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Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism.

In 1927 The Cominter dispatched a corn-fed Kansas Communist named Earl Browder to China to stir the revolutionary members in Asia. Something apparently got lost in the translation, for when the midwestern Marxist arrived in Hankow, he was greeted by banners proclaiming "Welcome the Earl of Browder."

In his own country, Browder was never mistaken for royalty. American Legionnaires pistol-whipped listeners at his speeches. Police in Terre Haute, Ind., arrested him for vagrancy as soon as he stepped off a train. Vigilantes pelted him with rotten eggs and tomatoes. Universities banned him from giving speeches. Congress cited him for contempt and the Justice Department sent him to federal prison twice; the FBI stalked his every move and Washington tried to deport his Russian-born wife until the day she died of cancer.

Browder's own comrades could be almost as nasty. His great rival in the American Communist Party, William Z. Foster, dismissed him as "that schoolboy" and spent years sharpening theoretical knives to stick in his back. Browder's closest colleagues (almost no one called him a friend) turned on him at the drop of a hat. Moscow even made Browder pay his own way to the Kremlin to plead his case after the American Party kicked him out and turned his name into a curse.

And yet Browder, who led the Communist Party of the United States of America from 1932 to 1945, was the greatest Communist leader America ever produced: a homegrown Stalinist who also worshiped Franklin Roosevelt; a devoted revolutionary and authoritarian leader who longed to shepherd his party into the fold of the legitimate left; a long-suffering ideologue who sacrificed much for principle but was also vainglorious in the extreme, a reckless womanizer, and an accomplice in Soviet espionage. Browder, in short, was one of the great sad sacks of American politics.

All of which makes James G. Ryan's new, workmanlike biography of Browder a both dispiriting and fascinating read -- and an important contribution to the study of American Communism. "Browder helped bring American Communism greater legitimacy than it had ever known before or would enjoy again...," writes Ryan in the aptly titled Earl Browder. The Failure of american Communism. "A middle-aged version of the all-American boy, he was a walking refutation of every Communist stereotype. By far not the movement's most profound ideologist, Browder proved beyond question its greatest salesperson." Of course, this is like being the prettiest girl at a leper colony.

Ryan makes much of Browder's looks and attractiveness to female comrades: He had straight dark hair and intense blue eyes. But his crooked mouth gave Browder's face a sense of precariousness and a perpetual scowl that was softened only by growing a mustache. Even disregarding his politics, Browder does not come across as even remotely likable, and Ryan, a professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston, is to be congratulated, if not pitied, for having the fortitude to spend years in the company of such an unpleasant subject.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1891, Browder was the son of a failed farmer and school teacher. He left home at 21, moving to Kansas City where he found work as an accountant for a Standard Oil subsidiary. Browder drifted through various left-wingisms, protested World War I, and was arrested in 1917 for advocating draft dodging. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Prison for Browder, as for his Bolshevik heroes, was a school for revolution; it taught him discipline and gave him time to read the Marxist classics and nurse his already festering resentment against American society. When he left Leavenworth in 1921, Browder joined the fledgling American Communist Party, largely comprised of immigrants whose command of Marxism was almost as shaky as their English. All-american converts were in great demand, and Browder soon found himself on the first of what would become an annual pilgrimage to the mother church in Moscow. Tagging along was William Z. Foster, an old militant union warhorse who eventually became head of the American party. Browder became his assistant.

By 1932 Browder managed to shoulder aside the ailing Foster and assume de facto leadership of the party during the early days of the New Deal, which the Communists (following Moscow's "Third Period" policy of militancy) denounced as the advent of American fascism. Three years later the winds from Moscow were blowing another way and Browder found himself heralding the "Popular Front" policy where the party would work in train with the rest of the left. Unlike Foster, who liked nothing better than to lead the workers in a riot against the police, Browder was happiest as the radical bean counter, a New Deal cheerleader in a business suit content to nudge at American politics from the margins. (No Gramsci, Browder's prison writings included an accounting pamphlet.)

Browder excelled at domesticating the party. He argued that the Declaration of Independence foreshadowed the Communist Manifesto and extolled Jefferson and Lincoln as exemplars of American radicalism. The party played "Yankee Doodle" at its meetings, decked its platforms in the Stars and Stripes, and adopted the slogan: "Communism is 20th-Century Americanism." Membership jumped and the party's influence in unions grew steadily. Front groups sprouted like corn. Browder made the cover of Time. "We were not only Communists," remembered party member George Charney, "We were also Americans again."

The only thing to spoil the party was the fact that Stalin was lining up Old Bolsheviks and shooting them down as fast as he could give them a show trial. On his visits to Moscow during the Great Purge, Browder tried not to notice that old comrades were disappearing; he played chess and attended the ballet. Ryan notes, however, that just turning up at the Kremlin in those days took some guts. "At that very moment," he writes, "Browder knew Soviet Communists accused of unorthodoxy were being tried, sentenced, and executed en masse, but he believed he was reconciling the American reform tradition and world Marxism."

