W.H. Auden, who was one of the important figures in giving a revolutionary tone and orientation to the 1930’s, characterized it, after it was over, as “a low, dishonest decade.” Probably his chief reason for doing so was the acute contradiction between the ideals and aspirations of its spokesmen and their hypocritical judgments on, and silence about, the domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet Union. The outstanding personalities and organizations that shouted “frameup” at the time of the Reichstag Fire Trials in Berlin nevertheless endorsed the Moscow Trials only a few years later on the strength of the unsubstantiated confessions of the men in the dock. The same eloquent revolutionary idealists, while calling for a boycott of trade with Italy after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, of Japan after its invasion of Manchuria, of Germany after Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, nevertheless remained silent about the sale of oil, coal, and other materials by the Soviet Union to Italy, Japan, and Germany. Carried to the heights of their revolutionary idealism in the defense of the Spanish Republic against fascist aggression, they nevertheless countenanced and, on the whole, approved of the extermination by the GPU of anti-Stalinist elements among the pro-Republican forces.
All this, of course, was part of the background. In the forefront were the domestic scene and the succession of issues that arose as unemployment mounted, want and deprivation bit more deeply into the consciousness of American citizens, and as the measures of the New Deal, fitfully developed to meet the crisis, resulted in uncertainty.
The intellectuals who supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, drawn from Harvard and Columbia, were for the most part clustered in Washington. Since they were largely engaged in the pragmatic and piecemeal resolution of problems that arose from the necessity of getting production started again and of relieving most of the difficulties of maldistribution, there was little time or even interest in elaborating a comprehensive philosophy of the New Deal that could serve as an alternative unifying faith to socialism or Communism. Most intellectuals who became interested in the social question were in quest of a philosophy that would transform the status quo, not realizing that the measures and reforms of the New Deal, which they contemptuously dismissed as halfway steps, poultices, band-aids, were doing precisely that. The status quo was changing before their very eyes, but not visibly enough to assuage their revolutionary impatience.
The vast majority of radical intellectuals in the 30’s were not revolutionary simpletons, but they did not act like intellectuals. It was not that they did not think. It was that they refused to think about the central articles of their faith. They had unmeasured contempt for intellectuals like Paul Elmer More or Irving Babbitt or the Southern Agrarians who served as poets laureate of the capitalist system or of the class-and caste-ridden societies of the past. But the radical intellectuals had no hesitation in serving as the poets laureate of the socialist future and—what was more blameworthy—of the Soviet Union, which they saw in the rosy hues of the many-splendored fictions retailed by returning pilgrims from the international fatherland of the workers, peasants, and thinkers of the world.
I cannot absolve myself of the failure to exercise critical responsibility toward my own socialist ideals and beliefs in the same way my teachers—Morris Raphael Cohen, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell, who were sympathetic to those ideals on ethical grounds—did at the time. I was guilty of judging capitalism by its operations and socialism by its hopes and aspirations; capitalism by its works and socialism by its literature. To this day, the same error and its disastrous consequences are observable in the judgment and behavior of individuals who, obsessed by the genuine shortcomings of the welfare state at home or abroad, opt for one of the varieties of totalitarian Communism.
In my own case—and to a greater or lesser degree for an indeterminate number of other individuals who were influenced by my thinking—three reasons explain but do not justify this elementary but massive error. First, there was my genuine ignorance of what was really occurring within the Soviet Union. Perhaps this was exacerbated by a reluctance to find out. I am profoundly convinced that had I known in the late 20’s or early 30’s what I definitely knew in the mid-30’s, I would not so easily have succumbed to this fallacious outlook.
There had been so many lies and hostile stories coming out of Russia during the early years of the Revolution that it was hard to distinguish between an atrocity tale and the damaging truth. And on the other side there was Walter Duranty writing apologias for Stalin’s terror against the peasantry in the guise of news reports in the august pages of the New York Times; he even denied there was famine in the Ukraine.1 There were as well glowing reports from a stream of pilgrims to the Red Mecca who had been herded from one Potemkin village to another in every area of their interest—public health, social welfare, education—by skillful party operators. Initially, even hard-headed liberals like John Dewey and George Counts were taken in.
