Saturday, July 6, 2024

No further left

Joseph Epstein, reviewing Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism:
By the end of the 1920s, the various organizations had coalesced into the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). What would entice one to join this American communist party? Idealism expressing itself as a yearning for the best of all good societies. A hatred of capitalism, viewed as a brutally exploitative economic system. Or, perhaps, an incident in the wider culture, such as the 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial, which roused many to the defense of the two Italian-immigrant political anarchists charged with killing a factory guard and a paymaster during the robbery of a Massachusetts shoe factory. Then there is the general challenge, first noted by George Orwell, that those on the political left often feel from people to the left of them: that they are too timid in their views, are not really on the bus, are themselves part of the problem. Communism provided the comfort that one couldn’t go any further left.

For that slender minority of Americans who did go over to Communism (the membership of the CPUSA peaked at around 75,000 in 1947), it was a rocky ride. .... “If the history of American Communism is a narrative of conversion and faith,” he writes, “it is also one of disenchantment and apostasy.” People wandered in and out of the party, others hovered just outside—so-called fellow travelers—but never actually joined. “Communism was an adopted and embattled faith,” the author observes, “and, as such, often precariously held.” ....

The Communist Party of America was never more than a branch office of Soviet Communism, and rather a minor branch office at that. (Both the French and Italian Communist parties were more potent than the American party in the sense of affecting their countries’ mainstream politics.) The chief problem that Soviet communism presented to American communists was the requirement to toe the line—and a most jagged, not to say crooked, line it often turned out to be.

There was the Soviet Union’s break with, and eventual assassination of, Leon Trotsky, a figure much admired by many American Communists. There was the Nazi-Soviet pact on the eve of World War II, through which Stalin promised nonaggression while Hitler invaded his European neighbors and the two dictators fatefully (and secretly) agreed to divvy up Poland. There were the Moscow Trials, during which once-revered old-line Russian Communists were put on trial by Stalin’s secret police, found guilty and executed for treason. There was Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech,” during which Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader seemed to do an about-face, describing and acknowledging the monstrous crimes of the recently deceased Stalin. Then there was the brutal Soviet suppression of a rebellion in Hungary later that year, and (12 years later) a similar attack against restive Czechoslovakians. Through all this and more, members of the American Communist Party had to adjust to sudden ideological shifts if they were to remain in the party. ....

More interesting than the party’s leaders are those peripheral figures, some party members, others fellow travelers—Paul Robeson, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Whittaker Chambers, I.F. Stone, Clancy Sigal, Angela Davis and many others—extollers and victims of communism alike. ....

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