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The Old Left: An Exchange

In response to:

The Life of the Party from the January 13, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

For a second time, Theodore Draper, in reviewing literature concerning the American Communist Party, has quoted from my work in attempting to persuade readers that consideration of the everyday social life of Communists is not relevant, is in fact “a diversion to get us away from the real subject” [NYR, January 13; also see May 30, 1985, for an almost exact duplicate].

I have great respect for Mr. Draper and agree with some of his criticisms of those who attempt to soften the realities of Soviet domination of the CPUSA. But he is wrong to suggest that most New Left revisionist historians engage in such an evasion. Mr. Draper seems to have a fixation on what he considers “the real subject,” the politics of the Party. It is unfortunate that he cannot recognize that the ways in which Party members experienced their political lives, the contradictory mix of knee-jerk support for Soviet directives with the national and local events which led most into the Party, is pertinent to understanding both the idealism—albeit often misplaced—and the determination of American Communists. How activists, whether CP, SP, SWP or SDS, sustain their morale in an essentially conservative political culture is, indeed, part of the “real subject.”

Mr. Draper offers an either/or argument; either we opt for a political history which highlights Moscow domination or we go off to the “hardly relevant” considerations of how Party members dealt with such issues as local circumstances, ethnicity, marriage and family, friendship, and other cultural and social factors. I don’t see why the most comprehensive addressing of the subject should not include both.

Paul Lyons

Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences

Richard Stockton College

Pomona, New Jersey

To the Editors:

I hesitated for a number of reasons to respond to Theodore Draper’s latest and (to whose who recall his two-part series in The New York Review of Books in 1985) familiar attack on the “new historians of American communism.” First, I share his positive assessment of When the Old Left Was Young, Robert Cohen’s history of student radicalism in the 1930s; second, I’ve found myself in agreement with almost everything else he has written in these pages over the years except on the subject of the new history of Communism; and finally, I retain a healthy respect for his polemical skills in responding to irate letters-to-the-editor, based on our last go-round on this subject. But finding my political views caricatured as a grotesque combination of Third Period Communism and Sixties nostalgia, I feel obliged to offer some comments in response.

The designation “new historian of American communism” is an elastic one in Draper’s hands. In his 1985 series, he applied the label broadly, including some historians whose sole qualification (or offense) was having written a negative review of his protégé Harvey Klehr’s history of Communism in the 1930s. This time around he is more selective; in fact, too selective. He chooses to ignore the best recent work of historians writing in the field so that he can use as the foil for his argument a decidedly mixed bag of papers delivered at a decidedly obscure conference. Why no mention of such critically-acclaimed and prize-winning works as Bruce Nelson’s Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (1988), or Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990)? Draper complains that the new historians have failed to address core issues of Communist history, but these two books, focusing on labor and race, surely do so. If Draper wants to discredit the new history once and for all, he might try engaging and refuting its strongest rather than its weakest representations.

Draper feels ill-used by the new historians. He complains that they have accused him of “professional anti-communism,” and denigrated his writings on Communism as works of “opinion” rather than “history.” Some have written of Draper in such unflattering terms, but others have not. There is no conspiracy here, and no single “line” on Draper. Just a year ago in an essay in Reviews in American History, I wrote that Draper’s “writings on the subject of American communism set a standard of scholarship that the new historians sought to emulate, even while they rejected many of his conclusions.”

Having taken the high ground against the supposed “sniping” of the new historians, Draper then permits himself the broadest ad hominem generalizations based on no apparent evidence beyond his own irritable intuition. Particularly dear to him is the notion that the new historians, feeling politically orphaned since the 1960s, have turned to American Communism as a “safe, warm refuge in the past.” “[T]he new historians have no political home they can call their own…,” he asserts. “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.” Although Draper suggests that the new historians “rarely commit the indiscretion of giving away where they stand in the present,” those of my acquaintance have in fact been visibly active in recent years in a number of worthy causes, from opposing American intervention in Central America to organizing the National Writers Union. In my own case, I don’t feel I’ve ever made any particular secret of my particular beliefs, past or present. In the 1960s I was indeed a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for a brief, intense interlude of about two years. While I don’t feel especially penitent about the beliefs I espoused between the ages of 17 and 19, still I doubt if my political convictions today bear much greater resemblance to those I held in 1968, than, say, Draper’s do to those he held in 1936. Fated though I may be to remain embedded in Draper’s imagination as the quintessential (albeit antiquated) New Leftist, in reality I’ve long defined my politics as democratic socialism, and have enjoyed a “political home” in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for more than a dozen years. DSA’s political achievements were all too modest in the Reagan-Bush era (an era I would not, incidentally, characterize as one of “fascist” ascendancy—another of the boldly asserted/weakly substantiated generalizations about the views of the new historians that Draper permits himself), but my affiliation with DSA at least provided me the “political sustenance” of working with and learning from such figures as Michael Harrington and Irving Howe.

