Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism

Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism

Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism

Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism

Synopsis

Earl Browder was the preeminent Communist party leader in the United States in the 20th century. A Kansas native and veteran of numerous radical movements, Browder was peculiarly fitted by circumstance and temperament to head "the cause" during its heyday, the critical years of the Great Depression and World War II. In this new biography James Ryan shows Browder as a man of many contradictions. He was shy but sought publicity. He prided himself on being a Stalinist, yet viewed himself as a loyal American. He moved up within the structure of the organization (the CPUSA or CP) by anticipating changes in the party line, but believed he could assert his individuality without recrimination. In writing this book, James Ryan investigated recently opened annals in the Soviet Archives. These records included a collection of American Communist party files covering the period of 1919 to 1944, which were secretly shipped to Moscow and until 1992 only rumored to have existed. Ryan also consulted the Browder Papers at Syracuse University and U.S. government documents, particularly FBI files. Ryan's comprehensive biography sheds new light on both the life of Earl Browder and the workings of the Communist party in the United States during its peak of popularity. His research suggests that Browder's life represents a middle ground between two competing interpretations of the party. The traditional view, developed in the 1950s, has stressed the Soviet-dominated mind-set of CP leaders. By contrast, the revisionist school, dominant among academic historians between 1975 and 1995, has emphasized home-grown roots and domestic concerns. Ryan shows convincingly that Browder blended elements of both, thuscalling for a new view of American Communism during this period.

Excerpt

Perhaps no single individual better illustrated the bifocal nature of the Communist party (CPUSA or CP), with its American and Russian concerns, than Earl Russell Browder. a wiry figure with sharp features, sandy hair, and magnetic light-blue eyes, he led the movement from 1932 to 1945. a product of rural poverty and the culture of a small nineteenth- century Great Plains city, Browder carried boyish good looks well into his forties. Self-educated, he overcame a shy temperament to become the greatest public relations expert in cpusa history. Although his countrymen stereotyped Marxists as stocky, swarthy figures having thick Slavic accents, Browder, slender and ruddy-complected, made his Kansas twang the voice of American Communism. He invoked a 150-year domestic radical tradition. No previous cp head had ever seemed proud to be an American. Surrounding himself at rallies with Soviet and U.S. flags, he fascinated the press for over a decade.

Why should anyone today care about Earl Browder? As historian John Haynes has observed, much of the public and particularly students have the attitude that the Communist party was a joke. Books about it, some assume, are written by followers of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, with their wild imaginations, or by Red-diaper babies (children of Communist families) seeking to reassert the patriotism of oft-vilified relatives.

Actually, although it was never a major force, the cpusa was once an important minor player in America's politics, labor movement, and cultural life. Under Browder's leadership the Communists attempted to use working-class Americanism, the proletarian response to dominant, conservative pressures toward loyalty and conformity (so ably described by historian Gary Gerstle) to build a mass radical movement. in the process the cpusa achieved respectability previously unknown and now frequently forgotten. According to political scientist Harvey Klehr, Commu-

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