‘The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929’ reviewed by Tony Collins

The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2015. 400pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9781608464876

Reviewed by Tony Collins

About the reviewer

Tony Collins is professor of history at De Montfort University. His British Communism and …


Jacob Zumoff’s The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 breaks new ground in exploring the early history of the Communist Party of the USA. Using an extensive range of sources, many of them hitherto unused or underused, including substantial documentation in the Comintern’s archives at the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, Zumoff presents the fullest picture of the party in the 1920s that we have. Moreover, the book is thoroughly grounded in the extensive secondary literature of the Comintern and its sections in the 1920s, making it a vital addition to the already extensive historiography of the Communist movement.

Most importantly the book restores the political context to the relationship between the young party and the Communist International by presenting the CPUSA as it and its members saw itself at the time: as a section of the Comintern, a world party fighting for world revolution. As Zumoff makes clear, for most of the 1920s the party was neither an unthinking extension of the Stalinist bureaucracy, as maintained by Cold War historians and to a certain extent by Theodore Draper in his classic The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), nor the independent, organically American party for whom the Comintern had little relevance, as portrayed by later historians from what became known as the ‘revisionist school’ keen to downplay the party’s links with the Soviet Union.

Zumoff presents a nuanced, granular analysis of the relationship between the CPUSA and the Comintern, detailing the central role played by the International in the creation of the party, in forging an American strategy, in correcting political errors such as its 1924 support for Robert LaFollette’s Farmer-Labor Party and in ensuring that the party placed work among black workers at the heart of its programme. He explores how the growing Stalinist degeneration of the USSR from 1924 impacted the party, encouraging permanent and apolitical factionalism among the leadership of the party. In short, he argues that without the Communist International, there would have been no Communist Party in the US.

The Communist Party USA was formed from the left-wing of the Socialist Party and a wide variety of ‘foreign language federations’, militant European immigrant workers organised in their own national and language groups. Hamstrung both by social-democratic practices inherited from the SP and the conspiratorial insularity of many of the federations, the CP struggled to make itself relevant to the mass of American workers. Zumoff describes how it was the Communist International, and particularly Lenin, that politically fought with the early communists to orient them towards American workers and towards a legal party. When Lenin met CPUSA leader Max Bedacht, Zumoff tellingly recounts how Lenin told the native German speaker Bedacht that they should speak in English, ‘the language of the land whose party [Bedacht] represented’.

Unlike many commentators, who have equated the process of ‘Bolshevisation’ that began in 1923 entirely with the party’s Stalinist degeneration, Zumoff argues that initially Bolshevisation was a necessary part of moving away from the narrow ‘circle spirit’ of the language federations and abstract propagandism of much of the left-wing of the Socialist Party. Basing itself on the programmatic conclusions of the famous ‘Twenty One Conditions’ of the second congress and the less well-known but equally important ‘Organisational Guidelines’ passed at the third congress, Bolshevisation remodelled the CP, halving the numerical strength of the party in the process yet creating a much more committed and politically hardened membership.

But this strengthening of the party also weakened it, as Bolshevisation increasingly came to mean opposition to Trotsky and loyalty to Stalin and his factional allies de jour. Moreover, the party itself became gripped by a permanent, and ultimately apolitical, factionalism, as groupings around Jay Lovestone, William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon struggled to win the leadership of the party, not least by vying with each other for the support of an increasingly bureaucratised Comintern. By the late 1920s the International’s interventions in the party were no longer based on clarifying political questions or challenging its political mistakes but on creating a leadership loyal to Stalin’s faction. The book expertly follows the twists and turns of these factional manoeuvres, noting how it was only the Cannon faction that eventually came to terms with the lessons of the early years of the Comintern and found itself expelled for Trotskyism late in 1928.

