Workers Vanguard No. 1067
1 May 2015
Upholding the Revolutionary Legacy
The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 19191929
The Communist International and
U.S. Communism, 1919–1929
by Jacob A. Zumoff
Paperback: Haymarket Books, 2015, $28.00
Hardcover: Brill, 2014, $167.00
The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 examines the founding, development and degeneration of the Communist Party (CP) in the United States in the broader framework of the struggle for international proletarian revolution. Available in both paperback and hardcover, this fully indexed book, with extensive footnotes and references, will be of enduring value as a reference work for avowed socialists as well as scholars of communism. It is also a fun and interesting read and belongs in the toolkits of everyone seeking a coherent revolutionary program and lessons on building an organization capable of leading the working class in revolutionary struggle to sweep away capitalist imperialism.
The 1917 October Revolution in Russia, led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, inspired millions worldwide by demonstrating for the first time that the working class could establish itself as the ruling class. The Bolshevik Revolution, occurring amid the imperialist slaughter of World War I, took the question of workers revolution out of the realm of Marxist theory and gave it flesh and blood. The Revolution was made in Russia but not for Russia alone; it was waged as the opening shot in the world socialist revolution.
The role of the Bolsheviks in leading the proletarian conquest of power gave great impetus to Lenin’s fight for a communist Third International, which he had first called for in 1914. He had pronounced the social-democratic Second International dead after all its leading national sections supported the war aims of their “own” ruling class at the beginning of WWI. The Third (Communist) International, known as the Comintern, was founded in Moscow in 1919. The establishment of the Comintern was only the beginning of the fight to build revolutionary workers parties around the world. Forging new, Leninist vanguard parties internationally required a series of political fights to break the revolutionary elements completely from social-democratic program and practice.
How this struggle played out in the U.S. is thoroughly described in Zumoff’s book, which focuses on the relationship between the American CP and the Comintern. The Communist movement in the U.S. was founded in 1919, a year that saw massive class struggles across the country and revolutionary struggles in Central Europe. The ranks of the American Socialist Party (SP) swelled and its pro-Bolshevik left wing grew. It was from splits from the SP’s left wing that not one, but two Communist parties, both pledging allegiance to the Comintern, were formed in August/September 1919.
Just months after their formation, the two U.S. Communist groups were faced with massive government repression, dubbed the “Palmer Raids” after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, which also targeted Socialists, anarchists and trade-union militants. Over 6,000 Communists were arrested in the first week of January 1920 and hundreds of foreign-born Communists were deported. In response to this repression, both groups went underground and many members of both CPs decided, invoking principle, to remain there.
The crucial and controversial thrust of Zumoff’s account is his well-documented presentation of the positive role that the Comintern initially played in forging a Communist Party in the U.S. Zumoff analyzes in detail how interventions by the Comintern during Lenin and Trotsky’s era, working with elements of the CP leadership, helped the nascent Communist Party grapple with American society. A key intervention of the Comintern was to support the unification of the two American parties and the establishment of a legal party, rejecting the ultraleft undergroundism. This struggle led to the establishment of the (legal) Workers Party in December 1921 and the definitive rejection of the fetish of undergroundism after debate at the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in 1922.
Zumoff devotes two early chapters to the CP’s work in the labor movement. The CP oriented toward the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), reflecting the Comintern’s orientation to left-wing syndicalists internationally. While the CP was unable to recruit large numbers from the IWW, the few syndicalists who were won to Communism were crucially important. They enriched the American party with their experience of militant class struggle. The Comintern also pushed the CP to carry out work in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) despite its pro-capitalist leadership because it encompassed the majority of unionized workers.
Today, we are in a deeply reactionary period shaped by the 1991-92 capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. The general level of political consciousness has been thrown so far back that even those claiming to be socialists have for the most part abandoned any notion of a revolutionary transformation of society. In the 1920s, unlike today, there was a layer of a few tens of thousands of subjectively revolutionary workers and youth who looked to the living example of the Bolshevik Revolution. However, they needed to learn the program of Bolshevism. In the early years, the Comintern was a teacher and guide for the young American CP. The fights for political clarity that Zumoff describes are instructive, and many of the political issues which the CP had to learn to address still exist: racist oppression; divisions between U.S.-born and immigrant workers; broad attacks on the labor movement; illusions in left-talking capitalist third parties.
