The Soviet World of American Communism is the first important study of the relations between American Communists and the USSR since Theodore Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia, published in 1960.1 It is also in effect a continuation of that earlier work. Draper’s history covered the period that ended with the expulsion of the dissident Communist Jay Lovestone and his followers from the American Party in 1929. He was able to draw on some thousand pages recording the minutes of conferences held by the American Party’s inner core of leadership.2 In their new book, two American scholars, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, have collaborated with a Russian scholar, Kyrill M. Anderson, to comb through the far more copious files, lodged in Moscow, of the Communist International (or Comintern), the administrative body set up by Lenin to direct the activities of national Communist parties outside the Soviet Union.
The authors reproduce ninety-five documents and make use of many others in their accompanying narrative, which provides a history of the American Communist Party’s ideological and political development, under the strict guidance of the parent Party in Moscow, from 1919 (when the American Party was founded) until 1943 (when the Comintern was formally dissolved). Klehr et al. have also included assorted documents from later periods. The material they have found, they write, reinforces the idea that “the American Communist party was a creature of the Comintern and, through it, of the Soviet Union.”
This is a familiar conclusion, reflecting Draper’s own book of 1960. But The Soviet World of American Communism adds to what has become a steady accumulation of evidence in the 1990s about the power of the Comintern, thanks to the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, the central repository of Communist documents from around the world. In a previous book, Klehr et al. reproduced a list of sums paid out by the Comintern in 1919-1920, including one million rubles’ worth of jewels and other valuable objects entrusted to the journalist John Reed so he could help finance an American version of the revolution he had described so vividly in Ten Days That Shook The World.3 In the new book the editors include a letter, dated 1987, written by the Party’s General Secretary Gus Hall and sent to Anatoly Dobrynin, then a high official in the Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,4 making the case for the American Party’s annual stipend to be doubled, to $4 million. Hall cites the costs of maintaining a revolutionary outpost in New York City, “the decaying heart of imperialism.” Taxes keep soaring, and “the upkeep of our headquarters building goes up every year.” Moscow met him halfway in 1988, giving him “three million US dollars.” It was the last such contribution the Party got. When Hall denounced the Gorbachev reforms a year later, the handouts stopped altogether.
It is fitting, but not surprising, that Hall should have made glasnost and perestroika the occasion for breaking the pattern of deference that had been established over the preceding seventy years. Nor is it surprising that he should have clung more fiercely to the Soviet vision than the Russian leader who presided over its demise. American Communists had always been dependent on the Soviet Union, the source not only of funds but also of ideological direction, tactical guidance, and, above all, “inspiration and [the] will to fight,” to borrow a phrase used by American delegates to the Comintern’s executive plenum in December 1926. As those delegates put it in a joint declaration:
In America (with its scarcity of other revolutionary factors), where capitalism is still on the upward grade, the country of most powerful imperialism and most reactionary labour aristocracy where independent mass actions of the working class are so few, where the working class has yet no political mass party, the existence of the Soviet Union and the successful building of Socialism within it, play relatively a more important role as revolutionary stimulus to the working class than in other countries where capitalism is declining or which possess a revolutionary tradition.
This statement has refreshing candor amid the willed delusion of so much of the material in this book. Reading the assembled telegrams, letters, and memorandums, composed in a numbing revolutionary Esperanto, one is continually struck by the paradoxical nature of American communism. The Party’s ultimate goal—to bring about a home-grown edition of the Bolshevik Revolution—was hopelessly out of reach, and yet American Communists often conducted their daily affairs as if the final siege was about to begin. At times the reader of the documents reproduced by Klehr et al. is left to wonder how seriously they are meant. There is, for example, the Comintern’s deadpan explanation to the US Party that World War II was no longer “the most virulent manifestation of imperialist dissipation and reaction,” as Communists had steadfastly maintained since 1939, but suddenly, with Hitler’s sneak attack on Russia in 1941, “a just war of defense” of the “Soviet people.” And there is Gus Hall assuring Moscow in the Reagan years that “our Party’s work has had and continues to have a growing impact on the politics” of the US. Never before or since have so many political insiders—top Party officials and ideologues, in the US and the USSR—demonstrated so little collective grasp of obvious political reality.
