The key question for historians of the American Communist Party has always been whether it was a political party like any other operating within the laws of the United States. As the editors of this volume note in their introduction, many historians have given a qualified yes to the question, admitting that there may have been some Communist spies but contending that the overwhelming majority of party members were loyal, if dissenting, Americans. The editors call these historians revisionists, and throughout this volume they conduct an argument against what they consider to be an excessively charitable view of the American Communist Party’s activities.
Yet what have the revisionist historians been revising? They developed their views during the Cold War (1945-1992), when the Soviet Union and the United States were the two great superpowers engaged in a tense rivalry. Revisionists argue that this competition stimulated a fanatical anti-Communism, skewing U.S. government policy into hostile interpretations of every Soviet move and polluting the American political atmosphere (with politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy accusing government employees, some in high positions, of treason). Revisionists point out that few employees were actually convicted of disloyalty, and in the celebrated case of Alger Hiss, who was found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, these historians have doubted the soundness of the government’s evidence and even suspected the Justice Department or the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) of contriving to incriminate Hiss. Similar doubts have been expressed about the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying. Revisionists have also attacked the testimony of former Communists, often treating figures such as Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, and Louis Budenz as mentally unbalanced witnesses who enjoyed the spotlight and sensationalized their meager evidence.
Other historians—they might be called the traditionalists—have offered proofs of the Communist conspiracy to refute the revisionists. Yet traditionalists have not been entirely convincing, because they have not had access to classified U.S. government information or to the records of the American Communist Party. This situation has now changed in one significant respect. The archives of the American Communist Party, housed in the former Soviet Union, have been opened to American scholars. The Secret World of American Communism is only the first volume in the presentation and analysis of that archive, but it goes a long way, as the editors suggest, toward corroborating traditionalists’ interpretations.
Document after document in this volume demonstrates that the American Communist Party slavishly followed the Soviet line. American party members who did express independence were punished and expelled from the organization. They were considered deviationists, undermining the struggles of the working class and the discipline of the party. When a wife of a party member was suspected of disloyalty, her husband was expected to abandon her. When the American party developed factions, the Comintern (established by Vladimir Ilich Lenin as the directing body for all Communist parties) decided which faction would triumph. All matters, great and small, were submitted to Soviet bureaucrats for approval.
Indeed, many of the documents in this volume make for tedious reading because American party members minutely recorded and justified the simplest activities and the most trivial disputes. Everything took on world-shaking importance for them, because they were beholden to the Soviet Union and worried about what their Soviet comrades would think of their work.
In total numbers, American Communist Party membership never exceeded one hundred thousand members. It never represented a direct threat to the stability of the U.S. government. As the editors of this volume show, however, the party’s influence far exceeded its small size. Communists infiltrated labor unions and influenced their policies. Among the documents presented in this volume there are government documents, obviously copied by U.S. government employees, which gave the Soviet Union an inside view of how U.S. policy was shaped. Even intelligence services such as the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) harbored Communists.
Revisionists have contended that the presence of Communists did not necessarily mean that agencies were being subverted. Yet documents in this volume destroy the claims of several Communists who proclaimed their loyalty to the United States in public; actually these Communists took their cues from their Soviet masters. For example, Milton Wolff, who commanded Americans fighting for the Spanish Republic, still denies his ties to the Communist Party, although the editors...
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