Once we glimpsed the truth we began to see things in better perspective. I recall a memorable conversation with Albert Goldman, Leon Trotsky’s attorney at the Dewey Commission Hearings on the Moscow Trials in Mexico City, which explains his later excommunication from the Trotskyist movement: “If I could be assured that our present capitalistic welfare system would not get worse, I would infinitely prefer it to any socialist system resembling the Soviet Union.”
Goldman’s remark points toward the second reason. All of us still lived in the shadow of World War I which even the conventional historians interpreted as a consequence of the imperialist conflicts of the capitalist economy. We assumed that capitalism must expand or collapse; and expansion, sooner or later, would lead to war. It was indeed the horrors of World War I and the revulsion they inspired that prevented the Western powers from “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle” by military action, as Winston Churchill had urged at the time. And we revolutionary socialists often would discount the agonies and the loss of life resulting from the October Revolution by contrasting them with the much greater costs of the war.
The third reason played a particular role in my own political obtuseness. My Guggenheim year in Germany in 1928-29 had convinced me that a nationalist revival to overturn the Treaty of Versailles and its perceived injustices would soon sweep over Germany, and in 1930, when Hitler’s National Socialist party went from 12 to 114 seats in the Reichstag, I felt vindicated in my judgment and fears. Now, a victory by Hitler spelled, according to his own program of action, war against the Soviet Union. I therefore assumed that the Kremlin, in its own interests and that of the international working class, as well as in the cause of humanity, would organize, through its powerful Communist political and trade-union affiliates in Germany, a revolution either to forestall a fascist victory and war if Hitler attempted a Putsch or to overthrow him in the unlikely event that he would come legally or peacefully into power. It seemed to me axiomatic that the Soviet Union could not permit the forces of fascism to triumph in Germany.
The fear of fascism helped to blur my vision and blunt my hearing when it came to the reports of oppression that kept trickling out of the Soviet Union. It was certainly a well-justified fear. But it was rooted in a vulgar Marxist simplification of the nature of fascism that blinded me to the source of its strength, that is to say, to its mass base.
The simplification was that fascism was the dictatorship of finance capitalism, the final phase of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, to which the only viable alternative was the dictatorship of the proletariat. In its desperate defense of private property, fascism was prepared to destroy all the distinctive liberal values of Western civilization and return society to the culture of barbarism. Lenin had said it. Stalin repeated it in dull prose. Trotsky elaborated on it with brilliant pyrotechnical rhetoric. Every faction of the Communist movement—Left, Right, Center—adhered to it. Most socialist thinkers, with rare exceptions like Hilferding, followed suit. Even independent Marxists like James Burnham, who would later become a leading Trotskyist (and still later, a National Review conservative), but who at the time kept his distance from the strife of factions, accepted this analysis. Thus in the Nation (October 3, 1934) Burnham wrote: “Hitler is no Teutonic accident. He is the cultural price we pay for the preservation of private property.”
These, then, were the reasons why, until Hitler came to power in Germany, I became a fellow-traveler of the Communist movement. I did not join the Communist party because (among other things) it seemed to me insufficiently Marxist both in its slogans and its practices. Thus, working from the outside, I set out to expound and apply Marxist principles to the theoretical and practical problems of the day in a manner designed to appeal to intelligent persons who had not lost their critical sensibilities. At the same time I began an uneasy and more or less stormy collaboration with the front and peripheral organizations of the Communist movement in hopes of influencing its thinking and knowledge of Marxism until such time as its practices changed.
I was then working on the book that would be published both in the United States and England under the title Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx. What I tried to do there was to go beyond the tired propaganda slogans and analyses of the agitprop division of the Communist party, to stress the continuity between Marx’s contributions and the intellectual tradition of the West, and to bring to a higher intellectual level the challenge of a democratic collectivist society to the capitalist order. I did not compromise on any theoretical point on which I thought Marx, Engels, or Lenin was wrong, confident in my naiveté that these criticisms would be taken in the context of my reinterpretation of Marxism as a fulfillment of the ideals of democracy as a way of life. (Max Eastman reviewed one of my later books under the sardonic title, “What Karl Marx Would Have Said If He Had Been a Student of John Dewey.”)
