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 in the social sciences. They have their own journals and caucuses. Such groups are reported to have more than 12,000 members, “the largest and most important cohort of left-wing scholars in American history.” It is said that “in certain fields, American history for example, Marxism is the mainstream.” Two recent presidents of the Organization of American Historians were “Marxists or at least marxisantes.” The larger Marxist professoriate also “constitute the intellectual legacy of the New Left, the political activists of the 1960s who turned to scholarship in the 1970s in order to make sense of their own experience.” With no mass political movement to sustain them any longer, “the temptation to trade the frustrations of politics for the pleasures of scholarship is strong, all the more so when the professional rewards for such a switch are all too obvious.”4
The new historians of American communism and the new breed of academic Marxists constitute a little-noted subdivision of the “Yuppie” social stratum. The assistant professors of today will be the associate and full professors of tomorrow; the new historians are waiting their turn or already have tenure at major institutions—Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Rutgers, Smith, Michigan State, and elsewhere. Most attention has been paid to the recent neoconservative trends, which have been the most fashionable. But while a new generation of intellectuals has gone mainly to the right, a less numerous, though substantial, group has moved to the left, as if a gap had been opening in the center. The two extremes, however, do not enjoy the same opportunities for advancement. The right-wing intellectual Yuppies have far more to gain by gravitating to the corporation-subsidized foundations and institutes or to job openings in Reaganite Washington. The left-wing intellectual Yuppies have few prospects for personal advantage and political gratification other than academic careers.
The post–New Left academics are, of course, far from having taken over the universities. An influx of them into a single specialized field can, however, make a considerable difference. This has happened to the history of American communism, as many of them have chosen to do their work in it. Moreover, the problems raised by the new historians do not merely concern the history of American communism. They also call attention to broader questions of historical method and academic fashions. The new history can sometimes be mistaken for the new intellectual couture.
For me, the new work on American communism has been the occasion for a return to a subject that I had given up many years ago. So much has appeared since my last book on American communism was published in 1960 that I cannot possibly attempt to do justice to all of it. My interest here is in those works that claim to present a new interpretation of American communist history. Even at that, my focus is necessarily more limited. One such book deals with the autoworkers unions, another with Harlem in the 1930s, and so on. A number of them are not without solid research, even if they are seasoned with political partisanship. By originating as doctoral dissertations, they were required to satisfy at least minimal academic standards. Thus I will be concerned mainly with the political line and historical bias that have come to be the distinguishing marks of the new historians. They themselves make no secret of their line and bias, and often in the most belligerent and provocative manner.
In order for there to be a new history, there must be an old history to be fought and vanquished. There must be a new generation of historians versus an old. It also helps if there is a new methodology allegedly superior to the old. And to make the struggle between the new and old particularly sharp and heated, historical differences should be treated as political conflicts, preferably among radicals, liberals, and conservatives.
For all these reasons, I have found myself after all these years drawn into a struggle over the historical significance of American communism.
The time has come for me to declare an interest. I first became aware of the part I had been assigned to play in the political drama staged by the new history in 1981. The editor of the Wesleyan University Press asked me to give an opinion of a manuscript submitted to the press by Maurice Isserman. It was later published as Which Side Were You On? and subtitled “The American Communist Party During the Second World War.” I agreed reluctantly; after all, I was expected to spend a week or more away from my own work with a pittance for compensation.
To my astonishment, my name appeared on the very first page of the preface. The author had decided to set me up as the prime example of what had been wrong with the old history. Several themes emerged from this preface. One was that the difference between the old and the new had its roots in a generational conflict. Isserman proudly announced that he “shared a common political and intellectual background with this post–New Left generation of historians as well as family ties to the older Left.” The new generation had its “roots in the student movement of the 1960s,” which “had initially ignored the CP’s bitter and complicated history.” Isserman also announced that he was taking a “generational approach” to American communist history, the generation being those communists “who joined the CP in the early years of the Depression and remained in it until 1956.” Above all, he took issue with something I had written in The Roots of American Communism, published in 1957.
The fighting ground was provided by the following passage from my book:
A rhythmic rotation from Communist sectarianism to Americanized opportunism was set in motion at the outset and has been going on ever since. The periodic rediscovery of “Americanization” by the American Communists has only superficially represented a more independent policy; it has been in reality merely another type of American response to a Russian stimulus. A Russian initiative has always effectively begun and ended it. For this reason, “Americanized” American Communism has been sporadic, superficial, and short-lived. It has corresponded to the fluctuations of Russians policy; it has not obeyed a compelling need within the American Communists themselves.
