Friday, December 14, 2007

The Right to Narcissism

Given that I haven't posted anything new for over a week (and my last post was kind of crap) I've decided to let you all in on what I've been doing that whole time. Basically, it's finals week, and I've had a shitkicker of a cold. But fear not! For here you can view the fruits of my research. Read on and you will find my semester paper for my American Communist History seminar. Now before you chide me for my sources ignored, the paper was for a reading seminar and we were basically forbidden to use sources beyond those available in the class. It's also a first draft, so I realize there's a good amount of crap in there. Nonetheless, I think it's still a pretty good paper, and if you're at all interested in the history of the American CP, you might want to give this a read.

Few ideas have enjoyed such broad currency across the political spectrum as “American exceptionalism.” Loosely defined as a belief in the uniqueness of the political culture of the United States in comparison with the rest of the world, concepts of American exceptionalism have been used to explain American history by figures as varying as Frederick Engels and Newt Gingrich. Though such concepts have a variegated lineage in the social science of the United States, the term itself owes its rise to prominence to a particular institution in American history: the Communist Party-USA. Originating as a theory with which to explain the paucity of Communist accomplishments in the late 1920s, the term became the grounds on which a ruthless factional conflict broke out within the party. Many veterans of this conflict would eventually leave the Party and enter academia, serving as a transmission belt taking the idea from the margins of American political life to the centers of knowledge production in the United States.

Looking back on the idea and its accompanying battles, it is tempting to dismiss both American exceptionalism and its enthusiasts as relics of a bygone age. Indeed, in viewing the degree to which American exceptionalism has become a tool of traditionalist social science in the hands of Seymour Martin Lipset and others, the temptation becomes even stronger to abandon the concept as a stale, mechanical piece of ideology whose political conclusions are uniformly unsavory. I believe to abdicate the theoretical struggle over the meaning American exceptionalism in this way risks subsuming the possible fruits of what was once a vibrant debate under the weight of that debate’s subsequent history. By reconsidering the debate around American exceptionalism in the CP-USA in the light of contemporary historical research on American communism, I believe we can recover an essential conceptual tool for untangling the historical threads binding two of the most fraught aspects of American communist history: the relationship of American communists with Soviet Russia and Black Americans.

The debate surrounding the relationship of American communists to the USSR is the most important controversy in the study of the CP-USA. A scholar’s opinion on whether the American party was controlled from without by the authoritarian Communist International (located in Russia) or whether local party activists made history in their own ways is largely the criteria by which one falls on either the “traditionalist” or “revisionist” side of the scholarly fault line. The negative character of the CP’s relationship to the USSR is rarely at issue. James Barrett, describing the revisionist approach, argues that what the traditionalists overlook is how the Communist “grass-roots movement [was] shaped by local conditions and the ideas and actions of indigenous radicals more than by Moscow masters.”[1] The deplorable effect of the “Moscow masters’” influence is not questioned. Rather the debate is over their importance to party life. I would like to interrogate this assumption.

African-American history is the best vector by which to approach this hallowed ground for several reasons. First, literature on the relationship of African-Americans to the Communist Party is the single largest body of work regarding any specific group and the CP. This can be seen by a simple survey of the number of books which use “Black” and “Red” as part of their title. Second, the unique position of African-Americans in US society makes Black history a particularly valuable optic through which to view Communist history. For Communists, the distance between the Lower East Side and Harlem was far greater than simple geography would imply. Their actions in these two areas of close proximity often had wildly varying consequences. Finally, given the importance of the “race question” to the American labor movement as a whole, the impact directives from Moscow had on race work often had unexpected diffusions into the fate of the entire working class movement.

Before delving into the specifics of Communist policy and African-Americans, however, it is necessary to spend time reconstructing the specifics of the CP debate on American exceptionalism in order to recover that which is useful in it. This essay will thus follow a roughly two part structure: first , excavating the terms of this debate, and second, examining their usefulness to the project of using Black history to reconsider the question of Comintern influence.