I did refrain in Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx from criticizing certain unhealthy developments in the Soviet Union, realizing already then that I could get no hearing for my views among those I was trying to influence if I were to identify myself with any of the currently warring political factions. It did not seem to me in principle impossible to develop a kind of Americanized Marxism strengthened by John Dewey’s activist theory of mind and knowledge, as well as his philosophy of education and naturalistic humanism, that would be consonant with the American revolutionary tradition.
When Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx appeared in 1933, it had less of an impact on the Communist movement than on American intellectual life and less on American intellectual life than on English intellectual life. Bertrand Russell, in a letter to V.F. Calverton dated July 14, 1933 from Deudraeth Castle Hotel, wrote: “Please remember me to Sidney Hook, whose book on Marx seems to be having a great success.” I heard in subsequent years that the book played an important role in drawing Oxford and Cambridge students into the Communist movement. It also converted many leading intellectuals—or strongly confirmed them in their leanings—to a revolutionary-socialist standpoint; and many of these would remain within the Communist organizations and their periphery after I myself had decisively broken with them. One such, John Strachey, wrote me enthusiastically about the book (though he would later change his mind upon learning during a visit to the United States that I had become openly critical of the Kremlin).
During the late 20’s and early 30’s I got to know several important members of the Communist party—notably the writers Joseph Freeman and Michael Gold. I also did some editorial work for A.L. Trachtenberg, the head of the party’s publishing house, International Publishers. V.J. Jerome, who served as a sort of cultural commissar for the party, had sat in on the philosophy courses I was teaching at New York University. Felix Morrow (later to become a Trotskyist and an important publisher) and William Phillips (the future editor of Partisan Review) were also students of mine at NYU. Morrow had some connection with the Menorah Journal, the Jewish cultural periodical edited by Henry Hurwitz, and through him I met Herbert Solow who, it turned out, was actually a neighbor of mine in Brooklyn Heights. In consequence our friendship ripened.
When I first encountered him in 1929, Herbert Solow was no revolutionary socialist but a militant liberal of the school of Charles Beard. In the course of a year, the devastating effects of the Depression reinforced the strength of my arguments, and he became a Marxist, and then a Communist sympathizer. But he soon contracted a severe case of what Lenin called “infantile leftism” from which he never completely recovered until he abandoned revolutionary politics.
Solow was a brilliant journalist with enormous gifts for analysis, research, and ferreting out connections. He performed invaluable services later in the field working with left-wing trade unions, and at the time of the Moscow Trials. He would have made a marvelous detective or a prosecuting attorney. In those days, he tended to think geometrically about politics, and his absolute moral integrity sometimes impressed his friends and associates as an expression of moral self-righteousness. The ambiguities of political maneuver appeared to him to be needless hyprocrisy. Burdened with a choleric temper that was sometimes followed by deep depression, he could occasionally be an embarrassment, even a liability, in the attempt to counteract and influence the Communist-party line. He would curse me out as a centrist, but aware of his own incapacity for leadership, he offered to be my “lieutenant”—the word was his—in the campaign to de-Stalinize the Communist movement.
Our relationship, even when friendly, was stormy because he soon swallowed the entire Trotskyist line, which I could never buy, as much as I admired Trotsky’s gifts and sympathized with his plight. Solow was prepared to devote his life to the career of a professional revolutionist and expected his friends to do so, too, if they were in political agreement with him. He was a man of many parts who never reached the high level of achievement he was capable of.
