Commentary Magazine


The Rise and Fall of American Communism, by Philip J. Jaffe

Introduction by Bertram D. Wolfe. Horizon Press. 236 pp. $10.00.

Earl Browder, the most successful and powerful leader the American Communist party ever had, once confessed that “while I was in Moscow I was like a child.” Browder only began to grow up after Stalin, whom he idolized, kicked him out of the Communist family in 1945 and Browder could find no way back. Philip J. Jaffe tells the story of the Communist Party, U.S.A. (CPUSA) through the rise and fall of Browder, the party's general secretary in 1930-45. His stewardship spanned FDR's New Deal, Hitler's rise to power, the Stalin era in the USSR, the Hitler-Stalin pact, World War II, and the first days of the cold war.

Jaffe views from the inside the tortured history of the American Communist movement, which at its height had about 70,000 members and 30,000 more in its youth group, plus a wide circle of fellow travelers, of whom Jaffe himself was a leading representative. For many years Jaffe toed the party line in the magazine he edited on Asian affairs, Amerasia. He had a close political relationship with CP leaders, and was indicted in the famous “Amerasia Case” for publishing confidential State Department documents (although he was a piker by the standards of Daniel Ellsberg or even Jack Anderson).

As a close confidant of Earl Browder, before and after the general secretary was dumped by Moscow, Jaffe had a unique vantage point. He writes that after his expulsion Browder was torn between the need to maintain a romantic view of his past—perhaps to delude himself as well as others—and the desire to bring out the truth. After failing to write his autobiography, Browder turned to Jaffe for help. At first Jaffe declined because “Browder, like Stalin, was a re-writer of history,” but when Browder, finally convinced that he never would be allowed to return to the party, began bit by bit to supply inside information and confidential Communist documents, Jaffe changed his mind. (It was not until 1960, some six years after the Khrushchev revelations, that Browder could bring himself to denounce Stalin by name.)

The material and documents he got from Browder, plus a deep understanding of the Communist movement, make Jaffe's book more than just a supplement to other histories of the American Communist party. Indeed, on a number of important questions Jaffe's book is definitive. In the matter of the dispute over whether the CPUSA took its orders from Moscow, for instance, Jaffe reveals that when Browder visited the Soviet Union in October 1938, he was instructed to acquire a specified shortwave receiver and to listen for messages in code. Published here for the first time are the September and October 1939 messages that Browder got from Moscow, laying down the line the American party should follow on the Hitler-Stalin pact and the joint invasion of Poland. Browder gave the new line his all. “This war,” he wrote, “is an imperialist war, and the Jewish people . . . have nothing to gain in taking sides.” When Hitler's army surprised Stalin and crossed the Soviet border, the line of course underwent total reversal, but what remained the same was that Left and Right were defined solely in relation to Soviet interests: it is not surprising that Browder could call FDR a “fascist” one day and a “great democrat” the next; and overnight the Socialist leader Norman Thomas went from being a “statesman” to a “social fascist.”

Browder kept his radio and code book a secret from his party's politburo and central committee. Thus, former Communist Joseph R. Starobin, in American Communism in Crisis: 1943-1957,1 can honestly maintain that the CP was not under any direct orders from Moscow. Through his knowledge of the international Communist world and the USSR's role within it, Jaffe is in a much better position than Starobin to see how much the American CP was influenced and shaped by Moscow's objectives. (Starobin's book is nevertheless worth reading, particularly for its description of the American CP's internal life and structure.)

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In regard to the continuing controversy over who started the cold war, Jaffe stresses the importance of an article appearing in the April 1945 issue of Cahiers de Communisme, the theoretical organ of the French Communist party, under the signature of the party leader, Jacques Duclos. This article, Jaffe concluded and Browder came to agree, was “the first shot in the cold war,” bearing the message that Communist parties and governments throughout the world must reverse gears and prepare for a confrontation with Stalin's wartime allies. In his article Duclos specifically attacked Browder for capitulation to capitalism (a crime that Duclos himself was later accused of) and gave the “directive not only to the American Communist party but to all Communist parties to prepare for a Soviet postwar foreign policy in which Browder's expulsion and the reconversion of the American Communist party to its prewar leftist line were only minor incidents.” Jaffe marshals considerable evidence and logic to make the case that Duclos was only the postman delivering a letter from Stalin.

Almost overnight, Browder was deprived of his post (he was expelled from the party in 1946), and reviled by those who had previously worshipped him. As Stalin moved to sharpen the conflict with the West, he also moved to kill, purge, or chasten those Communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere whose views contradicted his own on the coming economic crisis in the West, or who were still identified with his old view stressing the viability of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the wartime allies. Asked in 1949 when the cold war began, Browder said, “I would judge that in Stalin's inscrutable mind, it began the day it became clear that Hitler's armies would be defeated.”

When Browder got the ax—figuratively, not literally as had Trotsky—he maintained, with a great deal of truth, that he had only taken the position on coexistence which Stalin himself had proclaimed with Roosevelt and Churchill at their Teheran meeting in December 1943. To Stalin, Teheran was a tactic, designed to gain more military aid from his suspicious allies. To Browder, as he wrote at the time in his book Teheran, it was the dawn of a new era of cooperation between the Western capitalist democracies and Soviet Communism, designed to win the war and construct the peace that would follow. While Browder was trying to build a single world, Stalin was deciding on the need to divide the world into two camps, and it was in the opposite camp that he placed his allies of a short while ago, dropping Browder in for good measure.