Various theories of American exceptionalism, even if they did not bear that name, had circulated on the international Left for decades before the concept became a flashpoint in the CP-USA in the late 1920s. Werner Sombart famously declared in 1905, "All socialist utopias come to grief with roast beef and apple pie," positing unusual economic prosperity as an answer to “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States.” Karl Kautsky, leader of the Second International, replied to this argument with a prediction of eventual economic ruin which would render American workers “more and more accessible to socialist ideas.”[2] When the Communist Party was established in 1919 (initially in two different parties), it would continue Kautsky’s predictions of immanent economic collapse.[3] The depression of 1920-22 led the CP-USA to seek a united front with various farmer and labor parties in the hopes of forging a path to legitimacy (the party was then underground) and with it, a wider audience. These efforts, however, would do more good than harm in extending the party’s influence.

The first attempt at such a united front was the short-lived alliance with the Chicago Farmer-Labor Party. The young CP made colossal blunders in this effort from the beginning. As the Communists were negotiating for entrance into the new national Farmer-Labor Party, a theorist from the Comintern, John Pepper, wrote an article in a Communist journal to the effect that “all Communists who belonged to other labor organizations [should] consider the interests of their party more important than the special interests of their organizations.”[4] Such proclamations did little to instill confidence in prospective allies like John Fitzpatrick, head of the CF-LP and main force behind the formation of a national Farmer-Labor Party. At the Chicago convention to decide the shape of the new party, Communists pushed aside all opposition to their plans for the new party, alienating all those who weren’t already in agreement with the CP plans. Fitzpatrick decried the Communist tactics, likening them to “a man being invited to your house as a guest and then once in the house seizing you by the throat and kicking you out the door.”[5] While the Communists won the vote as to the shape of the new party, they did so only at the expense of losing their most important allies in that party. As a result of the Communists’ impropriety, Fitzpatrick turned against the entire prospect of a labor-based national party. Communist leader William Z. Foster would later describe the party that emerged from the convention as “a united front with ourselves.”[6]

The experience of the FF-LP would serve as something of a model for the CP for the next few years. In areas where Communists tried to expand their influence, they often either lost or won such Pyrrhic victories that the struggle seemed without reason. An attempted alliance with the Progressive Party’s Bob LaFollette fell apart as LaFollette assailed the Communists as “the moral enemies of the progressive movement”[7] and the Comintern instructed the CP to dissolve its ties with La Follette. By the time the American exceptionalism debate broke out in 1927, the Communists were grasping for whatever allies they could find.

The theory of American exceptionalism arose as a way of explaining the Communists’ failure to win any significant section of American workers to their program. By 1926 many Communists were drawing the conclusion that in the absence of major economic crisis, the Party could not grow. Party Secretary Charles Ruthenberg attempted to combat this sentiment by arguing that “prosperity…encouraged demands for higher wages and better working conditions.”[8] In light of the Party’s failures, such theories provided little comfort.

The Comintern stepped in to address this question in the winter of 1926, arguing that “the American conditions” were in fact different from those in the rest of the world, at least temporarily. Two distinct articulations of this perspective surfaced, one advanced by Soviet economist Nikolai Bukharin and the other by Indian Communist M.N. Roy. Bukharin argued that the United States, like Japan, functioned as an anomaly in the world because capitalism was still ascendant there. Roy contended that the US was currently at the zenith of its power, while other capitalist countries were already in their downfall. Bukharin’s view triumphed, carrying with it great implications for the CP’s work in the US. He summarized his view of the American party’s position as such: “Our party in America is quite small. American capitalism is the stronghold of the entire capitalist system, the most powerful capitalism in the world. Our tasks in this country are for the present still very modest.”[9]

The implementation of these tasks would fall to Jay Lovestone, who succeeded Ruthenberg as Party Secretary in 1927. Lovestone expanded on Bukharin’s ideas on the nature of American workers. He contended that the continuing ascendance of American capitalism resulted in the American working class becoming almost entirely ideologically “bourgeoisified,” at the same time that a section of “millions” of skilled workers were also materially “bourgeoisified.” This meant that until American capitalism joined the rest of the world in its downward spiral, the “tactic of corrupting parts of the working class will continue and drive parts of the working class to the right.”[10] Lovestone’s adoption of the Comintern line seemed to assure his continuing position of authority within the American party. However, changes in the internal politics of the Soviet Union would soon reveal the degree to which Lovestone had hitched his wagon to the wrong star.

