- Interview by
- Scott McLemee
The first decade of the American Communist Party is difficult to sentimentalize. Unlike the campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys — or even the patriotic hokum of the Popular Front days (“Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism!”) when the members and sympathizers numbered around a million — the party’s early years saw more state repression and internal conflict than decisive action or steady growth. No sepia-toned image of it is burned into the American left’s historical memory.
But the CP was also the first socialist group in the United States to make the fight against racial oppression central to its program. Most members were working-class immigrants; the party had deep roots in ethnic communities while also taking pride in its internationalism and anti-imperialism.
Jacob Zumoff’s The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929, now out in paperback, is among the few studies of the CP in its formative period — and the organization it describes has strengths we would do well to remember, since they were hard-won and priceless.
Using archives from the Communist International (Comintern) and other sources that were unavailable to previous historians, Zumoff attempts to refute what he sees as the myth of destructive Moscow domination of the American CP in the early 1920s. In contrast, he argues that the Comintern in the period of Lenin and Trotsky guided the nascent Communist movement to grapple with the unique challenges to working-class unity in this capitalist society founded on black chattel slavery.
Zumoff, a research associate of the Prometheus Research Library, earned his PhD from the University of London, and has taught history at universities in Mexico and the United States, most recently as a visiting professor at New Jersey City University. He was interviewed by Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Jacobin.
The Socialist Party (SP) of the Eugene Debs era is often idealized, but left-wingers within it were already coming into conflict with the SP leadership by 1912. There is some debate over how much continuity existed between the hard left of 1912 and the early Communist movement, whether in ideas or in personnel. How do you see it?
On a broad level, there was a lot of continuity, but also fundamental political discontinuity. There was an undercurrent of dissent in and around the SP — I say “around” because remember, the SP was not a centralized party. There wasn’t much of a party-owned press, if any, with individual newspapers such as the Appeal to Reason in Kansas and Victor Berger’s paper in Wisconsin, or magazines such as International Socialist Review, being sympathetic to the SP leadership though not immediately controlled by it, and often having different political positions.
Within the party, dissent from the left tended to be more militant about labor struggles (especially true of members connected to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World) and less focused on electoralism, and there were ties to European leftism, particularly among various Central and East European language groups. But the left within the SP initially consisted of several overlapping loose groupings, rather than anything sharply defined or cohesive.
Some, but not all, of this milieu fed into the more organized left wing of 1919. The Socialist Party leadership expelled parts of it and other members just abandoned the SP to start building an alternative. Louis Fraina, Ludwig Lore, C.E. Ruthenberg, James Cannon, and Benjamin Gitlow were all sympathetic to the SP left before 1919 and went on to found the Communist movement, along with much of the party membership belonging to the Russian and other Eastern European language groups.
But the differences between the early SP left and what became the Communist movement were substantial. In 1912, oppositionists were dissatisfied with the SP’s reformism and its electoral emphasis, while the left wing of 1919 was galvanized by two events of global importance. One was the First World War, which revolutionary Socialists saw as an inter-imperialist war fought by the workers for the interests of the capitalists. But most European socialist parties supported the war aims of their own rulers — what Lenin called social chauvinism, socialist in words but nationalist in deeds.
The war and the collapse of the Second International exposed the rottenness of the established social-democratic parties. Officially the SP in the United States did not support the war, but many right-wing Socialists did, and the party maintained the same social-democratic tradition, in any case.
The other important world event, of course, was the Bolshevik Revolution, through which the working class took, and kept, state power for the first time. This really shook the world, as John Reed said, and American Socialists were thrown in all directions.
Some of those politicized by the Bolshevik Revolution had few links, if any, to the left wing of a decade earlier. At the same time, there were prominent figures from the SP left, such as Louis Boudin, who opposed Bolshevism.
Others, like longtime Socialist presidential candidate and spokesman Eugene Debs or IWW leader Vincent St. John, were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks but did not join the pro–Bolshevik left wing, despite efforts by early Communists to recruit them.
The Irish labor leader James “Big Jim” Larkin and IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood became Communists, at least for a while, but did not stay in the United States. And then you had SPers like Ludwig Lore who were active in the CP for a while, but ultimately did not want to be in a Bolshevik party.
In addition, the left wing contained many immigrant workers who identified with the left movements in their countries of origin. They considered the SP’s language federations almost as local outposts of the parties back home, not as branches of an American Socialist movement.
Some of them supported the Bolsheviks, and the early Communist movement had more than a dozen foreign-language groups, each with its own paper and with tenuous links to the central party. But Lenin was opposed to a federated party made up of independent language and ethnic groups essentially doing whatever they wanted.