It was Solow who was chiefly responsible for moving the group of writers loosely associated with the Menorah Journal to the Left. Elliot Cohen, the young managing editor (who in 1945 would become the first editor of COMMENTARY), always followed Solow, though at a distance and protestingly, and between them they were able to influence the gifted men and women (including Lionel Trilling and Tess Slesinger) whose contributions had made the Menorah Journal a magazine of broad cultural appeal.2
I had previously met Cohen through Morrow, but in the beginning we did not hit it off. He had commissioned an article-review from me of Waldo Frank’s Our America—an overblown mystical panegyric—but refused to print it on the ground that it was too critical (he was then wooing Frank to write regularly for the Menorah Journal).
My relations with Cohen were further strained by the unhappy outcome of a meeting of contributors, staff, and invited guests at the Menorah offices at which one of the leading figures of the Zionist movement, Shmarya Levin, gave a fiery address (in German). This was in the late spring of 1930. With memories of the Arab excesses against the Jews in the previous year still fresh in my mind, I mildly interposed a question about the difficulties in Arab-Jewish relations. Levin blew up, denounced me in unflattering terms, and spoiled the evening as well as his own effect on the audience. Oddly enough, Cohen but not Hurwitz held me accountable. At the time I knew very little about Jewish affairs. Since my standpoint was close to that of the Jewish Bund, I was not a political Zionist but was sympathetic to the idea of a bicultural community along the lines envisaged by Judah Magnes—an idea whose utterly utopian character I did not appreciate until later.
In consequence of Solow’s extraordinary influence over Cohen (they seemed to be always quarreling and always making up), our personal dislikes faded in our common political orientation, though it was not until the 40’s that Cohen and I actually became friendly. Looking back now, I suspect that he resented my political influence over Solow whose tantrums, although unpleasant, I did not take as seriously as he did.
Cohen was a person of great insight into the nature of popular culture—a talker rather than a writer, whose ideas anticipated the discoveries of major sociologists of a later generation. He was a neophyte in radical politics and did not easily brook contradiction. But he was no dogmatist, and regardless of the vehemence and uncomplimentary language with which he tended to express disagreement, he was not loath to change his mind. There was one rather endearing but sometimes startling habit he had. Half-a-dozen times during the years I knew him, I was awakened during the night or early morning by telegrams that began: “You were right! I was wrong!”
It was not only in the Solow-Elliot Cohen circle that I found political allies. There were also others as diverse in background as Lewis Corey and James Rorty. Corey, born Louis Fraina, was an old professional revolutionist, who, legend had it, was called “the first American Bolshevik” by Lenin himself. After helping to organize the American Communist party in 1919, he became the victim of a Communist intrigue that charged him with being an American agent. Making his way to Moscow, he was not only cleared but entrusted with a commission by the Communist International (Comintern). He then disappeared. Under his new name he surfaced in 1928 as an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, of which Edwin Seligman of Columbia University was editor-in-chief, and Alvin Johnson of the New School was managing editor. Herbert Solow was also an assistant editor, and as soon as I disclosed Corey’s real identity to him, he questioned Corey about his past. For a while Corey and I bandied messages to each other through Solow; but Solow and I never learned the real truth about the funds—whose size grew with each retelling—with which the Communist International had entrusted Corey to bring the revolutionary gospel to America.
Lewis Corey was in many ways a remarkable man. An autodidact, he learned enough about Marx and economics to hold his own with conventional academic economists. Despite a speech defect, he became a skillful orator whose intensity of conviction was communicated to his audiences no matter what the subject. He was even able to keep an audience interested when it didn’t know what he was talking about. Most impressive of all, he was prepared and able to test his first principles or dogmas in the light of experience. He was the first outstanding Marxist to recognize that the rise of the democratic welfare state had made Marx’s writings largely irrelevant to the understanding of our modern economy.
Corey, however, had one marked intellectual defect. He was completely devoid of a sense of humor and without the saving grace of any awareness of its absence. He recognized what I was trying to do, was extremely helpful, and sensible enough to steer clear of any Trotskyist entanglements. Yet unbeknownst to me at the time, he was still Bolshevik enough to be in close touch with, if not a secret member of, the dissident Communist faction led by Jay Lovestone, whose doctrine of American exceptionalism made more sense then than any other in the field.
