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Bob Pennington

The real roots

(Winter 1960/61)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.3, Winter 1960/61, p.29.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

American Communism and Soviet Russia
Theodore Draper
Macmillan & Co, Ltd 40s.

Histories of Communist Parties so often disappoint. From the official historians we get the turgid tract with its monotonous encomium of the leaders. ‘Mistakes’ are either ignored or given an exculpatory paragraph and attributed to the appropriate "renegade". Ex-communists like Gitlow write as if performing an act of moral catharsis, obsequiously demonstrating their political repentance to suitable bidders. For most bourgeois historians, the subject is strictly taboo. Those who do attempt it often reveal a conspiracy but seldom write a history.

When Theodore Draper’s Roots of American Communism appeared in 1957, students of communist history recognized and welcomed it as a genuine, objective and well-documented contribution to the subject. Draper’s second book which deals with the period 1923-29 makes another outstanding contribution to our knowledge of American communism.

As Draper insists, an understanding of latter-day Stalinism can only be achieved by a careful study of the formative years of the communist movement. These were the years when the youthful idealists who had flocked to the banner of communism were being transformed into the diogenic functionaries of the party machine. By 1929 the die had been cast. The ‘leadership’ had been welded. Since then a tightly knit camarilla has maintained a strict control of the organization, making all the changes ‘directly’ or through its loyal ‘younger men’.

The bureaucratization of the world communist movement did not occur with the ascendancy of Stalin. Its causes go back to the early days of the Comintern. From its inception, the CI was run like an episcopacy. The word of the Russian ‘bishops’ was law. In 1922, John J. Ballam, a leader of the Left Opposition in the American Communist Party, was writing to comrades that ‘they (the CI) care nothing for majorities’. Ballam sadly reported to his co-thinkers how the Comintern leaders imperiously demanded of him that he ‘obey the discipline first’. They had taunted Ballam: ‘You report 5000 comrades in America. Whose comrades are they: Dobin’s, Moore’s, Henry’s [1]) or are they Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Bucharin’s?. Seven years later Stalin was similarly to bait Lovestone, informing him: ‘You declare you have a certain majority. That is untrue ... absolutely untrue. You had a majority because the American Communist Party members until now regarded you as the determined supporter of the Communist International’. In six short weeks the truth of Stalin’s words had been confirmed. Lovestone’s majority had been reduced to an impotent rump. He had been expelled from the Party and replaced by Bedacht as general secretary.

The utter subservience of American communism to the Russian leadership had two primary causes. First was the adherence to the Leninist concept of the party. The monolithic party with all power and authority vested in the leadership quickly leads to a position where a small handful of functionaries control and decide everything. The pre-eminence of the Russian Party inside the CI ensured that the Russian leaders decided everything. The second factor was the willingness of the Americans to have everything decided for them. In every factional fight and dispute in the American Party, the various groups soon learned that the support of the Russians guaranteed a win. As a consequence, each faction invariably attempted to present itself as the ‘best’ American exponents of the Moscow line. Soon it became a matter of indifference whether a faction was right or wrong. What counted was whether or not Moscow supported it. All the leaders contributed to this. All reaped their nemesis. In 1924 Cannon, later expelled for Trotskyism, formed a bloc with Foster against the Ruthenburg-Lovestone-Pepper leadership. At the 1924 Chicago convention, Cannon and Foster secured a 40-21 majority. Their intention to replace the general secretary Ruthenburg with their nominee Weinstone was never realized. During the convention, Gusev, the Comintern’s American representative summoned a special meeting of the parity commission. He read a cablegram from Moscow: its contents were brief and peremptory. Ruthenburg was to remain secretary. Foster, who still retained some independence, rebelled. Cannon, however, appealed for ‘uncompromising loyalty to the Comintern and unwavering faith in the Russian leadership’. In 1927, after Ruthenburg’s death, his chief aide Lovestone adroitly moved into the vacant secretaryship. With remarkable celerity, Foster and Cannon lodged their protest – to Moscow! The omnipotent Kremlin made a quick reply causing ‘jubilation in the Lovestone camp ... the cable gave it everything and the Opposition nothing.’

When Cannon finally revolted and supported Trotsky, only a handful of members joined him. Cannon’s work as a super-salesman for the Kremlin had not been in vain. Even his closest associate William Dunne stayed in the Party. Many members perhaps remembered how in 1924 Cannon had helped to get Ludwig Lore expelled for being a Trotskyist.

Few other incidents demonstrate more clearly the servility of American communism to the Soviet Party than the policy of ‘new unionism’. By 1928, Stalin was beginning his famous ‘left turn’. Lozowsky, head of the Profintern spent ten days haranguing the Americans on the need to form new unions. At first the Americans listened ‘appalled’. Finally they gave in. A resolution was then drawn up calling for the formation of a new miners’ union. In April that year the communists in the United Mineworkers’ Union had called a ‘National Save the Mineworkers’ Union Conference’ at Pittsburgh. With the aid of a group of non-party left-wingers, they had managed to get 1,100 delegates to the Conference and it was decided to call a strike for April 16. The acceptance of Lozovsky’s line made ‘saving’ the mine-workers’ union unnecessary. The communists thereupon switched their activities to building a new union. The strike was allowed to fizzle out. The alliance with the left-wing was smashed. The only person ‘saved’ was John L. Lewis, the UMW president.

It was through such suicidal policies that Earl Browder and his cohorts became the legitimized leadership of the American Party. The Party’s influence was reduced almost to nought in the real labour movement. This mattered nothing, however. The leaders had followed Moscow’s instructions and proved their reliability.

It was by pursuing the same tactics here in Britain that the Pollitt-Dutt group took over the leadership of the British Party. Like their American counterparts they almost destroyed the Party in the process.


1. These were the pseudonyms used by the leaders of the American Left Opposition.

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