The Blog

THE LIFE OF JAY LOVESTONE

Communist, Anti-Communist, Spy

11:00 PM, Mar 21, 1999 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



One of the great but seldom-heard stories of the Cold War is the subject of Ted Morgan's superb new biography, A Covert Life, and its hero, Jay Lovestone, is crisply summarized by the book's sub-title: Communist, anti-Communist, and spymaster.


A founding member of the Communist party in the United States, a force to be reckoned with in George Meany's American Federation of Labor, and an agent in James Angleton's CIA counter-intelligence division, Lovestone led one of the most fascinating American lives of this century. But until now, the tale of his life -- and the larger story of the struggle against the Soviets' seventy-year campaign to control the free world's labor unions -- has been found mostly in the clotted prose of doctoral dissertations or academic journals, where it is usually buried in condemnations of the AFL for the great sin of rejecting world socialism and the even worse sin of working with the CIA.


Born in 1898, Jay Lovestone was a Jewish boy from New York's East Side, a graduate of City College, and a radical who rose by age twenty-nine to be secretary of the Communist Party USA. On a trip to Russia in 1929 for a "Communist International" meeting, however, he had the audacity to show a bit of independence, arguing against Stalin that the Bolshevik revolutionary strategy was doomed to fail in the United States, a country with no Socialist tradition.


For this heresy of an "American exceptionalism" that seemed to exempt the United States from Marxist-Leninist determinism, he was promptly deposed as secretary and expelled from the party. He was lucky to get out of Moscow alive.


I knew Jay Lovestone in the 1950s, while I was a labor journalist and he was at the peak of his anti-Communist ardor. But even then, it was Lenin's theory of revolution that propelled him -- not toward international communism anymore, but against it as a theorist and strategist for the AFL. In "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder -- in a chapter entitled "Should Revolutionaries Work in Reactionary Trade Unions?" -- Lenin had argued that Communists must "agree to any sacrifice and even -- if need be -- to resort to all sorts of stratagems, artifices, illegal methods, to evasions and subterfuges, so as to get into the trade unions, and to remain in them, and to carry on Communist work within them at all costs."


At all costs, indeed. No one will ever know how vast was the sum the Kremlin expended with some success in its attempt to control trade unions throughout the world. The reason for this Communist offensive was to build up an international labor front to support Soviet foreign policy. The ninth provision of the terms of admission to the Comintern demanded that national Communist parties "conduct systematic and unflagging Communist work in the trade unions . . . and by their sustained and unflagging work win the unions over to the Communist cause."


In 1936, desperate for help in its breakaway from the AFL, John L. Lewis's CIO asked the Communist party to supply organizers for its new industrial unions. The Communists immediately did -- with full Soviet approval, as we now know from Russian archives -- and eventually at least a quarter of the CIO Executive Board were either CPUSA members or under party discipline.


Similar scenarios played out across the world. In Britain, the Soviet Union played a significant role in the Trades Union Congress. After World War II, the dominant labor organizations in France and Italy were openly Communist. Had it not been for the resistance of the AFL, Moscow might have controlled the reborn West German trade unions as they already did those in East Germany. In Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America, Stalin's emissaries did everything they could to organize unions afresh or subvert those that existed.


The Soviets' biggest failure was the AFL -- from the American union's refusal to call general strikes to foil the Marshall Plan in the 1940s to its support of the Polish labor union Solidarity in the 1980s. When the Moscow-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions voted against the Marshall Plan, the CIO and the British TUC seceded from the organization. With the AFL (which had always refused to join the WFTU) in the lead, the CIO and other labor organizations in Asia and the Americas formed a new labor international, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. In France -- where Soviet influence was so great in 1947 that French longshoremen's unions wouldn't allow the unloading of arms shipments for a French government just liberated from the Nazis -- a new anti-Communist national union was created, the Force Ouvriere, with American labor money and eventually with CIA subventions. Similar means were adopted in Italy.