One of the key challenges for the early CP — and I detail the successes and failures in my book — was to forge a Communist movement in the United States out of all these disparate traditions and personnel.
Disputes among US communists were as intense as any in the world movement, and handling them demanded a lot of attention from the Communist International. What caused the Americans’ chronic internal conflict?
Much of the early factionalism — up to, say, 1924 — went with the inevitably painful process of forging a Communist Party in the United States out of movements coming from diverse backgrounds. Some fights were domestic reflections of debates that involved the whole world movement.
For example, at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin waged his struggle against those Communists, often from anarchist or syndicalist backgrounds, who responded to the corruption and opportunism of the Second International by rejecting electoral tactics of any kind, or refusing to work in reformist-run trade unions — or even the idea of a working-class party.
Lenin’s famous pamphlet from 1920, “Left-Wing Communism — An Infantile Disorder,” while not directed at Americans specifically, played a very important role in orienting Communists in the US. The Third Comintern Congress in 1921, with its emphasis on trying to find a way to reach non-Communist workers, was also quite important.
Even the fight against black oppression, in many ways a specifically American issue, was integral to the Comintern’s broader outlook. The long struggle against national, ethnic, and religious oppression in tsarist Russia — what Lenin had called the “prison house of nations” — made the Bolsheviks aware of connections between non-class oppression and the fight for working-class power. This was central to the Comintern’s broader vision.
That’s a substantial issue and we’ll come back to it. But with some of the factional warfare, the stakes are a lot less clear. How did Comintern leaders find the patience to deal with it?
The endless factionalism is certainly dizzying to follow, and it frustrated early Communists and no doubt the Comintern leadership. But this does not mean that issues were never resolved. For example, in the early period, the different groups did eventually fuse into one party, under the guidance of the Comintern.
And the Comintern intervened to get the party to work legally, and to try to work within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — where the majority of organized workers were, despite the pro-capitalist Samuel Gompers/William Green bureaucracy.
I want to stress that this intervention was not only a one way street. Not only did the early Communists see themselves as part of a broader world movement, but they saw it as their right and duty to fight out their differences and to try to obtain Comintern support.
This was a political struggle, to try to win their comrades, be they in Chicago or Moscow, to their positions; it bore little resemblance to the maneuvers for factional advantage of the later 1920s, after the rise of Stalin.
Of course, no Comintern intervention solved all of the problems of the American party at once. But, in the early period, when new factional disagreement broke out, it was usually in new configurations and over new questions.
In fact these fights were often actually a positive feature — it gave the Communist movement in the US a more dynamic nature, especially when compared to more inert parties, like the British Communist Party. Working out these issues was an integral part of what I call the “Americanization” of Communism in the United States.
Perhaps “exhibit A” in the importance of the Comintern was its insistence on addressing black oppression. For example, back at the Second Comintern Congress, Lenin had John Reed give a report on what was then called the “Negro Question.” (Reed actually would have preferred to talk about the trade union issue, but according to Reed’s papers at Harvard, Lenin insisted.)
So far from being ineffective, the Comintern’s interventions helped to resolve factional issues, by providing guidance, insight, and authority that the American Communists did not have on their own.
On that topic, definitely. It’s mind-boggling how indulgent the “inclusive” Socialist Party was towards racism, even of the most virulent sort.
Aside from black Socialists such as Hubert Harrison, who tended to be marginalized within the party, very few people in the SP understood the importance of fighting racial oppression as a central part of struggling for socialism in the United States.
Some leaders, like Victor Berger, foresaw a socialist America as being segregated. The best of the lot was probably Eugene Debs, who was strongly opposed to racism and refused to speak to segregated audiences.
The early American Communist Party inherited this sort of colorblind framework — at a time when black radicalism (the so-called New Negro movement) was emerging that, among other things, advocated self-defense against racist attacks. This legacy of colorblindness is no doubt why the tens of thousands of early Communists included just one black member, Otto Huiswoud.
Among the Communist Party of South Africa’s early slogans was “Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!” Was there anything comparable in the American Party, before the Comintern pushed it to deal with racial oppression?
On the surface there were similarities between the early days of the Communist Party in both countries. Both consisted mainly of white immigrants who did not see the need to champion black liberation until prodded by the Comintern. The South African Communists’ position in the 1922 Rand Strike, when that slogan was used, is the most grotesque example.
But it is important to keep in mind the fundamental differences between South Africa and the United States. Capitalism in both countries is based upon black oppression, but in South Africa, black people are the overwhelming nationally oppressed majority. A tiny white minority is able to achieve European-style living standards through the super-exploitation of black workers.
