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 to the narrow limit of its voice’s range for an all-else-but-war-shunning union of the democratic peoples against fascism. In 1939 Stalin endorsed his accord with Hitler; France and Britain took up arms against him; and the CP-USA declared itself neutral in a war between imperialisms undifferentiated in their evil. In 1941 the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party burned on cue with martial fevers.
Such recollections remind us again of the too-familiar tendency of secret histories to unfold revelations resounding with echoes of what has already blared forth broadsheet size in the public record. All the same, if The Secret World can do little to deepen the long-since-embedded impression of Moscow’s mastery and New York’s servility, the degrees of hauteur in the diktat and abjection in its acceptance can sometimes surprise us in their extremes.
Since no slave inclines to bless his chains and a few prefer not to notice them, CP-USA officials appear to have entertained wistful hopes of at least pretending that all Communists were equal, and now and then they dared to express these hopes by addressing their Comintern-directed messages to General Secretary “Comrade” Georgei Dimitrov.
Dimitrov was a grand personage in his day and is still faintly discernible through the mists of history. His duties as overseer of the Comintern were an interlude between two great days of triumph. The first was his acquittal in 1934 as a defendant in the Reichstag Fire Trial, where he had boldly and scathingly cross-examined Reichminister Hermann Goering. The second would come eleven years later when the Soviet Union installed him as premier and keeper of its keys in Bulgaria, where he was free from cross-examination by anybody except, as always, Josef Stalin.
In this interval between his suffering and then inflicting the abuses of power, Dimitrov’s assistants seldom burdened him with the affairs of an American party whose estate was one of the feeblest in his surrogacy. Every now and then some word from the farthest shore suggested itself as weighty enough for his attention, and his subordinates would pass it on, laboriously translated. And how may we suppose this large historical presence must have felt when he gazed upon stuff as paltry as:
Leech of the party District Committee for Los Angeles has been expelled from the CPUSA as a spy. Wicks figures among those expelled from the party there….it is my belief that he is a spy.
Since we must credit Dimitrov with a sound Bolshevik taste for tales of capitalist decadence, it is much to be hoped that his staff did not cheat him of the details of the conduct that made Leech’s enemy agency plain:
He had a wife and five children, and a good reputation as a family man. He was paid ten dollars a week, later his salary was increased to 17 dollars….after engaging in sexual relations with a certain girl, he squandered more than 25 dollars with her in a single night.
Ergo: The leap from fleshly trespass to infamies of betrayal was but a step. No one who has read Trotsky’s Autobiography or listened to the late Max Schachtman could thereafter think of meannesses of spirit as a revolutionary disease uniquely Stalinist; but even so the spites not unnatural to the Bolshevik temperament were horridly inflamed by the example of the Soviet purges. To accept the Moscow trials meant to accept their thesis that a majority of the members of the Russian Bolshevik faction’s Central Committee had been the Mikado’s hirelings since 1904 and had taken advantage of the opportunities opened by the Revolution to better themselves on Hitler’s payroll. No one capable of swallowing any such absurdity could have much trouble conceiving of Lovestonites and Trotskyites, not as the helpless clumps they really were, but as incarnate monsters in the “subsidized agencies of fascist groups.”
The imitation of Stalin was as intense a commitment to these devotees as the Imitation of Christ has been to others set more usefully to wandering beyond bounds of reason; and so we are chillingly informed that, “with Comrade Browder’s consent, an experiment was carried out in New York and informers were sent into [certain] Trotskyite and Lovestonite organizations,” and that the Control Commission is disturbed to ask itself why Illinois “has so far reported only 8 expulsions this year, Michigan only 4, and Pittsburgh no more than two…if these are not signs of the lack of alertness of our Party.” 1
The contagions of the Moscow prosecutorial style account for much of the harshness of these tones; but their zeal for searchings-out and cleansings arises no less from the frustration of the police temperament that senses the presence of the enemy, unseen, but here there and everywhere and, worst of all, even when exposed, safe from reprisals even a fraction as drastic as he is felt to deserve. The CPUSA’s Control Commission had writ just broad enough to purge the suspect heretic and too narrow to punish him beyond ritual denunciation, coventry from his former comrades, and sometimes, as the highest reward for malice, the disruption of his domestic tranquility. The inquisitional spirit tends to feel deprived without a stake; and Party officials thus disposed had no place to feed their hungers except by functioning as a kind of Interpol for rounding up strays and apostates from Stalin’s service and delivering them to the extremities of unwelcome in the homeland.
