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 the meantime the materials for a history steadily piled up: interviews with many former leaders of the Party, repentant and otherwise; biographies and autobiographical accounts (some published); doctoral dissertations; and studies of separate activities in which the Party was involved such as the Negro movement, the CIO, the auto unions, writers on the left. And, not least, some important period histories have skipped the Thirties, such as Joseph Starobin’s American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?, which concentrated on the World War II period.
All these books were preceded by what is still the only inclusive history of the Party up to its publication: The American Communist Party by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser with Julius Jacobson.2 This was a first, rough approximation, based almost entirely on published sources. Another decade or two may pass before another historian or consortium will attempt an up-to-date synoptic history, taking into account what new materials have accumulated. Meanwhile, the history of the Party continues to be written period by period.
Harvey Klehr, a young political science professor at Emory University, has taken over the project begun by Theodore Draper, whose voluminous collection of CP documents was deposited at Emory. Draper made other material, including drafts, available to Klehr. From these and the mountains of documentation in libraries, Klehr has produced an immensely valuable account of the Communist party during the Thirties.
Klehr’s book is impressive if judged by what it sets out to do. It packs a huge amount of information about the organization and activities of the Party into a little over five hundred clearly written pages. Klehr is particularly successful in organizing his history of a complex political phenomenon. If you want to know about the way the CP acted in, and on, the trade unions, black movements, youth and student organizations, farmers, unemployed leagues and councils, intellectual circles, and (not to forget) its own membership cadres, you will probably find it in Klehr’s book.
In this sense the book can serve as a reference work. Unfortunately, it sometimes reads like one. Klehr tries to pack everything in. Some pages read like the “begats” of the Bible, where Klehr makes lists and names names involved in communist activities and government investigations of them. There are no “revelations.” This is not a complaint, for different readers will go to the book for different kinds of information.
Klehr’s book is at its best on the “hey-day” of the People’s Front period, during the second half of the Thirties. This period also presented the greatest challenge to his powers of marshaling research data clearly, because these were the years of the Party’s greatest successes. Its membership rose to about 75,000 in 1938 and 1939, as against about 7,000 at the beginning of the decade, and its influence in many circles far exceeded these figures. In 1938 the Party convention filled Madison Square Garden in New York; but these quantitative measurements are less important than Klehr’s account of how the Party’s influence penetrated far beyond its membership.
The Party had the greatest impact in the trade unions when the CIO was launched, toward the end of 1935, a year after the CP abandoned its Third Period effort to build its own “red” rival unions against the AFL. The Party was slow to respond to the new attempt to set up an alternative union federation. Despite the myth of the communists’ responsibility for the CIO, it was not until 1937 that the CP made up its mind to join the new movement wholeheartedly. Klehr gives a fine account of how an unwritten alliance then formed between the CP and the virulently anticommunist John L. Lewis. The Party had something invaluable to offer: a corps of experienced organizers whom it was willing to lend to Lewis. Klehr writes:
In no other sector of American life did the Communists gain as much legitimacy or influence. The Party did not found, run, or dominate the CIO. But Communists were a major force within its constituent unions and in its national office, and they built an alliance with the CIO’s non-Communist leaders.
The organizers supplied by the CP were, no doubt, a great convenience for the CIO’s early recruiting drives; but if they had not been available the new unions would have developed other local leaders from their ranks—as happened anyway in place after place. But for the CP the alliance was a bonanza. It is enough to read in Klehr’s book:
By 1938 the Communist party was a force to be reckoned with at CIO conventions. No less than 40 percent of the international unions were either led by Communists and their close allies or significantly influenced by them.
This condition was somewhat obscured by the fact that the 40 percent did not, for the most part, include the giant unions, apart from the significant Party influence among the auto workers and in the United Electrical Workers Union. The main CIO leaders made sure that no communists cramped their style in their own unions—e.g., Lewis’s mine workers, Philip Murray’s steel workers, Sidney Hillman’s clothing workers. But even in the CIO’s central office, publicity director Len DeCaux and general counsel Lee Pressman—whatever their formal relation to CP membership or discipline—were political and ideological assets of incalculable value to the Stalinist enterprise. In 1939 the Party let all these immense advantages crumble overnight in order to stand by Stalin in his pact with Hitler.
