Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929 by Jacob A. Zumoff

Jacob Zumoff justifies his new book on the early US Communist Party (CP), The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929, on two grounds.  First, the previous studies (the most respected of which are those of Theodore Draper) frame the interaction of the Comintern and the CP as one of foreign influence vs American influence. (3)  Zumoff disagrees, his main thesis being that the Comintern crucially and productively intervened in the early history of the American CP -- most notably on the "Negro Question." (23)  However, this intervention become less beneficial over time as the Comintern, and thus the CP, Stalinized. (1) The second justification for a new study is the many new sources that have come to light. (11)

The definition of Stalinisation is important since Zumoff's thesis pivots on its emergence.  He rejects definitions of it as "centralization, political violence and dogmatism," noting Stalin hardly invented these tactics.  He also brushes aside Hermann Weber's definition which emphasizes a transformation to a monolithic and hierarchical party. (12)  Noting that Stalinism is a practice which extends beyond the person of Stalin himself, Zumoff finally defines it as "the ideological reflection of the degeneration of the Comintern... starting in 1924." (13)

The Comintern was pivotal in the CP's early formation.  US radicals founded two distinct Communist parties early, the Communist Party of America (CPA) and the Communist Labor Party (CLP), John Reed's party.  Despite division over whether members should remain in the Socialist Party (SP) (which turned out to be a moot point since CLP members were effectively expelled from the SP, but that didn't prevent hostility from breaking out between the two camps (40)), both factions united into a single party after, in the words of a party organ, the "Third International [spoke] and its mandate could no longer be postponed." (48)

The repression of the post-WWI era predisposed the CP towards underground organizing.  However, with Comintern intervention, an above-ground Workers' Party (WP) was formed.  After different splinter factions were united into a single party at the Bridgman Convention, (66) the Comintern gave what James Cannon described as "a long argument and a push from Moscow" to have the underground portion of the CP surface and have the party engage in legal work. (73)

The Comintern pushed many times more: to oppose dual unionism outside the AFL and attempt to recruit IWW members (the later effort largely failed); (75) to establish the Trade Union Educational League which allowed the CP to fraternize with other workers; (111) recruiting "arguably the period's greatest labor leader," (98) William Z. Foster; preventing the CP from liquidating itself into the Farmer-Labor Party (112) or Bob La Follette's 1924 presidential campaign under the Progressive Party.

If there is a villain in this narrative (save Stalin), it is John Pepper.  Pepper seems to have an unbroken record of failure (the March Action) and poor, often opportunistic advice.  He sows factionalism and is rude and high-handed with comrades.  At various points, the American, the Russian and the British communists all want to be rid of him.  Zumoff writes, "Pepper was the kind of communist functionary who destroyed Bolshevism." (120)

One challenge the American CP dealt with was its membership's extreme cultural heterogeneity.  In 1922 only 10% of the party was in English-language branches. (172)  The Jewish and Finnish sections were the largest, (175) the Jewish because they wanted to assimilate, the Finnish because they wanted to preserve their cultural autonomy. (178)  Indeed, more than a third of the CP was Finnish (177) and Finns in America were much more predisposed to radical politics in general than the rest of the population. (178)  Following the philosophy of the Bolshevik experience with the Jewish Bund, the CP dismantled the independence of the foreign language federations to centralize the party (for its part, the Bund withdrew before it could be stripped of its autonomy). Nevertheless, in 1936 still half of the CP was foreign-born. (186)

The dismantling of the foreign language federations was only one part of the "Bolshevisation" campaign that was concomitant with the Stalinisation of the Comintern.  After the sudden death of CP leader C. E. Ruthenberg, Jay Lovestone assumed control of the party for a brief period. (207)  Cannon and his allies were expelled from the party after voicing their support for Trotsky's Left Opposition. (260)  Jay Lovestone made the mistake of siding with Bukharin over Stalin and was thus removed from party leadership in favor of Earl Browder. (285)

The last four chapters deal with the "Negro Question" as it was handled by the Comintern and CP.  In 1919 the CP only claimed one black member, (287) and its early color-blind policies didn't help it win black recruits.  At the Third Comintern Congress, the Negro Commission was established; this organization had the weakness of grouping concerns of American blacks into the same category as blacks worldwide. (305)  But it was at the Fourth Congress (where Claude McKay and Otto Huiswoud presented on the subject) that the Comintern identified fighting black oppression as a key task, what Zumoff calls a "turning point in the Communist appreciation of the links between black oppression and capitalism." (308)  The CP followed suit, dedicating itself to full racial equality at its Fourth National Convention. (323)  The American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), led by Lovett Fort-Whiteman, was the CP's first significant attempt to recruit black workers. (324)

The Sixth Comintern Congress saw the Comintern adopt the Black Nation Thesis over the wishes of most American Communists -- both white and black -- after Sen Katayama reminded delegates that Lenin considered American Negros a subject nation. (342/344)  Even Harry Haywood, a lonely voice championing the policy, was opposed by his own brother, Otto Hall. (349)  The line reflected Stalin's two-stage approach to revolution (Zumoff comments "In the US, the most developed capitalist country in the world, the 'two-stage' approach was absurd and a betrayal." (356)).  Although a hinderance to party work, no prominent black CP member left over the new policy. (359)  The Third Period, as it was, had enough ridiculous theoretical lines to swallow; one more wasn't much bother. (359)  In any event, the line was downplayed.

While Zumoff notes there is "no doubt the party would have been better served by a realistic understanding of the black oppression in America" (363), the Comintern self-determination line did have three main positive effects on party work among blacks:
"First, it forced the party to redouble this work.  Second, making the Negro question a national question underscored its special (that is, non-class) nature and its international importance, placing it on the same place as the Irish or Jewish questions.  Third, insisting that the black 'peasantry' was key to black liberation forced the party to go beyond its antipathy to the South and establish roots there." (361)
The CP squandered some of its good reputation among blacks during the Popular Front period (in which Browder uttered "Communism is the Americanism of the twentieth century"), when its hostility to civil rights militancy in the service of Soviet-US cooperation discredited it in the minds of post-war organizers. (364)

In the end, Zumoff does not see the aims of the American CP as quixotic, nor does he fault them for not making a revolution (since there was no revolutionary situation to take advantage of).  What he does criticize is their lack of proper organization in preparation for a potential future revolutionary situation. (20)

One thread that runs through the book is the incessant, often vicious and dishonest internecine struggle within the American Communist milieu (much of it involving Pepper).  Given the amateur hour showcased by the CP, at loggerheads over often personal and not political differences -- or trivial political differences -- it seems a reasonable thesis to posit that the Comintern played the responsible parent to the squabbling children (although, of course, the Comintern was beset by its own factional difficulties... some of which also involved Pepper!).  The book is peppered with so much factional fighting that reading all the details of it becomes tiresome for the reader (although, no doubt, valuable for the historian).  I can take a little consolation in that various CP members also stated at the time that the factionalism was a drag (at one point, Cannon attempts to form "a faction against factions").  One favorite factional tactic seemed to be to adopt the same name of the group one was opposing, and issue a party paper of the same name as the opposition's as well!

Another leitmotif is the lack of knowledge in the CP about the intrigues amongst the Comintern -- especially the process of Stalinisation.  It's hard to fault the CP for this too much in retrospect, given the deliberately opaque and confusing nature of the process.  As Zumoff states, the ultraleft rhetoric of the Third Period hardly seemed at the time to be a retreat from a revolutionary perspective. (366)  However, Stalinisation for the American CP largely meant social-democratization, essentially adopting the Democratic Party program. (16)