By 1928, Josef Stalin had consolidated his position as ruler of the USSR. By blocking with Bukharin from the right, he had secured the expulsion of Leon Trotsky, his primary competitor. As soon as this was complete, however, Stalin performed a volte-face and turned on his former ally. Proclaiming a new era of revolutionary activity (“the Third Period”), Stalin sought to marginalize Bukharin and thus secure his singular rule over the Soviet Union. In 1928, the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern, following Stalin, proclaimed a line of “class against class,” demanding that the various CPs establish “uncompromising independent communist leadership of unions and other mass organizations” and conduct “forthright attacks on not only capitalists but also ‘social fascists’ – Social Democrats and other reformists.”[11] Such a line was clearly deeply opposed to Lovestone’s own estimation of the possibilities of revolutionary action in America.

Lovestone’s rivals in the Communist Party seized on this contradiction to press forward with their factional struggle for control of the party. Chief among these rivals was William Z. Foster[12], who used the party’s sixth convention in March of 1929 to go on the offensive against Lovestone. Foster argued that Lovestone, in disagreeing with Stalin’s dictums, was giving far too much credit to bourgeois theorists such as Thorstein Veblen, who emphasized capitalism’s dynamism. This acceptance of bourgeois ideology in turn decreased the party’s ability to gain a following among the working class, a grave error in the period of “class against class.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Foster’s attack on Lovestone was the degree to which it centered around a theme which was until then largely overlooked in the Communist Party: the race question. In seeking to discredit Lovestone, Foster emphasized the extent to which the former’s theory of bourgeoisification contributed to white chauvinism by ignoring the position of Black workers. Foster, who had recently been arrested in Delaware for raising the slogan of “Abolish lynching,” knew only too well how the reality of white supremacy in America made any theory of material or ideological bourgeoisification utterly inapplicable to Black workers. Coupling this with charges of white chauvinism against Lovestone’s Southern organizers, Foster made race a central battleground in his fight against Lovestone.

The choice of using insufficient attention to the racial problem as a tactic for attacking Lovestone was a strange one for Foster. The fight over American exceptionalism was Foster’s best chance for receiving the accolades of leadership from the Comintern, and he was spending much of his time on a critique of what until then had been a minor part of Party work. In fact, Foster’s choice to do so reflected a keen ear for following the line of the Comintern. At the Sixth Congress, the body for the first time had established a concrete program for Black liberation in America[13]. The final paragraph of the Comintern’s “Theses on the Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies and Semi-Colonies” summed up the new position tersely: “In those regions of the South in which compact Negro masses are living, it is essential to put forward the slogan of the Right of Self-determination for Negroes.”[14]

This stance accorded well with Stalin’s theory of the Third Period, in which nothing less than strident militancy was proper Communist policy. In retrospect, Foster couldn’t have chosen better grounds on which to attack Lovestone. With the Comintern’s aid, he quickly prevailed over Lovestone, securing the latter’s expulsion from the Party. This ended, rather abruptly, the CP’s official debate over American exceptionalism.

What can be learned from this history? A great deal, in my opinion. The history of the debate over American exceptionalism foregrounds the picture that most historians hold of the Communist International as an authoritarian body sitting like a puppeteer over the American Party. Yet even this picture contains within it the seeds of its own dissolution. For it is precisely at the terminus of this debate, the race question, that the most vigorous challenge to the traditionally negative view of the Comintern’s influence emerges. Almost a century after Foster and Lovestone clashed over Black workers and American exceptionalism, we can now see exactly how their debate can illuminate current controversies over the Communist Party.

In evaluating Foster and Lovestone’s positions on Black workers and American exceptionalism, I draw inspiration from an unlikely source: Josef Stalin. When asked "Which deviation is worse, the Rightist or the Leftist one?", Stalin replied to an undoubtedly confused (and probably terrified) comrade “"They are both worse!"[15] I believe this same characterization can be applied to Foster and Lovestone. While Lovestone ignores Black workers in his theory, Foster holds them to be the disproof of it. I believe, contra both, that the story of Black workers and the Communist Party amounts to an “Afro-American exceptionalism” to the general story of Comintern malfeasance.

As mentioned above, this story of the deplorable influence of the Communist International on the CP-USA forms an area of agreement between the traditionalists and the revisionists in the debate on American communist history. Revisionist James Barrett, for example, describes the movement’s fatal flaw as “its subordination to a powerful international vanguard.[16] In accordance with this view, most revisionist historians see the era of the Popular Front, when the various parties were encouraged to downplay their revolutionary rhetoric and encourage patriotism in their own countries, as the most positive period of American communist history. Even Maurice Isserman, who argues against “select[ing] one or another phase of Communist policy as standard by which to measure the shortcomings of others,”[17] ends up endorsing the Popular Front as a positive step forward from the Third Period. In his formulation, the Popular Front “restored some of the democratic content to Communist ideology.”[18] Similarly, Barrett argues that “the new line ushered in a renaissance of American radicalism.”[19] The story of Black workers and the Communist Party greatly complicates these celebrations of domestic radicalism during the Popular Front.

