The early years of US Communism

Jacob Zumoff’s The Communist International and US Communism, 1919–1929, published by Brill’s Historical Materialism Book Series and reissued in paperback by Haymarket Books, zeroes in on the relationship between the Communist International (or Comintern)—the world grouping of Communist organizations formed after the Russian Revolution—and the Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA, hereafter CP). The book focuses specifically on the decade from 1919, when the CP was founded, to the eve of the Great Depression in 1929. It follows in the footsteps of Theodore Draper’s Cold War–era histories, but draws on the far richer trove of archival material that became available in the 1990s. It also draws on, but has a wider scope than, Bryan Palmer’s magisterial biography of James P. Cannon, the CP leader who would later become a Trotskyist. Unlike many historians of the CP, Zumoff does not mine personal stories; this book is, rather, a series of case studies on the interactions between the Comintern and the CPUSA. 

This focus in itself makes the book stand out. Socialists and historians alike tend to focus on the 1930s as the heyday of the CP’s influence and power, amid pitched battles between labor and capital. By contrast, far less attention is generally paid to the 1920s, the decade that laid the groundwork for those battles and sowed the seeds of the party’s growth as well as its ultimate downfall. This focus on the thirties leads to the image of the Comintern with which most students of the period are familiar: a shadowy, faraway organization directing the CP to work not for the good of US workers but for the interests of Stalin’s Soviet state. 

In the early years, however, even as machinations took place behind closed doors in Moscow, the Comintern did indeed do the job it was founded to do. Political orientation was largely decided through vigorous debates between representatives of far-flung national parties, and the Comintern genuinely worked to guide the fledgling US party in growing during a difficult political period. Its interventions were sometimes quite positive, as Zumoff shows: “While not pretending that the early Comintern was perfect and turned everything it touched to gold, the present study examines the change in Comintern intervention over time—the Stalinisation of the Comintern itself.” 

The first three-quarters of the book follows the political debates and factional struggles over the course of the decade. It begins with the large and popular Socialist Party (SP), bitterly divided in 1917 over the question of whether to oppose World War I. As the war ended, a hugely radical period in US politics began: “In 1919, more than four million workers struck. . . . Against the backdrop of Russia, the strikes seemed to indicate to eager socialists, as well as fearful capitalists, that Bolshevik-style revolution was approaching.” The SP leadership in a series of moves purged its left wing—nearly two-thirds of its membership. The initial result was not the formation of one communist party, but two, each claiming to be the authentic article. The Communist Party of America (CPA), the Communist Labor Party (CLP), and other groups “engaged in a complicated ritual of fissions and fusions that confused and alienated all who beheld it,” Zumoff writes, as he sets about sorting it out for the reader. Despite the often confusing and always complicated history it covers, Zumoff’s narrative is engaging, well edited, and quite readable.

The immediate task was to unify US Communists.  Many were recent immigrants, especially in the rank and file, organized into federations on the basis of language. The language barriers were formidable, with many active Communists isolated from the English-speaking majority of the US working class—not to mention local English-speaking branches—and there was a certain level of struggle over “turf.” A unified party was established in 1919, and the struggle moved on to the question of how to carry out legal work (openly selling the Worker, for example) and negotiate its relationship with the underground Communist apparatus. 

The Comintern’s Third Congress in 1921 took up the question of how best “to win the majority of the working class, first and foremost within the old trade unions,” as Lenin put it. The US state was doing its best to repress radicalism and socialism (this was the era of the notorious Palmer Raids). This made legal work difficult, if not impossible—but daily newspapers and open work in the unions were necessary to build the party beyond the isolation of the language federations. In the furious factional arguments that followed, the Comintern would “provide enough cohesiveness to ensure that this concoction [of fused organizations] remained together long enough for the Communist movement to emerge from the underground.” In Moscow for the Fourth Congress in 1922, two of the US party’s leaders, James Cannon and Alexander Bittelman, met with Trotsky to discuss the question. Trotsky came out in support of attempting to form a legal party, a position the American Commission of the Comintern then adopted. 

Zumoff stresses that, “Trotsky and the rest of the Comintern leadership did not make Communist pronouncements from Mount Olympus, but pursued a policy only after intense discussion with the leadership of the American party.” This episode is indicative of a larger theme of Zumoff’s book: in cases where the US party was too caught up in the specifics of its work, faction fights, and personal animosities, the Comintern, at its remove, could step back and view the larger picture of the US working class and its place in the international Communist movement.

