An unprecedented outburst of academic interest in the history of American Communism has occurred in recent years. It has produced more doctoral dissertations, books, and articles on the subject during the past five years than in all the previous sixty years of American Communist history. This curious phenomenon has been concentrated in colleges and universities by younger faculty members, many of whom teach labor and social history. Their work appears mainly in academic and radical journals or in university press publications. Most of them have graduated from the student New Left of the 1960s to the professoriat of the 1980s, still imbued with a need to find an outlet for their radical sympathies or, as one spokesman has put it, “a source of political reference and inspiration.”1 Unlikely as it would have seemed to the New Leftists of yesterday, with their superior contempt for anything contaminated by the old left, this source has been found in the history of American communism, and especially in its short-lived experiment with the Popular Front in the late 1930s.
As I noted in my article “American Communism Revisited” in the previous issue, the new historians of American Communism have been invoking the Popular Front as if they were rediscovering a once promised land. It appeals to them as the one time American Communists had really and truly Americanized themselves, had taken on the features of a mass party, and had shown promise of becoming a major force in American life and politics—the long-awaited apotheosis of American radicalism.
The Popular Front phase lasted only about four years, from 1935 to 1939. The American Communist movement was formed in 1919 and has existed in one form or another for sixty-six years. The Popular Front, therefore, occupied less than one-sixteenth of the Party’s entire history. It may be of peculiar interest as a token of what the Party might have been, if it had been a different kind of party; it cannot be seen as more than a short, aborted interlude. As such, its significance for any basic generalization about the Communist movement is strictly limited.
One reason the Popular Front holds such charms for the new historians is that they think it demonstrated an independent American Communist “capacity for independent thinking” and gave “American Communists the opportunity to act on their genuinely felt desires to adapt their radicalism to American political traditions and practice.”2
Here again it is best to examine how a new historian goes about making good on these claims.
Professor Gary Gerstle cites two examples of independent thinking. One is that of Sam Darcy, the Party organizer in California, in 1934. Gerstle knows as much about it as he learned from Harvey Klehr’s book The Heyday of American Communism. Klehr used, in part, an interview I had with Darcy. This is Gerstle’s version:
Yet as early as 1934 a number of American Communists had begun to experiment with popular fronts of their own. Klehr recounts the efforts of Sam Darcy, an important party functionary in California, to forge an alliance with Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement. Although Klehr does not explain Darcy’s position in depth, it seems that Darcy sought an alliance with EPIC in order to free the party from the debilitating political isolation that Third Period strategies had imposed on it. The party’s leadership, however, flatly rejected Darcy’s proposal, and ordered him to run a full slate of Communist candidates against EPIC and to attack Sinclair with venom.3
This is Klehr’s original version:
Sam Darcy later claimed that they had reached an informal agreement: the EPIC movement would not nominate a candidate for controller. The Communists would run Anita Whitney, scion of an old California family, for that post, and not run anyone for governor, allowing their supporters to vote for Sinclair. At the party convention in early April 1934, Darcy presented his plan to the Politburo. He was rudely rebuffed. Browder instructed him to expose and denounce Sinclair, and, in the bargain, to run for governor of California himself.4
And here is the lesson drawn by Gerstle from Darcy’s “experiment” in independent thinking:
What this episode makes clear is that party members voiced their dissatisfaction with the strategies of the Third Period and expressed their desire for a broadly-based radical alliance before the Comintern officially endorsed such sentiments in 1935 [italics in original].
The operation performed on Klehr’s matter-of-fact story might serve as an object lesson in a seminar on how not to revise history. One Party member, Darcy, has been transformed into “party members.” There is no evidence that Darcy was expressing a desire for a new general line of “broadly-based radical alliance” that would be applicable everywhere; the California situation was almost always sui generis and particularly at this time. Darcy evidently saw the possibility for a very good deal—a Communist state controller with EPIC votes in exchange for an EPIC governor with many fewer Communist votes. In fact, the Communists might have cost Sinclair more votes than they could bring to him. In any case, Darcy was not permitted to “experiment” with a popular front of his own; he never got that far. This episode makes clear that whatever dissatisfaction local leaders may have had with the pre-Popular Front line and whatever desire they may have expressed to change it prematurely, they were controlled by the top leadership and did what they were told to do. The moral is very different from the one that Gerstle seeks to draw from it.