The most valuable scholarship with which to contest such celebrations is Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Kelley meticulously documents the history of the Alabama party from its earliest days until its destruction in the late 1940s. In addition to its close attention to racial issues, the book’s geographical specificity is also a tremendous asset in bringing clarity to the issue of Blacks and the Communist Party. While white supremacy in America has always been a national issue, it has also always been the case that the South has been where struggles over the meaning of race have been most distilled. This was true during Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and the American Communist movement as well. In using Kelley’s narrative as an exemplar of Black Communist history, I will loosely follow the outlines of his narrative, emphasizing those points which throw into greatest relief the exceptional character of the relationship between Communists and Black workers, especially as it relates to the Comintern and the supposed superiority of the Popular Front.

Hammer and Hoe opens with the arrival of two Communist organizers in Birmingham in 1929. The first outwardly focused event the Party held in Alabama was a meeting sponsored by the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), the Party’s grouping of independent trade unions. Over two hundred Alabamans attended the meeting, three-quarters of whom were Black. Even this earliest moment in Alabama Communist history represents a massive step forward for its work in fighting racism. Convincing some hundred and fifty Black workers to attend a meeting about the need to organize in their own interests was an incredible event in Alabama in 1930, coming as it did after a decade of rising Klan activity.

This moment in the Party history is not only significant for the degree to which it represented a step forward for “race work.” It also shows how, at its earliest moments, the Party’s fight against white supremacy was aided by Comintern directives. As recounted earlier, the CP-USA only took up a militant line on fighting racism after the Comintern passed its 1928 resolution on self-determination for African-Americans. Without this impetus, it is highly unlikely that the Party would have sent two veteran organizers into Birmingham with the purpose of organizing among Black workers. Besides this basic motivation, the form of the Party’s intervention into the Black working class movement was also positively affected by Comintern directives. The TUUL was formed in response to Stalin’s declaration of the Third Period as a congress of revolutionary trade unions opposed to capitalism. Since Stalin judged a new era of revolutionary activity to be approaching, the Comintern instructed American Communists to decisively break with all non-revolutionary unions and form their own. While this directive had the negative effect of taking Communists out of dozens of unions in which there were workers who may have been sympathetic to the Communist message, it had the advantage of allowing Communists to focus on organizing sectors of the American working class, like African-Americans, who had been neglected by the larger labor movement. In the case of Alabama, the TUUL was able to hold a meeting for organizing Black workers without having to worry about what the mainstream union bureaucracy would say. Even at the earliest stage of Southern Communist organizing, Comintern directives aided the work of fighting racism.

The CP’s direct link to the Soviet Union also had benefits in terms of how Black workers perceived the Party. Kelley points out that African-Americans in the South, faced with the intransigence of the White Supremacist power structure, had long looked to outside forces for aid in changing their situation. For these Black workers, “[t]he idea of Soviet and/or Northern radical support provided a degree of psychological confidence”[20] in confronting the employers. In this ideological formation, Josef Stalin became the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, who many hoped would lead a new Civil War to free African-Americans once and for all. Even that stubborn bugbear of traditionalist historians, Soviet espionage, took on a positive light for African-Americans. As one Black Party member fondly remembered, “The Soviet Union had agents that was educating people about the Communist Party…Them agents was all through here.”[21] The notion that a foreign power was not only supporting their struggle, but actively sending agents to aid it, was an immensely empowering idea for Black Americans eager for any help they could get.

