Thursday, July 24, 2008

Political Affairs in Worst of Times

by Norman Markowitz

Yesterday I began to look at the history of Political Affairs in its early years, the years of the high cold war. Along with the Truman Doctrine, (1947) NAT0 alliance (1949), and Korean War (1950) abroad came the Taft-Hartley Act against Labor, (1957) the use of the Smith Act against the CPUSA national leadership (1949) the McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) aimed at both the CPUSA and the broad left, with its provisions aimed at destroying mass organizations it listed as "Communist fronts" and to arrest and place in political concentration camps "subversives" who appeared on its lists in the event of a "national emergency. Although the CPUSA was not banned as such, it faced a level of repression unprecedented in U.S. history, policies which sought to literally segregate its activists from the working class and the people as a whole. And this from the wealthiest and most powerful government in the world with the most powerful mass media, the mass press, movies, radio and the new and increasingly hegemonic medium of television, in history.

In spite of the imprisonment of much of its leadership (even though it remained technically a "legal" party, in the sense that African Americans in Mississippi at the time were technically U.S. citizens possessed of civil rights and civil liberties) the party had continued to steer a course against both left adventurism and right-wing opportunism. It was fighting a two front war On one front, there was was for the movements of the working class here and abroad, the struggle for peace against a likely WWIII that would destroy humanity. On the other front, there was the right of the CPUSA to exist and in the larger sense the right of people not to be afraid any more to join organizations, march in protests, think outside the box of cold war consensus politics.

But things really weren't getting so much better by 1956, although the Montgomery Bus Boycott had given many hope of progressive revitalization. Joe McCarthy had destroyed himself as an individual in 1954 when he attacked the Eisenhower administration out of his drunken arrogance, but McCarthyism was not gone. In 1956, a "secret speech" given by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemning the policies of the Stalin leadership produced fierce debate and divisions in Communist parties through the world after it was released by the CIA through the world.

In 1956, also ,the FBI, fearful that the "thaw" in the cold war political climate would undermine its infiltration and subversion of the CPUSA, established a "secret" Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) to attack CPUSA members and organizations in ways that it feared the courts would now consider illegal (later other groups were added to the Cointelpro list, especially the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, but the CPUSA was the target of the majority of Cointelpro's actions in the fifteen year history of the organization.

In the Communist Party the international struggles were mirrored by a developing factional struggle. Eventually, a significant number of party members, including some very prominent ones, resigned, although there were no party purges. The official story, which continues to this day, then became that the CPUSA ceased to exist after 1956. There was no Communist party in the U.S. Those who left the CPUSA in this period became accepted "witnesses" against it, whether or not they chose to be so. Indeed, party journalist Joseph Starobin had both resigned from the CPUSA and called for its dissolution in a letter to the Nation magazine in August, 1956, which was seized upon by liberal establishment media. This isn't now nor has it ever been true, and it is perhaps the greatest dogma and lie that the CPUSA must fight.

At worst the struggle would seethe novelist Howard Fast, author of the classic Citizen Tom Paine, whose novel Spartacus had been advertised in PA in 1952, write The Naked God (1957) a sad testament of anti-Communist propaganda, the equivalent of a bad Hollywood B movie, to revive his career. This was sad, because Fast became much more of a pulp fiction writer after he left the party, never regaining the literary and political power of his fine historical novels.

In reality, the CPUSA was to survive and move on and fight on and those who left it produced nothing new on the left as some hoped. In grassroots struggles, Communists and former Communists often continued to work together, although the official line was that the later was reduced to a few isolated die hards and the former had entered "the free world."

I picked up an issue of PA, from November,1956 which I found both fascinating and sad. Not so much the debate, as reflected in John Gates article "It's Time for a Change," calling for a revised, revitalized Communist Party (although Gates use of "It's Time for a Change" sounded a little odd, since that had been Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaign slogan against the Democrats in 1952). I hope I would not have agreed with Gates at the time (I was 12 years old and nowhere near the left) and it is obvious to me as a historian that he has been proven wrong in his larger view.

William Z. Foster's article, "Karl Marx and Mass Impoverishment" challenged the views that Gates represented, contending that Marxism was a guide to action, not a series of dogmas, and that those who hold that the prosperity of the time and Keynesian economic theory had made the party's long-term view of the general crisis of capitalism obsolete.

In this regard, I noted sadly that Gates contended that organized labor "has now grown to 18 million" (today it is 17 million with around twice the population). Gates went on to say that "labor is already strong enough to win the thirty hour or four day week when the situation presents itself." This in 1956? Gates also admitted that much of the party's losses in membership had been because of a decade of far-reaching repression, but then asked ahistorically why members were not returning now that things were improving (besides the fact that the improvement, for Communists in terms of their own civil rights was both limited and relative).

The debate about the party's future filled the issue, but without polemical rancor. The polemicism came from outside. For me the most fascinating and frustrating article was "A Discussion with Critics" by the distinguished Marxist historian and party activist, Herbert Aptheker. There was the New York Times weighing in on the inner-party battle in an editorial, denouncing the CPUSA as "intellectually bankrupt." There was Michael Harrington, later founder of DSOC (a socialist member of what I call the caretaker left of the 1950s, rivals of the CPUSA who divided their time between bemoaning the intellectual malaise in the U.S. and warning against "Stalinist" Communists, a theme which continues in some circles to this day, fifty-five years after Joseph Stalin left this mortal coil.) Harrington warned that any alliance with Communists was "as impossible as ever," because they are "bound to Moscow" (Moscow was then saying bad things about Stalin) but the Party remained a danger.

Aptheker went through the critics one by one, the name calling, ("idiots," "cowards,") the irrational arguments, ("Communists" were responsible for problems of the left,) and reading between the lines, that the Communists had "had a monopoly" on progressively mass action in the U.S. since the 1930s. Aptheker asked the reasonable question, to all of these critics how could a party that had accomplished so much, was still fighting with all its resources for labor rights, civil rights and civil liberties and peace, be a party of dogmatists, sectarians, cowards and slaves to Moscow. If it had been these things, the accomplishments would not have been made. The "critics" were in themselves dogmatic in their anti-Communism, both blaming the victims of McCarthyism and hinting that their own failures to advance their parties and beliefs were somehow the result of Communist influence. To use 21st century language, anti-Communism for them was an exercise in denial. In 20th century language, it was a failure of self-criticism.

I had hoped to look at an issue from 1960, as the party began its reconstruction with the release of its key leaders, but I will have to get back to that tomorrow, because I literally have to teach a class about in fifty minutes. But I will end with this quote from Herbert Aptheker which answered seriously those critics on the left who refused to or were afraid to listen Aptheker quoted Sam Adams, called a "traitor" even by more moderate colonists for his militancy, Adams replied that "the true patriot will inquire into the causes fears and jealousies of his countrymen...." Aptheker then went on to say for himself and his party that "The Communist Party is an honorable and viable member of the present-day band of true patriots. Its members have no monopoly on patriotism and no patent on the way forward. But its members can make their organization what they want it to be. Having accomplished that, Communists with renewed vigor will make their modest contributions to the welfare of the American people, the unity of the Left, and to the cause of Socialism."

Those ideals are still very appropriate. And who knows? The contributions may be very much more than modest. Tomorrow, if my internet connection holds, we will be in 1960s.