Factionalism would rear its head again and again, in struggles over how to work in the politically stagnant and racist mass trade unions, how to relate to the Farmer-Labor Party, whether to support the liberal candidacy of Robert La Follette, and how to build a mass movement, all of which the book covers in detail. Though the party did some heroic organizing, particularly through the International Labor Defense, power struggles, “factionalism and the accompanying political unclarity hindered this work.”

Zumoff delves deep into the machinations of leading US Communists C.E. Ruthenberg and Jay Lovestone as they wrestled for control of the party. The flames were fanned by the opportunistic and unscrupulous John Pepper (József Pogány), a controversial Hungarian who, sent away from Moscow for his divisive factional activities there, passed himself off as “the voice of the Comintern.” (Bryan Palmer describes Pepper as “the kind of communist functionary who destroyed Bolshevism, internationally as well as in its base of Soviet Russia.”) 

The party wasn’t growing; it had so far been unable to put down roots in the unions or among the broader working class. The Communist labor leaders William Foster and James Cannon publicly blamed Lovestone, Pepper, and their faction for this failure; Cannon, meanwhile, was quietly becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Russian party, which had expelled Trotsky, and with the changing character of its intervention in the United States: “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.”

As the American delegates journeyed to Moscow for the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Lovestone intended to contrast his loyalty against Cannon’s Trotskyism. However, Lovestone made the crucial error of aligning himself with Bukharin. “Bukharin was still in formal control of the Comintern, but Stalin was ascendant.” At the Congress the American faction fight played out before the Comintern and “served as a foil for Stalin’s attacks on Bukharin.” Trotsky appealed his expulsion and released a document that held that “‘socialism in one country’ was a betrayal of Communism that would only result in more defeats.” 

Cannon was compelled by Trotsky’s argument, especially in combination with what he had seen: “It was clear as daylight that Marxist truth was on the side of Trotsky.” He agreed with Trotsky that “the Comintern’s schizophrenic course over the last few years, the incessant attacks on people who had been leading Bolsheviks until recently, and the theoretical muddle in which it was all enveloped . . . was not a failure of analysis, but a programmatic reflection of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution itself.” Cannon was expelled from the party, but Lovestone had “sowed the seeds of his own downfall” and lost the confidence of Stalin.

Rather than accepting the Comintern’s order, Lovestone traveled to Moscow to make his case. In Russia this was taken as an insult and an expression of disloyalty to the Comintern. Lovestone was ordered to stay in Moscow, but escaped back to New York, where he was promptly expelled from the party. He would go on to become a prominent anticommunist in the American Federation of Labor. Zumoff notes that although the way Stalin dealt with Lovestone illustrated the degeneration of Bolshevism, expelling him did in fact solve the immediate problem. With Lovestone gone, “the new, thoroughly Stalinist leadership finally put an end to factionalism,” unifying the party and positioning it to grow during the Great Depression.

The final four chapters of the book go in a different direction; in many ways they are its highlight. Having laid out in detail the political context and factional struggles of the CPUSA from 1919 to 1929, Zumoff backs up and starts over again. In this second pass through the decade, he follows the thread of what the party then called “the Negro question.” He opens by noting that the party’s substantial accomplishments in fighting racism in the 1930s—when “Communists organized black and white workers and sharecroppers, and fought against Jim Crow racism and capitalist oppression”—could hardly have been predicted from its performance in the 1920s. “At its founding in 1919, the CP had one black member,” and as late as 1929 its Black membership numbered only a few hundred. 

The early white US Communists’ position on racial oppression utterly subsumed questions of race into questions of class. They showed little interest in organizing around fighting racism or even analyzing its role in US society. This failure, Zumoff argues, “underlined their distance from American social reality.”  The Communist movement, still largely composed of foreign-language federations, was mostly focused on unifying itself and gaining a foothold in major unions that were openly racist and excluded Black workers outright.  A handful of Black socialists, like Hubert Harrison, Otto Huiswoud, and A. Philip Randolph, argued that the oppression of African Americans had special characteristics that couldn’t be explained by economics alone, but in the early years they received little hearing. 

