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The Soviet World of American Communism
By Harvey Klehr, John Earls Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson.
Yale University Press 378 pp. $35

The collapse of the Soviet Union demolished many falsehoods of contemporary history. The Soviet Union itself was a singular embodiment of falsehoods, its legitimacy resting, uneasily and precariously (as it turned out), on massive and determined misrepresentations of its own character, goals, and accomplishments.

The necessity of reliance on falsehoods had three major sources. First was the conspiratorial tradition of the Bolsheviks, who, having spent years underground and in exile, absorbed the outlook and methods bred by their experience. Secondly, there was the compulsion, persisting to the very end, to claim that the early idealistic goals of the revolution—Marxist-inspired goals incapable of realization—were in fact being achieved. Finally, the unpopularity of the system led to a reflexive official mendaciousness whose endless efforts to persuade via propaganda further institutionalized the culture of the lie.

Communist movements and parties around the world bore the imprint of the Soviet model, as Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson illustrate in The Soviet World of American Communism. Many Americans refused to believe for a very long time that the American Communist movement too was tainted by deceptions. It is an ironic twist of history that Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist crusade stimulated an enduring sympathy toward the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) on the part of academic intellectuals, liberal opinion makers, Hollywood celebrities, and segments of the educated public. Critics of McCarthyism complained about “witch hunts” and “red-baiting.” The latter meant the groundless and reckless attribution of Communist beliefs and associations to those not holding them; quite often, though, those who claimed to be victims of “red baiting” actually were card-carrying Communists.

Following the 1960s, the rehabilitation of the American Communist movement gathered speed, helped by the ethos of the period. For most activists of the 1960s there was no enemy on the left; the enemies of the establishment, the ruling class, or the military-industrial complex were their friends, including American Communists and fellow travelers. Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs became martyrs, the latter the subject of a veritable cult. The American Communist movement came to be sentimentalized and entered the pantheon of the virtuous victims of American political repression, and in that capacity continues to enjoy a favorable reputation among many on the left.

Crucial to the efforts to rehabilitate and idealize the American Communist Party was the contention that it was a grassroots organization of socially conscious Americans, fighting for social justice, concerned with mainly American conditions, and not subservient to the USSR. Only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent access to the archives of the Soviet Communist Party did definitive proof become available that the CPUSA was almost totally subservient to Soviet policies and instructions .

The Secret World of American Communism (1995), a predecessor to this book, documented the clandestine links between the CPUSA and the Soviet authorities, including the Soviet intelligence agency, the NKVD. Spying on behalf of the Soviet Union became acceptable for American Communists convinced that any contribution to the power, influence, and welfare of the USSR was morally legitimate. (The Soviet documents confirmed, among other things, that the younger sister of American party leader Earl Browder was an agent of the NKVD.) The Soviet documents also revealed that “the CPUSA was . . . a conspiracy financed by a hostile foreign power that recruited members for clandestine work, developed an elaborate underground apparatus, and used that apparatus to collaborate with espionage services of that power.”

The volume reviewed here is also based on documents found in the Soviet archives, and they provide further information about the specifics of the relationship between the CPUSA and the Soviet authorities. This is how the authors summarize that relationship:

American Communists looked to the Comintern [the Communist International dominated by the Soviet Communist Party and headquartered in Moscow] for guidance at every stage of their history. Soviet Communists settled American leadership disputes; they funded American movements and programs; they directed American ideology. And they always placed the national interests of the Soviet Union above those of other countries . . . . The CPUSA has always been a satellite, first of the Comintern and later of the Soviet Communist party. The ties between the two organizations, those of subordinate to superior, existed on every level. The Soviets established the ideology, provided the money, chose or approved leaders, and monitored the tactics of the Americans. With only few exceptions, American Communists did not question the Comintern’s right to exercise that control.

The 1941 “Draft Resolution on the American Question” exemplified the deceptive tactics of the CPUSA and its Soviet sponsors. Produced in Moscow, the resolution stated that “it is necessary that the party act still more effectively as a truly national party of the American working class, as the best defender of the happiness, welfare, and peace of its people and its nation, as an independent American party guided by the teachings of Marxism-Leninism.” In the very same breath, Moscow was also instructing this “independent American Party” on its policies and tactics.

