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On a Field of Red, by Anthony Cave Brown and Charles B. MacDonald

The Comintern

On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War II.
by Anthony Cave Brown and Charles B. MacDonald.
Putnam. 645 pp. $19.95.

Among international Communist organizations, the most notable by far is the Communist International, or Comintern, which was dissolved on Stalin’s orders in 1943 to soothe his Western allies. Yet for all its activities and importance, the Comintern has been little studied. By its very nature many of its activities were clandestine and its operatives concealed. A large proportion of its leadership and staff did not survive Stalin’s purges, so memoirs are rare, except from those fortunate enough to have been expelled or to have quit its ranks. The Soviet Union, needless to say, has no Freedom of Information Act and no inclination to allow independent scholars access to its embarrassing archives, replete with the names of non-persons and full of documentation that is certain not to support official party histories.

The appearance, then, of this massive new work on the Communist International should be a matter of interest and excitement, particularly since the authors trumpet their access to hitherto untapped files of the United States Military Intelligence Division and the papers of the former OSS leader, Major General William Donovan, used here for the first time. Whatever anticipations one brings to this work, however, are very quickly dashed. Readers anxious to locate historical precedents for the Soviet Union’s pattern of interference in the affairs of other nations should be warned just how unreliable this work is as a guide to history. Like Anthony Cave Brown’s earlier book, Bodyguard of Lies, it is characterized by tunnel vision—the belief that what determines the fate of battles and the destiny of nations are the covert manipulations and secretive doings of spies and intelligence officers.

The sprawling narrative of more than 600 pages ranges from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II, with side trips to obscure corners of European history. The thesis, insofar as there is one, is that Comintern policy in Germany, Great Britain, and America, combined with Soviet diplomacy, led to World War II. The cold war, the authors believe, began in 1919. Between that date and 1939, with single-minded ferocity, the Soviet Union and the Comintern sought to undermine and overthrow the governments of capitalist Europe and America. To prove their point they mix together an uneasy blend of diplomatic history, military history, Russian history, radical history, and espionage accounts, largely culled from secondary sources and spiced with intelligence gossip.

The authors display no sense of proportion—an account of the assassination of a Comintern executive in Switzerland in 1923 and the ensuing trial of two Russian émigrés takes six-and-one-half pages, more than is lavished on the fateful Seventh Congress of the Comintern which inaugurated the Popular Front. The book lurches from the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war to diplomatic intrigues, from carefully mounted espionage plots to an account of a British intelligence effort to expose Bolshevism as a Jewish plot.

For a book on the Comintern, moreover, the authors provide surprisingly little information about the organization itself, its relationship to its constituent parties—which took up the bulk of its work—or the considerable literature it produced about itself, often with devastating frankness. When the Comintern’s line changed, as it did with regularity, old leaders had to be discredited and the errors of the past rectified. And yet, in all these pages there is virtually no recognition that the Comintern did change policies. There is hardly a word about the infamous Third Period during which socialists were excoriated as social-fascists and Communist leaders confidently asserted that the social-fascists were more dangerous than the Nazis—a policy that contributed mightily to the triumph of Hitler. By the same token, the 1936-39 era is practically ignored—perhaps because Soviet foreign policy and, hence, the Comintern, sought at that time not to undermine Western democracies but to build an anti-fascist alliance with them.

What we do have in this book is a history of the inter-war period as seen by the Military Intelligence Division, with excursions into secondary literature when needed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, reliance on material produced by intelligence services is very dangerous unless it is carefully checked and supplemented by other research. This the authors have not done. They appear blissfully unaware of many of the sources they should have consulted. One egregious example: they cite an essay by R. N. Carew Hunt on Willi Muenzenberg published in 1960 as “one of the few biographical accounts,” but apparently never examined or heard of the biography by Muenzenberg’s wife, Babette Gross. They write about Ignace Reiss, a Soviet defector killed in Switzerland in 1937, apparently unaware of his wife’s memoir, Our Own People. Such omissions are not trivial scholarly failings; because they neglected to read crucial accounts, the authors are ill-equipped to judge the intelligence reports they accept as gospel.

