“The Roots of American Communism” by Theodore Draper; Elephant Paperbacks, 1989 (First published in 1957)
The Communist Party USA was, technically, my first political home as a young teenager. Although admittedly only a paper member of their youth organization, the Young Communist League, the party’s newspaper and literature were the pillars which my budding radicalism was built on. Feeling isolated in a socially conservative and often racist, white working class section of the Midwest, the stories and perspective of the Young Communist League and CPUSA’s publications excited me and made me feel less alone.
Like many paper members of radical organizations, I began to drift away from interest in the group. The CPUSA/YCL not being a real, tangible thing in my life made it easy to do so. During my membership, I never met another member nor was contacted personally by one.
Eventually, I drifted away from the Party, but I’ve maintained an interest in their more active periods, which is why I recently read Theodore Draper’s book about the American Communist movement in the early years of 1917-1921.
Overview of the CPUSA
In the history of American anti-capitalism, few organizations have seen more members, more influence and more involvement in struggle than the Communist Party USA . From its roots in the “Left-Wing” of the Socialist Party of America and its foreign language federations up to when it was nearly destroyed by McCarthyism in the 1950s, the CPUSA was a part of nearly every social struggle that existed, in some fashion. Personalities such as James Cannon, Angela Davis, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and William Z. Foster all passed through the party at one time or another. And through its front groups and cultural associations, numerous writers, actors and musicians became ‘fellow travelers’ of the party. They were one of the driving factors behind the CIO’s explosion and secured leadership positions in multiple industrial unions before being red-baited and largely expelled in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
This is, of course, the more positive history of the party. They also slavishly operated as a branch of the Soviet Union’s interests, changing policy and direction as the USSR did. They were probably complicit in the kidnapping and murder of Juliet Stuart Poyntz. During World War II, they supported the no-strike pledges, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the use of the Smith Act against rivals on the Left . From my perspective, the ideology of the CPUSA and the USSR is as responsible for the crushing of other 20th Century working class radical movements as any U.S. administration or coalition of capitalists. This particular brand of Marxist-Leninism killed the Hungarian Revolution, sent in tanks against the Prague Spring, slaughtered dissident sailors and workers in Kronstadt, beat the Makhnovists in Ukraine, and jailed or killed anarchists and dissident socialists during the Spanish Civil War. In addition, their ideology’s adherents actively fought against the best elements of May ’68 in France and the post-WW2 wave of factory occupations in Italy .
In between the ‘good version’ to be proud of and the ‘bad version’, which is politically and morally objectionable, there is some complexity to the party. Despite its hierarchical nature and its obedience of the Soviet line, how this transferred down to rank-and-file members and what they did seemed to differ depending on the time and place. We have to remember that unlike other regions, where other working class political movements were strong, in the U.S. they weren’t. So organizers and individuals who might have been pulled to one of those tendencies somewhere else, were instead largely pulled into the realm of the CPUSA.
Today, the CPUSA exists as a shell of its former self, consistently hemorrhaging its influence and membership long before the collapse of its major funding source, the Soviet Union. They’ve been reduced to a sort of indefinite hypothetical popular frontism, supporting the Democratic Party even less critically than they did during different times in the 1930s/1940s, except without any sort of mass base or organizational relationship with the Democrats. Probably more than any group, it lives off the reputation of its past, while its actual involvement in existing social movements is tenuous or difficult to assess.
The book largely covers the early years of the Communist Party USA, from 1917-1921, although it does give background of where the party came from, such as various socialist parties, radical unions and immigrant mutual aid societies.
The author was apparently a former ‘fellow traveler’ of the party, having been involved in one of its front groups, the National Student League. But he never joined the actual party. He seemed to have broken with them in the early 1940s.
With any book about the CPUSA or their brand of ‘Communism’, you have to check the background of the author. Many accounts are either fluff pieces that fawn over the party like a true believer, leaving out anything critical or they are hostile hit pieces written by right-wingers, who more or less believe working class people should be indentured servants or slaves with no rights.
But this book seems fairly balanced. It criticizes the party line, and points out holes in its official history, but you can also see the author’s sympathy with certain individuals or stances. If I was to describe his overall perspective, it’s from someone who identified somewhat closely with the aims and goals of the party, but then broke with them in a way that wasn’t bitter. So it has its shortcomings, but it’s basically fair. Draper’s work, or at least this particular book, has been praised by both anti-Communists as well as actual participants in the events described so I suppose that says a lot.
Within serious scholarly work on American Communism, there are often three camps of thought. There are institutional histories, grassroots histories and histories that mix both of these. Draper’s book is definitely an ‘institutional’ history. It’s more concerned with what leaders said and wrote and what was decided in meetings and elections. Unlike later histories of the CPUSA, it doesn’t really concern itself with the grassroots of the Party and what they were doing. You learn a lot about the different factional maneuverings, but you don’t learn too much about the American born labor organizer in New York or the Finnish born immigrant timberworker in Minnesota. I don’t completely fault the author for this as the years he is concentrating on, the Party was sort of in the wilderness trying to figure out what they were and what they should do. This was happening in the context of bitter factional conflicts as well as the First Red Scare.
One of the most surprising and valuable things I learned from this book was the fluid nature of radical politics in America during this period. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising, as this preceded the hard lines of ideology that followed. Back then, though, the lines between different radical left tendencies were quite blurred or didn’t yet exist. For instance, the earliest formations of the CPUSA refused participation in electoral politics or in American Federation of Labor unions, stances that are now more identified with the Industrial Workers of the World, left communism or anarchism, rather than organizations that maintained a nearly 70 year relationship with the USSR.
Some of how he frames things in the book is a bit annoying, yet common. For example, there is an overarching sentiment of historical progress and inevitability when describing the development of American radicalism in the early 20th Century. Particularly with the groups that preceded the Party, they are often portrayed as sort of naive, stubborn throwbacks when faced with the emergence of the Communists. I don’t view history that way and the book actually contradicts this by showing how fluid things were during these years. To me that means nothing that happened after was inevitable.
In any case, despite some shortcomings, it’s a good start if you want to learn about the beginning of the American Communist movement.
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