The Washington Post picked its top American Communists. Wonkblog begs to differ.

September 26, 2013

My colleagues on the opinion desk, working with Harvey Klehr of Emory University, put together a list of 16 top American Communists. Their picks are pretty good; they have the essential party leaders (John Reed, Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Jay Lovestone, Eugene Dennis,  and Gus Hall), cultural luminaries (Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson) and Soviet spies (the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss). But there are a lot of really top notch American Commies who got left out. Here are a few.

1. James P. Cannon


Cannon (center), with Max Eastman (left) and "Big Bill" Haywood, in Moscow in 1922. (Yvette Eastman)

I mean, c'mon, dudes. You can't do a list of American Communists and just include folks who sided with Stalin against Trotsky. Cannon was converted to the cause on a trip to Russia in 1928, during which he read one of Trotsky's critiques of the Third International (better known as Comintern), the Soviet Union's international coalition of Communist Parties, and was persuaded. He then tried to form a Left Opposition within the Workers Party of America (which was the the "above ground" front group for the then-secretive Communist Party in the U.S.), just as Trotsky had attempted to do within the Soviet Communist Party.

The move got him and his co-conspirators expelled. No matter; they formed the Communist League of America (Opposition), which in 1934 merged with the trade unionist American Workers Party, run by the noted Marxist Christian pacifist A.J. Muste, to form the Workers Party.  In 1936, the Workers Party decided to pursue an "entryist" strategy, in which its members joined the Socialist Party — which, under its presidential candidate Norman Thomas, was decidedly non-Marxist in orientation and virulently anti-Communist — en masse. The Socialists didn't take too kindly to this, and in 1937, the New York wing of the Socialist Party, with Thomas's permission, purged the Trotskyists.

Cannon and his allies responded by starting a new party, the Socialist Workers Party. That has turned out to be among the more electorally active Communist groups in the U.S. It's fielded a presidential candidate every election from 1948 onward, as well as a number of candidates for state and local office.  By contrast, the Communist Party U.S.A. hasn't fielded a candidate since the 1984 ticket of Gus Hall and Angela Davis.

So Cannon deserves to be remembered, not just for keeping the electoral branch of the Communist movement active, but for exemplifying, better than any other American, the Leftist tendency to break into ever-smaller factions before forming a beautiful fractal.

2. Max Shachtman

Shachtman (right), with Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. ()
Shachtman (right), with Trotsky, Natalia Sedova, and Frida Kahlo. (Tikkun)

While Cannon stayed true to the Marxist flame, his ally Max Shachtman had a more interesting trajectory. While he followed Cannon to the Communist League of America, and then to the Workers Party, and then to the Socialist Workers Party, in 1940 he clashed with Cannon and Trotsky over World War II. The latter wanted to maintain a position of unconditional defense of the Soviet Union, which would entail honoring the Molotov-Ribentropp Agreement between the Soviets and Nazi Germany, supporting the Soviet "Winter War" against Finland, and backing of the Soviet/Nazi divvying up of Poland.

Shachtman and his ally James Burnham (more on him later) wanted to abandon that stance, arguing that the Russian treatment of Poland and Finland was harmful to workers in those countries. They had also grown critical of the doctrine of dialectical materialism, which amounted to heresy within the party, and drew a sharp rebuke from Trotsky himself. Finally, in April 1940, Shachtman was expelled from the party; Burnham resigned soon after.

Where Shachtman went next was pretty surprising. He started a new party, the Workers Party (a call-back to the Trotskyist party he and Cannon had formed in 1936), which advocated for a so-called "Third Camp" that rejected the two imperialist camps of a) the then-allied Soviets and Nazis and b) the U.S. and British opposing them. Shachtman judged that the Soviets had become "bureaucratic collectivist" in orientation, in contrast to Cannon and Trotsky, who thought that the Soviet Union was a "degenerated workers' state" — bad, but still a "workers' state" in some sense. Shachtman, however, insisted that the Soviets and Americans were equally worthy of condemnation, a position that horrified traditional Trotskyists.

The Workers Party became pretty close with the United Auto Workers, where a number of Shachtman acolytes worked, and after World War II it updated its two camp analysis to reflect the demise of fascism in Europe. The two camps were now the Soviet bloc and NATO, and gradually he began to view the latter as the lesser evil. In 1949, the Workers Party was renamed the Independent Socialist League, and attracted a large number of influential socialist thinkers, including Michael Harrington, Hal Draper, and Irving Howe. In 1957, it became a part of the Socialist Party.

By the time of his death in 1972, Shachtman was arguing against unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and refused to endorse George McGovern because of his support for it. In 1966, he was even arguing for indefinite U.S. participation in the war. He fully supported socialist integration into the Democratic Party and into the labor movement; his wife, Yvette, was a leading aide to New York teachers' union head Albert Shanker during this period.

