Workers Vanguard No. 1073
4 September 2015
The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 19191929
The following is the second part of a May 9 presentation, edited for publication, by Prometheus Research Library associate Jacob A. Zumoff promoting his book The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929. The first part of Zumoff’s presentation, published in WV No. 1072 (7 August), dealt with the origins of the Communist movement in the U.S. under the impact of the 1917 Russian Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent struggle for a unified, legal Communist Party (CP).
Another important intervention by the Comintern was to push the American Communists to take up the fight against black oppression. One of the distinguishing features of capitalism in the United States is that it rests upon black oppression, going back to the colonial period and the institution of slavery. After the Civil War had abolished slavery, the betrayal of Radical Reconstruction—the brief period when former slaves and their allies gained power in the former slave South—led to the consolidation of black people into a race-color caste at the bottom of American society. Only the destruction of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society can lead to the liberation of black people in the U.S., that is, finishing the tasks of the Civil War.
One of the biggest historical failings of American Social Democracy—its left wing included—was its position on black oppression. There were some prominent Socialists, like Victor Berger of Milwaukee, who were outright racists and actually held that socialism would be segregated. There were others, for example, left-wing Socialist leader Eugene Debs, who were not racists. Debs in fact wrote forcefully against racism, but his approach, what we could call color blindness, was basically that white workers and black workers should get together, unite and fight. Debs said, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” His conclusion was that, “The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world.” While he was anti-racist, this color-blind approach did not appreciate or understand the special role of black oppression in American capitalism.
This color blindness was inherited by the early American Communists. For instance, there was only one black person among the thousands of founding Communists in 1919. So how did the Communists come to pay attention to the question of black oppression? It was the Comintern, and in the first instance it was Lenin, who pushed the issue and forced the American Communists to come to grips with this key aspect of American society.
In contrast to the American Socialists, the Bolsheviks had long emphasized what they saw as “special oppression”—that is to say, oppression that was not just reducible to class exploitation. In his seminal work What Is To Be Done? , Lenin had argued that the revolutionary party must be a “tribune of the people,” fighting against all forms of oppression and linking these fights to the struggle for proletarian power. Lenin called tsarist Russia the “prison house of peoples” and saw that the Bolshevik Party needed to fight against the oppression of the myriad national and ethnic groups by Great Russian chauvinism.
From this revolutionary internationalist perspective, the Comintern essentially forced American Communists to take up what was then called the “Negro question.” To give a concrete example, at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, Lenin made John Reed give a report on this issue. In Reed’s papers at Harvard, I found that Reed wanted to give a report on the trade-union question and wrote to Lenin, asking: is it really important that I give a report on the black question? Lenin wrote back two words: “Absolutely necessary.” So, this intervention by the Comintern, by foreigners as it were, seeded the ground for Communists to begin the work of recruiting radical black workers and intellectuals, something that would flower later on.
The birth of the American Communist movement coincided with one of the worst waves of racist violence in American history, what is known as the “Red Summer,” when there were racist pogroms in several cities. It also coincided with the start of what is now called the “Great Migration” from the Jim Crow South. More than a million black people moved from the rural South, both to urban areas in the South and, more importantly, to cities in the North such as Chicago and New York. There, black people faced the racial oppression inherent in American capitalism, but they also began a process of becoming integrated into the working class, albeit paid less, treated worse, and the last hired and the first fired. In New York and elsewhere, these migrants from the South were joined by black immigrants from British and other European colonies in the Caribbean. This contributed to the development of what was known as the “New Negro” movement, which was in favor of self-defense against racist violence and oppression. This movement was contradictory, encompassing black nationalists, integrationists and people of various other types.
The Bolshevik Revolution had a big impact on many in the ghettoes, from Harlem to the South Side of Chicago and elsewhere. The Bolsheviks’ open hatred of imperialism and colonial oppression, including their demand for the independence of oppressed colonies, attracted many black intellectuals, especially those from the Caribbean. One of the more famous of the “New Negroes” to be attracted to Bolshevism was Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay, who had been active around Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation in London. Another example is the Harlem-based radical black nationalist African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). While such black radicals were attracted to Communism, to Bolshevism, they were not attracted to the early Communist Party in the United States, which had almost nothing to say about black oppression.
The Comintern’s intervention and forceful insistence on the need to fight for black liberation enabled the CP to recruit most of the leadership of the ABB. Recruiting the ABB gave the Communists a real foothold in Harlem and a base to recruit black workers and intellectuals throughout the North. Without Comintern intervention, it is likely that the ABB never would have joined the Communists. As my book explains, in the late 1920s the particular analysis that the CP brought to the question—the so-called Black Belt theory—was flawed, but during the following decade, the Communists became known for being in the forefront of the fight against black oppression.
