Early U.S. Communism Revisited

— Ted McTaggart

The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929
By Jacob A. Zumoff
Harmarket Books, 2014, 400 pages, $28 paperback.

THE EARLY YEARS of the Communist movement in the United States present a number of challenges to the modern historian — even leaving aside the many deliberate attempts to falsify the historical record for one or another ideological agenda.

A brief review of archival materials reveals a tangle of rival organizations, factions and newspapers, often with identical names and few, if any, principled differences. In his classic work The Roots of American Communism, Theodore Draper gives a sense of this problem, summing up the year 1922 alone as follows:

“Four parties have to be disentangled — two calling themselves Communist, both underground, and their two satellites, the United Toilers and the Workers party, both above ground. One of the underground Communist parties contained two factions, the Geese and the Liquidators, virtually equivalent to a party within a party. If the reader has not been slightly confused by all this, he cannot be sure that he has fully recaptured the Communist atmosphere in this particular period.” (Draper, 362)

Jacob A. Zumoff’s The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929, in many respects an update of Theodore Draper’s work, is at the same time a polemic against one of that historian’s central premises. Draper, a former Communist writing at the height of the Cold War, took a largely sympathetic view of the individuals who comprised the founding generation of American Communism, though he was ultimately unsympathetic with the Communist project.

In particular he assessed the influence of the Communist International, or Comintern, on the development of the American movement as overwhelmingly negative. While a later generation of historians, influenced by the New Left, challenged Draper’s emphasis on the role of the Comintern in the shaping of American Communism, Zumoff contends that “both accepted the same framework. The division between ‘American’ and ‘foreign’ in American Communism remained undisputed, with the Soviet/Comintern influence unquestionably negative.” (Zumoff,  5)

Zumoff’s work argues that, while many of the Comintern’s early interventions were indeed destructive, many others were quite positive. Zumoff makes a compelling case for the indispensable role of the Comintern in forging a united Communist Party in the United States in an atmosphere of bitter factional rivalry.

In the years following the Party’s unification, however, the Comintern’s interventions become increasingly erratic. The overall picture that emerges from the mid-1920s on confirms the view expressed by James P. Cannon that “the Comintern leadership looked at our party. . . not with the aim of clearing up trouble, but of keeping the pot boiling. . . so that they could create out of the mess a docile Stalinist party.” (Cannon, 34-35)

The Farmer-Labor and Race Problems

Unfortunately, Zumoff’s meticulously researched work is frequently marred by the intrusion of the author’s narrow political perspectives into the historical narrative. This is perhaps most apparent in the two chapters devoted to the Communists’ 1923-24 intervention in the Farmer-Labor Party movement and the Robert La Follette presidential campaign.

The Communist Party, largely isolated from the broad masses of the working class, saw the rise of radical “progressivism” and the movement for an independent farmer-labor party as an avenue to the masses; the third party presidential campaign by dissident Republican Robert La Follette was also seen, despite La Follette’s many shortcomings, as an opening for independent politics that revolutionary socialists could take advantage of.

The effort was rife with factional strife and intrigues within both the U.S. Communist Party and the Comintern leadership. While Zumoff documents these conflicts conscientiously, he sheds little light on what the movement supporting La Follette looked like on the ground or why it was so tempting to the leaders of the young Communist Party. Instead he makes repeated interjections on the unacceptability of Communists collaborating with petty-bourgeois forces as a matter of principle.

The reader may agree or disagree with Zumoff’s principles, but without more evidence from which to draw lessons, the doors to a healthy debate among revolutionaries on electoral politics is for all intents and purposes closed.

Similarly, in the otherwise excellent four-chapter treatment of the “Negro question” in the early years of the Communist Party, the author’s principled opposition to the idea of Black self-determination is somewhat disorienting to the reader. Zumoff argues that by recognizing African-Americans as an oppressed nationality, the Stalinized Comintern laid the groundwork for the two-stage theory of revolution which would put socialist revolution on the back-burner.

This argument is unconvincing — as Zumoff acknowledges in a footnote: “Trotsky continued to believe that black Americans comprised an oppressed nationality. . . While wrong (as Max Shachtman has demonstrated), this does not contradict Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution since the existence of a national question does not mean that socialist revolution is off the agenda.” (Zumoff 358, footnote 13) [The Shachtman reference is to Communism and the Negro, first published in 1933 and reissued in 2003 with an introduction by Christopher Phelps. See Peter Drucker’s review online at https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/359 — ed.]

