• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Keeping the Faith

The Soviet World of American Communism is the first important study of the relations between American Communists and the USSR since Theodore Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia, published in 1960.1 It is also in effect a continuation of that earlier work. Draper’s history covered the period that ended with the expulsion of the dissident Communist Jay Lovestone and his followers from the American Party in 1929. He was able to draw on some thousand pages recording the minutes of conferences held by the American Party’s inner core of leadership.2 In their new book, two American scholars, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, have collaborated with a Russian scholar, Kyrill M. Anderson, to comb through the far more copious files, lodged in Moscow, of the Communist International (or Comintern), the administrative body set up by Lenin to direct the activities of national Communist parties outside the Soviet Union.

The authors reproduce ninety-five documents and make use of many others in their accompanying narrative, which provides a history of the American Communist Party’s ideological and political development, under the strict guidance of the parent Party in Moscow, from 1919 (when the American Party was founded) until 1943 (when the Comintern was formally dissolved). Klehr et al. have also included assorted documents from later periods. The material they have found, they write, reinforces the idea that “the American Communist party was a creature of the Comintern and, through it, of the Soviet Union.”

This is a familiar conclusion, reflecting Draper’s own book of 1960. But The Soviet World of American Communism adds to what has become a steady accumulation of evidence in the 1990s about the power of the Comintern, thanks to the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, the central repository of Communist documents from around the world. In a previous book, Klehr et al. reproduced a list of sums paid out by the Comintern in 1919-1920, including one million rubles’ worth of jewels and other valuable objects entrusted to the journalist John Reed so he could help finance an American version of the revolution he had described so vividly in Ten Days That Shook The World.3 In the new book the editors include a letter, dated 1987, written by the Party’s General Secretary Gus Hall and sent to Anatoly Dobrynin, then a high official in the Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,4 making the case for the American Party’s annual stipend to be doubled, to $4 million. Hall cites the costs of maintaining a revolutionary outpost in New York City, “the decaying heart of imperialism.” Taxes keep soaring, and “the upkeep of our headquarters building goes up every year.” Moscow met him halfway in 1988, giving him “three million US dollars.” It was the last such contribution the Party got. When Hall denounced the Gorbachev reforms a year later, the handouts stopped altogether.

It is fitting, but not surprising, that Hall should have made glasnost and perestroika the occasion for breaking the pattern of deference that had been established over the preceding seventy years. Nor is it surprising that he should have clung more fiercely to the Soviet vision than the Russian leader who presided over its demise. American Communists had always been dependent on the Soviet Union, the source not only of funds but also of ideological direction, tactical guidance, and, above all, “inspiration and [the] will to fight,” to borrow a phrase used by American delegates to the Comintern’s executive plenum in December 1926. As those delegates put it in a joint declaration:

In America (with its scarcity of other revolutionary factors), where capitalism is still on the upward grade, the country of most powerful imperialism and most reactionary labour aristocracy where independent mass actions of the working class are so few, where the working class has yet no political mass party, the existence of the Soviet Union and the successful building of Socialism within it, play relatively a more important role as revolutionary stimulus to the working class than in other countries where capitalism is declining or which possess a revolutionary tradition.

This statement has refreshing candor amid the willed delusion of so much of the material in this book. Reading the assembled telegrams, letters, and memorandums, composed in a numbing revolutionary Esperanto, one is continually struck by the paradoxical nature of American communism. The Party’s ultimate goal—to bring about a home-grown edition of the Bolshevik Revolution—was hopelessly out of reach, and yet American Communists often conducted their daily affairs as if the final siege was about to begin. At times the reader of the documents reproduced by Klehr et al. is left to wonder how seriously they are meant. There is, for example, the Comintern’s deadpan explanation to the US Party that World War II was no longer “the most virulent manifestation of imperialist dissipation and reaction,” as Communists had steadfastly maintained since 1939, but suddenly, with Hitler’s sneak attack on Russia in 1941, “a just war of defense” of the “Soviet people.” And there is Gus Hall assuring Moscow in the Reagan years that “our Party’s work has had and continues to have a growing impact on the politics” of the US. Never before or since have so many political insiders—top Party officials and ideologues, in the US and the USSR—demonstrated so little collective grasp of obvious political reality.

The futility of the Communist enterprise, at least in its American version, comes through in episode after episode of the Party’s history. Klehr and his coauthors revisit the familiar sectarian squabbles of the Party’s early days and the disaster of the US presidential election of 1924, in which the Party refused, calamitously for the left-wing movement, to join with Socialists and others who supported the third-party candidacy of Robert M. La Follette. We see too how virulent attacks on the “fascist” designs of the New Deal were suddenly transmuted, on cue from Moscow, into gentle rebukes of Franklin Roosevelt for not being as “consistently progressive and genuinely democratic” as the Party would wish.