Klehr’s chapter on the states in which the CP had political success will be less familiar to many readers, as it was to me, because Klehr’s sources are largely local publications or unpublished dissertations. Klehr discusses the CP influence in the states of Washington, Minnesota, New York, California, and in the South. To be sure, no new conclusions or ideas emerge (as is generally true throughout Klehr’s book), but some events are made vivid.
Common terms like “CP dupes” or “tools” should be put aside, at least temporarily, while one examines the process by which the CP turned allies of convenience into their political instruments without turning them into ideological communists. In Minnesota, for example, the Party took over Governor Floyd Olson, after years of denouncing him as a fascist, Trotskyite, and enemy of humanity; the Party then began its domination of the state’s Farmer–Labor party. Klehr says that “in no other state in the Union did the Communists have so intimate a relationship with the executive branch and the political party that controlled it.” Governor Elmer Benson continued in Olson’s path, giving communist organizers money for organizing, putting Communists on the state payroll, and turning over the Highway Department’s patronage to a secret CP member—not, Klehr writes, because he was “manipulated” by the Party, but out of his own enthusiasm.
Olson and Benson had their counterparts in New York and California. In the Northwest, the main instrument of Stalinist influence was the Washington Commonwealth Federation, whose executive director, Howard Costigan, later said to a congressional committee: “I didn’t join the Communist party in the true sense of the term. The Party joined me.” This is a recurring theme. It was repeated, quite independently, by Joseph P. Lash, who, without actually joining the CP, became its front man in the American Student Union. What such people meant is that the Party adopted their own liberal reform views, or seemed to do so during the People’s Front period; but this was only half the story. Many of these leaders were turned, by the Stalinists surrounding them, into apologists for totalitarianism and hatchetmen who were willing to root out anti-Stalinist dissidents in their own organizations—activities not usually associated with idealistic liberalism. Klehr, however, is not interested in this side of fellow traveling, or in making it clear that these gentlemen lied day after day, not to congressional witchhunters, but to their fellow members, before reconverting after the Hitler-Stalin pact into champions of democracy. The case of the Stalinist patsy needs investigation apart from that of fellow travelers.
Lash is discussed in Klehr’s chapter on youth in the CP, which is mainly concerned with the student movement and the American Youth Congress. This part of Klehr’s account is weak, especially where it touches on the Stalinists’ relations with their socialist opponents, in this case the Young People’s Socialist League. I find Klehr unreliable when he refers to what was happening in the Socialist party and its youth league, perhaps because I was myself one of the socialist founders of both the American Student Union and the American Youth Congress.
Klehr’s chapter “The Negroes” is more interesting. Here he skillfully tells how Harry Haywood, studying at the Lenin School in Moscow during the late 1920s, invented the theory of “self-determination for the Black Belt,” the right to secession by a fancifully constructed network of those places in the South where Negroes constituted a majority; and how this theory became Party gospel for a while, through machinations in the Comintern and its representatives on the ninth floor of the CP’s Thirteenth Street head-quarters in New York. Klehr describes how the communist janitor of the Finnish Workers Club in Harlem, August Yokinen, was expelled for “white chauvinism” in a sort of local model of a show trial, complete with confession. He gives informative sketches of such black CP leaders as James Ford, Benjamin Davis, and George Padmore; and he provides a thorough account of the Scottsboro case, which displayed both the strengths and the weaknesses of the CP’s work with Negroes.
By contrast, the sixteen pages devoted to intellectuals can hardly encompass the numerous studies on the subject, from Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left to Drama Was a Weapon by Morgan Himelstein and The Inquisition in Hollywood by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund. Moreover, accounts of this side of CP history will surely increase disproportionately, since writers tend to be interested in intellectuals. But in its marshaling of information, I think Klehr’s chapter is about as good as can be done in such limited space. Much the same could be said of the book as a whole.
If The Heyday of American Communism is valuable as a compendium of well-ordered information, it is weak in its analysis of that strange political animal, the Stalinist party. Possibly Klehr had no intention of contributing to such an analysis—except of course by supplying the indispensable factual raw material for it, a service not to be depreciated. A book that gives so much should not necessarily be faulted for what it does not provide. But it must be said that aside from its cogently anti-CP point of view, the book is conceptually quite empty, perhaps intentionally so.
