By Jacob A. Zumoff

Haymarket Books. 443 pages. $28. ISBN 978-60846-487-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It has always been believed, by most people, that the Communist Parties in other countries were controlled from Moscow and that their policies and actions were laid down and directed by the Communist International, or Comintern, as it was called. There is a great deal of truth in that suggestion. One of the leading historians of American Communism, Theodore Draper, whose books, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), Jacob Zumoff rightly refers to as “superb studies,” claimed that “even at the price of committing political suicide, American Communism would continue above all to serve the interests of Soviet Russia.” And Draper, himself a one-time member of the American Communist Party and a writer for the Daily Worker, came to the conclusion that this lack of independence led to it being seen as separated from “other forms of American radicalism such as the open, democratic pre-World War One Socialist Party, the farmer-labour movement, or the syndicalist movement.” As a consequence, it failed to attract truly mass support, even during the desperate days of the Depression.

This is not to suggest that communists failed to have any kind of effect. They did, in terms of their influence in unions, for example. And, at a local level, communists often acted independently of any directives from Moscow, if such existed. Lenin had stated that each country would find its own road to revolution, and the “specific conditions” in various countries had to be taken into account when deciding how to apply the Comintern’s “fundamental revolutionary principles.” Jacob Zumoff argues that it was only later, when Stalin took control, that the idea of all capitalist societies being “essentially the same throughout the world,” with only superficial differences between them, became paramount. This would lead to sharp differences of opinion with some American communists who proposed notions of American exceptionalism based on the nature of American society and the situation of workers within that society.

There was, as suggested earlier, a tradition of American radicalism that helped provide some of the leading lights of the early American Communist Party when it was formed. Some of them had been in the Socialist Party (SP), others in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). There were a variety of tendencies in both groups, with moderates in the SP believing in electoral campaigns and reforms, and the more-militant activists of the IWW preferring to put their faith in strikes and other kinds of industrial action. In 1919, when the first steps were taken towards forming a Communist Party in America, it was, according to Zumoff, the left-wing of the SP that provided some of the impetus towards it. The SP had opposed entry into the First World War, and had consequently been attacked by the Government. But the IWW had also been attacked, despite not having taken a hard-line stance as an organisation on whether or not to defy the Government by coming out openly against the War.

The SP, almost as a foretaste of what would happen when the Communist Party was formed, was beset with factional fights in 1919, with Eugene Debs, its leading light, declining to get involved.  Zumoff says, “Debs ambiguous relationship with the left-wing Socialists, and later the Communists, continued until his death in 1926.” The Comintern was attempting to persuade a variety of left-wing dissidents to form an American Communist Party, and as well as SP members they also contacted the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the IWW, and the Workers International Industrial Union, which was an organisation often associated with Daniel De Leon after he broke away from the main body of the IWW.

 The result was that two rival parties came into existence, with Louis Fraina, Bertram D.Wolfe, and C.E.Ruthenberg forming the Communist Party of America (CPA), and John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow the Communist Labour Party (CLP). The CPA advocated separating itself from the SP, while the CLP favoured working within it. Zumoff quotes Theodore Draper as commenting that “Few things left a deeper and more lasting impression mark on the American Communist movement than this seemingly unnecessary split.” And I must admit that it strikes me as a precursor to the factional battles that occurred within the movement with almost-bewildering frequency during the 1920s. Zumoff records how the Comintern became exasperated with all the people involved, and only really resolved the problem when Stalin came to power. Zumoff won’t thank me for saying it, his own leanings being obviously away from “Stalinisation,” but as I read his book I became almost-sympathetic towards those who were anxious to halt factionalism within the American Communist Party. I know that Stalin’s aim in claiming to bring order was so that he could eliminate any sort of opposition to his ideas, but reading the endless accounts of the squabbles among American Communists tested my own liberal inclinations towards allowing free debates about policies. And, in any case, the factional fights had more to do with gaining power than with genuine concerns about what to do next, or act in any positive way to broaden the appeal of communism.   

