The following letters respond to Theodore Draper’s two articles, “American Communism Revisited” and “The Popular Front Revisited,” in the May 9 and May 30 issues.
To the Editors:
A younger Theodore Draper was fond of the notion that the revolution devours its children, even when the revolution takes place mostly within a relatively weak US Left. Sadly, this erstwhile revolutionary would now do the same with his own scholarly descendants, if he only could. The old lion remembers a quarteror half-century ago better than yesterday, ruminates on real and imagined wounds he has suffered, and swipes at the air whenever a grown cub passes by to recall its origins.
The Buhle File is worth reexamining here only to illustrate how opaque the cataracts on Draper’s scholarly vision have become. He cannot appreciate the value of work which extends his own investigations fifty-fold by reaching beyond the Left leadership (where Draper largely confined himself) to the rank-and-file base. He draws no conclusions from the extraordinary support various ethnic and racial communities—from Portuguese New Bedford to Spanish-Cuban Ybor City to Polish Detroit to dozens of others—gave to local Communists. He has little interest in the non-English language press, which at any time until 1950 considerably exceeded the circulation of the magazines and newspapers where Draper concentrated his study. He ignores comparative work among Socialists, Anarchists, Labor Zionists, Trotskyists, and others who shared a great deal more with Communists socially and culturally than they liked to acknowledge. In short, Draper disdains twenty years of individual and collective scholarly effort modestly intended to accumulate the social evidence for placing Communists within Left and American history. In my case, he has reduced all this to part of a sentence pulled out of a half-forgotten youthful polemic.
We could have lots of fun with Draper’s own youthful ink-slinging. But let us confine ourselves to the matter at hand. The offending phrase [by Paul Buhle] quoted in his footnote is taken from a sentence which actually reads, “Lacking a stable Party or trade-union bureaucracy, or (until recently) a place for Marxists of the Chair, American radicalism was spared” the prestige European intellectuals “who…set out to preserve [Marxism] as an undertaker preserves a corpse.” I wouldn’t put it that way now, but I remain stubbornly convinced that the Darwinian pseudo-scientism of the Second International and the Structuralist pseudo-scientism of the 1960s have contributed little to solving the fundamental difficulty facing US radicals. The problem is not so much the staying power of capitalism as the enigma of American social life and the propensity of our intellectuals (not merely Marxists) to substitute formulae for an appreciation of complex democratic possibilities.
Through their tortuous evolution, the Left Socialists-turned-Communists of the 1910s and early 1920s wrestled with this problem. Draper’s empathy for them made The Roots of American Communism a penetrating and moving book, despite its marked limitations. American Communism and Soviet Russia is, by contrast, a political history so thin that, as Comsymp Woody Guthrie might have said, you can read the Morgen Freiheit (if you can read Yiddish at all) right through it. Harvey Klehr’s Draperian Heyday of American Communism unwittingly reveals the result of the conceptual diminishment. Ironically, this brand of history could explain young Theodore Draper’s Communist involvement only as gullibility or personal opportunism. The survivors of the 1920-1940s radicalism know better. Let Draper consult just a few of the hundreds of interviews assembled. He should then realize how radicals of every description succeeded, despite their own dogma, in understanding and contributing to the changing scene around them.
Friendly advice: let it go, Ted. Return to the avuncular role. Take the blows and remember that the young sometimes need to clear away space before they can get a fresh look around.
New York University
New York City
To the Editors:
Since I am only one of the historians whose work has been attacked and distorted by Mr. Theodore Draper, I will try to be brief. Draper’s central complaint is that the new historians “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.” In other words, most of us have discovered when we look at Communist work in specific areas that the Soviet influence was only one, and usually not the most important, factor influencing Communist strategy and tactics. Draper finds this conclusion politically unacceptable, as well he might. The old histories of the Communist Party, written during the cold war, were written to provide a rationale for repression, at least insofar as studies of Communists in the labor movement are concerned. It was politically important for cold war scholars to depict Communists as alien outsiders, not as legitimate trade unionists, in order to defend the CIO’s decision to expel Communists from the labor movement. The new historians, not burdened with such a heavy political agenda, have offered a more balanced approach.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference in approach is to look at an event which Mr. Draper mentions in his first article: the formation of dual unions in 1928 and 1929. To Klehr and Draper this decision was made in Moscow. Both Klehr and Draper note that Soviet leaders urged American Communists to form dual unions, American Communists resisted this advice, but after several years, the American Communists gave in. They conclude that American Communists gave in because it was impossible to continue to resist Soviet pressure. This is a plausible assumption, particularly if one knows nothing about actual events in the industries in which these unions were formed.
It is, however, an assumption which must be discarded if one examines what Draper sneeringly calls “specific or local circumstances.” The garment industry is the one which I have studied and here it is clear that the decision to form dual unions was dictated by the conditions in the industry and not by Soviet advice or orders. In the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the Communist-led opposition were the leaders of local unions which comprised most of the union’s membership. However, the ILGWU had an electoral system which allowed a number of small locals to wield more influence than the large, New York locals. The history of the ILGWU in the 1920s is largely the history of attempts by the Socialist-led ILGWU General Executive Board to maintain its control over the union in spite of having the support of less than a majority of the union’s members. The Socialists resorted to the tactic of expelling their opponents.