The Farmer-Labor Question,
La Follette and
What I want to discuss next is the issue of the Farmer-Labor Party. In the United States, unlike much of Europe, the working class traditionally has supported one or another bourgeois party—either the Democrats or the Republicans. In fact, Samuel Gompers and the rest of the American Federation of Labor bureaucracy opposed organizing a working-class party.
Obviously, as I mentioned, there was the Socialist Party in this period, and Socialists had been elected as mayors in several cities, often focusing on municipal reforms. For example, Victor Berger, the supporter of Jim Crow socialism, was elected in Milwaukee because he promised to fix the sewers there. Thus, this municipal reformism is called sewer socialism. And I believe that he did fix the sewers. But the SP was never seen as a threat to the power of the two bourgeois parties in a national sense.
After World War I, amid a brief upturn in class struggle, some trade-union leaders—especially in Chicago, the industrial center of the country—advocated the formation of a labor party, largely influenced by the British Labour Party. The British Labour Party, like the German Social Democratic Party, was what can be called a bourgeois labor party or a bourgeois workers party—it had a working-class base but a bourgeois program and leadership. Such parties represent in the political arena the division of society between workers and capitalists, albeit in a crude way. In the United States, the formation of a labor party would have represented an advance in the consciousness of the working class.
Focused on their belief that revolution was near, the early Communists were hostile to this labor party movement. Americanizers such as James P. Cannon, as well as the Comintern, fought to get the CP to intervene into this movement in order to polarize it between revolutionaries and reformists. But by the time the American Communists as a whole began to pay attention in 1922, the labor party movement had changed. It had become a farmer-labor party in an attempt to attract agrarian radicals. Thus, it became a two-class party, one that claimed to be based on both the working class and small farmers, that is, a section of the petty bourgeoisie. So, rather than increase class consciousness among workers, this concept weakened it.
A Leninist intervention into the farmer-labor movement would have drawn a clear class line and fought for a working-class party, separate from bourgeois reformers and not subordinate to farmers. Instead, American Communists tried to get rich quick through a series of organizational maneuvers. They formed their own Federated Farmer-Labor Party, splitting with their former allies in the trade-union movement. The new party was based on the same two-class program; the only difference was that the Communists were in control. This move was adventurist—it was based on the idea that there was going to be a massive upsurge in agrarian radicalism. It was also opportunist—it jettisoned sections of the Communist program, sometimes explicitly, for example dropping opposition to Jim Crow segregation. At the same time it was sectarian—it alienated a huge section of the trade-union bureaucracy, not on the basis of politics but on tactics. It backfired—the trade-union bureaucracy, including many bureaucrats who had previously tended to be sympathetic, went on a witchhunt and purged Communists from the unions.
The section of the Communist leadership with the most experience in the trade unions—Cannon and William Z. Foster—thought that this maneuver was folly. And this dispute was the beginning of a long-lasting factional division in the party, with C.E. Ruthenberg on one side and Cannon and Foster on the other. Now, added into the mix was one of the most colorful characters in American Communist history, somebody who went by the name of John Pepper. I won’t be able to give justice to him. He was a native of Hungary and his given name was Jószef Pogány. He played a key role in leading the 1919 Hungarian Revolution to defeat and his second act was helping to organize the disastrous “March Action” in Germany in 1921. By then he had thoroughly alienated his higher-ups in Moscow, who sent him to the United States.
From what I was able to determine, Pepper was sent to America to work with the Hungarian language federation, a medium-sized language federation. One of its largest locals was in Passaic, New Jersey. His actual assignment, I think, was to edit their newspaper. But he was able to pass himself off as an official emissary from the Comintern, got himself elected to the Central Committee and quickly became not only the intellectual leader of the Ruthenberg group, but soon of the party as a whole. Keep in mind that he didn’t speak English when he first came here. The fact that he was able to do all of this speaks to the importance and the esteem that American Communists placed in the Comintern. It also speaks to the theoretical weakness of the early American Communist movement.
Pepper was the most enthusiastic supporter of the farmer-labor perspective. And one of his genuine skills, I suppose, was the ability to make a betrayal of Marxism—tying the proletarian vanguard to the petty-bourgeoisie through a two-class party—seem like the pinnacle of Bolshevism.
With the 1924 presidential elections approaching, the broader farmer-labor movement was soon eclipsed by enthusiasm for longtime Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette. The same people who, a year earlier, had supported the farmer-labor party were now supporting La Follette. In a broad sense, this wasn’t really a contradiction, since the farmer-labor movement was essentially an attempt to engage in bourgeois pressure politics. There was quite a lot of angst about the fact that there was tremendous corruption and that big business was obviously running the government.
