H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Russia@msu.edu (July, 1995)
Harvey Klehr, John E. Haynes, and Fridrikh I. Firsov, eds. THE SECRET WORLD OF AMERICAN COMMUNISM. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995. xxxii, 348pp.
The American editors and their Russian collaborator set out in this book to describe the history of the Communist International's relationship with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), based on a selection of documents drawn from the large holdings of the Comintern archives in Moscow. The editors contend that the CPUSA was subservient to the Comintern; received large subsidies from the Soviet government; and closely cooperated through its secret apparatus with Soviet government intelligence services. The editors also place their findings within the orthodox and revisionist historiography of the CPUSA. The former school (including Theodore Draper and editors Klehr and Haynes) believes "that the CPUSA was never an independent American political party but a creature given life and meaning by its umbilical ties to the Soviet Union" (p. 17). The revisionist school (including Maurice Isserman, Mark Naison, Ellen W. Schrecker), "holds that the American Communist movement was a normal, albeit radical, political participant in American democracy... with its roots in America's democratic, populist, and revolutionary past" (pp. 17-18). The editors' objective is to show that the revisionist school is wrong in all its main lines, and that American "communists' duplicity poisoned normal political relationships and contributed to the harshness of the anti)communist reaction of the late 1940s and 1950s" (p. 106).
The editors appear determined to deal a mortal blow to the revisionist school, so determined in fact that they do not address what it seems to this reviewer are important questions concerning the Comintern and its relations not only with other national communist parties, but with the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Soviet government. In the 1920s British, French, and American diplomats assumed that national communist parties were mere creatures of the Comintern, which was an instrument of the Soviet government controlled by the CPSU. Was it all so simple? What control did the CPSU Politburo exercise over the Comintern at various points during the interwar years? Narkomindel officials (from the commissariat for foreign affairs) often told western diplomats that the Soviet government could not always control the Comintern, and that Narkomindel certainly could not. Was this true? G. V. Chicherin, M. M. Litvinov, and L. B. Krasin were incensed by Comintern activities which interfered with their objectives of establishing business)like relations with the west and of obtaining long, cheap credit to rebuild and develop the Soviet economy. How important were the conflicts which developed within the CPSU and within the Soviet government about the Comintern's impact on Soviet foreign relations? What consequences did these "bureaucratic politics" have on the Comintern and its relations with foreign communist parties?
The editors' apparent determination to down the revisionists leads them to push their evidence rather further than would seem warranted by the documents they have published. This may surprise, since one might have expected the vast Comintern archives to have given up more incriminating evidence. Yale University Press, in its sensational press release of 10 April 1995, claims nevertheless that the editors have bagged the Bolshie bear. But have they?
Consider a few examples. In order to show the extent of Comintern subsidies to foreign communist parties, the editors reproduce a ledger sheet showing payments in 1919-20 to various individuals, denominated in Russian rubles or in foreign currencies. Those amounts listed in rubles, say the editors, are given in "...'value,' indicating jewels, gold, or other valuables rather than currency" (p. 22), though in the document there is no proof of this supposition. The editors do not indicate what the Russian word is, which they have translated as "value," if "valiuta," the English translation is foreign currency or medium of exchange. But whatever the Russian word, "value" does not mean or suggest valuable in the sense meant by the editors.
During the intervention period the Allied powers blockaded Soviet Russia and sought to destroy the value of the many types of circulating paper rubles. What foreign exchange value these rubles did have during the civil war period, was caused by Allied representatives buying them to subsidize anti-Bolshevik activities--incidently, to the great annoyance of the French government, which wanted to destroy the ruble's value without delay. Rubles, especially Soviet rubles, had no foreign exchange value in January 1920, for example, when the ledger sheet shows that American journalist, John Reed, received 1,008,000 rubles. A seemingly large sum, one might think, but which would have bought very little in Soviet Russia and nothing at all abroad. When Reed tried unsuccessfully to leave Soviet Russia in February 1920, Finnish authorities stopped him with "$1,500 in various currencies and 102 diamonds estimated to be worth $14,000, a small fortune in 1920," say the editors--and a great deal more than a million worthless rubles. The editors calculate, nevertheless, that the Comintern gave American communists several million dollars in valuables, based on a future theoretical exchange rate projected back to 1920 where it had no meaning (p. 24). But even if the editors' calculations are correct, Reed tried to leave Soviet Russia with only $15,500. What happened to the rest of the money and how was it sent to the United States since Reed died later in the year without returning to the United States?