The issue of Soviet influence, through the Communist International or Comintern, on American communism inevitably turns up in other writings by the new historians. For the present, it is enough to note that Isserman had set out to do battle with the idea that the Communist party responded “blindly to external stimuli,” though in the end he conceded so much to this view that his own position was finally far from clear. In any case, the preface promised far more than the book itself delivered. Except for a few general pages at the beginning and end the work, which had its origin as a dissertation, dealt solely with the war years, 1939 to 1945. In that period, Isserman willy-nilly showed how the American Communists had been “doggedly loyal to the current Soviet line,” whatever it was. Following the Nazi–Soviet pact, they described the war in Europe as an imperialist war; following the Nazi attack on Russia, it became an all-out antifascist war; then, after the French Communist leader Jacques Duclos published an article attacking the position of Earl Browder, and Browder was expelled from the Party, they subscribed to the Soviets’ version of the cold war. Despite my reservations about the appropriateness of the preface and about claims that went beyond the substance of the book itself, I recommended that it should be published, because I felt that the main body was substantial enough to merit publication. My criticisms of the preface were ignored in the published version of the book.
The publication in 1984 of The Heyday of American Communism by Harvey Klehr also brought my name into the controversy stirred up by the new historians. As Klehr noted in his preface, I had made my collection of materials on Communism available to him. That was all; I had nothing to do with his book until it was completed; only then did I read the manuscript, when it was sent to me for an opinion by the publisher. What I thought of the book may be gathered from my recommendation: “It is meticulously documented, politically acute, and remarkably thorough. No one who wishes to be informed about this vexed subject can afford to ignore it.” Several published reviews agreed with me.
But the new historians were not pleased. It is difficult to tell whether Klehr suffered more from his connection with me or my connection with him. One typical academic reviewer of the new school took Klehr to task for having tried to write “a Draperian history,” though generously conceding that it had “yielded some benefits.” The review disparaged the work of both Klehr and myself for being “political” and “institutional.” It set forth the new academic marching orders—“social and cultural history of the party.” It paid tribute to the Popular Front for having “increased the plausibility” of the “self-perception” of the American Communists in the mid-1930s. According to this “self-perception” they had seen themselves “not only as faithful members of an international Communist movement but also as advocates of an authentic American radicalism.” Above all, Klehr had committed the sin of having stressed the theme of American communism’s subservience to Moscow, in which respect his “approach and analysis have been deeply influenced by Draper’s work.”5
Isserman also wrote a review of Klehr’s book in which he complained that Klehr’s conclusion “echoes Draper.” Klehr’s treatment of the Popular Front betrays his “myopia.” He should have recognized that the young people who joined the Party in the early 1930s “carried with them a style and a set of concerns that marked them off from older Communists.” Isserman wonders how it was that the American Communists gained so much influence and membership in the late 1930s, a problem also raised by others. Another count against Klehr is that he used “a traditional method of inquiry” and was not sufficiently impressed by “recent works of oral history and autobiography.” Above all, however, it is Klehr’s view of what made the American, Communists different from members of other radical movements that rankles—the view that “its special relationship to the Soviet Union”set it apart and ultimately determined its fate.6
Other reviews by new historians made a number of the same points. One criticized Klehr’s “fundamentally institutional approach” and wanted him to be concerned with “grass roots organizing.” It accused him of “obsessive interest in the heavy hand of the Comintern,” which made him go “against the grain of recent scholarship on the CP, which has emphasized its social history—the stories of the men and women who passed out leaflets, sold the Daily Worker on the corner, and marched in demonstrations.” By using oral history, the new scholarship “has generally offered a critical but generally favorable assessment of the party’s actions and have emphasized the party’s flexibility and responsiveness to local conditions.” Again the question is raised, as if it were a mystery never before encountered: “Why did the Communist party appeal to so many committed people and become the dominant force on the American left during the 1930s?” For this reviewer the Party became, despite its close ties with and even subservience to Moscow, “at least for a time, an authentic expression of the American radical tradition.”7
Another academic reviewer of the same school of thought also connected Klehr’s work with my own; the best thing he could say about it was that it is “useful.” Unfortunately, however, it is “essentially a political history,” unlike the labors of other historians “to reconstruct aspects of the CP’s social history.” As a result of the difference, “this newer scholarship often presents a more positive view of Communist efforts than Klehr entertains.” Better to look forward to studies “which will be less concerned with national party leaders and the Comintern, and more interested in the rank-and-file and other relatively neglected topics.”8
An openly communist review of Klehr’s book by a tenured professor in a major university is almost apoplectic in its abuse and distortion. It cuttingly puts him down as “an intellectual ‘relic’ of the early 1950s,” who identifies with “Theodore Draper, Midge Decter, Sidney Hook, and other aging members of the cold war establishment,” all of whom are said to “dream, along with Ronald Reagan,” of past glories. 9 Aging, yes, alas, but hardly a harmonious quartet.
