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The Life of the Party

Of interest, too, is Cohen’s list of prominent academics, writers, and journalists who came out of the student movement, whether from Communist, Trotskyist, Socialist, or other radical groups: Leo Marx, Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Richard Hofstadter, Theodore Draper, Seymour Martin Lipset, Joseph Lash, Leon Wofsy, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Kristol, Henry May, Pauline Kael, Harry Magdoff, Budd Schulberg, Merle Miller, Richard Rovere, Carl Schorske, Eric Sevareid, and James Wechsler. It is not a complete list but gives some idea of the variety of talents nurtured in this first school of politics.5 To judge by the results, it did no irreparable harm and some good for those who learned to think for themselves.

4.

But the dispute with the anti-anti-Communist historians goes on. Its latest manifestation is New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, edited by no fewer than four professors and published by the press associated with the Monthly Review, whose co-editor, Harry Magdoff, was present at the creation of the NSL sixty-two years ago. Most of the chapters came from a conference of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy on November 9, 1989, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party USA.

This book consists of an introduction by one of the editors, Professor Michael E. Brown, chair of the department of anthropology and sociology at Northeastern University, ten essays, and an interview with the same Gil Green who led the YCL in the faraway 1930s. Oddly, there is not a word in the entire volume about the founding of the American Communist Party.

Brown starts by distinguishing between the “new historians” of American communism, such as Maurice Isserman and Ellen Schrecker, and the “orthodox historians,” including Daniel Bell, Joseph Starobin, Irving Howe, and myself.6 Brown accuses me of “professional anticommunism,” whereas the new historians are said to “write history rather than opinion.” The implication is that my work, and that of Professor Harvey Klehr, whose book covered the period after mine, cannot be considered as “history” and must be relegated to “opinion.” We are also placed “outside of social science.”

These are strange imputations. Howe, Klehr, and I worked on the history of the American Communist Party from the broadest perspective, since we dealt with trade-unionism, agricultural policy, internal composition, and all the rest. None of the new historians has gone over the same ground again. My books appeared in 1957 and 1960, 7 so that the new historians have had plenty of time to provide a new historical account. Instead, they have nibbled at the edges of the subject, as if they were afraid of what they would find if they tackled the Party’s history.

Anyone who actually looks at our work cannot mistake it for anything but “history,” if that word still has any meaning. It may be improved upon, but not by substituting the lives of individual Communists for the policies and activities of the Communist Party as an organization. That our work is not easily assailable as history is shown by the inability or unwillingness of the new historians to fill the alleged historical vacuum after a quarter of a century. Instead of doing the job themselves, they have contended themselves with sniping at those who did it.

Yet there is some method here. In order to rule out our work as history, Brown undertakes to redefine history to reflect “the modernization of social science.” This vaunted “modernization” enables the new historians to “express a qualitatively different and less judgmental attitude toward the party and its participants and adherents.” Brown also describes the new historians as “relatively agnostic on the question of how and in regard to what contexts the party should be judged, attempting only to add detail and a more neutral perspective” to a too polemical literature.

In effect, the new historians seek to be “less judgmental” and “more neutral” in their attitude toward the Communist Party. They are notoriously judgmental and unneutral about almost everything else in American life and politics, but the Communist Party is off limits.

The strategy of this approach is to turn attention away from the Party as such or Communists as Party members to a one-sided concern for Communists as ordinary individuals. Brown offers this advice:

One implication, incidental to this attitude but profound in regard to the debate, is that individuals cannot be defined exclusively by their participation. Rather, everyone, from leaders to rank-and-file activists to occasional participants and casual associates, must be seen as involved to varying degrees in overlapping projects and arrangements, only some of which are associated directly with the party. These, taken together as interpenetrating aspects of the situation, and not in any sense separately, constitute the conditions of individual participation in the party, as in other organizations.

On one level, this advice is so banal that it hardly needs saying. Communists, like other people, did not spend every moment of their lives working for the Party. As one of the new historians recommended by Brown sagely admonished, we should take note that Communists were people who also “stopped over at one’s house after dinner to play cards, listen to a ball game, sit on the porch drinking a beer, discussing the news,” or “whom one could depend on to take care of the kids, lend one money, go shopping.”8 Some did these things, some didn’t. But what has this to do with their lives as Communists and their relations with the Party? There is such a thing as relevance in treating a historical subject. If the subject is the Communist Party and its membership, playing cards after dinner is hardly relevant. It is a diversion to get us away from the real subject.

Of course, it is true that people cannot be defined exclusively by their participation in the Communist Party. But individuals as Communists can be characterized by their roles and work in the Party, and it is fatuous in this respect to lump leaders with casual associates. Communist leaders were expected to give, and most often did give, the best part of their lives to the Party, whatever else they may have done in their spare time. Occasional participants and casual associates by definition gave much less or even little of their time and lives to the Party. The gobbledygook about “overlapping projects and arrangements” does nothing to clarify the relationship between individual Communists and the Party.

But there is something else that is at stake here. My own original sin was to write that

something crucially important did happen to this movement in its infancy. It was transformed from a new expression of American radicalism to the American appendage of a Russian revolutionary power. Nothing else so important ever happened to it again.9

This statement has always rankled the new historians the most; Brown cites it once again. He dismisses it as if it were wholly without foundation. He claims that it is contradicted by information gathered by other contributors in this book. He advises me to rethink my “major thesis that the party was a tool of Moscow and that the activities associated with it were nothing other than the expression of this putatively irrepressible disposition.”10

Even the information gathered by Brown’s contributors indicates that this “irrepressible disposition” was not merely putative.

Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University, deals with the Popular Front period. He notes that the Communist Party USA was given “a green light by the Communist International (Comintern) to reconcile itself to US liberalism.” He sees a critical weakness in the Popular Front in its “unwavering support of the Soviet Union” and its way of “making the affirmation of American dreams dependent on Soviet power.” If this was true of the Popular Front, which lasted only about four years, it was even truer of the six or more decades of American Communist history.

A chapter on cultural activities is contributed by Annette T. Rubinstein, a teacher at the New York Marxist School, who worked as a “Party activist” for about twenty years and with many Party groups for another twelve or fifteen years, specializing in front organizations. She first asserts hesitantly: “It’s perfectly true that the Soviet Union was a tremendously important factor in our lives, but it was important in rather intangible ways.” Immediately afterward, she recalls “the directives at the beginning of World War II (1939–1941) demanding approval of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and disapproval of the war as an imperialist war—simply a replay of the first world war.” These directives went out even to front organizations. This rather tangible way was a repetition of what had occurred in 1923, in 1929, in 1935, in 1939, in 1945, and on to the present, when a decimated Communist Party has again split mainly on the eternal “Russian question.”11

In another chapter dealing with Communist writers, Alan Wald, professor of English literature and American culture at the University of Michigan, affirms that “Stalin and his policies were virtually deified in the official declarations of the United States party up until 1956” and that “afterward, it was mainly pronouncements from abroad—the 1956 Khrushchev revelations—that precipitated a partial reevaluation.” Though he recognizes that “a tremendous amount of energy by devoted and intelligent people was canalized into promoting literary practice to bolster a political orientation based on such a mistaken premise,” he judges that “for the most part, the people involved and their dreams were superb.” He acknowledges that the political and literary policies from Moscow were “ultimately hegemonic.”

One chapter, by John Gerassi, a professor of political science at Queens College and the Graduate Center of City University of New York, sets out to deal directly with “The Comintern, the Fronts, and the CPUSA.” Gerassi is a fire eating oddball in this company. In the old days, he would have been expelled from the Communist Party for “ultra-leftism.” He has no patience with anything but “a revolutionary seizure of power.” The Popular Front is anathema to him. The united front with the Socialists led the Communists to “virtual suicide.” Gerassi has no doubt where the demand for this policy came from—it came “primarily from communists, most often on orders received from the Soviet leadership and transmitted by the international agencies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

In one way or another, then, at least four chapters in this book allude, more or less explicitly, to Soviet Russia’s predominant influence on American communism. Yet Brown assures his readers that my view is inconsistent with the information gathered by many of the writers in the book. He himself does not attempt even to intimate what that influence might have been, and can bring himself to mention it only as having existed “putatively.” I would not expect the contributors to this book to put the case the same way I did, considering that Brown certifies them as “less judgmental” and “more neutral” in these matters. Still, they go far enough to satisfy me that their accounts reflect the reality of Soviet influence.12

  1. 5

    Conspicuous among the missing is my brother, the late Hal Draper, who figures prominently in Cohen’s book, unlike most of the others whose roles were minimal. He was the author of a small library of works on Marxism, formidable in scope and undeservedly neglected; a complete translation of Heinrich Heine’s poetry, by far the best that has ever been done; as well as work on the American labor movement and much else.

  2. 6

    I dealt with all those named by Brown as “new historians” in The New York Review of Books, May 9, 1985, and May 30, 1985, and The New Republic, January 26, 1987, all reprinted in A Present of Things Past (Hill and Wang, 1990), pp. 117–172.

  3. 7

    The Roots of American Communism (Viking, 1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (Viking, 1960).

  4. 8

    Paul Lyons, Philadelphia Communists: 1936–1956 (Temple University Press, 1982), p. 62.

  5. 9

    The Roots of American Communism, p. 395.

  6. 10

    I have never used the term “tool of Moscow,” which vulgarizes a political phenomenon. I wrote that by 1929 “the American Communist had become an instrument of the Russian Communist Party” and that “even at the price of virtually committing political suicide, American Communism would continue to serve the interests of the Soviet Union” (American Communism and Soviet Russia, pp. 440–441). I reached these conclusions after a five-year study of the historical record. Brown does not even attempt to intimate what the connection between the American Communist Party, the Soviet Union, and the Communist International was.

  7. 11

    Gus Hall, for over three decades the Communist Party’s general secretary, brought on a split by, among other things, opposing the Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union. According to Gil Green, Hall first supported the anti-Gorbachev coup but changed his mind after it failed. Among the old-timers who rebelled against Hall’s anti-glasnost and anti-perestroika line were Angela Davis, Herbert Aptheker, and Louis Weinstock (Rosalyn Baxandall, “The Question Seldom Asked: Women and the CPUSA,” p. 159). Hall broke away from the latest Soviet line, because—according to Green—he stopped receiving Soviet or Russian subsidies, after which he transferred his affections to North Korea; the rebels, who control the New York Party but lack funds, have been more receptive to changes in the old Soviet Union (Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Gil Green,” pp. 320–325).

  8. 12

    Other chapters by various contributors deal with subjects—such as women, African Americans, McCarthyism, and the New York Workers School—which go off in other directions and need not concern us here.

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