In 1935 Boris Irmovich Daneman’s proven Kidney as a Komsomol leader persuaded the Comintern to dispatch him to the United States as guardian of the doctrinal purity of its Young Communist League. He was introduced to the YCL executive committee as “Max,” and for the next three years he sat at its meetings in a portentous silence that most of its members thought impressive and a few found ominous. They had all mistaken the helpless despairs of lonely exile for a sovereign disdain for pupils as uneducable as they were tractable.
In January of 1939 Max was ordered home. He refused to go. A month later he wrote Browder a “dearest Comrade” letter that stuttered:
I can’t take anymore….I’m a wreck, I acted badly and [in]excusably in failing to follow your guidelines….I’m willing to do any service at all to wash away my disgrace I am not an enemy my dear friend just a bad spineless nobody…. Help me don’t ignore me tell me what I must do I’ll do anything you tell me, anything, without question…. Your Max. I’m no stranger help me my dear friend help me.
Little in experience and nothing in imagination could have prepared Browder to confront the incoherencies of this appeal from a heart so lacerated and confused as to conjure up a chairman of the American Communist Party possessed of the weight to forgive anyone so far superior to his own station as this Soviet citizen and representative of the Communist International.
Browder responded as habit taught and fealty compelled and sent the letter, presumably without reply to sender, on to Dimitrov with the supplementary information that Max had declined the YCL’s offer of an escort for his return to the Soviets. By then Max had disappeared to parts unknown in a country where he would always be safer from Browder’s wrath than ever from Stalin’s at home.
In 1938 the Party contrived to filch the renegade Lovestone’s private archives; and the scrap from this purloined treasure that Browder found worth the swiftest relay to Moscow was its evidence that “Lovestone maintains very close connection with one Mendelsohn of Canada, whom Comrade Browder believes to be a Soviet employee of an important branch (OGPU).”
Since Browder seems to have had a disposition far from unkindly, he cannot have found the delight in these grisly chores that may have pulsed in Charles Dirba, the head of the Party Central Control Commission, when he could relay tidbits like,
Re: Solomon Rechter, who works in Moscow in some office as book-keeper. A food worker here in New York reports that he has overheard Solomon Rechter’s brother boasting to somebody else that Solomon Rechter, in Moscow, was carrying on underground work for Zionist “black shirts” the Zhabotinsky group.
An agent of the Comintern or Soviet intelligence had, after all, signed on for the risks that come with the rations and quarters of such enlistments. But a bookkeeper?
The Dirba fragments here exhumed present us with a Secretary of his Party’s Central Control Commission who had been ground down by the processes of ten years of such service until he could use his faculties, and think them useful, nowhere except in the barks of denunciation and the yelps of complaint against everyone close to his repelling eye or his welcoming ear for slander.
Dirba had to chafe under a strictly confined domestic police authority. The documents retrieved from the Comintern’s Spanish Civil War file permit unpleasant surmises of what some American Communists could do with punitive powers when they found them available for uninhibited exercise.
In the pages of this journal and others the vicissitudes of the International Brigades have been matter for longstanding controversy, which cannot be yet settled by what has so far surfaced from the Comintern archives. The Internationals came to the wars untrained and underequipped. Those are circumstances that almost guarantee panics, defeats, and plagues upon morale. The Fifteenth Brigade’s response to all three was to draw up The Secret World’s document 48, an August 1938 roster of more than six hundred “Suspicious Individuals and Deserters.”
Each name on the list had beside it a citation of the particular offense imputed, as in “deserter Fascist,” “arrested espionage suspect,” “spy,” “high treason,” and like finger pointings succinct enough to have been a welcome convenience for shortening his job for any hurried complier of a death list. These documents do not, however, allow us to infer the existence of any such list; and in the case of document 48, there would have been little time for one, since, within a month, the expiring government of Loyalist Spain would officially disband the Internationals, who, given the evidence of document 48, must already have been broken and lost in all save the remnants of soldierly honor.
