The Magazine


Mar 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 25 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kiril M. Anderson

The Soviet World of American Communism

Yale University Press, 416 pp., $ 35

The CPUSA -- the Communist party as it existed in the United States -- is the only radical party in American history to be governed by a foreign country. It was a form of colonialism, run from the mother country of the Soviet Union, that Stalin called "proletarian internationalism," and it meant that Moscow's orders to its colonials were to be obeyed upon pain of expulsion. Thanks to archives opened in Russia after the fall of the Communists, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kiril M. Anderson have been able to document beyond all doubt the extent and the viciousness of the role played even in America by the "Comintern," the Soviet agency that ruled Communist parties the world over. The Soviet World of American Communism takes its place as yet another fine entry in Yale University Press's extraordinary series of recent books on the history of the Communist plague in the twentieth century.

Throughout the very early years of the CPUSA, the Soviet Union hoped to foment the overthrow of American capitalism. But when, during the 1920s, even the apparatchiks in Moscow realized that "Soviet America" was no longer an immediately realizable ambition, the Comintern directed the CPUSA to perform instead two much more clandestine roles: enlisting popular support for Soviet foreign policy and recruiting key Americans for Moscow's espionage apparatus.

Klehr, Haynes, and Anderson have gathered the key correspondence bBetween the Comintern and the CPUSA, and readers will find much to be depressed about as they plow through the endless record of duplicity, naivety, and treason. But perhaps the most depressing thing found in The Soviet World of American Communism is the final confirmation of what has long been known: that, upon joining the CPUSA, the ostensibly independent Americans -- intellectuals and workers alike -- became as submissive to Moscow as members of the Nazi German- American Bund were to Berlin (and the Bund, at least, made no pretense of being a political party or anything other than a pressure group for a foreign power). When Stalin's spokesmen issued orders, party members obeyed without a murmur.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the history of American communism is how well the Soviets did in the United States, given the often idiotic orders issued to the CPUSA by Russians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, and any other Eastern European whose expertise on America derived entirely from Stalin's paranoid perceptions, the misreporting of the Soviet press, and occasional comments in the works of Marx and Lenin.

You had to be a special kind of American to submit to it all, and it seemed to work best among the intellectuals. Among the trade unions and their members, the mishmash offered under Soviet orders by the CPUSA had little success, and The Soviet World of American Communism shows -- with Comintern documentation to prove it -- that were it not for John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, the two labor leaders who founded the CIO, there probably wouldn't have been any CPUSA success among the trade unionists. One of the Comintern's stupidest decisions was the creation of dual unions -- coal miners, garment workers -- to challenge the jurisdiction of the equivalent unions already in the American Federation of Labor. The tactic was a total failure and made mortal enemies of the leaders of the AFL.

Nonetheless, looking back, one is forced to agree that the CPUSA did remarkably well in securing unconditional approval for Soviet foreign policy aims from such non-Communist Americans as Henry Wallace, Joseph E. Davies, Vera Micheles Dean, Claude Pepper -- the list is endless. So too the party did quite well in espionage recruitment, finding Alger Hiss, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Whittaker Chambers, Lee Pressman, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and many more.