The area in which the Communists achieved their greatest notoriety in fighting for Black rights was undoubtedly their defense of the Scottsboro boys. Falsely accused of raping a white woman, nine African-American boys were sentenced to die by an Alabama court. The CP immediately jumped into the fray, declaring that the boys could never receive a fair trial in the racist South. While the Party’s knee jerk defense of those who had been accused of the South’s most dire crime – violating white womanhood – may be initially attributed to an ignorance of Southern mores, the Party’s principled stand throughout the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys suggests that they were committed to fighting racism no matter what the cost. After all, the Party learned quite quickly the centrality notions of white womanhood occupied in the Southern social order. One pamphlet distributed by white supremacists argued that Communists organized alongside Black workers in hopes of “ignite[ing] the spark of savagery that once controlled the instincts of his [African-Americans’] ancestors.”[22] The importance of the Party’s principled stand on the case becomes even more important when it is put in the context of the behavior of the Black middle class. Directly contravening the CP’s line on the case, on Black-owned Birmingham newspaper declared that “a man can get a just and fair trial in the Southland regardless of color.”[23] Confronted with a choice between the Party and the Black middle class, is it any wonder that working class Black folks supported the Party in overwhelming numbers? This support, which coalesced around the International Labor Defense, would unfortunately dissipate as the Party disbanded the ILD as it shifted away from the militancy of the Third Period.

The Third Period line of “class against class” also aided the struggle for Black emancipation in the South. This is most evident in 1934 cotton strike. There the Sharecroppers Union (SCU), a Communist organization consisting primarily of poor Black farmers, struck against the landlords and demanded a substantial pay raise for cotton pickers. The strike won, despite substantial repression from the landlords and the efforts of the Alabama Relief Administration to throw strikers of relief rolls. On most plantations, strikers won a massive raise in their pay rate for cotton picking. Even on plantations where workers didn’t go on strike landlords nearly doubled the pay rate in an attempt to keep the strike from spreading. This victory led to the SCU to grow in membership to approximately 8,000. Without the Communists’ twin emphasis on fighting racism and prosecuting the class war, it is unlikely that such an organization could have ever come into existence.[24]

The experience of Black sharecroppers is the area in which Kelley engages in the most explicit argument about the role of the Comintern. Following his pronouncement in his prologue that the debate over the role of the Comintern is “silly,”[25] he is quite elliptical in arguing that the Comintern’s decision to move away from a “class against class” line had relatively little impact on the eventual failure of the Black sharecroppers movement. Here, Kelley’s desire to avoid intervening in the Comintern debate prevents him from recognizing the degree to which his findings are radically divergent from the general revisionist trend of celebrating the Popular Front. Where it is clear that such conclusions cannot be avoided, Kelley prefers to minimize the impact of Comintern decisions, emphasizing instead the significance of changing local conditions. Thus in explaining the decline of the SCU, Kelley asserts that “in the face of New Deal-induced evictions…no antifascist slogans or demands for self-determination”[26] could have helped the union. Here Kelley effectively sidesteps the question of Popular Front vs. Third Period, arguing that the programs of each (anti-fascism vs. self-determination) were both insufficient. However, Kelley’s own detailed reconstruction of the SCU as it underwent the changes brought on by the Popular Front illustrate the degree to which the move away from militancy really did undermine the CP’s race work. In this struggle, as in many others, the case of African-Americans provides a significant exception to the general picture of a Party moving towards a more realistic politics during the Popular Front.

In the case of the SCU, the Popular Front meant that the Party encouraged the union to seek a merger with the larger American Farmers’ Union , an organization which in Alabama was “dominated largely by racist poor-white farmers who believed black sharecroppers…were to blame for the depressed price of cotton.”[27] Thus Black sharecroppers were told to ally with a union populated largely by men who hated them. As one would expect, the merger did not go smoothly. While the SCU won the introduction of several important civil rights planks into the AFU’s platform, it was ultimately subordinated to a union which did not represent Black sharecroppers. Thus the union refused to provide financial support to Black organizers working with sharecroppers, leading one to beg “the workers is not able to support me…please don’t fail to send me some funds just is soon is you get some for I need it bad to get me something to eat…al the job I got is organization work and I like the job and do mean to struggle but got to have support to struggle.”[28] These kinds of requests were not present when the SCU was an independent organization. In addition, the AFU required dues which were 1500% higher than SCU dues were, effectively excluding impoverished sharecroppers from the organization. These changes shifted the Party’s rural support “from poor black sharecroppers and laborers to independent white farmers.”[29]

In the face of this, Kelley argues that “the destruction of the Communist-led rural movement cannot be attributed entirely to changes in the Party’s line” because “[n]either the SCU, UCAPAWA [a farm laborers’ union], nor the AFU could have effectively”[30] prevented the economic assault on rural farmers. This phrasing represents a straw man. By framing the question in terms of monocausality, Kelley is effectively able to present other factors which led to the unions’ collapse. This phrasing allows Kelley to leave unanswered the question of which factor in a field of multiple determinants had the greatest effect. In short, it allows Kelley to sidestep the question of how the shift to the Popular Front affected the CP’s work among rural Black workers. Despite this argumentative circuity, it is reasonable to argue on the basis of the evidence in the previous paragraph that the Popular Front-inspired merger with the AFU represented a major setback to the Party’s race work in rural Alabama.

