International Socialist Review, Summer 1957


James P. Cannon

“The Roots of American Communism”

(Summer 1957)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.3, Summer 1957, pp.96-100.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

The Roots of American Communism
by Theodore Draper
Viking Press, New York, N.Y. 498pp. 1957. $6.75.


In the present turmoil of American radicalism, churned up by the Khrushchev revelations and the Polish and Hungarian revolts against Stalinism – with clear indications of more of the same to come – this serious work about the beginnings of communist history in this country arrives at a good time to get the attention it deserves. After a year-long crisis, during which thousands of formerly devoted party members have been voting against it with their feet, and the old taboo on free discussion has been broken, the climate is more favorable for the circulation of unofficial literature. Theodore Draper’s book is an important contribution to the discussion now going on in all circles of the more or less socialist-minded.

The Roots of American Communism is the first volume of a projected series of studies now in progress by a team of scholars who are undertaking to write a complete history of the Communist Party. It is announced that Draper is to bring the story down to 1945; David A. Shannon is at work on a history of the party in the postwar years; and, in addition to that, a number of other scholars, exploring the party’s record in various areas, will “attempt to assess the influence of communism in American life.” The whole enterprise is backed by the Fund for the Republic which was set up by the Ford Foundation. There is irony in the circumstance that this rather formidable exploration of one aspect of American history has been made possible by an appropriation from money left behind by the rich eccentric who, for his part, once stated his conviction that “history is bunk.”

In this first volume Draper tells the story of the Communist Party up to the end of 1922. Several introductory chapters provide the necessary background by tracing the evolution of the “historic” American left-wing movement out of which came the initiating forces for the new movement of communism in this country. American communism was directly inspired by the Russian Revolution; there is no doubt about that. But Draper’s concise but graphic and factually accurate introductory chapters give conclusive proof at the start – if such proof is needed – that the Communist Party, formally organized in 1919, did not appear out of thin air; the new party had deep roots in the earlier movements of American labor radicalism, and found its originating troops and leaders in the ranks of older organizations.

Draper, as he relates in his introduction, started to gather his material five years ago as an independent endeavor, and he has been working at it ever since. And, to judge by what he came up with, he must have put in a lot of overtime. The book itself is evidence of a stupendous labor of investigation and research into all aspects of the germinal days of American communism, a decisively important period that has long been mis understood, obscured and even falsified. On this score the author’s work must command the admiration and even the awe of those who consider the history of the workers’ movement important in all its aspects, and value the scholarship that digs up the facts and reports them honestly.

The Communist Party, or what is left of it at the present time, still bears the name of the original organization. But everything else is different. The party, at its inception, had grave faults which were in the main the hang-overs from the American radical tradition, supplemented by its own groping ignorance and inexperience. But it was an honest party and it meant what it said. “There was a time,” says Draper, “when everything was new, fresh, and spontaneous. Every crisis was the first crisis. Every move was unrehearsed,” There was none of the cynical lying and weaseling double talk which have characterized the party in later years. In the formative period of the American communist movement “there was a minimum of mystery and reticence ... Oppositions functioned more or less freely. Communists were more contemptuous of outside opinion in the conduct of their own discussions. They were so confident of the future that they felt little need for mental reservations. In fact, they believed that the more frankly they made known their views, the sooner would they win over the masses of workers.” In its early period the party commanded the respect and support of the great majority of radical American workers, and eventually came to hold a virtual monopoly of leadership in this sphere, before the credit of its original integrity finally ran out. The story of the transformation of the Communist Party is a story the disillusioned communist workers will have to know and understand before they can even begin to see daylight in the dark jungle of frustration and discouragement that surrounds them at the present time. By the same token, a new generation of social rebels, aspiring to create a new revolutionary political movement without previous experience of their own, will certainly need to inquire why and how the last one failed so ignobly. Such people can profit by a study of this book by Theodore Draper, which tells the truth about the communist pioneers and the movement they created.