In addition, Darcy in 1934 was maneuvering in a Communist transition period—the “united front from below” was giving way to the united front from above and finally to the Popular Front. Admittedly he was trying to do some independent tactical thinking beyond what was still permissible—a striking commentary on the notion of Professor Roy Rosenzweig that “party directives could be interpreted or reinterpreted according to local needs or conditions” by people in such fairly high positions as Steve Nelson or similarly Sam Darcy.5 Yet Darcy could claim vindication when the line changed in Moscow the following year. To be premature was just as hazardous as to lag behind.
Darcy’s story is even more complicated. Ten years later, he was something of a maverick again—in the opposite way. In 1944, he was the only one in the top leadership expelled for having openly opposed Earl Browder’s transformation of the Party into an “Association,” a move that seemed to most Communists to follow from the organizational logic of the wartime ultra-Popular Front policy if pursued to the end. Thus Darcy might be cited as both a premature “rightist” and “leftist”—and was punished both times and vindicated both times only a year later by dictates from Moscow. Unlike many others, however, Darcy had had enough the second time.
Oddly, after having told us what to think of Darcy’s earlier show of independent thinking, Gerstle apparently be-thought himself that it might not be enough. He then brought forth his second witness, George Charney, the former Communist who, in his memoirs, tells us, more than three decades after the event, that he felt that the Popular Front “reflected what many of us really believed but could not articulate.”6 This inarticulate belief, whatever it was, was hardly the same as a “capacity for independent thinking.” Nevertheless, Charney’s belated articulation of the inarticulate suggests, according to Gerstle, that “some Communists sought to ground party activity in an analysis of American social and political conditions.” Charney’s vague unease has now been metamorphosed into an “analysis.”
Charney also leads Gerstle to entertain the possibility that “American Communists in the mid-1930s could have seen themselves not only as faithful members of an international Communist movement but also as advocates of an authentic American radicalism.” After which, Gerstle immediately adds: “The evolution of the Popular Front in this country increased the plausibility of this selfperception.” Gerstle, it should be noted, had previously called for a new history that would “explore the extent to which American communism developed as an authentic expression of American radicalism.”7
The technique of planting ideas, without accepting full responsibility for them, is fully displayed here. Some Communists undoubtedly thought that they could reconcile the “international Communist” and the “authentic American” aspects of the Popular Front. But, in the end, did they? Were the two really reconcilable? What is it worth to entertain a mere “possibility” of how American Communists “could have seen themselves”? And in but two successive sentences, “possibility” makes a jump to “plausibility.” Even if the Popular Front evolved toward the plausibility of a self-perception, did it not also evolve away from the plausibility of the same self-perception? Gerstle is not the only new historian who resorts to such slippery methods to get across the idea of Communists as authentic American radicals during their Popular Front.
Why has so much significance been attributed to such marginal, isolated, dubious evidence as that provided by Darcy and Charney?8 All pertain for good reason to the Popular Front. It is the rock upon which the new historians have built their airy castle of a Communist “authentic American radicalism.” To bolster their case, the new historians like to point to two other aspects of the Popular Front—that it came as a relief to the American Communists, and that it brought many thousands of new members into the Party. On some of these matters the new historians are not wrong; they have merely interpreted them wrongly.
Anyone who was a member of the Communist party for more than five years was almost certain to live through a change of line. If a line had been “sectarian,” it suffered from lack of popular appeal but made up for that in excess of orthodoxy; if a line had been “opportunistic,” it gained in popular appeal but suffered from seeming lack of orthodoxy. In these circumstances neither one nor the other could be altogether satisfying. By the time any one line had run its course, it tended to exhaust either its usefulness or its compatibility with Soviet policy. The new line could then be desired or rationalized because it provided one of the ingredients that the other had lacked. Thus came about the peculiarly Communist cycle of rejoicing at both the birth and death of any particular political line.
The Popular Front came after approximately five years of an exceptionally sectarian policy. Despite the greatest depression in modern times, the Party had made only modest gains in membership and influence. With the shift in tactics, a fresh wind seemed to blow through the Party’s ranks; membership rose from about 7,000 in 1930 to some 26,000 in 1934 to 75,000 in 1938. From a small, besieged sect, Communists and fellow travelers (who may have increased Party influence by a factor of five or even more) found themselves welcome in places and organizations that previously had nothing to do with them and with which the Communists would have had nothing to do. It was a heady time.
Yet when the “shock” of the Nazi-Soviet pact changed the line again in 1939, the Party was able to retain most of its members. Then the antiwar, anti-imperialist, anti-Roosevelt line was itself reversed as soon as the Soviet Union was attacked in 1941. Again Party members rejoiced at the turn from one extreme to the other. The new prowar, patriotic, pro-Roosevelt line enchanted Party members until they were told from abroad in 1945 that it was time to change again. It is the sequence, not merely any one point in it, that must be understood if the Communist movement is to be understood.
