Revising Revisionism: A New Look at American Communism

John Earl Haynes

Although the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) never became a major player in American political life, it was a significant participant in mainstream politics and the trade union movement in the 1930s and 1940s whose activities evoked tremendous passions among both supporters and opponents. It has also been the focus of sustained attention by historians. An online bibliography of scholarly writing about domestic American communism has more than 9,000 entries, listing hundreds of dissertations and books as well as thousands of published articles, many added in the last decade.1 This enormous corpus of works on a political movement that never enlisted more than 88,000 members is filled with fierce debates between “revisionists” convinced that their subjects have been marginalized or unfairly denigrated and opponents less enamored with the role the CPUSA played in American life.

The first substantial group of scholarly works on the CPUSA, the ten-book “Communism in American Life” series sponsored by the Fund for the Republic, appeared during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism (Viking Press, 1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (1960) unearthed the political history of the CPUSA to 1929 with a detail and understanding still unsurpassed. Although most authors were left-of-center, all shared an anti-Communist perspective. Many were veterans of bruising battles with Communists and their allies in trade unions, intellectual organizations, and political groups, while some had gone through the CPUSA and learned to distrust it. Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1915–1957), the only one-volume history of the CPUSA written in this era, shared the perspective of the Communism in American Life series, reflecting Howe and Coser’s prior Trotskyist experience.2 All of these books argued that the CPUSA was subordinate to the Soviet Union, possessed a totalitarian ideology, could not by its nature be a “normal” participant in a democratic polity, and had no legitimate place on the democratic left.

Until the 1970s, this critical evaluation of the role of the CPUSA dominated the literature. Then came revisionism. (Our label is not pejorative, but rather a sequential designation for an interpretive stance that “revises” some well-established paradigm, in this case that of Draper and the Communism in American Life authors.) A generation of young historians, largely veterans of the New Left of the late 1960s and 1970s, began to try to understand the American radical past. These sympathetic researchers found old Communists more willing to talk about their pasts in an America farther away from the fears of McCarthyism. By the 1970s, with the Vietnam War over, Richard Nixon disgraced, and American security agencies reeling from revelations of misconduct, the anti-Communist consensus that had dominated American life had been shattered.

Maurice Isserman, author of Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), explained the approach of this new generation who criticized Draper and his generation of historians:

the new history of Communism has examined particular communities, particular unions, particular working class and ethnic cultures, particular generations, and other sub-grouping within the Party. Though critical of the CP’s authoritarian internal structure, and its overall subservience to the Soviet Union, the new historians have been alert to the ways in which the American CP was shaped by the environment in which it operated and by the people who enlisted under its banners....The new Communist history begins with the assumption that nobody was born a Communist, and that everyone brought to the movement expectations, traditions, patterns of behavior and thought that had little to do with the decisions made in the Kremlin or on the 9th floor of Communist Party headquarters in New York....[T]he new historians of Communism are willing to see American Communists...as a group of people involved in, shaping, and shaped by an historical process.3

These revisionists poured out hundreds of essays and books on an broad array of topics: Communist influence on folk music, drama, and poetry; Communist activity among ethnic Jews, Finns, Italians, Blacks, Mexicans, Slavic immigrants, as well as Alabama sharecroppers, Midwestern wheat growers, New York dairy farmers, professional social workers, and socially conscious lawyers; even on Communist influence in sports, and scores of studies of Communist activities in the labor movement. They emphasized the heroic battles Communists had fought, the severe repression they had endured, the progressive causes they had enriched, and their personal virtue and nobility.

Some revisionists like Isserman conceded the Soviet tie, but most minimized its seriousness or dismissed it as largely symbolic, in stark contrast to the “traditionalist” approach of the Communism in American Life historians. In The Roots of American Communism Draper summarized a central element of the traditionalist view in his description of the CPUSA’s shifts in policy in the 1920s:

The first change of line was every other change of line in embryo. A rhythmic rotation from Communist sectarianism to Americanized opportunism was set in motion at the outset and has been going on every since. The periodic rediscovery of “Americanization” by the American Communists has only superficially represented a more independent policy. It has been in reality merely another type of American response to a Russian stimulus. A Russian initiative has always effectively begun and ended it. For this reason, “Americanized” American Communism has been sporadic, superficial, and short-lived. It has corresponded to the fluctuations of Russian policy; it has not obeyed a compelling need within the American Communists themselves.