A Marxist Exploration of History
Zumoff’s forthrightly Marxist exploration of early American Communism is a breath of fresh air. It has received reviews from diverse points on the political spectrum, creating a welcome forum for debate. In its final issue, the New World Finn noted Zumoff’s recognition of the importance of the Finnish-American foreign language federation, the largest voting bloc in the early American CP. The Communist Party USA published a quite positive review on its website (peoplesworld.org, 26 January). The review’s author did not however address Zumoff’s analysis of the destructive Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern and the CP, of which today’s reformist Communist Party is the product.
Despite the generally favorable tone of his review, Dan La Botz of the social-democratic Solidarity group disagrees with the entire point of the book, complaining that Zumoff “fails to address the central question, the Soviet domination of the Communist International, including its domination of the American Communists in the 1920s” (newpol.org, February 27). The notion there was ever any positive intervention from Moscow sticks in the craw of anti-communist social democrats like La Botz, who view Stalinism as having flowed inevitably from Leninism.
In his introduction, Zumoff writes, “The study of American Communism is at once the study of Communists and previous studies of American Communism.” His book thus acknowledges and supplements Theodore Draper’s excellent two volumes, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960). Other key works acknowledged by Zumoff that should be required reading for all interested in the early history of American Communism include the letters to Draper from James P. Cannon, a founding member of the Communist and Trotskyist movements in the United States, published as The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962); Bryan Palmer’s biography, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007); and the documentary volume of Cannon’s writings, James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism—Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 (1992), published by the Prometheus Research Library (PRL). Zumoff also cites useful articles by Michael Goldfield, the author of Color of Politics (1997), on the CP and black oppression.
The most crucial source materials used by Zumoff were in the Comintern’s own archives in Moscow, which had been closed to historians until 1992. He also delved into other primary source materials that were not previously available, such as memoirs and FBI files. Zumoff additionally mined the archives of the PRL, of which he is an associate. The PRL is a working Marxist research library and the archives of the Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee. It is Zumoff’s sympathy for the aims of the early CP that guides his use of previously neglected sources and his fresh interpretation of others, lending his work a richer color and texture than that of previous scholars.
Draper (a former writer for the CP’s Daily Worker who became a liberal anti-Communist) argued that the American CP was dominated by Moscow and that this relationship prevented the party from becoming a viable American revolutionary organization. As he claimed in an exchange with his critics in the New York Review of Books, “the Soviets exercised their hegemony and the Americans experienced it” (15 August 1985).
New Left historians, propelled by the mass radicalization and social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, approached history “from the bottom up” and asserted against Draper that Moscow was not so significant and that the CP had sprouted from native soil. The New Left historians concentrated on the CP’s more successful work in the mass black and union struggles of the 1930s (see, e.g., Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem During the Depression ). By focusing narrowly on the 1930s, these historians obscure the fact that the CP’s work in that decade was built upon foundations laid, with the involvement of the Comintern, in the 1920s.
Zumoff explains that both interpretations of Communist history imbibe the bourgeois ideology that any Soviet influence had to be bad:
“Although there was no love lost between Draper and his critics, both accepted the same framework. The division between ‘American’ and ‘foreign’ in American Communism remained undisputed, with the Soviet/Comintern influence unquestionably negative....
“The present work rejects this concept of Americanisation as counterposed to Comintern guidance. Leninism, as understood by the early Comintern, did not represent a set of formulae or dogmas, but rather the understanding of the need for a political struggle not only against the bourgeoisie but also the social-democratic leadership that had shown its bankruptcy through parliamentarianism and support to the slaughter of World War I.”
Lenin and Trotsky realized that each country had its own history and conditions that required different revolutionary tactics. Recognizing that the founding cadres of the American CP were animated by the revolutionary internationalist vision of Lenin and Trotsky’s Comintern, Zumoff assesses Comintern interventions and the work of the American CP on the basis of the validity or otherwise of what the Communists fought for, how they fought for it and what they learned from the experiences.