That became a lot harder to do when the party line switched again after the Hitler-stalin pact in 1939. Some poor party hack had spent a year listening to static on a shortwave radio when Moscow finally broke the silence by ordering Browder to go on the offensive against Roosevelt. Browder dragged his heels. On one hand, he desperately wanted to make the party a player in American politics; on the other, he was at heart a Stalinist with several practical reasons for not thumbing his nose at Moscow: his sister Margaret had worked for the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, his wife had a revolutionary past that might not sit too well with U.S. immigration authorities, and Browder himself had done a little work as a talent spotter for Soviet intelligence.

Browder's dilemma was solved when the U.S. arrested him for passport fraud. Browder turned up in court with his mustache trimmed down to a Hitlerian smudge of fur. Leaning on his correspondence school law course from a quarter of a century earlier, he took over his own case, maintaining that the charges against him were merely the opening salvo of a crackdown on civil liberties in America.

Browder's faith in the American judicial system was touching; he got four years in prison. While free pending his appeal, Browder ran for Congress from the Lower East Side, a party stronghold. He polled less than 14 percent. Undaunted, he also ran for president, finishing behind a prohibitionist candidate.

In June 1941, three months after Browder reported to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Germany invaded Russia and the Russians joined the Allies. The next year Roosevelt commuted Browder's sentence. And in 1943 FDR and Stalin met at Teheran, which Browder felt sure was a sign that the Communist and Capitalist spheres had reached a modus vivendi for the post-war world -- the "greatest, most important turning point in all history," he gushed. America, Browder explained to the party in his "Teheran thesis," was unprepared for socialism, and Communist agitation would only aid the reactionaries so the party would renounce revolution. He offered to clasp J.P. Morgan to his bosom. In 1944 he dissolved the party, replacing it with the Communist Political Association. Ryan sees this as a sensible decision, a way for the party to become a bona fide part of the American political landscape and an anticipation of later attempts to reconcile Marxism with democracy, such as Titoism, Eurocommunism, and perestroika.

To celebrate this new move, Browder threw a fourday gala, starting on his birthday, at the Riverside Plaza Hotel, with U.S. flags on the stage and a huge photo of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at Teheran behind him. The general secretary of the CPUSA became the president of the CPA. Once again Browder felt he was swimming with the tide of history.

Then he was caught by the undertow. In April 1945 the French Communist Jacques Duclos, whose own party was anything but revolutionary, attacked Browder in the journal, Cahiers du Communisme, referring ominously, to the CPA leader as the "former secretary." As Stalin liked to say, this was not an accident. The aged and embittered Foster jumped on Browder, and the rest of the party leadership wasn't far behind. The CPUSA was re-established in July and soon expelled its leader of 13 years. After giving almost half his life to the party, the 55-year-old Browder found himself out in the cold. He took a job hawking propaganda for the Soviets, which was not a brilliant career move during the McCarthy period. Ryan says Browder eventually abandoned even Marx, although the book inexcusably fails to elaborate on this. Browder died in 1973, his passing unremarked upon by any Communist paper in the world. "Browder tried diligently to make his organization less foreign (though no less authoritarian or bureaucrafic)," Ryan concludes. "Admittedly he had undertaken an impossible task."

Ryan has attempted a somewhat more tractable one: explaining how the American Communist Party could be both an indigenous social force and the subversive hireling of a Moscow-controlled revolutionary conspiracy. Classic scholarly accounts of American Communism, such as Theodore Draper's, emphasized the latter, while New Left historians of the last couple of decades purposefully overlooked foreign domination of the party's leadership to concentrate on the idealism of rank-and-file activists. These younger scholars haven't been heard from much in the last few years since Soviet archives began gushing documents proving most of the worst of what the party's detractors had always claimed. Ryan's book, for example, started out as a dissertation that dwelled on Browder's roots in the plains and the American radical tradition, but after a visit to Moscow Ryan shifted his focus accordingly. Still, Ryan attempts something of a synthesis by showing the struggle within Browder between the dictates of meaningful radical politics and subservience to the Soviets.

In the end, it wasn't much of a contest. Browder was not a remotely moral man: He left his first wife and child for politics; he treated colleagues badly and enemies worse; he told the Jews they had nothing to fear from Hitler and ignored Stalin's various genocides. Even his resistance to Moscow seems not so much a moral grappling as a matter of power politics -- the story of a wannabe Stalin seeking his own path to total control.

In Ryan's telling, Browder comes off far better than any of his other comrades in the party. Though he had physical courage aplenty and suffered much, he seems to have had less than the average allotment of moral courage. He was the best that American Communism could produce. And the best that it deserved.
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Author:Ybarra, Michael J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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