Joseph Hansen

John Gates Tells His Story

(Winter 1959)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1959, pp.27-29.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The Story of an American Communist
by John Gates. Foreword by Earl Browder
Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York. 1958. 221 pp. $3.95.

In recommending this book, Earl Browder, former general secretary of the Communist party, says in his foreword:

“Gates shows us that the influence of American communists on the future is now confined to the role of horrible example of what to avoid.”

This assertion requires modification. The author of The Story of an American Communist disregards the influence on the future of those American communists who fought from the beginning against Stalinism. Moreover, he does not include as a “horrible example” the policies associated with Browder’s leadership. In fact he advocates those policies.

John Gates’ account of how he came to join the Young Communist League in 1931 is appealing. Anyone who became a radical at that time will recognize a kindred spirit in the college youth who responded in despair and anger to the depression and turned toward socialism.

But for one who was never in the Communist Party, who came directly to the Trotskyist movement, as I did, Gates’ 27-year experience arouses astonishment, despite everything one is prepared for. He does not appear to have ever felt the impact of Marxist theory. He does not appear even to have met or worked with a single serious Marxist theoretician. After almost three decades of fighting for socialism – which he still believes in – and after recognizing that the Communist party “has failed, and has disintegrated,” he is capable of concluding:

“But all other socialist groups and parties in America have also failed. Their membership is negligible and their influence insignificant.”

Pure pragmatism! The elementary axiom of Marxism, that the struggle for socialism begins with the struggle for program and that only in relation to the success of that struggle do “membership” and “influence” become significant, does not seem to exist for the former editor of The Daily Worker.

The meaning of the debacle of the Social Democracy in 1914, so analogous to the debacle of the Communist party today, appears unknown to Gates. He seems never to have realized – really realized – why Lenin’s unyielding opposition to class-collaborationist policies and his insistence on a program of class struggle, despite the isolation and narrowing of “influence” this entailed in the early years of World War I, proved decisive in winning the October 1917 Revolution, while the big membership and wide influence of the Social Democratic bureaucracy did not prevent it from losing the German revolution and preparing the ground for Hitler.

I do not think that Gates is responsible for this defect. As with so many others, it was a consequence of intense but undiscriminating loyalty to the “land of socialism.” In this lies the tragedy of his life as a Communist; for this kind of loyalty proved self-defeating. It was harmful to the defense of the conquests of the October Revolution; it was harmful to the struggle for socialism in America.

Gates, it is clear from his book, was primarily an activist, and, insofar as one can judge from his account, a capable organizer and administrator. His pragmatic bias and lack of drive in the direction of theory is native to the American working class and in a healthy party would have been of first concern to a leadership that recognized his talents.

But the Communist Party in 1931 was not healthy. It had already succumbed to Stalinism. The founders had been purged. Democratic centralism had been displaced by bureaucratic monolithism.

The cult of Stalin was entrenched. The mind of a youth like Gates was systematically poisoned against Marxist criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy and its representatives in America. Even the true history of his own party remained unknown to him – not an academic matter in view of the way such knowledge shapes political judgment.

Despite this, he might have won his way to the truth and better political insight, as others did, if his positive qualities as an activist had not betrayed him. One of this temperament, becoming convinced of the need for socialism, gets to the point. “What are we waiting for?” He rolls up his sleeves and gets going. An admirable characteristic, quite typical of American workers. Fresh off the campus, Gates won quick recognition as a dedicated party organizer in the Youngstown steel area. In the unemployed demonstrations and union drives of the time, success seemed to follow success, and the party mushroomed.

Like himself, thousands of radicalized workers in the thirties did not distinguish between the Soviet Union and its Stalinist administration or between the Communist party and the program of Marxism. They were attracted by the October Revolution and by the militant record established by the Communist Party in the twenties and did not see that a profound change had occurred both in the Soviet Union and in the American Communist Party.

The growth of the Communist Party, due to political capital accumulated by the founders of the Communist movement plus the intense activities and self-sacrifices of the Gates type, was thus ascribed to Stalin or to – Browder. The Gates’s did not see that the policies followed by these exploiters of other people’s achievements pointed in the direction of degeneration and disintegration.

A remarkable example of this blindness is recorded in the book. As a volunteer in the Lincoln Brigade, Gates fought heroically against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. In the thick of this great revolutionary struggle he apparently never once rose far enough above the shooting to see a logic in the intense class struggle analogous to that of the Russian Revolution. He approved the suppression of the Barcelona workers who sought to follow the October 1917 example of the Russian workers.