The futility of the Communist enterprise, at least in its American version, comes through in episode after episode of the Party’s history. Klehr and his coauthors revisit the familiar sectarian squabbles of the Party’s early days and the disaster of the US presidential election of 1924, in which the Party refused, calamitously for the left-wing movement, to join with Socialists and others who supported the third-party candidacy of Robert M. La Follette. We see too how virulent attacks on the “fascist” designs of the New Deal were suddenly transmuted, on cue from Moscow, into gentle rebukes of Franklin Roosevelt for not being as “consistently progressive and genuinely democratic” as the Party would wish.
The most important new documents published here show an altogether different side of the American Communist experience. They are secret records concerning Americans who found themselves among the hapless millions swallowed up by the Great Terror. It has long been known that thousands of Americans traveled to Russia in the Twenties and Thirties in the hope of participating in the Soviet “experiment” or observing it at first hand. Klehr et al. put the total number of these pilgrims at more than ten thousand, most of them “immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire, [who] returned to the Soviet Union along with their American-born children.” But some were from other countries, and some were Americans whose illusions about Stalin’s Russia had many sources, including the reports sent back by distinguished visitors such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Theodore Dreiser.
The full-fledged American Communists who went to Russia in the mid-1930s, however, found themselves in a nightmarish situation in which millions were being arrested and many liquidated. And it was not easy to get out. Americans who wished to return to the US faced a quandary. Many had traveled under aliases and with forged papers and so had violated US passport laws. If they appealed to the American embassy for help, they would be subject to investigation that might lead to criminal indictments back home. Their safest course, it seemed, was to apply to the Comintern for permission to return. The lucky ones were allowed to repatriate themselves. Others were detained, and still others were labeled “deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and exiled to the Gulag.
Alan Cullison, a journalist in the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press who has looked into this subject more deeply than anyone else, reported last fall that the casualties included “artists, factory workers, teachers and engineers. They were arrested after engaging in such subversive activities as wearing American clothes, asking the U.S. Embassy for help or talking about life back home.”5 Cullison has gathered “concrete information” on about fifty Americans “who dropped out of sight and in all likelihood were either shot or died in prison.” The number of those arrested, he writes, “is certain to go into the high hundreds.”6 In Soviet intelligence files, Cullison found dossiers on fifteen Americans and supplied Klehr et al. with documentation on two of them, Thomas Sgovio and Lovett Fort-Whiteman. Their stories are instructive.
Sgovio’s father, Joseph, an Italian-born founding member of the American Communist Party, had been arrested during the Palmer Raids on American radicals that took place in 1919 and was arrested again in 1931 for “disrupting a city council meeting” in upstate New York. After a year in jail he was deported, but rather than chance a return to fascist Italy he chose to go to the Soviet Union, where he was joined by his wife and two children in 1935. Thomas, then nineteen, was a Young Communist League activist with a history of arrests by New York police. In Moscow the family all became Soviet citizens. Father and son briefly thrived as experts on the American scene, delivering lectures on “the horrors of the American Depression.” But in August 1937, Joseph Sgovio was arrested by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) after he confessed to interrogators, presumably under duress, that “he and other Italian political immigrants had participated in hostile agitation.” He was sentenced to five years in the Gulag. His family had only the dimmest idea of what had happened.
Thomas was sufficiently alarmed to apply to the US embassy for help in getting back to America. Because of his political history, the embassy was reluctant to intervene. In March 1938, after one of many visits to the embassy, Thomas Sgovio, then aged twenty-two, was seized by Soviet police, who labeled him a “socially dangerous element” and then locked him and a dozen other Americans in a freight car that took them to work in the gold mines of northeastern Siberia. “After a year of work in the arctic mines, 10 of them were dead,” Cullison writes. Thomas Sgovio survived, but his sentence was extended by another three years.
In 1946, after nine years in labor camps during which he contracted malaria, pellagra, and dysentery, Joseph Sgovio was released, though he was confined to “internal exile” in Uzbekistan. The Italian embassy granted him a passport but he died before he could leave. His son, too, was released in 1946, but was rearrested two years later when he visited his sister in Moscow; she also was under suspicion for fraternizing with British and American foreigners, a common charge in these first years of the cold war.7 His sentence this time was “lifetime internal exile,” again in Siberia. Thomas Sgovio was released in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death.
