Workers Vanguard No. 1072
7 August 2015
The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 19191929
The following is the first part of a presentation, edited for publication, by Prometheus Research Library associate Jacob A. Zumoff, who discussed his book The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929. The talk was delivered at a May 9 book launch in Oakland sponsored by the PRL, a working archive of American and international Marxist history, documentation and related interests. We reviewed the book, an instructive read for everyone from committed socialists to those just beginning to explore revolutionary politics, in WV No. 1067 (1 May).
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia seized state power amid the devastation of the First World War, announcing that they were proceeding to build socialism. As the American Communist John Reed put it, the Bolshevik Revolution “shook the world” by making a workers state flesh and blood instead of just a goal. In Europe, in Asia and in the Americas, left-wing militants rallied to the Revolution and to the new Third, or Communist, International (the Comintern) that Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders founded in early 1919.
The Bolsheviks envisioned the Comintern as a genuinely revolutionary International able to create Communist parties from those socialist militants who rejected “social chauvinism” (that is, support to imperialist militarism using socialist rhetoric) as well as parliamentary reformism, both of which had caused the social-democratic Second International to collapse at the beginning of WWI. By the summer of 1919, the American Communist movement was born, its enthusiasm matched only by its divisions.
The subject of this talk—and my recent book—is how these early Communists, inspired by the first successful workers revolution in history, sought to forge a party in the U.S. capable of making a revolution in this country. In particular, I analyze what I call the “Americanization” of Communism: how Communists understood and applied the lessons of the international Communist movement to the U.S. Although historians of American Communism are divided on many issues, they share a broad agreement that this process of Americanization was counterposed to what they often refer to as the “interference” of the Communist International. What I argue, on the other hand, is that in the early 1920s the Comintern helped the early Communists come to grips with American society. The Comintern reinforced the early Communist movement politically: for example, by stressing the importance of maintaining the independence of the working class and by emphasizing the importance of the fight against black oppression. By the end of the 1920s, however, reflecting the political degeneration of the Russian Revolution under Joseph Stalin, the Comintern’s interventions became more negative.
There are several points that I want to make in this forum. First is the importance of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks in the forging of a Communist Party (CP) in the U.S. Thousands of workers and intellectuals who saw themselves as fighting for socialism as they understood it rallied to the banner of the Bolsheviks. These included left-wing Socialists like John Reed, C.E. Ruthenberg and James P. Cannon, as well as many of the numerous semi-autonomous foreign-language federations that had been affiliated to the Socialist Party (SP). There were also many individual militants who had been in the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW. For all of them, the Bolshevik Revolution resonated strongly. As Ruthenberg put it in 1922: “Without the Russian revolution there would have been no Communist movement in the United States.”
Unlike most of the Social Democratic parties in Europe, the official leadership of the U.S. Socialist Party did not openly support its “own” bourgeoisie in WWI, an interimperialist war in which workers had no side. On paper the SP opposed the war, and many of its leaders—of the left, the right and the center—were arrested for antiwar activities.
One of the key things to keep in mind about the American SP is that it was barely a party in the way that many of us would think of such. It was oftentimes more of a loose federation. For instance, most of the Socialist Party’s major newspapers were not even owned by the party but were owned by different groups within the party, and each one often set its own political line. For the better part of a decade, there had been left-wing dissidents within the Socialist Party who were opposed to the gradual, reformist approach of the leadership. And after the Russian Revolution, these leftists looked to the Bolsheviks.
This leads to my second point: these early Communists had very little understanding of what Bolshevism was, what the difference was between, for example, left-wing émigré groups, militant labor unions and left-wing social democracy on the one hand, and a Leninist party on the other. These leftists supported the Bolsheviks because Lenin’s party had made a revolution, but they did not understand why the Bolsheviks had been the only ones capable of making a revolution. And this situation was not unique to the United States. Much of the history of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky consisted of trying to teach their followers what Bolshevism consisted of, trying to impart the lessons of Leninism.
Previous Historians of American Communism
I want to talk about the historians of American Communism because my approach goes against most of what has been written by historians—what academics call the “historiography.” The best historian of early American Communism was Theodore Draper. In the 1930s and ’40s, he had been a supporter of the Communist Party, but he broke with the CP at the start of World War II. Although Draper was an anti-Communist by the time he wrote his books, he was an excellent historian. His two books on the CP in the 1920s, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), are based on meticulous research, including both archival research and interviews with all the living Communist leaders willing to talk to him.
