Recovering America’s Communist History

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New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism.
Edited by Michael E. Brown, Randy Martin, Frank Rosengarten, and George Snedeker.
New York, Monthly Review Press, 1993


Editor’s note: This article originally published in Monthly Review (June 1994): 55-63.

Anti-Communism has influenced—some would say, distorted—every aspect of U.S. scholarship. It should not be surprising; therefore, that anti-Communism has dominated the study of United States Communism itself. This volume of eleven essays demonstrates the value of a newly evolving approach to the history of the Communist Party which views it not as an object of vilification, but as a phenomenon deserving understanding. The received version of the Communist Party’s experience has been enormously influenced by scholars, such as Irving Howe, who at one time or other have been identified with varieties of social democracy which defined themselves by their opposition to Communism, and ex-Communists, like Theodore Draper. [1] Their work depicts an institution whose slavish devotion to the Soviet Union overshadows any other line of inquiry. Its leaders were hard-bitten bureaucrats, its members (of whom we hear next to nothing) were dupes or, depending on the degree that any of them were aware of what they were doing, manipulators, deceivers, and traitors.

Liberal historians have written relatively little directly about the subject. In the textbooks and general histories of the period that they author, the accomplishments of the Party in organizing the industrial working class or placing racial equality at the very top of the progressive agenda are at best brushed in; the repression of the Party is marginalized by the attention given to “innocents” (that is, non-Communist) victims. However, in recent years, liberal historians’ treatment of the Party has tended to become fuller and more balanced. Not surprisingly, the excoriations of the social democrats and ex-Communists have attracted more response than the omissions of the liberals.

Since the publication of William Z. Foster’s History of the Communist Party in 1952, the Communist Party itself has been unable to offer any meaningful presentation of its own history. International Publishers has printed some autobiographies and biographies of various leaders, which are of varying value, but no general history. [2] But then, as Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, no Communist Party anywhere has been able to write its own history.

The new left defined itself ideologically and organizationally in opposition to the experience of the Communist Party and therefore its adherents lifted nary a pen to counter the anti-Communist interpretation of U.S. Communism. The new left in fact added a new series of criticisms of the Party from the left, most especially that its members’ unwillingness to operate openly deterred the organization of an American left and contributed to the Party’s repression. [3]

It took both the collapse of the old and the new lefts to clear the ground for a new interpretation of the Communist Party’s experience. Memoirs of long-time Party leaders and scholarly studies began to de-emphasize the discontinuities in the Party’s theory and practice brought about by international events and focused on the Party’s continuous activities on behalf of those who never could or would benefit from capitalism. Among the best of the studies that focus on the accomplishments of the Party are Al Richmond’s A Long View from the Left (1972), which documents the Party’s leadership role in the 1935 San Francisco general strike, [4] and Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (1980), uncovers the key role of Communists in organizing automobile workers. [5]

New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism presents versions of papers originally delivered at a conference held at the City University Graduate Center to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Party sponsored by the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy, which among its other concerns has sought to examine the history of the Party “free from uncritically negative biases.” Central to this approach is the understanding that whatever the lack of democracy within the Party and its subordination to the political perspective of the Soviet Union, the CPUSA had fulfilled an important oppositional role in U.S. society.

Michael Brown’s introductory essay on the historiography of the CPUSA places this book within the context of the “new historians” who have begun to apply the techniques of social history which have so powerfully influenced the discipline since the publication of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in 1963. [6] These historians approach the Communist Party not as a political institution but as a movement. The emphasis is thereby shifted from the leadership to the membership, from public pronouncements to actual experience. [7] The very best of these essays represent major contributions to the new history of the Party.

There is no arena that absorbed more of the Party’s time and energy than the organization of the working class into trade unions. The Party acted on the premise that the work of labor politics could not proceed without substantial progress toward the organization of the American working class. In “Communist Influence on American Labor,” Keeran encapsulates this very large topic. [8] He first develops a typology for the existing interpretations of the Party’s trade union work and concludes, “the predominance of evidence produced by the last decade of scholarship decisively supports the conclusion that the Communist Party was an important and distinctive influence on the labor movement and that Communist influence was decidedly beneficial to unions and workers.” These studies show that workers in unions led by Communists worked under superior contracts and that these unions operated in a strikingly more democratic fashion than their counterparts led by non-Communists. Moreover, Keeran finds that the “most distinctive feature of Communist behavior in unions was their opposition to racial discrimination.” Ultimately, a political organization which never numbered as many as one hundred thousand members organized unions with some millions of members.