There were three waves of expulsions. In 1924, the left-wingers were removed from office in districts outside of New York. Communists protested these expulsions, but since they retained strength in the huge New York locals, they did not urge non-recognition of the removal. In May 1925, ostensibly because of a speech at a rally, the GEB removed the leaders of three large New York locals. The locals formed a Joint Action Committee, collected dues, and forced the GEB to sign a statement re-admitting them into the union, calling for an end to “all discrimination for political opinion,” and agreeing to allow the membership to vote on the issue of proportional representation. At the 1925 ILGWU convention, however, they refused to submit proportional representation to the membership. Following the 1926 cloakmakers’ strike the GEB launched the third round of expulsions. Workers in the large New York locals, representing more than half of the union’s total membership, were forced to repudiate their local leaders and re-register with the GEB. In other words, more than half of the union’s members were expelled and could only gain re-admission to the union by repudiating the leaders whom they had previously elected.
This decision brought civil war to the garment district. There is not the space to describe the carnage here, but one should see my article “New Perspectives on American Communism,” in Political Power Social Theory (1983) and my dissertation, which Draper has cited, for more information. The point here is simply that after a two-year struggle the Communists were unable to gain re-admission into the union. The 1928 convention of the ILGWU ratified the expulsion of the Communists and went on to expel two anti-Communist caucuses who had opposed the expulsions. Still, American Communists, imprisoned by their long-standing opposition to dual unionism, resisted the formation of a new union. But, following the 1928 convention, there was literally no alternative. If Communists were going to continue to be active in the garment industry, they would have to form a separate garment union and try to recruit the 60,000 garment workers who had dropped out or been expelled from the ILGWU. (The ILGWU membership had fallen from approximately 90,000 to approximately 30,000 during the attempt to purge the left from the union.)
Draper and Klehr make no attempt to assess the relative importance of the mass expulsions and the Soviet advice on the formation of the new union. Klehr does not mention the expulsions at all. Neither did Draper in his NYR article, but he has argued elsewhere that the expulsions could not have been a factor since “there were no new expulsions in 1928 or 1929.” This is, at best, an ingenious half-truth. There was no need for new expulsions since the 1928 ILGWU convention had ratified the expulsion of over half of the union’s membership.
This is not to say that the Comintern did not influence the American party, but rather that without an examination of “specific or local circumstances” one can not know exactly how the Comintern influenced the party. In this example, we can see that the Comintern had virtually no influence on the decision to form dual unions. American Communists rejected Comintern advice on this point until Communists had been driven out of the labor movement. However, the Comintern did influence the general line of the new unions. They defined themselves as “revolutionary unions” and openly proclaimed their identification with the Communist Party. In other words, the Comintern had almost nothing to do with the decision to form a dual union in the garment industry, but it did help (and even here it was not the only factor) to shape the sectarian politics of the new union.
There is a certain irony in the Draper-Klehr approach: by attributing everything to Soviet influence, it actually obscures precisely what the real Soviet influence, was. This defect is central to the political thrust of the Draper-Klehr approach: since they, and their predecessors, are anxious to justify the mass expulsions of Communist trade unionists, they must paint those trade unionists as totally dominated by the Soviet Union. A more accurate approach, showing how the Soviet influence interacted with other influences, might be better history, but it cannot achieve the political end (delegitimation of Communist workers) which Draper and Klehr seek.
James R. Prickett
Santa Monica College
Santa Monica, California
To the Editors:
American historical scholarship has changed a great deal since Theodore Draper published his studies of early Communist Party history. Judging by his recent review articles on the subject, not all of the changes have been to Mr. Draper’s liking. The profession remains politically diverse, but he is surely correct that the social movements and politics of the past two decades have shaped historical interpretation—much as the Cold War did during the Fifties. But Draper’s accusation that the newer historians of the Communist Party have intentionally distorted the record to fit some “distinct [but conveniently undefined] political line” is an extremely serious charge which he does not substantiate in his articles.
The two of us are accused of mishandling evidence in two respects. First, according to Draper, we misrepresent Nelson’s standing in the party. Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s, Nelson was, in fact, a “rank-and-file organizer” among auto workers and the unemployed in Illinois and Pennsylvania. From the late 1930s, when he was elected to the party’s Central Committee, until his resignation in 1957, he was a leading figure in the movement. The portion of our introduction which Draper quotes, however, refers to Nelson’s perspective, which remained broadly reflective of the organization’s rank and file, and not to his standing in the hierarchy.
Draper also accuses us of distorting Nelson’s views regarding Soviet domination of the American party, of “making it seem only half the equation.” For Draper, the Soviet role explains the whole story. In fact, another section of the introduction emphasizes the disastrous consequences of the American party’s subservience, particularly in the early Cold War era, and Soviet influence represented a major theme in the interviews which provided a basis for the book.
