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Michael Harrington

Books in Review

An Excellent Theoretical Analysis

(Spring 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1958, pp. 137–140.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The American Communist Party, A Critical History (1919–1957)
by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser
with the assistance of Julius Jacobson

IN THIS NEW BOOK ON THE American Communist Party, Irving Howe, Lewis Coser and Julius Jacobson have presented us with an excellent summary of an important political phenomenon. Their study is not as exhaustive as Draper’s brilliant Roots of American Communism, and indeed it makes no attempt to be so. Rather, it is a more general survey, and one which will become indispensable for the student who wants a substantial introduction to the subject.

There is not space here to take up the various interpretations of specific points offered in The American Communist Party. Suffice it to note that the book is political in the good sense of the word, that it relates the events which it describes to the larger context of social change. The section which demonstrates the relationship between the early days of the Party and the developments in American society and in the American labor movement is an excellent example of this kind of treatment.

And yet, even though we cannot review the specific points of this study (which covers a period of nearly forty years), we can go to the chapter, Towards a Theory of Stalinism, for a generalized statement of the political and methodological bent which informs the work as a whole. Much of this recapitulation will be a repetition to the readers of the New International (the theory of Stalinism put forward by the authors of The American Communist Party is substantially the same as the one developed by the independent socialists, often in the pages of this magazine), yet I think it is important in order to give a sense of the book’s basic perspective.

To begin with, the authors relate the development of the American Communist Party to the course of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution. They view modern Russian society as bureaucratic collectivist (with a “new kind of ruling class that neither owned nor could own property, but instead controlled the state in whose legal custody property resided”), and they see the transformation of the parties of the Communist International into agencies of Russian policy as a function of the changes which took place in Russia. They note, of course, the peculiar characteristics of the American Communist Party which made it so susceptible to this process of Stalinization. And they cite the pitiful record of this Party which, even in its early days, was suspended by wires from Moscow.

Given this perspective, the authors reject the simplistic theory that Stalinism (and the Stalinist parties) “flow” from Leninism. They attempt to strike a balance between two polemical exaggerations: the notion that Lenin’s Russia was totally unrelated to Stalin’s, the rejection of the obvious evidence of anti-democratic practices which were (honestly) adopted as temporary and later cited as precedents for anti-democratic principles; the other extreme, the theory that there was a perfect continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. As the authors point out this latter conception must ignore ... a counter-revolution.

Further, The American Communist Party also tries to define the social roots of Stalinism and the Stalinist parties in general. The authors are right in referring this to the general crisis and breakdown of capitalist society, yet I think they would have gained by making the point a little more precise. For a third part of the equation – the failure of democratic socialism – must be carefully discussed if we are to develop an adequate theory of Stalinism. It is integral to the rise of Stalinism, it is decisive in terms of framing anti-Stalinist politics. It is obvious that the authors are aware of this point (they indicate it specifically), but one would wish that they had followed it out more rigorously.

But given this conception of Stalinism as a social movement, The American Communist Party is able to perform another service: to counter the exaggeration, most typically found in the writings of Sidney Hook, that the Communist Parties were simple “conspiracies.” They write with a good feel for the complexities:

A conspiracy – if that is the exact word for it – did and does exist in the form of an international espionage network maintained by the Russians. This network functioned within the Communist parties, though it probably did its most secretive and dangerous work outside the parties; it recruited agents from the parties, though it was capable of continuing to operate even when the parties were suddenly wiped out; but to identify the espionage system with the Stalinist movement as such, or to assume that party membership almost automatically transformed people into conspirators is an error as dangerous as it is facile.

This understanding leads to another important statement, this time concerning the character of the rank and file of the Communist parties. These people were often recruited to the Party on the basis of idealism, and they made great sacrifices because of their choice. Some, to be sure, were conspirators; some were drawn to the Party for psychological reasons; but many were men and women of truly socialist and humanist consciousness – and they were betrayed. This point is not an academic one; it becomes a practical issue for those who are not willing to see such people permanently “exiled” from democratic movements.