Keeran shows that during the so-called Third Period (1928-34) the Party’s organization of “revolutionary unions,” which mainstream scholars have generally dismissed, frequently laid the groundwork for the highly successful organizing drives associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He also notes their contribution to the Communist-initiated Hunger March on March 6, 1930, which mobilized over one million people in demonstrations in major cities throughout the United States.

Unfortunately, Keeran basically concludes his essay with the expulsion of the Communist-led unions from the CIO in 1949. Yet despite the most extraordinary repression almost all of these unions continued to exist in some form, albeit with steadily decreasing connection to the CPUSA. The International Longshoremen’s Workers Union remained intact and others, though in much weakened and reduced form, survived. One by one they merged with their heretofore antagonists. It is fortunate for the American working class that the United Electrical Workers Union still exists and upholds a version of trade unionism consonant with the radical origins of the CIO.

Mark Naison’s “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front” succeeds in one short essay in outlining substantial parts of the Party’s history during the period of its greatest influence, the Popular Front, 1935-1939. [9] In 1936 Earl Browder declared that: “The direct issue in the 1936 election is not socialism or capitalism, but rather democracy or fascism.” Working with “progressives” (that is, liberals willing to work with Communists), the Party helped build not only the CIO but an astounding array of organizations that impacted on every phase of American life.

He reminds us of the International Workers Order, a mutual aid society organized into sixteen language sections, which claimed 187,000 members in 1947. In its lodges these radicalized immigrant communities sustained and passed on to the next generation their primary cultures, while participating in a wider secular “progressive” culture that featured celebrations of Negro History Week and May Day. They also provided meeting places and cadre for the organization of the CIO. Naison strangely omits discussion of the American Association for the Protection of the Foreign Born, which organized legislative advocacy and legal support for these same communities.

Naison also documents the enormous reach of the Party into the electoral politics of the period. Unfortunately, he neglects to discuss its most singular success in this arena – the American Labor Party. The ALP became a major force in New York City politics: it amassed almost 36 percent of Fiorello LaGuardia’s vote for reelection for mayor in 1937 and 1941 as well as ensured Vito Marcantonio’s reelections to Congress until he was defeated in 1950 by a coalition candidate of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal parties. During the Popular Front, the Party ceded leadership to the social democrats. Its focus on fighting racial discrimination and fostering left-center unity, however, contributed to its gaining decisive control of the ALP by 1944. [10]

Naison’s contribution is strongest in crediting the Communist Party with doing nothing less than “reformulating the U.S. nationality” through the creation of a popular culture that placed the contributions of Black people and all the immigrant groups on a footing equal to Anglo Saxons. In this schema, the Party demanded that progressives reject class privilege and race prejudice and replace those with a deeply held democratic sensibility strong enough to defeat domestic and international fascism. It was during this period that the Party jazz and folk music became integral to the Party’s work. Popular Front culture flourished in Hollywood movies where the large numbers of Party members and sympathizers working in the industry helped populate movies with sympathetic characters with Jewish or Italian names and place virtue in the hearts of ordinary folks.

Gerald Horne’s “The Communist Party and African Americans in Historical Perspective” discusses the Party’s work in searching for a U.S. history to sustain this new culture. He mentions the Party’s contribution in rediscovering African-American achievement during the Reconstruction Era. [11] Horne notes that “along with the trade union question, the Negro question was of central concern to the leadership of the CP.” [12] Unfortunately Horne does not sharply illustrate the Party’s connection to the African American experience. Horne’s essay does, however, contain some new and important information. For example, Horne discusses the close ties between the Garveyite movement and the Party. Most memorable however is his discussion of the African Blood Brotherhood, which as early as 1918 advocated a Black republic in the South. In 1925 the Black Brotherhood joined the Party en masse bringing with it a tenet of the Party’s program that has been universally ascribed to Comintern diktat. Lastly, Horne reminds the reader of the Party’s commitment to racial equality via a stunning quote from Browder which in part states, “everything that touches on the Negro question is for our Party of fundamental principled importance, a matter of life and death.”