We do plead guilty to calling attention to the fact, which emerges clearly from Nelson’s and other memoirs, that Communist Party activism also involved an important measure of human agency which is largely missing from Draper’s own analysis. Although he accuses the revisionists of using the Nelson book “as if it were a department store, where one can buy this or that and ignore the rest,” it appears that Mr. Draper has done a bit of shopping himself. He cites Nelson’s observations regarding Soviet domination approvingly, but he ignores references to important differences among local party organizations; early (pre-Popular Front) efforts to work with activists from other political groupings; and ways in which local circumstances shaped Party actions—all of which would seem to weaken his analysis.
Draper is also troubled by the new emphasis on social rather than institutional political history. If he still recognizes little in the party’s history but orders from Moscow, it could be because he continues to view the party from the perspective of the Politburo and its relations with the Comintern. Even here there was probably more struggle over important policy matters than Draper acknowledges. The situation was much more complex at the local level, and it is not difficult to see why. It was one thing to formulate policy from the fourteenth floor of an office building in Manhattan; implementing it in Shamokin or even Pittsburgh was quite often more difficult. As Draper concedes, “As in all far-flung organizations, there were exceptions, lags, and misunderstandings, especially in groups farthest from the center, though usually for brief periods of time.” Communist policy and communist practice were not always synonymous. This raises the question of whether it is possible to get an accurate view of the party without the autobiographies, oral biographies, and focused studies of particular periods, communities and unions which have appeared in the past several years. If we have advocated social over institutional political history, it is in an effort to get a fuller and therefore more accurate view of the Communist Party, not as part of some ploy to distort the story for political ends.
The most worrying characteristic of Theodore Draper’s articles is their tone. The implication is that historians with left-wing sympathies (and we are dealing with a rather mixed lot here, to say the least) cannot be trusted to respect the canons of historical research and interpretation. Watch out, Draper warns, the Marxists are back. (More conservative scholars are presumably more trustworthy.) It is natural and probably a good thing that historians challenge one another over questions of method and interpretation, and this is how we would prefer to view the emerging debate over the history of the Communist Party. It is probably not such a good thing that Draper has impugned the professional integrity of a whole generation of scholars because he disagrees with their reading of the historical record.
James R. Barrett
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
To the Editors:
I was amused at Theodore Draper’s “The Communists are coming” references to my Political Affairs review of his protégé Harvey Klehr in his scattergun attack on those politically diverse scholars who deny that he and Klehr possess monopoly “rights” over the history of the Communist Party, USA. It was unfortunate, however, that Draper didn’t deal with my substantive criticisms of Klehr.
First of all, I made the point that Klehr’s relentlessly biased, poorly organized, and terribly written book makes it impossible to understand the crucial role of the grassroots left, particularly CPUSA activists, in building the CIO and lighting the political fires that made the passage of the New Deal’s major labor and social welfare legislation—legislation that remains the foundation of proworking-class policy in the US—possible. Also, I took issue with the greatest sacred cow of all, the “Soviet domination” shibboleth which Klehr and Draper hold onto like a security blanket by suggesting that a study of how the Comintern really worked would show the existence of a genuine internationalism in which Communists from many countries contributed and in which the Soviets used their concrete revolutionary experience positively to advance the world revolutionary movement.
Finally, I contended that a work as primitive in its interpretations as Klehr’s should be something of an embarrassment to the more sophisticated red-baiters or professional anti-Communists (like many others, I once considered Theodore Draper among them). If Klehr is all that Draper can come up with, and a heresy hunt in the pages of The New York Review of Books is Draper’s way of running political interference for his friend, then the left’s future in this tiny academic grove looks pretty bright.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editors:
In his approach to American Communism Theodore Draper falls into an organic exceptionalism by casting the Communist party as a unique organism that is not significantly influenced by interaction with its proximate environment. Reducing party history to a chronicle of submission to Soviet hegemony he rejects any suggestion that the party was stamped indelibly by its American habitat. Historians, who find evidence of such a stamp in recent ex-Communist memoirs, are rebuked for treating such works as department stores “where one can buy this or that and ignore all the rest.”
And how does Draper treat these memoirs? In discussing Steve Nelson’s memoir he cites Nelson’s affirmation that he was “still proud to have been a Communist,” and then quotes five variations on the theme of “[our] blind… adherence to Soviet policy.” A baffled reader might ask: What the hell was Nelson proud of? Draper doesn’t tell. Nelson’s book, however, vividly describes his organizing efforts among the unemployed in the anthracite coal region and the inspiriting transformation among his constituents from quiet despair to hope and a sense of power. This episode and others of its kind constitute an impressive source of pride. For Draper all this is irrelevant. It is not on his shopping list. But without the anthracite experience you cannot understand Nelson and, by extension, you cannot truly understand a party whose collective memory encompasses similar experiences by thousands of activists. Certainly, in Nelson’s retrospective comprehension of himself as a Communist he was shaped by history made in Moscow—and in Wilkes-Barre. It is one thing to recognize, as Nelson does, that Moscow’s clout was greater; it is something else to obliterate Wilkes-Barre altogether, as Draper does.
Draper’s brief reference to my memoir is similarly selective. Only items registering a Soviet impact are culled, all else is ignored.