The purpose and methods of the Comintern’s intervention in the American party changed as the Soviet workers state itself underwent a process of degeneration beginning in 1924. As Zumoff notes: “By the end of the decade, reflecting the political degeneration of the Russian Revolution under Stalin, the Comintern’s interventions were more negative.”
The Bolsheviks recognized that socialism, a society of material abundance based upon the highest level of productive technology and an international division of labor, required workers revolutions worldwide, especially in the advanced capitalist countries. The isolated workers state in backward Russia was plagued by economic scarcity and desperately needed proletarian rule to be extended to the West. With the defeat of revolutionary opportunities in Germany in 1918-19 and, critically, 1923, a conservative bureaucracy led by Stalin rose to political power beginning in 1924 amid a profound demoralization of the Soviet proletariat. The economic basis of the workers state (the collectivized property, the centrally planned economy and the monopoly of foreign trade) had not been overturned, but the proletariat was politically expropriated by a bureaucratic caste.
Promulgated by Stalin in late 1924, the dogma of “socialism in one country” became a justification for abandoning the revolutionary internationalist purpose of the October Revolution. Over the next several years, the Comintern (and its national sections) became subordinated to the foreign policy interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, ceasing to be the party of world revolution. Leon Trotsky doggedly fought the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Communist Party and the Comintern, while continuing to defend the Soviet workers state.
The bulk of the American Communist Party, feeling the pressure of an expanding and powerful U.S. imperialism, readily followed in the degenerating Comintern’s wake. This was the “roaring twenties,” a period of fabulous accumulation of wealth for the bourgeoisie, a lull in class struggle and a rise of racist state and Ku Klux Klan terror against black people and immigrants. As Cannon wrote to Theodore Draper about these years: “The party became receptive to the ideas of Stalinism, which were saturated with conservatism, because the party cadres themselves were unconsciously yielding to their own conservative environment” (The First Ten Years of American Communism).
One important aspect of the Stalinist degeneration of the American party that Zumoff deals with is the division of the party into rival factions lacking any fundamental political basis. By 1925, the political differences around which the groupings had initially formed became displaced by struggles for party control, obscuring political clarity. As he notes, “Leading bodies often passed important political motions unanimously, yet factionalism hardened.”
A substantial section of one of these factions did acquire a revolutionary program. After becoming acquainted with some of Trotsky’s central criticisms of Stalinism at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, James P. Cannon was won to the program of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The Trotskyists were fighting to return the Soviet regime and the Comintern to revolutionary internationalism. For this opposition to Stalinism, Cannon and a core of his factional supporters were expelled from the CP in 1928 and formed the nucleus of the first American Trotskyist organization.
The Russian Revolution
and the Fight for Black Freedom
Fully four chapters of the book are devoted to the Comintern’s fight to force the American CP to address black oppression (then called the “Negro Question”), which now as then is integral to U.S. capitalism. The Bolsheviks had developed their party in intense opposition to the Great Russian chauvinism of the tsar’s empire and they understood that the struggles against national and other forms of special (i.e., non-class) oppression could be a powerful lever to advance socialist revolution. This was a new revolutionary idea that changed how American communists thought about their work in a country founded on black chattel slavery.
As Cannon wrote in “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement” (1959): “The earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognized any need for a special program on the Negro question. It was considered purely and simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism.” He went on to note:
“The American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the overall program—and to start doing something about it.”
In describing this critical struggle, a frontal challenge to Jim Crow America, Zumoff highlights the stories of early black Communists, such as Caribbean immigrants Claude McKay and Otto Huiswoud as well as Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a former anarchist from Texas. He narrates the story of the important recruitment of cadre from the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a Harlem-based organization of mainly Caribbean immigrants, including its founder, Cyril Valentine Briggs.
At the end of WWI, coinciding with the Russian Revolution, there was a burgeoning of black militancy and racial pride in the Northern ghettos. The “Great Migration” of black people from the rural Jim Crow South to the industrial cities of the North intersected the return of black veterans who thought their military service entitled them to some measure of equality. Organizations like the ABB championed the struggles of blacks in the U.S. and the colonial world and espoused black self-defense against racist terror.
