A COMMUNIST ODYSSEY: THE LIFE OF JÓZSEF POGÁNY/JOHN PEPPER
by Thomas Sakmyster
Central European University Press. 249 pages. Ł45. ISBN 978-615-5225-08-6
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Revolutions often throw up curious characters. I first came across József Pogány (or John Pepper, as he became later) when I read books like Theodore Draper's The Roots of American Communism and Benjamin Gitlow's The Whole of Their Lives many years ago. Both had information about his activities in the United States in the 1920s, but said little about who he really was and what happened to him. Gitlow, an early communist activist, had known him personally, and provided some colourful descriptions of Pogány's appearance and habits, though they may have been shaped by Gitlow's turn to the right in later years. By the 1950s he was testifying for the government against some of his old colleagues. And he was not always reliable with his facts. He said that Pogány was sent to the salt mines by Stalin in 1929, but that was not what happened.
Jószef Pogány was born, as Jószef Schwartz, in Budapest in 1886. His family was, as he himself said, petit-bourgeois and Jewish. He went to a prestigious private school, and though not an outstanding scholar he read widely and mixed with fellow-students interested in Marxism. His leanings were towards history, sociology, and philosophy. He changed his name to Pogány in 1903, probably to divert attention from his Jewish origins. In 1904 he entered the University of Budapest and in 1905 he joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Thomas Sakmyster says that Pogány submitted a dissertation on the political views of János Arany, an important 19th Century Hungarian poet, and "received his doctorate degree summa cum laude."
Pogány had spent time in Paris and Berlin and wrote for left-wing newspapers and magazines. He also wrote plays, one of them about Napoleon, though they weren't staged at the time. He didn't always create a good impression among the people he associated with, and some on a left-wing publication he worked for in 1912 described him as "a loathsome, ambitious, and dishonest person who pursued his own interest in an unprincipled way." Even Pogány's wife, in retrospect, said: "My husband was not a pleasant individual. Indeed, he was aggressive and supercilious, and as a person of great learning he disdained those who were less educated."
Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the First World War, and some of Pogány's journalism got him into trouble with the authorities. He received jail sentences, but never actually served time due to the outbreak of war. He was called up, wounded, and then got himself re-classified as a war correspondent. It was noted that he played down his socialist beliefs, and although this brought criticism from SDP members it was likely that his actions were necessary because of strict censorship rules. And Pogány would have been aware that withdrawal of his press credentials could lead to his being forced to return to military service.
He welcomed the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the end of the war in 1918 brought turbulence to Budapest as the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart. Troops returning from the war formed Soldiers' Councils to represent their interests, and these became the focus of agitation by Pogány and other radicals. A group of soldiers forced their way into the residence of Count Tisza, the former Prime Minister, and accused him of being responsible for involving Hungary in the war. Shots were fired and Tisza killed. A tribunal in 1921 heard evidence that Pogány had been present and that he fired the first shot. But the people who gave this evidence later claimed they had been forced to provide false testimony. Sakmyster notes that historians are still divided on the question of Pogány's culpability in this matter.
Pogány's activities with the Soldiers' Councils, and his journalism, increasingly brought him to the attention of right-wing elements in Hungary. He forced the National Council (a coalition government) to dismiss two successive Ministers of Defence by "using violent rhetoric and the threat of military force." His actions were seen as preparing the way to power of the recently formed Hungarian Communist Party, led by Béla Kun. As Sakmyster says: "Though the CP's membership was quite small, it managed to play a highly disruptive role in late 1918 and early 1919." Communists attacked the government, agitated at factory gates, and developed their influence in the Soldiers' Councils. Pogány was not alone in thinking that, for a revolution to succeed, the support of at least major parts of the army was essential.