We take a great leap now to Moscow in 1956 and Khrushchev’s “secret report” on Stalin’s crimes. The report affected all Communist parties, but no other party I know of was so devastated by it as the American. The difference cannot be explained solely in terms of prior attitudes toward Stalin and the Soviet Union. The party’s perceptions of, and reactions to, American reality, especially in the preceding decade, along with its internal history and the repressive beating it took, decisively conditioned the quality of its response to the Moscow disclosures, which exacerbated a crisis already in the making.
My participant/eyewitness testimony on this score is the sort of thing that Draper subsumes under the “blend theory” label. “Blend” is a poor term. There was a duality that sometimes produced a blend and more frequently produced tensions, but the only constant was the duality itself. Constant but not static, for the interaction between American experience and Soviet hegemony was a living process, involving committed human beings engaged in crucial conflicts. This dynamic reality gets lost in Draper’s monolithic thesis.
I have profound differences with the American Communist party, but I retain a commitment to the radical transformation of American society. Consequently I attach importance to a continuum in the American radical tradition, to a critical assimilation of the radical experience. I see American Communism as an integral element of that tradition and experience. I think it incumbent, therefore, for those who are grappling with historically unsolved problems of American radicalism to extract as much of value as they can from Communist history. Draper obstructs such an endeavor.
San Francisco, California
To the Editors:
It is ironic that Theodore Draper, one of the first people I turned to for advice when launching an investigation of Communist racial policies, should present such a caricature of the main arguments in my book, Communists in Harlem During the Depression.
In challenging the “totalitarian image that dominates Party historiography,” it was not my purpose to minimize the role of the Soviet Union in shaping Party policies. Indeed, one of the central points in my book was that the aggressive intervention of the Party in Afro-American life in the late Twenties and early Thirties would not have come without Soviet prodding and direction.
My quarrel with earlier interpretations of the black-Communist encounter is that by focusing exclusively on Comintern domination and the formation of a Party line, they failed to explain some very interesting dimensions of the Party’s work in black communities. For example: Why did the Communist Party emerge as a major center of social and cultural interaction between blacks and whites during the Thirties and Forties? Why did so many black intellectuals, among them Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, associate themselves with Communist causes? How did the CP build a sufficient political base in Harlem to form an alliance with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and elect a black Communist, Benjamin Davis, Jr., to the New York City Council for two terms?
These are questions which cannot be explained simply by examining instructions from the Comintern or the working of the Party’s Central Committee; they also require a close look at the political and social history of New York’s black community, at the impact of the Depression on black and white intellectuals, and at ethnic politics in New York City (a subject brilliantly explored in a dissertation by Ken Waltzer, one of Professor Draper’s “targets” in this review).
In addition, I argue that there are certain dimensions of Communist racial policy which were relatively free of Comintern direction after the early Thirties. Among these were the Party’s advocacy of black music, theater and literature; its support for the teaching and writing of black history; its concern with the black presence in media, schools and sports; and its efforts to insure complete integration of blacks and whites throughout the Party and the Party subculture. These policies were not significantly altered by the shifts in Party line that took place in 1939 and 1941. Professor Draper mocks my emphasis on areas of autonomy from Comintern direction, arguing that my “defense of Communist diversity…almost falls of its own weight.” In doing so, he resorts to the classic weapon of the polemicist, quoting out of context. Claiming that my own evidence supports the totalitarian thesis, Draper quotes the following:
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.
But he leaves out what comes after:
But on issues which the Comintern manifestoes neglected to provide guidelines, they fought for racial and economic justice with a voice that seemed powerful and authentic. The Party’s persistent agitation against the poll tax and lynching, its efforts to insure black history was taught and respected, and its efforts to persuade white workers to fight for jobs for blacks all bespoke the continued power of the Party’s vision of an egalitarian future. In the Popular Front era, Communists had found a language and a set of symbols which linked Afro-American and American destiny in a forceful and persuasive way, and they fought to regain their credentials as authentic American radicals under circumstances that called into question both their patriotism and good sense.
The approach Professor Draper takes in his review strips the locus of Party decision making from the social and cultural context in which it occurred and offers little guidance to the thinking and motivation of individual Communists. In a spirit of vengeful narrowness, he misses one of the major goals of the “new historians of American Communism”; to help illuminate American labor, radical and ethnic history during the years of the Party’s influence. Draper judges this work by a single standard—whether it confirms the “totalitarian essence” of Communism. One would have expected better from the author of The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia.
Bronx, New York
To the Editors:
I have just received the latest issue of what appears to have become The New York Review of Book Reviews. For the second time in as many issues, Theodore Draper scrutinizes a six-hundred-word book review that I wrote for Political Science Quarterly along with a longer review (about two pages of which concern Mr. Draper’s subject) in another scholarly journal. He manages to devote close to one thousand words of his fifteen-thousand-word diatribe to these distinctly minor works. He gives himself more to work with by quoting some sentences twice, using the reiteration as evidence that historians are saying the same thing “again and again.” Based on this Talmudic exercise, he denounces my book reviews—along with the writings of other socalled “new historians of American Communism”—as “sloppy,” “politically motivated,” and “tendentious” as well as signs of a Yuppie-like quest for “personal advantage and political gratification.” Seldom has so much been written with so much venom about so few words.
