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Marx’s Disenchanted Salesman
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
For fifteen years, from 1930 to 1945, the name Earl Russell Browderwas synonymous in the public mind with American radicalism. As the general secretary of the Communist Party of the United States during that period, he was routinely denounced by conventional politicians of every stripe and was regarded by much of the daily press as a genuine threat to the nation’s well-being.
Nevertheless, with his bright, light-blue eyes and ruddy complexion Browder managed to lend an air of apple-pie Americanism to the Communists’ public image. Whereas many previous Communist leaders had been East Coast-based European immigrants, some with heavy accents, Browder was a fifth-generation American, born in Wuhita, Kansas, in 1891. His ancestors had fought in the American Revolution, and he himself had a penchant for quoting Jefferson and Lincoln. Moreover, he was a vigorous organizer and an effective and witty speaker, and under his guidance the party rose to new heights of success in America. Still, the number of converts was never very large. The Communist Party polled only a little over a hundred thousand votes in the 1932 Presidential election—the most it has ever achieved.
At the end of World War II Browder’s support of postwar harmony brought on his demise as the American Communist leader. He was denounced in the international Communist press as a “revisionist, “and in July, 1945, with the Cold War already chilling Russian-American relations, he was replaced as general secretary of the Communist Party. Six months later he was expelled from the party altogether.
Browder has now spent many years in relative obscurity. He surfaced briefly m the early fifties when he appeared before a succession of congressional committees investigating communism. His was not, however, among the more sensational testimony of that frenetic period. Since 1956, when his Russian-born wife died, Browder has lived in retirement, first in Tankers, New York, and for the last seven years with the family of one of his three sons, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Although he now suffers from rheumatism and last year had a pacemaker installed in his heart, Browder remains an engaged and an engaging man. He has had a quarter of a century to reflect upon his political career, and he speaks of his past as he remembers it, with warmth and humor. He no longer considers himself a Marxist, a self-realisation that was years in taking shape, but he regards his former comrades without rancor. When he is in the mood, he can talk for hours about them and the movement they all served, pausing only to fill and refill the corncob pipe that is a permanent fixture in his hand.
He has a total of eight grandchildren, three of whom he lives with, and he spends a good deal of time on his hobbies. He is a chess enthusiast, and until recently he earned on games by mail with opponents throughout the United States and abroad: once he had twelve such games going at the same time. He is a former flutist who still loves music, and he remains an avid reader.
The following interview was conducted for A MERICAN H ERITAGE shortly after Browder’s most recent birthday, his eightieth.
The slogan of the Communist Party during the time when you were us general secretary was “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism. ” What exactly did you mean by that slogan?
That was an accident. It was something taken out of one of my writings. It wasn’t intended as a slogan. It was turned into one by a great Mexican artist—I forget his name—who painted a mural based on it. But originally it meant that America’s revolutionary heritage had been inherited by the Communists, and America’s role in the world was a revolutionary one.
Wasn’t it the popular conception that the party was somehow anti-American, antidemocratic?
Yes. And it became that later, but not at that time. In the thirties the American Communist Party was rather popular. Not that we made many converts, because both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party had been undercut by the New Deal, which rendered both more or less obsolete in the final sense. But we still found a role for ourselves in the Communist Party at that time. We were shifting to support for Roosevelt about the time that Parley, for example, was turning against Roosevelt.
Most Americans felt that the Communist Party was an instrument of Soviet policy. Is that true?
That general impression grew as the American Communist Party changed and did become an expression of Soviet policy. That was when I was expelled. When I was general secretary of the party, the Communists were not very popular in the sense that we had many indivdual followers—the most the party ever had was a hundred thousand members and most of them were lost when I was expelled. I was, in fact, the only leader of the Communist Party that ever became sort of halfway popular. And when the party came to decline under the influence of the Soviet Union and became anti-American, I very quickly cut all connections with the Soviet Union, around 1950. I’ve had no Connections with them since.
Isn ’t it true that many Communists were disillusioned with the party’s stand in support of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939?