In Retrospect, Some Candid Opinions: Unpublished Final Chapter of Dissent on Trial

Note: William Schneiderman came to the United States in 1908 at the age of two, was an important leader of the Communist Party of the United States of America from the 1930s until the 1950s, and was the principal figure in two precedent-setting political trials. His autobiography, Dissent on Trial was published by the Marxist Educational Press in 1983 with a foreword by Harry Bridges (MEP Publications, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis). He remained an active member of the Party until his death in 1985. After completion of the manuscript in 1981, Schneiderman submitted it to International Publications. Despite some re-editing in consultation with Party leaders, International Publishers, instead of publishing it itself, offered it, with Schneiderman’s agreement, to the Marxist Educational Press for publication. In the first half of 1991, Bill's widow, Leah Schneiderman, made available to MEP the last chapter of this autobiography, which, as she explained, although written at the same time as the rest of the autobiography, he had withheld it when he submitted the manuscript to International Publishers. She said that he withheld it because he feared that its sharp criticism of then-existing Party practices would cause the Party leadership to oppose publication of the book. He did not include it in the manuscript presented to MEP. Upon receipt of the chapter from Leah, MEP published it in the next issue of its Marxist Studies journal, “Nature, Society, and Thought,” vol. 4, nos. 1-2 (1991), pp. 231–37.

With the Korean War over, a process of detente slowly began to evolve on the international scene, and a thaw simultaneously developed in the domestic political climate. It was possible for the first time in five years to hold a meeting of the National Committee of the Party in New York. Nearly everybody there was a Smith Act victim, prisoners who had served their terms, political refugees who had returned, and defendants out on bail pending appeal of their sentences. A few of the Party leaders were still in prison. The Party leadership and membership had conducted itself courageously, but inevitably the persecution had taken its toll. Many members dropped out because of pressure and intimidation, and some simply had to sever their connections with the Party in order to retain their means of livelihood.

Nevertheless, in looking back over the past few years, it was apparent that we need not have suffered as great losses as we did. The theory that we were rapidly approaching fascism at the beginning of the fifties gave rise to the concept that it was hopeless for the Party to continue to fight publicly for its legal existence, which led to an unnecessary liquidation of the Party apparatus, and this in turn had a disastrous effect on the morale of the membership.

In California we had been criticized by the absentee leadership for maintaining a fully operating headquarters; most of our state and local leaders functioned to the day of our arrest and were able to continue to function throughout the period of the trial and the years we were out on bail while our case was on appeal. We were thus able to conduct a more effective defense campaign, and our membership losses, although heavy, were only half the rate in the rest of the country. We not only held public mass meetings, but while we were still fighting for bail, we ran Oleta O’Connor Yates for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was widely known that she was in jail at the time, without bail, and yet she received 35,000 votes. After reviewing the Party’s experiences, the National Committee was in a mood to be self-critical about its wrong political estimate as well as about a number of sectarian errors committed during this last period. But the lines began to form as to how much of this should be admitted. While Eugene Dennis [1] was inclined to be self-critical, William Z. Foster [2] and others minimized the harmful effects of our recent policy and contended that the persecutions and objective historical factors were the main reasons for our setbacks.

Undoubtedly the objective factors had to be taken into account, but the California experience surely demonstrated that it was unnecessary to take such extreme measures as to put the Party on an “underground” status and thus give up the public fight for its legality. When we had been summoned from California to defend the conduct of our trial before Foster, it reflected the fact that some Party leaders looked upon those trials as a rear-guard action in a lost cause, because they believed that fascism was just around the corner.

In my view, it was important that they frankly admit these errors as the best guarantees that they would not be repeated. But unfortunately, while the National Committee officially did take such a stand, in the discussion that followed a number of Party leaders took an equivocal position on our recent policy. Much as this discussion created a disturbance and confusion among the Party membership, it was nothing compared to the earthquake that followed the Khrushchev report in 1956 to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Since Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Party leadership had been conducting a campaign against the “cult of the individual.” We had generally assumed that this was an attempt to emphasize the new collective leadership which succeeded Stalin, whose tremendous authority inevitably had led to one-man leadership. At the time we did not know what else might have been behind the hints that were veiled in the term “cult of the individual,” and the struggle which went on in the leadership to bring the true state of affairs out in the open. It was to Khrushchev’s credit that he insisted on revealing the brutal facts about Stalin’s rule, even though it sent shock waves through the entire Communist movement.

