Editor’s Note: This is the text of a speech delivered at the reception of the Communist Party USA archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University.
First of all, I would like to thank both the CPUSA and NYU for this marriage – it is one, perhaps not made in heaven but no less celestial and lofty for that. The thrust of my brief remarks is to suggest that the history of the CPUSA and, indeed, the global movement of which it is a part, has been distorted grievously by the infestation of anti-Sovietism and anticommunism and the opening of these wonderful archives should not only lead to a reassessment of the party but help to push back the right-wing which has profited so handsomely from anti-Sovietism and anticommunism – forces which have brought this nation to the brink of catastrophe, not only in Iraq and the Middle East generally but vis-à-vis China as well. I suggest in these remarks that future generations will not necessarily be as seized as this one apparently is with how and why the former USSR was a supposed 'Evil Empire' and how and why some in the US – e.g. the CPUSA – could support this state; I think future generations in the US will take note of the fact that the presumed primary victims of the so-called ‘Evil Empire – in Soviet Russia, for example – tend to agree with President Putin, whose popularity ratings are about double those of the current US President, in his assertion that the fall of the USSR was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. I think future generations in the US-as my remarks suggest will wonder instead how and why the US aligned with so-called Islamic fundamentalism against the former USSR – an appropriate question, I think, as we sit in the shadow of the former World Trade Center – particularly given that the period from 1941-1945 demonstrated decisively that these two nations could collaborate for mutual advantage.
Let me begin by quoting the fortunately retired NY Times right-wing hack columnist William Safire: 'Before Nixon died,' he said, 'I asked him – on the record – if perhaps we had gone a bit overboard on selling the American public on the political benefits of increased trade with China. That old realist,' continued Safire, 'who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness, that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: 'We may have created a Frankenstein [monster],' said Nixon.
Nixon, the hard-boiled realist was on to something for although contemporary analysts have managed to convince the chattering classes in this nation that the former Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and that China’s role in the encirclement of Russia had little or nothing to do with the retreat of socialism, that China’s waging war on socialist Vietnam or backing genocide in Cambodia or collaborating with US imperialism and apartheid South Africa in Angola thereby causing over-stretching of resources in Moscow – none of this had anything to do with the tumultuous events of 1989-1991.
Yet, once again, history has proven to be a cruel teacher and taskmaster for because of Nixon’s decision to 'exploit the split in the Communist world,' U.S. imperialism just exchanged one Communist antagonist in Moscow for a far larger, far stronger Communist antagonist in Beijing. Future dictionaries may well illustrate the definition of the phrase 'Pyrrhic victory' with a picture of Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972. In fact a future project for a comparative diplomatic historian is to analyze how long French elites thought they had pulled a fast one on Britain by backing the rebellious colonists in North America at the end of the 18th century and compare when did it dawn that they may have outsmarted themselves with how long it took US elites to realize that they were in an analogous position to French elites when it comes to China or how long did it take British elites to recognize that they had erred grievously when approximately 100 years ago they began to build up Imperial Japan as their watchdog in Asia – certainly London was aware of their blunder by December 7, 1941.
To be sure, certain perspicacious journalists have recognized that with its spectacular growth rates, its astonishing $1 trillion in foreign reserves (part of which is slated to be invested globally which will be shaping global markets for decades to come), its space program – including shooting down a satellite – its busy activity in resource rich Africa, China presents a formidable challenge to US imperialism going forward. In that context I recommend to you a raft of books that I have reviewed in the CP journal, ‘Political Affairs,’ particularly Joshua Cooper Ramo’s ‘The Beijing Consensus’ or Ted Fishman’s ‘China Inc.’ or the recent book by Financial Times columnist, James Kynge, ‘China Shakes the World.’ Unfortunately, this journalistic insight has not trickled down to the scholars, most of whom are still peddling the fool’s gold of 'Cold War triumphalsm’, blithely unaware that the Cold War may be seen by future generations not as an era of US victory but an era not only of Asian recovery – as China and India followed Japan into the front rank of nations with monumental consequences for the fate of white supremacy – but, ironically, as some were chortling about the supposed 'death of communism', Communist parties in Beijing especially, and to a degree in New Delhi and Tokyo were strengthening. Indeed, just as anticommunists in the 1950s had a bitter battle over 'who lost China?' – or how did the CP take over in China – future anti-Communists may well be asking 'who lost the US?', i.e. how did US imperialism lose its pre-eminent position in a so-called uni-polar world? Ironically, China policy will be Exhibit A when these future analysts begin to answer these questions.
