What was great about Theodore Draper and what was not - Bryan D. Palmer

An article by Bryan D. Palmer about the different camps of viewing the American Communist Party's history.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 11, 2016

Fifty years is a long time for books to remain central to a field. It is a tribute to Theodore Draper that his two volumes on the origins of communism in the United States, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), remain foundational texts for all of those researching, writing and learning from the history of the revolutionary left. The making of United States communism, as depicted in Draper’s books, reconfigured the left. This act of political clarification, forged as it was in the midst of war, revolution and a draconian state repression that unleashed vigilante terror, necessarily raised vital questions about the adequacy of other oppositional currents, among them the social democratic tradition and the militant class struggle experience of indigenous American radicals like the Wobblies. Draper’s research shows how this change happened, profiles those charting this new political course, and details its inevitable twists, turns, and, ultimately, something of its tragedies.

What was great about Theodore Draper is perhaps best appreciated in the words of James Cannon, one of the founders of American communism. Reviewing the first volume of Draper’s proposed trilogy (which was to include a third study on communism during the 1930–1945 years), Cannon wrote: ‘‘The book itself is evidence of a stupendous labour of investigation ... into all aspects of the germinal days of American communism, a decisively important period that has long been misunderstood, obscured, and even falsified. ...[T]he author’s work must command the admiration and even the awe of those who consider the history of the workers’ movement important in all its aspects, and value the scholarship that digs up the facts and reports them honestly.’’ Cannon concluded that Draper’s book belonged in ‘‘the library of every socialist militant.’’

In Draper’s time, as well as in the current conjuncture, the politics of interpretation are fundamental to scholarship on communism. And this relates to what was not great in Draper. Draper, whose first volume does indeed give some credence to the view that American communism emerged at the interface of indigenous radicalism and the rise of the Communist International, never managed to differentiate Leninism and the Bolshevik program of world revolution, aided by the creation of the Comintern, from Stalinism. His entire interpretive edifice rested on a liberal Cold War stance, one that stressed a continuous need on the part of the Communist International to dominate and subordinate all of its affiliates, American communists among them. Draper thus could not appreciate the original complex forging of a program of economic, political and social transformation among a contingent of the United States left that saw itself united with the Communist International in a struggle to realize world revolution. It was all too easy for Draper to sidestep entirely the degeneration of that embattled project, as the Comintern of Lenin and Trotsky was eroded and eventually jettisoned with Stalin’s rise to power and the consolidation of a politics of ‘‘socialism in one country.’’

Cannon rightly concluded that this was the fundamental flaw in Draper’s studies. He was willing to tolerate Draper’s ‘‘cocksure interpretations and summary judgements,’’ which by the time of the publication of Draper’s second volume in 1960, were evident on every ‘‘page of his writing from his introduction to his concluding sentence.’’ What Draper had managed to assemble was, in Cannon’s view, a magnificent starting point. But in the end what was not great about Theodore Draper, in Cannon’s words, was that while he was ‘‘beyond praise as a source of authentic information,’’ the failure to address Stalinism, and to differentiate it from Leninism, meant that Draper was ‘‘without value as a political guide in the study of [communism’s] meaning.’’

In our times, it was so different than the popular front 1930s that helped to form Draper, that connected him to the Communist Party, and that proved a schooling in thinking, writing and argumentative stance that would serve Draper well in his rise as a public intellectual. The revolutionary possibility of the kind that animated Jim Cannon and his generation of American dissidents is championed by few. This was not the case in the 1960s. Open repudiation of American imperialism, scathing indictment of capitalism, and advocacy of revolutionary change were very much then in the air, however different the atmosphere was from that of 1917. That ‘‘moment,’’ as fleeting as it now seems, gave rise to a New Left historiography that challenged Draper. With that challenge and the old Cold War warrior’s increasingly bellicose response, the historiography of American Communism fractured into opposing and increasingly hostile camps.