Those who stay through various changes of line do so because they have remained loyal to the Party, not to whatever it may temporarily stand for. The generation who were members between 1930 and 1956 stayed through all the changes of line because loyalty to the Party and to the Soviet Union had been burned into their minds and feelings. They had greeted the Popular Front with relief, but by the time it was strangled they owed their first loyalty to the Party, not to the Popular Front. Those who were brought into the Party by a policy would get out with the repudiation of the policy; some did get out but not most of the generation of 1930–1956; and then they got out because their faith in the Soviet Union was shattered, not because their cherished Popular Front had been betrayed.
Thus it is historically myopic to concentrate on how the Popular Front came in to the exclusion of how it went out, to take the Popular Front out of its context in the entire development of the Party, and to base a broad generalization on four of the sixty-six years of the American party. Long afterward, it is true, the Communists who became disillusioned between 1956 and 1958 looked back to the Popular Front and World War II “as a kind of golden era in which the party’s political successes had grown out of the loosening of the rigid ideological bonds of earlier years.” Still, seventeen years passed between 1939 and 1956; the time was too long for the 1956 crisis to have had “its roots in the Popular Front period,” despite the nostalgia for the “golden era.”9 The 1956 crisis had its roots in the “implicit faith in the Soviet Union as the ‘Land of Socialism,”‘ which, as George Charney finally understood, had been inculcated in the generation that was “a product of the 1930s.”10
One of the things that attract the new historians to the Popular Front is the success it had in increasing the membership and influence of the Party. Just why it succeeded, and why it ultimately failed, seems to evade them. They might have found a good part of the answer in Steve Nelson’s memoirs: “Tight discipline enabled us to be effective far beyond our numbers and to accomplish all sorts of good works, but it also made us more vulnerable to Stalinism.”11 The apparent paradox was that Communist organization and discipline paid off the most in the service of a policy that was most distant from orthodox Communist ideology. The Popular Front was a policy of the Communists but it was not a Communist policy. It was at its most extreme not even a radical policy, unless following in the wake of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John L. Lewis was evidence of radicalism.
Another paradox in the late 1930s was the circumstance that the Socialists stood to the left of the Communists, probably one reason that the former did not do so well. Socialism was put in cold storage by the Communists during the Popular Front. Communist trade unionism also followed fairly traditional lines. If the Popular Front had been permitted to run its course, it might well have turned out to be the forerunner of a nonsocialist reform movement somewhat to the left of the Democratic party or even a left wing of the Democratic party.
Some such goal was, in effect, Browder’s implicit aim when he proposed transforming the Party into an “association” in 1944. He then carried almost the entire Party with him. It might have worked, if he had had enough time to regenerate the organization and liberate it from dependence on the Soviet Union. His organizational reform never sank deep enough in the few months left to him as leader, and the dependence on the Soviet Union had sunk in too deeply over too many years to be rooted out quickly enough. As long as organizational discipline and submission to the Soviet Union remained, policy could still be turned on and off at the behest of the leadership—with Browder or without him.
For these reasons, the Communist-style Popular Front did not and could not develop into an authentic American socialism or radicalism. One of the new historians’ older mentors has lamented that the Popular Front “had no chance to realize its potential.” Nevertheless, he claims that “it proved to be a highly effective instrument for a Marxist party” and “could serve as an example—suitably revised to fit changing circumstances—for socialist tactics in a strongly capitalist society.”12 This view has helped to mislead the new historians. The Popular Front did not serve as an example of “socialist tactics”; it used nonsocialist tactics in deference to a strongly capitalist society. The peculiar nature of the Popular Front derived from the fact that it was a tactical turn by a Communist party with its chameleon-like faculty for changing the color of its political skin while remaining inwardly the same. This character enabled the Party to keep on a leash divergent strands of its makeup—loyalty to the Soviet Union (which was never tampered with during the period of the great Stalinist purges of the same 1930s), a disciplined, hardened leadership (which had survived several changes of line), and a fabulously opportunistic willingness to invoke Franklin D. Roosevelt and John L. Lewis as its involuntary leaders, the better to flaunt the banner of born-again Americanism. Those who see only the last in the Popular Front forget that it was the Popular Front of the Communist party, not a Popular Front sui generis. That is why it could not realize its potential; the reason for its end in 1939 was consistent with its beginning in 1935.