The most important new documents published here show an altogether different side of the American Communist experience. They are secret records concerning Americans who found themselves among the hapless millions swallowed up by the Great Terror. It has long been known that thousands of Americans traveled to Russia in the Twenties and Thirties in the hope of participating in the Soviet “experiment” or observing it at first hand. Klehr et al. put the total number of these pilgrims at more than ten thousand, most of them “immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire, [who] returned to the Soviet Union along with their American-born children.” But some were from other countries, and some were Americans whose illusions about Stalin’s Russia had many sources, including the reports sent back by distinguished visitors such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Theodore Dreiser.

The full-fledged American Communists who went to Russia in the mid-1930s, however, found themselves in a nightmarish situation in which millions were being arrested and many liquidated. And it was not easy to get out. Americans who wished to return to the US faced a quandary. Many had traveled under aliases and with forged papers and so had violated US passport laws. If they appealed to the American embassy for help, they would be subject to investigation that might lead to criminal indictments back home. Their safest course, it seemed, was to apply to the Comintern for permission to return. The lucky ones were allowed to repatriate themselves. Others were detained, and still others were labeled “deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and exiled to the Gulag.

Alan Cullison, a journalist in the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press who has looked into this subject more deeply than anyone else, reported last fall that the casualties included “artists, factory workers, teachers and engineers. They were arrested after engaging in such subversive activities as wearing American clothes, asking the U.S. Embassy for help or talking about life back home.”5 Cullison has gathered “concrete information” on about fifty Americans “who dropped out of sight and in all likelihood were either shot or died in prison.” The number of those arrested, he writes, “is certain to go into the high hundreds.”6 In Soviet intelligence files, Cullison found dossiers on fifteen Americans and supplied Klehr et al. with documentation on two of them, Thomas Sgovio and Lovett Fort-Whiteman. Their stories are instructive.

Sgovio’s father, Joseph, an Italian-born founding member of the American Communist Party, had been arrested during the Palmer Raids on American radicals that took place in 1919 and was arrested again in 1931 for “disrupting a city council meeting” in upstate New York. After a year in jail he was deported, but rather than chance a return to fascist Italy he chose to go to the Soviet Union, where he was joined by his wife and two children in 1935. Thomas, then nineteen, was a Young Communist League activist with a history of arrests by New York police. In Moscow the family all became Soviet citizens. Father and son briefly thrived as experts on the American scene, delivering lectures on “the horrors of the American Depression.” But in August 1937, Joseph Sgovio was arrested by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) after he confessed to interrogators, presumably under duress, that “he and other Italian political immigrants had participated in hostile agitation.” He was sentenced to five years in the Gulag. His family had only the dimmest idea of what had happened.

Thomas was sufficiently alarmed to apply to the US embassy for help in getting back to America. Because of his political history, the embassy was reluctant to intervene. In March 1938, after one of many visits to the embassy, Thomas Sgovio, then aged twenty-two, was seized by Soviet police, who labeled him a “socially dangerous element” and then locked him and a dozen other Americans in a freight car that took them to work in the gold mines of northeastern Siberia. “After a year of work in the arctic mines, 10 of them were dead,” Cullison writes. Thomas Sgovio survived, but his sentence was extended by another three years.

In 1946, after nine years in labor camps during which he contracted malaria, pellagra, and dysentery, Joseph Sgovio was released, though he was confined to “internal exile” in Uzbekistan. The Italian embassy granted him a passport but he died before he could leave. His son, too, was released in 1946, but was rearrested two years later when he visited his sister in Moscow; she also was under suspicion for fraternizing with British and American foreigners, a common charge in these first years of the cold war.7 His sentence this time was “lifetime internal exile,” again in Siberia. Thomas Sgovio was released in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death.

In 1960, during the thaw in US-Soviet relations that included Khrushchev’s tour of the United States, Sgovio was at last allowed to leave the Soviet Union and in 1963 he went to the United States, settling eventually in Arizona. When shown his KGB file in the summer of 1997, he was startled to discover that his betrayers included his Moscow girlfriend, also an American-born Communist, who had told police that Sgovio at one time “slanderously swore that Soviet power wasn’t based on the love of the people, but on terror instilled by fear of being arrested.” Whether Sgovio actually said this we do not know. What is clear is that the NKVD did not want him to go home to spread “lies” about what was going on in the Soviet Union.

  1. 1

    Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Years (Viking, 1960). This book carries forward Draper’s history of American communism begun with The Roots of American Communism (Viking, 1957).

  2. 2

    Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, p. 6.

  3. 3

    Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 23.

  4. 4

    And formerly Soviet ambassador to the US.

  5. 5

    Alan Cullison, “Stalin-Era Secret Police Documents Detail Arrest, Execution of Americans,” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1997, p. A1.

  6. 6

    Alan Cullison to S. Tanenhaus, March 10, 1998.

  7. 7

    See my Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1997), p. 90.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print