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The Great Deception
AMERICA & RUSSIA, PART XI The Communist party in America was so small, so faction-ridden, so isolated. How could it enlist so much popular support? How could illiberalism take in so many liberals?
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
During the first fifteen years of its existence, from 1919 to 1934, the influence of the American Communist party was indeed insubstantial. Though it did manage to inject itself, in the mid-twenties, into a variety of trade-union conflicts, the results were nowhere near as impressive as the party had hoped. It gained control of the Furriers’ Union; conducted a protracted strike of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey; and captured Cloakmakers Local 22, the largest local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, leading it in a six-month strike. But instead of winning, the union had to settle for terms initially rejected by the Communists, who far from strengthening their hold ended by being driven from practically all the influential union offices. Instead of gaining control of the ILGWU, they virtually succeeded in wrecking it—a bitter experience that was enormously significant in American labor history, for it produced in the ILGWU a schooled, skillful, and sophisticated anticommunist leadership to guide other unions (if with only partial success) during their infighting with the Communists in the thirties and forties.
Factionalism and frenetic polemics had characterized the Communist movement from the start. Its roots lay in the Socialist party, which had itself passed through a number of important structural changes, ideological splits, and other vicissitudes since its foundation in 1890. For a number of years the Socialists had been led by old stalwarts like Eugene V. Debs, Victor Berger, and Morris Hillquit. Originally very much a native movement, with close ties to both mid-western radicalism and urban intellectual rebels, the Socialist party had come by 1919 to be dominated by foreign-born, particularly East European Jewish, immigrant groups, located in the great northeastern centers, chiefly New York. It included an unusually high proportion of well-educated, cultivated people who had already become deeply involved in various revolutionary and socialist organizations.
The overthrow of the Czar, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the feverish revolutionary activities in Germany, Hungary, and other European countries served as an extraordinary stimulus to the American Socialists. Even before the Revolution, there had arisen left-wing elements within the Socialist party that were critical of the old leadership’s “class-collaborationist” policies, some of them centering around the Russian exiles living in New York, such as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. By April, 1919, the Third or Communist International (the “Comintern”) had been created, revolutions had broken out in half a dozen European countries, and revolutionary regimes had been established in Munich and in Hungary. In America these seemingly millennial events, together with the personality and leadership of Lenin, swept the Socialist left-wingers—especially those in the party’s various foreign-language subsidiaries or “federations”—off their feet. The following month the Socialist party—still under the old prewar, prerevolutionary leadership of Hillquit and Berger—called a referendum to elect party officials. Such an election had not been held since April, 1917, in part as a precautionary move to forestall government harassment, but already the leaders had become anxious about the incursion of the left-wingers—not so much because of doctrinal differences as because of a deep resentment of these unknown and untried young upstarts who threatened to take over the movement to which older men had devoted their lives. The May election confirmed their worst fears. The left wing captured twelve of the fifteen seats on the party’s executive committee, and two of the newcomers—Kate O’Hare and John Reed—decisively defeated Hillquit and Berger for the vital positions of international representative and international secretary respectively.
Hillquit and Berger chose to ignore the referendum, claiming election frauds; they appointed an inspection commission and proceeded to expel, one after another, the left-wing foreign-language groups and various state organizations from the Socialist party. A convention was called to meet in Chicago in August, 1919, where-upon the left-wing forces called their own convention in New York in June, with the express purpose of organizing an attempt to capture the Chicago meeting. Factions erupted within factions, and an impatient minority within the left wing—giving up hope of taking over the Socialists—called for the creation of an American Communist party. A convention for this purpose was summoned to Chicago in September, a few days after the Socialist meeting, which itself broke apart into dissident groups. Thus was the American Communist party born, amid the wreckage of the American radical movement.
The Socialist party, which had begun the year with about 105,000 members, was decimated and left with something over 26,000. The Communist movement itself was split in three: the Communist party proper, dominated by the Russian Federation from the Socialists; the Communist Labor party, consisting of the English-speaking left wing of the Socialist party; and the Socialists’ Michigan state organization, which soon renamed itself the Proletarian party of America. The left-wing movement had started the year with roughly 70,000 members, of whom some six or seven thousand had been English-speaking foreigners or native American members of the Socialist party. The splits at Chicago left the movement with only a fraction of its original strength.