American Communism Revisited

The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade

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

A Long Journey

by George Charney
Quadrangle (1972, out of print)

A Long View from the Left

by Al Richmond
Houghton Mifflin (1972, out of print)

The Narrative of Hosea Hudson

by Nell Irvin Painter
Harvard University Press, 413 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist

by Harry Haywood
Lake View Press (Chicago, 1978), 700 pp., $9.95 (paper)


American communism has become a minor academic industry. It was not always so. When I worked on the subject a quarter of a century ago, it was mainly of interest to those who had been in or around the communist and other “left” movements. Now that it has been taken over by a new academic generation, too young to have known what it was like to be for or against the communist movement in the 1930s or even 1950s, it is inevitably being reconsidered from different political perspectives and personal backgrounds.

By 1982, the subject had attracted enough academic attention to bring about the formation of an organization, Historians of American Communism, with about one hundred dues-paying members of varying political tendencies. Its newsletter indicates that twenty-three dissertations, thirty-five books, and fifty-eight articles have, in one way or another, been devoted to the subject between 1979 and 1984, with an additional eight dissertations in progress. Many more appeared before 1979. When I worked on the subject, there were perhaps two or three books on American communism worth reading.

Many of these new historians, as they like to call themselves, derive from political and personal backgrounds in the New Left of the 1960s. They were students then and are mainly assistant professors now. “During the last decade,” one of them explains, “scholars and former activists have begun to reexplore the history of American communism during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.”1 Another describes the reexploration as the work of “a new generation of historians, influenced by the New Left.”2 The New Left influence is often worn as if it were a badge of honor, immediately thrust on the reader to ensure that the right political credential has been established.

Curiously, the New Left in the 1960s was openly hostile to and contemptuous of the Old Left, which conspicuously included the Communist party. Yet these post–New Leftists have turned back to the Communist past in their search for a new faith and vision. The change in attitude, according to a leading spokesman, has come about because “the collapse of the apocalyptic expectations of the late 1960s created hunger among this new generation of left-wing activists for a tradition that could serve both as a source of political reference and inspiration in what suddenly looked like it was going to be a long struggle.”3 Such a usable tradition and inspiration might have been found or at least sought in other forms of American radicalism, such as the open, democratic pre–World War I Socialist party, the farmer–labor movement, or the syndicalist movement, all of which were far more indigenous and independent than the Communist party. But those new historians who have concentrated on the Communist party have done so as if the secret of a new radical rebirth were hidden in it.

I need mention only briefly here a wider setting, within which these more specialized new historians belong. Selfstyled Marxist academics are now active in virtually every discipline, especially…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.