The archives have not advanced us measurably closer to how many or how few of the lapsed were punished with death; and the single execution of a “deserter” they authenticate beyond suspicion of doubt is that of Albert Wallach, whose case has long been well known. The vehemence of tone in these documents nonetheless occasions an extended pause to reflect that there could be stains of fraternal blood deeper and wider than we are entitled, at this juncture in the archive’s trickle, to take for traced and proved.2
Swarm though they do with malignant fancies, Charles Dirba’s reports on the state of the Party may be the most telling portion of these pages for the light they cast upon a reality powerfully challenging the illusions of the left and the right that American Communism much mattered on the wider stage around it. The revelation of things as they truly were leaps out from a summary of information gleaned from Dirba by Rudy Baker, the American Party’s delegate to the Comintern:
Party work at Ford companies is badly organized. This is attributable to the prohibition of trade unions, the lack of any trade unions there. Thus at a factory with 80,000 workers, only 60 are in the party.
The year was 1939 and the factory cited must have been River Rouge. Sixty Communists could not have added up to an effective fraction even if each and all had been a Bolshevik hardened into steel. If we discount the normal quotient of strays, drifters, and unserviceable visionaries, we might credit the Ford cell with as many as thirty hands with some supplies of agitational energy. This was barely two years before the River Rouge plant went out on strike and Henry Ford, Sr., surrendered. Can we count this among the great events that decorate the myth that the Communists built the CIO when it asks us to conceive that a Communist cadre of perhaps thirty effectives lit the flame that ignited 80,000 of their mates?
When Dirba conveys his affirmations of purgative duty done and as cruelly as it ought, the tunes of the braggart beat through his strains with an insistence suggesting how exigently the servant can need to magnify his vanity when his master persists in shrinking his dignity. The messages from Moscow here preserved express no more and no less fraternal warmth than the kitchen hears when the buzzer stiffens all hands to the call that abides no question.
In 1936, the American Party reported to the Comintern that Alexander Bittleman had been designated a full member, and Charles Krumbein a candidate member, of its Political Bureau. In accordance with the terms of enlistment that automatically transformed every consequential decision in New York to a tentative proposal as soon as it reached Moscow, the Comintern Executive Committee vetted Bittleman and Krumbein di nuovo; and Andre Marty, the French Communist on the Executive Committee, ruled that “it would be expedient” to pass over Bittleman and promote Krumbein to full membership in the Politbureau (USA).
Marty could not have been more than faintly acquainted with either Krumbein or Bittleman; and even if he were, most powers of discernment would have been dissipated along with so much else in the pickled monstrosity Ernest Hemingway portrays in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But little as the rises and falls among the nullities in the CP-USA may have mattered to Marty, appointing them would have meant a very great deal as a fresh assertion of majesty, and one more reminder to the field hands that whatever the Comintern chose as “expedient” they were bound to accept as compulsory.
The Comintern’s assurance that its judgment of its field hands was superior to their own seems to have been built upon the extensive individual dossiers, whose cornerstone was the autobiographical sketch required from each subject. The Secret World offers a few exercise papers from this genre; and the contrast between two of them well exemplifies the test standards dictating the distinction between a passing and an incomplete grade.
Both J. Peters and Rudy Baker were members of the CP-USA Control Commission during the 1930s. Both were old enough in the Party to have taken sides in the doctrinal quarrels that the Comintern had finally resolved in 1930 by raising up William Z. Foster’s minority and suppressing Jay Lovestone’s majority faction. Peters’s autobiography freely confessed—or perhaps we had better say cunningly attested—that he had been staunch for Lovestone so long as Moscow was and had turned as staunch for Foster as soon as Moscow changed its mind.
But Baker simply passed over the question of which side he may have been on; and that omission struck the Comintern as the gravest of offenses when it found out that Baker had “sided with the Foster faction from 1925 to 1930” and so stubbornly as to be reprimanded for failing “to realize how entirely unacceptable was the unprincipled struggle of the (Foster) faction.” The reprimand came from “the party purging commission” that was assessing him and his fellow students at Moscow’s International Lenin School.
