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The Life of the Party

When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941

by Robert Cohen
Oxford University Press, 432 pp., $55.00

New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism

edited by Michael E. Brown, edited by Randy Martin, edited by Frank Rosengarten, edited by George Snedeker
Monthly Review Press, 330 pp., $18.00 (paper)

1.

In 1930, soon after the onset of the Great Depression, I entered the College of the City of New York, better known as City College or CCNY. I was eighteen years old. I felt as if I had left a Brooklyn village—the neighborhood in which I grew up—and gone to the big, outside, threatening world. I knew no one at CCNY or in Manhattan. I felt proud, lonely, and afraid. The first year at CCNY was notoriously hard, because so many were quickly thrown out for not making the grade.

Sometime during that first year, I saw a poster announcing a meeting of the Student Forum, the Socialist club. It was to be addressed by Felix Cohen, the lawyer son of the eminent philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, who still taught at the college. I do not remember the subject, but it must have had something to do with socialism. It was the first time I had attended such a meeting. Nothing more than curiosity attracted me to it.

The meeting was opened by Joseph Lash, the chairman, the Socialist leader in the school, later the author of well-known works on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Cohen began to talk and was soon interrupted by loud and angry shouts from the back benches. As Cohen went on, the interruptions became louder and angrier. Finally, Lash stepped forward and appealed for silence to let Cohen go on with his speech. Instead, pandemonium broke loose; Lash and Cohen stalked out of the room; I sat dumbfounded, not knowing what it was all about.

As the Socialists walked out in protest, a student jumped up at the back of the room and shouted: “Everyone stay! We’ll carry on the meeting,” or words to that effect. He was Joseph Starobin, one of the Communist student leaders, who later became a professor of political science at York University in Toronto and the author of one of the better books on American Communist history.1

The takeover of the meeting was wildly exciting. I had never before witnessed such a spectacle. For reasons I can hardly recapture any longer, I stayed. After all, the meeting might provide more fireworks. All that happened next was that everyone was exhorted to come to the next meeting of the Social Problems Club, the Communist rival of the Student Forum.

This was how I discovered the Communists at City College. Politically, I did not know what I was. I was almost totally ignorant of Marxism or communism. My family background was vaguely Socialist, owing to my parents’ early jobs in the garment industry and its Socialist-influenced trade unions. Only two political incidents remain with me from an early age. My mother took me, at the age of eight, to the Brownsville Labor Lyceum, where culture and politics met for that immigrant generation, to a meeting at which the venerated Socialist tribune Eugene Victor Debs spoke. On the steps as he came in or went out, she poked out my hand, and Debs had touched it. This moment was often recalled in the family. I also remember being stirred by the Labour Party victory of J. Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, when I was twelve. It inspired me to seek out a local branch of the Young People’s Socialist League, but I attended only a few meetings and dropped out. My political consciousness was sadly underdeveloped.

At CCNY, it was easy—almost inevitable—to become politically conscious in no time. There were the famous alcoves in the basement, at which every variety of radicalism had its table and benches—Socialists, Communists, Trotskyites, Lovestoneites, anarchists, Zionists, and probably others I cannot remember. You had only to walk from one alcove to another to gain an advanced degree in all the world’s problems and, even more to the point, radical factional politics.

I went to the next meeting of the Social Problems Club. Why? It must have been that the Communists seemed to be more exciting. I was quickly impressed by the political sophistication of the older Communist students. I learned how important it was to be able to cite Marx or Engels and preferably both; Lenin and Communist literature were not yet required reading for beginners.

In my spare time, I soon read up on Marx and Engels. I found that one could gain prestige by showing that one had read them and even more prestige by referring to something not yet translated into English. I knew no German, but I could manage highschool French. I recall spending hours and days at the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan laboriously poring over a French series of translations that were fuller than anything in English.

The Social Problems Club put out a little publication called Frontiers, for which I decided to write my first article. I managed to smuggle in a quotation from Marx or Engels that I had found in the French version. This so impressed the editor, Harry Magdoff, later the co-editor of Monthly Review, that he asked me whether I had found it in the Gesamtausgabe. I was ashamed to tell him that I had read it in French, not in the original German, and never gave him a straight answer. In any case, I never worked so hard on French as I did to catch up on Marx and Engels.

Such was the self-education of an aspiring young radical. In 1931, the Communists in the Social Problems Club together with some others at Columbia University decided to form a national student organization, the National Student League. By this time, I had definitely thrown in my lot with the Communists, though I remained a fellow traveler throughout my student days.