Draper’s polemic calls to mind an experience that I had about ten years ago when I gave a scholarly paper that touched in part on the activities of American Communists in the 1930s and that gave what I thought was a fair—but also critical—assessment of the Communist Party’s history. After I had finished, an ex-Communist (but someone still attached to the party’s legacy) arose to denounce me for having slandered “the brave men and women” of the Communist movement. Now I find that the very same sort of perspective has provoked Theodore Draper’s attack on me for being, in effect, “soft on communism.” Like the veteran Communist, Draper is apparently unable to view a historical experience in which he participated (in his case both communism and anticommunism) with anything approaching detachment. In Draper’s view, there is only one set of questions to be asked about American Communism—his—and there is only one set of answers to be given—his.
Draper’s tunnel vision distorts my position and obscures this historical debate in more ways than I can discuss in a brief letter. I will, thus, limit myself to four specific ways that his article may have misled some readers.
- Since I have written no books or articles specifically devoted to the history of American Communism, the charge that I have provided insufficient evidence for my position strikes me as “tendentious”—to use Draper’s word. As Draper doubtless knows, academic journals like Political Science Quarterly (which gave me 600 words in which to review Harvey Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism) do not provide their reviewers with the sort of lavish space that is available to him in the NYR. Moreover, the responsibility of a book reviewer can hardly be said to extend to doing independent research and presenting detailed evidence on the subject of the book or books in question. Nevertheless, readers of my review in International Labor and Working Class History (Fall 1983) will find that it supplies substantially more relevant evidence than Draper’s account of it would suggest.
- The notion of a unified bloc of youthful “new historians of American Communism” is mostly a figment of Draper’s imagination. There is at least as much political disagreement, I would venture, among Maurice Isserman, Mark Naison, James Prickett, and Roger Keeran as there is among the quartet of Theodore Draper, Midge Decter, Sidney Hook, and Ronald Reagan whom Draper is at pains to differentiate. Moreover, Draper suggests that divergent interpretations of Communist Party history are some sort of generational phenomenon and that there are only two sides to this historiographic debate. Before accepting this view, readers may wish to consult their back issues of this publication. In the May 10, 1984, issue of NYR they will find one of the few critical reviews of Klehr’s book that Draper neglects to mention. It is written by a member of Draper’s own generation—his brother to be precise.
- I find Draper’s claim that he “had nothing to do with his [Harvey Klehr’s] book until it was completed” to be disingenuous at best. Draper’s association with Professor Klehr dates back to at least 1978, when he wrote the foreword to Klehr’s previous book. Moreover, Klehr has openly acknowledged that the idea for writing The Heyday of American Communism came directly from Draper, who sought someone to pick up where he left off.
Draper charges that I—and others—“adopt a most demeaning attitude toward the Communist rank and file,” because I talk about them carrying out such “menial tasks” (his phrase) as marching in demonstrations and passing out leaflets. Having done both, I find them neither demeaning nor menial.
Although I am not disturbed by Draper’s disagreements with my two book reviews, I am disturbed by the tone of his articles and the “red baiting” framework in which they are cast. The first page of his first article seems to suggest that he would like to see young radical scholars cast out of the universities before it is too late, before they get tenure. Draper is too late in my case, but he may not be in many others. And that I find truly disturbing.
To the Editors:
My eight-page review of Harvey Klehr’s book, The Heyday of American Communism, has earned me a prominent place on Theodore Draper’s hit-list of “new historians” of American communism. Two of Draper’s charges raise serious historical issues and it is to these that I will respond. The first is that I exaggerate the significance of the Popular Front era of the Communist party. The second is that I attach too much importance to the desires of individual Communists in the 1930s to Americanize their radicalism.
It makes little sense to insist, as Draper does, that historians attach no special significance to the Popular Front era. The four years of the Popular Front marked nothing less than a crucial transition in the history of American radicalism, involving not only the rise to preeminence of the Communist party but the fatal fragmentation and decline of the Socialist party. Anyone seriously interested in the history of twentieth-century American radicalism has an obligation to come to terms with the Popular Front era. Irving Howe and Lewis Coser recognized this obligation (in their book The American Communist Party) long before any of the “new historians” had contemplated entering the field.