We had come to look upon the Soviet Party leadership, and especially Stalin, as practically infallible. The remark able achievements of the Soviet Union since the Revolution, and especially its heroic role in the war against Hitler, were monuments to the leadership of the Party under Stalin, and to us represented the triumph of socialist ideas and the theories of Marx and Lenin. We were thus immune to the criticisms of its enemies, most of them wholly biased, and we brushed aside its faults with ready explanations, often valid.

Russia had been a backward country, devastated twice in our lifetime by wars which had destroyed tens of millions of people, cities, and industries, beset after the Revolution by famine, blockade, civil war, and intervention by British, French, Japanese, and U.S. armies, which invaded its territories north, south, east, and west. The great capitalist powers have never ceased to plot its downfall, most notoriously when they encouraged Hitler to turn to the East; their intelligence agencies have waged constant warfare to exploit its difficulties.

To achieve what it did in the face of such enormous obstacles; to have lifted itself by its own bootstraps to become one of the world’s great powers; to have abolished illiteracy and hunger and unemployment in the process of constructing a socialist society, all this was a far cry from the crude caricature of Russia as painted by the U.S. press, which from the earliest days of the Revolution predicted its downfall and denigrated its successes.

When its critics pointed to the Soviet Union’s cracking down on dissent, they chose to ignore the long struggle to putdown counterrevolution, civil war, armed interventions, and internal subversion fomented by the CIA. They failed to take into account that the Soviet Union had had to combat the consequences of a hostile capitalist encirclement and the threat of fascism and, since World War II, the menace of nuclear arms posted on its borders by Dulles’s policy of “brinkmanship,” continued by his successors, right down n to Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Haig. This was our reasoning, much of it still valid, but which led to an uncritical attitude to the faults and shortcomings of the Soviet Union, which we attributed primarily to these objective historical factors. We knew nothing of the crimes committed by Stalin in his later years or the violations of Party rules and Soviet laws which dated back to the thirties. We dismissed whatever seeped through the rumor factories as exaggerated concoctions reflecting the bearer’s hostility and hatred of the Soviet Union, especially since the main conveyors of these stories could hardly be called apostles of democracy. Thus the Party leadership was as stunned as the membership by the revelations contained in Khrushchev’s report, and a crisis developed in the Party.

I was deeply disturbed by the revelations about Stalin and their effect on our own Party. I could not accept the contention of some of our leaders that only Stalin’s paranoia was to blame. A system of leadership which depended on the death of the man at the top for change was surely at fault. I believed that the Soviet Union was strong enough to relax its rule without danger to its stability despite measures necessary to combat the dangers from outside intervention and internal subversion. I was also shocked, as so many others were, that anti-Semitism was one of the factors in the acts for which Stalin was condemned; especially so since anti-Semitism had been outlawed in the Soviet Union and because we knew of the extraordinary efforts of the beleaguered Soviet government to save the Jewish population from the Nazi invasion by transporting tens of thousands of them to safer areas. Stalin had played an important role in the construction of socialism through difficult times and in the war against Nazi Germany, but to many of us this was overshadowed by the violations of Marxist-Leninist principles which marked his later years. I could not accept the explanation of the Soviet Party leaders that only Stalin was to blame. The election of a Party leader to such a high pedestal that he cannot be criticized or removed was a serious flaw which contradicted collective leadership, a lesson we painfully learned with Earl Browder. [3]

Was Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union simply a fault of leadership or did it reflect a flaw in the socialist system itself? I did not accept the claim of the Soviet Union’s enemies that democracy is impossible under socialism. It was my view that as long as the Soviet Union was encircled by a hostile environment, with the threat of nuclear missiles on its borders, it had to take security measures to protect itself. And as long as there were more prosperous capitalist neighbors on the socialist borders, while the socialist system was struggling to rebuild from the ravages of war and Nazi occupation, there would always be some elements in the socialist countries attracted by the lure of an illusory prosperity on the other side, and fall prey to the propaganda of the CIA’s Radio Free Europe.

But it seemed to me that the fear of war and subversion had led to excesses in security measures which outlived Stalin’s rule. It would take a long period of peace and detente to bring about their disappearance. In the meantime, the enemies of socialism would have a field day, and the Communist parties in the capitalist countries would also be the victims. It was important, therefore that our Party, while not falling into the trap of anti-Soviet propaganda, not be blind to the faults and shortcomings of the Soviet Union and its socialist neighbors. We would certainly be more credible in our defense of the merits of socialism.

These questions became a subject for discussion and hot debate in the world Communist movement. In countries like France and Italy, where mass Communist parties had deep historical roots in their countries, especially in the war against fascism, they were able to survive without too much damage. But in the United States the Party, already weakened by McCarthyite persecution and its own sectarian mistakes, was especially hard hit.