Nevertheless, I rose in the leadership of the NSL and went on to become editor of the Student Review, the official NSL organ. By this time, I knew all about who was running the organization, namely, the members of the off-campus Young Communist League. I was willing to accept their leadership, because they were going to make the revolution, and they were willing to use me as a model fellow traveler. I graduated in 1933 and soon enrolled as a graduate student in history at Columbia University. I did not last out the year there, because a change encounter made me choose between going on in graduate school or becoming assistant foreign editor of the Daily Worker. I chose the latter. It was the beginning of about five years spent in the Communist movement, which ended when I got into trouble in the aftermath of the German-Soviet pact of August 1939.2

2.

Now I have been reliving the student movement of those very years in a new book. With some skepticism I began to read When the Old Left Was Young, subtitled Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941. The author, Robert Cohen, an assistant professor of education at the University of Georgia, must be half my age or less. How could someone of his generation, so far away in time and circumstance, know what it was like for my generation?

I was wrong. He has been able to draw from the printed record and personal interviews a remarkably faithful and sensitive account. It is a largely untold story that richly repays the interested reader’s effort. The history of American communism and radicalism—and of that anguished decade, the 1930s—is incomplete without it.

The student movement reflected the main course of communism and radicalism but in its own way. The NSL was a product of the first half of the decade. It merged with the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the Socialist-led organization, to form the American Student Union (ASU) in 1935. This amalgamation was made possible by the Communist change of line from extreme sectarianism to the broader Popular Front.

In this respect, the radical Thirties was not the unitary, integrated period that the name suggests and as it is often represented. The first half was very different from the second half, as the National Student League was from the American Student Union, or the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Cohen’s book also divides into two parts, though he does more with the second than with the first.

The most difficult challenge faced by Cohen was how to deal with the role of the Communists in both the NSL and ASU. A good deal of recent work on American communism deals with the Communists by leaving out the communism or making it innocuous. The experience of the NSL offers a particularly instructive lesson in how to deal with this question.

For one thing, it is not enough to say that the NSL was a “Communist front,” as if that explains everything. It was that; it was founded and led by Communists throughout; nothing ever happened in it which the Communists did not set going or which they disapproved of. But there were Communist fronts and Communist fronts, and the NSL happened to be the least typical of the kind.

The NSL was formed by a small group of Communist students and Communist sympathizers, though the distinction could matter little in practice. Almost all of them came from CCNY and Columbia. Paradoxically, so far as the Communist Party line of the moment was concerned, they organized at the wrong time and addressed themselves to the wrong constituency. The time in Communist policy was known as the “Third Period,” based on the premise that capitalism was about to collapse. Therefore, the line went, it was necessary for the Party to be uncompromisingly “revolutionary.” In practice, this meant that the Communist Party was never more rigid and sectarian than at this time.

One consequence was that the Party was not much interested in college students, on the ground that they were not revolutionary material. They were classified as bourgeois or at best petty-bourgeois aspiring to become bourgeois. In fact, most college students were relatively well-to-do in those years. The Young Communist League, itself a small and weak appendage of the Party, had more important things to do than waste its time on them. As Cohen found, YCL national reports did not mention college youth until well into 1932, when it began to claim credit for the growing militant student movement.

The Communist students at CCNY, who numbered at most about fifty at the outset and came largely from working-class backgrounds, did not fit this stereotype, but such subtle distinctions were lost in the general line. On the other hand, the far fewer Columbia Communists were distinctly from the wrong class. The two groups undertook to organize students because that is what they were and could most easily do, if they were to do anything. There were “real” Communists at CCNY, however, who scoffed at working with students and preferred to spend their spare time in “proletarian” work outside the school.

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.

3.

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.

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

Like Brown, other new historians have wanted desperately to believe in the autonomy of American communism but have contradicted it in the body of their work.13 They cannot reconcile their efforts to rehabilitate American communism with its subservience to the Soviet Union and its international arm, the Communist International. Significantly, none of them has made a study of the subject or has much to say about it.

5.

Brown’s main complaint is that I and other historians have treated American communism as if it were different from other political phenomena in the United States. Brown protests that the new historians have not been “driven by a desire to apologize for the weaknesses, mistakes, and failures of any left organization, including the Communist Party.” They have no need to apologize for them, he insists, because the American Communist weaknesses, mistakes, and failures were typical of all efforts to change or improve society.

