International Socialist Review, Winter 1961


James P. Cannon

American Communism and Soviet Russia

(Winter 1961)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.1, Winter 1961, pp.25-27.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

American Communism and Soviet Russia
by Theodore Draper
Viking Press, New York, N.Y. 558 pp. 1960. $8.50.

WHEN Theodore Draper set out in 1952 to write the history of the American Communist party he didn’t know what he was getting into.

He had assumed, as he says in the introduction to the present volume, that “the ‘real’ history of American Communism had begun with the economic depression of the early nineteen-thirties,” and that the first ten years could be given short shrift. “Originally I conceived of writing the whole story in one volume, of which the opening chapter would briefly outline the party’s ‘pre-history’ from 1919 to 1929.” It didn’t work out that way.

The writing of this “pre-history” turned out to be a formidable chore because the first ten years stubbornly refused to yield to summary treatment, and information about them was not easily found. The historical reports of others, Stalinist and anti-communists alike, proved to be inadequate and unreliable; superficial jobs, tendentiously slanted and even grossly falsified. Draper explains the problem that upset his original plan with polite restraint, as follows:

“I found scholarly exploration almost completely lacking, sources uncollected and often unknown, and most of the available material encrusted with personal bias and political propaganda.”

He had to undertake a basic research of original sources never assembled before. He soon discovered that he had to dig deep for the true story. And, once started, and lured on by its unfolding interest, he kept at it, year after year, until he had piled up a mountain of material and sorted it out into a coherent pattern.

Now, eight years and two thick and richly documented volumes later, he hasn’t been able to get farther than the “opening chapter,” as he at first had conceived it. That simple fact, standing by itself, is testimony to the significance and interest of the first ten years of American communism, and also to the seriousness of the first historian to report it with factual accuracy in scope and detail.

Draper’s first volume, The Roots of American Communism [1], published in 1957, could carry the story only up to 1923. His second volume, American Communism and Soviet Russia, recently published, ends in the year 1929. His projected third volume, dealing with the Stalin-Browder era, which he had originally conceived to be the “real” story, has had to wait until the first ten years of the party’s evolution, which eventually prepared the necessary conditions for the Browderian monstrosity, had been thoroughly explored and reported.

Serious students of American communism, and of its first ten years in particular, will be grateful for Draper’s remarkable work of exploration and discovery. His two imposing volumes give the first and only detailed, rounded and connected account of the facts of American communist history, from its inception as a revolutionary movement inspired by the Russian Revolution until it succumbed to Stalinism in 1929. By that time, the American party, gradually yielding to conservative domestic pressures on the one side and to the deep-going reaction in the Soviet Union on the other, had undergone a profound transformation.

How this transformation was eventually brought about is related, step-by step, in Draper’s story. It seems; simple and clear and easy as you read the flowing narrative from chapter to chapter – until you study the voluminous reference notes and reflect that it took the author eight years of hard labor to assemble them; and reflect further that the research relates to living people in action all the time.

Along the way, the party lost its character as a self-governing organization; its internal democracy was gradually reduced until it was completely strangled in 1929; and the great majority of the strongest and most independent leaders, who had founded the party and led it through the first ten years, were eliminated in one way or another.

All that took time. It took ten years. And they were not quiet, easy years. They were years in which living people – the pioneers of American communism – fought long and hard against insuperable odds to create the first revolutionary workers’ party in this country. They failed, but they didn’t fail easily. Some of them died, and some fell by the wayside in the exhausting struggle; some changed and deteriorated under the harsh pressures of time and circumstance, and were different people when the showdown came; and some were defeated standing up and had to make a new start.

And even then, the year before Stalin took over the party lock, stock, and barrel in 1929, saw two explosions in the leadership. The Trotskyists had to be expelled in the fall of 1928 and the Lovestoneites in the summer of 1929.

All that had to happen, in drawn-out, unceasing turmoil and conflict, before the party itself could be transformed into an entirely different party, as it is shown to be at the end of its first decade, at the end of Draper’s second volume of party history. The American Communist party met the economic crisis touched off by the stock market crash in October, 1929, with the same name and the same formal program as in the previous decade. But it was not the same party.

* * *

The thesis of Draper’s book is implicitly stated in its title: American Communism and Soviet Russia. He thinks the trouble with the American Communist party began at the beginning when it tied itself to the Russian Revolution and the Russian leaders, and that this initial mistake – the party’s original sin, so to speak – led it inexorably, from one calamity to another, and to eventual defeat and disgrace.

His dim view of this original sin is carried over into his extensive report and passing comments on the activities of the sinners and the movement they created or tried to create, and – perhaps unconsciously – it seems to permeate everything he says about them. This deprecatory appraisal is implied, more than explicitly stated, in his style and tone. This style and tone dominate the absorbing narrative from start to finish.

He seems to think, if we take his attitude for his opinion, that the whole thing was a bloody mess, as our English cousins would say, and the people concerned were rather a bad lot, free from any trace of the odor of sanctity. This history is definitely not a work of hagiology. The only actors in the big cast of characters who escape with a few kind words – and this strikes me as an unintended comic touch – are those who dropped out or got themselves expelled.

Draper’s bias is unconcealed. But he manifests it in a manner absolutely unique in anti-communist historical writing. His cocksure interpretations and summary judgments are woven into every page of his writing, from his introduction to his concluding sentence, but he does not twist his evidence to bolster them. He relates the facts as he found them, without prejudicial selection, or deliberate omission, or falsification.

He shows that Russian influence, which began with the influence of the ideas of the Russian Revolution in the Lenin-Trotsky time, culminated at the end of the first ten years in the complete domination of the American party by the Stalin regime in all respects, even to the extent of selecting, removing, and rearranging the party leadership, without regard to any prior decisions or preferences of the party membership.