In the United States, black people are a specially oppressed minority, a race-color caste. Black oppression has roots in slavery and the failure of radical Reconstruction after the Civil War; Black people are subjected to forcible segregation, regardless of wealth. Racial oppression divides workers and serves as a club to batter the entire working class, white as well as black.
This is why the “Negro Question” was essential to Communism at this time, especially as black people were becoming economically integrated into industrial capitalism, albeit at the bottom.
There will be no liberation of black people from racial oppression in the United States short of a socialist revolution, and there will be no socialist revolution in this country unless Communists seriously put the struggle for black equality at the forefront of their political agenda and program.
Despite the best efforts of the Comintern, the American party really dragged its feet about making antiracism a high priority until at least 1928. It didn’t start recruiting African-American members in significant numbers until the Depression hit. How do you understand American Communist inertia on this issue, which lasts most of a decade?
Two developments were underway during the period when the early Communist movement was being essentially indifferent to the fight for black freedom. Through the “Great Migration” significant numbers of black people moved from the rural South to both the urban South and the urban North, plus there was significant immigration from the Caribbean, especially to New York City.
So black people were becoming part of the industrial working class, albeit forcibly segregated at the bottom. The other phenomenon was the New Negro movement, which I mentioned earlier. Often centered in Northern cities like New York and Chicago, it was forged out of the belief that black people had the right to defend themselves against the wave of racist pogroms.
The movement was heterogeneous, but it included a significant number of sympathizers with the Bolshevik Revolution — most notably the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), made up mainly of Caribbean immigrants living in Harlem.
While sympathetic to Bolshevism, they were initially aloof from the US Communist movement. As I detail in my book, the intervention of the Comintern was crucial to many of the ABB members joining the CP by the early 1920s.
The ABB cadres formed the nucleus for Communist work among black people in upper Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago, and elsewhere. The party was making attempts to recruit black members through the “Negro Sanhedrin” in 1924 and the American Negro Labor Congress in 1925. Judged solely by the numbers, these efforts weren’t very successful in the short term, but they did “raise the red flag,” as it were, making the Communists known among black militants.
Fair enough. But I recall reading somewhere that as of 1930, the party had about fifty black members. That’s 49 more than it started out with, but still . . .
Well, according the figures I have seen, there were about 300 black Communists in 1930; there were about 1,000 in 1931. The party’s membership was still largely first and second generation immigrants, but it had begun recruiting black people, including in the South. Of course, the CP’s work in the 1920s was not perfect.
It was marred by various things, often reflecting broader problems in the Communist movement, including factionalism and, later, the rise of Stalinism. As my book chronicles, there was also a constant struggle waged by both these black cadres and the Comintern to have the party emphasize the fight for black liberation.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the party would have been able to become such a factor among black Americans had it not been for this work. Just to use one example, this helped the Communists appreciate the significance of the frame-up of nine black youths in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931.
Communists throughout the country, and internationally, led a campaign that not only publicized the injustice against the “Scottsboro Boys” — they showed how that frame-up symbolized the entire racist capitalist court and criminal system.
Is there any specific aspect or phase of the Comintern’s work that seems relevant to the present moment?
One, very basic, aspect is that people’s political consciousness can change, quite dramatically. As I detail in my book, the Bolshevik Revolution resonated among the oppressed and exploited throughout the world. The task of the Comintern was to programmatically cohere parties throughout the world.
Of course, consciousness can go backward, too, as we have seen since the counterrevolutionary restoration of capitalism in Russia and East Europe since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, even amidst such a global recession, the idea of building a socialist society is alien to most workers, intellectuals, or the oppressed.
Which leads me to the second lesson: the need for a revolutionary, proletarian, internationalist party, such as the early Communists sought to build. Of course the world has changed quite a bit since the 1920s.
But the challenges that the early Communists confronted are still around: the need for working-class political independence from bourgeois parties, like the Democrats; the need for a political struggle against the pro-capitalist trade union leadership, which has led the labor movement into its weakest period in almost a century; the need to oppose US imperialism.
It is precisely on these issues that much of today’s left fails. With the election coming up, for example, it might be useful for socialists to review the Comintern’s insistence that the early CP not support the dissident Republican Senator, Robert La Follette. Instead, the Comintern fought for the Communists to maintain the basic principle of working-class independence — something just as important today, as we are approaching a presidential election.
No doubt, much of the Left will follow the tradition of the Stalinist CP of either openly or back-handedly supporting the Democratic Party, a capitalist party whose presidents (including Clinton and Obama) have long waged war on the working class and oppressed in the United States and internationally.
This lesson is important today since much of the Left touts Bernie Sanders, which is really the same old shell game, trying to give the Democrats a “progressive” face — similar to La Follette’s attempts with the Republicans.