I have gone into some detail about these reviews because they show where the battle lines have been drawn. I have brought myself into the story because I have been brought into it. I have been brought into it. I have thought it worthwhile to revisit the communist scene, at least historically, because real questions have been raised about the nature of American communism by a younger generation searching for answers just as my own used to search for them.
The new generation came of age politically in the 1960s and 1970s, yet its interests have little or nothing to do with American communism during these decades. It appears, rather, to be fascinated by American communism in the 1930s and particularly during the short-lived Popular Front period. Because I had dealt with the preceding decade, the new historians have found Klehr’s book more disturbing than my own, though much of the criticism of his work might just as well have been aimed at mine. The generational aspect of this academic phenomenon is insisted on by the new historians, as if belonging to the right new generation were a condition for doing history the right way.
Still, the questions and problems which have again arisen deserve to be addressed on their own merits. New materials, in the form of ex-Communists’ memoirs, oral histories, and specialized studies, have become the stock in trade of the new historians who seem to think that they can find new revelations in it. I have examined the new material, especially that of greatest interest to the new historians, in search of these revelations. I have mainly found revelations about the new historians.
What was the relationship between American communism and the Soviet Union, the Communist party of the United States and the Comintern? I have already cited my finding of 1957. Klehr summed it up in 1984 as follows:
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. If the needs of Russian policy dictated a revolutionary or sectarian Comintern policy, the American Communists swung over to the left. When those needs changed, they swung back to a more reformist or opportunistie line. Within the limits of their knowledge, American Communists always strove to provide what the Comintern wanted, no more, no less….
In the last analysis, one thing gave every Communist party its specific character among radical movements—its special relationship to the Soviet Union.10
One of the ex-Communist memoirs invoked by the new historians is George Charney’s A Long Journey. Charney was about twenty-seven years old when he joined the Communist party in 1933, thus making him an exemplar of the 1930s generation. He stayed in for twenty-five years, until 1958, one of the last to leave in that exodus. I knew him slightly; he was a type of sincere, dedicated, hard-working Party organizer. He conforms almost exactly to Isserman’s model of the 1930–1956 “continuum.”
“Not long after I joined the party,” Charney tells us, “I came to accept each doctrine promulgated by the party as an ‘article of faith,’ never to be questioned.” One of his first experiences came during the municipal election in New York in 1933 against Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, then an enemy of the people. “Our policy, of course, originated in Moscow and was determined by the theses of the Sixth World Congress, reiterated only recently at its 13th Plenum, whose main emphasis was the preparation for universal revolutionary struggles.”
When the Popular Front was promulgated at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern in 1935, Charney and those like him were ready for the change. “Overnight we adjusted our evaluation of Roosevelt and the New Deal.” The new line “reflected what many of us believed but could not articulate.” They would have obeyed the old line, if that had been the will of the Party, but were much happier with the new. Yet, in retrospect, it occurred to him that their immediate adaptation was “one of the tragedies of this history,” because “in each case the decision was made elsewhere—by the ‘leading party,’ the party of the October Revolution.” Even in 1935, however, he “could not but be aware that, just as in 1933, the line originated from abroad.” But this time at least, “it coincided with American realities and enabled the party to take on the appearance of an American movement.”