Looking past the author’s occasional bouts of proselytizing, there is much in Zumoff’s work of great interest to historians of the Black left in the United States and the U.S. Communist Party’s struggles around issues of race and national oppression.

The Party’s early ineptitude toward race is illustrated by an incident at a convention of the national Farmer-Labor Party in May 1924: “A delegate from Texas demanded that the draft platform’s support for ‘the political and economic emancipation of the Negro workers and farmers’ be excised because this ‘would hinder the organizing of the party in the Southern states’. Communists went along with this. The only exception was Otto Huiswoud, one of the few black Communists and a delegate. He publicly opposed this, and, as a consequence, was suspended from the party for one year for breaking discipline.” (Zumoff, 145)

Incidents like this, coupled with a resistance to go beyond the traditional “color-blind” policy inherited from the old Socialist Party, which neglected attention to the oppression of the Black community, meant the U.S. Communist Party was only able to attract a very small cadre of Black militants through the 1920s. Despite its imposition (against the will of most Black members of the Party) of the status of “nation” on the African-American community, it was the Comintern that played a decisive role in forcing the U.S. Communist Party to begin to take the “Negro Question” seriously.

Zumoff notes that “Although black Communists disliked the ‘self-determination’ slogan, no leading black Communist left the party over it.” He gives several reasons why Black leaders may have been reluctant to publicly challenge the Comintern’s policy in the climate of the late 1920s, but argues that many simply ignored the official line. “Huiswoud, for example, ignored it for two years. . . Similarly, Otto Hall [a Black Communist labor organizer in the South — ed.] remained in the party until his death almost four decades later — even though he never accepted the line.” (Zumoff, 359-60)

The chapter on “Factionalism and Mass Work, 1925-7” will also be of great interest to historians of American labor radicalism. In addition to the Trade Union Educational League and International Labor Defense, a major focus of this chapter is the Passaic, New Jersey textile workers’ strike of 1926-7, in which the Communists played a key leadership role.

Labor Struggles

Zumoff faults the hostility toward dual unionism on the part of both the Comintern leadership and William Z. Foster, which led the Party to acquiesce to the purging of over 20 Communists from the Passaic workers’ organization as a condition of affiliation to the AFL-affiliated United Textile Workers (UTW). Readers may agree or disagree about whether Foster and the Comintern were too rigid in rejecting dual unionism, but Zumoff here makes a well-reasoned case:

Winning the strike would have been difficult, and perhaps beyond the capacity of the party and its leaders. However, punting the strike to the AFL while claiming victory was disastrous. . . The piecemeal settlements rescinded the wage cuts, and guaranteed the right to organize, but were otherwise a disaster. Despite the promise of no discrimination against union members, militants were fired and blacklisted. . . In 1928, the UTW expelled the local because its leaders participated in the Communist-led New Bedford, Massachusetts, textile strike. . . workers in the city would remain unorganized for more than a decade. (Zumoff, 196-7)

Despite this critique, Zumoff acknowledges the importance of the Passaic strike in establishing the Communist Party’s credibility as a militant working class organization. “In a period marked by declining union membership, and conservative bureaucrats who seemed only interested in skilled workers, Communists fought for immigrant, unskilled, low-paid and marginalized workers. This militancy would, a decade later, contribute to the rise of the CIO.” (197)

For readers not already familiar with the early history of American Communism, The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929 may not be the best place to start. The majority of the work rehashes the work of Theodore Draper who, despite his political shortcomings, was a fair and respectful historian with a clear and popular writing style. Zumoff’s writing is, by contrast, oftentimes hard to follow, and the interjections of his own political agenda are more obtrusive than Draper’s.

Despite its weaknesses, Zumoff’s work was meticulously researched and contains many valuable insights into the history of the U.S. Communist Party and its relationship to the Comintern. Readers who are already well-read on these subjects will find it an important contribution to the history of revolutionary Marxism in the United States.

References:

Cannon, James P. The History of American Trotskyism. Second Edition. New York: Pathfinder Press 1972.

Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Com­munism. New York: The Viking Press 1957.

Zumoff, Jacob A. The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929. Chicago: Haymarket Books 2014.

September-October 2016, ATC 184

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