The editors stress the importance of Comintern subsidies to the CPUSA, for example, $75,000 in 1923 (p. 25). Not a huge sum even by the standards of the 1920s for a country as large and prosperous as the United States. But most Comintern subsidies and CPUSA expenditures mentioned in the editors' documents are three or four figure sums. The financial statement of the "Brother-Son" clandestine network for 1942 shows total expenditures of $11,311, a beginning balance of $30,145, and no income. More than half the expenditures are in three figures (pp. 211-12). In 1932 a CPUSA official complained "... it is annoying to expect funds and not get them, because altho (sic) we are stretching out what we had, lack of assurance of any more prevents us progressing with the work in any way that will involve expense" (p. 51).
The editors also stress the importance of CPUSA secrecy and clandestine work. Once again the documents in the collection suggest that the secrecy was as amateurish as the sums expended to support it were modest. Not the three stooges by any means, but not the nefarious, pervasive operations either, which the editors seek to portray. In 1925 a CPUSA document complains of a "careless method of sending mail" (p. 33); in 1932, of mail being sent to the wrong comrade (p. 51); in 1939, of poor safeguarding of documents (p. 101). And contact with the Comintern was so clandestine that CPUSA officials complained (e.g., in 1932 & 1942) about not hearing from it (pp. 51, 209). In 1939 a top CPUSA official could not recall all the names of the members of Central Control Commission (p. 100). Another document dated 1939 reports that "Party work at Ford companies is badly organized" (p. 102).
The documents present a problem in that they often do not permit definite conclusions, so that the editors are compelled to use such qualifiers as the evidence "suggests" (pp. 109, 231, 247, 294, 295), "most likely" (pp. 59, 103), "probably" (pp. 60, 64, 104, 109, 231), "possibly" (p. 104), " may be" (pp. 126, 132, 294). At one point the editors speak of the "evidentiary weight" of their documents (p. 105), but the editors' use of language suggests the weight of the evidence is rather light.
Even so, some of the editors' most definite conclusions concerning the "integral links" and treasonable activities of the CPUSA with the CPSU and Soviet intelligence agencies (p. 205) are not well supported by their evidence. For example, seventeen CPUSA members were also members of the CPSU, these seventeen become "many" members, by the editors' reckoning (p. 202). The editors publish two documents "pilfered", say the editors, from the State Department by a communist "thief" (pp. 110, 218). Pilfered Soviet documents are a penny a piece in British and French archives. Note also that when American security agencies obtain documents or ciphers, by clandestine means, from the Soviet government during the second world war, the editors offer no negative comments (p. 237). Undoubtedly it is a case of "deux poids, deux mesures".
The editors characterize CPUSA head Earl Browder as an "NKVD Talent Spotter", on the basis of a single document in which Browder reported to the Comintern in 1940 that French Third Republic politician Pierre Cot wanted to work for a Franco)Soviet alliance. A Soviet defector has alleged that Cot was a Soviet "agent"; his family has asked for a formal inquiry to prove Cot's innocence. The editors, however, appear to assume that Cot was a Soviet agent, though other French cabinet ministers, for example, Georges Mandel and Paul Reynaud, were strong advocates of a Franco-Soviet alliance, and sometimes went to see the Soviet ambassador in Paris in the late 1930s with information or to complain about the policies of their government. Charles de Gaulle rebuffed Cot in 1940, when he offered his services to the Free French; he was "an embarrassment" because, the editors imply he was tainted by over-enthusiasm for the USSR. To support this point, the editors cite Jean Lacouture's biography of de Gaulle (pp. 233-7). But Lacouture notes that de Gaulle rejected Cot because of his ties with the rotten Third Republic, not the USSR, and that a year later de Gaulle wrote to Cot to praise his conduct as a "bon Francais" (Lacouture, DE GAULLE: LE REBELLE, 1890-1944, [Paris, 1984], p. 409).