Alan Wald’s “U.S. Communist Writers Reconsidered” represents a treasure trove of topics for scores of as-yet unwritten doctoral dissertations and books. [13] He estimates “there are several hundred U.S. Communist-influenced novelists and poets of real merit who have received no critical attention.” (Unfortunately, he does not include American writers writing in languages other than English, perhaps especially those writing in Yiddish-who were influenced by the Communist movement.) Under Jewish-American for example, he lists Nelson Algren, Tillie Olsen, and Abraham Polonsky. These writers found that their participation in the Communist movement caused “an augmentation, complication, and enrichment of their literary lives.” Wald reports that his research has “convinced me of the importance of reconsidering the centrality of the Communist experience in United States cultural history.”

Wald identifies the suppression of this legacy as impoverishing the contemporary demand for the expansion and diversification of the literary canon. The Party’s unique contribution was to provide a literature which exposed class realities, elevated the experience of the workers, and took up topics of resistance. The current critique of the canon notes all the absences except that of the great majority of the people, the working class.

In central ways, Wald confronts the most relevant question, that is, the great damage that anti-Communism has done not only to scholarship but the sustaining of an opposition culture. This can only be rectified Wald posits, if “we come to terms with the Communist [Party] foundation of the left movement in this country.”

Annette Rubinstein’s “Cultural World of the Communist Party” recalls the Party as a society where “there really was a feeling of genuine democracy” and “a much more fundamental sense of equality.” [14] She explains: “You might speak to a rally of several thousand at Manhattan Center one day, climb up on a soap box to attract a dozen passers-by another, and act as an usher in Madison Square Garden the next week.” She tells of the steadfastness of human relations forged within the Party by people whose love was not based on looking at each other but by looking in the same direction.

In “McCarthyism and the Decline of American Communism: 1945-1960,” Ellen Schrecker’s extraordinary compilation of the use of state power to destroy the United States Communist Party shows how every branch of government collaborated in demolishing the Communist movement-not only the Party, but every manifestation of its influence. [15] She notes:

While the FBI was pre-eminent, other participants included the State, Treasury, and Justice departments, the White House, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Civil Service Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the Subversive Activities Control Board, the National Labor Relations Board, the Post Office, and, of course, Congress and its investigating committees.


Schrecker then documents the role of local governments and private institutions in this process. Frequently, individuals or organizations would find themselves simultaneously under attack from two or more of these governmental agencies. Thousands upon thousands of hostile actions coming from all sides – with sanctions that included execution, jail terms, deportation, job loss, blacklisting, public humiliation, social isolation, physical and verbal attacks on self and loved ones—ultimately destroyed the political base of the party. She concludes that the demise of U.S. Communism can be ascribed to political repression and that the major accounts of the Party’s decline overemphasize the role of the Party’s mistaken tactics or the effects of Khrushchev’s 1956 speech. This reviewer only hopes that Schrecker’s subsequent work in this area will include a full discussion of the Party’s defense strategy and the almost total failure of the wider liberal community to support even the most minimal civil liberties for the Communist movement.

This collection’s other essays – which discuss the Party and women, the Rapp Coudert Committee Hearings, Communist education, and a somewhat incongruous interview with the venerable C.P. leader Gil Green – do not equally succeed in synthesizing aspects of the Party’s history or in opening up new ways of thinking about the Party. But in its totality this book represents a major contribution to the work of uncovering and writing the history of the U.S. Communist movement free from the influences of the Cold War. Keeping in mind that references to the Popular Front, the Party’s influence on the CIO, etc., are scattered throughout the book, the addition of an index in subsequent printings would greatly increase the value of this book as a research tool.