Indeed, the critical perspective allows one to see that the party historically shared many defects with all of those who have tried to participate in history rather than merely suffer it, and that the historiography of Communism can be no different from the historiography of political life in general. For the new historians, the problem of understanding supersedes the tendentious and invidious moralism of so much of the orthodox literature.

Immediately after these words, Brown demonstrates how innocent of tendentious and invidious moralism he is. He turns to “the rightist reaction after 1980” and attempts to explain its influence on the new historians:

The introduction of a durable fascist element at the center of the United States polity gave extraordinary moral and political weight to interpretations of the past.

But what is this “durable fascist element at the center of the United States polity,” which we have inherited from the 1980s? Brown drops this political bombshell, as if it were clear to everyone what and where it is. “At the center of the United States polity” must mean the presidency, and we are to understand that Ronald Reagan, whatever we may think of him, introduced a “durable fascist element.” Brown also believed that we are “in an epoch of totalizing militarization” and that we have lost “whatever practical instances of democracy that once could have been identified.”

What is clear is that we are dealing with a political tendency that is willing to be “less judgmental” and “more neutral” with respect to communism but is so judgmental and unneutral about the United States after 1980 that it finds a “durable fascist element at the center of the United States polity.”

In effect, we are back in the Communist “third period” of the early Thirties, when a leading Communist spokesman wrote:

More than ever, it is becoming clear [in August 1934] that the Roosevelt New Deal, hailed by the Socialist Party as a “step to socialism” and by the A.F. of L. bureaucracy as a “genuine partnership of labor and capital,” is a weapon for a more rapid fascization [sic] of the rule of the U.S. bourgeoisie and for imperialistic war preparations.14

And this discovery of a “durable fascist element at the center of the United States polity” is said to have influenced the new historians to interpret the past differently. One begins to understand that “less judgmental” and “more neutral” must be applied selectively, and American communism is the chief beneficiary.

The issue, as stated by Brown, is whether “the party should be understood as an altogether exceptional organization.” In some ways it was not exceptional; like all organizations, it had its share of personal rivalries, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and the like. But in one respect it was exceptional as an American organization. No American radical or labor organization had ever adopted policies or changed its policies as a result of instructions from another country. If Gerassi is right, Brown must be wrong, because Gerassi flatly states that the Comintern, which gave orders to the American Party, was by 1928 “totally controlled by Stalin.” Every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, from the “third period” to the Popular Front to the Nazi-Soviet pact to the pro–World War II patriotism to the post–World War II anti-American imperialism, was obediently followed by the American Party, even at the cost of self-immolation.

This was altogether exceptional. It cannot be theorized away by “the variations and complexities of context.” The “context” here is that the American Party belonged to an international movement, with its central direction in Moscow, and it mortgaged its fate to that ultimate power of decision. It cannot be covered up by pleading that “the party historically shared many defects with all those who have tried to participate in history rather than merely suffer it.” No doubt the Party shared many defects with other parties; but no other party has ever changed its line so drastically in so many short periods of time to conform to changes of line five thousand miles away for reasons having little or nothing to do with American conditions.

Why the American Communists were willing to subordinate themselves to the Soviet Union goes to the heart of the nature of their movement. The very birth of the American Party in 1919 was a response to the Russian Revolution. It was imbued with the conviction that the Soviet Union embodied the Communist ideal and that the achievements of the Soviet Party gave it the right and duty to lead all the other parties. It subscribed to a doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, of which the Soviet Party was the highest, undisputed authority. To claim that the Communist Party was like every other American party in its defects deprives the Communist Party of its proudest boast—that it was unlike every other party and that it deserved a discipline and loyalty from its members such as no other party demanded. Most defections from the Party occurred in the first year of membership; those who stayed more than a year and especially more than five years knew what the Party stood for in relation to the Soviet Union and where the basic political line came from.

Unfortunately, the psychological distance between the new historians and the old reality has become so great that Maurice Isserman found it hard to understand why, if the “old historians” were right, “anyone with intelligence and integrity would have remained in such a movement for more than the few days or weeks required to discover its gross inadequacies.”15 This estrangement betrays a lack of historical imagination and reveals a generational gap that prompts the new historians to reconstruct the old Communist Party in their own image.

Brown and his contributors have something to learn from Cohen’s book on the student radicals of the 1930s. The main lesson is that the Communists did best in gathering support when they were least inhibited by the Party line or operated during a permissive Party line.