Draper’s views are summarized in the conclusion of American Communism and Soviet Russia. He wrote, “Even at the price of virtually committing political suicide, American Communism would continue above all to serve the interests of Soviet Russia.” He went on to argue that the influence of the Comintern cut off the CP from “other forms of American radicalism such as the open, democratic, pre-World War I Socialist party, the farmer-labor movement, or the syndicalist movement, all of which were far more indigenous and independent than the American Communist party.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, after many New Left militants had quit active politics and gone to graduate school, a new generation of historians began to write about the CP. They mainly wrote about the 1930s, when the Communist Party was much larger, and they tended to emphasize what they saw as the “American” aspects of Communism. Nevertheless, they accepted the same basic framework as Draper. For them, the division between “American” and “foreign” in American Communism remained undisputed and they agreed that Soviet and Comintern influence was unquestionably negative. What the New Left historians tended to do was to invert Draper’s schema; they argued that what they saw as the “American” traditions were much more prominent in the CP than Draper had allowed.
What sets my book apart is my emphasis on the way that the International helped the American Communist Party grow roots in America. The Comintern was animated by proletarian internationalism and understood that only international workers revolutions, particularly in the advanced industrial countries, could safeguard the Russian Revolution and lay the basis for international communism.
I should note that I am not the first historian to touch on this theme. Michael Goldfield, particularly in his writings on the black question, and Bryan Palmer, particularly in his recent biography of James P. Cannon, have both written on various aspects of it. And, most importantly, in many ways my approach goes back to Cannon’s Trotskyist appreciation of the origins of American Communism—especially revealed in his correspondence with Draper, which was published in the early 1960s as The First Ten Years of American Communism. I also want to recommend a book of Cannon’s writings that we at the Prometheus Research Library edited and published in 1992, James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism.
The view expressed in my book runs counter to the perspective of much of the left. Thus, in the Summer 2014 issue of International Socialist Review, which is published by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), there is an article on the Comintern (“Zinovievism and the Degeneration of World Communism”) by Joel Geier, one of the ISO’s leaders, in which Geier sneers that “the American party was almost a ward of the Comintern.” More recently, another social democrat, Dan La Botz, complained in a review that my book doesn’t appreciate the domineering role of the Soviet Union in American Communism.
In Lessons of October (1924), Trotsky identified “the essential aspect” of Bolshevism as the “training, tempering, and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand” when presented with a revolutionary opportunity. Rather than have Communist parties mindlessly imitate the Bolsheviks, the early Comintern fought for them to assimilate the political lessons of the Bolsheviks and apply these to the conditions of each society. In a speech at the Third Comintern Congress in 1921, Lenin stressed that the Comintern’s “fundamental revolutionary principles” were the same everywhere, but “must be adapted to the specific conditions in the various countries.” Only later, under Stalin (in the context of a fight in the American CP), did the Comintern argue that capitalist societies were the same throughout the world and that differences were at most superficial.
This all poses the question: if Draper was such a good historian, despite his ideological biases, why did I go through the trouble of re-tilling the ground he had cultivated so well? The answer is that a lot has changed since the 1950s and ’60s, in particular with the capitalist counterrevolution and the destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. The counterrevolution was a disaster for the working class and the oppressed, most immediately in the former Soviet Union and the deformed workers states in Central and East Europe but also internationally.
More narrowly, the counterrevolution affected historians of American Communism in two broad ways. First, it led to the opening of archives in Moscow, including those of the Comintern. Draper’s ability to marshal archival resources still amazes me, but the Comintern files dwarf what he was able to assemble. Second, the counterrevolution led to a view among the bourgeoisie that capitalism was triumphant, and to a retrogression of political consciousness among the left and labor movement. Today, amid a global capitalist depression, the very idea that capitalism can be replaced with a social system based on collective ownership and production for use rather than for profit is seen as obsolete or even impossible by most intellectuals, workers and oppressed people.
