*A SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC VIEW OF THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY- The View From Professor Irving Howe's Chair
Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Professor Irving Howe.
THE AMERICAN COMMUNIST PARTY-A CRITICAL HISTORY (1919-1957), IRVING HOWE AND LEWIS COSER, BEACON PRESS, BOSTON, 1957
I have reviewed the two volume set on the history of the early American Communist Party by Theodore Draper elsewhere in this space. There I noted that as an addition to the historical record of the period from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the formation and consolidation of the legal, above ground party in 1923 The Roots of American Communism and its companion volume detailing the period from 1923 to 1929-American Communism and Soviet Russia are the definitive scholarly studies on the early history of the American Communist Party through the Stalinization of the American party.
The present volume by Irving Howe, who had been long time editor of the social democratic journal Dissent, and fellow professor Lewis Coser took that story up to 1957. Although Howe and Coser also covered the early period covered by Draper including the pre-World War I radical milieu, the split of the left wing of the Socialist Party, the creation of two communist parties, the underground period , the eventual reunion of the two parties, the resurfacing and finally the Stalinization of the party since I believe that Draper did an extremely thorough job on the early period I therefore will limit my comments on this book to the period after that from the ‘third period’ Communist policy of about 1929 through the Popular Front, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and the various makeshift popular front policies of the World War II and post-war period.
That said, I will pose the same question here that I did in the Draper reviews. 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 primarily a tool of Soviet diplomacy. Now is the time for militants to study the mistakes and draw the lessons of that history.
Needless to say the very title of this study gives its perspective-a critical study- and that attitude, sometimes mockingly, sometimes with disgust at Communist strategy and tactics mars this work as one would expect from a political opponent of communism. But we are after all political people (assuming that today’s reader of such material has to be political) and we know how to take those kinds of opponent's remarks in stride. The book nevertheless provides a wealth of information about what was going on in the American Communist party, how subservient it was to Moscow at any particular time and the difficulties inherent in a radical approach to American labor politics during that period (and now, for that matter).
For my money the most important contribution in this volume is the study of the ‘third period’. For those unfamiliar with the terminology Communist International language, codified in its theses and tactics, had set 1917-1924, the first period, as one of revolutionary opportunities, 1924-28, the second period, of capitalist stabilization and beginning about 1929 the ‘third period’-the collapse of capitalism and the final confrontation between the two main forces in world politics- the bosses and the workers. A good shorthand way to describe this period was the slogan- Class Against Class. Well we all know the results- the most important being the victory of Hitler in Germany without so much as a fight by the working class. I will confess that in my youth I was intellectually very drawn to ‘third period’ Comintern politics, that is, until I got hold of a copy of Leon Trotsky’s The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany and realized that the whole Stalinist policy was a house of cards. There were no places of exile for the mass of the German working class who borne the brunt of Hitler’s vengeance as a result of this strategy. They took it on the chin and never really recovered from that defeat. So much for ultra-radical sloganeering. Although the effects on the American scene were not as traumatic it was nevertheless a period of isolation and some very serious labor defeats in struggles here.
If in my youth I was enamored of the ‘third period’ that was not the case of the next period-the period of the popular front. As a reaction to the sterility and foolishness of the ‘third period’ and the isolation internationally of the Soviet Union in the face of the Hitler menace the class against class approach was abandoned to be replaced by one in which the communists were basically undifferentiated from the mass of bourgeois politics- they were just the ‘guys and gals’ next door. Although this was the period of greatest influence for the American party in the unions, in the universities, in cultural life and in American politics in general it too proved a house of cards when the Moscow line changed during the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-41. The authors present a very interesting description of how the party maneuvered through ‘front’ groups during the popular front period to gain apparent influence on the cheap. They list a whole catalogue of organizations that the party controlled, a few that I was not previously aware of, and what happened went the deal went sour in 1939. In short, a lesson that latter radicals, including today’s radicals, should have permanently etched in their brains when one counts how much influence we really have in such things as the current anti-Iraq war movement.
After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 the party’s influence grew but for all the wrong reasons- it was the most patriotic and conservative factor in labor politics, all ostensibly in the interest of defending the Soviet Union. In the post-war period, however, the party reaped what it had sown as it faced a steep decline of influence in the labor movement due to its own policies and the ‘red scare’ that developed during the Cold War build up. It is during the discussion of this period that the authors show their greatest degree of contempt for the American party mainly arguing that that party was solely an agent for the Soviet Union and therefore not part of the labor movement. While those of us today who are anti-Stalinist can quote chapter and verse the crimes of Stalinism as well as Howe and Coser could it is a very grave mistake to have assumed that Stalinism was not a current of the international labor movement and therefore did not have to be defended. We have paid a steep price for that social democratic view. It was necessary to defeat Stalinism within the labor movement but not by 'outsourcing' that task to American imperialism. Read this book with a very jaded eye.