La Follette was an anti-Communist; he did not even want to form a new capitalist party, but sought merely to pressure the two main parties. This should have served as a warning for Communists of the danger of not insisting on the political independence of the working class. Instead, led by Pepper, the Communists were drawn closer into La Follette’s orbit. Pepper hailed what he called the “La Follette revolution,” which, he wrote, would comprise “elements of the great French Revolution, and the Russian Kerensky Revolution.” He expanded: “In its ideology it will have elements of Jeffersonianism, Danish cooperatives, Ku Klux Klan and Bolshevism” but he did concede, “The proletariat as a class will not play an independent role in this revolution.” He advocated “support to the La Follette revolution at the same time criticizing and fighting for a Communist mass party.”
Pepper came up with what he called the “theory of two splits.” First, the nascent third-party movement would split the petty bourgeoisie from the big capitalists, and then the Communists would split the proletariat from the petty bourgeoisie. This would have been political suicide for the Communist Party. It would have meant liquidating the party into the reformist swamp, politically undoing the whole 1919 split of the Communists from the reformist betrayers of socialism. In fact, the Socialist Party essentially did liquidate into the La Follette movement and didn’t run a candidate.
In 1924, in Moscow, there was a special American Commission to debate this issue. This commission comprised very important Comintern leaders: Zinoviev, Radek, Lozovsky (who was a key Stalin supporter), Trotsky and Kamenev. This heavy-duty commission was convened because, unknown to most of the American leaders, the La Follette debate intersected a major struggle in the Bolshevik Party. Stalin, then allied with Zinoviev, was seeking to consolidate his power, based on the growing Soviet bureaucracy, within the Russian party after Lenin’s death. As part of this struggle, the Stalin faction resurrected the Menshevik idea that socialists should systematically collaborate with non-working-class forces.
Trotsky, who by this time was in opposition to much of the leadership of the Russian party, opposed the La Follette maneuver as a betrayal. He warned: “For a young and weak Communist Party, lacking in revolutionary temper, to play the role of solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive’ votes for the Republican Senator La Follette is to head toward the political dissolution of the party in the petty bourgeoisie.”
Although the “triumvirate” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin was in a position of strength, they still felt compelled to concede to Trotsky. Thus, the Comintern instructed the American party to break with the La Follette movement, to denounce him and to stand its own candidate. The party ran Foster for president in 1924. He did not receive many votes, but he drew a hard class line between the Communists and bourgeois populism.
The Comintern’s intervention confused many American Communists. It came very late in the day and caused the Communists to pivot on a dime, rather clumsily. But it underscores how important the Comintern was at this point in guiding American Communism politically in maintaining the principle of working-class independence. Without the Comintern’s intervention, the party would have become a tail on bourgeois electoral formations (something that has happened quite frequently to sections of the left in subsequent decades).
I want to talk now about the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern and of the Communist movement. By 1924, there had been a political counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, as a bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin came to power. After January 1924, the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled, and the purposes for which the USSR were ruled had all changed. The ideological expression of this was so-called “socialism in one country,” the idea that it was possible to build socialism (a society of material abundance based on the highest level of productive technology and an international division of labor) in a backward, largely peasant, country surrounded by hostile imperialist powers. Trotsky, right up through his exile in the late 1920s and his assassination in 1940 by a Stalinist agent, waged a battle, as uncompromising as any waged by Lenin, to reforge a communist vanguard and to oppose the Stalinists while at the same time standing for unconditional military defense of the USSR against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution.
The degeneration of the Soviet workers state and the Bolshevik Party was reflected in the Comintern and the rest of the international Communist movement. This was certainly true in the American CP and I describe the process in several chapters in my book. Today, I want to touch on only a few points. First, the significance of the Stalinist degeneration was not immediately clear to most Communists, especially those far away from Russia. Second, the rise of Stalinism within the American CP, while reflecting the intervention of the Comintern, also reflected homegrown political problems. Finally, I want to make the point that Stalinism was fought in the American Communist Party.
What Stalinism represented was not clear in 1924. Many American Communists would not even have recognized Stalin, and the early stages of Stalinization were spearheaded by Zinoviev, not by Stalin. The rise of Stalinization coincided with several problems in the American party. The factionalism that had begun over the farmer-labor party was blossoming into full-fledged warfare, at times threatening the basic unity of the party. Even after Pepper had been sent back to Moscow, Ruthenberg, assisted by his lieutenant Jay Lovestone, maintained one faction; Foster, assisted by Earl Browder and others, had his faction; and Cannon had his own faction.
In the mid to late 1920s, this factionalism had become devoid of any apparent political rationale. At the same time the party was regaining some of its momentum and once again becoming a factor in the broader labor movement. So, to give two examples: in 1926-27, the party led a militant textile workers strike in Passaic, New Jersey, and in 1927 the party’s International Labor Defense (led by Cannon) fought to save anarchist prisoners Sacco and Vanzetti from execution. In the upshot, neither campaign succeeded, but they did demonstrate the militancy and determination of the CP and brought it a wider audience and support among the broader labor movement.