For half a century since Draper’s publications, then, we have lived in something of a vice-grip of oppositional readings. That vice-grip has tightened over time, as positions have hardened and political languages have articulated irreconcilable difference. As this has happened the world, of course, has changed, and there are those who think this change means old arguments, old positions and old issues are now old hat. In this view, we should be able to historiographically and politically ‘‘free’’ ourselves from the burdens of an irrelevant, antiquated past. In assessing what was great about Theodore Draper and what was not, we can indeed, I think, stake out new ground, but this will not be done by going ‘‘beyond’’ or ‘‘moving past’’ old debates. For the past, be it as history or as historiography, is never merely dead and dispensed with. Rather, as Marx long ago suggested, ‘‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’’ We are obliged, in both our intellectual and political lives, to finish arguments that have been suspended or bypassed. In the process, it is possible to create new perspectives on the past of United States communism that are congenial to scholarly rigor and a political commitment to what remains valuable and needs to be kept alive in the actual history of revolutionaries.

In doing this, moreover, illuminating light is shed on the impasse that communist studies now finds itself entrapped within. For the countervailing interpretations that dominate the field—the liberal anti-communism spawned by Draper in the Cold War climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s versus the New Left-inspired and inflected post-1970 histories of the Party, personalities and proceedings of America’s ‘‘Reds’’—are, upon close examination of one another, at times mirror images. Odd sets of shared assumptions and outcomes are reflected.

My position is not that these oppositional interpretive perspectives are somehow consciously the same. Draper, Klehr and Haynes are liberal opponents of communism, and their histories advance the view that American values of liberty and individualism were destined to be undermined by the autocratic nature of communism as a ‘‘foreign import’’ into the relatively healthy and resolutely capitalist United States body politic. Concerned largely with the institutions, policies, and broad trends in communist history, Draper and his contemporary advocates have always been primarily interested in people, places and practices as reflective of communism’s failed moral compass, which they elevate above all particularity and nuance. New Left–inflected histories, in contrast, have played to different drummers: not only does the moral compass point in opposite directions, it is primarily the people, places and practices of communist experience that animate this social reading of Revolution’s proponents. This sometimes unfolds to the detriment of seeing the social (rank-and-file/everyday life) in relation to the international vanguard, the national party and the programmatic direction that figured so forcefully in the making and unmaking of revolutionary politics. Valuing struggle against the capitalist enemy at home over subordination to the Moscow masters afar, New Leftists invariably present a more subjective story of America’s Reds, whose commitments they value. This has long been a great strength of those who broke from Draper’s too rigidly institutional focus, which often stripped the sensuous flesh from the skeletal remains of a communism reduced to the text of policy directives.

As different as night and day, then, such warring historiographic camps can never be congealed into some intellectual-politico sameness. As I will suggest below, evening’s darkness and sunrise’s shadows do nevertheless meet at the point of some lapses. The fulcrum on which the political balancing act of historiographic differentiation comes to rest is the often shared looseness with which old guard Draperites and Communist Party sympathizing radicals assimilate Leninism and Stalinism, references and assumptions about ‘‘Marxist-Leninist confines’’ and the ‘‘hierarchical style’’ of Bolshevik organization being present in both schools of thought. The limitations of liberal anti-communism and post-New Left fellow-travelling progressivism thus overlap.

One interpretive tendency presents the Soviet labour camp of 1938 as somehow indicative of the continuity of communist atrocity, when no such beast can possibly be conjured up out of the experience of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky, while the other fails to explore what was lost as Third Period sectarianism undermined the possibility of wider mobilizations of the oppressed and exploited. If the Black Belt Nation thesis was, in the view of the nay-saying camp, little more than programmatic folly(true enough), it was also, as many who cheer communist anti-racist activism have long suggested, a demonstration of just how far the Communist International was willing to go to overcome the white blindspot that had figured forcefully in the pre-Bolshevik American radical tradition. Klehr and Haynes seem uninterested in the difference between a Leninist Comintern funding the activities of its American affiliate, the Workers Party, in the early 1920s, such aid extending the possibilities of internationalism and world revolution, and a Stalinist ‘‘socialist in one country’’ state flip–flopping in its commitments, depending on its relations with American imperialism and Nazi aggression, all the while keeping its coffers open to various espionage endeavours that might well produce ‘intelligence’ of value in future manoeuvres. Randi Storch extols the virtues of seeing American communism through the lens of the local in her study of Red Chicago, skirting the coercive power of national and international forces as she shores up an analysis that stresses the ‘‘unifying culture of beliefs and behaviours.’’ What she misses in her often rich tapestry of the Windy City particular, is how Chicago’s political climate was never easily extricated from what blew in from Moscow and New York. Rank-and-file communists, wherever they were located, understood their struggles as being fought out on specific physical ground, but their adherence was to the wider battle that all communists consciously joined. This was voiced every time they stood, fists clenched, to sing the Red anthem: ‘‘ ‘Tis the final conflict/Let each stand in his place/The International Soviet/Shall be the human race.’’ The problem, by the early 1930s, was that the International was no longer guided by its original promise of world revolution; Stalinism, the political defeat of this Leninist program, had reconfigured, narrowed and debased the Soviet claim to be the human race.

