History of the CPUSA Seen Through the Rear-View Window

CPUSA Meeting in Chicago 1939/Ross Wolfe


The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929. By Jacob Z. Zumoff. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 367 pp. $28 paperback.

By Paul Buhle

Historians used to refer playfully to the “dark and bloody battlefield of Civil War historiography,” because the battles among historians arguing with each other over that grand and traumatic moment of US history seemed to mirror (minus the bodies) the savagery of the original.  We could say the same about the American Communist Party saga, even when the real Communists of the story have remained in important ways terra incognita–-despite the appearance of dozens of books whose outpourings began significantly during the 1950s. In The Communist International and US Communism, a large and closely reasoned volume, special light is shown on one crucial facet, arguably to the relative absence of others.

The gloomy, Roaring Twenties phase of Left isolation had Communists repeatedly getting off on the wrong foot, forming and reforming factions bitterly fighting each other and/or bidding for Moscow’s support, while seemingly losing whatever had been gained within the labor movement or popular audience here at home. If this had not been a preface to a huge influence a decade later, from the CIO to theater, music and film, not to mention youth movements and antifascist mobilizations—then the Left twenties would have a mostly antiquarian interest. The two periods seem so different.

Then again, consider the personal world view of one of my Oral History of the American Left interviewees, an ancient shop militant who retired, with her comrades, to modest apartments in Miami Beach high rises. On the table near her sofa was a photo of herself and others at the 1931 convention of a short-lived “red” dressmakers’ union intended to rival the ILGWU (it never did). On the wall were photographs of her fundraising for antifascist causes (including the Soviet Union) during the Second World War. For her, it had been one long, roughly continuous story, and in these particular ones, Communist (and Jewish) women’s roles had been at an apex. It had been a particularly hard life in the shops, but a good life, too, for an unbroken believer in social transformation, past and minus Stalinist illusions.

Jacob Zumoff would not be one to share my fond interviewee’s organic view of the Left. He portrays the internecine struggles of the 1920s as necessary and inevitable if tragic in outcome.  The rough democracy or semi-democracy of organization-through-factionalism, in his perspective, gave way, at the end, to the triumph of Stalin’s choices of American leadership and strategy. But to this day, hardly anyone can tell the players without a program or cheat-sheet. US Communism 1919-29 might be called the latest, most updated cheat-sheet, or (to change the metaphor) map of political warfare.

The first three chapters of Zumoff recall, in severely condensed form, Theodore Draper’s monumentalRoots of American Communism (1957) but without the color, and the nod to the personalities, some of them known personally by Draper, who had himself been a functionary of sorts before breaking with the Party. The bulk of Zumoff’s book appears at first glance a fuller, more detailed updating of Draper’s disappointing sequel, American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960). At second glance, and with the usage of the Comintern archives plus assorted recent scholarship, US Communism is closer to an extended, but very specific, political argument about history.

Oldtimer working class reds with memories going back to the 1920s, in my fieldwork, were relieved to see the factionalism ended—by any means. Being the ones who stayed in the Party, they candidly made it clear to me that whatever the Soviet Union decided had been pretty much okay with them. So what if American Communist leaders (all factions, by their accounts) so often bungled and bumbled? Red Russia remained, or it was important to them to think so. Ridiculous American newspaper stories had been appearing since 1917 about Russia “nationalizing” its female population, and such. Who could say if the later stories were any truer—or so went the rationalization they made to themselves.

Consider for a moment, as we seek to follow the author’s effort to untangle the relationship of the Comintern to the emerging CPUSA of the 1920s, the actual base constituency of the movement. Curious it was, first of all, because unlike any other CP in the world, the first language of the party majority did not happen to be the language of the nation. The break with the Socialist Party left behind the vast majority of American-born socialists, many of them from older generations, successfully repressed into quietude or too disillusioned to continue on into the new phase of the Left. What section of the working class joined the new party?