Since Draper will not admit the importance of the Popular Front era, he cannot understand the significance that I attach to the desires of individual Communists, like Sam Darcy and George Charney, to Americanize their radicalism. Draper first tries to make the cases of Darcy and Charney seem too “isolated” to represent an important trend in the party. But Draper admits that when Earl Browder set out in 1944 to transform the Party into an “association” and make the Popular Front strategy a permanent feature of American communism, he “carried almost the entire Party with him.” Is this not a recognition that many American Communists desired to Americanize their radicalism? Draper might concede that many Communists harbored such desires, but he would still insist that I am trying to deny or obscure the true political character of the Communist party—its subservience to the Soviet Union. In my review I not only recognized the subordination of the American Communist party to Moscow but gave full credit to Draper for showing the process by which a once independent communist organization became so dependent on the Soviet Union. The problem that both Draper’s and Klehr’s work leaves unexplored is why, in the years 1935 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Americans either belonged to or participated in the activities of an authoritarian party that accepted the Soviet Union’s leadership. The explanation, I suggested in my review, my lie in the ironic fact that the Popular Front, though dictated by Moscow, gave individual communists an opportunity to act on their desires to root their radicalism in American soil. Their enthusiasm led many thousands outside the party to believe that the Popular Front was not just a mechanical application of a party line but a genuine effort to connect radicalism to American political traditions.
Only more research into the actual efforts of party members during the Popular Front years to root their communism in American soil, I concluded, would allow us to satisfactorily evaluate this interpretation. Given the complex character of the Popular Front party—its plethora of front organizations and multiple categories of membership—I suggested that such research would have to reach out beyond the party’s central committee and full-time functionaries to recover the variety of political, social and cultural experiences of party members and sympathizers. Draper need not fear a conspiracy of “politically motivated” social historians to resurrect American communism as the heyday of American radicalism Nothing that is discovered about the American Communist party will alter the essential tragedy of the communist experience: namely, that all efforts to develop an authentic American radicalism were doomed by the inability of the party to free itself from its dependence on the Soviet Union. What we may learn, however, is why such a doomed movement attracted the support of so many intelligent and dedicated men and women.
Princeton, New Jersey
To the Editors:
It is with a personal sense of gratitude that I wish to voice my appreciation of the first part of Theodore Draper’s “American Communism Revisited.” As one who entered the American Communist movement in the year 1930 and left it in September 1939—moving, I may add, to the libertarian left—I can not only attest to the accuracy of Draper’s account but to its moderation. If there is anything lacking thus far in that excellent account, it is the extent to which the internal life of the American Communist Party and the Young Communist League revealed how utterly exogenous American Communism was to the authentic radical tradition of the United States—indeed, how it reflected in every detail the Byzantine mentality and atmosphere that prevailed in Russia during the nightmarish years of the Moscow purge trials. What remains unforgettable to me about that organization is the paranoia, inquisitorial scrutiny of attitudes, even personal associations with American Socialists (not to speak of such “criminal elements” as real or imaginary “Trotskyites” and “Lovestonites”) that pervaded the movement’s life. Whatever faults blemished the American socialist and anarchist left of the pre-Thirties era, it never turned ideas and personal associations into “crimes.” The American Communist movement did, and to a certain extent still does. In this respect, it completely reflected the police mentality of totalitarian Russia and much of the so-called “socialist” world.
I have seen very little in the self-styled “social history” of American Communism and such patently slanted “documentaries” as Seeing Red that address themselves to the steady diet of trials, debasing “self-criticism,” and humiliating “confessions” that were demanded from members who were suspected of simply associating with politically suspect individuals on the independent left. To remain in that movement—and many left it with a sense of nausea—such “suspects” were often obliged to break with parents, wives, husbands, siblings, and children who were associated with or merely sympathetic to other “criminal” leftwing groups. In this suffocating Byzantine world, so redolent of Russia where intellectual independence has been considered as a “psychosis” at best and a punishable “crime” at worst, the Communist movement of the Thirties in no way differed from the Russian party apart from the constraints placed upon it by American law.
Nor did I find my “comrades” in the movement to be more heroic, militant, or committed to the social causes of the day than the usual run of militants I encountered in the huge wave of industrial strikes and unionism that marked the decade, “oral histories” like Seeing Red notwithstanding to the contrary. What I decidedly did find was a persistent effort by the party and its youth league to manipulatively take over movements which ordinary militants, often working people, unemployed, ethnics, and poor, spontaneously initiated. And the movement did this more often by foul means than by fair ones. Far from reflecting the American radical tradition, American Communism poisoned the idealism of an entire generation of Thirties radicals. The self-styled “social historians” of American Communism, no less than selective documentaries like Seeing Red, legitimate this moral debasement of a rich tradition by “personalizing” it and dressing it in the raiments of sweet nostalgia. They conceal a chronic disease in the left today that Trotsky, for all his failings, so pithily called the “syphilis of the labor movement” or, more generally, what has been called a “police socialism” that subverts the meaning of socialism as an ethical ideal.
Theodore Draper replies:
Some of these letters do not deserve serious attention.
I had devoted no more than a footnote to Paul Buhle, who had ludicrously described Karl Kautsky, Louis Althusser, and Harry Pollitt as “cretinoid intellectuals of Europe.” His letter clumsily conceals the point of the footnote by leaving out these words. There is no need here to go into the use and abuse of “oral history,” which have nothing to do with my footnote.
James R. Prickett is another to whom I devoted a footnote. It did not “attack and distort” his work; it simply quoted from it and let his words speak for themselves. He, too, uses his letter to ride his favorite hobbyhorse, about which I had said nothing.