The NSL was formed and functioned during the peculiarly discouraging “third period.” But it was lucky to be neglected in its formative period by the YCL and generally paid most attention to “immediate issues” or the more widely accepted “fight against war and fascism,” which saved it from getting stuck in the more recondite and divisive issues dear to the Party. It was never a “mass organization,” but—as Cohen puts it—it was able “to serve as a political spark plug igniting protests by hundreds, thousands, and finally more than a hundred thousand students—most of whom were not NSL members.”

But Cohen makes a very acute analysis of what enabled the NSL to bring out these numbers if only on special occasions:

The NSL’s effectiveness as a vanguard organization derived from the League’s ability to orchestrate political campaigns around issues that attracted mainstream students. And thus resulted the crowning irony of the NSL’s political life: Despite the fact that NSLers scorned American liberalism, they knew how to appeal to students with liberal values and did so with great skill and effect. Though NSLers, as radicals, bemoaned the piece-meal reforms championed by liberal leaders in the past, these same NSLers, as realistic student organizers, were masters at championing their own list of reforms which aroused strong campus support.

During the Popular Front, the ASU and AYC had no need to champion reforms while scorning liberalism; at most, they positioned themselves as liberalism’s left wing. As such, they obtained a degree of mass support that the NSL had never enjoyed. Cohen tells of the ASU’s changing attitude toward President Roosevelt and the New Deal:

As the movement dropped its criticism of capitalism, it also softened its stance regarding President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Talk of the New Deal’s fascistic tendencies, which had been so prominent in the early student movement, ceased in the mid-1930s. More temperate criticisms of the limits of the New Deal’s social programs continued through 1937. The New Deal was now depicted as a well intentioned but inadequate social program. But by the following year, when the CP embraced FDR as an ally in the international struggle against fascism—during the period of CP history appropriately dubbed the Democratic Front—both the ASU and the Youth Congress began singing Roosevelt’s praises.

Unlike so many of the new historians, Cohen does not flinch when he describes what followed. He does not blame the collapse of the ASU and AYC on evil forces of reaction. In truth, they are always with us, but healthy movements do not collapse as soon as they encounter some repression. The rot has to be within for a total crackup to take place. Cohen has no illusions why liberals left both organizations as if fleeing from a plague and why Communists were no longer welcome as allies:

There was no mystery about why such exclusion came into vogue. It arose in response to the hijacking of the ASU and Youth Congress out of the Popular Front by the communist factions within those organizations. The packing of meetings, the breaking of agreements, the numerous violations of democratic process which communists used following the Nazi-Soviet Pact won them control of the ASU and Youth Congress but made them pariahs in the eyes of many liberals.

6.

The anti-anti-Communist new historians are a strange new phenomenon in radical and revolutionary history. Almost all the contributors to the volume New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism are professors in universities. They have come out of the New Left of the 1960s and have found a way of holding on to their radical past mainly by working on aspects of American Communist history. They pride themselves on being “less judgmental” and “more neutral” in their approach to that history.

That the American Communists changed their line in accordance with changes in the Soviet line would seem to be so fully documented that it is hard to understand why anyone should doubt it at this late date. 16 John Gerassi, as we have seen, makes much of it for his own outré purposes. Yet Brown blithely waves it aside, as if there were nothing to it. Why should every other “anti”—anti-capitalism, anti-liberalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and all the rest—be intellectually permissible or legitimate but not anti-communism? We do not hear of anti-anti-capitalism or anti-anti-liberalism; one is for it or against it. But anti-anti-communism enjoys a privileged status, precisely because it avoids making a choice. It is a form of protective coloration, designed to say something without saying it.17

But what makes the new historians a historical oddity is their position in the larger political spectrum. For many years, intellectuals in general and students in particular identified themselves with radical or revolutionary parties or tendencies. The NSL and SLID were classic examples of this alignment—Communists in the NSL and Socialists in the SLID; they would have had little sense of their political identity if they had not had the parties to give them a political orientation or social anchorage.

But the new historians have no political home they can call their own. The Communist Party is a shambles and the Socialist Party is a memory. Most of the new historians have a political experience only in the New Left of the 1960s, and this gives them no political sustenance now.

The result is a political anomaly; it is located almost entirely in our colleges and universities. It is virtually necessary to be a professor to belong. Since graduate students become professors by writing dissertations, they—if they work under one of the “new historians”—choose topics on some aspect of American Communist history, often a marginal one, and the only book many of them will ever write. Once published, this gives them gainful employment and a sense of radical or revolutionary virtue. Some of them are able to chair departments; they beget other graduate students in their own image.