Pogány had continued to be a member of the SDP, but he agreed to an alliance with Béla Kun and a new government was formed with the aim of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat. Pogány became its People's Commissar for War, though not everyone was happy with this development. Gusztáv Gratz, a Hungarian diplomat and historian, referred to Pogány as "one of the most insolent and totally amoral climbers that the revolution threw to the surface.... His fanatical determination was simply a means to satisfy his swollen ambitions. He imagined himself to be a Napoleon." And Sakmyster mentions that he "annoyed both his new and former colleagues with his haughtiness and histrionic manners." People who knew that he had once written a play about Napoleon thought that he was taking on the airs of the French Emperor. The play was actually produced while Pogány was active in the revolutionary government, but received largely negative reviews and closed after a few performances.
The break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to territorial disputes, and Hungary was invaded by Serb, Romanian, and Czech armies, with their actions appearing to have been approved by the major victors in the First World War. The accession to power in Hungary of a communist government had not been looked on kindly, and Pogány was seen as one of the more militant leaders of the revolution. He was given the role of commissar to the First Division which was opposing Romanian forces. He did have some small successes in inspiring troops to launch a successful counter-attack, though it was claimed that he only achieved this through a large loss of life. And the Romanians quickly regained the ground they had lost. Pogány drew criticism, too, because at a time when many people in Hungary were experiencing food shortages, he gave lavish banquets at his headquarters to which he invited artists, writers, and especially attractive actresses. It wouldn't be the only time that Pogány displayed a penchant for a hedonistic life-style.
The Hungarian revolution soon collapsed (it took just 133 days) and, as right-wingers began to hunt down communists and socialists, Pogány fled to Austria, where he wrote a book about the White Terror that was underway in Budapest. This made his name known in Russia and Germany, and he and Béla Kun were sent by the Comintern to Berlin to help start an uprising. Pogány went to Hamburg to co-ordinate a rising there with the one in Berlin, but failed to receive a message saying that the Berlin communists had called off their action due to lack of support. There were suggestions that Pogány may have been informed in time to cancel events in Hamburg, but chose to go ahead. The result was that, despite thousands of workers responding to calls to strike and demonstrate, the police easily crushed the rising, killing and wounding large numbers of people.
Neither Kun nor Pogány acknowledged that their planning had been at fault or that they had miscalculated the strength of the opposition. Speaking to a meeting of party members Pogány said that the European working class had committed a "gigantic historical mistake" by not responding to the invasion of Poland by the Red Army. And he explained away the failure of the Hungarian revolution and the fiasco in Hamburg by stating that small defeats were "the necessary preliminaries to final victories". It’s difficult not to think that Pogány, like so many left-wing theorists, had little or no real contact with ordinary workers and their concerns.
Sakmyster describes Pogány returning to Moscow in "a cocksure, satisfied mood," unaware that German communists had complained about his ineptness. Stalin and Trotsky agreed that what had happened in Berlin and Hamburg had been a disaster, and Lenin spoke harshly to Pogány and Béla Kun. Trotsky, it was said, treated them with contempt. Because of his actions in Germany, and his failure to resolve divisions in the Hungarian communist community in Moscow and Vienna, it was decided to send Pogány somewhere it was thought he could do little damage. He asked to go to the United States as a Comintern delegate to the Hungarian-American Federation of the Communist Party of the United States(CPUSA). His request was approved largely because the CPUSA was small and, at that time, insignificant, and it was thought that he would not be able to get up to too much mischief. It would seem that his taste for scheming had been underestimated. As Sakmyster remarks: "Like a moth to the flame, Pogány seemed unable to resist immersing himself in the factional struggle". As the miniscule CPUSA was riven with factional disputes it was inevitable that Pogány would soon be involved in them.
Pogány's brief when he arrived (illegally) in New York was supposedly limited to working with the Hungarian-American Federation, but he quickly went further than that. The CPUSA had been driven underground in 1919, but a legal party had been formed under the title of the Workers' Party (WP). Pogány managed to give the impression that he had been sent to help guide the policies of the WP and resolve its differences with the underground element. His reputation was established because he could legitimately claim to know, Stalin, Lenin, Zinoviev, and others. And he had participated in actual revolutionary situations in Hungary and Germany. That they had been failures, and that Pogány had a reputation for divisiveness, was not clear to leading American communists such as William Z.Foster and Earl Browder.
