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Tom Kerry

Howe’s History of the CP

(Fall 1958)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.156-157.
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
Beacon Press, Boston. 1958. 593 pp. $6.75

In the past year, three books of uneven value have appeared dealing with one or another aspect of the history of the American Communist party. The two in addition to the book under review were The Communist Party vs. the CIO by Max M. Kampelman and The Roots of American Communism by Theodore Draper. All have made contributions in the field of research by assembling material to establish the record of the origin, development, degeneration and disintegration of the American CP. That is their positive side – of undoubted value to future historians and to those seeking in the record an answer to the “what” and “how” of this historical development. On the negative side is a fundamental weakness: the failure to answer adequately the decisive question of “why?”

On the basis of empirical evidence uncovered in his investigation of CP trade-union policy Max Kampelman arrives, in passing, at the correct conclusion that the frenetic twists and turns of the “party line” were a result of the function of the American CP as an agency of the Soviet foreign office, completely subservient to the bureaucracy in the Kremlin. However, when he attempts to generalize from the record, Kampelman reverts to the professorial jargon of the bourgeois “political scientist.”

Why did the CP fail in what he terms its “power struggle” with the conservative trade-union leaders? Because, says Kampelman, “The traditions of the American labor movement are quite hostile to the philosophy of Communism. The philosophy of the American labor movement, insofar as it is possible to speak of its philosophy, is one of humanism. This explains why it is that the American labor movement has not considered itself as representative of narrow class or sectional interests, but rather of the broad mass of the population.”

“This explains why”! This explains nothing of why the American CIO trade-union leaders could at one stage welcome members of the CP, at another stage tolerate them, and at still another split the CIO in order to eject them from its ranks. [1]

Draper’s book, comprising a study in depth of the formative years of the American CP, is a model of historical research. However, when he attempts to generalize from the record in his concluding chapter he arrives at the erroneous conclusion that the cause of the decline and fall of the American CP can be traced to the original sin of having sought and accepted the advice and guidance of the Communist International in its early formative period. This, according to Draper’s thesis, later led irrevocably to the abject subservience of the American CP to the Stalinized Comintern – a variation of Boris Souvarine’s fallacious theory that Russian Bolshevism carried the seed which later sprouted into the monstrous growth of Stalinism. [2]

The Howe-Coser volume is the most ambitious of the three, purporting to be a “critical history” of the American CP from 1919 through 1957. The reader has a right to expect of the authors of a “critical history” that they seriously grapple with the theoretical problems involved in an analysis of Stalinism. Judged from this standpoint the book is shallow, superficial and pretentious. More important, the authors are decidedly lacking in the precious quality that so distinguishes the Draper volume – honesty.

The authors do not once formulate specifically their theoretical premise. On the contrary, in their concluding chapter entitled, Toward a Theory of Stalinism, they disavow any intention of doing so. “In this final chapter,” they assert, “we propose to examine Stalinism as a political movement in the West. We shall not venture upon an extended discussion of the new form of society it has brought to Russia, and shall offer only a few comments on its special role in Asia. This limitation renders a complete analysis impossible, but it may well be that the time for such an analysis has not yet come.” This is intended to disarm the unwary reader.

Consider! The authors propose to “examine Stalinism as a political movement in the West” by severing the umbilical cord which binds it to the Kremlin in Russia, which they define, in passing, as “a new form of society.” But discussion of this new form they will not even “venture upon,” because, you see, “the time for such an analysis has not yet come.” This, of course, does not deter the authors from engaging in a “hidden” polemic, which runs like a thread throughout the entire book, against the analysis of Stalinism elaborated by Leon Trotsky.

The authors do have a theory, even if it is not stated explicitly: bureaucratic collectivism. And they do have a method appropriate to that theory: eclecticism. They borrow their basic premise from the bureaucratic collectivists. They borrow a little from Trotsky. A little from Souvarine. And more than a little from the bourgeois school of “social psychology.”

Stated briefly, the theory of bureaucratic collectivism holds that besides the socialist alternative to capitalism, there is another alternative, unanticipated by the Marxists – a completely new kind of society with a ruling class that owns property indirectly through control of the state. Its original proponents equated the “collectivism” of Hitler in Germany with that of Stalin in the Soviet Union as variations of the “drift toward the total state.” In this country, in opposition to the Trotskyist position of defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack, the main “theoretician” of bureaucratic collectivism, James Burnham, together with Max Shachtman, led a split from the Socialist Workers party in 1940. Irving Howe supported bureaucratic collectivism then and judging from this book continues to do so. Burnham later broke with the socialist movement and presented his anti-Marxist theory in a book, The Managerial Society. He finally landed in the camp of the McCarthyite intellectuals where he remains to this day.

So discredited has the theory of bureaucratic collectivism become that the authors do not so much as mention it by name. It has now been metamorphosed into the theory of the “new class”; and one of those to whom the book is dedicated, Milovan Djilas, is author of a volume by that name. Stalinism, the authors assert, “was a counterrevolution that established a new kind of ruling class, one that neither owned nor could own property but instead controlled the state in whose legal custody property resided.” Again: “The new society that crept into existence in Russia during the late twenties and early thirties was neither capitalist nor socialist, but an enemy of both.” And again: What Trotsky and others failed to understand was that Stalinism “was a movement which, in opposition to both capitalism and socialism, embodied a particular expression of the twentieth-century drift toward the total state,” etc., etc.

It is true that the authors do not “venture into an extended discussion” of bureaucratic collectivism. Instead they repeatedly assert that which is incumbent upon them to discuss. The book is interlarded with such arbitrary assertions, seemingly made on the assumption that they have never been challenged. But the authors know better. They are well acquainted with the searching polemic written by Leon Trotsky against the theory of bureaucratic (“new class”) collectivism, published in the volume In Defense of Marxism (Pioneer Publishers, 1942). They know but choose to ignore it. You see, now is not the time.

Consider the supercilious pretentiousness of the authors, who write an entire chapter, Toward a Theory of Stalinism, without once referring to the monumental pioneering work on the subject written by Leon Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. No, neither the youth seeking socialist answers to the great problems of the day, nor the thousands of ex-CP members and periphery searching for the answers to the “why” of American CP degeneration, will find them in this book.

* * *


1. See my review of The Communist Party vs. the CIO in the fall 1957 International Socialist Review.

2. See review of The Roots of American Communism by James P. Cannon in the summer 1957 International Socialist Review.

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