Pie in the Sky

The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade

by Harvey Klehr
Basic Books, 511 pp., $26.50

Earl Browder
Earl Browder; drawing by David Levine

The history of the American Communist party (and not only the American) is largely a history of paroxysms—about two to a decade—dividing the Party’s experience into periods. During the 1920s, after the initial revolutionary outburst that spread the influence of the Russian Revolution through the world socialist movement and split the socialist parties, the American Communist party was shaken by the shift from the underground to the legal party. (There was an analogous shift throughout the Comintern.) The Thirties was marked by the two periods that are Harvey Klehr’s subject: the so-called Third Period of 1929–1934, in which the Party’s line became freakishly ultraleft (or so it seemed), and the People’s Front period of 1935–1939, in which the Party swung dizzily to the opposite extreme, the right of the radical spectrum.

In 1939 the Nazi–Soviet pact caused the party to flip-flop back to a line of apparently revolutionary opposition to the capitalist democracies—a short swing, for Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 stood the Party (and the Comintern) on its ear as it returned to superpatriotic support of the New Deal-turned-War Deal. In this period, by enforcing the labor movement’s “no strike” pledge, the CP became the policeman inside labor, ready to put down any manifestations of class struggle. During the late 1940s, the onset of the cold war forced the Party back, willy-nilly, to the position of the “revolutionary” opposition.

The rest of the history of the communist movement includes the international convulsion called Titoism, which began in 1948; the crises around the death of Stalin (1953) and—ever more so—around the speech (1956) in which Khrushchev unveiled the portrait of Stalin as a monstrously bloody dictator; and around the armed suppression of the Hungarian movement for socialist freedom. The most recent crisis has arisen over the destruction of Solidarity in Poland. But since all these have taken place within the frame of the cold war, they have not been accompanied by the drastic policy swings, from right to left and back again, of CP history before the cold war.

None of these periods of mutations originated in American conditions, but they nonetheless define the different phases of the history of the American CP, as of every CP. This is one of the difficulties in understanding and relating the history of the Party. The two volumes by Theodore Draper that inaugurated the writing of the Party’s history in period-by-period close-ups were exemplary in handling this problem. 1 These books were so expertly and fully researched and so clearly presented that no one dared to take on the same project before the third volume in the series appeared. But then Draper dropped the project. This no doubt helps to explain why it has taken so long for a historian to do full justice to the decade, the Thirties, in which the CP had the greatest impact on American life. In…

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