Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2020

The Communist Party’s liberal turn

Filed under: CPUSA — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

In 1993, I bought a copy of “New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism”, a Monthly Review collection co-edited by Michael Brown, Randy Martin, Frank Rosengarten and George Snedeker—four New York area professors on the left. I just bought a used copy for $4.94 on Amazon and thoroughly recommend to anybody interested in CP history. For my money, it is the very best overview of a party that once dominated the left. The articles originated in a conference organized by the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy that was held at the CUNY Graduate Center to mark the seventieth anniversary of the CPUSA.

All of the contributors were part of the “revisionist” current that sought a fresh approach to the party that broke with the old-school, social-democratic, and Cold War tendencies of people like Theodore Draper. Among the editors, Michael Brown was a CPer but the kind that might have left with the Committees of Correspondence. That was the impression I gathered from Frank Rosengarten, who I knew from the SWP. Frank had left the party at this point and was putting all his efforts into launching the journal Socialism and Democracy. Frank died from cancer in 2014. Randy Martin, who died much too young from brain cancer a year later, was never in a party as far as I know. He was best described as a major Cuban solidarity activist. Finally, George Snedeker is still alive and is a Marxmail subscriber who solicits contributions to Socialism and Democracy from time to time.

One of the main reasons I wanted to have a copy of the book once again is that I seemed to remember one of the articles having a fascinating account of the CPUSA’s electoral pirouettes that I thought would be useful to those perplexed by Jacobin’s “dirty break”/Sandernista exercises. After scanning through the book, I discovered that it was in an article by Mark Naison titled “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front”. Naison and Maurice Isserman are two of the most important and respected “revisionists” and Naison’s article is a prime example of looking at the party’s track record in the USA that he largely finds admirable. Oddly enough, he finds the slippery electoral maneuvers carried out by Earl Browder among its achievements.

Below are excerpts from the article that I find highly perceptive even if I might not necessarily draw the same political conclusions as Naison, who concludes that the party’s turn toward New Deal liberalism was implicitly superior to Marxist orthodoxy. In his formulation, “unity of progressive forces, even at the expense of socialist principles”.

Once again, let me recommend this book. It is a great collection that alongside Naison’s piece includes those by Gerald Horne, John Gerassi, Annette Rubinstein, Marvin Gettleman, and Alan Wald.

(pp 50-51)

In their electoral activity, Communists displayed a similar determination to remain within the mainstream of working class sentiment and accommodate powerful allies willing to give them a “piece of the action.” After the Seventh Comintern Congress, Browder’s main electoral goal had been the creation of a “working-class-led farmer-labor party” fielding its own ticket in the 1936 elections. To advance this objective, Communists began joining third party movements they had previously assailed (in October 1935, Browder held a secret “peace” conclave with Minnesota Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson) and began pressing for independent labor political action on a state and local level. Despite past indiscretions, Communists received a surprisingly warm welcome from strategically placed politicians who cultivated labor support. In Minnesota, Harvey Klehr points out, Governor Olson “welcomed the Communist Party as a legitimate partner in Minnesota politics” and incorporated them into his electoral machine by putting key party members on the state payroll. In Washington, Communists drew the executive director of the Commonwealth Federation, Howard Costikyan, into the party’s inner circle, enabling them to become “the single most powerful force in the organization.” Using similar inside dealing, Communists built a base in the Wisconsin Progressive Farmer Labor Federation and local labor parties in Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. But Communist participation did not mean Communist control. Faced with a grass-roots New Deal groundswell among industrial workers and a CIO decision to support Roosevelt’s candidacy, Communists decided to confine agitation for a farmer-labor party strictly to state and local elections. With Comintern approval, they decided to use Browder’s independent candidacy largely to warn of the dangers of a Republican victory, thereby becoming the first party in U.S. history to use a presidential campaign largely to assure the victory of one of its opponents!’