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To list all the errors of fact in this book would require more space than it warrants. While individual mistakes pile up, the worst sin may be the authors’ refusal to ask if the material they handled could be trusted. They are at their most credulous in accepting on faith the authenticity of a 400-page manuscript they discovered in General Donovan’s papers. The manuscript, which concerns Comintern activities in America, was written by one Joseph Weinkoop, who describes himself as a chief aide to Gerhart Eisler, a German Communist who did serve as a Comintern representative in America in the mid-1930′s. Since the authors note that the Donovan collection is not yet available to the general public, this manuscript can be judged only by what they tell of it, but that is sufficient to reveal it as a work of fiction.

To take him at his word, Weinkoop should not be hard to identify. He attended the Lenin School, was a high official in the Profintern, the red Trade Union International, and was a party organizer in Detroit. He also says he was in charge of organizing technicians and lab personnel into the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians, directed the formation of the subway union in New York, and built a powerful independent union movement in Cleveland in 1935 where he also supervised party infiltration of various organizations, coming to be regarded “as a kind of Midwestern Robin Hood.”

As the authors note, no one by the name of Weinkoop has appeared in American Communist history; they speculate that Weinkoop was an underground name, and even guess that the real person might be William Weinstone, a founder of the party still active today. Yet a minimal amount of research would have disclosed that Weinstone could not have done all the things claimed by and for Weinkoop. Indeed, no one could have done all these things. Marcel Scherer was in charge of organizing technical workers within the party. John Santo oversaw the creation of the Transport Workers Union in New York (its name was not, as the authors assert, the Independent Subway Workers Union). There was no Communist-inspired spurt in independent unions in Cleveland in 1935, and anyway the party’s chief union organizer there was Wyndham Mortimer. Harry Haywood was the major Communist figure in the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and Gil Green directed party work among youths. Had one man been responsible for all these areas, surely a hint would have leaked out; surely one of the many defectors from the Communist movement would have recalled the fabled deeds of Joseph Weinkoop for the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Whoever he was, Weinkoop no doubt knew enough about Communist history to produce a potboiler for General Donovan. Did he have visions of fame? A television series? Witness fees? He did not get them. There was apparently no indication that anything was ever done with his book, and with good reason: he did not know what he was talking about. To take just one example: Weinkoop asserts that one of Eisler’s assistants in directing Comintern affairs was Josef Pogany, who supposedly arrived in New York in 1933 or 1934. Pogany, also known as Pepper, was in fact a Hungarian Communist who served as a Comintern representative in America in the 1920′s; recalled to Moscow in 1929, he vanished in the purges. That the authors did not bother to check this fact says volumes about On a Field of Red.

Altogether, the relationship between the Comintern and the American Communists was neither as static nor as simple as the authors claim. There were Comintern representatives in America, but their authority varied with their ability and depending on when they were here. And some mysterious foreigners, cast into exile on American shores, were able to parlay a European accent, an improbable pseudonym like F. Brown, and a knowing smile into an instrument for gaining more respect from low-level Communists than they deserved. By the mid-1930′s there was little further need for Comintern representatives; when party leaders had to settle disagreements or vexing problems, they traveled directly to Moscow for guidance.

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Shoddy books like this one do not contribute to an understanding of the international Communist movement. That there were conspiracies and manipulation is no excuse for the failure to adhere to standards of proof and documentation. The history of the Comintern and of its interference in the affairs of its constituent parties is fantastic enough without indulging in fantasies. To pretend that Communist activities in America or Europe were only or largely the result of conspiracy directed from abroad takes a single aspect of Communism, albeit an important one, and makes it bear a burden it cannot sustain.

About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.




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