Lack of analysis leaves its mark, however. Politics abhors a vacuum. To be sure, at the beginning and the end of the book Klehr points out, as others have often done, that by the Twenties the CP had already been beaten into the mold of serving the Stalinist apparatus in Moscow. As Klehr writes, “The Party’s lurches were not in response to any internal changes in American society or the Party itself; but reflected the pull of an external force.” Theodore Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia traced the process by which this relationship had been imposed and how it hardened. Klehr knows about the relationship, but he seldom uses that knowledge as a means of understanding his subject.
It is not just a matter of lacking analysis; the presentation of the facts themselves suffers. I cite here only two of many examples.
First, the title of the book contains a confusion: the “heyday” began only around the middle of the Thirties, with the inauguration of the People’s Front policy; but the subtitle “the Depression Decade” suggests the entire Thirties. In fact, there were, as I have mentioned, two periods of CP history during the Thirties, the first marked by the so-called Third Period line. Klehr’s treatment of this period, while factually informative, is defective. Like other periods, the third began and ended with paroxysms that define its significance for the Communist party. Both of these are almost unmentioned by Klehr, let alone knowledgeably analyzed.
As always, the cause of the changes in Party line lay abroad. At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, Stalin—not yet secure in power but triumphant over the left opposition (Trotsky)—prepared to smash the right wing (symbolized by Bukharin); thus Stalin’s bureaucracy moved to take over all power from the gutted Party and Soviet structure. Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia explained the background to Stalin’s policy of economic terror, including forced collectivization and industrial speedup:
After Trotsky’s downfall, only Stalin’s allies, Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky, stood in the way of his Left turn—and of Stalin’s absolute rule in the Soviet state, the Russian Communist party, and the world Communist movement.
The new policy was the ideological cover of the new power. By declaring war on the so-called “right wing,” which was indeed going to be liquidated, Stalin’s bureaucracy was reaching for total mastery over the state. The left-right terminology was used to confuse and divide the sympathizers of the left opposition. The inauguration of the Third Period was one of the steps in the coming to power of the new class. As Theodore Draper wrote:
Through the Comintern, the Russian struggle was internationalized. Every little Stalin in the world needed his little Bukharin, his Left turn, and his “conciliators with the Right danger.” And the American party was no exception.
A year later, also in Moscow, the Tenth Plenum of the Comintern Executive (ECCI) inaugurated the bizarre policies of the Third Period. “Capitalist stabilization” was ended, and direct revolutionary struggle was the order of the day (on paper only, to be sure—not once did the Comintern take steps to reach for power during this period of “revolutionary” bluster). A new series of policies, all of them imported into America by the CP, set up unscalable walls between the CP and every other sector of society. First, by the theory of “social-fascism,” socialists were declared to be a wing of the fascist movement and socialism an especially evil form of fascism; the worst social-fascists of all were the left socialists. Second, since the reformist trade unions, like the AFL, were “social-fascist” too, communists had to build “red” dual unions to fight and destroy the established labor movement—in the US, the new unions were to form the Trade Union Unity League. Third, while Hitler was taking power through the destruction of labor and socialist institutions, communists were instructed to reject any real idea of uniting with the social-fascists, whose duped membership was however to be “united” with the CP. This was called the “united front from below only.”
Now Klehr has not a word about the origin and launching of the Third Period shift, except that it was made in Moscow. His treatment of the political content of the Third Period line is, strangely, given in his first chapter, which is devoted to summing up the Twenties; and here the treatment is cursory. Perhaps because he is not interested, he confuses the Third Period line with preceding policies. Writing about the Comintern line in “most of the Twenties,” he notes that in 1924 Stalin said that “Social Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism,” socialism and fascism being twins. As if it were the same story, he then quotes the Tenth Plenum’s crackpot notions of social-fascism. This treatment is, to put it mildly, misleading. While in 1924 Stalin’s statement was only an obscure remark, by 1929 it had become the Comintern line and was used to power an engine of destruction.
Klehr does something similar with the “united front from below” policy, whose distinctive feature was that it meant “from below” only, that is, it outlawed any real united fronts. This he assimilates to the older party line of “united front from above and below”—which allowed for united action. This confused treatment makes the Third Period fade out of the history of the CP.