By 1921 the two groups had more or less come to some sort of acceptance of the need to form a single party, which they did as the Workers Party of America (WP). This was the legal, open Party, while the Communist Party operated “underground,” initially with the approval of the Comintern. It was considered necessary because of the prevailing repressive atmosphere. The notorious post-war “Red Scare” had led to hundreds of radicals being rounded up, some deported, and the IWW, in particular, subjected to attack by state and federal authorities. One hundred leading members of the IWW were put on trial and many given long sentences. It was in the early-1920s that the IWW almost fell apart as Bill Haywood and several others jumped bail and fled to Russia, and some rank-and-file Wobblies decided to switch their allegiance from syndicalism to communism.

As I’ve suggested, the formation of the WP didn’t bring any sort of peace within the Party. And it faced further problems because of the existence of Foreign-Language Federations. The United States was an immigrant society and there were some powerful organisations among the Finns and Jews. They were not necessarily always left-wing in their attitudes, but many were and they had influence within the Party. The push towards legalisation of the Communist Party was partly designed to enable it to appeal more to English-speaking workers, and Max Eastman, who at that time was involved with the Communists, had “complained to Trotsky  about the domination of the American Party by  Russian immigrants.” James P.Cannon, one-time Wobbly and now a rising star among the Communists, also spoke to Trotsky on the same subject, and pointed to “the necessity of  Americanising the party, of breaking the control of the foreign-language federations and assuring an indigenous national leadership.”  

Debates about the wisdom or otherwise of attempting to form a Labour Party along the lines of the British Labour Party were a part of Communist Party culture in the early-1920s. And the Comintern would certainly have liked to see a move in that direction. It never happened, and when the Party tried to almost take over the Farmer-Labour Party, with its Presidential candidate leader Robert La Follette, it proved to be a disaster. La Follette denounced the Workers’ Party as “mortal enemies of the Progressive movement and democratic ideals,” and Samuel Gompers, powerful leader of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and vehemently anti-communist, advised workers generally to avoid any involvement with Workers Party attempts to influence the Farmer-Labour Party. It’s hard to understand just what the communists were aiming for in their ill-advised, and Comintern-influenced machinations.

As the situation in Russia changed, and Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev joined forces to oppose Trotsky, there was bound to be an effect on the American party. Radek and Zinoviev let it be known that Ludwig Lore, an American communist known to have pro-Trotsky views, should be put under pressure. The Daily Worker published an article criticising Trotsky. Interestingly, among the people adding their names to the piece (they included Earl Browder and William Z. Foster, both future leaders of the American Communist Party) was James P. Cannon, later one of the foremost advocates of Trotskyism in the United States. It would take a little longer for him to fully realise what was happening in Moscow as Stalin increased his grip on power.

What was taking place in the American Party was, of course, a struggle for leadership, and the requests for Comintern intervention had become “a way to obtain power within the party, not a way to resolve political issues.” It’s worth noting at this point that the presence of John Pepper (Joseph Pogany) was almost adding fuel to the fire. Pepper, a master of the art of factional fighting, played a curious and often disruptive role in the development of American communism, and was accused of schooling some of his supporters, such as Jay Lovestone and Benjamin Gitlow, in “cynicism and nastiness.” Thomas Sakmysters’ A Communist Odyssey: The Life of Joseph Pogany/John Pepper (Central European University Press, Budapest, 2012) tells the full story of this strange person. (See my review in Rebels, Beats and Poets, Penniless Press, 2015).

Some people might be forgiven for wondering just what practical matters American communists were involving themselves with while their leaders bickered over theoretical disputes and Party policies. In 1926 there was a strike of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey. The workers were mostly unorganised, but Communists had been active and were having some success in persuading them to join a new union, the United Front Committee (UFC). But Party policy at that time was against the idea of dual-unions (unions formed alongside existing unions) and the UFC had to affiliate with an established organisation. Albert Weisbord, a dynamic young communist who had been the driving force behind the strike, was forced to step down when the United Textile Workers took over. In Theodore Draper’s words: “Weisbord’s withdrawal took the heart out of the strike and the strikers without making any noticeable difference in the attitude of the mill owners or the police force.” When the strike was settled little had been gained by the strikers. Draper adds that “In 1928 the U.T.W. expelled the Passaic local; by 1929 the Communist Party’s Passaic unit contained only fifteen members.”

