Notes from Underground

The Secret World of American Communism

by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, Russian documents translated by Timothy D. Sergay
Yale University Press, 348 pp., $25.00


The American Communist Party reached its highest tide, a modest crest, when Earl Browder was its General Secretary. Joseph Stalin had made him in 1929 and unmade him in 1945.

When I developed Browder’s acquaintance, he was well into the surprisingly mellow twilight that succeeded the setting of his sun. One afternoon in 1954, while we lingered on a Greenwich Village street corner, he left off his mild grievances against the Social Security law’s cap on his earnings to ask how I thought things were in the Party that had left him behind.

I suggested that it might have slipped rather into the backwaters.

“It was,” Browder replied, “always a backwater.”

His tone quite suited the cured Charles Swann in reflecting upon Odette de Crecy. Browder had arrived at the recognition that he had never been as important in the world as he had thought himself, which happens to sit high among the comforts we pay for with old age and the consciousness of failure.

Few of us learn that lesson about ourselves soon enough, and historians may sometimes be suspected of learning it about their subjects even less often. This may be why so many recent studies of the American Communist Party unite in overblowing its historical significance and then divide into quarrels about whether the consequences were all for the good or all for the bad.

After a stretch of relative quiescence the all-for-the-bad camp has sallied forth re-armed with fresh and formidable-seeming weaponry gathered from Soviet archival specimens of the Communist International’s correspondence with its American subsidiary and arrayed into The Secret World of American Communism. Its authors’ promise of more volumes to come might tender prospects more exciting if the documents so far assembled did not already dispose of all doubt that Communists in Moscow controlled Communists in partibus infidelium through every twist in their line and every breath of their speech.

This is not, however, an accomplishment likely to impress observers informed enough to be aware that the question it answers was closed seventy-five years ago when the Comintern’s “24 Conditions” for admission bound all the candidate parties, who could as yet only aspire to revolution, to pledge in advance to govern themselves as directed by the perceived wisdom of the only party that had made one. Such was the law promulgated by Lenin and Leninism and rigorously applied by Gregory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin while each was a Comintern executive and on his way to being himself a victim of democratic centralism’s logical progression to Stalin and Stalinism.

The “24 Conditions” were no less Trotsky’s canon than Lenin’s; and their spirit infused Trotsky still in the years near the end when he pronounced anathema upon the American dissidents in his surviving sect and condemned them to the dustbin of history, where he, too, might be moldering now if the muscularity, the vigor, and the spleen of his prose had not kept his ghost afloat.

In 1938 the American Communist Party was shouting…

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