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?
No, not so many. Very few. A few hundred American intellectuals who had been Soviet fellow travellers under the illusion that the Soviet Union was a sort of godfather for American international relations and would bail America out of the war danger. I never had that illusion.
How did you arrive at the decision to endorse the pact? What was the logic behind it?
That the Soviet Union was only trying to do what America had already done: opt out of the coming war. They were trying to copy American isolationism.
What was your reaction to the ridicule that was heaped on you and the party as a result of your endorsement of the pact?
I thought it was very unfair and very cockeyed in its view of international politics. It was very unreal. I never expected the Soviet Union to go into a war against Hitler while America stayed out of it. I proposed that America get into the war against Germany in cooperation with the Soviet Union and England and anyone else we could pick up.
What were your personal feelings about Stalin and the other Soviet leaders?
I was very confused at that time. I wasn’t sure who was responsible for the difficulties in the Soviet Union. I didn’t blame Stalin at the time. I agreed with Truman, who during the war spoke of “Dear Old Joe” and “Good Old Joe.” He said that he [Stalin] was a prisoner of the Politb’fcro. Well, it turned out that the politburo was a prisoner of Joe. But if Truman couldn’t know that, you couldn’t expect the secretary of the American Communist Party to know it.
During the late thirties rumors were already abroad about the purges m Russia. What was your reaction to those rumors?
I didn’t know what to think about them. As they were most zealously propagated by the enemies of the Soviet Union I didn’t place much faith in them. I learned about the purges from Khrushchev’s speech [the 1957 speech to the party congress]. I couldn’t believe the stories coming from any other source because they’d said so many things I knew were lies about Stalin. So I didn’t know about the real crimes of Stalin, which were mostly against the Russian people.
You were, during much of the time that you headed the parly, regarded by a great many people as being practically a Soviet agent.
I was a follower of Stalin in the international Communist movement.
But weren’t you subjected to some abuse as a result of your position? During the 1936 election campaign, for example, weren’t you jailed at one point?
Oh yes. I was even subjected to mob action in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Tampa, Florida. [Browder was imprisoned in Terre Haute for “vagrancy” immediately after stepping off the train. On a subsequent campaign stop there demonstrators pelted him with tomatoes and rotten eggs. In Tampa a Browder rally was disrupted when “rowdies” overturned the speaker’s platform.]
Did your faith in the American people wane as a result of this?
No. It was never a reflection of mass sentiment. It was all concocted by small minority groups.
Was there any substance to the charge that you were more concerned with the interests of the Soviet Union than with those of the United States?
There can’t be a simple yes or no answer to that. There were historical grounds for suspecting that we were antiAmerican under Soviet influence. In the sense of our being puppets of the Soviets, that was a caricature in the public mind. As a matter of fact, while I was secretary of the Communist Party, I had a good deal of leeway, I never felt much pressure from the Soviet Union until the final pressure came, and it came as a simple dragooning me out of the Communist movement.
Did you ever influence Soviet policy toward the L mied States?
Yes. On a number of occasions. In 1936, for example, when Roosevelt ran for the second term, the Russians wanted the American Communists to endorse him. I opposed it and won the Russians over finally, on the grounds that if it were possible to endanger Roosevelt, that would do it. An endorsement would lose him more votes than it would gain him. And so I became the [Communist] candidate for President upon the understanding that I was to campaign in such a way as to support Roosevelt in fact.
Why did the Russians want Roosevelt to win?
Because it was to their interest. They needed Roosevelt then. They needed him as a counterweight to Hitler, who was the greatest menace to the existence of the Soviet Union at that time.
What were your personal feelings about Roosevelt as a man and as a leader?
I liked Roosevelt. He was a man working under great pressures and great handicaps and succeeding. He was putting across his points. I never met him, so I don’t know how we would have gotten along together, but I never met Stalin either.
Didn’t Roosevelt attack you during the campaign of 1936?
Not very viciously. And Truman—that was in ’48 wasn’t it?—accepted the Communist Party’s endorsement on behalf of the administration.
Would you agree with those historians who say that P.D.R. saved America for capitalism?
You say you never knew Roosevelt personally. Were you acquainted with any of the Establishment political figures of the time?
Yes, I knew a great many of them and was close friends with several. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [Elbert D.] Thomas of Utah, I knew him quite well.
Were you in contact with any members of the Roosevelt administration?
Not in regular contact. I saw some of them from time to time when I was called upon to appear in Washington before various congressional committees.
Did you find them politically compatible with you?
In some areas. In 1940, when we were espousing a policy of nonintervention in Europe, a great many people in the administration supported us in that position, along with most of the people in the country. I won’t name them because there’s no sense in causing them embarrassment in retrospect.
How active was the Communist Party in the labor movement?