The unacceptably unprincipled struggle of 1929 had been transmuted into the accepted and principled command of late 1930. Reason would argue that the Comintern had been wrong and corrected itself, while Baker had been right from the beginning. But he had trespassed first by being correct too soon, and then compounded this original sin by concealing it. This discovery was delivered to Dimitrov in January of 1939 while Baker was in Moscow briefing the Comintern on his stewardship of the CP-USA’s “Secret Apparatus,” and the appurtenances of his welcome might have included a fresh security check. We cannot say for sure whether Baker went home under a cloud, although citations of him as a Party functionary cease after February 1939. The last of them permits inferences of his being somewhat at sixes and sevens for duties, although the authors of The Secret World have decided that he was the “Rudy” a document mentions as manager of the 1942 Western hemispheric radio link to Soviet military intelligence. If that “Rudy” truly was Rudy Baker, the blots on his copy book may by then have faded.
The alacrity of J. Peters’s adjustments to the oscillations of Stalin’s will was the requisite proof of his trustworthy fiber; and he would earn a promotion from executive direction of the CP-USA’s secret apparatus to subordinate service to the Comintern’s. He became briefly notorious in the Fifties upon being dragged from the shadows when Whittaker Chambers named him as official escort for his own introduction to the New Deal Washington underground.
A few glimpses of this colonial outpost bob up in the Secret World’s documents; but, although some confirm the lines of Chambers’s disclosures, none adds much tint to the colors of his portrait. Document 31 does strike an unexpected and even confounding note with its report that, when a Soviet military intelligence officer assigned to the Washington embassy encountered a group of the CP-USA’s “informational” workers, some of them complained that “‘Peter’ pays almost no attention to informational work and takes no interest in the information received.”
This curious sidelight can only lead us to wonder if Peters was too lazy an overseer of spies or too shrewd a judge of espionage materials to think the productions of these volunteers worth carefully attending, or if, indeed, any apprentice who developed his craft to the journeyman’s level was to be advanced, as Chambers seems to have been, to the superior supervision of a Russian.
Puzzles of this sort tease us over and over in these pages, which are full of clues that leave the mystery still so far from solution as to canker us further and further with envy of the ingenuity of the paleontologists who contrive to construct the dinosaur’s frame and approximate his fleshly appearance from a midden of disjointed bones and a fragment of desiccated skin.
Some illuminations are thrown upon the Comintern’s investments in its American sales branch. Even the exemplary diligence of these historians could not carry them to a precise estimate of the ratio of the ruble to the dollar in the era of war communism; but if we knew, we would be unlikely to find ground for disputing their assessment that the 2,728,000 rubles certified as courier-dispatched in 1919-1920 were worth no less than one million US dollars.
The prodigalities of Comintern aid to underdeveloped parties coincided with its initial illusions that the revolutionary dawn was about to break round the world. Once its millennial enthusiasms were reproved by a short course in experience, the International so tightened its purse that the CP-USA had the choice of being gratified by or resigned to the news that its entire allotment for 1923 would be $75,000, “of which two-thirds is to be spent for the legal work of the CP.” But then no gate is too tightly locked for the trespasser supremely gifted with enterprise. When the Comintern entrusted him with $16,000 for transport to the CP-USA in 1924, Armand Hammer kept $7,000 in his pocket until he was forced to cough it up after Charles Ruthenberg, the CP-USA’s General Secretary, protested to Moscow that delivery was more than a year overdue and that the Daily Worker had been reduced to “a critical condition.”
But these pages provide no sequel to this charming footnote to the history of the great American fortunes; far from misplacing its trust in any of its overseas agents, the Comintern appears to have mistrusted them all and subjected the whole lot to the pinchpenny meannesses that turn their screw to the ultimate notch for Philip Aronberg, a 1924 Comintern assignee to the Japanese underground. Aronberg made his way through the desert of a $16 per-diem allowance, the oases of $4-a-night hotel rooms, on a monthly wage of $150, forty-four days at sea, and jail in Yokohama scarcely a week after his arrival there. He had been ferrying $5,500 to the Japanese Party and had it seized along with his person before he could complete the connection. He was held for forty-nine days; and, upon release, the police gave him the money back minus $328 they had skimmed for themselves. After Aronberg went home from a voyage more conspicuous for its degradations than its accomplishments, he submitted an expense statement totaling $2,328, and including salary from July through November. The $328 stolen by the Japanese cops was disallowed and Aronberg was docked for nine weeks of his $150-a-month going wage.