Historians of American Communism, in their own way, reflected this widening of archival sources combined with the narrowing of political vision. Some anti-Communist historians seized upon the archives to “prove” once and for all that Communists were pure evil. More seriously, there are historians who got their degrees largely after the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and who imbibed the “death of communism” of the last two decades. They treat Communists as an interesting historical phenomenon, with only academic importance, like, for example, the Shakers. If the revisionists were New Left historians, this school of thought can be referred to as the “No Left” historians, because it is informed by the collapse of any sense of a socialist alternative to capitalism.
The Americanization of U.S. Communism
There are three aspects of the process of Americanization that I want to focus on. The first is the basic question of the need to form a unified, legal Communist Party; the second is the fight against black oppression; the third is the struggle for political independence of the working class.
The pre-Communist left wing in the U.S. was amorphous but had three main components, although oftentimes they overlapped. There were left-wing social-democrats like Ruthenberg; militant syndicalists who had been in or around the IWW, like Cannon, who had also been a member of the SP; and foreign-language groups in the Socialist Party. They were united in their opposition to the Socialist leadership, but not much else. Even before forming a Communist Party, they split over whether they should remain in the SP to fight to win over other dissident Socialists, or leave the party immediately. This was resolved in practice when the leadership of the Socialist Party expelled those remaining at its 1919 convention, but the Communists remained divided into two separate parties, each of which had fundamentally the same political program.
What followed was a years-long process of mitosis, where the different groups formed a variety of competing parties. In my research, I looked at Ruthenberg’s letters to his wife during this period. Ruthenberg was in the leadership of the Communist movement, and at one point he mused: “I am sick and tired of the whole business and only wish I could drop out without leaving people who are depending on me in the lurch.” He didn’t drop out, but many others did quit, probably tens of thousands. Along with the Red Scare repression of the immediate postwar period, this confusion was responsible for the swift decline in the ranks of left-wing socialists. In 1919, there were probably around 60,000 sympathizers of the left wing; five years later, there were about 17,000 Communists.
The Comintern leaders were no less frustrated. Max Bedacht, an American CP representative in Moscow, wrote to his comrades in 1921, complaining about “the little esteem that the general office has for the American business in general.” Eventually, the Comintern, along with American leaders like Ruthenberg and Cannon, were able to get American Communists into one party. In a literal sense, without the Comintern there never would have been a Communist Party in the U.S.
I want to make a point here about unity. The type of unity that the Comintern advocated was communist unity: it was based on the fact that all the Communist groups shared the same political program, with secondary differences over tactics. The Comintern was clear that Communists needed to split from the centrists and reformists in the SP leadership, for example Morris Hillquit, who was specifically denounced in the Comintern’s Twenty-One Conditions for admittance. A Leninist party is formed through splits and fusions.
The eventual organizational unity did not mean that the early CP was a genuinely Bolshevik party. Forging a Bolshevik party in the United States meant more than uniting all the pro-Communist tendencies. It required a political break with the CP’s left social-democratic and syndicalist origins. The most immediate challenge was the more than a dozen foreign-language federations, each of which had its own newspapers, its own buildings, its own functionaries, etc. Ironically, these first pro-Bolshevik groups in the U.S. were, in their organization, non-Bolshevik. In many ways, they were closer to the anti-Bolshevik Bundists in Russia, who had insisted on the exclusive right to carry out work among Jewish workers in the tsarist empire—similar to what is today called “identity politics,” organizing solely on the basis of one’s own ethnic identity, not on political program.
I want to make clear that the foreign-language groups were not appendages to the party. If anything, the English-language party was an appendage to the foreign-language groups. There was a Yiddish-language publication years before there was a Daily Worker. And when there was a Daily Worker, the Yiddish publication still had a higher daily circulation. Then there were the Finns, who made up a huge chunk of the party.
While the dominance of the foreign-language federations kept the CP from Americanizing, the high number of foreign-language workers in the Communist ranks was actually a hallmark of a society like the U.S., which had been formed by waves of immigration. By the 1920s, huge sections of the working class, especially in major Northern cities, were first- or second-generation immigrants. Both the SP and the IWW had their own foreign-language groups. Communist parties in other countries with a largely immigrant-derived working class, such as Argentina and Canada, had similar issues and often had similar foreign-language groups.