In 1960, during the thaw in US-Soviet relations that included Khrushchev’s tour of the United States, Sgovio was at last allowed to leave the Soviet Union and in 1963 he went to the United States, settling eventually in Arizona. When shown his KGB file in the summer of 1997, he was startled to discover that his betrayers included his Moscow girlfriend, also an American-born Communist, who had told police that Sgovio at one time “slanderously swore that Soviet power wasn’t based on the love of the people, but on terror instilled by fear of being arrested.” Whether Sgovio actually said this we do not know. What is clear is that the NKVD did not want him to go home to spread “lies” about what was going on in the Soviet Union.
The case of Lovett Fort-Whiteman is more disturbing still. One of the most respected African-Americans in the CPUSA, Fort-Whiteman was a graduate of Tuskegee who went to Moscow as early as 1924 to receive training in a Comintern school. Later he was a leading organizer of the Party’s primary black organization, the American Negro Labor Congress. In 1930 he gladly accepted reassignment to Moscow, which he told an acquaintance was like “coming home.” This impression wore off. Within three years, Fort-Whiteman applied to the CPUSA for permission to go back to the US, but was turned down. In 1936, he disappeared and was not heard from again. He is omitted altogether from a number of recent studies of African-Americans and the Communist experience.
In Moscow, Klehr et al. found an undated CPUSA document, evidently from the mid-1930s, that accused Fort-Whiteman of being a Trotskyist, the most lethal of charges. In July 1937, at a “special session” of the NKVD, Fort-Whiteman received a five-year sentence in Kazakhstan (where Cullison found his file nearly sixty years later). In 1938 he was sent, like Thomas Sgovio, to a prison labor camp in northeastern Siberia, where he died in January 1939, at age forty-four. Robust and athletic at the time of his arrest, he deteriorated rapidly in the Gulag. At the time of his death he was emaciated and had lost all his teeth, according to another prisoner released long afterward.
Did CPUSA leaders know American Communists were being arrested in this way and sent to labor camps? The evidence is inconclusive. The authors cite a document, dated 1935, in which a high-level gathering of Communist officials in Moscow—including General Secretary Earl Browder, CP organizer Sam Darcy, and Gerhart Eisler, who had just concluded a tour as the Comintern’s chief US representative—discuss Fort-Whiteman’s ideological sins. These included his “repeated efforts…to mislead some of the Negro comrades” on the true nature of Stalin’s Russia. This doesn’t mean the CPUSA officials knew what was in store for him or other wayward comrades. But in principle, at least, Browder took a harsh position toward Communists with such views, calling on American comrades to be “unrelenting in dealing with the deviations of people…who represent certain fixed and stubborn deviations from our revolutionary theory and who are trying to implant these deviations into the center of our movement.”
Beyond this, the CPUSA leaders were well aware both of the purges and show trials that began in the mid-Thirties and of the dire penalties for the accused. As Klehr and Haynes put it, “By 1938 anyone in the Soviet Union identified as a Trotskyist by a ranking official of the Comintern was either dead or in the Gulag.” Those who tried to protest these methods came under fierce attack. The Soviet World of American Communism includes documents on the appalling episode of the North American Finnish nationals, some thousand of whom were recruited to work as lumberjacks in the Karelian timberlands of the USSR in the early 1930s only to find themselves charged with “bourgeois nationalism,” a crime for which many were sentenced to the Gulag. Others managed to return but were treated as renegades. Klehr et al. reproduce a Comintern message instructing the CPUSA to “sharpen our whole fight against the Trotskyist and fascist elements who have returned to Canada and the USA from Karelia and who are now carrying on an unprincipled campaign of slander” against the USSR.
