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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
Virtually from its inception, the Communist party of the United States was a Leninist party in character, structure, aims, strategy, and tactics—with all that this implied: its acutely Russian nature; its early dependence upon and speedy and inexorable subservience to the Comintern; and its inevitable and total subjection to Stalin.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin had begun to consolidate his position as ruler of the Russian Communist party and consequently of the Comintern and all its sections, now eliminating this competitor, now the other. First he had used Zinoviev and Kamenev to undermine Trotsky. Then he collaborated with the moderates—Bukharin, Tomski, and Rykov—in destroying Zinoviev and Kamenev. At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 he was already preparing to administer the coup de grâce to Bukharin, meanwhile using him to finish off the absent Trotsky by charging the latter with “left sectarianism,” a disease to which Stalin himself evidently succumbed within a few short months. Having completely eliminated the Trotskyist forces, Stalin could next turn to the completely isolated Bukharin, destroying him in 1929 with charges of “right-wing deviationism”—namely, opposition to Stalin’s extreme agricultural and industrial measures—and the new era of extremism was inaugurated in all Communist parties.
The beginning of this period coincided with the total Stalinization of the party in the United States as well. This was effected simply enough by an American counterpart of the Russian purge, when the plenary meeting of the executive committee of the Comintern expelled the leadership of the American party—Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram D. Wolfe—and their followers for insubordination and for hewing to the Bukharin line. That same year, 1929, the party emerged with a new and fatefully symbolic name: the Communist party of the United States of America, Section of the Communist International.
How, then, could this tiny, isolated, ineffectual sect, completely controlled from Moscow, become the effective manipulator of the ideals and passions of large numbers of non-Communist Americans? The answers are to be found in a strange confluence of historical, political, and psychological factors that began to emerge clearly at the end of the 1920’s. It was not the Communist party that changed its nature and so transformed the objective situation. It was the accidental historical conjunction of the right circumstances and the right intellectual climate among the American intelligentsia which the party, unchanged in nature and objectives, was able to adjust to and so exploit.
The circumstances: They began with the Great Depression; then the rise of aggressive Nazism abroad and native fascism (Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Fritz Kuhn) at home; the New Deal; the Spanish Civil War; the emergence of the Soviet Union as the ostensible champion of collective security. The intellectual climate can be summed up in one phrase—the cult of Russia.
By and large, the liberals and radicals of the 1920’s were rebels rather than revolutionaries. Their rebellion had taken many forms—expatriation and exile (the world of This Side of Paradise ); experimentation in life and art (the Greenwich Village period); disgruntlement and disillusion with the empty slogans and the slaughter of World War I (the era of The Sun Also Rises and Manhattan Transfer ); nausea over the philistinism and crass materialism of the Harding regime (remember Babbitt and “Gamalielese”?). In the early years of the decade relatively few had become political radicals, though their number was slightly increased by the reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti case.
Like any historical generalization, these more or less arbitrary categories obviously fail to do justice to the kaleidoscopic flux and variety of the period—to the fact, for instance, that these and similar rebellious impulses frequently enough merged with one another. (Witness that remarkable phenomenon, Max Eastman, who before, during, and after the war was at once rebel, radical, and revolutionist.) But it is safe to say that the intellectuals who put their mark on this era and gave it its tone were essentially apolitical—rebels without a cause or a home. As for the politicals—the older progressives who had come out of one or another offshoot of Populism and the Bull Moose movement, the newer post-Wilsonian liberals, and the tiny handful of organized radicals—they were rare, isolated, lonely, and ineffectual.
By the end of the twenties and the early thirties, most of the alienated intellectuals had returned from either literal or spiritual exile. They found a turbulent country in misery and ferment; and when they rebelled once more—this time against the injustices and horrors of the Great Depression—they at last did find a cause, allies, and a home.
It is from this point that what can be called the cult of Russia begins to take shape. Properly speaking, that cult—which first became a significant factor during the Depression and reached its height during the Popular Front and again during the wartime alliance with Russia—should be considered not as one but as three separate cults: the cults of science, of progress, and of power.