Cohen tries to put the student experience in historical perspective. He refers to a controversy that has been going on for almost two decades:

Historians of American Communism have been locked in a bitter debate about the character of communist-led movements. Theodore Draper and other traditional anti-communist historians judge such movements harshly, focusing on their flaws, particularly the Russia-centered mind-set of the communists who led these movements. A newer school of historians, led by Maurice Isserman, takes issue with Draper. These anti-anti-communist historians stress the strengths of communist-led movements in the US and argue that communists succeeded in building mass movements because they were more responsive to American political realities than to Comintern dictation.

During the student movement’s early stages, communist behavior in the movement had some of the characteristics suggested in Isserman’s work on the Communist Party; it was innovative, self-directed, and centered on American political realities. But in the final and self-destructive stage of the movement, these qualities vanished and communist student leaders acted in as Russia-centered and dogmatic a manner as Draper might predict. The shift came because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the new imperative of Soviet foreign policy forced communist students to choose between their loyalty to Stalin and their loyalty to the anti-fascist movement they had helped to build on American campuses; they opted for Stalin, and in so doing destroyed the student movement.

This is a fair statement of the opposing sides. It might benefit if we note that the student movement was “innovative, self-directed, and centered on American political realities” only as long as the Communists in the leadership saw it in their interests to permit it to be such in accordance with the prevailing Party line. As Cohen himself makes clear, the student movement was never a fully autonomous, self-directed phenomenon; it was largely directed by outside political forces and thereby owed its life and death to them. It reflected the history of the decade, and in this rests its main interest and importance.

  1. 3

    Cohen fails to deal adequately with the formation of the AYC. It was the brainchild of an exotic newcomer, Viola Ilma, who had been inspired by European youth movements but was otherwise a political innocent. Cohen does not mention her or the early struggle for power in the AYC. I was delegated to represent the NSL and, with other co-conspirators, soon succeeded in taking the organization away from her. There is a fuller account in Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism (Basic Books, 1984), pp. 319–323. The claim of representing 4.5 million American youths was based on the total membership of the affiliated organizations which extended from the Young Communist League to the Young Women’s Christian Association, but only the top leaders ever knew or cared about what went on in the AYC.

  2. 4

    Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Gil Green,” New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, pp. 307–308.

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