By that point, he had totally broken with the Trotskyist movement and had become a godfather of sorts to the neoconservative one. As Jeet Heer has noted, Shachtman's follower Albert Wohlstetter was a mentor to Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and Shachtman was close to Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.), who was infamously hawkish on defense and whose office employed Perle, Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Douglas Feith at various points. After the 1972 split in the Socialist Party, Shachtman's followers started the Social Democrats USA, whose members, including Abrams and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, featured prominently in the Reagan administration.

Long story short: Shachtman is fascinating, and any list of interesting American Communists is faulty without his presence.

3. James Burnham

James Burnham receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Jeet Heer)
James Burnham receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Jeet Heer)

Burnham, an ally of Shachtman's in the Socialist Workers Party, resigned in 1940 after the latter was purged. However, unlike Shachtman, he combined his resignation with a wholesale rejection of Marxism, which became clear in his 1941 book, The Managerial RevolutionHe argued that Nazism, Italian fascism, Bolshevik Communism, and New Deal liberalism all moved in the direction of societies governed by a special class of "managers" that controlled the means of production. He was clear that the New Deal was the mildest form of this, but argued it undermined support for capitalism all the same. He predicted that this sort of managerial system would eventually replace capitalism altogether.

Burnham moved even further to the right in the 1940s and 1950s, becoming an ardent Cold War hawk and helping William F. Buckley found the National Review. In 1983, Ronald Reagan gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, as seen in the above photo.

4. Max Eastman


Eastman (left), with James P. Cannon (center) and "Big Bill" Haywood, in Moscow in 1922. (Yvette Eastman)

Eastman, like Burnham and, to a lesser extent, Shachtman, was a Trotskyist who became a true right-winger by the end of his life. He was the one who raised the funds so that John Reed (the Warren Beatty character in Reds; Eastman was played by Edward Herrmann) could go observe the October Revolution in Russia. He performed a true service to Trotsky by making Lenin's Testament — a document that, while also critical of Trotsky, made it clear the Soviet leader did not want Joseph Stalin to succeed him — widely known in the West, and was friends with Trotsky until his assassination in 1940.

But by then Eastman was distancing himself from Marxism and becoming enamored of free market economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. In his role as an editor at Reader's Digest, Eastman serialized the latter's The Road to Serfdom, which includes an account of Eastman's alienation from socialism. Eastman joined the free market Mount Pelerin Society, as well as the anti-Communist American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and was briefly a fan of Joseph McCarthy's (though he later labeled him a "reactionary"). He was one of the initial editors of National Review, whose board he left when he felt it had become too explicitly Christian.

He's also responsible for one of my all-time favorite quotes about Marxist philosophy: "Hegelism is like a mental disease; you can't know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you have got it."

5. Bayard Rustin


I profiled this guy a few weeks back, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (which he planned).

In his youth, he was a member of the Young Communist League — the youth branch of the Communist Party USA — owing to the fact that the Communists were just about the only political party in the 1930s to be fully opposed to segregation. "Living in Harlem, he saw that whenever blacks got into trouble, it was invariably the Communists who were willing to defend them," his biographer, John D'Emilio, writes. "Other radical groups, like the Socialist Party or assorted Trotskyist organizations, promised gains only after the revolution." His ties to the party would get him investigated by the FBI once he became a well-known leader of the civil rights movement.

He quit the party in June 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union led the U.S. party to switch gears into building American opposition to fascism, and racial justice issues fell by the wayside. By the end of his life, Rustin was the chairman of  Social Democrats USA, the Shachtmanite breakaway from the Socialist Party. Indeed, he and Shachtman were personally very close before the latter's death.

6. Hilary Putnam


Putnam, left, with Saul Kripke. (University College Dublin)

Hilary Putnam has a decent claim to being the greatest living American philosopher. With (and often in opposition to) Richard Rorty, he helped revive American pragmatism; with Saul Kripke, he developed the theory of semantic externalism, the idea that "meanings ain't just in your head"; and with W.V.O. Quine, he developed an influential argument for the reality of mathematics. He's also a damn good mathematician in his own right.

He also used to be a Maoist. In the late 1960s, he was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, a still in existence group that rejected the Soviet Union of the time as a perversion of true Marxism-Leninism and embraced developing world regimes like those in China and Vietnam instead. Putnam was targeted by the Harvard administration in the late 1960s for his views, despite being a tenured professor, and in turn was intensely critical of more conservative faculty who he thought were collaborating with the Vietnam war or promoted scientific racism.

In 1973, Putnam quit the party and has said he regrets his membership.