Now it is often said that every generation has to rewrite history. For example, at one time there was a prevalent 'moonlight and magnolias' version of slavery and Reconstruction that fundamentally portrayed 'happy Negroes' during the slave era and portrayed the period following slavery as a dastardly period of Negro misrule and corruption. This began to change in the 1930s with the publication of Du Bois’ magisterial ‘Black Reconstruction’ and changed decisively with the publication of Eric Foner’s ‘Reconstruction.’'
One of the reasons why I personally – and I daresay future generations – are so pleased by the depositing of these CPUSA archives is because it is painfully obvious that the history of the Communist movement in this nation is long overdue for a massive rewriting and these archives will prove indispensable in that process.
It is easy to see why future generations will be displeased with much of the present history that has been written to this point about the Communist Party because it has been incredibly biased, one-sided, deeply influenced by the conservative drift of the nation – not unlike pre-Du Bois histories of Reconstruction – and, fundamentally, anticommunist.
For this exhilaration at the collapse of the Soviet Union has continued even though, I think, future generations may eventually view the events of even recent weeks as a blaring wake-up call, that we are residing in the midst of a tectonic shift basically induced by Nixon’s fateful decision to 'exploit the split in the Communist world', which opened the door for massive direct foreign investment in the Chinese economy thereby creating an economic juggernaut that is viewed by hawks in Washington as a threat that combines the most fearsome aspects of the old Soviet Union with that of US imperialism’s other antagonist of decades past – Japan of the 1980s and 1930s.
For a future scholar might well entitle a future book on the crisis faced by US imperialism, ‘From 9/11 to 2/27.' For just as 9-11 announced the arrival on the global stage of yet another antagonist that is a direct product of Cold War strategy – so-called 'Islamic fundamentalism' –2/27 marked the moment when a hiccup in Shanghai contributed to convulsions on Wall Street. The consequences of the chain of events unfolding is hard to predict – though I do find it curious that recent coverage in the bourgeois press of the debate on protection for private property in China seemed to be strangely supportive of the 'left' in Beijing, as if it was thought that this might slow down the Chinese juggernaut.
Of course, the challenge from Asia is sufficiently formidable for the myrmidons of imperialism and white supremacy but there is another aspect of the heralded Cold War that is now coming back to bite this nation in a big way – I refer, of course, to the aforementioned so-called 'Islamic fundamentalism.' The 'death of communism' analysts are akin to the man who jumps out of the Empire State Building, and as he passes the 40th floor shouts out 'so far, so good.' In other words, the collapse of the USSR seems like a good thing to critics – if you ignore the impact of 'Islamic fundamentalism' in years to come, as this tendency was a foundational aspect of the Soviet Union’s collapse and U.S. imperialism’s strategy to attain this goal.
Now I find it heartening that so many are joining the amen chorus that asserts that George W. Bush is the worst President in US History – the follically challenged Donald Trump being the latest among these. Now admittedly this title of being the worst has considerable competition – how can one omit the slave-owning, Native American hating Andrew Jackson, for example? – yet, in any case, I think that future generations may well conclude that yes, Bush, was the worst, but the errors were as much those of his class as they were of himself individually.