It doesn’t tell the whole story of the Communist Party, only the beginning; but the beginning is a good place to start the study of the whole story. As its name implies, The Roots of American Communism deals only with the background, origin and formative period of the Communist Party. But within that framework, it is a faithfully accurate account of what really happened in the early years when American communism was first taking shape, who the people were and what kind of people they were. Many who have tended to carry their own revulsion against the Communist Party to the point of repudiating communism will have ample reason to reconsider that hasty and erroneous judgment when they read the story of what honest communists were actually like, and what the word communism signified, in the first years of the movement, as told by the author of this book.

The Communist Party has been around for almost 40 years, but very few of its active participants of later times have known much about the origin and history of their own organization; and most of the little they have known isn’t true. Since the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet CP and the publication of Khrushchev’s revelations at one of its secret sessions, the world has been pretty well informed that, among its other crimes, such as frame-ups, “confessions” extracted by torture, and wholesale murders of the old Bolsheviks, the Stalin regime was also guilty of the systematic falsification of the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Communist Party – a crime against the inquiring youth.

The leaders of the American CP, who stuffed up the brains of several generations of young party members with Stalin’s falsified version of Soviet party history, now piously confess Stalin’s “mistakes” – in Russia; but they haven’t said anything yet about their own “mistake” in falsifying the history of American communism. Foster’s History of the Communist Party of the United States is just as crooked as Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Draper’s book, in contrast, stands out as a truly remarkable work of honest scholarship which is certain to be the primary source for every serious student who really wants to know where the American communist movement came from and what happened in its formative years. In passing, with the back of his hand, Draper knocks Foster’s tendentious and falsified “History” into the waste basket.

The author of The Roots of American Communism does not conceal his own bias, which leads him to an interpretation that I cannot share and to which I will return later in this review. But when it comes to a recitation of the facts of American communist history from 1917 to 1923, no one will ever dare to challenge him; he tells what really happened with the objectivity of a conscientious scholar and nails down his story with documentary proof at every point. Even those who went through all the battles of the pioneer days without fully knowing or remembering everything they did, will stand amazed at the exhaustive thoroughness of his research and the journalistic skill with which he has recreated the events of that time.


Especially illuminating is the fourth chapter on the Influences and Influences which operated in the first years of the American communist movement. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the action that brought the American communist movement into existence. Everybody knows that, and it is usually taken for granted that the ideas of the Russian Bolsheviks shaped the new movement from the start. Draper proves conclusively – and this is one of his major contributions to an understanding of the period – - that this was not really the case. It took quite a while for the influence of Bolshevik ideas to come up even with the authority of their action.

Other ideas were present, and even predominant, in the first fumbling years of the new movement. The half-baked theories, the fantastic un-realism, the sectarian tactics carried to the point of absurdity in the early days – which are all mercilessly listed and documented by Draper – were not imported from Russia. These flowers were home-grown – with some Dutch cultivation.

American communism grew directly out of the new left wing of the Socialist party which took shape in the struggle against the First World War, with some reinforcements from the IWW, the Socialist Labor party and the Anarchist groups, all of which had been shaken up, first by the war and then by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The strong points of all the forces in this new “regroupment,” which was eventually to become the Communist Party, were their revolutionary spirit and opposition to the war; their firm stand on the principle of the class struggle against the reformist wing of the Socialist party; and their support of industrial unionism, as against the conservative craft exclusiveness of the Gompersite labor aristocracy. This was a good start, but only a start, on the road to a rounded-out political program for a revolutionary party. Beyond that the American movement was not able to go on its own theoretical resources.

The “historic” American left wing had been dominated by syndicalist and semi-syndicalist conceptions. Even the “politicals” thought of the party mainly as a propaganda agency and an auxiliary to the unions in the economic struggle, rather than as the leading organization of the working class in all aspects of its struggle for socialism. The new left wing in its early years carried over this tradition. The traditional left wing had been pronouncedly sectarian, strongly influenced by De Leon’s theories, even though De Leon’s SLP was outside the main stream of the movement. The new left wing, even after it emerged as the Communist Party in 1919, carried over this tradition too, for several years.