Yet they exist intellectually in a kind of social and political vacuum. They have no political footing in the present, because there is no party or cause to which they can attach themselves. Their romance with American Communist history, especially that of the 1930s, gives them a safe, warm refuge in the past.18 They rarely commit the indiscretion of giving away where they stand in the present, as Brown once does by implying that the Reagan administration introduced “a durable fascist element at the center of the United States polity.”

There is something politically sick about this engagement with American communism. That a Research Group on Socialism and Democracy should choose to pay homage to the founding of the Communist Party USA exhibits a certain bravado but also a contempt for the meaning of words. Communism as all the world now knows, with the exception of a cadre of American professors, disgraced the largely democratic tradition of socialism and strangled democracy wherever it came to power.

What explains this perversion of socialism and democracy? It is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate communism by making it part of the larger family of socialism and democracy. No one would think of doing this favor for fascism, but communism with even more millions of victims and a much longer life span is the beneficiary of this sustained effort of historical rehabilitation in—of all places—American colleges and universities.

But there is always hope. The new historians will be followed by even newer historians, and they may know better.

Letters

The Old Left: An Exchange June 23, 1994

Joseph Lash and the CP March 24, 1994

  1. 1

    American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (Harvard University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    I have told the story more fully in the preface to the paperback edition of American Communism and Soviet Russia (Vintage, 1986), pp. ix–xx.

  3. 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.

  4. 4

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 9

    The Roots of American Communism, p. 395.

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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.

  13. 13

    I examined this phenomenon in detail in my articles in The New York Review, May 9, 1985, and May 30, 1985.

  14. 14

    I owe this citation to John Gerassi, p. 79, who found it in an article by Alexander Bittelman, “For a Bolshevik Anti-War Struggle,” The Communist, August 1934, p. 758. Poor Bittelman did not know that the line was soon going to change in favor of a Bolshevik Pro-Roosevelt New Deal Struggle. Bittelman was expelled in 1959, after four decades of faithful service, for allegedly expressing “Browderist,” that is, right-wing views. In my time, Bittelman was considered to be the most authoritative and most sectarian ideologue, but even he finally decided that he had misunderstood the United States. I interviewed him for my second book after his expulsion and found him a sad and bitter outcast.

  15. 15

    Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On? (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), pp. viii–ix.

  16. 16

    Professor Harvey Klehr is editing a multivolume work for the Yale University Press based on thousands of pages of documents on the American Communist Party obtained from the archives of the Communist International in Moscow. It will show that neither of us knew the half of it with respect to the way the American Party was controlled from Moscow. The Comintern’s French archives have turned up at least one startling revelation. After the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, the resident French Communist leadership under Jacques Duclos tried to make a deal with the German authorities. The French Communists sought to obtain the legalization of Party newspapers and the liberation of Communists imprisoned by the previous French governments under Daladier and Reynaud in return for the restoration of French industry (“put France back to work” in the report sent to Moscow) by the French Communists, as desired by the German occupation regime. While the negotiations were going on, word came from Moscow to drop them (Le Nouvel Observateur, July 15–21, 1993, pp. 26–28). A full report of this episode appeared in the Paris journal Communisme, Nos. 32–33–34, 1992–1993.

  17. 17

    Of all the recent denunciations of anticommunism, the most vituperative appears in the Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (University of Illinois Press, 1992). It first recognizes that “anti-communism needs to be distinguished from radical criticism of existing ‘communist’ societies,” as if such radical criticism has not been denounced as anticommunism. It then associates anticommunism with “actions that cause massive civilian casualties and the devastation of human environments to preemptive nuclear war,” “the use of atomic weapons against Japan, nominally to end World War II but actually to announce postwar hegemony over Asia,” “certain ‘paranoid’ features of American society going back to the colonial era,” and in the Reagan era “to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ of reluctance to engage in anticommunist and imperial wars.”

    Among the guilty are “a number of former liberals and former radicals,” who evidently did not limit themselves to “radical criticism of existing ‘communist’ societies,” but the main offenders are “the religious Right and its attack upon the modernizing sexual forces that erupted in the sixties,” as if attacking communism and modernizing sexual forces were intimately related (pp. 44–46). The author of this anathema is Joel Kovel, Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College. And this appears in something that calls itself an “encyclopedia” and is published by a university press.

  18. 18

    One of the books often cited by the new historians is The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick (Basic Books, 1977). I reviewed it in The New Leader, March 13, 1978. It is Communist history as soap opera.

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