7-8. Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers

Chicago Police photos of William Ayers in 1968

The Progressive Labor Party, of which Putnam was a member, was the chief rival of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), a group, also Maoist in orientation, within the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society group. RYM later renamed itself the Weathermen, and then the Weather Underground, and began a campaign of bombings meant to defeat the U.S. government, end the war in Vietnam, and create a socialist workers' state in America.

Among its most prominent leaders were the married couple of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The latter came from a prominent Chicago family, and his father ran the biggest electrical utility in Illinois. That connection got Dohrn hired by the Chicago firm Sidley Austin, despite her inability to join the Illinois bar. She's currently a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern. Ayers, meanwhile, became famous during the 2008 campaign because of his (very, very loose) ties to President Obama. Ayers, a former education policy professor at the University of Illinois — Chicago, is an influential voice on education policy in Chicago, and advised former Mayor Richard Daley, so it's hardly surprising he knew Obama.

9. Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger. (Frank Franklin II - AP)

The original Post list had Woody Guthrie, but his friend and fellow folk singer Seeger was a card-carrying CPUSA member for many decades. He joined the Young Communist League in 1936 and the actual party in 1932, and, along with Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, wrote anti-war songs in 1941 until the Soviet Union was invaded, at which point he switched to supporting intervention.

According to his biographer, David Dunaway, Seeger started to distance himself from the party in 1950, though that didn't save him from being sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); the conviction was later squashed on a technicality. In any case, Seeger publicly distanced himself from the Soviet Union beginning in 1982, when he performed for a benefit for Solidarity, the Polish anti-Communist labor union. In 1991, he worked with Angela Davis, Gil Green, and other moderate members of CPUSA to form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, on whose advisory board he still sits.

In his 1997 autobiography, Seeger conceded he had misjudged the Soviet Union. "Today I'll apologize for a number of things," he wrote. "such as thinking that Stalin was simply a 'hard-driver' and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks…for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let's look ahead."

10. Harry Haywood

Haywood. (Marxists.org)
Haywood. (Marxists.org)

Harry Haywood is probably the most important theoretician the Communist Party in the U.S. produced. He served on the Central Committee of the party from 1927-1938, including a 1931-1938 stint on the Politburo. he also lived for four and a half years in the Soviet Union, where he was an active member of the Soviet Communist Party.

His chief idea was that African-Americans living in the "black belt" in the South have a right to national self-determination, same as any other national group under Stalin's theories of nationalism. They should secede and form a Marxist workers' state, he argued. The area in question looks like this:

In the 1950s, he judged that the Communist Party had fallen down on its commitment to black Americans, and realigned himself with Mao Zedong, who at the time was feuding with Soviet leadership. Eventually he and other Maoists started the "New Communist Movement" of the 1970s and 1980s, which sought to capitalize on revolutionary energy generated by opposition to the war in Vietnam and had some success in organizing black auto workers in Detroit.

11. Harry Dexter White

White and John Maynard Keynes at the Bretton Woods conference. (IMF)
White and John Maynard Keynes at the Bretton Woods conference. (IMF)

As Neil's interview with Benn Steil explains, Harry Dexter White was a senior FDR-era Treasury department official, who eventually was tasked with negotiating the Bretton Woods agreement, which would establish the World Bank, IMF, and General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now the WTO). White was not an official member of the Communist Party, but he did pass state secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. Steil notes in his book that White's actual economic views didn't appear all too Marxist, but it seems clear that at least at some moments in time, White sympathized with the Soviet economic model. "Russia is the first instance of a socialist economy in action," he wrote in a 1944 manuscript. "And it works!"

12. Angela Davis


Tom Goetz - Angela Davis and Bo Holmström, San Rafael County Prison, 1972, in an image from “The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975,’ directed by Göran Olsson.

Davis, a philosopher and protege of the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, was a longtime member of CPUSA. That membership, indeed, got her fired from UCLA's philosophy faculty, at the direction of then-California governor Ronald Reagan. Shortly thereafter, she was tried for her alleged involvement in a hostage-taking incident at a courthouse in Marin County, California. She owned the guns used in the event but was found not guilty. The trial made her a cause célèbre, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones dedicating songs to them. In 1979, she was given a Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union, which she received in Moscow. In 1980 and 1984, she was CPUSA's vice presidential candidate, under party leader Gus Hall. She would leave the party in 1991, and with Pete Seeger and Gil Green started the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Currently, she's an emeritus professor at the departments of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Most of her activism of late has focused on prison abolition; she helped found the grassroots group Critical Resistance, which works on that issue.

Correction: The original version of this post said that Shachtman believed the Soviet Union was "state capitalist." He believed it was "bureaucratic collectivist." We regret the error.

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