Perhaps there is nothing this reviewer could say that would more convincingly demonstrate the importance of New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism than the lengthily review by Theodore Draper in the New York Review of Books (January 13, 1994) denigrating both the book and its authors. [17] Draper simply will not abide scholarship about the Communist Party which attempts to make the Communist Party a “part of the larger family of socialism and democracy” and which refuses to view the Party “as if it were different from other political phenomena in the United States.” In the middle of his excoriations, Draper loses himself and openly laments: “Why should every other ‘anti’—anti-capitalism, anti-liberalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and all the rest – be intellectually permissible or legitimate but not anti-communism?” Of course Draper’s inability or unwillingness to answer this question has caused him and his friends, despite their embracing liberal and/or socialist identities, to give aid and comfort to the right. But just in case he has forgotten: anti-Communism begat McCarthyism and is always a primary ingredient of fascism. Draper has been fighting a lonely—and seemingly losing—battle against an increasing number of scholars who piece by piece have been reassessing the history of the American Communist Party. When Draper accuses these new historians of “only nibbling at the edges” of his general interpretation, he has a point. For whatever the value of these essays, none of the “new historians” has tackled a history of the Communist Party which would replace the work of Draper and his protégé Harvey Klehr. [18] Nonetheless, the publication of this admirable book makes that eventuality much closer.

Notes:

1. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957) ; and, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (New York: Viking Press, 1960). Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).

2. Simon W. Gerson, Pete: The Story of Peter V. Cacchione New York’s First Communist Councilman (New York: International Publishers, 1976). Benjamin J. Davis, Communist Councilman from Harlem: Autobiographical Notes Written in a Federal Penitentiary (New York: International Publishers, 1991). Gil Green, Cold War Fugitive: A Personal Story of the McCarthy Years (New York: International Publishers, 1984).

3. See for example: Alan Adelson, SDS: A Profile (New York: Charles Scribner, 1972), pp. 139-41. Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Vintage Book, 1969), pp. 211-12.

4. See also Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life (Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Books, 1977). Dorothy Healey and Maurice Isserman, Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). George Charney, A Long Journey (New York: Quadrangle Press, 1972). For the perspective of a rank and filer see Nell Irvin Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson (Cambridge: University of Harvard Press, 1979).

5. See also Maurice Isserrnan, Which Side Are You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982). Joshua Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City: 1933-1966 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

6. The new social history merges sociology with history in ways that bring it close to historical materialism. Here the masses are making history, and the leaders are distant and reactive. The categories of class and class struggle are prominent. Unlike historical materialism, however, social history is primarily concerned with informal groups and sees culture as a more decisive, almost autonomous, force.

7. See for example: Phillip Lyons, Philadelphia Communists, 1936-1956 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982). Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

8. See also: James Pickett, “Communists and the Communist Issue in the American Labor Movement, 1920-1950” (Ph.D. dissertation: University of California, 1975).

9. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983).

10. Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1912 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

11. The Party’s achievements in this area were much broader than this, but this topic has yet to find its historian.

12. Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Responses to the Cold War, 1944-1963 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986).

13. Alan Wald, The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1992).

14. Annette Rubinstein, The Great Tradition in English Literature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969).

15. Ellen Shrecher, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). A very large literature has developed about the McCarthy era. See for example: David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Touchstone, 1979). Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Viking, 1980).

16. Draper’s earlier articles also published in the New York Review of Books (May 9, 1985) and (May 30,1985).

17. Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

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  • Ummm, didn't reference Bella Dodd, did you. Wonder why?

    Posted by Joanne Wroe, 10/26/2010 11:24am (7 years ago)

  • One notable thing the anti-Communist movement accomplished was to destroy almost completely the comradeship among separated party members due to
    concerns of security. People, once separated, were
    hesitant to contact old friends for fear of compromising
    their and other's security. This situation extends to a certain extent even to today.

    Posted by Warren Greer, 10/25/2010 5:47pm (7 years ago)

  • This is an excellent article. I am currently a PhD student who is studying the history of the CPUSA and Marxism throughout U.S. Labor history in general. I recently graduated with a Master's writing my thesis on Party involvement with agricultural unionizing during the 1930s and 40s.

    I am definitely going to look forward to reading these essays and learning further from them some of the newer approaches and perspectives on CPUSA history.

    Posted by Joshua Morris, 10/24/2010 11:58pm (7 years ago)

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