He concluded that within four years of its founding, the CPUSA had been “transformed from a new expression of American radicalism to the American appendage of a Russian revolutionary power.”4 In contrast to the international context in which traditionalists put American communism, many revisionists took a determinedly national approach; only a few compared or contrasted American communism with Soviet communism, and many treated Soviet communism as an irrelevancy.

Taken as a whole, revisionist literature was strong on the periphery and weak at the core. Individual Communists working in one area were in the forefront while the Communist Party remained in the background, often a vague presence. Revisionist literature offered a Communist movement where local autonomy, spontaneity, and initiative ruled and orders from the center were ignored. This literature often conveyed the impression that there were two Communist parties. One consisted of the CPUSA headquarters in New York to which was attributed the regrettable part of Communist history: subordination to Moscow, support for Stalin’s purges, cheers for the Nazi-Soviet Pact, contempt for political democracy, and fervent belief in Marxism-Leninism. The other consisted of idealistic rank-and-file Communists who rooted themselves in the wants and needs of the workers, were inspired by the populist traditions of the American past, and paid little attention to Earl Browder in New York and even less to Joseph Stalin in Moscow. In most revisionist accounts rank-and-file Communists were not Marxist-Leninist in any meaningful way. They were just passionate supporters of trade unions, principled opponents of racism, and steadfast enemies of fascism. The only factor that seemed to distinguish them from other socialists and radicals was that they were more passionate, principled, and steadfast than others on the left, inspiring Theodore Draper to comment that revisionists produced a “genre of books about Communists-without-communism.”5

Most revisionist works dealt with a limited geographic area, a short time span, a single incident, a specific ethnic or racial group, a particular union, or some other partial aspect of Communist history. And the benign analytic perspective offered was sculpted to fit this narrow focus and often disconnected from any broader attempt at interpreting the totality of Communist history. While defending the revisionist approach as a needed corrective to the traditionalist focus on the CPUSA as a political institution, Isserman recognized the misleading impression that could be conveyed collectively by the multitude of specialized studies, commenting that “it would be a mistake to regard the Communist Party at any point in its history as if it had been simply a collection of autonomous, overlapping sub-groupings of Jews, Finns, blacks, women, longshoremen, East Bronx tenants and baseball fans, who were free to set their own political agenda without reference to Soviet priorities.”6

Indeed, in its heyday the CPUSA was highly centralized and run by a full-time paid bureaucracy controlled by a hierarchy answerable only to a tiny group of top leaders who were themselves vetted and often picked by Moscow. Isserman’s sensible stipulation received only pro forma acknowledgement from most revisionists who continued to produce numerous articles and dissertations in which American communism resembled a loosely organized American evangelical Christian denomination where each congregation interprets the gospel as it wishes. Only a few revisionist studies centered on the institution of the CPUSA and even fewer dealt with the party over a lengthy period. There is no revisionist equivalent to the traditionalist one-volume histories that covered the party from origins to irrelevance and, consequently, provided a comprehensive narrative and unified interpretive stance. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a revisionist-style interpretation that could deal coherently with the CPUSA from origin to finish.

Many revisionist historians made no secret that their radical loyalties inspired their scholarship and influenced their conclusions. Paul Lyons, whose 1982 Philadelphia Communists, 1936–1956, has often been cited as a model grassroots study, stated that he regarded Communists as “people committed to a vision of social justice and a strategy of social change that make them my political forebears. And like my biological parents, they merit a love that includes—in fact, requires—recognition of their faults and errors. Needless to say, such a love also rests on an honoring.”7 He described his book as a “contribution” toward “socialist cultural hegemony.”8 Ellen Schrecker, author of numerous books on McCarthyism, declared, “I do not think that I conceal my sympathy for many of the men and women who suffered during the McCarthy era nor my agreement with much (though not all) of their political agenda.”9 And long-time CPUSA member Norman Markowitz, author of The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941–1948 (Free Press, 1973), enthusiastically endorsed the Communist “dictatorship of the working class,” calling it “a higher form of democracy.”10 Alan Wald, a literary scholar and author of The New York Intellectuals (University of North Carolina Press, 1987), wrote:

United States capitalism and imperialism remain absolute horrors for the poor and people of color of the world, and ultimately hazardous to the health of the rest of us. Therefore, the construction of an effective oppositional movement in the United States remains the most rewarding, and the most stimulating, task for radical cultural workers. That is why I choose to assess the experience of Communist writers during the Cold War era from the perspective of learning lessons, finding ancestors, and resurrecting models of cultural practice that can contribute to the development of a seriously organized, pluralistic, democratic, and culturally rich left-wing movement.11

By the early 1990s, the revisionist interpretation of American communism had become dominant. Most of the historians working in the area treated anticommunism as a vestigial product of a benighted era. They laid the failure of the CPUSA at the feet of a repressive American regime that had spied upon, disrupted, and destroyed a radical movement that embodied the best impulses of American democracy. A handful of traditionalist scholars, ourselves included, continued to buttress and develop Draper’s thesis, but we were clearly a small and aging minority. Then the Soviet Union collapsed; its archives opened to scholars and the historians of American communism had to confront mountains of new information; tens of thousands of pages of reports and correspondence exchanged between American Communists and agencies of the Communist International (Comintern), as well as hundreds of thousands of pages of actual headquarters records of the CPUSA from its origin to 1944.

The history of American communism, heretofore pieced together from snippets of such material and extensive reliance on newspaper accounts, personal interviews, and American government files, was once again in play. Among other points, the Moscow archives showed that secret Soviet funding of the CPUSA (ridiculed by revisionists as the myth of “Moscow Gold”) was much more extensive than had been suspected, beginning with very generous subsidies in the party’s first decade and extending into later years and a final payment of $3 million in 1988. Further, Comintern micromanagement of CPUSA leadership and policies existed not only during the 1920s, when the party was young and weak, but continued during the CPUSA’s heyday in the 1930s, when it reached maturity and had experienced American leadership. Moscow archival documents revealed that even in the 1930s and 1940s the Cominten intervened at will to select members of the CPUSA ruling Political Bureau and require abrupt changes in the party’s political line to conform to changes in Soviet policy. Newly surfaced Soviet documents also conclusively showed that during World War II the CPUSA’s top leadership lent extensive organizational support to Soviet espionage against the United States—another point long denounced by revisionists as myth.

The new archival material has greatly bolstered the traditionalist perspective and even prompted several revisionists to reassess and adopt a more traditionalist perspective. In his 1981 dissertation on Earl Browder, longtime chief of the CPUSA, James Ryan argued that at his core Browder was a Kansas Populist-in-a-hurry and thoroughgoing American.12 Revising his dissertation for publication in 1993, Ryan then examined Comintern and CPUSA records and shifted markedly toward a traditionalist stance. His 1997 book, Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism, declared: “[I]t is difficult to overstate the significance of these materials. They offer a perspective on American radicalism available nowhere else.”13 Vernon Pedersen’s 1987 master’s thesis, a study of the Communist Party of Indiana, had sat firmly in the revisionist camp.14 But after a research stint at the newly open Moscow archives Pedersen concluded: “The opening of the Russian archives confirmed the traditionalists’ long-held claims.”15 Pedersen’s 1993 dissertation on the Maryland Communist Party, published in 2001 as The Communist Party in Maryland, 1919–57, combined a focus on the local activities of rank-and-file Communists with a clear-eyed understanding of the CPUSA’s centralized nature, antidemocratic ideology, and subordination to Moscow.

Maurice Isserman, one of the most prominent revisionists, acknowledged from the outset that the new material represented a problem for some revisionist arguments, but insisted, “For my own part, what has always interested me in the history of the C.P.U.S.A. had been the conflict between the ‘democratic, populist, and revolutionary’ beliefs of individual Communists, and its decidedly undemocratic purposes and conduct imposed on the party from abroad.”16 Other revisionists, however, were less impressed with the new documentation and reluctant to adjust their views. Ellen Schrecker saw no reason “that the past 30 years of scholarship [the revisionist consensus] will need to be rewritten.” She went on to criticize the cold war “triumphalism” of “people like Klehr, Haynes, and [Ronald] Radosh,” depicting it as part of a “broader campaign to delegitimize professional scholarship” instigated by conservative foundations. In several venues she expressed her outrage that the new evidence from Moscow and the renewed vigor in the traditionalist interpretation has “given new life to liberal anticommunism.”17 Speaking to the American Historical Association she warned that “the rehabilitation of Cold War liberalism is a central tenet of the triumphalist discourse about communism and anticommunism.”18