Zumoff’s last few chapters show that pressure from within was aided by pressure from without: “the combination of the intervention of the Communist International—which forced the (white) party leadership to address black oppression—and the efforts of the early black Communists to make the party assimilate the Comintern’s directives.” More than any other example, he argues, the party’s transformation on the “Negro question” “offers the clearest example of the positive role of Comintern intervention in ‘Americanising’ the party. Left to their own devices . . . American Communists would have remained aloof from the struggle for black freedom.”

The Comintern, however, was drawing theoretical conclusions from its experiences in the Russian Revolution, a key principle of which was the right of self-determination of oppressed nations. Lenin stressed the question of oppression in What Is to Be Done?, arguing that every socialist must be a “tribune of the people,” reacting to “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears.” At the Second Congress in 1920, the Comintern’s Executive Committee advised the Americans to organize a “Congress of the Negro Peoples of the World.” The Workers’ Party of America added racial equality to its program and began covering racial oppression in its newspapers.

Black activists greeted the Russian Revolution with excitement, particularly given many Black radicals’ growing disillusionment with the respectability politics of W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP as well as the pro-capitalist Black nationalism of Marcus Garvey. The African Blood Brotherhood, a radical anticolonial Black organization with a heavily socialist leadership, worked closely with the CPUSA, especially in New York City, and in 1921 most of the group’s leaders joined. This infusion of Black radicals allowed the Communist Party to begin reaching Black audiences. These comrades put their efforts into “consistently pressing the issue of racial oppression and taking the Communist leadership to task for neglect of the Negro Question” and noted that, even if the party came out from underground, an integrated “legal” Communist Party “would be illegal in the South.” 

The CPUSA didn’t exactly go out of its way to develop its Black cadre, offering them little assistance and even making Black delegates pay their own way to Moscow for the Congress. In 1923, its leaders were so focused on working in the Farmer-Labor Party that they went so far as to suspend Otto Huiswoud for a year when he denounced a delegate’s racist (or, as the CP would call it, “white chauvinist”) argument at a Farmer-Labor Party conference. Trotsky commissioned Claude McKay to write a book on the “Negro question,” but the CPUSA never bothered to translate or publish it. The CP founded the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), which sought to connect racism in the United States with imperialism abroad, but invested little attention or financial support in the venture, treating it instead as “Negro work” which it expected Black comrades to carry out. 

For the Comintern, though, racial oppression was an international issue. Sen Katayama, a Japanese Communist who had studied in the southern United States, was a particularly vocal advocate in the Comintern of viewing the “Negro question” as central to building a revolutionary party. He argued in 1923 that if the US party had listened to the Comintern “instead of putting up every obstruction on the work of the Comintern on the Negro problems, there might have been a strong Negro revolutionary movement in America today!”

In 1928, the Sixth Congress took Lenin’s arguments about self-determination in a new direction, passing a resolution that African Americans were “an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination, up to independence from the US.” This argument would play an important role in the work of the coming years. The formulation made sense in South Africa, but not in the United States, where African Americans were oppressed not as a nationality but as a race and fought for full integration, not a separate state. What this argument had going for it, however, was that it fit in with Stalin’s two-stage theory: first a national revolution, then a socialist one—a “Negro Soviet Republic,” though this demand was later toned down. “Forcing these divergent situations into the framework of a classic European national question offered Stalin the chance to bolster his ‘theoretical’ credentials and strengthen his ideological grip.”  It was, in effect, a way of abandoning the fight for international socialist revolution: “a black nation in the American South was less difficult to accept than ‘socialism in one country.’” 

Though the theory was “a singularly poor mobilizing device,” as Mark Naison has written, by positing that the “Negro question” was important, it forced the party to put time and resources into organizing around it and to make a concerted effort to organize in the South. This work, despite the “albatross” of a theory underlying it, was crucial and transformed the party. “Communists were at their most heroic during this period,” Zumoff writes of the period after 1928, organizing everyone from renters to sharecroppers, miners to the unemployed, as well as waging a national struggle for justice for the Scottsboro Boys. It did this work, ultimately, as a direct result of Comintern intervention. 

Zumoff’s focus on antiracist work in the CPUSA makes clear the value of an international Communist body that could consider the global picture in strategizing for the world-historic overthrow of capitalism; the tragedy is that, as Zumoff illustrates so well, the process of Stalinization caused this lively, active deliberating body to ossify into a rigid pipeline distributing orders from Moscow. If the politics of Stalinism had not led it to later abandon this militant orientation for the “popular front” strategy and support for World War II, we can only speculate about what its Black and antiracist radicals might have accomplished.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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