The editors also say that Browder "was sufficiently intimate with the NKVD to ask that his wife's birth certificate (she was born in Russia) be sent to him through Soviet intelligence channels..." (p. 233). From this bit of evidence and the fact that his wife and his wife's sister worked or had worked for Soviet agencies, the editors conclude (guilt by association one supposes) that Browder "had direct ties with the NKVD" (p. 249), though later they note that the NKVD provided a channel of communications for the Comintern during world war II because of war)time disruptions (p. 293).
Finally, there is the case of Soviet intelligence operations to obtain American nuclear secrets during the second world war, in which the CPUSA clandestine network was directly involved, assert the editors. The editors focus their attention on one Morris Cohen, code-name Louis, who worked in the CPUSA clandestine network. They produce an undated document, apparently written in early 1943 since it was a summary of 1942 activities, which referred to Louis' clandestine work. The document strongly implies that Louis was not in the United States in 1942 and that in any event communications with him were "extremely difficult" and that the network did not know what he was doing (pp. 209-10). However, in 1991 a Soviet intelligence officer claimed that in 1942 Louis, Morris Cohen, recruited for Soviet intelligence a physicist who was working on the development of the atomic bomb. Were there thus two agents named Louis or Morris Cohen; if there was one agent, could he have been in two places at the same time; or did he recruit the American physicist for Soviet intelligence and then go abroad? Further, did the Soviet intelligence officer make a mistake about the date, or did Soviet intelligence officers contact Louis, as an individual, outside the CPUSA network since he had difficult communications with it? The editors observe that Soviet intelligence organizations wanted their agents to sever communist party ties (p. 293).
Unfortunately, the editors do not address these questions, though they claim "that the CPUSA's own covert arm was an integral part of Soviet atomic espionage" (p. 226). The editors' evidence fails to support such a sweeping statement. This "evidentiary" problem does not prevent the editors' from asserting that CPUSA involvement in Soviet atomic espionage "undermine[d] the American political process" (p. 218). They say further that the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb in 1949 destroyed the monopoly which the United States government hoped to retain for 10 to 20 years and destroyed the American "sense of physical security". The United States would henceforth have to face the danger of "serious civilian deaths or destruction" (p. 225) ) just like Europe & the USSR, the editors might have added. Once again it appears a case of "deux poids, deux mesures". However, the editors do not stop there, they go on: "Had the American nuclear monopoly lasted longer, Stalin might have refused to allow North Korean Communists to launch the Korean War, or the Chinese Communists might have hesitated to intervene in the war... (p. 226)." The editors do not produce a scrap of evidence to support such assertions.
The gap between the editors' evidence and the editors' conclusions is wide. Nor are the above examples mere exceptions, numerous but not systematic, in the editors' work. On the contrary, in virtually every section of this book the attentive reader will find such gaps. These technical flaws are serious, the result perhaps of the editors' desire to down the revisionists, once and for all. If the editors' main objective was to bag the bear, the reader may want to wonder about the reliability of their research methodology.
"Mind the gap," warns the piped recording in the London Underground to exiting passengers. Readers! Mind the gap also! The evidence adduced in this book suggests, contrary to the editors' view, that the CPUSA was a relatively small organization, largely made up of amateurs, working with small financial and other resources and having at times inadequate or sporadic communications with the Comintern and indeed between its various elements. While the CPUSA may well have had close working ties with Soviet intelligence agencies, the evidence produced by the editors fail to show it. This is not to say, by the way, that the CPUSA did not have an important influence on the American labour and black civil rights movements. On the contrary, this influence seems the more impressive in view of the CPUSA's relatively small membership and limited resources.
M. J. Carley,
Institute of Central/East & Russian Area Studies
Ottawa, Canada K1S 586
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