Pogány managed to persuade himself and others that his presence in the USA was essential to the future of its communist party. Initially unable to speak English, he immersed himself in American culture, and was quickly able to converse and write in English in a way that the Americans found surprising. He went to nightclubs and cinemas, read newspapers and popular fiction, and talked to a wide variety of people. According to one American communist, Pogány almost overnight had become "an orator of dazzling facility and effectiveness," who spoke in English "faster and more furiously" than many native-born Americans. To emphasise his near-conversion to American ways Pogány re-named himself John Pepper. With the Executive Committee of the Communist International now insisting that the underground and legal sections of the CPUSA combine as the WP, Pepper threw himself into the factional fighting. James P. Cannon later remarked: "The factional fights before had been rough enough, but the game of 'killing' opponents, or people who just seemed to be in the way, really began with Pepper." Pepper himself, boasting about his skills when dealing with opponents, told Benjamin Gitlow: "If you want to see how a pig is stuck as you never saw one before, watch me."
The Comintern's policy had changed from direct revolutionary activity to one advocating a popular front, and the formation of mass workers' parties along the lines of the British Labour Party. Pepper immediately adopted the new policy and wrote a pamphlet outlining its virtues. It became something of a best-seller, at least in the world of radical politics, and Sakmyster estimates that around 20,000 copies were sold, including three to the FBI. That organisation was hunting for Pepper because of his communist activities and the fact that he was an illegal immigrant. In addition, a warrant for his arrest had been issued in Hungary, where he was accused of 228 murders, 18 burglaries, and a couple of counterfeiting crimes.
Pepper began to dominate the WP, but at the same time it was obvious that he had not lost his liking for the good life. Asserting his authority as a special envoy from Moscow, he drew on Party funds (the "Moscow Gold" that anti-communists claimed financed the CPUSA) to finance "a personal lifestyle that hardly seemed proletarian." He rented an apartment in Washington Heights and claimed that it was the headquarters for the Political Committee of the WP. Sakmyster adds: "He dressed foppishly, drank expensive cognac and wine, and at times dined at fine restaurants. And he seems to have taken advantage of his position of power and influence to engage in sexual dalliances with party secretaries and female comrades who took his fancy." None of this was done in secret, and Pepper told other leaders that they ought to drink good wines and have love affairs, saying that they were good because they helped revive the energy and quicken the impulses. It was some years later that James P. Cannon, looking back on the early days of American communism, said that Pepper was "more American than any hustler or corner-cutter," and that he was a "manipulator deluxe." Cannon was referring mainly to Pepper's political dealings, but his comments could easily be applied to his personal involvements.
The factional fighting among American communists is fully detailed by Thomas Sakmyster, and repeating the details here would take up far too much time. But it's worth noting that opposition to Pepper began to grow, especially among home-grown communists like Foster and Browder. They looked on him as a "European style intellectual with no contact with American workers." He still had supporters among American communists, but it was increasingly being pointed out to Moscow that many others considered him as the prime cause of the continuation of factional disputes.
Pepper was recalled to Moscow, where he soon realised that there was a growing rift between Stalin and Trotsky. Ever the opportunist, he attacked known Trotsky supporters among American communists, and he made it clear that he supported Stalin. He also used his connections to Zinoviev and others to get preferential treatment for housing and other matters. He thrived on the atmosphere in Moscow and "With his fine-tuned opportunism, polished debating skills, and experience in factional struggles, Pepper had no difficulty in acclimatising himself to the political culture prevailing in the Comintern and the situation created by the power struggle underway in the Soviet leadership." When he sensed that Stalin and Bukharin were conspiring to oust Zinoviev, he began to distance himself from his one-time benefactor. Sakmyster calls Pepper "a shameless opportunist," who "seemed willing to abandon friends and drastically shift his political views or ideological preferences if he decided that his own political survival and future success were at stake."