Very active. That was our main activity, union participation, mostly with the C.I.O., when it was independent. We were a big influence there, sometimes the predominant influence.
How did the party gam a foothold in unions?
We had been driven out of the A.F. of L. before we reached the thirties, and by the thirties we were winning our way back in. But when the C.I.O. came along we joined forces with them, although we always maintained vestiges of interest in the A.F. of L.
The enemies of the Communists in the early labor movement were the ones who brought the Communists back. For example, John L. Lewis. He was the main enemy of the Communists and practically obliterated the Communists in the miners’ union, but in the general labor movement he brought us back in. And we were the best organizers.
Were the Communist union people of that time fervent revolutionaries?
No. They were what now would be labelled trade-union Communists—trade unionists first and Communists as a secondary matter, Democrats in practical politics.
Most of your rank-and-file supported Roosevelt?
What was the party’s role m the civil-rights activities of the period? Did it have a position on black people?
The Communists were the first to initiate organized action on behalf of the blacks. The [Angelo] Herndon Case and the Scottsboro Case in the early thirties established that. It was through those cases that we got the original Supreme Court decisions that paved the way for the modern movement that began with the desegregation of education [in 1954].
You were frequently accused of giving more attention in those cases to gaining propaganda points than to helping the defendants. Tou were even accused during the Scottsboro Case of obstructing justice. Is there any justification for such charges?
We were the ones that made the Scottsboro Case. The rest of the country would never have been interested in it if we hadn’t made it an international issue. When the others came into the case, they did so on the condition that the Communists get out of the [Joint Defense] committee. When we received satisfactory guarantees that they would take up the Scottsboro Case and we were satisfied with the attorney that they had chosen, we did that. That was against the will of the Scottsboro defendants and their families. They didn’t want us to drop the case. We didn’t drop it—we simply handed over control to the nonpartisan committee.
Was the party’s involvement in civil-rights cases primarily an effort to recruit blacks or was it based on a more basic kind of commitment?
We were always interested in the issue of civil rights, and we thought everything depended on that, including all progress whatever for America. So you can’t place one against the other.
Tracing your personal history, how did you first become involved in radical politics?
Through my father, who was a Socialist. I became acquainted with Eugene V. Debs and maintained contact with him until his death.
At what age did you become active m Socialist Party politics?
I joined the Socialist Party at seventeen—illegally. It was against the Socialist bylaws. They set eighteen as the age, before which you had to join the Young Socialists’ League. But I didn’t pay any attention to the niceties.
You were then active in unions?
I was active in the labor movement. Contrary to most Socialists I was active on the side of the A.F. of L. before the [First World] war. I became an organizer for the A.F. of L. Not formally. Privately I was employed by the Standard Oil Company and behind the scenes I was organizing.
Where were you in 1917-18 when the American Communist Party was formed?
I was in prison for antiwar activities. I was convicted twice: for refusing to register [for the draft] and for conspiracy against the draft law. That means that I helped arrange meetings opposing the draft. In all I spent two and a half years in prison. As soon as I got out, I joined the Communist Party, while the Comintern was still trying to unify it. It was three different parties. I joined one of them.
What were the circumstances that led to your elevation to general secretary of the party in 1930?
I think probably it was because I had been to China. [Browder had gone to China in 1926 to attend a PanPacific Trade Union meeting and was elected secretary of that organization.] I stayed in Shanghai for nearly two years, and I came to know many of the Chinese Left Wing leaders—not MaoTse-tung but others—quite well.
I had made a reputation for myself in China, so the Chinese proposed me as the American [Communist Party] secretary. There was a Russian candidate who was withdrawn when the Chinese stubbornly insisted that I be elected.
You remained the general secretary of the party from 1930. through 1945 and actually left it entirely in 1946, is that right?
Well, I broke all connections with the Russians, what I consider the decisive break, in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War. I felt then that there was no longer any hope of straightening out the policies of the Communists.
What led to your dismissal? Where do you think the Russians went wrong?
Oh, there’s a long history to that. There was a period when the Russians were purging the Communist parties of the world, when the term “Browderism” was an epithet that justified execution throughout the Communist movement. It was when the Russians were holding the purge trials throughout Eastern Europe.
I was identified with the Right Wing, with those who favored coexistence with the West, and then, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Russians didn’t want that.
When I was expelled, among the Leftist parties that were responsible for initiating my expulsion, and that gave the Russians strong support, was Tito’s of Yugoslavia. Later they became my best friends and they published some of my writings supportive of their policy of resisting Russia.
At the time I was expelled the leaders of the Right Wing, with whom I was identified, were the Chinese. Now they’re the symbol of Left communism that finds the Russians too tame. You can’t keep up with that kind of thing.
Did your disillusionment with the international Communist movement alter your faith in America as well?