The 1930s generation had its chance to show how different it was in 1939. It failed because its loyalty to the Party and its faith in Stalin and the Soviet Union were vastly greater than its attachment to the Popular Front.
Broader questions of historical method have also been raised by the new historians. They blame the older historians as much for their methods as for their matter.
“Social history” is in; “political” and “institutional” history is out. The best thing that the new historians can think of saying about themselves is that they are “social historians”; the worst thing they can say about others is that they are political or institutional historians. The cult of social history is not limited to these new historians, but it has rarely been practiced so crudely and made to serve such tendentious political purposes.
For example, the first serious, largescale history of American Communism by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser made a cogent analysis of its “totalitarian” character.13 Now a new historian has hit back in this way.
In the late 1970s a new generation of historians, influenced by the New Left and using the methods of the new social history, began to challenge Howe’s and Coser’s view that the Communist party was totalitarian. A number of social historians argued that such factors as race, ethnicity, and position in the party shaped the experience of individual Communists as much as did Stalinist indoctrination.14
This is another version of the “blend” theory, which I discussed in my article in the previous issue of The New York Review. The first sentence refers to the Party; the second to individual Communists. The experience of individual Communists was shaped by race, ethnicity, and position in the Party in some respects and by Stalinist indoctrination in other respects. The Stalinist indoctrination that persuaded most Party members from top to bottom to go along with the Nazi-Soviet pact at the expense of the Popular Front had little or nothing to do with race, ethnicity, and position in the Party; it had everything to do with loyalty to the Soviet Union and faith in Stalin’s leadership.
Again and again reviews of Klehr’s book by new historians indict it for going “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” (italics in original).15 Here is an example of the special meaning given to this social history. It invariably applies only to the Communist “rank and file”—the simple, local Party members—as if the middle and top leadership did not have a social history. By separating the rank and file from the leadership and calling for stories such as selling the Daily Worker on street corners, the new historians reduce the rank and file to people who perform only the most humble and menial tasks without regard for what was in the Daily Worker or what policy they were carrying out at the grass-roots level. Without seeming to realize it, the new historians adopt a most demeaning attitude toward the Communist rank and file. Or else they make it seem as if there were two Communist parties, one of the leadership and the other of the rank and file, each going its own way.
The effect of this type of social history is to depoliticize the most political of all political movements. The Communist party politicized everything and made no secret of it. The Communist leadership spent most of its energies bearing down on the rank and file to carry out whatever policies or campaigns happened to be uppermost at the moment. By themselves, the commissioned officers of the Party would have amounted to little without the enlisted personnel. Any social history worthy of the name would study the Party as an organic or at least structured whole in which different tasks were carried out by different ranks in different circumstances. It is one thing to see the Party from the bottom up; it is another thing to see the Party only at the bottom.
The social history of the new historians is a cop-out. It is a dodge to avoid facing the political reality of American Communism by discrediting political history. The favoritism shown to the rank and file has the advantage of dealing with the people most removed from the making of Party policy and, therefore, seemingly most innocent of what was done in the name of the Party. But the Party could not have done without the service of the rank and file who year after year, often decade after decade, followed the Party line through all of its twists and turns. Rank-and-file Communists were not political neuters who merely passed out leaflets, sold Daily Workers, and marched in demonstrations. They recruited most of the new members through example and solicitation. Many of them were also the most rigid and fossilized element in the Party. George Charney noted that William Z. Foster’s main base in New York in his successful struggle against 1956 “revisionists” was the garment district.
Charney knew this familiar type of Party member better than any of the new historians who romanticize it:
It was a large section of several hundred members, who, with few exceptions, had belonged to the party since the twenties…. Their dreams originated with the October Revolution and they never wavered in their devotion to the cause.16
Hosea Hudson eulogized the rank and file in these terms:
The Party was a political party, and only the most developed, the most developed and class-conscious, the people who’s willing to sacrifice, to take the sacrifice, to make the sacrifice and would be willing to accept the discipline of the Party could be members of the Party.17
Hudson at least took the Communist politics of the rank and file seriously, as the old-timers themselves did, or they would hardly have remained in the Party for so long.
Social history is not at issue; it has established itself as one of the major fields of the historical discipline. It is a protean form, not easily pressed into a single formula. Much depends on where, when, and why. What makes the new historians’ exploitation of it reprehensible is that they seek to use it as a weapon against other types of history. Only social history, they imply, can unlock the deepest secrets of the Communist movement, as if it had a monopoly of the historical truth or reality.