James Rorty was by profession a journalist but at heart he was a poet. He had a love for the soil and the natural life, and long before the environmentalist movement was born, he held forth against the evils of pollution and the dangers of the use of chemicals and preservatives in the nation’s food supply. In those days we thought this was a quaint, lovable aberration. He joined Solow and me not so much on the strength of any theoretical economic, political, or philosophical doctrines but on the basis of everyday issues that arose, following the lead of his common sense and inherent moral decency.
The chief battleground in our conflict with the Communist party was the League of Professional Groups. This organization was an outgrowth of the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, which had been organized during the 1932 presidential campaign of Communist candidates William Z. Foster and John W. Ford, hard on the declaration of more than fifty leading intellectuals expressing support of the Communist-party ticket as a protest against the chaos and misery around them. Among the fifty signers were Sherwood Anderson, Newton Arvin, Lewis Corey, Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos, Waldo Frank, Granville Hicks, Langston Hughes, Matthew Josephson, Lincoln Steffens, and Edmund Wilson. (I also signed, but I dissuaded several other friends who were willing to sign from doing so because it would have exposed them to dangerous sanctions which, in accordance with traditional practices in the U.S., we expected to be taken against them.)
During the campaign, the practical activities of the League were not conducive to raising difficulties about Communist theory and overall strategy and tactics. Capitalism was the common enemy. I was also rather apprehensive that my incautious agreement to serve as treasurer of the Committee to Help Deported and Exiled Old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union might give color to the suspicion that we were raising difficulties from a factional point of view.
This had come about when, a year earlier, someone calling himself B.G. Field had visited me as an emissary from Leon Trotsky with a moving tale of the hardships being experienced by his followers in the exiled wastes of the Soviet Union. On humanitarian grounds I consented to serve. Only the tip of the iceberg of Stalinist terror was visible to us at that point, and our printed appeal brought a modest response from all elements of the liberal and radical community.
It is significant that none of us was struck by the fact that, at the very time the Kremlin, through its front organizations headed by “honest liberals,” was circulating clemency petitions for its operatives in China, Switzerland, Hungary, and other countries where they had run afoul of the existing regimes, Stalin’s treatment of loyal dissenters, not to speak of those genuinely in opposition, was hardly different. Indeed, the chief difference, it turned out, was that whereas in non-Communist countries humanitarian petitions often led to the commutation or reduction of the sentences of Communists, such humanitarian appeals had no comparable effect on the Kremlin’s treatment of its own political nonconformists.
The one indisputable achievement of the American Communist party in this period was in helping to save the lives of the defendants in the Scottsboro case, nine young blacks who had been unjustly accused of raping two white girls and had been originally sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But the way the Communists fought the case often subordinated the interests of the defendants to opportunities to make political propaganda for the party and the Soviet Union, thus alienating influential sections of the middle classes as well as many clergymen who would have responded strongly to a straightforward appeal based on the merits of the case. The Communist leader Earl Browder was once chided for using a notorious and unsavory criminal lawyer, who had represented some of the most repulsive gangsters of the period, to appeal the Scottsboro convictions when much more distinguished and reputable attorneys were able and willing to do so. Browder replied that by using the most discredited members of the American bar, he was showing his contempt for the system of American justice.
Our collaboration with the Communist-party stalwarts in the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford was not marred by open criticism while the 1932 presidential campaign was in progress. We were uncomfortable at being trotted out as celebrities at mass meetings and distressed at the low level of the propaganda spouted by the party intellectuals and officials. But we performed our assigned tasks loyally and effectively. Whatever dissatisfaction we had was voiced to individuals whom we deemed sufficiently independent not to be carried away by the emotion of herd enthusiasm or overwhelmed by awe of the party’s authority. In his book, Infidel in the Temple, Matthew Josephson, usually an unreliable witness, relates an incident that I do not recall in which, strolling together after one of these successful meetings, I “burst forth in a sudden tirade against the ‘stupid leadership’ of the Communist party.” It is not likely that I would have unburdened myself to him at that time since it was obvious that anything said to him would be reported to Malcolm Cowley who, although not a member of the Communist party, was working hand-in-glove with the party faction in the League.