“In 1926-7, as the factional situation in the American Communist Party worsened, the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union reached a crucial point,” according to Zumoff, and he adds: “The Soviet bureaucracy became increasingly self-confident, and Stalin emerged as the dominant leader in the Soviet and international Communist movement. Stalin broke the ‘troika’ and allied with Bukharin on the right of the Soviet party, while Zinoviev and Kamenev formed the ‘Joint Opposition’ with Trotsky.” In the American Party, Jay Lovestone emerged as leader following the death of C.E.Ruthenberg. Lovestone later turned to the right politically and worked for the CIA. He was once described by one of his fellow-communists as “ruthless, unscrupulous and iron-fisted.” And much later an FBI report said of him that he was “a very intelligent individual, a proficient con man, capable of intrigue and of assuming any role to fulfil an ultimate result.” Bukharin appeared to be in the ascendant after his alliance with Stalin and Lovestone supported him. Trotsky had been expelled from the Party, and those like Max Eastman who favoured him were being attacked. But there was some support for Trotsky in the USA, and Lovestoneites like Benjamin Gitlow and Bertram D. Wolfe reported coming across individuals and groups who spoke against Stalin and his supporters, and were turning towards Trotsky. Soon others would join them, and an identifiable Trotskyist movement would emerge in the United States.

But in early-1928 “Lovestone and his faction were in charge of the American party and enjoyed the apparent support of the Russian leadership.” According to Zumoff this was also the start of “the rise of Third Period Stalinism,” with the Communist International changing its approach to Communist parties outside Russia: “Instead of offering political guidance and trying to persuade dissident Communists, the Comintern insisted on ‘subordination’ and ‘loyalty,’ and threatened harsh discipline against those who did not submit.” It might be asked just what the “Third Period” was, and Zumoff cheerfully says that it “confused many Communists , and still confuses historians.” It did seem as if there was a return to the policies of “early Communism,” but Zumoff comments: “Like Stalinism as a whole, the ideology of the Third Period evolved to fit the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy, so that it meant different things at different times.”

By this time James P. Cannon had fully converted to Trotskyism, and having been expelled from the American Party with others like Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, they founded the Communist League of America. Every small political party needs a publication to spread its ideas, and with financial assistance from Max Eastman, Cannon and his associates started the Militant. They were “slandered” by Lovestone and his supporters, and party members were forbidden to have any form of contact with the renegade Trotskyists. There were even instances of Trotskyist meetings being broken up and violence used against people selling Militant outside the Communist Party offices in Union Square. Cannon’s flat was burgled and documents stolen so that anyone showing even the slightest interest in Trotskyist ideas could be identified and purged from the Party.

There was still factional fighting within the American Party, and matters came to a head in 1929 when Jay Lovestone and his followers found themselves under fire from the Comintern, and were also attacked by William Z. Foster, a supporter of Stalin. Lovestone was accused of “rightist” policies and still believing in the idea of “American exceptionalism,” as opposed to Stalin’s idea that all Communist activities must be based on “the general features of capitalism, which are the same for all countries, and not its specific features in any given country.”

Lovestone, Wolfe and Gitlow fought back, and Stalin’s response is worth quoting: “Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you? When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except for your wives.” Lovestone, after being refused permission to leave, eventually “sneaked out of Moscow (with the aid of sympathetic workers in the Soviet Foreign Office).” He, and possibly as many as 300 Lovestoneites, were thrown out of the American party. Lovestone did establish his own organisation, the Communist Party of the USA (Majority Group), and added another publication, Revolutionary Age, to all the others representing various small leftist groupings.

But, unlike Cannon and the Trotskyists, the Lovestoneites didn’t have what might be called a systematic programme of opposition to what had happened in Russia and to the American Party. Zumoff thinks that Lovestone’s goal was still to regain “power in the American party.” It’s interesting in itself to follow Lovestone’s career through the 1930s and later as he moved towards increasingly conservative ideas, but perhaps not relevant here. Once he’d been expelled from the American party the leadership passed to Max Bedacht, and then quickly to Earl Browder, who could be relied on to conform to the line set by the Comintern and so eliminate all vestiges of factionalism from the American party.