The Popular Front lasted only four years. When the Nazi–Soviet pact came in 1939, Charney and the rest were again put to the test. “The pact left us limp and confused.” It was a “shock.” But shock or no, “such was our attachment to the party that we listened and accepted the explanations.”11
Earl Browder was ousted as Party leader in 1945. Long after the event, Charney wondered: “How did this happen? How could we accept intervention from an outside source…? Everything was settled in Moscow….” The old reflex still operated: “In an amazingly short period of time, the viewpoint we had developed over a decade in the period of democratic unity was virtually washed away…. Most of us in the ranks and in the middle leadership adjusted to this line without hesitation or caution.”
Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 was something else for Charney’s generation. The official recital of Stalin’s crimes and atrocities was too much to bear. The Hungarian eruption and Soviet intervention in November of that year added to the turmoil. It took Charney longer than most to react. Finally, he left the Party. In the end, he reflected: “We lived and functioned in good part on the basis of world issues and the direction of the Communist power center, on the basis of our international credentials and the vague expectation that a new radical upsurge would eventually unfold under our leadership.” He explained why the shock of 1956 had been so great for his generation: “Moreover, as a product of the 1930’s, we had acquired an implicit faith in the Soviet Union as the ‘Land of Socialism.’ Our illusions about Sovietdemocracy and justice were greater, and so was the shock of disillusionment.”
Yet some new historians have seized on Charney’s book as evidence that “in more subtle ways,” the Communists “shaped the party to fit their own needs and expectations.” Isserman was especially impressed by Charney’s story that, in mid-1934, he had put out a leaflet for workers of the Sunshine Biscuit company in New York without ending it with the current Party slogan, “For a Soviet America.”12 The section organizer caught the omission and “crushed” Charney with his criticism. Charney says that the lesson he learned from this little incident, told by him somewhat uncertainly thirty-four years later, was: “The Seventh Congress was still a year away, and we found to our dismay that we could be as guilty anticipating a new line as deviating from it after it was adopted. But we were neither prophets nor dissidents.”
Charney, still a neophyte with little more than six months in the Party, was hardly in a position to provide any serious evidence of how Communists “shaped the party to fit their needs and expectations.” On the contrary, Charney clearly told the story to show how he had gone through “the process of personal transformation, to sublimate myself in the movement, to become a good Communist….” The incident cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of Charney’s transformation into a “good Communist” for the next quarter of a century. Such scraps of dubious evidence of how the 1930s generation remolded the Communist party in its own image or had an important part in anticipating the Popular Front tells more about the desperate expedients of some new historians to justify a thesis than they convey any sense of reality about what actually happened to that generation in the Party.13
Another memoir by an ex-Communist popular with the new historians is Steve Nelson: American Radical, written by two graduate students, James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, from interviews with Nelson. Nelson was born in Croatia in 1903, came to the United States at the age of seventeen, and was drawn into the Communist movement three years later, formally joining the Party in the mid-1920s. He, therefore, somewhat antedates the 1930s generation. He became a full-time organizer in 1929; was sent to the Comintern’s Lenin School in Moscow in 1931; served as a political commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Batalion during the Spanish civil war. His disillusionment began to set in with the Khrushchev revelations and Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, and he left the following year; nevertheless, his emotional and political break with the Soviet Union did not come until 1968.
His story is that of an authentic Communist middle-level “functionary” or “cadre.” It is well worth the effort put into it. Nelson speaks of himself as one who “could not and would not renounce my past” and was “still proud to have been a Communist and still respected many of the people with whom I’d worked over the years.” His regret for the years spent in the Party is thus much less acute than that of Charney. Nevertheless, they substantially agree on the relationship of American communism and the Soviet Union. “We treated the Soviet Union as the single pivot in the world around which everything else was centered. Nothing else mattered…. We had the mentality that the Soviet Union was always right and that its interests were paramount.” When the excommunication of Tito came in 1948, “we were still in the habit of tailing the Soviet Party.” In one passage he is angry for having been “so blind in our adherence to Soviet policy and so mechanical in our application of Marxism.” American Communism “has remained one of the most backward parties in the Western world and one of the most rigid in its adherence to the Soviet line.”14
Yet the two graduate students who edited the book could not resist distorting it. In their introduction, they make Nelson view the Party as “a foot soldier” and a “rank and file organizer,” when he was obviously a well-known leader just below the top rank, entrusted with one important assignment after another. They also soften his own repeated judgment of how much the Soviet Union influenced the American Party by making it seem only half the equation: “While Nelson substantiates the role of the Soviet Union in influencing the American party, he offers a counterpoint—that much of the politics of the American Communist movement came not from Moscow but from its involvement in the social struggles of the times.” Nelson knew and says that the Soviet role was more than that of mere “influence”; at one point he decries “our mechanical application of Comintern policies to American problems.” Nelson’s book, as well as the others, is treated as if it were a department store, where one can buy this or that and ignore all the rest.