Yet if there is one place where social history alone is inadequate it is in the study of the Communist movement, a political movement par excellence. A social history of a Communist party divorced from its political organization and institutional structure is so farfetched that it can only be explained by a “hidden agenda” to draw attention away from the organization and the structure. The new historians habitually blur or wipe out the distinction between the history of a Communist party and the biography of individual Communists; these are undoubtedly related, but they cannot be treated in the same way nor can one be made to substitute for the other. The Party takes its political line from the leadership, and its institutional setup rests on the leadership, so that the leadership cannot be ignored or minimized in a Party history. Social history that neglects leaders is like the proverbial Hamlet without the Prince.
One young historian sagely advises that in studying the Communist party we should not underestimate or ignore “who stopped over at one’s house after dinner to play cards, listen to a ball game, sit on the porch drinking a beer, discussing the news” or “whom one could depend on to take care of the kids, lend one money, go shopping.”18 Yet everything about everyone is not necessarily significant or relevant, even in social history. What a historian underestimates or ignores depends on what the subject or problem is. Some Communists played cards or listened to a ball game; some did not. The information may be relevant to what we may want to know about such people, if we are sufficiently interested in their private lives; the same information may or may not be particularly relevant to the history of the Party as a political movement which is how it saw itself.
Actually, neither Klehr’s book nor mine neglects the social composition of the Party. The Heyday of American Communism contains two chapters on it, as well as chapters on agriculture, trade unionism, the unemployed, youth, Negroes, and intellectuals. American Communism and Soviet Russia also contains a chapter on “Party Life,” together with sections on other aspects of the Party’s social makeup. These books cover the history of the Party as a whole and, therefore, do not linger on individual rank-and-file Communists. Nevertheless, they clearly attempt to do justice to the political, institutional, and social components of the Party’s history and in fact contain more social information than a somewhat similar book by one of the new historians—Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?
What really irks the new historians is how the socialization of American Communists has been dealt with, not that it has been entirely missed. For example, the expression “malleable objects” in the book on American Communism by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser has been hotly protested. One might imagine that Communists were born, not made. All the ex-Communist memoirs cited by the new historians are records of human malleability, as well they might be. If Howe and Coser had said that Communists were conditioned to become exemplary democrats instead of disciplined Stalinists, we may be sure that the word “malleable” would have been much less objectionable.
Klehr tried explicitly to distinguish between the many kinds of people who entered the Communist movement and their political conditioning in the Party:
There was nothing unique or peculiar about Communists as people. They came out of all environments, had all sorts of motives for becoming members, and differed greatly in their commitment to the cause. But once a person entered the Party, and especially once in the leadership, only unconditional and unwavering loyalty to the dictates of Soviet policy, both foreign and domestic, enabled one to stay.19
This simple truism, borne out in 1929, 1939, 1945, and 1956, to cite only the most dramatic examples, does not sit well with the new historians. If giving unconditional and unwavering loyalty to the dictates of Soviet policy made American Communists into political puppets, so be it; the onus should not be on those who register the fact but on those who made it a reality. This does not mean that American Communists were puppets whose strings were pulled from Moscow every waking moment of their lives; they were, however, subject to the “general line,” which was invariably set in Moscow, and they were expected to apply it to the best of their abilities.
It also does not mean that American Communists did what they were told to do because they were forced to do so. The drastic changes of line emanating from Moscow repeatedly confronted individual American Communists with anguished, sometimes heartbreaking, crises of conscience. If the voice of Moscow was obeyed, it was because loyalty to the Soviet Union and faith in Stalin were stronger than all other considerations, including those of national or individual self-interest. It is true, as Hosea Hudson said, that many Communists were “willing to sacrifice, to take the sacrifice, to make the sacrifice,” but ultimately in the interest of the Soviet Union more than in their own or because they had made the Soviet interest their own. In this respect, they were not puppets; they acted of their own free well.
This fundamental and elementary nexus of American Communism and the Soviet Union has been hopelessly distorted and confused by some new historians, especially by those with pretensions of practicing social history.
One of them is Professor Mark Naison, the author of Communists in Harlem During the Depression. As is the vogue with the new historians, Naison’s introduction immediately tells the reader that he has evolved “from student activist to college professor” and that working on this book enabled him to keep in touch “with a precious legacy of my ’60s experience.” He thereupon promises to present “a new historiographical image of the black-Communist encounter.” As for the new image, the patient reader is bound to be disappointed. The book is largely a traditional history of Party work, made different only by its concentration on a single aspect in a single decade. From time to time, it forgoes its scholarly presentation and strikes out to promulgate the new orthodoxy on the Popular Front and the leadership-membership connection.