There is no space here to develop further the implications of this mirror-image relation of the Moscow domination and local autonomy schools ofcommunist historiography. But they share more than they are prepared toadmit. Both sides rightly champion and work within relatively newly-openedSoviet archives. Yet each sometimes fails to interrogate those sources sufficiently, asking how and why specific documentation was produced or addressing its capacity to skew our views by, for instance, grossly inflating the numbers and significance of specific local actions or presenting the undifferentiated Leninist/Stalinist march of communist history as a seamless narrative of ‘Moscow gold’, spy tales, and the repressive Red thread of terror. However different the two analytic schools are, they both, I would argue, tend to depoliticize their subjects, paying too little attention to the reciprocities of international relations, national peculiarities and local contexts. If Draper’s advocates, for instance, hear only the sound of one hand of foreign domination clapping, their opponents often seem to be able to listen only to the thud of the police baton on the backs of street protesters. What is missed, significantly, is a good part of what is happening, both in terms of what communists are doing and thinking and what it is possible for them, as advocates of revolutionary change,to achieve given their loyalties and affiliations.

Small wonder that, when a voice of dissent is raised, suggesting the need for a different third way of analysing communist experience, one response is simply to forcibly assimilate it to the other, retrograde side. Haynes, who recognizes that I am critical of what he calls revisionist scholarship, nonetheless insists that this body of work is not the ‘‘chief target’’ of my ‘‘historiographic criticism.’’Instead, he sees me aiming my sights more directly at Theodore Draper. Storch, in contrast, places me alongside Draper, saying that we both argue that ‘‘foreign domination fundamentally shaped the American party.’’ Yet I have criticized the very use of terms such as ‘‘foreign control’’ and ‘‘domination’’ as they relate to early relations of the Comintern and United States revolutionaries. Storch thus fundamentally misunderstands my appreciation that the foundational premise of the American left-wing that created the Workers Party in 1921 was a genuine commitment to proletarian internationalism and socialism, and that this original and positive engagement, contra Draper, was overwhelmed as Stalinist change reconfigured the Party. And, finally, Storch asserts that Draper and his co-authors in the late 1950s Fund for the Republic series, Klehr, Haynes and a host of others ‘‘remove Communists from their neighbourhoods, workplaces and networks in order to show, with condescension and disdain, that Communists in the United States acted like Soviet puppets.’’ I am said to be guilty of the same sins, albeit from a ‘‘different political perspective.’’ Needless to say, no adequate citations of my views are provided to confirm this caricature, and Storch cites nothing of what I have written on Canadian communism.

I can perhaps best suggest how this mirror imaging of oppositional historiographic camps produces histories that demand something more by looking at a particular case of a little–appreciated American Communist, the flamboyant Lovett Fort-Whiteman. A part of the bohemian rebelliousness of the World War I era, Fort-Whiteman’s story has recently been told in Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights (2008). Like the history of American Communism itself, Fort-Whiteman’s life story is simultaneously exhilarating and depressing.

Fort-Whiteman, whose peripatetic refusal to be constrained by Jim Crow or capitalist containment took him from Texas to the Yucatan, from Havana to Harlem, was an accomplished thespian and the organizer of the Chicago-based American Negro Labour Congress. An ardent internationalist of the first phase of indigenous American Leninism, Fort-Whiteman was drawn to the Soviet Union. By 1928, having vacated racist America, the black Communist happily declared a welcoming Moscow his home.