Browder has been labeled, with some justice, a “premature détenter.” But there are substantive differences between Browder's version of coexistence and Brezhnev's. The present Soviet leadership uses the concept of détente as a strategy for achieving the greatest amount of expansion at the least risk, while the USSR arms itself for a major shift in Moscow's favor in the world balance of power. Browder, who had not given up the struggle for Communism, seems nevertheless to have genuinely believed in peaceful coexistence, not just as a tactic but as a means of averting war between the two systems; the triumph of Communism would come about, in his view, through peaceful means. In fact, in Teheran he outlined an economic basis for peace through something akin to the Marshall Plan and the European Common Market, a structure which would have the participation of the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR and keep them united through a community of interests.

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What were the factors that led to the decline and fall of the American Communist party? Joseph Starobin, in American Communism in Crisis, adopts Daniel Bell's thesis that the American radical movement was doomed because its sectarianism, its evangelical zeal, and its inability to resolve the conflict between reform and revolution, made it, “in but not of the world.” Bell's analysis is actually more relevant to the Socialist party than to the CP. Jaffe argues, more convincingly, that the American Communist movement declined because it was not in but of the Communist world. That does not mean that American influence did not help to shape it, or that it ignored peculiarly American problems. A leading socialist theorist, Max Shachtman, observed that during the New Deal the CPUSA contributed to major progressive reforms and (when not trying to exploit the Negro question for ulterior objectives) it helped to advance the struggle for civil rights, but that everything it touched became warped because basically the loyalty of the leadership was to Moscow and not to the American working class or the Negro movement.

Jaffe, however, makes too much of CP sectarianism. One of the major reasons for the CPUSA's failure, he argues, was that the “American party . . . propagandized the American people as if they were French or Italian or Bulgarian.” (He recalls an old party member opening a speech with the slogan, “Workers and peasants of Brooklyn!”) While this was true of the early movement, it was not true of the CP in the heyday of the Popular Front. Under Browder's leadership, in fact, the party became 200 percent American, so much so that Browder later complained that the Civil Service Commission was able to spot and weed out Communists by looking for “an advanced degree of patriotism.” It was Browder, with an American knack for show business, who coined the phrase, “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” He created a mythical history for American Communism, clothing it in the nation's patriotic accessories and proclaiming the CP the only rightful heir to the tradition of Jefferson, Paine, and Lincoln.

During the war, Browder built alliances not with the American “peasantry” but with the National Association of Manufacturers, who appreciated his no-strike pledge and Communist discipline in the unions, (Browder revealed to Jaffe that not only did the Communists during World War II applaud the use of the anti-subversive Smith Act against the Trotskyists—it was later to be used against the CP itself—but they actually prepared the case for the Justice Department.) Ironically enough, the CP was freed from the incubus of sectarianism—it otherwise might have vegetated with other radical groups—as a result of directives from Moscow. Stalin needed the CPUSA to influence all segments of American society, including the NAM, to aid the USSR in its life-and-death struggle with Hitler. Thus an accident of history freed and impelled Browder to innovate, in a fashion no other American radical group could or would.

The American Communists were able to embrace a popular President, Roosevelt, and a popularly acclaimed program, the New Deal, and hence to garner much broader support than their views on international affairs would have commanded. With the appearance of a real American movement, the CP developed substantial influence in all sectors of American life. All this ended with the onset of the cold war, when, again in servile obedience to Moscow's wishes, the party ruptured its relationship with its wartime liberal allies and lost all its influence in the labor movement.

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While Jaffe's book throws new light on how the American Communist movement rose and fell, it leaves unanswered the enigma of why Browder (and many others like him) gave complete loyalty to a totalitarian system, and continued to do so even when this system had done him harm. In 1950, a debate on the question of whether the Soviet Union had a socialist system was held between Browder, who had been expelled by the CP four years before but still defended the Soviet system, and Max Shachtman, who had been expelled many years earlier for Trotskyist deviations and who argued that the Soviet system was an anti-democratic and thus an anti-socialist force. At the end of his remarks, Shachtman turned toward Browder and said, “There but for an accident of geography goes a corpse.” This was no mere hyperbole. In the 1949 purge trials in Budapest defendants were sentenced to death after confessing, among other “crimes,” that they had held discussion classes on Browder's ideas. And yet Browder could still write to Moscow in the same year, noting that he remained “an unshakable partisan of socialist construction in the USSR.”

As Jaffe's book demonstrates, Earl Browder wasted his substantial talents in the service of a movement which violated every one of its stated principles. His was a pathetic rather than a tragic figure. He never fully wrestled with the moral implications of his actions as a Communist, nor did he make a fight for his views within the party. To his credit Browder did refuse to retract his views on coexistence: “I don't want to be a political zombie,” he said. And Jaffe mentions that he courageously spoke out on the treatment of Soviet Jews at a time when he still had not fully broken with the USSR. Toward the end of his life, according to Jaffe, Browder came to be strongly opposed to Communism and to consider himself a democratic socialist, even making one attempt in 1956 to convince Socialist party leader Norman Thomas to start an ingathering on the democratic Left. When Browder died on June 17, 1973 not one of his old comrades who still maintained a tie to the Communist party attended his funeral. And there was not one Communist publication in the world which even mentioned his death. He had been made an “unperson” the day he was excommunicated.

The bankruptcy and collapse of the U.S. Communist movement did not end the attraction of a good portion of America's intellectuals to left-wing totalitarianism, an attraction to elitism of which the Communist party may have been just as much an expression as a cause. That is why the story of Earl Browder—a strange mixture of real and self-serving social idealism, a man attracted to power and needing adulation, a devotee of authoritarian planning—continues to be so intriguing. While Jaffe's book does not tell us what made Browder run, it does help strip away a number of continuing illusions about the Communist movement—fostered yesterday by Browder's movement and today by revisionist historians and those who see more good in totalitarianism than in a flawed American democracy.

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Footnotes

1 Harvard University Press, 331 pp., $12.95.

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