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The Heyday of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr

Popular & Other Fronts

The Heyday of American Communism.
by Harvey Klehr.
Basic Books. 528 pp. $26.50.

This outstanding study of the American Communist movement during the Depression era fills an important gap. Theodore Draper’s two-volume history of American Communism took the party from its founding after the Bolshevik Revolution through the 1920′s; David Shannon, Maurice Isserman, and Joseph Starobin have covered the years from World War II through, roughly, 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev “revealed” the monstrous crimes of Stalin and Stalinism and thereby produced the tidal wave of defections which transformed the party into a minor sect. Only the Depression era, truly the “heyday” of American Communism, though sketchily covered in Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s The American Communist Party, has remained without full scholarly treatment.

There are, of course, the party-sanctioned histories, written for example by the late William Z. Foster, the Communist presidential candidate in 1932 and Earl Browder’s predecessor as leader of the party. Such works, informed by the Orwellian inversions characteristic of official histories published in the Soviet Union, are useful largely as chronologies and indexes—provided that one is not seeking information about anyone transformed into an “unperson.” And there are also memoirs by Communists and former Communists, some considerably more honest and informative than others.

Klehr makes use of all these and similar works. But as sources they are insignificant by comparison with the material he obtained from the FBI and other government agencies (under the Freedom of Information Act); with the numerous collections of private papers and oral histories he was able to consult, around the country; and with the interviews he himself conducted. All in all, Klehr’s book and his research represent an archival gold mine for future scholars.

But this is not simply a work for scholars. It is a valuable assessment for the general reader of American Communism during its most influential period; and it is also a lesson in the tactics and orientation of the most disciplined element on the radical Left.

Klehr goes to the heart of the matter right at the start, writing in his preface: “In all periods of party history, the ultimate source of party policy was the Soviet Union. Even when the party’s tracks are clear and seemingly autonomous, one must search for their Soviet sources.” This rather straightforward proposition may seem self-evident, and not altogether profound. But there has been and still is a concerted effort by Left-oriented historians and memoirists to focus on the ostensibly American roots of domestic Communism, and thus to continue to hold aloft the old Browder slogan, “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” As Browder himself wrote in 1957 (well after his expulsion from the party), “What I miss in [Theodore] Draper is the understanding that he is writing about an organic part of American history, and not merely a study of the American section of the Communist International.” Klehr’s point is thus particularly crucial. Wisely, he never forgets whence—and why—the orders came. And he offers proof, in the form of actual cables, to document his case.

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As for the impact of Communism in America: during the “Third Period” (from about 1928 to 1935), it was virtually nil. One reason is that in that period, Communists identified themselves as Communists. William Z. Foster, who wrote a book called Towards Soviet America, captured about 100,000 votes when he ran for President in the 1932 general election, one-ninth the total of the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas. At that time, according to the Communists, Thomas himself, like FDR, was a “social fascist.” In Europe, the Communists explained, Hitler’s ascendancy to the chancellorship in 1933 was a passing phase, a mere prelude to proletarian revolution and the rise to power of the party (under the leadership, presumably, of Ernst Thälmann, languishing at that juncture in a new institution called Buchenwald). The “Third Period” was also characterized by warfare against organized labor through “dual unionism”—that is, the creation of alternative, Communist-dominated unions in industries already unionized—and by the “united front from below,” an effort to persuade rank-and-file workers to repudiate their own leadership in favor of that of the Communists.

But then, after the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern in 1935, as Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov traveled across Europe in quest of collective-security pacts, the “Popular Front” became the order of the day. Communists now called themselves “liberals in a hurry.” Hitler was no longer a passing phase. And political distinctions that had once been crucial were now deliberately blurred for the sake of the collective struggle against fascism.

Klehr excels particularly in his analysis of the role played on the American scene by the party, and by the Communist movement in general, during this later period, which lasted until 1939. He notes that actual membership figures are relatively meaningless as a criterion for measuring the influence of the party. In 1937, for example, the party had about 75,000 members—a figure, incidentally, never exceeded (except briefly in 1939, before the Hitler-Stalin Pact) until 1944, the year Browder dissolved the party and created the Communist Political Association. But at the same time (1937), party-controlled blocs of workers in the Congress of Industrial Organizations totalled 650,000 members. And there were still another 600,000 to be found in “split” unions—locals, or full unions, under partial Communist control. These latter figures are considerably more significant.

Equally revealing is Klehr’s treatment of the party’s electoral strength. In 1932, the 100,000 votes cast in favor of the Foster-Ford ticket were, in fact, a fair measure of party electoral influence. But in the 1936 and 1938 federal elections, and in municipal races in 1937, the number of votes cast for Communist candidates tells only part of the story. Communist influence in statewide “third” parties—the American Labor party (ALP) in New York and the Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota, for example—has to be taken into account. In the 1937 New York City municipal elections, nearly half-a-million people voted on the ALP line.

In addition to the realms of organized labor and electoral politics, Klehr treats what he calls “The Intellectual Merry-Go-Round,” exploring (as has William L. O’Neill in A Better World1) cultural life within the party itself, in party front organizations, and in the general ambit of American Communism. Here too, mere numbers offer not even a clue as to the degree of Communist influence on American intellectual life. Included as well in The Heyday of American Communism is a sociological analysis of the tens of thousands who drifted in and out of the party during the Depression years. Extending Nathan Glazer’s treatment of this subject in The Social Basis of American Communism, Klehr demonstrates the predominance in the party of middle-class Jews and the foreign-born. Native, Gentile, blue-collar laborers were relatively rare.

Klehr puts paid to the claim, dear to Communists, ex-Communists, and sympathetic historians, that in the 30′s the Communist party advanced the cause of FDR and the New Deal. In fact the party opposed Roosevelt at almost every turn, and only belatedly hitched its wagon to the rising star of this or that aspect of the New Deal. Although Klehr touches only briefly on the “underground party” and on espionage conducted in behalf of the Soviet Union during the period in question, he says enough to make it clear that to the committed Communist, the American national interest was, at best, a secondary concern.

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Klehr’s achievement in The Heyday of American Communism makes one hope for similarly distinguished studies of the other period remaining to be explored, that running from 1956 to the present. American Communism and American Communists did not simply evaporate after 1956, destroyed by Khrushchev’s secret speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Many Communists, still essentially loyal to the creed, found the party too heavily stigmatized—and, not unimportantly, too deeply infiltrated by the FBI—to serve as an effective political vehicle. They transferred their political energies and organizational talents—as well as their (once again hidden) political agenda—into creating or dominating new organizations, some of which, like Women Strike for Peace, became both noteworthy and influential during the war in Vietnam. Indeed, some such groups, and still newer ones, remain significant even today: the U.S. Peace Council, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), are familiar contemporary manifestations of the phenomenon—straight out of the tradition traced by Klehr—of genuine “fronts.” No doubt this contemporary American movement will one day find a scholar both talented and thorough enough to penetrate its various disguises.

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Footnotes

1 See my review in COMMENTARY, March 1983.

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