So-called Language Federations, more than a dozen of them consisting mostly (if not entirely) of blue collar and lower middle class populations from regions on the borderlands of the old Czarist empire, filled out the bulk of party membership, paid dues, and above all, struggled to set down roots in their own communities. Their newspapers, appearing in languages as problematic for government investigators as Croatian, Finnish and Hungarian, did not need to be sold on newsstands, unlike the bulk of the suppressed and vanished Socialist local press.  Nor were their local meetings easy for the new Bureau of Investigation (later, FBI) so easy to infiltrate. Besides, their clubhouses served as social centers, and especially before Social Security, their “sickness and death benefit societies” provided decisive assistance to families in need. Politically, they were “internationalists” by instinct. Indeed, they were international, even as they learned their political, social and economic role in the US.

Were these constituents, the core of American Communists at large, only the playthings of Moscow, in the Cold War scholarship of Theodore Draper and others less willing to do heavy-lifting research? Or were they, the rank and file, actually busying themselves with the tasks at hand, as they conceived those tasks? For a few years in the early 1980s, the pages of the New York Review of Books intermittently glowed with the fury of disputation. The generational divide essentially found the young scholars (mostly New Left generation) on the side of social history and the search for ordinary people, while the older scholars remained fixed on the familiar side of strictly political history. To be fair, a third position, held by grizzled former Communist party leaders themselves as well as their expelled counterparts, placed the conflicts of faction versus faction as the true, inner and inevitable history of a vital Left. This last view, later inherited mostly by scholars in the Trotskyist tradition, is closest to the heart of author Zumoff and is in a way a counter history, because, in this view, the triumph of a different party faction would have opened the way toward a vast success, perhaps even an American revolution, ruined in reality by the Stalin takeover of the Comintern.

Party factionalism ended with the expulsion of the last competitive block of factionalists, the followers of Jay Lovestone, in 1928. Before this last set of major expulsions directed at a group disapproved by Moscow, a significant piece of the history of the CP had, in effect, already happened. As it emerged from an underground existence in the early-middle 1920s, the Party set upon a Moscow-directed project of “Bolshevization,” that is changing the very nature of local members’ relation with the Party. Briefly, half the membership, mainly from these immigrant groups, either simply walked away, felt forced out, or faced expulsion, and not only among the large ethnic federations. The last surviving Literary Secretary of the defunct Ybor City, Florida, branch told me in a 1981 interview that hundreds had joined locally, but after close questioning at the direction of national official officials, hardly a handful remained in this unique, Spanish-Cuban cigar workers’ ghetto. Like the Italians, whose wide-scale presence in the Party lasted a little longer, they were syndicalist-minded and judged unsuitable. The Party had diminished itself dramatically, but not because any faction had won or lost.

Joseph Zumoff records the single most dramatic case, that of Finnish-Americans who had constituted the largest group in the Party but were halved by Bolshevization—but seemingly passes no negative judgment. In his notion of the proper American Bolshevik party, this obviously needed to be done, even if it might have been done better. My considered view is close to the opposite, garnered over decades of reading in a few languages and viewing the events of the 1920s in the light of the 1930s-1940s. The “federations” were indeed expunged, but with the creation of a wide-ranging International Workers Order and especially with the arrival of the Popular Front, the same European-origin groups, by this time Jews the largest number, essentially regathered and asserted a wide influence in their particular communities, politically and culturally. What had been accomplished?

Zumoff moves expertly through the assortment of faction fights, messages from Moscow and the often duplicitous efforts of international travelers with credentials and their own private agendas. But my memory goes to Art Shields, a veteran Communist journalist who had been around almost from the beginning. His greatest regret, he told me, was that the Communists had been unable to build from the Farmer-Labor movement around Robert M. La Follette in the early/middle 1920s. Zumoff insists that the LaFollette presidential candidacy of 1924 was a petty-bourgeois distraction.  There, it seems to me, a line of difference over Left history has been drawn clearly.

The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 is an interesting and valuable book. But the notion that an insular Communist movement, determined to stand clear of any reformist distractions, building the hard proletarian core and advanced vanguard leadership, would have found itself stronger than the movement that built industrial unionism and transformed popular culture by virtue of assorted strategic compromises—this is an improbable conclusion, at least to the current reviewer. American Communism needed to Americanize itself, before it could move forward. And it did, even with all the failings of the time and place.

Paul Buhle founded the Oral History of the American Left at Tamiment Library, New York University, and co-edited the Encyclopedia of the American Left

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