The Party convention which took place at the end of the year, when some of the Party’s most experienced leaders were still in jail, did not resolve the crisis. The discussions, both before and at the convention, revealed that the membership was not only sharply critical of the National Committee’s leadership, but of the bureaucratic practices which had prevented a democratic discussion in the past. In my own district, I was criticized for not informing the membership that I was in opposition to the national policy of going “underground”; my only defense was that I felt then that it would only create more confusion if I opened up the question at such a critical time.

But these matters were overshadowed by the discussion which developed around the Khrushchev revelations. Again, lines began to form among the national convention delegates. In oversimplified terms, it was a debate between the role of objective factors versus subjective factors. Those who saw the mistakes of the Soviet Party leadership as due only to objective historical circumstances wanted to minimize the crimes of Stalin and tone down the criticism of our own errors. Others who emphasized only the errors ignored the objective factors. Both were one-sided views; the former would lead to a repetition of our sectarian errors of the past; the latter would undermine the Party, whose membership had already been shaken up very badly, if it did not acknowledge the role of objective conditions. In fact, the latter view held by John Gates [4] and others eventually led to their abandonment of the Party and of Marxist- Leninist principles.

A large number of the delegates, perhaps the majority, recognized both factors as contributing to the situation the Party found itself in, but were up in arms against the leadership and felt that changes were needed in its whole political approach and its methods of work. The convention, thus divided, did not resolve anything. It was sharply critical of the National Committee and condemned Stalin’s excesses, but was sharply split and straddled the issue of Soviet intervention in Hungary by “neither condoning nor condemning” it.

The changes demanded, however, were subject to different interpretations. There were some who wanted to change the name and form of the Party organization in a way reminiscent of Browderism. To them, it would be only the first step leading to a revision of the Party’s role as a Marxist-Leninist organization, and perhaps to its liquidation. Thus the issue was drawn for a parting of the ways with Gates and his group.

There were a large number of members, however, demanding changes in the leadership’s functioning who wanted to stand by the Party, but some of the old-line leadership made the mistake of indiscriminately accusing everyone who wanted some changes as “revisionist.” Perhaps the exodus could not have been prevented anyway, but in my view our loss of membership would not have been so great if an effort had been made to differentiate between those who wanted the Party to function more democratically and Gates’s revisionist position.

To many the principle of “democratic centralism” in the Party had been so abused as to become discredited. In an article I wrote for the convention discussion, I tried to deal with this problem. Having in mind the dilemma I had found myself in during the discussion on the “underground,” I wrote that a Party such as ours must have unity of purpose in carrying out its program, but some way must be found to draw the membership more fully into the decision-making discussions, and that policies should be constantly reviewed to judge whether the decisions were correct, or whether a changed situation might require a new look at past policies and decisions. (To my great surprise this article was singled out for criticism by a prominent Soviet leader in his Party’s theoretical magazine, and although our National Committee voted to protest against the criticism and asked for a retraction, it was never disavowed. It was always a mystery to me why I was singled out, and I could only conclude that it was based on some misinformation.)

Hindsight tells me that all of us were guilty of mistakes in judgment during that period, but in looking back I still believe that the leadership’s resistance to self-criticism was responsible for losing many members. I also believed that more new blood must be brought into the political leadership in order to reassure the membership that efforts for a genuine change were being made. In the perception of many members, some of the older leaders had been too long at their posts and grown too inflexible in their thinking and methods of work. I was caught somewhere in the middle, having rejected Gates’s line, but being unwilling to excuse our errors as due primarily to objective circumstances.

After considerable reflection and discussions with my wife Leah, I came to the conclusion that twenty-one years was too long for anyone to remain in one post, and I decided to step down. The internal struggle in the Party had begun to take its toll on me, and I could already feel my reduced capacity for a high-pressure job, the first warning signals which eventually resulted in a series of five heart attacks in a period of three years. And so, after twenty- seven years of full-time Party work, I gave up my post and went to work in private industry, with no regrets for the most meaningful years of my life. I stepped down with the belief that has never faded that a new generation in the Party and the working class will find the U.S. road to socialism.
1. General Secretary of the Communist Party 1948–59.

2. Leader of the 1919 steelworkers strike and well known for his early advocacy of industrial unionism. Served in various positions of leadership in the Party from 1921 until his death in 1961, at which time he was honorary chair.

3. Communist Party leader who promoted the transformation of the Party into the Communist Political Association in 1944. In 1945 the Party was reconstituted under the leadership of Foster.

4. At this time Gates was editor of the Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker.

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