Within the Socialist Party, these foreign-language federations essentially had free rein, reflecting the decentralized nature of American social-democracy. Many, but not all, foreign-language groups were on the left of the SP, and they contributed many of the early American Communists. But after affiliating to the CP, many continued to resist control by the American leadership—and when I say the American leadership I essentially mean the English-speaking leadership, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants themselves—and wanted to have a monopoly on work among their own particular ethnic or linguistic group. More importantly, on a political level they tended to see themselves as the foreign franchise of the European movement, not part of a movement in the United States. The foreign-language groups did not understand, and in many cases did not want to understand, how the U.S. differed from Europe. They often acted as if they were in tsarist Russia right before the Revolution.
This perspective fed into a broader impatience, one shared by many early Communists in various places who felt that revolution was just around the corner. This is what Lenin polemicized against in his pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder (1920). As one example, when public transportation workers in Brooklyn went on strike, the Communists issued a leaflet telling them to forget higher pay and instead fight for revolution. They weren’t appreciated; I think they were driven off the picket line.
The early Communists believed that the U.S. was entering a period of severe repression, and that Communists had to be illegal as a matter of principle. Now, to be fair, in 1919-21 this was not so hard to believe on a superficial level. Europe was exploding and there was a wave of militant strikes throughout North America. The U.S. bourgeoisie was scared enough to institute widespread repression, the Red Scare, in which militants were swept up, jailed and often deported. But the point is this was a temporary exception, not the rule. The U.S. was not an unstable monarchy or a fascist regime; it was a bourgeois-democratic republic where the ruling class preferred the “rule of law” to naked repression and terror.
The “roaring twenties,” a period that is often associated with unprecedented affluence, posed particular problems for Communists. Rather than destroy the labor movement, such as Mussolini did in Italy, the U.S. bourgeoisie weakened the working class through increased exploitation. This was assisted by the reactionary American Federation of Labor (AFL) trade-union bureaucracy, which preached “partnership” with capital instead of class struggle. Meanwhile, trade-union membership sank dramatically. Much like our own times, this reactionary period and a lack of social struggle threatened to sap the revolutionary juices from many Communists. Rather than deal with this reality, the foreign-language leaders and ultraleft Americans dwelled in a fantasyland of underground conspiracy and imminent revolution.
The Fight for a Legal Party
There were some Communist leaders, such as Cannon and Ruthenberg, who sensed that it was not necessary to be an illegal party. Being illegal hindered the party’s real work. Moreover, American workers rejected a party that either was indifferent to its right to organize legally or too ignorant to know that it had that right. As a former organizer for the IWW, Cannon understood something about state repression, but he also understood the need to fight it, not just accept it as inevitable.
In 1921, the Communists formed a legal party, called the Workers Party. But even then, they did not agree on the relationship between the illegal party and legal party—what the Communists referred to as “Number 1” and “Number 2.” A large section of the membership and leadership thought that only members of the illegal party were real Communists and that the people in the legal party were sellouts. Those who made a fetish out of illegality became known as the “geese,” perhaps because they cackled so much. Cannon and other Americanizers were called the “liquidators” because they wanted a legal party. This fight was not only a tactical issue: it was about understanding American reality and what was necessary to build a party here. The American Communists, if left to their own devices, would have been unable to resolve this fundamental political problem.
Both the geese and the liquidators sent representatives to Moscow for the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922. Cannon later recalled that, when he was in Moscow, Trotsky was sympathetic and told Cannon and Bedacht (another liquidator) to present their argument on “one sheet of paper, no more.” That is probably an important political lesson in itself! After siding with Cannon and the liquidators, the Comintern leadership forcefully intervened into the American party. They made clear that a legal party was a necessity and that the illegal party should be liquidated.
This is only one example of Comintern fights against ultraleftism; there are others. The Comintern struggled to get American Communists to fight for Communist politics within the American Federation of Labor. The AFL bureaucracy, led by Samuel Gompers, was one of the most venal pro-capitalist union leaderships in the industrialized world. But the AFL organized the majority of unionized workers. In this case, the Comintern fought against not just foreign-language groups, but also many American sympathizers of the IWW (for example, John Reed). This fight paved the way to making the Communists a small, but real, factor in many trade unions. It also paved the way for recruiting William Z. Foster, perhaps the best-known militant labor leader in the U.S., who had led the 350,000-strong 1919 steel strike. At bottom, the question was how to forge a Bolshevik party under American conditions. And it took so-called foreigners to appreciate much of what made American society unique and how Communists should approach it.
[TO BE CONTINUED]