Nevertheless, it would be a pity if any student took his history lesson seriously. The socalled left wing, which the Communists dominated, was expelled from the ILGWU in 1926; the then American leadership resisted using the expulsions to form a “dual union” in the industry; the latter was not set up until more than two years later, and then only in response to a general shift to a dual-union line, which had been dictated in Moscow. The penultimate paragraph in Prickett’s letter is a hash of contradictions—“the Comintern had virtually no influence on the decision to form dual unions,” but “the Comintern did influence the general line of the new unions.” In fact the Comintern set the general line in 1928 on an international scale; the Communist tribulations in the American garment industry in 1926 were a very minor factor—if at all-in the larger decision.
James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck had previously described Steve Nelson, whose memoir they edited, as a “foot soldier” and a “rank and file organizer”—words they do not repeat. Now they claim that they were referring merely to his “perspective,” not his actual role in the party. Nelson became a full-time organizer in 1929; attended the Comintern’s Lenin School in Moscow in 1931; served as a political commissar in the Spanish civil war later in the decade. To have called him a “foot soldier” was preposterous; his “perspective” at the time—and that was not necessarily the same as when he talked to them many years later—was shaped by his duties and functions. Barrett and Ruck, like the others, also use this opportunity to push their favorite nostrums.
The least amusing of these letters is that of Professor Norman Markowitz. I had thought of providing some light relief by noting that he had thrown me in with Midge Decter and Sidney Hook as “aging members of the cold was establishment,” dreaming along with Ronald Reagan. Markowitz’s letter is a sample of his wit and erudition; it is a matter of more concern to his colleagues at Rutgers University than it is to me. A very different view of Klehr’s book has also come out of Rutgers University in the May-June 1985 issue of Society; this review makes Markowitz’s denunciation seem like ravings.
Yet I cannot resist raising a question that has long puzzled me. Markowitz is at least as much a professional pro-Communist as I am a professional anti-Communist. Is professional pro-Communism more permissible in principle than professional anti-Communism? Is professional pro-Communism legitimate but not professional anti-Communism? Yet one comes across this double standard all the time, and not only by professional pro-Communists.
Al Richmond takes us somewhat closer to a real issue. He objects to the “blend theory.” I did not invent the term; “blend” was used by, among others, Professor Kenneth Waltzer. In any case, Richmond prefers “duality.” Both terms serve the same purpose; they imply an “interaction between American experience and Soviet hegemony” (Richmond), as if they were equal or comparable in weight or importance. That the “hegemony” was Soviet shows that they were not. Of course there was “interaction” between them, but an interaction that at every critical turning point made “Soviet hegemony” decisive. It would be closer to the reality to say that the Soviets exercised their hegemony and the Americans experienced it.
Richmond also complains about my selective references to his book. Others make the same complaint, which I may as well answer here. I clearly explained that I was going to be concerned with “the political line and historical bias” of the new historians. I could not have reviewed all the books mentioned by me in full without filling up entire issues of The New York Review. My immediate purpose concerned their criticism of my view of the Soviet-American Communist relationship. I then set out to show that the very memoirs which they seemed to esteem so highly fully confirmed my summing up in 1957 that American Communist history “corresponded to the fluctuations of Russian policy.” For that purpose, I was necessarily selective; I did not pretend to write a general review of all these books.
Mark Naison also imagines that I judged his work “by a single standard—whether it confirms the ‘totalitarian essence’ of Communism.” Here again I was not interested in completely judging his work, which is, as I recognized, partly scholarly and partly tendentiously political. To make a case for black Communist “diversity,” he had to base it on “areas where the [Party] line did not apply” and which did not touch “the total lives” of the black membership. These exceptions hardly touch the main issue—that black Communists tried to be good Communists where the line did apply and in all but the totality of their lives. The exceptions were nowhere as important as the rule, or the Communist advance in Harlem would not have been so short-lived. Naison tries desperately to make Harlem Communism look good by drawing attention away from the main action to some of the sideshows, as in very letter.
I have left for last the letters from Roy Rosenzweig and Gary Gerstle, because both plead that they merely wrote book reviews. They were not, however, simple book reviews; they were programmatic reviews, especially the one by Gerstle. They set forth in some detail how the history of American Communism should be written and sharply criticized how it had been written. Now it is pleaded that neither of them had made American Communism their field of study; they had never written anything on it before. Two questions thus arise: What scholarly license did they have to write such reviews? And why did I take them so seriously?
I paid attention to these reviews, for one thing, because I knew that their authors had not earned the right to make such pronouncements. If they did make them, it was because a new “Party line” had so permeated the scholarly circles of which they are a part that they did not have to do their own work in order to tell others just how such work should be done. If they now wish to say that their reviews should not have been taken so seriously, they should not have written them in the first place. But, for me, these reviews in respectable scholarly journals were part of the evidence of how widespread and accepted the new orthodoxy had become.
Rosenzweig’s letter hardly touches the issues I raised. If I devoted close to one thousand words to his reviews, they were about the issues I found in them. That he should have seen “venom” in such a discussion makes one wonder whether he is open to any discussion at all.