However, Schrecker recognized the need to take cognizance of the new evidence, providing a harsher assessment of the CPUSA than earlier revisionists. She admitted that the CPUSA was not a collection of independent spirits: “discipline was central to the CP’s identity” and

In their political work (and for many activists in their daily lives as well) Communists were expected to comply with party directives. Even during its more reformist phases, where there was little difference between the aims and actions of the “big C” and “small c” Communists, the American Communist party never abandoned its demand for conformity. It was—in theory and in ways that shaped the behavior of its members—a tightly organized, highly disciplined, international revolutionary socialist organization.19

Far from being an expression of American democracy, the CPUSA had a “quasi-military culture [that] precluded real debate. Members of a vanguard party, lower-level cadres actually prided themselves on their discipline” (22). She conceded that the CPUSA required its trade union militants to put party policy above union goals and admitted that “it was unthinkable for American Communists to defy what they interpreted as a directive from the Soviet Union” (18). She even agreed that it was now “clear that some kind of espionage took place during the 1930s and 1940s” and “as the evidence accumulates, it does seem as if many of the alleged spies had, indeed, helped the Russians” (166).

A traditionalist scholar could have written these observations: they abandon much of the revisionist stance on the nature of the CPUSA. But, having said these things, Schrecker then “privileged” Communists. Their shortcomings receive understanding or excuse because their intentions were good. Spying for Stalin, for example, was not so bad and, in any case, preventing Soviet espionage was worse than tolerating it: “were these activities so awful? Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system?” (178–79) She then praised the motivation of the spies:

the men and women who gave information to Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s did so for political, not pecuniary reasons. They were already committed to Communism and they viewed what they were doing as their contribution to the cause...[and] it is important to realize that as Communists these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were “building...a better world for the masses,” not betraying their country. (181)

While asking that scholars take “a more nuanced position and go beyond the question of guilt or innocence,” on such matters as the CPUSA’s participation in Soviet espionage, Schrecker refused to allow nuance when it came to anticommunism (178–79). Opposition to communism, Schrecker explained, “tap[ped] into something dark and nasty in the human soul” (46).

Schrecker’s response to the new material is evidence that the focus of the debate is shifting from communism to anticommunism. While she recognized that key points of the revisionist interpretation of CPUSA history must be revised, she resisted any shift in perspective on anticommunism. There was, however, no anti-Communist party around which the movement was built nor a core anti-Communist ideology; anti-Communists were defined by what they were against rather than what they were for. Instead of a single anticommunism, a multitude existed, each with different objections to communism. Aside from their shared opposition to communism, the various wings of anticommunism did not follow a common agenda or even approve of each other. Consequently, any historical treatment of anticommunism must be keyed to the historical treatment of communism. The new evidence about the CPUSA bears directly on the perspicacity, tactics, and rationale of its anti-Communist opponents.

Today, the historiography of American communism and anticommunism is unsettled. The revisionist domination, achieved in the 1970s and 1980s, has been shaken, but not shattered. Revisionists easily outnumber traditionalists and dominate the most prominent American historical journals. But the newly available archival evidence has invigorated traditionalists, and revisionists are in retreat. But it is a very slow retreat. The last time a “traditionalist” article on American communism appeared in the Journal of American History was 1972. From 1972 until June 2009, thirty-seven years, the flagship journal of American history has not published a single article reflecting a traditionalist view of the CPUSA. On the other hand, it has published three dozen revisionist essays lauding American Communists or damning domestic opposition to communism. One glimmer of progress is that at least one recent article, rife with characterizations of anticommunism as “hysteria,” admitted that there was a rationale and basis for it:

While some historians have played down the CPUSA’s subservience to the Soviet Union and tried to reconstruct it as a progressive grass-roots movement for social justice, the fact that the American Communists loyally followed the Kremlin’s directives had crucial political consequences and cannot be dismissed as a figment of Cold War ideology. As the labor historian Robert Zieger has aptly put it: “Being a Communist in the 1930s and 1940s was not just being a liberal in a hurry....To be a Communist or even to be a consistent ally or defender of Communists, was to link yourself to Stalinism.”20

Is that progress? Yes, albeit limited. Once revisionists begin to admit that the CPUSA was subservient to the Soviet Union, that its members were under Party discipline, and that its causes were subordinate to advancing the interests of the party itself, much of the moralizing impetus behind their historical project is undermined. As historians are forced to confront the mountains of new evidence demonstrating the nature of American communism, it is only a matter of time before this revisionist project withers away.

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