The old American movement had been predominantly isolationist; it was too “American” for its own good. Then, when it began to be influenced by ideas from abroad during the First World War, the first of such importations to make a strong impression on the movement came, not from the Russian Bolsheviks but from the Dutch theoreticians, Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter, who were at the same time influential in the left wing of the German Social Democratic party. These Dutch leaders were revolutionary in their opposition to the First World War and to the role of the Second International in it. But their conceptions in general were also semi-syndicalist and sectarian.

The American left wing found their ideas congenial; and their articles in the International Socialist Review and the New Review, the two left-wing organs of the time, did much to shape the ideology of the Americans. The Dutch theorists made a particularly deep mark on the young American writer who was to become the chief ideologist and propagandist of the American left wing turning toward communism, and by all odds, the single person most responsible for the founding of the American Communist Party. That man was Louis C. Fraina whom Foster, in his History of the Communist Party of the United States, forgot to mention even once. Maybe he never heard of him.

Fraina, who had been influenced first by De Leon, then by the Dutch theorists, and then later by Lenin and Trotsky, combined elements of all three influences in his own thinking. And he decisively put his own stamp on the American left wing, and on the Communist Party at the time of its formal organization.

The ideas of the Russian Bolsheviks, as they eventually began to break through in the American press, primarily in some of the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, became known in America somewhat later. But it didn’t take long for these ideas to make their way. The power the Russians exerted over the American movement in that early time was ideological, not administrative. They changed and reshaped the thinking of the young American communist by explanation and persuasion, not by command; and the effect was clarifying and enlightening, and altogether beneficent for the provincial American movement.

The traditional sectarianism of the Americans was expressed most glaringly in their attempt to construct revolutionary unions outside the existing labor movement; their refusal to fight for “immediate demands” in the course of the class struggle for the socialist goal; and their strongly entrenched anti-parliamentarism, which was only slightly modified in the first program of the Communist Party. All that hodge-podge of ultra-radicalism was practically wiped out of the American movement in 1920-21 by Lenin. He did it, not by an administrative order backed up by police powers, but by the simple device of publishing a pamphlet called Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. (This famous pamphlet was directed in part against the Dutch theoreticians who had exerted such a strong influence on the Americans and a section of the Germans.)

The Theses and Resolutions of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 also cleared up the thinking of the American communists over a wide range of theoretical and political problems, and virtually eliminated the previously dominating influence exerted by the sectarian conceptions of De Leon and the Dutch leaders.

The old sectarianism, which by 1922 had been driven out of the other fields, finally took refuge, with dwindling support, in the theory of “undergroundism in principle.” But by that time a strong group of native American leaders had taken the cure, and they waged a determined struggle to rout the old sectarianism from its last stronghold. It was a tough fight, and it needed the intervention of the Russian leaders of the Comintern for the victory at the end of 1922. To be sure, this time there was a Comintern decision. But it was a decision taken after the most thoroughgoing discussion in which the great majority of the American communists were convinced. The result was the unification of the movement for a new period of expanding activity in the class struggle, with realistic tactics adapted to the American conditions of the time.


Draper’s monumental study of the early years takes on all the more interest and liveliness because it is not the work of a library researcher cataloguing facts about a subject for which he has no feel. The author himself was deeply involved in the Communist Party during the tragic era when Browder ruled as the proconsul of Stalin, and the revolutionary party of the twenties was transformed into its opposite. Draper belonged to that betrayed generation of rebellious college youth who faced graduation in the midst of the economic crisis of the thirties with the prospect of no place to go.

These student rebels were different from the majority of their generation in that they were social-minded, fully committed and careless of personal consequences. These qualities of youth, which in my book are the best, propelled them toward the Communist Party, behind which they saw the image of the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution. Mistaking Stalinism for Communism, they streamed into the party and made their careers in its service.

