The Contradictions of America’s Communist Party gnewsplus24

[ad_1]

In the first half of the 20th century, there was a strange, quixotic paradox at the heart of the Communist Party of the United States. On the one hand, the party proved the most progressive—even prescient—political organization operating in America at the time. Pushing everything from nationalized health care to racial equality, the Communist Party placed itself ahead of the curve, over and again—especially when compared to other political forces of the era, from the resurgent Ku Klux Klan to the corporate friendliness of multiple administrations in the lead-up to the Great Depression.

Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism, Maurice Isserman, Basic Books, 384 pp., .16, June 2024

Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism, Maurice Isserman, Basic Books, 384 pp., $29.16, June 2024

And yet, amid the push for the kinds of progressive policies that would take root decades later, there was another feature that pushed the Communist Party in an opposite, and thoroughly anti-democratic, direction. Rather than seeking to expand democratic rights in the pursuit of preferred policy outcomes, the U.S. Communist Party sought to achieve these gains through a small, revolutionary cabal—through a conspiratorial clique that could, in time, seize power, and enforce the equality it proclaimed, using any means necessary. It would lead, in other words, to Leninism—and achieve the egalitarianism it demanded at the point of a gun.

It is this paradox—of using criminal conspiracy and illiberal means to achieve egalitarian ends—that propels Maurice Isserman’s Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism, a trenchant, decades-overdue book on the history of the U.S. Communist Party. Long written off as immaterial—as a novelty masquerading as a party, without any actual importance—Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College, restores the U.S. Communist Party to its proper place in the broader sweep of 20th-century American politics. And he does so by locating those paradoxes at the heart of the party’s project—paradoxes that have clouded the party’s impact and legacy ever since.

“The Communist cause attracted egalitarian idealists,” Isserman writes, “and it bred authoritarian zealots.” In that sense, the U.S. Communist Party, founded after the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, was little different from communist parties elsewhere, not least in places like the Soviet Union. Dedicated to the proposition that a small cabal of revolutionaries could eventually create a Soviet America, the U.S. Communist Party never grew especially large, never even breaking past 100,000 total members, even at its most popular.

Many of those members were, to be sure, “well-intentioned idealists,” Isserman notes, drawn to the party’s promise of things like gender, ethnic, and economic equality. But the inherent illiberalism at the core of the Communist Party was impossible to miss, even early on, souring many of its earliest supporters. (“I am a communist because I don’t see anything else to be,” wrote Mary Heaton Vorse, an initial supporter. “But I am a communist who hates Communists and Communism.”) Just a year into its existence, the party was already voicing opposition to basic democratic bedrocks—to the kinds of democratic “rights that they no longer honored themselves,” Isserman writes.

Much of that stemmed from the top down. Early party leadership, for instance, evinced little interest in the kinds of democratic norms—things such as voting, press freedoms, and the like—that other, more successful movements on the American left used to their advantage. For instance, in early 1921, Communist Party leader Robert Minor publicly declared that true communist revolutionaries “will take a position of free speech when it is the bourgeois dictatorship that is on top, and he will take a position against free speech when it is the workers on top.” Soviet leaders—who, of course, stifled free speech for almost the entirety of the Soviet Union’s existence—couldn’t have said it better. Not that they needed to; given that Soviet officials appointed the leadership of the U.S. Communist Party, there was never any question about how the party felt about using authoritarian tactics to its own ends.

Which points directly to the next paradox Isserman highlights: “The Communist movement helped win democratic reforms that benefited millions of ordinary American citizens, at the same time that the movement championed a brutal totalitarian state responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.” Isserman is, of course, right on both scores, expertly marshaling archival sources to back up both claims. As part of a broader swell of labor rights organization, the U.S. Communist Party helped achieve notable, lasting gains for industrial Americans, infusing the labor movement with both energy and leadership, from longshoremen in California to garment factory workers in New England. In the process, they gained not only buy-in from other groups on the American left, but even purchase in Congress itself, with multiple members of the House of Representatives operating as secret members of the party.

Yet while advocating for basic labor protections in the United States, the party itself became the most vocal, even frothing, defender of the Soviet Union. Even as Joseph Stalin purged opponents, even as Soviet authorities stifled any criticism they could find, even as Moscow prevented the rise of independent trade unions themselves, the U.S. Communist Party raced to the regime’s defense at every turn. As Paul Robeson, a party supporter, said in the mid-1930s, “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!” The Soviet regime didn’t need Robeson to tell it twice.

