A NON-COMMUNIST VIEWS THE STALINIZATION OF THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY
AMERICAN COMMUNISM AND THE SOVIET UNION, THEODORE DRAPER, The Viking Press, New York, 1960
THE COMPANION VOLUME-THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN COMMUNISM WAS REVIEWED ON MAY 30, 2006
As an addition to the historical record of the period from the illness and death of Lenin in the Soviet Union and the ensuing struggle for power in the Russian Communist party to the consolidation of Stalinist rule and its extension to the American party in 1929 American Communism and the Soviet Union and its companion volume detailing the period from 1917 to 1923-The Roots of American Communism (which has been reviewed separately) – is the definitive scholarly study on the early history of the American Communist Party. The author, an ex-communist, but at the time of writing an anti-communist who however unlike other former communists nevertheless does a thorough job or presenting the personalities and issues in a reasonably straightforward and unbiased manner. Given that these volumes were researched and published during the heart of the Cold War hysteria against the Soviet Union in the 1950’s this is not faint praise.
Also useful for this period in conjunction with these two volumes and to round them out, from the pro-Communist partisan perspective of one of the main leaders, is James P. Cannon’s The First Ten Years of American Communism and the Prometheus Research Library’s James P. Cannon and the Early Communist Movement. Absent from Mr. Draper’s analysis is any real feel for why the early leaders and rank and file of the party put themselves on the line against American imperialism, faced harassment, imprisonment or worst to create an American Bolshevik party. While there is no dearth of memoirs of other participants in the early American communist movement, Cannon’s analysis most honestly fills that gap.
That said, why must militants read these works today? After the demise of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe anything positively related to Communist studies is deeply discounted. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the American Communist Party (and its offshoots) needs to be studied as an ultimately flawed example of a party that failed in its mission to create a radical version of society in America after it became essentially a tool of Soviet diplomacy. Now is the time for militants to study the mistakes and draw the lessons of that history.
For those not familiar with Mr. Draper’s first volume a helpful introductory chapter gives a summary of the events from 1917-1923. After the successful fight to bring the party above ground, 1923 opened with the struggle within the party, reflected by a sentiment in the American labor movement, in favor of an independent labor party, or rather a farmer-labor party. That effort proved stillborn. This is also the period when the party toyed with the idea of supporting the Lafollette movement, a bourgeois third party operation. Party support for that effort was abandoned at the last minute. Draper seems to think that the failure of the party to correctly intersect those two movements was a central reason that the party’s influence was limited in the 1920’s.
Fair enough. However, from a communist perspective what was the reality? The Farmer-Labor party was, as the name clearly denotes, a two class party which was based on contradictory programs. Ultimately, one or the other program would create fundamental antagonisms. This contradiction has been played out numerous times in the international revolutionary movement and, except in Russia where the Bolsheviks adopted the Social Revolutionary land program, has proven disastrous to the working class. As for the LaFollette movement it has long been established in the Marxist movement that bourgeois parties are not to be supported politically. No less an authority than James P. Cannon, a central leader of the party in the 1920’s has some very relevant comments on the opportunist and half-baked nature of this proposal. All in all, I think that Draper’s position is influenced by looking at these maneuvers through the prism of the Popular Front policies of the 1930’s when the party allegedly increased its influence by pandering to the New Deal Democrats and other bourgeois formations.
The party’s rocky road continues with the process of the ‘Bolshevization’ policy of the party ordered by the head of the Communist International Zinoviev to bring all parties in line with the Russian party organizational forms. I have heard of and seen much about this policy and about Zinoviev’s role in it but mainly at the level of high policy in the Comintern. Mr. Draper, for the first time in my experience, presents an analysis of the effects of the process at the base of the American party. Jesus, it was even more bureaucratically organized at the base than at the top. This was not accidental, as the cell structure mandated by the Comintern lent itself to easier bureaucratic control at the top. Zinoviev may have, historically, been underappreciated as a revolutionary politician and agitator but certainly this scheme does nothing to enhance his reputation.
Very important sections of Mr. Draper’s book deal with the intersection of communism and the black question and the struggle for American Trotskyism. I will not address the issue of American Trotskyism here as I have dealt with that topic elsewhere in this space and the reader really should read Cannon’s History of American Communism and History of American Trotskyism to fill in the details. However, Draper’s chapter on the black question is one of the best overviews of this question available.
The section on the development of communist work among blacks, the creation of a black cadre and the formulating of the question of a black nation with the right to national self-determination is an essential chapter (including footnotes at the back) for any militant trying to find the roots of communist work among blacks. Although the 1920’s was not the heyday of black recruitment to the party, the pioneer work in the 1920’s gave the party a huge leg up when the radicalization of the 1930’s among all workers occurred.
Nevertheless, the left-wing movement in America, including the Communist Party and its offshoots has always had problems with what has been called the Black Question. Marxists have always considers support to the right of national self-determination to be a wedge against the nationalists and as a way to put the class axis to the fore. In any case, Marxist have always predicated that support on there being a possibility for the group to form a nation. Absent that, other methods of struggle are necessary to deal with special oppression. Part of the problem with the American Communist position on self-determination was that the conditions which would have created the possibility of a black state were being destroyed with the mechanization of agriculture, the migration of blacks to the Northern industrial centers and the overwhelming need to fight for black people’s rights to survive under the conditions of the Great Depression. Carefully read this section.
After reviewing the history of the American Communist party from 1919- 29 I have come away with one nagging question. How did militants from different pre-World War I radicals organizations like the left wing of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World that were clearly attracted to the Russian revolution and wanted to bring such a revolution here wind up as Stalinist publicity agents for Soviet foreign policy? I think James P. Cannon, one of the militants attracted to the Russian revolution, had his finger on an answer. Most of his fellow militants started out sincerely wanting to make a revolution (I reserve my judgment on that comment in the case of William Z. Foster) but made their accommodations with bourgeois society at some point in the 1920’s when the immediate possibilities of an American revolution looked very bleak.
In short, it is easier being a cheerleader for someone else’s revolution than to make your own. As is well known revolutionary movements are great devourers of human material. That this process occurred in America in the 1920’s set the radical movement a long way back. Read more and make up your own mind.