Zumoff also spends considerable time examining the CP’s activity in the US labour movement. He examines some of the highpoints of the CP’s mass work, such as the 1926 Passaic textile workers’ strike and the formation, led by Cannon, of International Labor Defense, which built a mass united front movement to defend the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. He also provides what may well be the final word on the CP’s opportunistic 1923 support for the Farmer-Labor Party and its dangerous flirtation with the populist Republican senator Robert LaFollette – a political tilt that was corrected by the intervention of the Comintern leadership. The role of William Z. Foster and the work of his Trade Union Educational League is also explored as the CP sought to develop its links with trade unionists in the deeply conservative American Federation of Labor.

The book’s final four chapters are devoted to a major reassessment of the evolution of CPUSA’s strategy for black liberation. They describe how black revolutionaries such as the poet Claude McKay, union activist Otto Huiswood, probably the CP’s first black member, and members of the African Blood Brotherhood were recruited to the party. Zumoff describes how the tremendous political authority of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution won over black militants, despite the CPUSA’s early ‘colour-blind’ attitude to the racial oppression.

He painstakingly traces the evolution of the party’s attitude to what was then known as the ‘Negro Question’. At the start of its life, the party opposed racism but viewed black oppression as merely a variant of economic exploitation. It was the Comintern’s intervention that forced the CP not only to recognise that black Americans also faced a distinct and special oppression based on their race but also to put work among black workers at the centre of the party’s strategy for the American workers revolution. In 1922 the third congress of the Comintern established a Negro Commission and the following year both McKay and Huiswood attended the fourth congress.

McKay in particular argued for a vigorous campaign by the CPUSA to recruit black workers, and attacked the party leadership for its passivity. He was commissioned by Trotsky to write a pamphlet, The Negroes in America, which summarised the history of black oppression in the United States and roundly criticised the record of the CP and the socialist movement before it. The treatment of the pamphlet in America confirmed its message. As Zumoff points out, it was published in Russia but was ignored by the CPUSA, and was not published in English until 1979.

But the party’s benign neglect of black workers was not tolerated by the Comintern. The fifth congress returned to the issue and the party was again criticised for its inactivity. At the urging of the congress, in 1925 the party created the American Negro Labour Congress as a way of connecting with the black proletariat. By the time of the sixth congress in 1928 the CP had acquired a small cadre of black members, some of whom were studying in Moscow, and as part of the preparation for the congress the Comintern established a committee to draft a resolution on the ‘Negro Question’.

It was at the sixth congress that the mistaken line of ‘national self-determination for the Negroes’ was fully formulated. Zumoff delineates the emergence of this line, noting that the early Comintern had often mistakenly identified black Americans as an oppressed nation, despite them lacking any of the features that would define a nation in the Marxist sense. He also points out that the new line was not popular among black communists and that it never became a prominent feature of the party’s anti-racist work. But the intense debate around the issue did ensure that the ‘Negro Question’ became central to the party’s day-to-day work and that it recognised the importance of work among black workers and peasants in the American south, thus paving the way for its southern work in the 1930s, so well described in works such as Robin Kelley’s 1990 Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Depression.

Jacob Zumoff’s book is a major contribution to the history of the CPUSA and of the Communist International itself in its first decade. Based on meticulous scholarship and rigorous analysis, it will become the standard text on the party’s first decade. But, more importantly, the book also serves as a vital tool for those who today view the history of the early Communist International – and the successes and failures of the CPUSA – not merely as a topic of historical enquiry but as a crucial programmatic component for today’s struggles to build a party that can lead a successful workers’ revolution.

6 June 2015

One comment

  1. I actually think there is no single “Marxist” understanding of either the national question more broadly and the “Negro Question” specifically. A “Marxist” understanding cannot derive solely from a 1912 pamphlet by Joseph Stalin on the ‘criteria’ of what a nation…OR…a “nationality” is. The Comintern was correct, but tried to, mistakenly, fit the *nationally oppressed* African-American population into the mechanical Leninist…and thus “Russian”…understanding of what a nationality or nation is.

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