They were the young dynamos who found places in the party apparatus, staffed the publications, or became functionaries in the innumerable front organizations. A surprisingly large number of these recruits from the campus played leading parts in the CIO organizing campaigns and wound up as officials, of high and low degree, in the unions controlled and manipulated by the Communist Party.

Draper was one whose youth was consumed in a career as a party journalist. Such an experience could not fail to leave its mark. He writes now, not as a mere observer of the movement but as a wounded participant. For all that, if one is to judge by the scholarly objectivity and scrupulous fairness with which he now records the history of a movement to which he no longer pays allegiance, he came out of the experience with his integrity intact. In that he is exceptional, for the apparatus of Stalinism has been a devourer not only of men but also of character.

Unfortunately, as his present work seems to testify, Draper finally recoiled against Stalinism without correcting the original error of identifying it with Bolshevism. This identification, which has no foundation in reality, blurs his political judgment and inspires an interpretation – in fact, a thesis, clearly intimated in his introduction and in his concluding paragraph – which cannot stand up under serious examination. (Stalin had to frame-up and murder the old Bolsheviks before the specific regime of Stalinism could be consolidated.) The result is a contradictory book, which is beyond praise as a source of authentic information, but without value as a political guide in the study of its meaning. The degeneration of the Communist Party took a long time, and it did not come about automatically. Those who want to get to the heart of the mystery will have to evaluate the factual information by a different criterion than Draper’s.


Draper’s thesis is that the American Communist Party’s course was determined and its doom was sealed when it first yielded to Russian influence, and sought and secured Russian help in the solution of American problems which the party had not been able to solve by itself; that the seeds of its destruction as an authentic expression of American radicalism were planted in the early years. He begins his book with an introductory statement that “the essential character of the movement was shaped at the beginning.” And in his last chapter, which tells how the difficult task of lifting the party out of its underground isolation, and turning it toward the workers’ mass movement, was accomplished with the help of the Russian leaders of the Comintern in 1922, he concludes that the victory thus gained cost more than it was worth.

The American party’s dependence on the Russian leaders for political advice and help in the Lenin-Trotsky time of the Comintern was to lead – unavoidably, he seems to say – to the later subservience to Stalin in all respects. Thus, “something crucially important did happen to this movement in its infancy. It was transformed from a new expression of American radicalism to the American appendage of a Russian revolutionary power. Nothing else so important ever happened to it again.”


An attempt to give an exhaustive answer to this oversimplified assumption would take us far afield. Innumerable articles, pamphlets and a shelfful of books have been devoted to the subject of Stalinism and Bolshevism – the most difficult and probably the most important theoretical and political problem of our time. Students who want to read a serious political meaning into the factual information assembled by the scholars will do well to include this analytical literature in their studies.

But here I believe it would be worth-while and timely to touch on one aspect of this world-wide problem, as it relates to the current discussion in this country. It is the liveliest discussion, and it is due to go on for a long time. And again it must be pointed out, for the benefit of people who have decided late in life to swear off all things Russian, that the Russians started all the commotion this time too.

The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet CP, and Khrushchev’s revelations about some of the horrors and monstrosities of the Stalin regime in Russia, have stirred up almost as much interest, discussion and reappraisal in all circles of American radicalism as did the revolution of the Bolsheviks – an action of a different kind, but still a Russian action – in 1917. The reaction of many people, in their first shock of disillusionment, is to ask, this time, for a purely “American” party which will go it alone and erect customs barriers against the importation of foreign ideas and influences, including the Russian and especially the Russian.

Pathetic as this first reaction is in this day and age, and fleeting as it is bound to be, it nevertheless has created a temporary market for some fast-talking advocates of a new American socialist movement, somewhat on the pattern of what we had in this country “in the time of Debs.” Leaving aside the fact that this idea is a half century out of date, it was not adequate even for the time of Debs, which was also the time of Berger and Hillquit, and the IWW, and the Anarchists, and the Socialist Labor Party of De Leon. They did the best they could with what they had, but they didn’t have enough. None of them, nor all of them together, were good enough for their own time, and a recreated movement of that kind wouldn’t begin to fit the needs of the present time.