Among the most disgraceful policies of the CPUSA was its unconditional support of the Soviet-Nazi Pact in 1939. The authors note: “From May 31 to June 1, 1940 . . . the CPUSA held a special antiwar conference in New York City that was attended by about two thousand party officials and delegates. A microfilmed transcript of the proceedings was sent to Moscow. Every party leader of note and many local members spoke at length opposing either assistance to Britain and France or American military preparation.” At this time Britain and France were already at war with Germany while the Soviet Union occupied half of Poland thanks to the treaty. One of the Soviet documents justified the treatment of Poland by pointing out that it “was a reactionary multinational state built on the oppression of Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews. It decayed because of the corruption of the ruling classes. The international proletariat has no interest in the existence of such a parasitical state.” The Poles should even have been thankful: “The Soviet Union, in coming to the aid of Western Ukrainian and Belorussian workers, saved eleven million people from a capitalist hell, brought them into the ranks of socialism, assured their national and cultural development, and . . . secured them from foreign enslavement.” Such Orwellian linguistic reversal of reality was routinely dispensed by Soviet ideologues and their American associates.

The CPUSA gave unconditional and fierce support to the vast fabrications of the Soviet show trials. Closely following the party line, Earl Browder in 1935 told the Central Committee of the CPUSA: “Any sustained and continued opposition against the party inevitably leads directly over into the opposite camp, the camp of counter revolution. This must teach us the lesson to become much more irreconcilable in our struggle against every deviation in our movement.”

The American party did not offer any help or sympathy to American Communists who had moved to the USSR only to become victims of the purges during the 1930s. Thousands of American and Canadian Finns returned to the Soviet Union during the 1920s and ‘30s and settled in the Karelian region bordering Finland to help build socialism. The CPUSA, the authors note, “had depicted the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise, [and] had assisted the emigration of Finnish-Americans to Karelia . . . . When the American emigrants were swept up in the Great Terror, the CPUSA either ignored the situation or actively supported the false characterization of these victims as spies and saboteurs and tried to cover up what was going on.”

In 1936-38 “Soviet Security police arrested several hundred-perhaps more than a thousand-North American Finnish immigrants (mostly adult males) and charged them with . . . ‘bourgeois nationalism,’ of having been spies for Finland or another foreign power, or of plotting to detach Karelia from the Soviet Union and unite it with Finland.” The leaders of the CPUSA discussed the arrests “in the context of combating whatever negative impact the arrests might have. There was no discussion of the legitimacy of the arrests, nor any decisions to protest them.”

The faithfulness of the CPUSA to Soviet policies was also illustrated by its avid support of the Soviet authorities in their various doctrinal disputes and domestic political campaigns, in particular those waged against the followers (real and alleged) of Trotksy and Bukharin. “When the Soviet Union executed thousands of Trotskyists,” the authors report, “the American Communists cheered them on.” The New York branch of the party went so far as to pass a resolution to expel not only accused Trotskyists and Lovestonites but even those who were married to one; they could remain in the party only if they separated from their politically contaminated partner.

It should be noted that there was a difference between the party leadership/core membership and many individual members of the CPUSA. Large numbers of members left the party at various historical junctures, unable to swallow the changes in the party line. But it was not these idealistic and transient members who defined the policies and character of the Party, but their leaders and superiors who continued their abject subservience to the USSR.

The CPUSA depended on the Soviet Union because of its small size and the fact that it received little support from the American working class. It may indeed be argued that feeling beleaguered and isolated in a society by no means sympathetic to their beliefs made the leaders and core supporters all the more dependent on Soviet help and guidance. By contrast, European Communist parties enjoying far greater mass support were capable of somewhat greater autonomy.

The fate and reputation of the American Communist movement has acquired an iconic significance for supporters of the adversary culture that developed in the 1960s and beyond. While this volume and its predecessor have conclusively demystified the CPUSA, for those who still need to believe in the unique evil America represents and who feel compelled to idealize all radical critics of American society, these findings are likely to be dismissed.

Paul Hollander teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His books include Soviet and American Society: A Comparison, Political Pilgrims, and Anti-Americanism. His Political Will and Personal Belief in the Decline and Fall of Soviet Communism will be published by Yale University Press in 1999.