For let us not forget that it was more than 25 years ago during the administration of Jimmy Carter, then Democratic Party leader, that US imperialism escalated its interference in the internal affairs in Afghanistan – as his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski conceded in a remarkable interview a few years ago – thereby helping to induce Moscow’s escalated assistance to a besieged left-wing government in Kabul, in an attempt to bleed the Soviet Union figuratively and literally. This strategy involved the inflaming of religiosity in the Islamic world and, as is well-known, brought Osama bin Laden himself to Kabul and the creation of foreign legions of Islamic fighters who are now bedeviling the planet from New York to Algiers to London to Madrid to Baghdad to Kashmir to Southern Thailand to Manila to Bali. Again writers like Kathy Gannon, Robert Dreyfuss, Mahmood Mamdani and others have written in detail about this Faustian arrangement – and, again, I have reviewed many of these works in ‘Political Affairs.’
But even these writers, as perceptive as they are, have not detailed the entire scope of the monstrosity that was created in order to subdue the former USSR and, yes, future scholars will be spending a considerable amount of time exploring this phenomenon. For, as is well known, it was once thought that Shia Islam was little more than a seedbed for the emergence of Communists, as the history of both the Tudeh Party of Iran and the Iraqui Communist Party exemplified. But then with its maniacal anticommunism, US imperialism engineered the downfall in 1953 of the progressive Mossadegh regime, not least because of its displeasure about its oil policies, which led directly to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni in Teheran, then collaborated with Saddam Hussein in the repression of Iraqui Communists. Again, Brzezinski, a prolific writer, wrote openly about the strategy of whipping up nationalism as a counterweight to Marxism.
Nevertheless, scholars of the future, I’m sure, will be struck by the evasions employed by those who have sought to deny a connection between the Cold War and the fact that US imperialism and so-called 'Islamic Fundamentalism' shared the same trench during this conflict. These fathers refuse to take responsibility for parentage. The question is often narrowed to asking in regard to the largest covert action in CIA history – the intervention in Afghanistan – whether Osama bin Laden himself was on the US Payroll; being a multi-millionaire bin Laden hardly needs a check from Washington in any case. Or they try to argue that the CIA basically was a passive conduit for funding to Pakistani intelligence, which then should be held responsible for US policy in Afghanistan that led to the building up of so-called Islamic fundamentalism – as if Washington has no control or influence with Islamabad, which is ludicrous, of course. .
A tell-tale sign of how the bourgeoisie chooses to interpret the rise of so-called 'fundamentalism' will be revealed later this year when Universal Studios releases the blockbuster movie, ‘Charley Wilson’s War’ starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts; the best-selling book that this movie is based on whitewashes CIA aid to the anticommunist rebels in Afghanistan and refuses to confront the fact that part of the payoff to Pakistan in backing this US sponsored insurgency was at least tacit or willfully ignorant support for the so-called 'Islamic bomb', which is now causing sleepless nights in Washington for fear that the US stooge Musharraf will be overthrown in Islamabad and this deadly weapon will fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden’s allies. The preliminary reading is that Hollywood will provide its mass audience with the ‘moonlight and magnolia’ version of history – but we shall see. Stay tuned.
Of course, this strategy of relying on ultra-nationalism in order to destabilize a secular left has had a domestic counterpart. Indeed, the domestic Cold War has had the unsurprising result of weakening the left, strengthening the right and therefore not only making it more likely that the nation will be ensnared by quagmires such as those unfolding in Iraq and, ironically, Afghanistan but, as well, insures that labor will continue to be pulverized by capital at home.