Other memoirs of the 1930s allude to the unequal character of the relationship. A favorite of the new historians is A Long View from the Left by Al Richmond. He came into the Communist movement in 1928 at the age of fifteen and stayed in for forty years, most of them spent as editor of the People’s World in San Francisco. He notes that 1929 and 1945 were turning points in American Communist history—1929 because that was the year Jay Lovestone was ousted from the leadership, 1945 the year Earl Browder was ousted. Both upheavals took place, Richmond recognizes, “with a decisive push from abroad”; both times the problems “were not resolved independently with the inner resources of American communism.” In between came the Nazi–Soviet pact—“a megaton shock, stunning, sudden, wrenching.” Nevertheless, despite being “unprepared, knocked off balance by this abrupt turn, our reflex defense of the treaty had elements of the frenetic.” Khrushchev’s secret report also hit with “shattering impact.” Richmond again stayed on, still not shattered enough.
What seems to have knocked him over was a trip to Czechoslovakia in 1966 and the subsequent Soviet overthrow of the Dubcek regime. He finally unburdened himself in a series of articles which was promptly “castigated” by the present Party leader, Gus Hall. He confides that he should have resigned but did not; he was evidently still a member of the national committee until 1972. His book ends vaguely, as if he could not bring himself to tell how his forty years in the Party came to an end. How tragic the break must have been for him is merely suggested by a remark that he felt like “a solitary old man of fifty-five.”15
It is noteworthy that in this and in almost all other cases the breaking point came in response to an international crisis brought on by the Soviet Union. Domestic differences could be survived; something that struck at the heart of faith in the Soviet Union could not. As Steve Nelson put it, “As has so often been the case, international events had their inevitable impact on the Party and its domestic relations.”16 The revelations of Stalin’s enormities were so shattering because he had for so many years been made sacrosanct. In revolutions as in other faiths, the greater the illusion, the greater the disillusionment.
Two other memoirs have been written by, or written for, black Communists. The most interesting is that of Hosea Hudson, thanks to the remarkable persistence and skill of Nell Irvin Painter. She coaxed a story out of Hudson that belongs with the best of black—or white—autobiographies. It does not have much bearing on the issue of Soviet influence because, as she puts it, he was a “docile Party member who never raised questions prematurely.” He joined the Party in Birmingham in 1931 and never suffered disenchantment. It is easy to understand why, when he says: “I found this Party, a party of the working class, gave me rights equal with all others regardless of color, sex, or age or educational standards. I with my uneducation could express myself, without being made fun of by others who could read well and fast.” When Browder decided to “liquidate” the Party in 1944 and convert it into an “association,” he went along with all the others because “we considered the national leadership knows more about what they were doing than we did.” When Browder came under fire from Duclos, “we had a big discussion to see where we made our mistake at. We came out criticizing Browder’s position.” Hudson’s experience is only one black Communist’s story, representative only in some ways, but of its kind richly worth more attention than it has received.17
The other black Communist memoir is something else again. The title chosen by Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik, tells how the author conceives of himself. Haywood came into the Communist movement in the early 1920s and was quickly sent to Moscow for political schooling. The main interest of his book is how he was converted under Soviet tutelage to the policy of “self-determination for the Black Belt.” Haywood was almost alone at first to embrace this quasi-separatist idea; and it proved to be the cause of his rise and fall in the Party. He rose high in the black leadership as long as the policy was Party doctrine in the early 1930s; he became a misfit when the line changed with the Popular Front in the middle of the decade. Haywood ended up a disappointed, embittered outcast, the last of the red-hot black American Bolsheviks. His political career was completely bound up with the Soviet Union and Soviet-implanted policy.
The new historians make much of these memoirs, as if they provide particularly novel insights into American communism. They undoubtedly fill out the story with much personal experience and local detail. But on the issue of how much and in what way the American Party was dominated from the Soviet Union, do they really say anything different from what Klehr and I have written? These memoirs virtually shout out the same message, if more in grief than in anger.