Though Rosenzweig’s letter is unsavory, it gives me an opportunity to set two things straight. My association with Harvey Klehr’s book was never hidden; Klehr himself wrote about it in his preface. Once he undertook the book, however, I decided to leave him completely alone, to have him work completely independently of me, and for me to have—as I put it—“nothing to do with his book until it was completed.” I did not then know Klehr well enough to know in advance how it was going to come out; I did not subject him to any political test; I merely thought that he had done a good job on a lesser scale and might do a good job on a larger project, no one else at the time having come to my notice. To make all this seem “disingenuous” tells more about Rosenzweig than about anything else.
Were my articles “redbaiting”? In the first place, I thought I was not dealing with “Reds,” except in one case. I tried to make it clear that I was dealing with a rather peculiar phenomenon of a post-New Leftist generation looking, as one put it, for “a source of political reference and inspiration,” which were found in American Communism in the 1930s and particularly in the Popular Front period. Can this reference and inspiration be challenged without opening oneself up to the accusation of “redbaiting”? Rosenzweig’s letter suggests that it is easier to charge “redbaiting” than to respond to the challenge.
Have I demanded too strict an adherence to my own “Party line”? I have read three manuscripts on the subject submitted by three different publishers. One of them, Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?, opened with a sharp dissent from my view—and I still advised publishing it. I had some differences with a second book, and again thought it well worth publishing. All three, different as they were, appeared in print. If Rosenzweig’s letter—and some professorial yellow journalism—are any indication, some of the new historians will not permit their views to be seriously challenged without taking refuge in personal denigration.
I have left Professor Gary Gerstle for last, because he at least tries to deal with some issues substantively. As I have noted, his eightpage review was largely programmatic, as if he knew far more than his work entitled him to know. He may have wandered into this mine field, but his letter continues to pose questions about the Popular Front and Communist “Americanism” in a manner that advances a useful discussion of the issues. Serious students will want to check back on what I wrote about his dubious use of sources, which he now sees fit to ignore. I will here limit myself to the two points his letter raises.
The trouble comes out most starkly in Gerstle’s belief that the “Popular Front marked nothing less than a crucial transition in the history of American radicalism.” In fact, it was a brief interlude that changed nothing essentially about American Communism. The decline of the Socialist party was a much longer and more complex phenomenon. The real problem is that Gerstle wishes to isolate the Popular Front from the entire historical Communist context of which it was merely a part. The coming and going of some form of Popular Frontism, of “right” and “left” turns, have been a permanent feature of international Communism from the beginning. Past experience showed that Communist parties in the West did best with “rightist,” “moderate,” “democratic,” “united or popular-front” appeals. If that was all there was to it, they would never have given up their popular front-rightist turns. But another element must be added. The discipline and organization of the Communist party functioned most effectively when they could appear to serve both popular-national and international-Soviet interests at the same time. The two conditions had to coincide for the trick to work.
It is true, as Gerstle says, that “the Popular Front, though dictated by Moscow, gave individual Communists an opportunity to act on their own desires to root their radicalism in American soil.” Their desires, however, were more complex. They also wished simultaneously to continue to root their radicalism in Soviet soil. Otherwise they would not have been Communists; they would have been pure-and-simple Popular Frontists, in with the Popular Front and out with its demise. Sam Darcy and George Charney were not, in 1935-1939, such pure-and-simple types; they should not be evoked as if they merely wanted “to Americanize their radicalism.” Half of the equation here is bound to lead to error.
Why does the Popular Front hold such a positive fascination for some like Gerstle? One reason given is that American Communists tried to Americanize themselves. But why be attracted to a party or individual Communists who had to “Americanize” themselves at the dictation of Moscow? Their “Americanization” took place in a Communist context; the one could not be had without the other. They were Communists first then Popular Front Communists, for or against the Popular Front as the Party line changed. Is this Americanization or “Americanization”?
Another reason given is that the Popular Front was a popular success, drawing in thousands who would otherwise have stayed away. It is difficult to generalize, but my memory is that the Popular Front recruits mainly belonged to three types. One took the propaganda for granted, with little knowledge of how and why it had come about; another was gratified to be associated with a party that was seemingly “reformist” and “revolutionary” at the same time, pro-American and pro-Soviet, nationalistic pro tem and internationalistic traditionally; a third type was more or less mechanically drawn in by virtue of key posts held by Communists in various non-Communist organizations, such as trade unions. As Gerstle says, more research could and should be done on the Popular Front period, but it will do little good without more political sophistication and more intimate knowledge of how the Communist party worked.
Whatever the reasons, the Popular Front had a certain equivocal attractiveness five decades ago, and it still seems to be dubiously attractive to some younger historians for extra-historical reasons. If it was “nothing less than a crucial transition in the history of American radicalism,” perhaps it could serve the same purpose again. More likely it would take the course described by Karl Marx in another connection—“the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
Murray Bookchin’s recollection introduces another element that illuminates the Popular Front years from still another angle. The Communist experience in the Party itself was one thing, even during the Popular Front; communist behavior outside the Party could be something else. It should not be forgotten that many who came into the Party with the Popular Front were sufficiently indoctrinated to remain in the Party after it was over.
August 15, 1985