Browder’s bizarre campaign strategy, while it did little to affect the outcome of the election, helped Communists expand their Influence in state and local politics. By 1937, party trade unionists and neighborhood activists had become securely ensconced in New York’s American Labor Party, while securing similar bases within the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, Washington’s Commonwealth Federation, and Wisconsin’s Progressive Farmer Labor Federation. Ironically, all four of these organizations had clauses barring Communists from membership, but in the atmosphere of the popular front, Communists blended into the scenery so effectively that there was little incentive to expel them. Presenting their organization as a disciplined secret fraternity willing to fight for liberal goals (a kind of left-wing version of the Masons!), Communists drew elected officials, administrators of state agencies and ambitious politicians into their inner circle. Possessed of the power to make careers as well as fight for social reforms, the party, Peggy Dennis recalled, attracted a new breed of recruit: “experienced activists, mainly from other organizations” who had little exposure to Marxism. Fearful of jeopardizing their liberal cover or driving them away with excessive demands, the party approached their political education on a hit-or-miss basis, undermining the core of common beliefs that united the party and blurring the lines that separated members from sympathizers and fellow travelers.

(pp 66-69)

By the beginning of 1939, Communists confronted a significant left opposition in academic and literary circles. Rooted in Trotskyist organizations and the board of Partisan Review, the anti-Stalinist left disseminated a devastating critique of the undemocratic features of Soviet life and of the hypocrisy of the CPUSA’s endorsement of liberal reform. The image of Communism as a movement at war with the humanistic impulses that had given rise to it had begun to enter the discourse of U.S. intellectuals, even though many hesitated to make the trials the occasion of an open break. But serious doubts had been raised about the party’s claim to leadership of the U.S. left, arguments that would surface with renewed force when Soviet diplomacy underwent its next radical reversal.

Rising opposition to the party in intellectual circles coincided with a larger conservative trend in U.S. life, directed against the New Deal and the CIO as well as the party. The unionization of millions of workers and the proliferation of New Deal agencies that regulated industries and gave jobs to the unemployed frightened local elites, particularly in parts of the country where paternalistic labor relations had once prevailed. The spectre of urban intellectuals reshaping the United States created a powerful backlash against New Deal reform, uniting white supremacists, Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic conservatives with large farmers and corporate spokesmen. When a severe recession struck in 1938, eroding popular hopes of recovery, grassroots anti-radicalism moved into the hall of Congress. In the spring of 1938, the House of Representatives formed an Un-American Activities Committee, headed by Martin Dies of Texas, which immediately launched investigations of Communist penetration of CIO unions and New Deal agencies. Parades of witnesses accused leaders of the Federal Theatre Project and key unions of Communist sympathies, arguing with some justice that it was impossible to distinguish between Communists and liberals on key social issues. Republicans used the Communist issue to great effect in fall 1938 elections, capturing eighty seats in the House, eight in the Senate, and eleven governerships previously held by Democrats.

The CP leadership responded to conservative attacks by further efforts to disguise its identity and tailor its program to the needs of liberal allies. During 1938, Earl Browder, with Comintern approval, redefined the popular front to conform in essence with the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party and announced that Communists would postpone agitating for socialism in the interests of the “unity of progressive forces.” Communists applauded Roosevelt’s cautious initiatives against fascist aggression, lobbied to protect New Deal legislation from conservative attacks, and virtually suspended independent electoral efforts in favor of campaigns for progressive candidates in the two major parties. More-over, the party took extraordinary steps to avoid compromising cadre who had achieved positions of power, or government and trade union leaders with whom it had secret understandings. In 1938, the party eliminated shop units and shop papers—the major manifestations of an independent party presence in the trade union movement. From now on, Communists in the trade union movement would not meet separately as a group; rather top trade union officials close to the party would communicate privately with party leaders, leaving the rank and file to discover party positions through neighborhood branches, the party press, or actions of union leaders.

