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Secret world of American communism.

Harvey Klehr, John E. Haynes and Fridrikh I. Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven & London: Yale University Press 1995).

THE AUTHORS SET OUT in this book to describe the relations of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) with the Comintern, and Soviet intelligence agencies, based on a selection of ninety-two documents drawn from the large holdings of the Comintern archives in Moscow. The authors contend that the CPUSA was subservient to and received large subsidies from the Comintern and closely cooperated through its secret apparatus with Soviet intelligence services. The authors also place their findings inside the context of CPUSA historiography. Orthodox opinion contends "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." (17) The "revisionist" school "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." (17-8)

The authors' objective is to show that the revisionist school is wrong in all its main lines. While many of the documents included in the collection are interesting, the book itself is unscholarly. It is a political tract intended to settle a grudge with the new/old left. The authors employ tendentious, if not dishonest arguments, innuendo, and guilt by association.

The tract also lacks historical context and fails to address important historical issues. For example, what were the Comintern's relations with other national communist parties, or 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? 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. They were incensed by Comintern activities, which interfered with business-like relations with the West and acquisition of long, cheap western credit to develop the Soviet economy.

The authors push their conclusions further than their evidence warrants. 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 April 1995 press release, claims that the authors 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, and to discredit the CPUSA for accepting them, the authors reproduce a ledger sheet showing payments in 1919-20 to various individuals, denominated in Russian rubles, valuables, or in foreign currencies. During the intervention period (1917-21), the Allied powers blockaded Soviet Russia and sought to destroy the value of the many types of circulating paper rubles. Rubles, especially Soviet rubles, had no foreign exchange value in January 1920, for example, when according to the authors the ledger sheet shows that American journalist John Reed received 1,008,000 rubles in valuables. When Reed tried unsuccessfully to leave Soviet Russia in February 1920, Finnish authorities stopped him with only "1,500 in various currencies and 102 diamonds estimated to be worth $14,000, a small fortune in 1920," say the authors. But this was a trifling sum when compared with "several million dollars in valuables" which the authors claim the Comintern handed over to American communists. (24)

Dimitri Volkogonov in his book on V.I. Lenin (1994) states that the Comintern had no idea how much money it was passing out to foreign revolutionaries. But Reed tried to leave Soviet Russia with only $15,500. What happened to the rest of the money and how was it sent to American communists since Reed died later in the year without returning to the United States? "We do not know," replied the authors, in a heated, defensive Internet exchange (H-Russia) with the present reviewer in July 1995. But if they do not know how the money was sent to the United States, how can they state categorically that several millions in redtainted money was sent at all? The Bolsheviks, of course, saw no taint on the money. They considered themselves to be internationalists, and by their lights, it would have been dishonourable not to render aid to other communist parties.

The authors say the during the interwar years the Comintern subsidies to the CPUSA were large ($75,000, for example, in 1923). The $75,000 was not big money for a country as large and prosperous as the United States, but most Comintern subsidies and CPUSA expenditures mentioned in the authors' documents are three and four figures. The financial statement of the "Brother-Son" clandestine network (1942) shows total expenditures of $11,311, a beginning balance of $30,145, and no income. More than half the expenditures are three figures. In 1932 a CPUSA official complained " 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." (25, 2112, 51)

The authors 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 which the authors seek to portray. In 1925 a CPUSA document complains of a "careless method of sending mail" (33); in 1932, of mail being sent to the wrong comrade (51); in 1939, of poor safeguarding of documents. (101) And contact with the Comintern was so clandestine that CPUSA officials complained (for example, in 1932 and 1942) about not hearing from it. In 1939 a top CPUSA official could not recall all the names of the members of Central Control Commission. Another document dated 1939 reports that "Party work at Ford companies is badly organized." (102) Some of the material is more soap opera than espionage. A party member, for example, visits his politically recalcitrant wife against party orders.

There were pervasive CPUSA espionage activities, say the authors, and "integral links" between the CPUSA and CPSU/Soviet intelligence agencies. (205) For example, seventeen CPUSA members were also members of the CPSU; by the authors' reckoning these seventeen become "many." (202) "More than forty" alleged Communist agents working inside the American government become "dozens" on the next page (310-1), but of these only two were imprisoned. They say two documents "pilfered" from the State Department by a communist "thief" (110, 218) "prove" the CPUSA had "integral links to Soviet espionage." (205) This evidence is silly. Quite apart from the unimportance of the two documents and the conspicuous absurdity of the authors' contention, pilfered Soviet documents are a penny apiece in British and French archives. When American security agencies obtain Soviet documents or ciphers by clandestine means during World War II, the authors offer no negative comments. (237) In fact, they celebrate the revelations of the "Venona" decrypts, now being released by the American government. Undoubtedly it is a case of deux poids, deux mesures.