“A comparable situation – perhaps easier for Americans to understand – “ says Gates, “would be if a group of radicals had organized an armed uprising in Chicago against the Roosevelt government in 1944 when our troops were landing in Normandy.”

A more realistic comparison can be found in the Russian Revolution. A Gates there would have fought against Kornilov, but – listening to the slanders about the Bolsheviks being in the pay of the Germans and refusing to read Bolshevik literature – he would also have found himself in Kerensky’s campaign against the Bolsheviks.

Kerenskyism failed in Russia; in Spain it succeeded in paving the way for Franco. Gates correctly condemns the “democracies” for refusing arms to Republican Spain; it still does not occur to him to condemn the crushing of all attempts to conduct a Bolshevik-type political struggle to dissolve the armies of the fascist general. Risking his life in an anti-fascist struggle, he nevertheless helped carry out a policy that ensured Franco’s victory.

In 1949, as one of the first CP victims of the witch-hunt, Gates was sentenced by the notorious Judge Medina to five years and sent to Atlanta federal prison. There, cut off from activity, he read about Debs, who had been sentenced to the same prison as a witch-hunt victim in World War I. Gates was struck by the fact that the socialist leader was so esteemed by the workers that he had been able to run an effective campaign for President from prison and was eventually freed by a huge mass movement in his behalf. In painful contrast to this, there was an “almost complete absence of popular concern over our imprisonment.”

This difference “weighed most heavily” on Gates and he gave it a lot of thought. Yet he misses the indicated deduction that Debs’ “influence” was due to his policy of militant opposition to World War I; while the decay of esteem for the CP and its leaders was due, among other things, to the experience of militant workers with the CP’s class-collaborationist “no strike,” super-patriotic “keep ‘em sailing” policies in World War II.

So powerful was Gates’ indoctrination against Trotskyism that he did not notice, it would seem, a nationally famous case which showed once again that radical views are not a decisive barrier to winning the sympathy of American workers. Organizations representing more than five million working people rallied to the cause of James Kutcher, discharged from his Veterans Administration job in 1948 because of membership in the Socialist Workers Party. This powerful movement finally won everything it set out to get: restoration of the persecuted veteran to his job and payment of back wages. Today James Kutcher enjoys the singular distinction of being the only government employee in the United States avowedly a member of an organization on the Attorney General’s “subversive” blacklist.

Similar widespread labor and civil liberties support came earlier to the leaders of the SWP, the first victims of the Smith Act, when they were railroaded to prison during World War II for opposing imperialist war and advocating socialism in the Debs tradition. (They were released from prison shortly before Gates succeeded in getting to Germany as a volunteer member of the paratroops). The SWP leaders won such support in contrast to the CP victims of the same witch-hunt law because they enjoyed respect among militant workers for their adherence to class-struggle principles.

Gates describes the factional struggle that broke out in the Communist party following Khrushchev’s famous revelations at the Twentieth Congress in 1956. This struggle was accompanied by an exodus from the party, particularly after the Polish and Hungarian events when it became clear to the delegates at the 1957 National Convention that no perspective of reform was left in the CP, not even the hope of a well-organized struggle around an opposition leadership. “I did not lead them out,” says Gates; “they led me.” (His emphasis). That appears to be an accurate judgment, for nothing in Gates’ experience in the Stalinized Communist Party had prepared him to lead a factional struggle, particularly one involving fundamental ideas.

The party is now a “living corpse,” in the opinion of this former top CP leader. The suspension of The Daily Worker was “the final dramatic proof of a situation that had existed for some time, that the Communist Party of the United States has ceased to exist for all practical purposes.”

“Less than 5,000 members remain,” he continues, “of whom no more than a third pay dues, and few carry on meaningful activities. The average age level is past 50, and for a decade there has been no recruitment of young people or new members. All of which contrasts with the 75,000 members at the close of the World War, apart from 20,000 young Communists, and it contrasts also with at least the 17,000 members when the party’s crisis broke open in 1956.”

