The Soviet World of American Communism

 Posted by on 9 January 2006 at 7:34 am  Uncategorized
Jan 092006

I’m presently reading The Soviet World of American Communism by Harvey Klehr, Kyrill Anderson, and John Earl Haynes. The book exposes the sordid details of the intimate, subservient relationship between the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), particularly focusing on the CPUSA’s height around the 1930s. It does so largely by analyzing (in proper historical context) documents stored in the Russian archives which were briefly made available to scholars after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of those documents consist of communications between the USSR-controlled Comintern and the CPUSA.

The authors state their thesis early in the introduction:

As we shall see, these documents demonstrate that at every possible period of the CPUSA’s history, the American Communists looked to their Soviet counterparts for advice on how to conduct their own party business. But there was more to it than that: these documents show that the CPUSA was never an independent political organization. There were moments when it was less strictly controlled by Moscow than at others, but there was never a time when the CPUSA made its decisions autonomously, without being obliged to answer to or–more precisely–without wishing to answer to Soviet authority (4).

The book is tightly integrated around this thesis: every section illuminates some further aspect of it. The evidence for this thesis is so clear and overwhelming that a mere article could prove it easily, so the purpose of the book must be understood as revealing the particular kinds of control that Moscow exerted over the CPUSA.

Perhaps the most interesting case is that of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. The authors write:

There are few more telling illustrations of the loyalty of American Communists to Stalin than their reaction to the Nazi-Soviet Pact. There was never any question that the CPUSA would support the pact; the only problem seemed to be an initial confusion over how to show that support, for the Comintern had not given the rest of the Communist world any advance warning, nor had it laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s abrupt reversal of policy (71).

At the time of the pact, American Communists had allied themselves with various New Deal leftists under the banner of anti-fascism — with Moscow’s consent, of course. When Moscow suddenly allied itself with Nazi Germany, American Communists didn’t really know what to say. So they made all sorts of untoward comments — like that “German fascism has suffered a serious blow” and that the pact was “a wonderful contribution to peace” (73).

Moscow wasn’t pleased with that spin, so it issued proper ideological marching orders to CPUSA leader Earl Browder. In a fairly lengthy letter, Browder was told that he was “a captive of tenets that were correct before the European war but are now incorrect” since “the war is bringing about such radical changes in the entire international situation… that compel Communists of all countries to make a radical shift in the tactics of Comparties” (81). As might be expected, the particular reasons offered for that “radical shift” are no more than vague, hollow rationalizations. Yet the inadequacy of the explanation was not so important to the American Communists: they simply wished to toe whatever line Moscow demanded of them.

And toe they did. Although ordinary membership declined somewhat after the pact, almost 90 percent stayed. The dues-paying membership was even more loyal. As the authors conclude, “These figures suggest that antifascism, sometimes said to have been a defining characteristic of rank-and-file Communists, was less important to them than loyalty to the Soviet Union” (73). As for all those anti-fascist alliances the Communists had made with New Deal leftists, they “collapsed when the Communists insisted that the groups support the pact” (71-2).

In short, American Communists weren’t anti-fascist at all. They were opportunistic enemies or allies of fascism — as Moscow dictated. The relevant principle is the one I discussed in this post on Christian libertarianism:

…Peter Schwartz has a nice discussion of why the devout Christian who refrains from killing because of God’s command “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not actually opposed to murder in his lecture on “Contextual Knowledge.” Such a person is actually in favor of obeying God’s will; that’s the principle that governs his actions. So if God told him in a revelation to murder, he would do so. In refraining from killing other people, he is not acting upon any opposition to the moral evil of murder, but only upon his commitment to conform to God’s commandments. (By way of contrast, a more worldly Christian’s opposition to murder would be based upon common sense reasoning about the evil of destroying an innocent human life. So even if he believed that God commanded him to murder, he could not do so.) Obviously, the same applies to “Thou Shalt Not Steal” — and any other vaguely libertarian Biblical commandments.

In the case of the American Communists, they were in favor of obeying Moscow — and nothing else. The exact same analysis about motivating principles applies to the supposed campaigns for free speech by American Communists. As Tom Palmer recently wrote under the perfect title of “An Effective Campaigner for the Legal Rights of People Who Agreed With Him to Speak and Organize”:

Frank Wilkinson has died. He was, according to the obituary writer at the New York Times, a campaigner for “free speech” and for “antipoverty” efforts. Um, right. It’s not until the eighth paragraph of the obit that we learn that he was for more than three decades a member of the Communist Party, which did a great deal to suppress free speech and to promote poverty, and that he worked with a variety of Communist Party front groups, all of which were — all of the time — entirely opportunistic and subservient to the interests of the USSR.

My colleague David Boaz collects these things. Sometimes he brings them to my attention. It’s a regular feature that obits laud life-long Communists as “free speech” champions (although invariably the cases in which they were involved were entirely opportunistic, and involved defending only those who toed their line), or as “civil rights” champions, or as “peace campaigners.” I wonder (well, not for very long) whether the New York Times would describe the Nazi marchers in Skokie as “free speech” champions, or the opponents of going to war with Hitler as “peace campaigners.”

Sure, the American Communists were in favor of pro-Communist speech. They were also in favor of shipping people off to the Gulag for speaking out against Communism, often with a nice bout of degradation, torture, and false confession beforehand. That means that they were advocates of Communist speech, not free speech. The NY Times should be a bit more savvy about such distinctions, particularly given their own sordid history with that dishonest apologist for Soviet mass murder, Walter Duranty. Apparently, that’s too much to ask, despite decades of overwhelming evidence of the unspeakable evils of Communism.

The Communist version of “free speech” reminds me of an old joke:

An American tourist to the USSR says to his State Guide: “In my country, I have the right to stand in front of the White House and shout ‘Down with Ronald Reagan!’ Can you do that here?” She replies, “Why yes, I can stand before the Kremlin and shout ‘Down with Ronald Reagan!’ too.”

See, the Soviet Union really did support free speech!

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