The new historians have thus been struggling with an old question to which they think they have found a new answer. The question was implicit in the title of my second book, American Communism and Soviet Russia. As I summed up in the last sentence: “Each generation had to discover for itself in its own way that, even at the price of virtually committing political suicide, American Communism would continue above all to serve the interests of Soviet Russia.” This answer has drawn the fire of the new historians.
One of them has tried to use some of the memoirs mentioned previously to reach a different answer. The effort is typical enough to merit closer examination. Professor Roy Rosenzweig starts with a large, general proposition—“if one thread runs through all these accounts it is that we must understand the history of the CPUSA as distinctively American.” That is the main challenge of the new to the old history. The challenge is then aimed directly at me—“whether explicitly or not, they seek to refute the concluding line of Theodore Draper’s influential study of American Communism and Soviet Russia.” The evidence for that distinctive Americanism supposedly comes from the memoirs of Nelson and Hudson.
On examination, the most that can be gathered from them, even in Rosenzweig’s argument, is that in 1928 and 1929 the new line calling for the organization of “dual” unions—i.e., Communist unions parallel to those in the AFL—was shaped by a combination of Comintern directives and American conditions. Rosenzweig himself says that, while local circumstances contributed to the form of “Party actions,” it is still impossible to deny “that the American party carried out Soviet directives with sometimes disastrous results.” The directives were basic, the actions dependent on local circumstances. This conjunction hardly bears out the command that “we must understand the history of the CPUSA as distinctively American.”
Rosenzweig sums up:
The problem with Draper’s analysis, then, is not with its assertion of the fealty of American Communists to their Russian comrades—that was a connection that American Party members not only never denied but repeatedly affirmed. Rather, it is the suggestion that American Party members were merely puppets of the Soviet Union with no independent thoughts and actions of their own and that they always put the needs of the Soviet Union above those of American workers. In their detailed depictions of the actions and consciousness of rank and file Communists, these autobiographies clearly refuted such contentions. 18
This challenge offers an opportunity to get away from generalities and to look more closely at a specific case.
Rosenzweig’s original proposition is a basic generalization—that the history of the American Party is “distinctively American.” The evidence adduced by him proves to be restricted to a single period, 1928 and 1929, in a single field, trade-union policy. Not only does this alleged case prove little by itself about the entire history of the American Party, but it is thoroughly misconstrued. The Communist trade-union leader of that period, William Z. Foster, at first opposed Communist dual unions but he did not do so because he expected to be welcomed into the AFL unions from which Communists had been expelled; he opposed dual unions because he saw no future in them and did not wish to give up trying to reach the majority of organized workers in the old unions despite all the obstacles to be faced in them.
It does not matter in this connection whether the Comintern was right to order dual unions or Foster was right to oppose them; what matters is that the order came from Moscow and was reluctantly obeyed. In any case, how could this case history of the American Party show that it was “distinctively American” if it admittedly “carried out Soviet directives” and owed “fealty” to the Russian comrades? “Fealty,” indeed, is not a bad word for this relationship; the dictionary says that it means “the fidelity of a vassal or feudal tenant to his lord.”
Only exaggeration and distortion make it possible to pick such a quarrel with me. I had never suggested that American Party members were “merely puppets of the Soviet Union with no independent thoughts and actions of their own.” In fact, I went to some pains to describe how the American trade-union leadership under Foster had opposed the directive to organize new trade unions that had been imposed by Moscow in 1928 and 1929. Foster fell into line only when he recognized that Moscow was bound to prevail, with him or without him. My account of this episode was hardly a suggestion of mere puppetry, a word I have never used. It was a suggestion that whatever independent thoughts and actions American Party members had, their fealty to their Russian comrades ultimately prevailed.
On one level, this new history is based on appallingly sloppy work. But it is a sloppiness that is politically motivated. The need to reconcile a distinctive political line with a measure of academic scholarship creates a tension that most often makes trouble for both scholarship and politics.
The problem of the interaction between the Soviet Union and American communism haunts the work of the new historians. It seems necessary for them to insist that the two components are equivalent or comparable and come together to make a “blend.”