Instead of voicing our criticisms, what our group sought to do was reformulate the revolutionary position in such a way as to avoid Communist-party jargon and make it continuous with the authentic American revolutionary tradition. We failed miserably. The pamphlet, Culture and the Crisis, which was published in the name of the League was a pastiche of many hands—Corey, Cowley, Rorty, Josephson, myself, and one or two others. The end product was edited by the party regulars. Except for some introductory pages, a vivid and colorful account of the crisis, and some original characterizations of the Republican and Democratic parties, it read like a typical Communist document, particularly in its political section, full of Communist clichés. I had written fervently about workers’ democracy and about Communism as a fulfillment of the liberal ideals of Western civilization, but all this was deleted by the invisible hands that saw the manuscript through the press.
Meanwhile I made a horrifying and embarrassing discovery. After Culture and the Crisis was published to explain why the intellectuals were supporting the candidacy of Foster and Ford, I read Foster’s book, Towards Soviet America. It was the crudest piece of propaganda which, if attention had been called to it, would have undone the work of a million slick pamphlets describing Communism as the latest phase in the development of the Jeffersonian revolutionary tradition. I am confident that none of the other members of the League had read the book, and I doubt that many would have publicly identified themselves with its key positions had they been challenged to affirm them. For on page 275 Foster declared:
Even before the seizure of power, the workers will organize the Red Guard. . . The leader of the Revolution in all its stages is the Communist party. . . . Under the dictatorship, all the Capitalist parties—Republican, Democratic, Progressive, Socialist, etc.—will be liquidated, the Communist party alone functioning as the party of the toiling masses. Likewise will be dissolved all other organizations that are political props of all bourgeois rule, including chambers of commerce, employers’ associations, Rotary Clubs, American Legion, YMCA, and such fraternal orders as the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, Knights of Columbus, etc.
This was far more than the intellectuals who had signed the open letter had bargained for. It would have been too much even for Matthew Josephson, who disingenuously pleads thirty years later that support of the Communist electoral ticket was only a protest. It was much more than a protest, since it endorsed the party program. On the other hand, the intellectuals certainly never conceived the party program in this way. Among the ostensible reasons they were calling upon their fellow citizens to cast a protest vote for the Communist ticket was their fear of fascism at home and abroad. Yet Foster’s bloodthirsty account of what the Communists would do after “the seizure” (sic) of power sounded like a preview of a fascist takeover. Indeed, at the time it was even more extreme than the Nazi account of the proposed road to political power, since Hitler was swearing that he would avoid a coup d’état and come to power legally.
Fortunately for the fifty-two or so intellectuals who signed the original letter, the “capitalist press” missed the passage. But reading Towards Soviet America reinforced my feeling that the American Communist party, even when led by an indigenous American like Foster, was incapable of reorienting its thinking to the historic conditions and traditions of the country it inhabited. In order to ingratiate themselves with the Kremlin, the American Communists were aping the most extreme aspects of what they fancied the Bolshevik program was during the darkest days of the Russian civil war. (I did not realize until later that the chief fault lay not so much with the stupidities of the American leaders, of which there was abundant evidence, as with those in the Kremlin who appointed them.)
Some may be surprised at my judgment that Foster’s description of the way the Communist party planned to achieve a Soviet America would have shocked “the cream of the American intellectuals,” as Browder once referred to them, into political sobriety. After all, had they not opted for revolutionary Marxism? Had they not rejected socialism and the Socialist party as unviable?
True, but in rejecting socialism they did not mean to reject democracy; what they were rejecting was the timidity of the Socialists who when in power abandoned their own programs of social reform. This was how the Social Democratic movement in Germany was judged. The actual domestic experience of force and violence, especially in areas where unions were being organized, convinced intellectuals that it was the law-enforcement agencies of the country, national and local, that were more often guilty of illegal violence than the workers or farmers. The assumption was widespread that fascism as an organized illegal movement to nullify any gains won by the workers was an imminent danger in the United States. This assumption was shared by reputable liberal thinkers who would have nothing to do with the signers of the League’s statement. Those who signed were convinced, mistakenly as it turned out, that the liberal philosophy was inadequate to cope with the danger.
