Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3
A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost
Paul M. Buhle
ONE OF the more colourful characters in the history of the American left was Louis C. Fraina. One of the founders of the US Communist movement, he later gained considerable prestige as a Depression era economist and commentator under the name of Lewis Corey. Credit is due to Paul Buhle for breathing life into both of these radical careers in the first full-length biography of the activist turned theoretician. By relating a comprehensive investigation of Fraina/Corey’s life to broader considerations of the strategic problems of the American revolution, Buhle presents a compelling portrait of one of the exemplars of prewar immigrant radicalism. Less convincingly, Buhle attempts to account for the decisive reversal which afflicted this radical tradition, which meant that by the mid-1940s many of its most articulate exponents – at least within the intelligentsia – had adopted a political orientation to the right of Social Democracy, a process of deradicalisation to which Corey himself was subject.
Fraina worked with Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party whilst still a teenager. He championed avant-garde cultural movements, such as modern dance, whilst eschewing the prudish elements of Socialist reform agitation. Politically, he amalgamated Dutch Council Communism and Austin Lewis’ advocacy of the mass strike (with more than a smattering of Anarchism), but this did not prevent his ascendancy within the nascent US Communist movement. As Buhle points out, Fraina’s outlook owed more to DeLeon than Lenin, but he nevertheless became a US delegate to, and worker for, Lenin’s Communist International. This ended in ignominy, with Fraina and a sum of Comintern money disappearing together in Mexico in 1922.
North of the border, he reappeared under the name of Lewis Corey, initiating a tangled pattern of Communist Party fellow-travelling. He was a key organiser for the League of Professional Groups, which sought to capitalise on the party’s election campaign of 1932, but never quite won the trust of its leadership. He penned The Decline of American Capitalism (1934), an underconsumptionist account of the slump, which stood out largely due to the absence of a serious competitor in the field of political economy, and The Crisis of the Middle Class (1935), which became something of an unofficial handbook for Popular Front politics. However, his relationship with the Communist Party disintegrated, and he enjoyed a brief sojourn on the anti-Stalinist left, notably with the Modern Quarterly. By 1940 he was explicitly hostile to Marxism. He died in 1953, after a lengthy period awaiting deportation for ‘un-American activities’ committed in the 1920s and 1930s.
Buhle’s work is a masterful demonstration of the way that Fraina/Corey’s experiences bridged the divide between the immigrant radical and the committed intellectual. Where it is less useful is in its avowed ‘presentist’ stance. Given the 1990s emphasis on ‘culture’ as the basic building block for social change (or even for comprehending society), Buhle sometimes appears to be reading history backwards. He sees a mass-scale cultural avant-garde of the sort championed by Fraina as the most viable part of the latter’s critique, and potentially the springboard for an opposition movement. Buhle contrasts this to a bankrupt ‘Leninism’, which is summarily dismissed as a detour. Surely a stronger case exists for locating the modernist upsurge of the second decade of this century as part of the wider social ferment that contributed to the demand for Leninist parties. Obviously, cultural production and Communist politics are distinctive activities, but it isn’t necessarily legitimate to counterpose the two. The ‘presentism’ of this account is also apparent when Corey is criticised for lacking environmental awareness!
Overall, this is a useful work, and is a welcome addition to the growing library on the interwar radical left. However, it should also remind us of a key problem of revolutionary historiography: whilst we can learn from history, we should also avoid judging its participants by inappropriate contemporary standards.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011