The authors characterize CPUSA head Earl Browder as an "NKVD Talent Spotter" (233) based on a single document in which Browder reported to the Comintern in 1940 that French Third Republic politician Pierre Cot was to work with the USSR for a Franco-Soviet alliance. A Soviet defector has alleged that Cot was a Soviet "agent"; the Venona decrypts prove it, assert the authors in their Internet posting of 13 July (see also 236-7). But other French cabinet ministers -- for example, Georges Mandel and Paul Reynaud -- turn up in Soviet cable traffic to Moscow. Mandel and Reynaud were strong advocates of a Franco-Soviet alliance, sometimes seeing the Soviet ambassador in Paris in the late 1930s to pass on information or to complain about the policies of their government. Does that make Reynaud and Mandel Soviet "agents"? If Cot acted disloyally toward France, it has yet to be proven.

Charles de Gaulle rebuffed Cot in 1940, when he offered his services to the Free French; he was "an embarrassment," the authors imply, because he was tainted by over-enthusiasm for the USSR. To support this point, the authors cite Jean Lacouture's biography of de Gaulle. 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." In 1944 Cot went on a mission to Moscow for the French government at Alger. Is this honest treatment of the evidence?

Finally, there is the case of Soviet intelligence operations to obtain American nuclear secrets during World War II, in which the authors claim the CPUSA clandestine network was directly involved. They focus their attention on one Morris Cohen, code-name Louis, who worked in the "Brother-Son" clandestine network. A Soviet intelligence officer recently claimed that in 1942 Louis recruited for Soviet intelligence a physicist who was working on the Manhattan project to develop an atomic bomb. The authors produce an undated 1942 summary of "Son" activities, which referred to Louis' clandestine work. The document strongly implies that Louis was not in the United States in 1942, that in any event communications with him were "extremely difficult," and that the network did not know what he was doing. (209-10) Were there two comrade agents code-named Louis, or could one agent have been in two places at the same time? The authors later observe, almost inadvertently, that Soviet intelligence wanted its agents to sever Communist Party ties. Indeed, Soviet intelligence may not have trusted unprofessional and undisciplined CPUSA members to conduct its most important secret enterprises.

The authors claim in their Internet postings of 13 and 20 July that the Venona decrypts demonstrate "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were "spies" "involved" in Soviet penetration of the Manhattan project. The decrypts appear to show that Julius Rosenberg provided technical and industrial information to Soviet agencies, but that he had little or nothing to do with penetration of Manhattan and that his wife had nothing to do with it. Once again, is this honest treatment of the evidence?

The authors are unrelenting: "the CPUSA's own cover arm was an integral part of Soviet atomic espionage" (226); the CPUSA involvement in Soviet atomic espionage "undermine[d] the American political process." (218) The Soviet testing 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" (225) just like Europe and the USSR, the authors might have added. Once again, a case of deux poids, deux mesures. However, the authors do not stop there: "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...." (226) The authors do not produce a single scrap of evidence to support such assertions. And then there is this preposterous statement: American "communists' duplicity [with Soviet agencies] poisoned normal political relationships and contributed to the harshness of the anti-communist reaction of the late 1940s and 1950s [read McCarthyism]." (106) Do the authors know nothing of Secretary of State Robert Lansing's malignant anti-Bolshevism, even in 1917, or of the 1919 Red scare, the Palmer raids, and the virulent anti-communism of the inter-war years which in the 1930s impeded the defence of the west against Nazism?

The gap between the authors' evidence and the authors' conclusions is wide. The above examples are not exceptions; on the contrary, in virtually every section of this tract the attentive reader will find such gaps. They call into question the very integrity of the scholarship. Yale University Press promises more books from these authors; the press would do well to apply the epigram "Doubt everything" to their subsequent work.

"Mind the gap," warns the piped recording in the London Underground to exiting passengers. Readers! Mind the gap also! The evidence adduced in this tract suggests, contrary to the authors' 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 between its own various elements. While the CPUSA may well have had close working ties with Soviet intelligence agencies, the evidence produced by the authors fails to show it.

Michael Jabara Carley

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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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