A Covert Life Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spy
by Ted Morgan
Random House. 416 pp. $29.95
So many books about American Communism have been published over the past few years that an unwary reader might suspect it was actually a successful mass movement. Virtually every one of its leaders has been the subject of a full-length biography, and John Reed, one of the founding fathers of the American Communist party, has even been glorified by Hollywood in the 1981 film Reds.
Oddly, however, or perhaps not so oddly considering where he ended up on the political spectrum, Jay Lovestone, one of the most important figures ever to emerge from the American Communist movement, has been treated as a nonperson. Ted Morgan, the biographer of figures ranging from the young Winston Churchill to the writer William S. Burroughs, has now stepped into the breach, drawing on a wealth of newly available archival materials to offer a full account of Lovestone’s suspenseful life behind the scenes.
The youngest child of an Orthodox Jewish family in Lithuania, Jacob Liebstein arrived in New York in 1907 at the age often. Blond and blue-eyed, he Americanized himself rapidly, shedding any attachment to or interest in Judaism and changing his name in 1919 after graduating from City College, where he had been a leading socialist. That same year, he joined the newly formed Communist party and quickly became chief aide to its leader, Charles Ruthenberg, raising money, giving speeches, writing articles for the party’s press, and, most importantly, perfecting his skills at organizing and infighting.
Following Ruthenberg’s death in 1927, Lovestone was installed as party leader with support from the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. But he soon learned that what Moscow gave, it could take away. On a first visit to the USSR in 1925, he had befriended Stalin’s rival Nikolai Bukharin, and he remained loyal to Bukharin even after the latter’s standing began to slip in the murderous Kremlin power struggle of the 1920’s. For this transgression, the Comintern demanded in 1929 that Lovestone turn over control of the Communist party to William Z. Foster, an unequivocal Stalin loyalist.
Lovestone resisted the edict. Remarkably, he even led a delegation to Moscow for a confrontation with the all-powerful Soviet leader himself. To no one’s surprise, however, the Comintern rejected his faction, demanding that Lovestone and his allies surrender their posts and submit to unbending party discipline. When most of them refused, Stalin lost his temper. Lovestone was forcibly detained in the USSR, and managed to escape only with the help of a Latvian-American then working for the Soviet secret police.
By the time he returned to the United States, the Communist party was firmly in his enemies’ hands, and Lovestone found himself leading a mere splinter group of 200 people, grandly named the Communist Party (Majority Group). Though this tiny organization was regularly denounced in the Communist press, and Lovestone himself was subjected to various forms of harassment by party agents, his faith in Communism remained, at least for a while, unsullied. He continued to regard the USSR as a “workers’ state” and to support it by various means, including through contacts with Soviet intelligence.
Then came Stalin’s show trials of the late 30’s, and the execution of Bukharin in 1938. At last the scales fell from Lovestone’s eyes. He broke with Communism for good, and devoted the rest of his life—he died in 1990, just after the collapse of the Soviet empire—to fighting it.
With his rich experience as an organizer, Lovestone found himself in much demand in the trade-union movement then grappling with widespread Communist infiltration of its ranks. Fighting one battle after another, first inside the garment-workers’ union, then among the auto workers, by 1944 Lovestone was invited by George Meany to take charge of the American Federation of Labor’s foreign-policy arm, newly set up to provide support to independent trade unions around the world.
For the next several decades, Lovestone waged a quiet form of organizational warfare that had a profound impact on the course of the cold war. In France and Italy, he played a vital role in the struggle with Communist apparatchiks fighting furiously for control of labor movements. In occupied Germany, he worked successfully to resurrect a democratic labor movement, steering a course between American civilian authorities sympathetic to Communist unions and American generals hostile to unionization in any shape or form.
By the late 1940’s, Lovestone had established ties with the newly formed CIA, which was then eager to support social democracies as a bulwark against Communism. CIA funds enabled Lovestone to expand his operations in Europe and branch out into Asia, Africa, and eventually Latin America as well. Initially, Lovestone distrusted the CIA, complaining constantly about its callousness and its mistaken priorities. But relations improved when the legendary spymaster James Jesus Angleton became director of CIA counterintelligence in 1954 and was handed the “Lovestone account.” The two became close personal friends as well as ideological soul-mates. For the next twenty years, Lovestone used his extensive network of international contacts to pass along political and economic information and gossip, while Angleton paid most of the bills.
Ironically, in a classic case of the left and right hand of government acting out of sync, the FBI began investigating Lovestone in 1950 on the suspicion that he was a Soviet spy: his mail was intercepted and screened, his telephone was tapped, and he was tailed. It took until 1952 for the FBI to figure out that Lovestone was working with the CIA; the investigation itself was not closed until 1957.
Morgan’s biography, which will undoubtedly stand as the definitive account of the man, is full of similarly engrossing tales of cold-war finagling. Although some aspects of the story, such as Lovestone’s links with Soviet intelligence in the 1930’s, would have benefited from deeper explication, covert lives by definition are difficult to unveil, and Lovestone was a man who relished working in the shadows. In any case, Morgan tells his story straightforwardly and with verve, providing just enough background to enable readers to follow the twists and turns of Lovestone’s trail without getting bogged down in minutiae.
What, ultimately, does Morgan make of that trail? The judgment of A Covert Life might best be described as mixed but sympathetic. Jay Lovestone the human being does not exactly come across as a warm or expansive type: although intensely loyal to those he worked with, he was also an acerbic, demanding, hypercritical workaholic with virtually no outside interests. But this somewhat constricted personality played a significant role in the all-important cause of preventing Communist domination of European labor unions at a time when the American government had not yet recognized the nature of Stalinism or the need to combat it.
It is certainly true, as some of Lovestone’s critics on the Left charged, that in advancing his cause, Lovestone the fanatical anti-Communist employed many of the manipulative tactics he had first learned in the Communist party—including the use of front organizations, factional warfare, and secret government funds. But it is also true that the Communists he was battling employed the same methods and worse, and that they enjoyed vastly deeper pockets filled with KGB gold. What is decisive is that the unions Lovestone helped build in Europe and in former colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America proved to be building blocks of democracy. In the end, Jay Lovestone may have lived a covert life, but his enduring achievements were of the most admirably public sort.