The political climate within the Soviet Union changed under Stalinization however. Fort-Whiteman was often at odds with the CPSU, to which he rashly transferred his allegiance. In 1933, he petitioned the Communist Party, USA to facilitate his passage back to New York, where he now declared he wanted to live and work. Fort-Whiteman’s letter never made it out of the Soviet Union. Denounced as a counter-revolutionary after his clashes with Stalinist authority, the once Reddest of American blacks was exiled to Alma-Alta in 1935. In posing one of his denunciations of the Soviet state’s unacceptable compromises with positive reference to ‘permanent revolution’, code language for Trotskyist ideas, Fort-Whiteman undoubtedly acted imprudently. He was eventually transported to a Siberian labour camp, an environment of punishing, often lethal, cruelty. In January 1939, Lovett Fort-Whiteman died, the official autopsy declaring that his heart had failed. In fact he had been brutalized, his teeth knocked out. The once dramatically defiant Fort-Whiteman went to his frozen grave a ‘‘beaten man.’’

Why close with this abbreviated narrative, ending as it does on such a depressing note. It is important, of course, in its own right. My suggestion is that it is also highly relevant as an indication of why we need a different interpretive take on the history of American Communism, one that appreciates the international, the national and the local. The Draper, Klehr, Haynes insistence that American communism was unchanging in its subordinate relation to the Soviet Union cannot explain how a figure like Lovett Fort-Whiteman gravitated to Bolshevism, embracing Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Communist International. And that is, of course, what is exhilarating, for Fort-Whiteman, whatever his flaws (and they existed aplenty), showed that out of the depths of racism in America could emerge a revolutionary proletarian internationalism, a call to end colonialism, and a demand that the exploitation and oppression of those in skins both black and white must stop. In the kind of approach now championed by Klehr and Haynes, however, Fort-Whiteman is reduced to little more than a death certificate, yet another incontrovertible piece of evidence of the atrocities that mark communism as a continuous affront to liberty. Why Fort-Whiteman put such faith and hope in the promise of world revolution, how he invested his being in the struggle against capitalism, and saw the early Soviet experiment as something he could ‘‘come home to’’—these‘‘happenings’’ are not really part of this representation. It is the part that interests me most. Randi Storch, in contrast, sees Lovett Fort-Whiteman as indicative of the communist African-Americans who struggled over the course of the 1920s and 1930s to battle racism, unemployment, and exploitation. Preferable, perhaps, to reducing Fort-Whiteman to a trace of the Soviet state’s repressive essence, this is nevertheless not enough. Storch’s insistence that the local experience is the best way to understand what communists were and what they did can neither account for a figure like Fort-Whiteman nor address what went wrong in the politics of the Communist International.

What we need, then, are other ways of looking at the American communist experience. In those ways, Stalinism cannot be ignored, just as the passionate commitment to a better world being in birth cannot be bypassed. The local cannot be placed on some kind of interpretive pedestal, any more than communism can be caricatured as a continuous and totalizing cancerous evil destructive of the organs of politics as we would like it to be.

Whatever our side, or sides, in the question of Theodore Draper, we cannot ignore the immense strengths of his scholarship or the political prejudices that he brought to it. We cannot line up in opposition queues, claiming Draper as our own and entirely right, or repudiating him as ideologically off limits, or suggesting he is irrelevant in our fresh, new times. Those who embrace the challenge of seeing the past in ways that contribute to the transformation of the present and the building of a different future will gain by reading Draper. It,too, will not be enough. But we can take from Draper, after half a century of change and ongoing historical writing, what was great in his work and develop in our researches and writing what, in Draper, was not so great. Socialist militants who have long had Draper’s books on their shelves have much to thank their old political enemy for.

Bryan D. Palmer is the Canada Research Chair at Traill College, Trent University. His most recent book is Canada’s 1960s: the Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (2009).

Originally appeared in American Communist History, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009
OCRed for libcom.org by Juan Conatz