At the same time that these survivors were being defamed, the cases of three Americans swept up in the purges were being publicized in the United States. Juliet Stuart Poyntz was a prominent Communist who had visited Russia in 1936 but been disillusioned by events there. Back in New York City, she hinted she might break with the Party, and then, in the summer of 1937, she disappeared mysteriously from her Manhattan rooms. The case remains unsolved, and the authors cast no light on it; but it seems probable Poyntz was abducted by NKVD operatives—the conclusion reached by close observers at the time.8
The other well-known mystery involved a young married couple, Arnold “Rubens” (the name was an alias) and his wife Ruth, who sailed together from New York to Moscow, where they vanished from their hotel room in December 1937. Arnold Rubens died in a labor camp. His wife, released from a Moscow prison after eighteen months, was offered safe passage home by the American embassy but declined for fear she would be prosecuted for passport fraud upon her return. She stayed in Russia and, Cullison writes, “was exiled to a closed Soviet city in the south. As late as 1958, she was pleading to be allowed to go home to America, there the paper trail ends.” Both these incidents were widely reported in the press and were investigated by US officials. The Rubens case created a minor diplomatic crisis, since the couple were the first Americans known to have been detained in the USSR in violation of the mutual recognition treaty signed by FDR and Stalin in 1933. Secretary of State Cordell Hull lodged a complaint about the couple’s disappearance with the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, and the American ambassador in Moscow, Joseph Davies, pursued the matter. Klehr and his colleagues found no mention of the Rubenses in any of the documents they examined. Their history is told in Soviet intelligence files.9
This dismal history occurred during the short-lived period of the Popular Front, between 1935 and 1939, when the Soviet Union aligned itself, provisionally, with the Western democracies and promoted the anti-fascist cause. In these years many liberals began to believe that the Soviet Union, for all its shortcomings, was nonetheless evolving toward some version of a humane socialist state. For many others, however, the Great Terror began a process of disenchantment with the Soviet Union that intensified with the nonaggression pact jointly signed by Stalin and Hitler in 1939 and with the CPUSA’s subsequent campaign to portray all the combatants as equally corrupt in their imperialism. In Soviet propaganda the Nazis came off a little better than their opponents because “the bourgeoisie” in Britain and France were said to have “assumed a stance toward the Soviet Union…more hostile than that of the fascist states.” Obedient as ever, the CPUSA earnestly followed instructions “to solidify the growing antiwar and anti-imperialist people’s front movement,” to quote a message sent from Moscow on June 19, 1941. Three days later, Hitler surprised Stalin by invading the Soviet Union, and the policy was reversed overnight. The war was now just, the Allies virtuous, Hitler the most sinister of villains.
Freshly incarnated as the party of patriotism, the CPUSA carried out its orders with great zeal. Communist labor organizers, who had gained control over a considerable number of CIO unions, were now so staunch in their support of wartime policy that the editors of Business Week praised their hard-line opposition to strikes and their pro-management positions.10 When leaders of the Trotsky-aligned Socialist Workers Party were indicted under the Smith Act for organizing strikes in Minneapolis, Earl Browder cooperated with prosecutors by supplying them with inflammatory writings from the Trotskyist press.11 Eleven CPUSA leaders were later indicted under the same act in the unforgiving climate of the cold war.
The history of the CPUSA in the 1930s and 1940s is summarized in the rise and fall of Browder, the bland bookkeeper from Wichita, Kansas, who became the leader of the CPUSA on the strength of his loyalty to Stalin and was hailed as “the world’s greatest English-speaking Marxist” by no less an authority than Georgi Dimitrov, architect of the Popular Front.12 Yet Browder, too, fell out of favor after he persuaded himself, in the waning months of World War II, that the Grand Alliance that defeated Hitler would be sustained in the postwar era. It was not an unreasonable assumption. In fact it was shared, briefly, by FDR himself, as well as by foreign policy experts like Sumner Welles, FDR’s one-time undersecretary of state. Hopes had risen in 1943 when Stalin officially dissolved the Comintern as a good-faith gesture to the Allies.
In fact, the Moscow-CPUSA nexus remained unbroken. At the Party convention in 1944, Browder startled his comrades by peremptorily dissolving the CPUSA and announcing that henceforth it would be known as the Communist Political Association and would seek to influence, rather than destroy, the two traditional parties. His principal rival, William Z. Foster, complained angrily to Moscow, which took action. The formal repudiation of Browder did not come directly from the USSR but rather in the pages of Cahiers du communisme, the journal of the French CP, in a devastating critique of “Browderism” under the byline of Jacques Duclos, the second-ranking French Communist. Duclos’s attack, read by American Communists as a signal from Moscow, brought about Browder’s instant decline within the Party and then his expulsion from it.
Some historians have questioned whether the Soviets really were responsible for Duclos’s denunciation. The three authors have found documents that settle the controversy—page proofs of a Russian version of the Cahiers article, published in January 1945, with handwritten corrections incorporated into the text by officials in Moscow in time for its republication in France three months later. Browder was one more casualty of a political movement that seemed destined to swallow its own.