Nowadays, too many scholars feed their audiences a form of verbal comfort food meant to reassure their readers as they sate their appetites. Thus few acknowledge that months before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the nation was aflame with headlines about the 'Plan of San Diego.' According to this breathtaking scheme, revolutionary Mexico in the midst of turmoil was collaborating with Japan – and possibly Germany – to reclaim the territories seized by the US during the war of aggression of 1846, establish in its stead independent Black and Native American Republics and, not least, liquidate the Euro-American male population – a subject I write about in my book, ‘Black and Brown:’ Obviously, the obscenity of white supremacy and the appearance that it was a policy driven by a monolithic white community was driving Washington’s victims on this continent to desperate measures. But then came the Bolshevik Revolution and after that the formation of the Communist Party USA with its emphasis on working class solidarity and staunch opposition to white supremacy, as evidenced by its signature campaigns of the 1930s – the labor organizing drives that led to the formation of the CIO and the crusade to save the Scottsboro 9 from lynch law. Such efforts helped to convince many in the Black community particularly that this nation could be redeemed and schemes like the 'Plan of San Diego' lost resonance. This conclusion was reached in the face of an unrelenting effort by Tokyo to convince African Americans that this land of white supremacy was beyond redemption and that Japan was the 'champion of the colored races.' Black Communists like James Ford and Ben Davis – who was elected to the NYC Council from Harlem – argued vehemently against this notion with no small result, a subject I discuss at length in my book ‘Race War!’.
Yet after Japan was vanquished not least due to this popular front of left and center – both domestically and globally – US imperialism turned its venom on the Black Left in particular, forcing it to retreat and thus preparing the ground for the rise of various forms of nationalism, including the Nation of Islam which was born in the 1930s as something of an acolyte of Tokyo as evidenced by their still articulated notion of the so-called 'Asiatic Black Man.' Strikingly, the Nation – with its notions that those who are defined as 'white' are little more than devils – did not begin to grow until the 1950s when the left was in retreat.
Indeed, the reigning metaphor for US politics might be Jack Benny, the comedian. You remember the violin playing comic from Waukegan, Illinois, known to be a notorious cheapskate, tight with a dollar, who was notorious for a routine when faced by a robber who placed a gun at his head and shouted, 'your money or your life.' Benny, the cheapskate worried more about money than life itself, then tells the robber as he ponders, 'I’m thinking, I’m Thinking.' The unrealistic wing of the bourgeoisie, like Benny, has been willing to run the risk of losing life itself by allowing right-wing nationalism to flourish on the grounds that this environment is better suited for guaranteeing profit-making.
Nevertheless, scholars e.g. Mary Dudziak and Thomas Borstelman among others have pointed to the unavoidable conclusion that the civil rights gains of the 1960s were driven in large part by the existence of the Soviet Union – in that Washington had difficulty winning hearts and minds among the 'colored' majority in their ideological contest with Moscow as long as people of color in this nation were treated so atrociously. Therefore, Jim Crow had to go. Similarly, there were those who predicted that the collapse of the USSR would lead to a new birth of freedom for social democracy, as it escaped the supposed albatross of being associated with Moscow. Yet, as the recent elections in Finland demonstrated, social democracy has not flourished in the absence of the USSR (simply trace the baneful impact that neighboring Estonia has had on Helsinki, for example), even in its erstwhile citadel of Scandinavia, where conservatives have made a remarkable comeback. And, yes, it is fair to give the existence of the Soviet Union for the fact that social welfare measures developed in the U.S. in the 1930s, as the ruling elite feared what might arise if they did not compromise, and, yes, the attack on these measures followed like clockwork the demise of the Soviet Union.
Thus, in many ways, we can attribute the agonized retreat of white supremacy to the existence of the former Soviet Union and its allies in the US – who are reflected in profusion in the CPUSA archive – just as we likewise, can give credit for this historic retreat to heroic Haiti, whose victory some two centuries ago against slavery was similarly an important intervention against racism and, likewise, has led to a punishment of Haiti that has lasted to this very day.