In many ways, the Popular Front had an even more negative effect on the Party’s work with urban Black workers. While the poverty of the countryside meant that there the party could not, in practice, cease to be a working class organization, the story in urban Alabama was quite different. There the party sought a union with white Southern liberals, who in the 1930s were typically “segregationists who advocated mild reforms that did not challenge the status quo.” The CP moved to accommodate this new audience by dropping its demand for Black self-determination, the inspiration behind all the racial militancy of the Third Period. Party member Rob Hall summarized the new perspective in approaching white liberals: “We cannot cry ‘white chauvinism’ against every Southern progressive white who still carries with him…considerable remnants of the old race prejudice.”[31] This shift away from a militant condemnation of all forms of racism towards accommodation resulted in Black workers leaving the Party in droves. In 1934 Birmingham alone had 1,000 members, mostly poor African-Americans. As the Party shifted to attract white liberals, membership for the entire District 17, which included all of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, dropped to 250 by January 1937. Two years of the Popular Front was enough to decimate membership by well over 75%[32].

Kelley concludes by recounting how the CP in Alabama ended up as an “invisible army,” effectively dissolved in the various reform organizations, such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. This dissolution, while appearing to grant the Party greater influence wider organizations, actually led to the CP being unable to effectively advocate its (admittedly atrophied) radical agenda, and ultimately hindered those organizations’ own ability to defend themselves against attacks from the Right. The CIO is an excellent example of this. As the CP became more deeply involved in the CIO nationwide, black Communists…devoted more time and energy to the CIO, thus contributing to the decline in black participation in the Party.”[33] Such blurring of organizational lines ultimately resulted in the CP, traditionally an organized Left wing of unions, to become disorganized and unable to effectively push the Left agenda which drew Black workers to it in the first place. In the case of the CIO, this meant that when the Dies Committee brought pressure on the movement, Communists were less able to organize a coherent response to the repression. Thus by retreating into the background of movements in hopes that they would not inflame anti-red passions, the CP only emboldened the anti-labor forces to go on the offensive.

In Alabama, this offensive marked the beginning of the end of the Popular Front era Communist Party. Though the Hitler-Stalin Pact would swing the Party into an “anti-imperialist” position more akin to its Third Period days, by that time the Alabama CP had lost so much of its support among Black workers that the new militancy was but a shadow of the old. As evidenced in Kelley’s study of Alabama, the Popular Front simply devastated the Party’s work for Black liberation. As such, the experience of African-Americans stands in glaring exception to the broad picture painted by revisionist scholarships eager to uncover those periods of Party history in which “domestic” radicalism came to the fore. For Black workers, it was these periods in which the Party began to care more about its reputation among liberal racists than among some of its staunchest supporters.

This Afro-American exceptionalism also confounds traditionalist narratives of Comintern manipulation bringing unceasing ruin to the Party. While John Early Haynes likens the Comintern’s influence on the Party to a cancer[34], it is clear that not all instructions from Moscow were detrimental to Party activities. The declaration of support for Black self-determination, for example, provided the impetus for the most militant challenge to white supremacy in the South since the days of Reconstruction. There is simply no evidence that the party would have pursued the course it did without Comintern intervention on the subject. At the same time, the declaration of the Popular Front had terrible implications for the Party’s efforts with Black workers. Thus the question of Comintern influence cannot be seen in simple Manichean terms. Specific lines had different impacts which need to be evaluated individually, without attempted recourse to a larger narrative of Comintern malfeasance.