If Klehr is weak on the inception of the Third Period, he is even weaker on its end. The period began during the upheavals of the internal power struggle in Russia. Once its Russian purpose—the destruction of the last independent wing facing the Stalin bureaucracy—had been accomplished, it was doomed to become superfluous. Indeed, movement away from the antics of the Third Period was visible by 1933. With Hitler’s triumph over the communist and Social Democratic movements, both equally ineffective and unresisting, signs multiplied by 1934 that the Third Period line would be sacrificed to Stalin’s fear of the real fascist menace. In 1935 all the windy “revolutionary” slogans were jettisoned in an abrupt shift in Russian foreign policy.
This was the Franco-Soviet pact of 1935. On May 2 the Soviet Union and France signed a “pact of mutual assistance” which made them military allies if either was attacked by a “European state”—that is, Germany. On May 15 Stalin and Laval issued a joint communiqué in which Stalin stated that he “fully approved” of France’s arming. The French CP, just then in the midst of campaigns against the military budget and the two-year conscription law, spun around 180 degrees, glorifying as patriotic what they had just been denouncing as fascist. In America, the CP’s Daily Worker, which during the preceding month had twice assured the comrades that no pact would change the line, went into a dither along with the membership. The activities of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, to which Klehr pays much attention, came some months later.
But Klehr does not even mention the Franco-Soviet pact as central to the paroxysm that finished off the Third Period and inaugurated the People’s Front. I can myself testify to the staggering impact of the Franco-Soviet pact and the communiqué on the CP’s ranks. It is startling to find that this pact has effectively dropped down the memory hole in Klehr’s account. When he first mentions the pact in the following chapter he does so not because the event was of interest in itself but in the course of remarking that when Earl Browder and William Z. Foster went to Moscow in “mid-March 1936,” they “arrived shortly after the signing of the Franco-Soviet Pact.” In addition to everything else, he mistakes the date of the pact by a year. Further on, when Klehr points to “an issue of foreign policy” that caused the CP to support Roosevelt, he points to the German-Japanese pact of 1936, while he mentions the Stalin-Laval communiqué only to comment, astonishingly, that “this hardly signified a decisive shift in Comintern policy.”
Even more oddly, Klehr fails to mention the event that initiated the conversion of FDR into an FSU (“Friend of the Soviet Union”). This was Roosevelt’s recognition of Russia, which took place toward the end of 1933, just before the Comintern began its about-face. Stalin’s new relation with Washington was a vital starting point; unlike the Franco-Soviet pact, it even involved this country directly, yet it goes unrecorded.
Since politics abhors a vacuum, unconsidered politics rushes in to fill the empty space. Imbued as he is with the rich materials of his sources, Klehr more than once reflects the communists’ own rationalizations. It is sometimes hard to know when he is reporting the views of a Stalinist apologist and when he is giving his own explanations. To take a minor case in point (one of many examples in his chapter on the formation of the People’s Front): the reader is informed that “the new united front did not involve a change in strategy,” though of course the CP’s policy was being turned upside down. Or consider his offhand characterization of those CP trade unionists who objected when the Party supported the abolition of opposition groups within a union. They “nostalgically preferred the old-time religion,” Klehr writes. This “old-time religion” was basic union democracy. Historians face the occupational hazard of being victimized by their sources.
A more important case concerns the absurd presidential campaign of Earl Browder in 1936, which unfortunately came along just when the CP was in the process of changing the line on Roosevelt (yesterday a fascist warmonger, tomorrow a paladin of democracy, but today a problem in apologetics). To make the weird story short, Browder wound up running as the CP’s presidential candidate while more and more openly suggesting to the public as well as to the faithful that everyone should vote for Roosevelt. Klehr conveys a different picture: by the time you finish his chapter, you find that Browder’s woolly maneuver was a clever strategy that made him important in US politics. After quoting some of Browder’s vagaries, Klehr writes that “this farrago defied understanding,” but “as the campaign got into stride, the schizophrenic Communist position became less jarring.” To whom?
Klehr later writes, “Within the Communist party itself, the new line was quite clear,” though his own material tends to show (what everyone knew at the time) that the CP membership was in a state of confusion. In fact, Klehr’s account is quite as schizzy as Browder’s 1936 position, but with less reason. In reading all the bluster in interviews with Browder and his old associates, Klehr must have lost his bearings.