GIVEN THIS SUMMARY, I think it is possible to make a more extended comparison of The American Communist Party with Draper’s Roots of American Communism. In general, I think the two histories should be viewed as complementary.

Draper’s study is an excellent, meticulous account of the origins of the Communist Party. It spans but a few years, and its documentation for that period is more extensive han any other study (or, since there are few other books on the subject, it would be better to say that Draper achieves a comprehensiveness which it will be difficult to match in the future). In the Roots of American Communism, there is also a thesis which is central to understanding the Party in this country: the peculiar susceptibility of the American Communists to the process of Stalinization. This is both true and crucial, and Draper was wise to make it a central axis of his entire discussion.

On the whole, Draper’s study is “objective” in character – one could hardly tell that he is a former participant in the movement he discusses, nor does he have an obvious political framework. In one or two places, in some comments on Lenin in particular, there is the hint of a world view, but Draper’s main line of development is that of a judicious and careful recording of the facts.

Such an approach is, obviously, not that of the Marxist. And yet, it would be foolish to think that it is in opposition to a Marxist analysis. Clearly, this kind of hard digging, of accurate documentation, is absolutely essential to a study of any movement or section of history. In this sense, we are all in interpretation on a solid foundation of fact and scholarly judgment. In the independent socialist tendency, The Roots of American Communism has already stimulated Max Shachtman’s provocative article in the New International, and it unquestionably will figure in a continuing debate.

Howe, Coser and Jacobson’s research is by no means as extensive or profound as Draper’s. Their study is much more journalistic (and I do not use the word in a derogatory sense as Arnold Beichman did in his waspish review in the Christian Science Monitor) and also more political. There is no question that the authors are socialist, and that they write of the Communist movement in terms of their own commitment to democratic radicalism. (How and Coser, the main authors, are editors of Dissent; Jacobson, their principal assistant, is editor of the New International). The difference in approach can be seen in almost every incident which is treated in the two books. For the writers of The American Communist Party, social conditions in America during the Party’s formative years are an important element. For Draper, the same events are much more of a backdrop, the inner workings of the Party more central.

As I noted before, I do not think it necessary to “choose” between two such methods. Both elements – the extremely accurate account of events and personalities within the Party, the relation of these facts to social conditions and broader questions – are necessary. Ideally, they might be the stuff of a final and definitive study as a synthesis. As it is, they are present in two books which complement each other.

And yet, the very making of this point requires comment on what must be regarded as the major flaw of The American Communist Party. The authors, as noted before, are socialists, they are concerned to a considerable extent with political interpretation. And yet, there is no adequate discussion of a major theoretical question: what are the basic reasons for the absence of a mass socialist movement in the United States today and what does the history of American Communism indicate about the future of radicalism in America. I am not, of course, suggesting that this question should have been the heart of the book. But I do think, given the authors’ political views, that their study would have been enormously enhanced if they faced up to the question. As they indicate, the Communist Party itself is now shattered. Does that mean that with this obstacle to American radicalism eliminated there is now the possibility of creating a real and democratic socialist movement? This is not a plea for historians to enter into the “regroupment” discussion; but rather, a concern that socialist historians should deal with the pet intellectual anti-socialist theory now current – the view advanced by Bell that America, given its unique history and strength, leaves no room for a mass socialist movement.

BUT NO REVIEW OF this new study should end on a tone of criticism. There are deficiencies in The American Communist Party, to be sure. But there is no question that this work will immediately become the standard short history on the subject (even as Draper’s volume has taken a similar pre-eminence in its own sphere of more detailed and scholarly treatment), and that it belongs on the library shelf of every socialist. And particularly for the independent socialist, it is heartening to see that such an excellent theoretical analysis of the nature of the Communist Party, and of Stalinism, is now being made available to the general public.

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