He continued to write about a variety of subjects, and set himself up as an expert on India. He also claimed to be knowledgeable about Britain, though British communists in Moscow looked on him with disdain. When the General Strike took place in 1926 he wrote a pamphlet in which he expressed the view that the end of the strike would lead to the Communist Party of Great Britain becoming a mass organisation. It was probably another example of a theorist having little or no contact with events on the ground and no real understanding of the people involved in them.
Pepper's own standing in Moscow was in decline, and it was reported that, at a meeting between Stalin and some American communists, he was sharply rebuked by the Soviet leader when he tried to add to comments made by Benjamin Gitlow. In 1927 he was told that he had to go to Korea to help organise the small, local party. It's possible that being given this assignment was almost a punishment arranged by Stalin. Korea was not, at that time, considered of any importance. The strange thing was that Pepper never actually entered Korea, though he submitted a report claiming that he had. He almost got away with his deception, few people in the Kremlin being interested in Korea and none of them having any experience of the country. But someone with knowledge of the situation in Korea did eventually read what Pepper had written and queried it.
He should have been investigated and disciplined, but somehow managed to persuade the Comintern that it was necessary for him to return to New York, where the various factions within the CPUSA were still warring with each other. Sakmyster suggests that it was Bukharin who most likely persuaded other members of the ECCI to let Pepper leave for America, and that it may have been Jay Lovestone, still a strong supporter of Pepper, who convinced Bukharin that the CPUSA needed him. Pepper arrived in New York in March, 1928, and promptly involved himself in Party matters, though he assured opponents like William Z. Foster that he would refrain from personal attacks and divisive actions. People who had joined the CPUSA after Pepper had gone back to Moscow were naturally curious to see him, though they were not all impressed by what they saw. Whittaker Chambers, later to become notorious as the accuser of Alger Hiss during the anti-communist years after the Second World War, described him as "a short, arrogant figure," who "strutted down the centre aisle of the meeting, staring haughtily to the right and left, but seeing no one - a small man swollen with pride of place and power."
Pepper and Lovestone were in agreement about the idea of "American exceptionalism," the theory that political, economic and social institutions in the United States differed in certain fundamental ways from those in European countries. According to Sakmyster, their enthusiasm for this idea, and the proposal that, in Lovestone's words, American capitalism was "positively and definitely upward," would lead to even more intense factional wars and the eventual demise of the Lovestoneites. When Pepper realised that a new policy was coming from Moscow, and that it involved a "left turn" and local communist parties engaging in a "revolutionary upsurge," he continued to argue that it had no chance of succeeding in America. He for once appeared to be taking what might be called a "common sense," as opposed to a theoretical view of the situation.
In Russia things were rapidly changing. Stalin had begun to isolate Bukharin, accusing him of "Right deviationism" because he opposed the "left turn" policy. Trotsky, of course, was already in disgrace. And, in the United States, James P. Cannon had thrown in his lot with Trotsky, and Jay Lovestone was slowly losing his position within the CPUSA because of his support for Bukharin. Pepper's lies about his Korean mission had been discovered, and he was ordered to return to Moscow. He delayed doing so and went into hiding in New York. When Moscow ordered that William Z. Foster, a key opponent of Pepper's faction, was to be appointed General Secretary of the CPUSA, Pepper considered breaking away and forming a separate party.
More evidence of his lax moral behaviour came to light when it turned out that he had seduced both of the stenographers allocated to him by the CPUSA. He had promised to marry both of them, despite already having a wife in Russia. Matters came to a head when Pepper abandoned one of the women concerned in preference for a younger, prettier one. The spurned woman then threatened to make public the details of where Pepper was hiding, and was only persuaded to change her mind when appeals were made to her Party loyalty. Pepper continued to prevaricate about returning to Moscow. He was expelled from the CPUSA and, on their return from Russia, where they had been attempting to make a case for the legitimacy of the Pepper/Lovestone faction, the leading Lovestoneites (Lovestone, Gitlow,and Bertram Wolfe) were also given their marching orders.