When analyzing Popular Front Communism, it is important to discard the “totalitarian” model that dominates Party historiography: the image of an obedient and docile membership that jumps up and down in unison when the leadership snaps its fingers. The Party remained “bolshevik” at the core, making most of its key decisions without consulting the members; but it lost the power, and even the will, to reshape the total lives of its more prominent adherents, and much of the rank and file. The Party was run by a professional staff, but in other respects, it came to resemble a movement, with a free-floating group of members and sympathizers who publicly endorsed its basic objectives and agreed to follow the Partyline—but displayed considerable diversity, and even division in areas where the line did not apply.
This defense of Communist diversity concedes so much that it almost falls of its own weight. The new freedom, to be sure, applied only to the four years of the Popular Front, which makes one wonder how different it was before and after. But even during the Popular Front, only the “total lives” were not reshaped, and differences were tolerated “where the line did not apply.” It is true that the Party and its members were much more freewheeling and permissive during the Popular Front; it was, after all, supposed to be not so much Communist as popular. To have been sectarian, ideologically narrow, and intolerant of all differences during the Popular Front would have violated that particular political line.
The Party in Harlem prospered. But then comes an unexpected revelation about a party that was not totalitarian and whose membership was not obedient and docile:
The [Nazi-Soviet] Pact, and the Comintern’s justification of it, forced Harlem Communists to repudiate many policies that had brought them into the mainstream of black life—it was an invitation to political suicide. Almost without exception, leading black Communists accepted the new Comintern guidelines, displaying their conviction that Soviet leadership constituted the essence of their movement, its ultimate energizing principle. But they came to this conclusion from an American political logic, a belief that only a Soviet-centered internationalism could give blacks the power and strategic insight to escape poverty and eliminate jim crow [italics in original].
On issues where the Comintern spoke specifically, Harlem Communists, like their comrades in other places, changed their analysis at the drop of a hat, attributed extravagant moral purpose to Soviet territorial designs, and generally showed a lack of intellectual integrity and moral balance.20
What had happened to all that discarded totalitarianism, free-floating membership, and considerable diversity? Somehow, after four years of such latitudinarianism, Harlem Communists were herded into line by a ukase from Moscow. Instead of a snap of the fingers, there came the drop of a hat. The new historiographical image of the black-Communist encounter cannot in the end make good on its promise to do away with “the image of an obedient and docile membership.” That membership was not obviously obedient and docile only so long as it was told not to appear to be obedient and docile, which was another form of obedience and docility. The Harlem experience is but another example of the fact that the Popular Front cannot be understood without taking into account how it died as well as lived—and was resurrected during the war in even more extreme form only to die again.
Another type of salvage operation, this time of Communist trade unionism, picks up many of the themes already noted. Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions also starts with the personal confession of faith that one comes to expect in this genre. It was his involvement in New Leftist “campus politics [that] sparked a curiosity about the history of American radicalism.” This curiosity resulted in a doctoral dissertation which resulted in a book. A political pronunciamento in the guise of an introduction then tells the reader what to expect. We are immediately instructed, among other things, that the Communists were “legitimate” trade unionists.
This motif first appears in connection with what I have called the “blend” theory:
The idea that the Communists were not legitimate unionists because they were agents of the Soviet Union and cogs in a disciplined, monolithic party is based on a simplistic view of the Communist party. The party’s membership in the Communist International did not keep it from being the main expression of native, working class radicalism during the 30 years after 1919. The Communist party had a dual character. It was a blend of national and international radicalism.
It then reappears in this guise:
The idea that the Communists’ political ends (support for the Soviet Union, class struggle, and socialism) kept them from being legitimate trade unionists is not clear. If it means that the Communists lacked legitimacy, because they held beliefs that other workers did not share, the idea is unreasonable. That would mean that Socialists, Republicans, members of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, and others also could not have been good trade unionists.21
Some of this argument is bad factually, some bad politically. The Communist party was not the main expression of native, working-class radicalism for at least the first fifteen years after 1919; the Communists did not overtake the Socialists until about 1934. In any case, the Communists could still be agents of the Soviet Union, whether or not they were the main expression of native, workingclass radicalism. A “dual character” would not exclude such a “blend.” More to the point, it is assumed by Keeran that class struggle and socialism are political ends of the same order as “support for the Soviet Union.” That support was a different kind of “political end.” Socialist, Republican, and Catholic trade unionists may have differed in their political ends, but they differed according to the preferences of their supporters, who were American workers. They did not change their line because the Soviet Union had changed its line. Keeran’s apparent inability to see this distinction may be partially owing to his curious belief that the American Communist leaders had at times merely “an unhealthy deference towards the Soviet Union.”22
It would be thankless and time-wasting to go through the entire accumulation of work by the new historians and others on American Communism. Those I have dealt with here are among the best and the most frequently cited by the new historians themselves.
