New Studies of U.S. Communism

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Robbie Lieberman

New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism
edited by Michael E. Brown et al
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993, hard cover $38, paperback $18.

The new history of U.S. Communism has demonstrated the importance of going beyond the research centered on Communist party leaders, documents and directives that characterized the “old” history. In the past decade the “new” historians have succeeded in broadening the focus considerably — concentrating on the movement, which attracted millions, rather than the party, which peaked at about 100,000; exploring the nature and extent of Communist influence — positive and negative — in both the political and cultural arenas; presenting more information to help assess the degree of egalitarianism and anti-racism in the Communist movement.

These approaches to the subject are by now familiar. But this volume, based on a 1989 conference held by the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy, advances the argument significantly. For the first time, the day-to-day activity of talented, committed individual Communists is given its due in regard to a broad spectrum of issues: literature, theater, education, labor rights, race relations, and women.

In order to understand the experience of U.S. Communists and their impact on U.S. politics and culture, these essays argue, we need to look more closely at how practical activity may have contradicted or expanded upon official policy. It was in the so-called “front” groups (or mass organizations) that most Communists spent their time and had the most influence. As Ellen Schrecker suggests, these groups merit far more attention than scholars have given them. But the day-to-day activity must then be assessed within the context of CP strategy. In that sense, the new studies grow out of the old ones, which emphasized the twists and turns of the party line and fealty to Moscow for the main political positions.

Mark Naison expresses the tension in this kind of approach, arguing that there were ways in which rank-and-file Communists had a great deal of autonomy during the Popular Front years, which enabled them to function pragmatically to help achieve domestic reforms. “The most important causes of the popular front left…dramatized the heroism of Communists in defense of liberal goals” (69). But the CP’s own worldview and manipulative tactics undermined the work and the alliances built by these committed movement activists. Naison concludes:

“Some popular front causes had indigenous political roots. The movement for black equality, the organization of industrial unions, even the vision of a multi-ethnic United States proud of its varied cultural heritage, represented long repressed impulses flowering within a left milieu, not Soviet dictates being implemented on U.S. soil. But the insistence on linking these democratic currents to a brutal Stalinist dictatorship and a political party as high-handed in its decision making as Ford or General Motors, exposed the popular front left to charges of hypocrisy and political cynicism. A temporary expedient for committed Marxist-Leninists, the popular front served most of its adherents as a Faustian bargain, a well-intentioned but dangerous gamble that Communism would accommodate itself to U.S. values and U.S. political reality. A strategy that unleashed powerful forces in behalf of worker and minority rights, it rested on the most fragile and vulnerable political foundations. (70)

Tensions and Commitment

Naison’s insight should be the starting point for further work on the history of U.S. Communism. The same tension between the limited worldview and tactics of the party, on the one hand, and the persistent commitment of talented movement activists, is implicit in Rosalyn Baxandall’s essay on women, Marvin Gettleman on education, Roger Keeran on the auto unions, Gerald Horne on African Americans.

Just as one begins to wonder why people stayed, devoting their talents to a movement that was doomed both by its own sectarianism and by external repression, Annette Rubinstein expresses beautifully what this commitment was all about. Rubinstein, an activist for more than three decades, describes what it felt like to be part of a mass organization focused on immediate concerns, yet believing “that what we were doing was a necessary small part of a tremendous concerted worldwide effort” (243). She also emphasizes “the curious pervasive democracy, emotional democracy” which characterized the movement, “despite the undemocratic hierarchical structure up above” (246).

In an interview that concludes the book, long-time CP activist Gil Green says simply, “I don’t know where else I could have gone and got that feeling of participation, and actual participation in so many struggles” (325).

There is some repetition in this book as many essays trace each period of U.S. Communist history in regard to a particular issue. At the same time, this allows each essay to stand on its own, so that a reader could choose to explore one issue (labor, women, African Americans, etc.).

There is only one essay that seems out of place given the tone and emphasis of the rest of the book. John Gerassi revisits an old argument about the Popular Front, claiming that the CP committed “virtual suicide by joining with social democrats in a class collaborationist united front” (82). Even if his position still merits serious consideration, Gerassi’s exclusive focus on CP strategy is at odds with the predominant argument of this book: for most activists in the Communist movement, real people and immediate issues were more important than the abstraction of revolution. Still, it suggests that all the old questions have not been settled.

Perhaps some sort of synthesis or dialogue at the end of the book could have taken up some of the big questions suggested along the way, many of which do touch on CP strategy. For example, to what extent were CP policies, as opposed to government repression, responsible for the decline of the Communist movement? Gerassi argues the former, while Schrecker claims that if we look at the movement from the bottom up, external factors seem increasingly more important. Still others, like Alan Wald, within the context of unambiguous opposition to `the bureaucratic tyranny of Stalinism,’ evidence respect for the party members’ diversity and human motives.

The history of U.S. Communism has taken a significant step forward with the publication of this book. But the point that comes through the most forcefully in this volume is the need for further research. Wald and Rubinstein make persuasive pleas for further study of the cultural work and impact of American Communism.

Rubinstein says that scholars have neglected the left-wing theater that was an important cultural focus of the movement. Wald, who has done pioneering work in the literature of U.S. Communism, sets forth a detailed research agenda. Schrecker makes an important point about how little work has been done on the various “front” groups which, after all, were the focus for most activists. Baxandall claims that in spite of its own male chauvinism the CPUSA empowered women, a claim that rings true, but cries for more case studies to support her thesis.

All of this work is important in order to advance our historical understanding of the experience and impact of U.S. Communism. But it is also important, as Alan Wald concludes, for the left to recover its own radical traditions, to come to terms with the U.S. Communist past in order to inform our work in today’s issues and struggles.

ATC 50, May-June 1994