The late Irving Howe, like Draper, was a historian of American Communism. The American Communist Party: A Critical History, which Howe co-authored with Lewis Coser, was published in 1957, the same year as Draper’s Roots of American Communism. Both books were scornful of the twists and turns of Party members as they tried to keep in step over the years with the ever-changing priorities of Soviet leaders. But Howe, unlike Draper, had some later thoughts on the meaning of this tortuous history. In Socialism and America, published in 1985, he noted: “The irony of it all, a bitter enough irony, is that the most promising approach of the American left, one that apparently came closest to recognizing native realities, derives from the very movement that has done the most to discredit and besmirch the whole idea of the left…. If ever we are to see a resurgent democratic left in America, it will have more to learn practically from the Popular Front initiated by the Stalinists than from those political ancestors whose integrity we admire.”

The Popular Front as a practical model for contemporary democratic leftists? One can imagine the gleeful malice with which Draper would pounce upon such a sentiment were he to stumble across it in the work of a younger historian of American Communism. In contrast to Draper, Howe gave the new historians a serious reading, and wasn’t simply building a case against them in defense of his earlier conceptions. That is not to say he was converted to their interpretation, and he certainly never retreated an inch from his deeply held anti-Stalinist convictions. But by the mid-1980s he had come to acknowledge that the history of American Communism was a more complicated human tragedy than he had previously believed. He still referred to the Popular Front in Socialism and America as a “brilliant masquerade,” as he had in his earlier history. But where once Howe portrayed all Communists as “malleable objects,” subordinated to a totalitarian movement, and capable of “little more than a series of predictable and rigidly stereotyped responses,” now he offered a far more nuanced portrait: “The most interesting group of party members consisted of people with some standing and experience who, almost against their will and perhaps to their own surprise, came to value the Popular Front as both a shrewd maneuver and more than that—indeed, may even have come to believe that, for America at least, this was the way radicals should go…. We may doubt that many of them went so far as to recognize that the Popular Front really signified a break from classical Leninism and even, perhaps, the start of an adaption to the special circumstances of American Life [emphasis added]. But most changes of though occur hesitantly, and language always lags behind impulse and feeling.” Draper may choose to disagree with Howe’s subsequent thoughts on the history of American Communism, but I don’t think he can plausibly attribute them to any nostalgia on Howe’s part for the glory days of the New Left.

Draper concludes his review with the hope that the “new historians will be followed by even newer historians, and they may know better.” Well, of course. I would be very surprised if later generations of historians did not find some of our arguments mistaken, naive, and time-bound. That has been the fate of many worthier historians, writing on such key issues in American history as the frontier, populism, and the “open door” policy. Revisionist arguments are often overstated in their earliest incarnations. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth making; without them, history would consist of the endless elaboration of the inherited wisdom. Suppose every historian who wrote on American Communism in the past decade and a half had proven safe, reliable, predictable clones of Theodore Draper? No doubt Draper would have found the results a gratifying tribute to his own pioneering efforts in the field. But would the cause of history have been better served? Surely as an undergraduate in the 1930s, when Draper immersed himself in the Marxist classics, he had the inexorable logic of the dialectic drilled into him: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. I’d like to believe the fact that Robert Cohen could come along in 1993 to publish a book like When the Old Left Was Young that both Theodore Draper and I can admire was due at least in some small measure to the contributions to the field of those annoyingly antithetical new historians of American Communism.

Maurice Isserman

Associate Professor of History

Hamilton College

Clinton, New York

Theodore Draper replies:

Both Maurice Isserman and Paul Lyons were very briefly mentioned in my review of New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, edited by Michael E. Brown. Oddly, neither Isserman nor Lyons has a word to say about the little that I wrote about them.

I mentioned Isserman, who was cited by Brown as a typical example of the “new historians” of US communism, only in order to recall that Isserman had found it hard to understand why, if the “old historians” like me were right, “anyone with intelligence and integrity would have remained in such a movement for more than a few days or weeks required to discover its gross inadequacies.” I brought this up in order to show how great “the psychological distance between the new historians and the old reality had become.”

In his letter, Isserman had an opportunity to tell us whether he still stands by his opinion of 1982—not 1968. He has chosen to ignore what I wrote and to spend most of his letter on his admiration for the late Irving Howe. I share his opinion of Howe, but it has nothing to do with the point at issue in my review. In any case, I was not reviewing a particular book with a particular point of view. The books he cites are still about limited aspects of Communist history; I wondered why no “new historian” had tackled the history of the Communist Party, which might present problems that books on the waterfront and a single atypical southern state during a single decade may find it easier to avoid.

In the case of Paul Lyons, also recommended by Brown, who advised turning attention away from Communists as Party members to Communists as ordinary individuals, I recalled that Lyons had followed this advice with a vengeance. Lyons had instructed us to note that Communists were people who “stopped over at one’s house after dinner to play cards, listen to a ball game, sit on the porch drinking a beer,” and more of the same. Instead of telling us whether he still believes that these “cultural and social factors” are relevant to the history of Communists as Party members, he takes refuge in generalities about how Communists “sustain their morale in an essentially conservative political culture.”

In any case, Isserman and Lyons both came in for a single sentence in my review. It was largely devoted to others who have not been heard from.

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