What is going on here? The new burst of interest in the history of American Communism has its origins in a mixture of motives. Much of it apparently derives from the need of former New Leftists to find a new political home or at least a source of hope. Yet nothing in the present seems to offer the right combination of attractions. Thus a strange inversion has taken place. Radicals have usually preferred to behold their promised land in the future; these post-New Leftists have been impelled to find it in the past. They have invented a radicalism of nostalgia. The object of their affections, the Popular Front, came and went before most of them were born, but that is no obstacle if the radicalism takes the form of a doctoral dissertation, a book, and finally an academic appointment. No one has to do anything about this radicalism except to teach it to others. The Popular Front was just enough a blend of different elements to lend itself to nostalgic radicalism. With a little effort and selectivity, it can be seen as the tactical line of a revolutionary party, a response to the temporary need of the Soviet Union, a steppingstone to socialism, a flight from socialism, a return to native roots, and even a success story. If ever a radicalism could be lived vicariously, it is this one.
Thus it is made to order for a peculiar type of academic radicalism. It is a safe haven for former New Leftists, who had to decide what to do with themselves and their political sympathies once the New Left illusion was taken away from them. Some of them chose careers that combine intellectual status, scholarly pretensions, professional rewards, and another kind of political outlet. Yet they have such a marked “party line”—of the partyless—that they are far from being independent in their research; the same themes in almost the same words appear again and again in their work; they cite one another in the same kinds of footnotes. Their “line” is distinguished by a certain bravado, as when they flaunt their New Left credentials, and by a special aggressiveness in their vendetta against their favorite targets. At times they exhibit an extraordinary combination of arrogance and ignorance.23
What has been going on here is a curious academic campaign for the rehabilitation of American Communism. It does not aim at total rehabilitation in all respects in all periods; the ostensible project is one of selective rehabilitation—Communists in the Popular Front, Communists in Harlem, Communists in the auto industry. The implicit political objective is shown by formulas such as “an authentic expression of American radicalism” or a “legitimate” force in the labor movement. The operation is carried on with a certain amount of academic discretion, for which the “blend theory” serves most handily. That theory makes it possible to admit the subservience of American Communism to the Soviet Union or the Comintern, while at the same time qualifying such “deference” or subordination out of existence in specific or local circumstances. The rank and file blots out the leadership; tactics supersede strategy; alleged single cases make dubious general rules. Above all the new orthodoxy refuses to face the sixty-six years’ history of American Communism in its entirety. The Party becomes like the elephant that seems to be a different animal depending on where it is touched.
There is also a popular side to this campaign of Communist rehabilitation that deserves brief mention. It goes back to a book put out by Vivian Gornick in 1977, The Romance of American Communism, the title of which tells what it is about. It is a sob-sister version of the later academic school, based mainly on interviews with old-time members of the rank and file. It is intellectually on the level of this statement by Gornick: “It seems to me the real point about the Communists is: they were like everybody else, only more so.”24 A more recent example of this genre is the documentary, Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists, a film made by two veterans of the New Left. Much of it is a historical travesty of the American Communist story. The plain intent of the film is to show that Communists were ordinary Americans inordinately proud of what they had done as Communists until some of them were sorrowfully forced to leave in 1956 or after. The film presents American Communism in soft political focus, making just enough glancing concessions to some minimum of reality to avoid being recognized as outright propaganda. 25
If the former New Leftists, academic or otherwise, continue to play these political games, they are bound to give “social history” a bad name. Curiously, two American scholars have recently shown how to do authentic, intelligent Communist social history. But they did their work on the present-day French Communist party, not on the more distant American past. The View from Inside by Jane Jenson and George Ross is about what its subtitle says: “A French Communist Cell in Crisis.”26 They have studied, at the closest possible range, a Communist “cell” in Paris in 1978 and 1979, and then intermittently until 1981, during a period of acute Party ferment. They attended meetings of the cell; listened to the hopes, anxieties, and confidences of its members; followed them step by step as they sought to reanimate the Party—and failed.