This also reminds us that our foremothers and forefathers of the 19th century were similar in many ways to Black Communists in that they were strict internationalists. In fact, I think future scholars will demonstrate that during a time when Washington was in constant conflict with London – most notably during the War of 1812 when the redcoats burned down a good deal of this nation’s capital – leaders as diverse as Frederick Douglass and Ida Wells-Barnett were as close to London as Paul Robeson was to Moscow. This stretches back to the origins of this nation for as historians Simon Schama of Columbia and Cassandra Pybus of Australia have both pointed out in recent worthy books, by far more Negroes fought on the side of the British during the 1776 war than on the side of the rebellious colonists, led by slaveholders e.g. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
It is an elementary part of diplomatic statecraft that an oppressed people – e.g. African Americans – will seek to ally with the antagonists of those who are oppressing them and that those opposed to the oppression of this group (e.g. progressive Euro-Americans) will tend to do the same thing. Indeed, one can argue that even those who have not been oppressed have acted in this fashion. Consider one of antebellum Va.’s leading sons, Matthew Fontaine Maury – a huge statue in his honor continues to stand in Richmond – despite the fact that during the Civil War, this leading Confederate conspired with France, after it seized Mexico, against the U.S. and offered to return California to Mexico if France backed the Confederacy. My most recent book, ‘The Deepest South’, explores this matter in detail. Yet, just the other day, leading legislators in Georgia were pushing a bill to establish a Confederate History Month in April in order to deflect attention away from apologizing for slavery. This is one of the many reasons I do not take too seriously the commonly accepted idea that hostility to Communists stems from their ties to a foreign power – Moscow; if that were true why does this nation continue to honor not only those who tried to overthrow the govt. in order to maintain slavery but conspired with foreign powers in order to do so? – yet there are statutes built in their honor and their deeds are celebrated.
Indeed, I think historians of the future will be struck by the fact that in attempting to assess the impact of the CPUSA, some scholars spent more time seeking out documents in Moscow, as opposed to this country – and, thus, this NYU archive will continue to gain in importance. I am continually struck by the fact that there has been a repetitive ideological tendency reflected in the writings of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Walter Benn Michels, Richard Rorty – and a host of other liberal and social Democratic writers – who lament the decline of a conversation about class and deride what they see as the undue emphasis on race in the U.S. But such analysts rarely put this discussion in the context of a concerted effort by the US to basically outlaw Marxism – and a conversation on class which it has exemplified – as reflected in the Smith Act trials that swept the nation from New York City in 1949 when the entire CPUSA leadership was placed on trial, then jailed, to Honolulu where a similar trial occurred in 1952. It is striking that there are hundreds of thousands of pages of transcripts from these trials which are gathering dusts in archives across this vast land and have yet to be tapped by historians.
When these sources are explored, I think scholars of the future will be struck by, for example, the response in Honolulu when tens of thousands of workers went on strike when labor and CP leaders were convicted of Smith Act violations in 1953 – a response totally unlike the response on the mainland. Of course 98% of these workers were of Asian-Pacific ancestry, which suggests that scholars have also been derelict in analyzing why these workers were less anti-communist than their Euro-American counterparts. In any case, deploring these convictions in Hawaii was an African-American poet and journalist by the name of Frank Marshall Davis, who was certainly in the orbit of the CP – if not a member – and who was born in Kansas and spent a good deal of his adult life in Chicago, before decamping to Honolulu in 1948 at the suggestion of his good friend Paul Robeson. Eventually, he befriended another family – a Euro-American family – that had migrated to Honolulu from Kansas and a young woman from this family eventually had a child with a young student from Kenya East Africa who goes by the name of Barack Obama, who retracing the steps of Davis eventually decamped to Chicago. In his best selling memoir ‘Dreams of my Father’, the author speaks warmly of an older black poet, he identifies simply as 'Frank' as being a decisive influence in helping him to find his present identity as an African-American, a people who have been the least anticommunist and the most left-leaning of any constituency in this nation – though you would never know it from reading so-called left journals of opinion. At some point in the future, a teacher will add to her syllabus Barack’s memoir and instruct her students to read it alongside Frank Marshall Davis’ equally affecting memoir, 'Living the Blues' and when that day comes, I’m sure a future student will not only examine critically the Frankenstein monsters that US imperialism created in order to subdue Communist parties but will also be moved to come to this historic and wonderful archive in order to gain insight on what has befallen this complex and intriguing planet on which we reside.