Zumoff’s account ends in 1929, but his book does have four chapters which closely discuss how the Communist Party, in both its Russian and American forms, dealt with the question of the position of blacks (Negroes, as they were usually referred to in the 20s and 30s) in American society, and in relation to Communism. There were some black communists, but little attention had been paid to their concerns beyond vague references to “economic, political and social equality,” with little or no practical action taken to achieve any of these aims. There was justification in black complaints that  the white leadership were too interested in factional fighting to bother considering their problems. Blacks in general tended to be wary of the Communist Party, seeing it as essentially a white working-class movement. There is an irony here in that most of the white working-class in America were equally wary of communism. Lenin had spoken of American blacks as “a subject nation,” and in the aftermath of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in 1928 a resolution was passed which said they were “an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination.”

Later, there were suggestions about the establishment of a “Negro Soviet Republic” in an area of the Southern States of the USA where blacks were in a majority. Did anyone, apart from a few people in Moscow with little knowledge of life in America, ever take ideas like this seriously? Zumoff refers to a resolution which spoke of the right of self-determination for blacks, but also points out that the resolution went on to say, “the realisation of this self-determination cannot be secured under the present relations of power under capitalism.” American communists had stated that: “The main problem of the Negro question is, however, not the setting up of a separate independent republic, but of gaining social equality; the former would only lead to segregation.” The black communist, James W. Ford, thought that the matter of an independent Negro Republic was “merely an academic question,” and would only be worthy of attention “if we had any serious contact with the Negro masses and any influence among them.”

Jacob Zumoff does go on to mention, if only briefly, the ways in which communists in the 1930s played often crucial roles in working among blacks, the unemployed, and in the big union recruiting drives carried out by the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in rubber, steel, the automobile industry, and other work places. There is no doubt that many rank-and-file communists brought a great deal of dedication and experience to the often difficult tasks of organising unions, leading strikes, and generally facing up to hostile, and sometimes violent opposition from employers and the police. No matter how one views the Communist Party, and the struggles for power among its leaders, we should always honour the often- forgotten men and women who were at the forefront of the fight for better pay, better working conditions, equal treatment regardless of race or gender, and much else besides.

Jacob Zumoff’s book is an exhaustive study of the early years of American Communism. It’s also exhausting from the point of view of a sense of despair setting in as I read about how the different factions vied for control. More time was spent fighting each other than in facing up to capitalists. I began to sympathise with the grand old Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, who when asked to take sides in a factional fight in the Socialist Party, refused and said, “I have no stomach for factional quarrelling and I refuse to be consumed by it…..I can fight capitalists and not comrades.” What a pity so many other left-wingers have often failed to take the same point of view as they insisted that their ideas are the only valid ones, and anyone disagreeing with them has to be slandered and abused. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there has always seemed to be a tendency in left-wing circles to want to indulge in factional wars. Are socialists, communists, and all the other left-wing flavours, inherently disposed towards falling out with each other?

But that’s my question and not one that Jacob Zumoff raises in his incredibly detailed and rigorously-researched book. He’s delved into archives in Russia and the United States, and seems to have read just about everything of relevance to his subject. I can’t help but admire the extent of his optimism. A lesser mortal like myself would have tended towards thinking that Communism can never achieve what it sets out to be. Zumoff, however, comes to the conclusion that, in the 1930s, communists in the United States “built a mass party whose influence, especially in the labour movement and among black militants, extended far beyond its numbers. Yet shackled by Stalinism, the Communist Party squandered this influence and support. How this happened is another book. The roots of this betrayal have formed the subject of this study. Those who would build a revolutionary workers’ movement in this country must assimilate the lessons of this failure.”

 The cynic in me can’t help but think that, even if any sort of viable revolutionary movement could again develop, it would all just degenerate into factional fighting, given human nature and its frailties. And a new Stalin would no doubt put in an appearance. It’s enlightening to look at issues of Workers Vanguard, a Leninist-Trotskyist publication that has enthusiastically publicised Zumoff’s book. One notes a tendency among its writers to fall out with members of other similarly small left-wing organisations and make negative references to “social democrats” and the like. Not much changes, it seems.