The rise of Stalinization was wrapped up in this situation. Given the factionalism, it became increasingly clear that the American Communist Party could not resolve its problems on its own. Naturally, leading Communists looked to the Comintern—none more so than Cannon, who prided himself on being what he called a Cominternist. I want to defend Cannon here for a moment because many leftists, such as the International Socialist Organization’s Joel Geier, attack Cannon as some kind of bootlicker for the Comintern. Cannon’s problem was not that he looked to the Comintern to help the American Communist Party. In fact, the Comintern had done this in the past. Rather, Cannon did not understand that with the degeneration of the Soviet workers state, the Comintern was no longer the same, that the Comintern leadership was Stalinist, not Leninist.
In the mid and late 1920s, the Comintern did intervene. But it did so not to build a genuine Leninist party, but to create a pliable leadership that would support Stalin. It played each faction off against the others in a cynical game, and each faction courted the Comintern, trying to prove its loyalty. By the end of the decade, the Comintern was essentially picking the party’s leadership. First, the Comintern put control of the party in the hands of Ruthenberg and Lovestone, who became the head of Ruthenberg’s old faction after Ruthenberg died. Then, when Lovestone became too bothersome for even Stalin, the Comintern put the leadership in the hands of Earl Browder, who was in Foster’s faction.
There is also a tendency by many leftists to lay all the blame for the degeneration of the CP at the feet of Moscow—see Dan La Botz’s references to so-called Moscow domination. While Moscow definitely played a key role, not everything came from the Comintern—the pressures of American imperialism contributed to many early Communists giving up on their original goal. For example, the La Follette fiasco, notwithstanding the help from Pepper, was thought up by American Communists. And in fact, in much of the 1930s and 1940s, by which time the Communist Party had become Stalinist, there were many similarities between American social democracy and American Stalinism: both supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal, both alibied the trade-union bureaucrats in the CIO, and, by and large, both became enthusiastic supporters of U.S. imperialism in the Second World War.
Besides creating a compliant leadership, the Stalinized Comintern’s main contribution to this process was the ideology of socialism in one country, which was a betrayal of the Comintern’s original proletarian internationalism. This gave a political cover to the anti-revolutionary impulses of much of the American party’s leadership: if the main goal of the international Communist movement was to protect the Soviet bureaucracy, then revolution in the United States was no longer necessary. By the late 1930s, the CP had essentially become a tool to pressure the Democratic Party.
The final point I want to make about the Stalinist degeneration in the American party is that it was neither inevitable nor uncontested. Much of the leadership of the American party did accept Stalinism. This reflected, as I mentioned, the pressures of the period, the organizational maneuvers of the Comintern and also, to a large degree, Stalin’s false claim to the heritage of Bolshevism. However, just as in Soviet Russia and the Comintern as a whole, Stalinism required a break with Leninism. The one key CP leader who fought this break was Cannon. Precisely because Cannon had looked to the Comintern for Leninist guidance, not just as a source of factional power, he sensed that there was something different about it in the late 1920s than in the earlier period.
In 1928, he was sent as a delegate to the Sixth Comintern Congress. He was not particularly enthusiastic about this assignment, even though his faction seemed to be on the verge of obtaining power in the party. While in Moscow, he managed to read Trotsky’s criticism of the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern, which was later published as The Third International After Lenin. This critique gave a systematic political explanation for Cannon’s dissatisfaction and won him to support Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Cannon was expelled from the CP for his support to Trotsky and went on to found the Trotskyist Communist League of America. He saw the fight to forge a Trotskyist party as the continuation of his struggle for communism in the United States and internationally.
This history is beyond the scope of my book, which ends in 1929. But it does illuminate the point that I want to end on. As I mentioned, one of Theodore Draper’s strengths as a historian was that he sought out all the early Communists he could find. Many of them were still alive when he was writing in the 1950s, although many had broken with the Communist Party one way or another over the intervening decades. He noted that Cannon’s memories were always the most vivid, and, when he compared what Cannon remembered to the documentary record, they were the most accurate. The reason for this, Draper concluded, was not that Cannon had some kind of superhuman memory, but that he wanted to remember these early years.
That was because in the 1950s Cannon, unlike most of his former comrades, still wanted the same thing he had wanted in the 1920s: to build a revolutionary party capable of leading the American workers to power, part of building socialism internationally. Thus, Cannon understood that the lessons of the first attempt to build such a party in the United States, the CP in the 1920s, were absolutely vital. That is also the main reason motivating my own research: to make available the lessons of the early American Communist movement, not only—and not mainly—to academic historians, but to those who endeavor to build a proletarian, revolutionary and internationalist party today.