Few would any longer deny that Stalin supervised a criminal regime without parallel save for the Nazi regime that had been, briefly, the Soviets’ partner. But there is no evidence that the leaders of the CPUSA, complicitous though they were in identifying dissidents and in covering up the crimes of the USSR, authorized acts of physical violence against heretics or defectors. In all likelihood, Soviet thugs abducted Juliet Poyntz. Victims like Fort-Whiteman and Sgovio traveled to Moscow to meet their terrible fates. Back home, the Party distorted historical truth and slandered political enemies—the mundane excesses of politics, one might say, but with none of the usual compensations.
In recording this history, the authors explicitly challenge a growing number of historians who have argued during the last two decades for a reinterpretation of the American Commu-nist experience; such scholars want to situate the movement within the lar-ger history of American radicalism stretching back to the Populist upsurge of the early 1900s and reaching forward to the insurgencies of the 1960s and the New Left. Klehr and Haynes are skeptical of this view, pointing out that it is based on the premise that Communists shared a fundamental radical outlook with others on the left, a premise that very few Party members themselves would have accepted in full measure. Apart from the four-year period of conciliation during the Popular Front, the CPUSA openly despised virtually all other groups on the left and attacked them with a ferocity that was reciprocated in full measure. The betrayal of the Socialists in Minneapolis was only one example. For many years, Socialists would bitterly remember being branded “social fascists” by Communists in the early 1930s and would point to such incidents as the CP’s orchestrated disruption of a Socialist rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1934 to protest the murderous repressions of the Dollfuss regime in Austria.
Of course, not all Communists attacked their adversaries and only a handful received direct orders from Moscow. The rank and file included many who were engaged in work similar to that of other political activists—attending meetings, distributing leaflets, demonstrating, organizing workers. It is this generally benign aspect of the movement that the “new historians” (their term) emphasize in their descriptions of middle-level “cadres” whose routine activities they want to distinguish from sectarian battles and the decisions on the Party line that are central to the writings of Draper and Klehr. In so doing, the new historians seek less to repudiate those more traditional analyses, perhaps, than to shift the emphasis away from the CP’s system of command to its social history. But a true social history must take account of stories like those of Thomas Sgovio and Lovett Fort-Whiteman and must assess the Party’s authoritarian culture of American communism and the claustral, almost cultlike domination to which its members were subjected. American communism seems best understood not as a political movement but as a quasi-religious one, whose members lived in a world where strategies and tactics were accepted as matters of faith, where only very narrow debate was ever permitted, and where even a hint of public skepticism was regarded as punishable heresy.
That doesn’t mean the movement stands outside the history of our political culture. On the contrary, the very rigorousness of communism is what attracted so many to the Party, or its fringes, in the 1930s and 1940s. The absolute commitment it demanded responded to the yearning, in those dark years, for a political idealism that entailed secrecy, sacrifice, risk, and struggle. These were the years in which Auden lyrically invoked the “necessary murder” the Spanish Civil War might require13 and in which Brecht, with his sinister romanticism, could write, “My food Iate between battles/To sleep I lay down among murderers.” For all its anomalies, American communism had a strong presence in an era whose legacy we still are trying to understand.
June 25, 1998
Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Years (Viking, 1960). This book carries forward Draper’s history of American communism begun with The Roots of American Communism (Viking, 1957). ↩
Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, p. 6. ↩
Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 23. ↩
And formerly Soviet ambassador to the US. ↩
Alan Cullison, “Stalin-Era Secret Police Documents Detail Arrest, Execution of Americans,” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1997, p. A1. ↩
Alan Cullison to S. Tanenhaus, March 10, 1998. ↩
See my Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1997), p. 90. ↩
Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, pp. 131-133. ↩
Arnold “Rubens” was actually Arnold Ikal, a Soviet agent posted to the United States in 1932 to supervise the forging of American passports for traveling Communists. The Party followed the “Rubens” case closely. Alger Hiss, at the time a State Department official secretly working for Soviet Military Intelligence, supplied his underground CP contact, Whittaker Chambers, with information, meant for Moscow, on how the State Department was dealing with the Rubens case. See Whittaker Chambers, pp. 126-131, 294. ↩
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (Praeger, 1962), pp. 408-409. ↩
Philip J. Jaffe, The Rise and Fall of American Communism (Horizon, 1975), pp. 50-52. ↩
James G. Ryan, Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism (University of Alabama Press, 1997), p. 94. ↩
W.H. Auden, “Spain 1937.” The poem was written that year. The line is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden later emended it to “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.” The original version appears in his Selected Poems, selected and edited by Edward Mendelson (Vintage, 1979). ↩