A NON-COMMUNIST VIEW OF THE FORMATION OF THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY
THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN COMMUNISM, THEODORE DRAPER, The Viking Press, New York, 1957
THE COMPANION VOLUME- AMERICAN COMMUNISM AND SOVIET RUSSIA WAS REVIEWED ON JUNE 21, 2006
As an addition to the historical record of the period from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the formation and consolidation of the legal, open party in 1923 The Roots of American Communism and its companion volume detailing the period from 1923 to 1929-American Communism and Soviet Russia (which will be 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 unlike other former communists nevertheless does a thorough job or presenting the personalities and issues in a reasonably straightforward 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, faced harassment, imprisonment or worst to create an American Bolshevik party. While there is no dearth of memoirs of other participants in the early 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 when it became merely 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 this period a few helpful introductory chapters by Mr. Draper give an analysis of the forces that made up the radical scene prior to World War I. Those forces included the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), independent syndicalists influenced by the French anarchist movement and the anti-war left-wing of the Socialist party, including various foreign language federations. Thus, in its formative period the American party (or parties, to be more correct) gathered all those fresh elements which responded to the Bolshevik victory in Russia, saw it as the wave of the future and wanted to establish that kind of socialism here. As this writer has noted elsewhere, while those diffuse forces proved to be difficult to organize, this mix provided for a better internal party life than, say, in England where the militant Celtic and anarcho-syndicalist elements were not recruited resulting in a ‘stillborn’ party.
Mr. Draper also addresses the various important faction fights which occurred inside the party. To make sense of this is sometimes no simple task. That overview also highlights some of the now more obscure personalities, where they stood on the issues and insights into the significance of the crucial early fights in the party. These include questions which are still relevant today; a legal vs. an underground party; the revolutionary attitude toward parliamentary politics; support to third party bourgeois candidates; trade union policy; class war defense as well as how to rein in the intense internal struggle of the various factions for organizational control of the party.
This presentation makes it somewhat easier for those not well-versed in the intricacies of the political disputes which wracked the early American party to understand how these questions tended to pull the party in on itself. In many ways, given the undisputed rise of American imperialism in the immediate aftermath of World War I, this is a story of the ‘dog days’ of the party. Unfortunately, that American rise combined with the international ramifications of the internal disputes in the Russian Communist Party and in the Communist International shipwrecked the party as a revolutionary party toward the end of this period. That subject is more fully addressed in the second volume. Read this book.
SOME OF THE BOOKS REVIEWED HERE MAY NOT BE READILY AVAILABLE AT LOCAL LIBRARIES OR BOOKSTORES. CHECK AMAZON.COM FOR AVAILABILITY THERE, BOTH NEW AND USED.