Such pitiless exactions suggest themselves as so characteristic of the Comintern’s employment practices as almost to lift the heart with the comparatively pleasant spate Browder enjoyed when he was its supervising legate to China and discovered that working for Moscow wasn’t all that bad when it landed you with a labor force even worse treated than yourself.
Browder and his subordinates in the Shanghai field office of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat rode in rickshaws and were cosseted by the houseboys they lapsed far enough from political rectitude to refer to as “coolies.” Browder’s advantages as chief of staff extended to an apartment with an elevator in the French concession and with Kitty Harris, a Canadian Communist, as his housemate. His efforts to subvert the society whose inequities were affording him these unfamiliar comforts, while otherwise ineffectual, eventually attracted the attention of the Shanghai police, and Browder thought it best to take off for the interior. Kitty Harris stayed behind; and her insistence on keeping the nest and hoping for the flown bird’s return finally alarmed her comrades into warning a Soviet official in Moscow that Kitty “is still living there thereby endangering herself and those she was in contact with.”
Woman appears infrequently in these pages and then most often with implications of untamable impulses, either toward domesticity like Kitty Harris’s or of arrogance like that shown by the late Agnes Smedley, who had been taken for a properly deferential servant when she came to Shanghai in 1936 and very soon got too far above herself by continuing “to act as a self-appointed unofficial representative in China.” When Rudy Baker felt compelled as the CP-USA’s certified official representative to cut off all correspondence with Smedley and recommend that she be ordered home, her reaction to his strictures had reportedly been to take out a revolver and threaten to kill herself. (Baker surmised that she was on “the verge of a mental breakdown,” a weakness surprisingly often noted in male Communist diagnoses of female Communist complaints.)
Rose Wortis, a dear old brand from Stalinism’s extinguished flame in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was considered requisitely hard of purpose for election to the Party’s State Executive Committee. Still, brine-seasoned though she was, Rose Wortis had not entirely conquered the tender impulses of her gender; and, when her Executive Committee comrades were urging that a Buffalo CP organizer be harshly punished for recidivist consort with his Trotskyite-leaning wife, Miss Wortis spoke up to blame his backslidings “on the impossible decision of the (Buffalo) comrades that everyone else was able to see her but [her husband] was not…Considering all this,…don’t think we should be so drastic.”
Girls would be girls, sensibly persuaded to the heresy that shackling the heart is “impossible,” and unfit by nature for the coarse works of purgation.
The largest spaces captured by a woman in these pages are staked out to Ann Cadwallader Coles, who is introduced as “a genteel Southern artist who volunteered for covert Comintern service.” There is no evidence that her offer was accepted or rejected by the NKVD; and her prominence would seem more of a mystery if she did not happen to be the one exhibit of a previously unsuspected would-be Communist spy the authors have to show. They even include the Columbia, South Carolina, State’s 1969 obituary with off-putting comments of the “had they but known” variety.
The Columbia State’s omission of Miss Coles’s Communist history need not surprise us; even in The New York Times, obituary writers often tend to skip over that sort of thing in cases where the Marxist-Leninist commitments of the departed are more familiar to the initiated than hers ever were. The 1936 autobiography Miss Coles submitted as an application for the Comintern is a touching sample of the shabbily genteel South Carolina lady’s pride in the achievement of her ancestors and modesty about her own.
In 1913, when she was but lately out of art school she had, she wrote, joined the American Socialist Party, been attracted to the Communist Labor Party by heady inspirations from John Reed and James Larkin, and been thereafter a financial secretary, a literature distributor, and Daily Worker agent for the Needle Trades Unit. Throughout the Twenties she lived (“thru common law”) as the wife of a comrade originally from Austria; and, when he was dispatched to Cleveland as district organizer, followed him to work in a bindery factory (“the slogan then was ‘Everybody into the factory”‘). In 1929 the partner and comrade she had thought hers unto death “married someone else with whom he still is living.”