They have produced a remarkably vivid and convincing likeness of Party life at the bottom as it is influenced by Party leadership at the top. They succeed in bringing to life the reasons why the French party has lost not only almost all of its intellectuals but a good part of the rank and file. One of their most striking contributions is the story of how the leadership dealt with nascent feminist stirrings in the cell. Their social history is all the richer for being put in a fully realized political and institutional setting and for being informed by a high order of intellectual sophistication. There is nothing remotely comparable to it in the attempts at the social history of American Communism by the new historians.
Twenty-five years ago, I reflected that each generation would have to discover in its own way the nature of the relationship between American Communism and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, that still seems to be true. The short answer to the question “What is going on here?” is: One illusion is being exchanged for another.
May 30, 1985
Maurice Isserman, Radical America, vol. 14 (1980), p. 44. ↩
Gary Gerstle, Reviews in American History (December 1984), p. 562. ↩
Gerstle, Reviews in American History, p. 563. ↩
Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism (Basic Books, 1984), p. 415. ↩
Roy Rosenzweig, International Labor and Working Class History (Fall 1983), p. 32. ↩
George Charney, A Long Journey (Quadrangle, 1968), p. 59. ↩
Gerstle, Reviews in American History, pp. 561, 563–564. ↩
I have found only one other alleged anticipation of the Popular Front. In a review of Klehr’s book, Maurice Isserman wrote: “As early as 1932 Communist college students were reaching out to (or huddling together with) their socialist counterparts in common political enterprises” (In These Times, April 4–10, 1984, p. 18). This largely apocryphal tale refers to the Communist-led National Student League (NSL) of the early 1930s (I was editor of its magazine, Student Review, in 1934 and 1935). It was considered by the Communists to be a “front” organization and thereby enjoyed more leeway than an official Communist organization. ↩
Maurice Isserman, The Socialist Review (December 1981), pp. 77, 79. ↩
Charney, A Long Journey, p. 276. ↩
Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), p. 416. ↩
Max Gordon, Radical History Review (Spring 1980), pp. 134–135. ↩
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1957; reissue of 1962 edition by Da Capo, 1974), especially chapter 11. ↩
Gerstle, Reviews in American History, p. 560. ↩
Roy Rosenzweig, Political Sciencè Quarterly (Winter 1984–1985), p. 759. ↩
Charney, A Long Journey, p. 283. ↩
Nell Irvin Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 119. ↩
Paul Lyons, Philadelphia Communists 1936–1956 (Temple University Press, 1982), p. 62. ↩
Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, pp. 415–416. ↩
Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (University of Illinois Press, 1983), pp. xi, xvi, 187–188, 289. ↩
Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (Indiana University Press, 1980), pp. ix, 3–4, 7. ↩
Another advocate of Communist trade-union “legitimacy” is James R. Prickett, but he gets there by another route. Keeran thought that the Communists were both good trade unionists and good Communists; Prickett makes them good trade unionists and good Communists; Prickett makes them good trade unionists but bad Communists, because they “abandoned the struggle for socialism, supported the New Deal, and made no serious or consistent attempt to challenge liberal ideology.” To Prickett, “defense of the Soviet Union was a legitimate priority for working class radicals” (“Communists and the Communist Issue in the American Labor Movement, 1920–1950,” doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1975, pp. xi, 30). What matters least about the Communists, according to Prickett, is their “consistent support of the Soviet Union and the shifting attitudes toward the New Deal” (Michigan History, vol. 57, no. 3, 1973, p. 186). ↩
The prize for this combination would undoubtedly go to Paul Buhle who denounced the “cretinoid intellectuals of Europe (such as Kautsky, Pollitt, and Althusser) who borrowed Marxism from Germany or Russia” (Radical America, November-December 1971, p. 73). Anyone who thinks that Karl Kautsky and Louis Althusser were “cretinoid,” or that Harry Pollitt was an “intellectual,” or that Kautsky had to borrow Marxism from Germany, can—as the Duke of Wellington once put it, when accosted by someone who addressed him as Mr. Smith—”believe anything.” ↩
Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (Basic Books, 1977), p. 22. For more on this book, see my review in The New Leader (March 13, 1978). ↩
For reviews of this film, see Dissent (Fall 1984) and Labor History (Winter 1985). ↩
Jane Jenson and George Ross, The View from Inside: A French Communist Cell in Crisis (University of California Press, 1984). ↩