Black revolutionaries joined the CP because of the appeal of the Russian Revolution and the authority of the Bolsheviks. As Zumoff puts it:
“Indeed, the American Communists with their social-democratic colourblindness must not have appeared attractive; the Communist Party would have been unable to recruit the ABB on their own. Briggs and the ABB, like many throughout the colonial world, were attracted to the Communist International because of its anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, as well as Lenin’s emphasis on fighting special oppression. Briggs and the other ABB recruits did not want to join the American CP per se, but saw themselves as enlisting in the American branch of international Communism.”
In the 1920s, the vast majority of the trade unions organized by the AFL (with the significant exception of the United Mine Workers) were narrow craft unions and consciously racially exclusionist, essentially job trusts for skilled white workers. The “Wobblies” of the IWW had been an exception in their fight for industrial unions and their energetic organizing of black and white workers together. There were few black members of the Socialist Party, the most prominent of which was Hubert Harrison. Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was anti-racist to his bones but the Socialist Party was a “broad church” that also encompassed stone-racist segregationists like Victor Berger. Even Debs said that socialists “have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”
Recognition of the necessity for revolutionaries to combat the special oppression of black people was part of the Communists’ struggle to fully break with the reformist political baggage of social democracy. It took a fight by Lenin at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920 to get the CP to begin to focus on the black question. Zumoff’s book brings to light correspondence between Lenin and the American Communist John Reed. Lenin insisted that Reed give a report to the Second Congress on the nature of black oppression, despite Reed’s protests that he would rather report on the American trade unions.
Over the next few years, black CP cadres, backed by the Comintern leadership, constantly prodded the American party to actively take up the fight for black freedom. Zumoff describes how McKay and Fort-Whiteman pushed this question at the Fourth and Fifth Comintern Congresses (in 1922 and 1924) respectively. Over the next period, there were several attempts by the CP to address black oppression, including the founding of the American Negro Labor Congress in 1925. However, these attempts were not particularly successful.
At its Sixth Congress in 1928, against the opposition of the vast majority of black Communists, the Stalinized Comintern wrongly declared that the American black population was an oppressed nation with the right of self-determination (i.e., national independence) in the so-called Black Belt in the South. As Zumoff writes, this theory was incorrect because black people “were an integral part of American society, albeit forcibly segregated at the bottom. Black struggle since antebellum times had been focused on ending racial oppression and for full integration into American society, not separation. A separate black nation state seemed fantastical and contradicted Marxist theory.”
Despite the erroneous theoretical framework, the Comintern’s intervention at the Sixth Congress had a positive influence in that it forced the CP to redouble its work among black people. It also underscored that black oppression was a form of special oppression and impelled the CP to establish roots in the South. The theory as such had little effect on the Communists’ day-to-day work; they continued to fight for black equality—not separation. The CP in the 1930s carried out important and often dangerous work building integrated unions and organizing sharecroppers in the South. It also earned respect for leading the defense of black labor organizer and CPer Angelo Herndon in Georgia and of the Scottsboro Boys (nine black youth who faced legal lynching in Alabama on frame-up rape charges).
An essential point that emerges from Zumoff’s detailed study is the importance of revolutionary continuity. As Cannon noted in History of American Trotskyism (1944):
“Out of the Communist Party in the United States came the nucleus of the [Trotskyist] Fourth International in this country. Therefore, we should say that the early period of the Communist movement in this country belongs to us; that we are tied to it by indissoluble bonds; that there is an uninterrupted continuity from the early days of the Communist movement, its brave struggles against persecution, its sacrifices, mistakes, faction fights and degeneration to the eventual resurgence of the movement under the banner of Trotskyism.”
Like Cannon, the SL/U.S. and our comrades in the ICL do not turn our backs on what was valuable from the early CP, rather we claim that history as our own. We fight to impart the lessons of our revolutionary forebears to new generations of socialist fighters. Learning and assimilating these lessons is essential to the struggle for a workers America, a step toward a global communist society.