Or to take a case of a different kind. Ending his chapter on the youth and student movements of the Thirties, Klehr concludes that during the People’s Front period,
the Party discovered that it could become a vital part of a larger coalition by dropping its revolutionary rhetoric and accepting liberal policy goals.
Is that what really happened? Was it simply “rhetoric” that was dropped, not goals or policies? And was it really the liberals’ “goals” that the Party adopted, not merely the liberals’ rhetoric? It makes as good sense, or better, to reverse Klehr’s claim: The CP dropped its revolutionary goals and accepted liberal rhetoric….
Consider, too, the following remark about the advantages to the CP leaders of their People’s Front “moderation”:
The Communists already knew the penalties of revolutionary purity—their policies of confrontation had left them tiny and isolated through 1934.
The policies that had isolated them “through 1934” were the crazy policies of the Third Period: dual-unionism, “social-fascism,” “united front from below,” and so on. Klehr sees this package as a blur called “revolutionary purity,” which he counterposes to the wise, moderate, sensible, liberal, and above all successful, policies of the People’s Front, in which the CP wolf pulled a lamb’s coat over its shoulders and went around bleating, “Nobody here except us lamblets.”
The nature of the CP’s revolutionism is clearly in question here, or, to put it differently, the nature of the Stalinist party as a new type of political instrument. What made the CP “revolutionary” was its negative principle: anticapitalism. The appeal of the CP to militant unionists, who wanted to fight “the system,” including its labor union bureaucrats—as well as to disaffected intellectuals, who were repelled on different grounds by a social order based on greed—was that the Party stood in opposition to the world of the status quo. When in 1935 the CP adopted a line of collaboration with old enemies that might have discredited mild European social democrats, it appeared to the disaffected as a notoriously “revolutionary” party that had now become sensible. It was not just the People’s Front that increased the Party’s appeal; it was the fact that an apparently liberal policy was being used by a certified revolutionary party. What counted was the combination; one could have it both ways. The liberal dupes who thought the Party was joining them could at the same time see themselves as joining the world revolution.
But while anticapitalism gives the CP its “revolutionary” cachet and helps to explain its appeal, it cannot explain any of the twists and mutations of actual CP history. Recognition, like Klehr’s, of the Russian source of CP policy cannot simply remain an abstraction: if it explains why the CP does what it does and it leads us abroad to the source, we cannot keep our attention solely on America. If the positions of the CP reflect Russian state power, one cannot avoid raising questions about that power.
This, of course, brings the “Russian question” to the fore even though the subject seemed to be the American CP. Acknowledging this may take us, with an increasing number of commentators, along a line of thought suggesting that the Russian state, controlled by a new type of exploiting ruling class, bureaucratic and statist, is not only anticapitalist but also antisocialist and antilabor. Hence it is a state that cannot be understood according to the traditional assumption that there is a spectrum running from the “revolutionary” to the “reformist.” How such an analysis of the Russian state can be translated into an interpretation of the Stalinist parties—the nature of their appeal, their patterns of domination and mutation—is exemplified by the final chapter, “Toward a Theory of Stalinism,” in the book on the American CP by Howe Coser, and Jacobson. One does not have to agree with this essay (I do so only in part) to see the need for some such analytical approach to understand the CP as something more than a bizarre phenomenon.
Does this argue that Klehr too should have added a chapter presenting his own “theory of Stalinism”? Not at all. But the lack of such a theory helps to explain why Klehr’s analysis is deficient in places throughout his book. On the other hand, this is a deficiency easier than many others to forgive, in gratitude for what is given. Few recent books compare with The Heyday of American Communism in reliable scholarship and expertly organized information. Judged by its own scale of virtues and its own objectives, Klehr’s work is not likely to be superseded. It takes its place among the best half-dozen of the many studies of its subject.
May 10, 1984
Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism (Viking, 1957; 1981) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (Viking, 1960). ↩
Praeger, 1957; enlarged paperback edition, 1962. I am not counting James Oneal’s American Communism (NY Rand Book Store, 1927) or W.Z. Foster’s History of the CPUSA (International Publishers, 1952), both for the same reason, factional unreliability. ↩