Gates’ present political position is contradictory. He remains opposed to capitalism, including emphatically such of its institutions as the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI political police. He remains in favor of planned economy and socialism. He no longer feels allegiance to the Soviet bureaucracy although he is a partisan of Soviet achievements. He recognizes the truth about a number of vile crimes committed under Stalin. He acknowledges that workers democracy is needed in the Soviet bloc. (“... socialism is incomplete and distorted in the Communist countries. It remains to be fulfilled.”) And, as before, he is for an end to the cold war and to the nuclear weapons tests; he advocates recognition of the new China.

All this is progressive. Quite different are his recommendations as to what to do next in the United States. These indicate deep pessimism: Until the labor movement accepts socialist ideas, socialist electoral efforts “can amount to no more than a cry in the wilderness.” He is not against socialist tickets but they generally serve “to isolate socialists from the labor movement and even to make socialist ideas suspect.” (As in the case of Debs?) He favors working in the Democratic Party with the hope of “transforming” it into something “similar to the British Labor Party.” (Is that easier than transforming the Communist Party into something similar to a socialist organization?) His boldest goal for the immediate future is a new New Deal, a coalition embracing all classes which would establish “the principle” of “public regulation of Big Business.” The “FDR” myth blocks his thinking. Paying penance for having gone along with what he now considers to be the unjust expulsion of Earl Browder, he believes that the Peoples Front policy of the Communist Party under the “aegis” of Browder (Where was Stalin? ) provides a model for the radical movement today. Even supporting Henry Wallace in 1948 was a mistake, he insists, not because of the former Vice President’s capitalist program but because “we ... cut ourselves off from the mainstream.”

Gates thus appears to be inclined to move toward the program of socialist renovation of the Soviet Union; yet obstinately refuses to get out of the mire of “unity” with capitalist politicians like Harriman. From these mutually exclusive positions he gets well tangled in tactical questions facing the American socialist movement today. These involve what to advocate as transitional formations and measures on the road to socialism, such as a Labor party, a government that starts to go beyond capitalism but is still not socialist, increasing popular control of industrial management, curbs on profit-making, and so on.

While floundering in this fashion, Gates raises questions of fundamental concern: The ultimate cause of the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union today. (“There is something wrong in this system.”) The real nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. (“It is based on the total monopoly of the Communist Party ... This easily becomes socialist despotism.”) The correct relationship between democracy and centralism in a combat socialist party. (“Our problems ... dated back to the party’s inception forty years earlier.”) The validity of Lenin’s organizational concepts. (“I said we must take a ‘new look at the concept of democratic centralism’ which seems to result in a ‘semi-military type of organization’.”)

The drift of these ideas is clear. It is toward the Social Democratic position that Stalinism was inherent in Leninism; that Stalin’s monstrous crimes and dictatorial rule can ultimately be traced back to Lenin’s method of party organization. This is Gates’ former superficial position with the signs changed. Stalin is still Lenin’s heir but instead of pluses, both men get minuses. Added to the demand for “unity” with liberal capitalists and support of the Harrimans, this would seem to put Gates well within the Social Democratic camp. But a crucial difference remains: he is pro-Soviet.

Nevertheless the logic of his development must make it more and more difficult for him to escape the question,

“What’s to prevent crimes like those committed under Stalin from happening here if America goes socialist?”

For 27 years Gates evaded this question by refusing to admit to himself that anything could be less than perfect under Stalin. The reality is now upon him and in 1958 he is faced with accepting one of two diametrically opposite answers –

  1. serfdom is inherent in any planned economy;
  2. planned economy in an industrially advanced area of sufficient size removes the material foundation for all forms of slavery and totalitarian rule.

One hopes that enough of the youthful Gates still remains to lead him to serious investigation of what Marxist theory and experience, as kept alive in the Trotskyist movement, has to offer in the way of proof of the correctness of the latter answer.

But he seems still to be under the influence of the Stalinist ban against reading anything by T-----y. He was physically courageous enough to jump from planes in his paratroop training but not until he was in prison could he screw up enough intellectual daring to read Orwell’s biting novel 1984, which was on the CP’s Index. Beyond that he mentions nothing to indicate an attempt to overcome his illiteracy. He gives no indication even of having accepted Howard Fast’s challenge to CP members to read The Revolution Betrayed. It is safe to say, however, that without studying Trotsky’s writings he will never reach an understanding of so much as his own 27-year experience in the Communist party. It remains to be seen how thoroughly this former leader of the Communist party has been shaken from his dogmatic slumbers.


Last updated on: 5.3.2006