The fact of the matter is that the socialist and radical movement in this country, as in all other countries outside Russia, came to a dead end in 1914. When the largest and strongest socialist parties of Europe, along with the movements of the Anarchists and syndicalists, collapsed under the test of the First World War, a question mark was put over the perspectives of socialism everywhere. Socialists everywhere groped in darkness, questioning their previous assumptions.

Light came finally from the East. The Bolshevik party of Russia was the one party that demonstrated in action its capacity to cope with the problems of war and revolution. For that reason it became the inspiring center for a revival and regroupment of the revolutionary workers in all countries of the globe, including the United States whose previous movement had been the most primitive, isolationist, and politically backward of them all.

The young Communist Party ot the United States arose as the expression of a new socialist hope, generated by the Russian example. It was this party, and no other, that took root, grew and expanded, and commanded the allegiance of virtually the entire generation of newly awakening rebel youth in the shops and in the schools. It is true, the Communist Party later succumbed to Stalinism – which also came from Russia – and ended up as a horrible caricature of its original self. This shows that bad things as well as good can be imported and that it is necessary to discriminate between them. But what happened to those organizations, groups and tendencies which rejected the influence of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks in the first place? What have they to show for their isolationist wisdom?

The Socialist party, even while Debs was still alive, became a hollow shell of futility which the new generation of labor militants passed by; and it is poorer, feebler, and less attractive now than ever, unless one feels an attraction to “State Department socialism.” The Socialist Labor Party withered on the vine. The IWW, despite its heroic tradition and its magnificent cadres of working-class militants, declined into an impotent sect which was scarcely able to notice, still less to lead, the great upsurge of industrial unionism in the thirties. The Anarchists, who had played a role not without honor in opposition to the First World War, declined and finally disappeared from the scene in a shabby reconciliation with American imperialism in the Second World War.

There is not much in that record to build on for the future; not much to inspire a new generation to struggle for the socialist goal as the realistic perspective of their own time. If we are to look to the past for some inspiration in the present, the tradition of the young Communist Party, as it was before it succumbed to the corruption of Stalinism, has more to offer than any other party. Allowing for all the mistakes and inadequacies of its leadership, the party that responded to the Russian Revolution was the first genuinely revolutionary political party in this country.

The pioneer communists proclaimed their belief that this country, too, needs a social revolution and a party fit to lead it; and that the sooner such a party is started on its way the better. These propositions are still valid, and they are the necessary starting point for any regroupment in a new revolutionary party worthy of the name. The new party of revolutionary socialism, which will emerge in a regroupment of forces out of the present upheaval in all circles of American radicalism, will undoubtedly acknowledge the Communist Party, of the heroic formative years, as its true ancestor.

The predominant characteristic of the Communist Party in its later years of degeneration – and the basic cause for its degeneration – has been its implicit repudiation of the revolutionary program and perspective for America which the party stood for in its formative years. This is the rotten fruit of the Stalinist theory of “Socialism in One Country.” This is the big “mistake” which has to be corrected before the damage can be repaired and a new start made. The Russian Bolsheviks who staked their lives in the fight against the Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union, fought under the slogan: “Back to Lenin.” The American translation of that same slogan is a call to go back to the pioneer revolutionary period of American communism and begin again and build from there.

Of course, there can be no question of simply going back to the past. Much has happened in the world and in this country in the intervening years. All these great events and experiences have to be studied and interpreted, conclusions must be drawn and incorporated in the new program. But, in my opinion, these conclusions will not be a substitute for the basic theses of the original Communist Party, but rather a supplement to them, a development and a continuation.

The evidence to support this contention is amply provided in Theodore Draper’s book. It belongs in the library of every socialist militant.

Last updated on: 18.6.2006