Soon afterward she was lifted from all open activity and given “underground work,” a term more than a trifle gaudy for endeavors no more sinister, by her own description, than “filing, membership records, etc.” for an apparatus that, while being itself over-intrusive into its members’ privacies, was solicitous for their protection from hostile eyes. Socialist movements have traditionally glorified the humble image of Jimmy Higgins, who cared so little for glorifying himself that he was unassumingly at the ready for every bit of scut work the cause asked of him. Ann Coles’s memories of a Party career devotedly unfulfilled in result and grievously unfulfilled in expectations for masculine fidelity hardly sound an alarming chord, although a shudder or so might start from their painful reminders that, when the Higgins family spirit glows in chronicles of the CP-USA, its embodiments manifest themselves less rarely as “Jennies” than as “Jimmies.”
All the same, Ann Coles is a most welcome, although humbly obscure, addition to The Secret World’s cast, because to run upon her sort is to be transported back to the Mary Frenches and Ben Comptons of Dos Passos’s USA, and to have the enlivening sense that causes us to prefer the intuitions of the novelist to the painful excavations of the social sciences, which are in general less authentic. After the war, Ann Coles returned to Columbia, and these authors sound a bit taken aback to have found out that, in ignorance of her dreadful past, the State’s publishers commissioned her to paint the portraits of “their founders, officers and directors.” It is hard to think that these patrons, who had known her parents and her grandparents, would have cared overmuch if they had been aware of the worst reported here.
Josephine Truslow Adams was the most eccentric of the ghostly presences that tease us here with the mystery of Woman. She may have been the most significant, because her delusions treated Browder to more nourishment for his cravings for assurance of his Party’s place in history than he had ever been able to feel before or would again.
Stalin had all too little respect for Communists in the Soviet Union, less for those beyond its borders, and probably least of all for those in the United States. Bleatings that the Comintern hasn’t bothered to reply to some inquiry thought urgent make a recurring note in messages from the American side. There are seventy-six documents initiated by the CP-USA in this compilation; and the NKVD found only one worthy of upward passage to the attentions of “Comrades Stalin and (Foreign Minister) Molotov.” Browder earned this unique distinction with a November 1940 report on his meeting with Pierre Cot, who had served as France’s minister of aviation during the brief tenure of its Popular Front cabinet. Cot “wanted” the leaders of the Soviet Union “to know of his willingness to perform whatever mission (they) might choose.” Negligible though the CP-USA remained, the “French Comparty” might well matter someday.
Anyone as frequently reminded as Browder of how slightly he counted with Stalin may be excused some longing to be taken seriously in quarters not so lofty but still high; and that ache may explain his credulity when Josephine Truslow Adams informed him that she had established herself as his back channel to the wartime White House.
Miss Adams was a weathered Communist fellow traveler who had once painted Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s portrait and used the advantage for a stream of letters of advice and counsel on the affairs of nations, one or two of which Mrs. Roosevelt sent along to her husband, who must have wondered, as she had sometimes before given him cause to do, at the bizarreries of his wife’s friendships. Mrs. Roosevelt was bound to tolerate this strange acquaintance because she was an Adams. Browder may have venerated her for the same reason, or he could not have thought it all that plausible for a president to suspend the pressure of wars round the world and converse for hours in Washington and Hyde Park with a woman nearly a stranger and to delight her with a most unexpected intimacy with the CP-USA’s exercises of its particularly critical role and with his warm approval of its current line. It is hardly likely that Browder would have bolted down Miss Adams’s image of a Franklin Roosevelt with views fixed in near-total solidarity with his own if he had not been bemused by notions of a ruling class reserved for those few with names like Adams and Roosevelt, and so walled against the many that candors that burst their buttons and strain all preconceptions are only possible when its initiates are talking to each other.
A few fruits of Mrs. Adams’s harvest have bobbed up in Moscow; but there is at this point no clear evidence of whether the directors of Soviet military intelligence actually brought them to Stalin’s notice, and thereby enabled Browder to cut a more impressive figure than his master had previously conceded him.