For example, Professor Kenneth Waltzer has complained that earlier historians had written books about the Party “as a monolithic totalitarian organization whose history reflected the shifts and turns in the Comintern line.” But now a different presupposition has taken hold. “The reexploration of Communist history proceeds on a shifted assumption: that while affiliated with and obedient to the Comintern, American communism was also shaped by national experience…. The new view is that Communist behavior was shaped by dictates from Moscow, but also by complicated interaction among national and local factors….” Thus he arrives at the rule that “each national communism was a blend of international communism and national experience.”19
The “blend theory” is one of those half-truths that lead to a greater and more serious untruth. There was a blend, but it was not the kind of blend presented here. The “general line” was always set in Moscow. Its application was left to the various national parties, closely monitored, frequently criticized, and periodically worked over in Moscow. Local leaders tried to apply the general line as best they could, leaving scope for their own initiative—but woe to those who strayed too far for too long. National and local factors “complicated” the application of the “dictates from Moscow”—but the dictates were still dictates, ultimately unchallengeable by those whose task was to apply them.
These so-called complications did not live a life of their own; they were no more than might be expected of human beings trying to put into practice a general line according to their best understanding and in more or less favorable circumstances. The general line and its application were akin to the difference between strategy and tactics, a favorite military analogy in Communist doctrine. Only the tactics, and then not always fully, were left to the initiative of the national parties or to local groups by national leaderships.
This division of power was hardly the “blend” that the new historians have in mind. More often than not, the Comintern dictated the same strategy and tactics to all the parties, and the national parties dictated the same strategy and tactics to all the local units, whatever the national and local “complications.” As in all large and far-flung organizations, there were exceptions, lags, and misunderstandings, especially in the case of groups farthest from the center, though usually for relatively brief periods. No broad generalization can be based on them or the exceptions made into the rule, as if they carried equal weight with the main Party line.
Thus the new historians attribute the most inflated significance to the slightest scrap of evidence of local initiative or deviation. George Charney’s little leaflet omitting the slogan “For A Soviet America,” as I have noted, is made into a demonstration of how most Communists “shaped the Party to fit their own needs and expectations.” It would have been more persuasive if, at the time, Charney had been in the Party for much more than six months and had been more experienced in following the Party line or had not quickly learned the lesson that it did not pay to anticipate it or deviate from it afterward.
This bad habit of taking isolated and usually abortive individual incidents to make a basic point comes out most sharply and characteristically in the treatment of the Popular Front. More than anything else, it has attracted the favorable attention of the new historians. They have also made themselves the champions of “social history” in order to do battle with the allegedly “political” and “institutional” history of the old historians.
The second part of this article in the next issue will deal with these and other aspects of the new history of American communism.
May 9, 1985
Kenneth Waltzer, Reviews in American History (June 1983), p. 259. ↩
Gary Gerstle, Reviews in American History (December 1984), p. 560. ↩
Maurice Isserman, Radical America, vol. 14 (1980), p. 44. ↩
Ellen Schrecker, Humanities in Society (Spring/Summer 1983), p. 139. ↩
Gary Gerstle, Reviews in American History (December 1984), pp. 559–566. ↩
In These Times, April 4–10, 1984. ↩
Roy Rosenzweig, Political Science Quarterly (Winter 1984–1985), pp. 758–759. ↩
William C. Pratt, Minnesota History (Winter 1984), p. 161. ↩
Norman Markowitz, Political Affairs (May 1984), pp. 39–40. ↩
Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, p. 415. ↩
When I left the Communist movement after the full implications of the Nazi–Soviet pact had become clear, none of my friends from the student movement of the early 1930s left with me. Almost none would have anything to do with me—until 1956. ↩
Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On?, p. xi. ↩
George Charney, A Long Journey, pp. 29, 37, 42–44, 59–60, 124, 143–145, 252, 276. ↩
Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical, pp. 249, 250, 290, 387, 393. ↩
Al Richmond, A Long View from the Left, pp. 144–145, 226, 283, 365, 380, 425, 429. ↩
Steve Nelson: American Radical, p. 290. ↩
Nell Irvin Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, pp. 25, 180, 307, 309. ↩
Roy Rosenzweig, International Labor and Working Class History (Fall 1983), pp. 32–33. ↩
Kenneth Waltzer, Reviews in American History (June 1983), pp. 259–260, 266. The same general approach is taken by Gary Gerstle, Reviews in American History (December 1984), pp. 559–566. ↩