Pepper did eventually go back to Moscow, but he concocted a story about a fictitious trip to Mexico and delays due to a revolution in that country, a bout of malaria, and difficulties booking a passage to Europe. Once in Moscow he discovered that he was almost isolated, few people wanting to be seen associating with him. One of those who did visit him was Bertram Wolfe, who had lived in Mexico, and Pepper pressed him for information about Mexico City, what it looked like and which were the main streets and buildings of significance. When he appeared before the International Control Commission (ICC) he at first lied about going to Mexico, but then told the truth and attempted to blame the Lovestoneites for encouraging him to go into hiding while they struggled to maintain their position within the CPUSA. He was found guilty of failing to carry out directives, and of engaging in "persistent factional, opportunist, and rightist activities," and was expelled from the Comintern.
The expulsion had the effect of depriving him of privileges he had in terms of housing and other matters, and it also meant that he was denied access to Party publications so was unable to function as a journalist. He couldn't go on missions overseas, take part in Party debates, or sit on committees. In addition, everyone seemed to turn against him, and he was called a careerist, a charlatan, a political parasite, and an agent of the international right wing. Only his wife, who he had virtually abandoned while he was in America, stood by him, though she had no illusions about his deviousness and his philandering.
Pogány (he had reverted to his real name) was given work in the foreign trade department of Gosplan, the Soviet planning agency, and immediately went out of his way to show that he was an ideal worker. He began a campaign to regain his membership of the Comintern and wrote an article for publication in various communist newspapers in which he attacked former allies like Lovestone and Gitlow and confessed to his "errors and misdeeds" during his visits to the United States. He also made it clear that he was now a convinced supporter of Stalin. His membership was restored in 1932.
By 1934 the first signs of the Terror, the purges of supposed counter-revolutionaries and other malcontents, were visible. A list of 3,000 suspected spies, provocateurs, wreckers, and oppositionists had been given to the NKVD, and it included many Hungarian, Polish, and German communists who had been living in Russia. They were accused of being in league with Trotsky, Zinoviev and other disgraced Bolsheviks.
Sakmyster says that it's more than probable that Pogány's name was on the list. In 1936 his old comrade, Béla Kun, was arrested after being expelled from the Comintern on the grounds of factionalism in the Hungarian CP and opposition to the new Popular Front policy. Pogány's turn came in July, 1937,and he was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organisation. He was tried, convicted, and shot on the 8th February, 1938. Sakmyster thinks that his trial probably lasted less than the twenty minutes it had taken to convict Béla Kun.
Thomas Sakmyster, summing up Pogány's life and activities, says that his "personal shortcomings were so egregious that he consistently failed to gain the confidence of those whose support he very much needed and his zeal for "self-aggrandisement was so powerful and his opportunism so blatant and shameless that he disgusted even those who were initially impressed by his intellectual prowess and reputation as an authentic Bolshevik." He cites Pogány's attacks on Zinoviev, who had helped him in various ways, as an example of his opportunism. And his repudiation of Jay Lovestone, his closest ally in America and one of his few personal friends, as pointing to Pogány's willingness to abandon those who were no longer of any use to him. In his final words, Sakmyster is of the opinion that, had he not chosen to be a communist revolutionary, and instead gone in for a different career, Pogány could well have been a success in America: "One can certainly imagine that Pogány would have succeeded in the American business world, particularly in advertising, for which he had a real flair."
A Communist Odyssey is a well-documented and fascinating book. It may be that some of the details will be of interest only to those with a specialised awareness of certain areas of communist history. The factional fights and personalities in the American Communist Party can almost bewilder at times, though to say this is not a reflection on Thomas Sakmyster's scholarship, which is thorough and praiseworthy. He writes clearly and intelligently.
Does his book tell a tragic story? It's hard to feel much sympathy for Pogány. He was prepared to treat other people in an offhand and ruthless manner, and his unprincipled behaviour was noticeable right from the start of his activities as a radical. I don't doubt that he would have been prepared to shoot his opponents in the CPUSA, had it been necessary to do so, and if he could get away with it. I can't help wondering what was going through his mind as he was led away to be shot?