Draper proves all that from the record, citing chapter and verse every time. Then he assumes and concludes that this Russian influence was strictly no good from start to finish. But he doesn’t prove that.

This question is directly related to the world historical significance of the Russian Revolution of 1917; and to the long and deep reaction, with all its complexities, that followed the vernal period of the revolution but failed to cancel it out, and the effect of this reaction on all the communist parties of the world, including the American, and including the Russian. This is a world problem and the most complicated and difficult problem of modern times. It has to be seen in the light of Soviet Russia’s isolation in the capitalist world. It does not admit of a simple, off-hand interpretation on national grounds, either Russian or American.

* * *

Draper’s account, from a factual standpoint, is unassailable. He tells us what really happened in the American Communist party, and how it happened. The why and the wherefore, and what it signifies for the future, is another matter; the critical reader will have to answer that for himself. By and large, the answer will depend on one’s basic point of view about where the world, and America with it, are heading. The pioneers of American communism and their endeavors, their original aspirations and later disappointments, their achievements and defeats, can only be judged by how they fit into the general perspective.

It’s an either-or proposition, as I see it. If it is assumed that American capitalism has solved, or is on the way to solving, its basic contradictions; and if it is assumed further that our great and blameless country, together with its allies, and with a clean-cut, All-American boy at the helm as president, will soon begin to reverse the trend of history started by the Russian Revolution of 1917 – don’t laugh! – then the doings and misdoings of the pioneer American communists, who hitched their wagon to the Russian star, are irrelevant to the present and the future.

Their history, then, is the history of an off-beat adventure – of interest only to curious scholars and still more curious readers, similar to those who like to write and read about the various utopian colonies and bizarre cults of the past. This is a very limited audience which, moreover, is not likely to excite itself to controversy about the meaning of it all. What difference does it make anyway?

On the other hand, if the historical trend set off by the Russian Revolution is seen as virtually irreversible now, and strong enough to shake off the Stalinist deformations, becoming cleaner, freer and more democratic as it rolls along; and if America, too, is seen as inexorably destined for its own revolution on the Russian model – then the first attempt to organize a revolutionary party in this country was a soundly motivated and heroic undertaking which has a profound meaning and practical interest for the present and the future.

Those who see the future this way, and identify themselves with it by purposeful activity, stand in the direct line of succession to the original American communists who were inspired by the same vision forty years ago, and need to know all about them. The times were against the communist pioneers in this country, and their own timing was off, and they committed other mistakes and even some absurdities, and eventually most of them lost their way. But all that is secondary.

Their original vision of the future was true, and that’s the main thing. It invests the ten-year story of their endeavors, and their defeat, and the new beginning in 1928, with a continuing interest for the upcoming generation of rebel youth.

* * *

Those who study Draper’s history will note that the handful of American communists who revolted against the corruption of Stalinism and made a new beginning did not look for a new revelation. They called for a return to the basic ideas of the Russian Revolution which the Stalinists had betrayed.

Draper devotes a chapter to a report of this revolt and new beginning in the fall of 1928 and concludes – with implied disapproval – that Trotskyism could not give us “the means of finding a new revolutionary road; at best it promised to lead back to an old one.” This raises the question of what a revolutionary party is, where it starts, and what it lives on.

A revolutionary party begins with ideas representing social reality, and cannot live without them. And such ideas, like money, do not grow on trees. They have to be taken where they can be found and valued for their own sake, regardless of their point of origin. A would-be revolutionist who doesn’t recognize this had better quit before he starts.

The original ideas of the modern socialist movement in all countries of the world, including Russia, had to be taken from Marx and Engels, who happened to be Germans. The continuation and development of these “German” ideas into revolutionary action and victory was the work of Russians, Lenin and Trotsky in the first place, who were internationalists and avowed disciples of the great originators. Revolutionary parties which sprang up in all countries of the world after the first World War were inspired by the original German ideas, which had become Russian ideas and actions, and lived on them in their early years.

The same is true of the entire historical period since the death of Lenin in 1924. The analysis of the new and complicated problems of Stalinism, fascism and the second World War, and the programmatic ideas for a revolutionary opposition, all came again from the Russians, in this case Trotsky and his colloborators in the Soviet Union.

* * *

Of course, it might be flattering to one’s personal conceit and sense of national pride – if one is bothered by such anachronistic absurdities at this hour of the clock – to organize a brand new “American” party with homegrown American ideas, new or old. But no such ideas – none that were any good, that is – were to be found in the United States when the first attempt to organize a revolutionary party in this country was made in 1919. They were not to be found when a handful of us made a new beginning in 1928. And they have not been found in the intervening 30-odd years.

To be sure, there have been numerous attempts to improvise a purely American party but they all melted away like last year’s snow. That’s the way it had to be, for there is no American road separate and apart from the international road. America has produced some great technologists, engineers and professional baseball players, and experts in other fields. But, so far, no creative political thinkers for the age of internationalism.

In this age of internationalism, those who have seriously wanted to build a revolutionary party in this country have had no choice but to look elsewhere for programmatic ideas. Draper says that our espousal of the Trotskyist program in 1928 “helped to perpetuate the dependence of all branches and off-shoots of the American communist movement on the Russian revolution and Russian revolutionaries.” That’s true. But what of it?

The famous bandit, Willie Button, was once asked by a reporter why he specialized exclusively on robbing banks. Willie, a thinking man’s thief, answered right off the bat: “Because that’s where the money is.” In the entire historical period since the collapse of the international socialist movement in the first World War up to the present, revolutionary national parties in every country have had to look to the Russian Revolution and its authentic leaders. That’s where the ideas are.



1. Reviewed in International Socialist Review, Summer 1957.

Last updated on: 18.6.2006