Nor could the party and its ranks claim they simply weren’t aware of the Soviet crimes. “That they were, for the most part, genuinely ignorant of the brutality at the core of the Soviet system is no excuse,” Isserman writes, not least since plenty of other Americans “saw clearly what American Communists indignantly denied, that life under Soviet Communism in the Stalin era was defined by pervasive fear of an all-powerful repressive regime that routinely and on a massive scale employed spying, denunciation, imprisonment, torture, and murder against innocent victims.” Deluding themselves into the belief that they were on the right side of history, American Communists—many of whom ended up funneling classified and stolen material to Soviet handlers, becoming in the process the criminal network they’d long denied being—overlooked the Soviet Union’s sprint toward totalitarianism and missed the fact that they’d become handmaidens to Soviet despotism in the process.

There’s a further irony that such paradoxes highlight, which Isserman gestures at but doesn’t ultimately linger on. The Soviet regime wasn’t simply a vehicle for collectivization, or for the spread of communism as a doctrine unto itself. It was also, as recent scholarship has made clear, a warmed-over version of Russian imperialism, building directly upon the legacy of tsarist colonialism. Even as it proclaimed itself a force for “anti-imperialism”—a claim that many American Communists lapped up—the Kremlin transformed into a colonialist force unto itself, especially once it solidified its grip on power across the country.

Stay in the early 1930s, for instance. Amid broader campaigns of Russification and anti-Indigenous policies, Soviet authorities helped author famines targeting those in places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan. With millions dying over the span of just a few years, the famines tipped into genocide against non-Russian populations, mirroring the kinds of settler-colonial violence seen previously in places like the American West.

To hear the U.S. Communist Party tell it, however, such famines—such genocides—were hardly worth considering, let alone something the Soviet Union had to apologize for. Years later, Angela Davis, arguably the most well-known member of the U.S. Communist Party, visited Soviet Central Asia, praising “Lenin’s ethnic policy” as something that could be “of tremendous help” in solving racial issues in the United States. Asked one Soviet dissident in response: “Is she a fool or is she dishonest?”

It’s a question that could be expanded to the entire party’s history writ large—and one with options that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If anything, it’s a question—and a paradox—that ultimately condemned the U.S. Communist Party to irrelevance, especially as the 20th century marched on. Blinded by ideology, buttressed by ignorance, the Communist Party surged to prominence in the 1930s, only to wilt under the weight of its own contradictions as the years wore on. By the latter half of the Cold War, the U.S. Communist Party was caught somewhere between afterthought and laughingstock; in one of a few notable, and notorious, moments toward the end of the Cold War, the party’s long-standing chief suggested, “If you want a nice vacation, take it in North Korea.” It’s unclear if anyone ever took him up on his advice—or even cared enough at that point to pay attention, anyway.

[ad_2]

Related Posts

Shannen Doherty ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ Star Dies at 53

    Shannen Doherty ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ Star Dies at 53Ms. Doherty, who also had roles in the TV series “Charmed” and the comedy-thriller “Heathers,” had continued to work after a breast cancer diagnosis, the raven-haired actress known for playing headstrong characters…

    Continue reading
    Copa America Final in Miami: A Home Game for Both Teams

      Copa America Final in Miami Argentina vs Colombia Live Match. A Home Game for Both Teams Few would argue there could be a more perfect setting for the final game of the Copa América soccer tournament on Sunday night. Never…

      Continue reading

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

      All News

      Shannen Doherty ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ Star Dies at 53

      Shannen Doherty ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ Star Dies at 53

      Copa America Final in Miami: A Home Game for Both Teams

      Copa America Final in Miami: A Home Game for Both Teams

      Euro 2024 Final Team News, Predictions And Line-ups: England vs Spain live updates

      Euro 2024 Final Team News, Predictions And Line-ups: England vs Spain live updates

      Sajid Khan Movies List: Fun and Laughter for Everyone

      Sajid Khan Movies List: Fun and Laughter for Everyone

      6 New Movies Our Critics Are Talking About This Week

      6 New Movies Our Critics Are Talking About This Week

      Summer Horror Movies to Send a Chill Down Your Spine

      Summer Horror Movies to Send a Chill Down Your Spine