Miss Adams’s fruits were anyway wax of her own manufacture. She was well along the road to an eventual confinement for paranoid delusions. She had invented her meetings with Roosevelt, woven his fictitious observations out of her fantasies, and ended by contriving sheaves of an imaginary correspondence with a president whose handwriting she had forged and whose epistolatory mode, in address and reply, sounded so exactly like Miss Adams’s own.
Browder had been gulled; but then cheats were so common a feature of the lots of general secretaries of the American Communist Party that the one poor Miss Adams dealt him from the innocence of her hallucinations may have been the most bountiful in uplifting his heart, however briefly, with the stimuli of false hope and transient self-esteem.
I must needs confess some disappointment that these fragments cannot better serve to make their dead bones arise nearer to rendering in the round. Perhaps this loss wouldn’t be as acutely felt if it weren’t for the memory of wanderings through civil rights quarrels in places as disparate as Little Rock, Arkansas, and Levittown, Pennsylvania, and encounters with old Communists, withdrawn to the outback and quietude, and now standing bravely up on the side of the angels with all too few companions of their own complexion, and making me marvel at the survival of original impulses that facts had done their utmost to discourage. It would be pleasant to think of Ann Cadwallader Coles, asleep for a decade in Columbia, South Carolina, and then awakening to give her customarily humble witness again as a leaflet distributor for the Orangebury youth cadre of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then we cannot hope to find out if she ever stirred; the Columbia State’s artisan for obituaries would have been as delicate in avoiding references to transgressions he knew, as he probably would have been of all those he knew not of.
Mrs. Earl Browder makes a brief appearance in her original form as Raisa Borissovna Luganouskaya, with an autobiography that recites her 1918 service as Provincial Commissar of Justice for Kharkov “with emergency powers,” which we must suppose she applied with a full measure of revolutionary vigor. Her profile lowered somewhat when she settled here, although a friend long since defected from The New Masses told me once of an editorial board meeting around 1934 where Mrs. Browder suddenly loomed up to visit a fear-some dressing-down for strayings and deviations of which all present had been completely unconscious until this sister of the Furies swept in to lay them bare.
It would be recreant in me to leave Irene Browder there. I met her once or twice after the family had fallen and she was in exile twice over, first from her Soviet homeland and then from its American devotees, and the scope of her severities was reduced to her sons and her husband. She seemed pretty well along toward the look of a babushka and so easy to like that, when her son established himself as a brilliant mathematician, I entertained the notion of making his acquaintance until a mutual friend told me young Browder thought it better to keep his distance.
Somewhere or other his mother had mistaken me for a radical and taken care to warn him that I could be an unsafe associate for a young scholar making his way and already burdened enough by the surname he was otherwise proud to wear. And so in the end, this fierce chimera of our imaginings had become no more nor less than a cautioning mother.
Oh, well. There were never many American Communists and there would have been fewer still if more of us entered upon our commitments with the proper awareness of the complexities within our natures and everybody else’s. We have been sifting through these fragments of lives begun in enthusiasms and ending in disappointments. And when we have done, and fall into reflections about American communism and its servants and what they meant in America, mightn’t we find ourselves surprised to say:
“Of course. Communism was the journey whose travelers hadn’t all that much in common except whichever particular morning each had woken up and said ‘Behold, the earth is flat.”‘
So, then, the best advice for historians of American communism might be to steer clear of all temptation to make the flat surface do the work that belongs to the round, because that particular mistake is among the more dangerous weapons in the Demon of Error’s locker.
July 13, 1995
Every now and then some Communist I had quite liked bobs up in these pages with an image most chastening. There is the case of John Lautner, who had managed the Party’s discipline-enforcing and spy-detecting Control Commission until the charge that American intelligence had employed him to subvert the Hungarian Communist government appeared in the evidence manufactured for the Budapest proceedings against Ladak Rajk. ↩
It is also only fair to note the number of American Communists who had been political commissars in Spain and then rushed to our own wartime colors and made splendid soldiers indeed, thanks perhaps to being denied the demoralizations of too lavish opportunities to follow Stalin’s prescription for preserving morale by consigning those who lacked it to prison or worse. ↩