At any rate, after the campaign was over and the League of Professional Groups continued with a series of meetings and educational open forums, we began to make our criticisms more vocal. After a while, the Communist-party fraction and its allies were prepared for us—not with argument but with epithets, jeers, and voting majorities. I distinctly recall three meetings. At one we attacked the theory of social-fascism (according to which non-Communist groups on the Left were “objectively” indistinguishable from fascism) and its pernicious consequences for a genuine united front to resist the growth of fascism; at the second, we took on the theory and practice of dual trade unionism (which called for the setting up of rival unions by the Communists when they were unable to control existing unions in a given industry); at the third we devoted ourselves to the Communist party’s program of “self-determination for the Black Belt.”
The most vehement criticisms of our position came not from the party fraction but from the staunch fellow-travelers Malcolm Cowley and Kyle Crichton. Since Trotsky, from his own point of view, had written critically of the theory of social-fascism, we were attacked as “Trotskyites,” and our retort, “Even Trotsky can sometimes be right,” was, despite our denials, taken as proof positive of the truth of the allegations against us. Actually, criticisms of the doctrine of social-fascism were common coin among all radical groups outside the Communist party, and it was Lewis Corey who was most eloquent in exposing the fatuities of the position.
I myself led the assault against the practice of dual trade unionism. Even admitting the necessity of bringing home to the workers the realization that every industrial struggle was a political struggle, I argued that ideological divisions among workers in the same craft or industry weakened their bargaining ability and enabled employers to pit one union against another, sometimes resulting in strike-breaking. I recall that it was during this discussion that Cowley turned on me with the indignant question: “Who are you to disagree with William Foster over trade unionism?”
As for “self-determination for the Black Belt”—including, no less, the right of secession from the United States—this slogan had been imposed on the American Communist party by the Comintern. The reasoning was that since the blacks were a minority, and since national minorities in the Soviet Union had (on paper) the right to self-determination, the same demand must be raised on behalf of the blacks in the United States. But, as we argued, in the American context such a proposal was not only a call for a Jim Crow program and a segregated culture; if taken seriously, it would obstruct efforts to organize black sharecroppers and to unite Negroes and whites in the South in civil-rights cases.
The fact that the American party leadership was prepared to accept this utterly irresponsible proposal for “solving” the black problem in the United States without demurring was a measure of its slavishness to the Kremlin. It was as if they had no roots in or knowledge of the American society they wanted to transform. The Soviets had the excuse of ignorance. I remember once being asked by the pundits of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow where I was doing research, “What language do the Negroes speak?” and their initial incredulity when I replied “English.” Since the Soviet minorities had their own tongue, the American Negroes must have one too.
It was not long before the rift between the Communist party and our group widened into a gulf and then became an unbridgeable abyss. The Communist leaders were fearful that we would infect the literary lions who graced their other front organizations, and began systematic campaigns of denigration against us. Subsequently I learned that the Communist command was fearful that we would organize a new political party. They were apparently haunted by an article Edmund Wilson (a member of the League and sympathetic to our group) had published in the New Republic in 1931 in which he wrote: “I believe that if the American radicals and progressives who repudiate the Marxian dogma and the strategy of the Communist party hope to accomplish anything valuable, they must take Communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities or reservations.” Thus, when the American Workers party was founded in January 1934, the Communist-party leadership felt confirmed in its suspicions that this had been our deep design from the outset of our collaboration. They were wrong, as usual. But that is another story.
1 See “The Famine the Times Couldn't Find” by Marco Carynnyk (COMMENTARY, November 1983)—Ed.
2 See “Young in the Thirties” by Lionel Trilling (COMMENTARY, May 1966) and “Epitaph for a Jewish Magazine: Notes on the Menorah Journal” by Robert Alter (COMMENTARY, May 1965)—Ed.