I think this country has led world progress for years and will continue to do so.
If you were a young man today, what would your position be? Would you identify yourself with the demonstrators, with those calling for law and order, or would you fall somewhere in between the two?
I’ve never changed my mind that the policy of the United States government, whether under the Republicans or the Democrats, has consistently been wrong-headed in international politics. They’ve always chosen the wrong people as our partners. They’ve made so many mistakes of that kind over a period of years that it looks like we have an inborn natural inclination in that direction. So I never did align myself with the U.S. government.
Would you then identify yourself with the antiwar anti-Establishment demonstrators?
No. I think they’re worse than the government. They’re self-defeating. They repeat all the old mistakes.
What mistakes are those?
To give you a typical example, the so-called Left demonstrations in Washington against the inauguration of Nixon. They did more to build up Nixon than Nixon ever did. The Left is responsible for him by that kind of silly tactic. It’s a declaration that they don’t want an election. It’s a declaration against American democracy. They prefer any way to choose the President to the majority decision.
No, I don’t go along with the Left at all, except to feel sorry for them and sympathize with them. Youth today is very superficially Leftist, very superficially. They haven’t learned a single thing from our mistakes.
If you then had it to do all over again, do you think you would do anything differently?
I don’t suppose so. You can’t rewrite history.
You were called before the McCarthy committee in the early fifties, weren’t you?
What are your recollections of that experience?
It was a very confused time.
Did they treat you well?
Yes. In fact, when I was on trial for contempt of Congress, McCarthy, who had caused the indictment, appeared as my witness. He testified that I couldn’t very well have been in contempt of Congress since I had done exactly what the committee under Tydings had wanted me to do. McCarthy confirmed what I said, but it didn’t matter. The outcome was certain before the contempt hearing even began. [Browder appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then under Chairman Millard Tydings, of Maryland, in April, 1950, to testify about alleged Communist influence in the State Department. He stated that the party had never tried to get its members into the government and that Owen Lattimore, accused by Senator McCarthy of being a Communist, had never been a party member. He refused, however, to state whether he knew assorted other individuals named by committee members. In December, 1950, he was cited for contempt of Congress and spent a week in jail.]
Did you meet Richard Nixon during that period?
Yes, I bumped up against him once or twice.
What was your reaction to him?
It was one of shuddering. I haven’t gotten rid of it since. I try to be fair to him, but I’m indelibly prejudiced. He is not a likable man. I don’t believe even his closest associates like him.
Did you meet Robert Kennedy, who served as a counsel to the Democratic minority on the McCarthy committee, during that time?
Yes. I got acquainted with Kennedy when he first entered politics. He came to my house when he became the minority counsel, and we spent an afternoon together. He wanted to know about my career in the party. I found he was quite knowledgeable. He had read all my books.
I was always a little bit prejudiced against the Kennedy boys because of the father. He won a second fortune out of his ambassadorship to Britain. I never could forgive him for that, and his whole family was guilty by association for me. Only the intense pressure of my sons forced me to support Jack for the Presidency.
You have three sons?
Yes, and they’re all professors of mathematics at major universities. One is at Brown, one is at the University of Chicago, and one is here at Princeton.
Was it your influence that got them all interested in mathematics?
(With a laugh) I think it was probably a reaction against my influence. My sons had a difficult time of it when they were growing up because of my association with the party. Later, when it came time for them to find jobs, they had a great deal of trouble finding colleges that would hire them.
Something I meant to ask you—When you were the head of the party, was there a great deal of government surveillance? For example, how pervasive was the F.B.I.?
Not at all pervasive. It was a negative influence. The F.B.I, agents—we had them—were easily recognizable; there was an infallible sign. They always posed as extreme Leftists, and, thereby, under my leadership of the party, they became ostracized.
The F.B.I., from its inception, was Leftist among the Communists. It was their tactic to make the Communists violent. And whenever they succeeded, they had won a great victory.
How about some of the people who were later accused of being Communists? Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs … did you know oj any of them within the party.?
I didn’t know of them. But that really doesn’t mean very much. There were Soviet agents in America, but they kept as far away from the Communist Party as possible. They were the opposite of the F.B.I.
When you were general secretary of the Communist Party, you were a public luminary. Did you enjoy the attention?
Oh yes. I was treated very nicely, especially as a candidate for President. I enjoyed it.
Were you recognized going down the street?
Well, it was more official recognition that greeted my appearances as a candidate and political leader.
The rallies we used to hold in Madison Square Garden were glorious. No one has ever been able to reproduce those rallies. They have rallies there, but nothing like the old days.
Do you think back upon that time very fondly?
It was a very bad period, in general. The country was in bad shape. But there was hope in those days.
Is there hope now?
It’s very difficult to see. Only confirmed optimists like myself can see hope.