Afro-American exceptionalism illustrates the degree to which the old paradigms of American Communist history fail to reconcile the details of the CP’s history with the larger narratives in which it is a subject. While my own sympathies lie heavily with the revisionists, I believe it is clear that their own framework for interpreting communist history is insufficient. Afro-American exceptionalism points towards a theory of Communist history which neither privileges “domestic radicalism” nor denies the existence of such a movement, but instead seeks to understand the strategies by which the Communist movement sought to effect radical change in its various localities. Included in these strategies was subordination to the Communist International. While I believe that this subordination to a Stalinist state was ultimately the downfall of the Party, I do not believe that we can thus retrospectively read from this that every instance of Comintern intervention was but a step on the road to ruin. If we take the time to evaluate these interventions on their own merits, I believe there are many other exceptionalisms inside American Communist history, waiting to be discovered.


One example of these other exceptionalisms is the way the fight for Black equality is linked to the larger working class movement. Given that the division between Black and white workers has historically been one of the primary means by which employers sought to prevent or destroy working class movements, the destruction of white supremacy is vitally important to the American union movement. As Albert Szymanski and Michael Reich have demonstrated, white workers receive lower wages when there is more prejudice towards Black workers. Reich summarizes the argument:

racial inequality exacerbates racial antagonisms and divisions between black and white workers. White workers develop racist attitudes and feelings that make it more difficult for them to ally with blacks and to see their common class interests against capital…The consequence of these racial divisions is that the collective strength of labor is weakened in its bargaining with capital.[35]

Thus the Afro-American exceptionalism described in this paper is ultimately not limited to Afro-Americans. While the Third Period took Communists out of a great many unions where there were undoubtedly white workers who were sympathetic to communism, the period’s racial militancy ultimately strengthened the prospects for the working class movement as a whole by posing a decisive challenge to white supremacy. In this way, the effects of Afro-American exceptionalism diffused throughout the American working class.

[1] Barrett 6

[2]Karl Kautsky “The American Worker.” Historical Materialism 11.4 Nov. 2003. Pg 73

[3] It must be noted that in 1919, such arguments for coming economic and social collapse had tremendous resonance. The country was wracked by a massive strike wave, race riots swept through Black neighborhoods in a fashion reminiscent of the pogroms which had led so many Russian Jews to socialism, and San Francisco was experiencing a general strike based on a refusal to ship arms to the White Armies. That said, it is an irony of history that the CP-USA should find themselves the inheritors of an argument made by a man who was proclaiming in 1919 that “the moral failure of Bolshevik methods is inevitable.”

[4] Draper 40

[5] Draper 49.

[6] Qtd. In Barrett 138.

[7] Draper 114.

[8] Draper 271

[9] Qtd. In Draper 272.

[10] Draper 278. It’s important to note that Lovestone’s theory of American exceptionalism is much closer to that of Kautsky than either its predecessor Werner Sombart or its modern incarnations like those of Seymour Martin Lipset. Lovestone held that the bourgeoisification he was describing was a temporary anomaly in world capitalism, not some special attribute of America.

[11] Barrett 157.

[12] Foster had previously been an even more enthusiastic exponent of American exceptionalism than Lovestone. He emphasized how the reformist trade unions had almost total control of the workers’ movement, at one point describing them as “virtually invincible.” Foster’s less prominent position, however, allowed him to escape this past, while Lovestone’s “weighed like a nightmare” on his present.

[13] Previous Comintern resolutions on African-Americans had treated their struggle as merely part of the anti-colonial movement in Africa, not a part of the American working class struggle.

[14] Qtd in Draper 349.

[15] Qtd. In Zizek It should be noted that while Stalin’s formulation is more famous, Vladimir Lenin was actually the originator of this framework. See What is To Be Done? pg 60. "We confess that we find it difficult to sat which of these resolutions is the better one. In our opinion they are both worse."

[16] James Barrett “The History of American Communism and Our Understanding of Stalinism” American Communist History 2.2 2003. Pg 175.

[17] Maurice Isserman. Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 1982. Pg xi

[18] Ibid 13.

[19] Barrett 191.

[20] Kelley 100.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kelley 80.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kelley 55-56.

[25] Ibid xiii

[26] Ibid 56

[27] Ibid 169.

[28] Ibid 172.

[29] Ibid 175.

[30] Ibibd 175

[31] Ibid 134.

[32] Ibid 132

[33] Ibid 151.

[34] John Earl Haynes “Poison or Cancer? Stalinism and American Communism” American Communist History 2.2, 2003. Pg 183.

[35] Michael Reich. “Who Benefits from Racism? The Distribution among Whites of Gains and Losses from Racial Inequality” The Journal of Human Resources 13.4 1978. Pg 525.