The party’s new posture represented a startling admission of political vulnerability. Browder virtually conceded that Communists could achieve power in the United States only by pretending to be somebody else and by deferring to the interests of liberal allies. In the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, party leaders failed to protest when Philip Murray began systematically purging Communists from the union staff in 1938, fearful that opposition might jeopardize their relations with John L. Lewis. In the United Auto Workers Union, party leaders went to the 1939 convention to persuade their own members to vote against candidates of the Progressive Caucus who had the votes to win control of the union, arguing in favor of moderates favored by Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis. In several CIO unions, Communists voted for resolutions that equated Nazism and Communism, rather than expose their identities to conservatives who wished to purge them from the movement.

As boundaries between Communists and liberals blurred, popular front Communism, in the words of Bert Cochran, assumed “something of the character of a religious encampment.” On its top levels, the party still functioned as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist organization. The Politburo, in consultation with the Comintern, defined the party line on key international and domestic issues and disseminated that line to heads of party publications and leaders of the district and state organizations. Its paid staff of 4,000 to 5,000 people functioned under tight discipline and defended party orthodoxy, particularly on matters relating to the Soviet Union. But the party rank and file, moving in and out of the party at a rapid rate, functioned with a great deal of autonomy. The popular front party attracted many upwardly mobile, ambitious people—trade union officials, government employees, teachers, social workers, lawyers and journalists. By allowing such “influentials” to disavow their party membership, the top party leadership inevitably relinquished control. Communication became irregular, meetings un-systematic, directives confined to “critical” issues. An atmosphere of pragmatism pervaded the movement, reflected by the huge number of individuals who chose to be sympathizers or fellow travelers rather than disciplined party members. “To this cate-gory,” Joseph Starobin observed, “a political movement was a vehicle, an instrument to be repaired when it functioned badly or abandoned when it had been wrecked.”

The atmosphere of popular front Communism infuriated both orthodox Communists and the party’s numerous enemies. Almost no prominent Communist academics, union leaders, and government officials would admit party membership; if pressed, they would say they were progressives! Because of the informality of popular front Communism, it was difficult to prove them wrong. How do you demonstrate that an influential state legislator is a Communist? He possesses no party membership card. He attends no party meetings. His meetings with top party leaders are secret and hard to document.

What all pop-fronters shared was a set of principles and affinities: unwavering support for the Soviet Union, domestically and internationally; unity of progressive forces, even at the expense of socialist principles; support for racial equality; vigilance against domestic fascism; suspicion of all groups on the left that did not defer to the Communist Party; identification of the CIO and the New Deal as major vehicles of social change. Hundreds of thou-sands of individuals espoused this ethos, some as a result of organizational discipline, more through personal choice or communal identification. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see grave inconsistencies in this world view. But in the dangerous, tension-filled atmosphere of the late 1930s, it had considerable appeal to strategically located constituencies. The Depression had given new vitality to ethnocentric impulses, threatening vulnerable peoples and nations with extermination, while simultaneously creating opportunities for sweeping political change. Groups who had historically been marginal in the United States—blacks, Jews, Eastern Europeans—saw an opportunity to make a major breakthrough in their social and political status, but also feared a backlash against their progress that might imitate the fascist movements wreaking havoc in Europe. To activists from these groups, popular frontism was a strategy that used the power of the Soviet Union to keep fascism at bay while encouraging pragmatic adaptations to achieve domes-tic reforms. The most important causes of the popular front left—the defense of the Spanish Republic, the battle for industrial unionism, campaigns for citizenship rights for blacks, resistance to Nazism and domestic anti-Semitism—all dramatized the heroism of Communists in defense of liberal goals. Because of this, many people who doubted that Communism had a future in the United States concluded they needed Communists to bring liberal visions to fruition.

September 8, 2019

How the Communists viewed FDR

Filed under: CPUSA,New Deal — louisproyect @ 2:10 pm

Blog at WordPress.com.