Magazine article Contemporary Review

American Communism in 1937: A British View

Magazine article Contemporary Review

American Communism in 1937: A British View

Article excerpt

BESIDES various memoranda on the Communist Party of Great Britain (e.g. CAB 98/18, Co 295/606/4, HO 45/25552 and HO 45/25573-4) the Public Record Office at Kew, Britain's government archive, possesses a number of reports on Communist parties abroad. That on the Communist Movement in Palestine in 1927 (CO 733/141/6) was written by a British colonial official, A. S. Mavrogordato, commandant of the Palestine Police; that on the Philippine Communist Party in 1930 (FO 371/15131 A 351) was supplied by the general commanding the Philippine Constabulary; that on the French Communist Party in January 1945 (FO 371/49071 Z 336) was drawn up by Adrian Holman, at that time on the staff of the embassy at Paris and later ambassador to Cuba.

The report on Communism in the United States (Public Record Office FO 371/20671 A 2695) printed below, which was sent to the Foreign Office by the British Ambassador in Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay in April 1937, was prepared partly with the assistance of American officials, including 'officials in Washington'. In 1934 British diplomats had been supplied with information on Communism in Chicago by the police lieutenant in charge of the 'Communist bureau at Detective Headquarters', who claimed to have 'honey-combed Communist organizations with spies ... procure[d] at an average of a dollar a day piece' and produced copies of their latest balance sheets (FO 371/17604 A 8922); in the 1937 report it is not specifically stated who, other than representatives of an employers' organization in San Francisco, the British consulted but the 'officials in Washington' seem not to have included J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover's view, communicated to President Roosevelt in August 1 936, that American Communists had the capacity 'at any time to paralyse the country' is far more alarmist than anything suggested in Sir Ronald Lindsay's report (see Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: the Life of J. Edgar Hoover, London 1987, p. 229). This document should therefore be regarded as an official, rather than the official view of Communism in the United States in 1937.

However one defines its official status, the report is to a considerable degree at variance with the picture of the Communist Party of the United States given by historians of the American left. It appears that during the 1930s sizable numbers of people may have signed up for the Communist Party without providing contact addresses (which would suggest that in most cases they also paid no regular subscriptions). According to Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: a Critical History 1919-1957 (Boston 1957, p. 385-6) membership was announced at the 1938 Communist Party convention as 75,000, though never more than 50,000 were genuinely active. In the 1934 convention membership had been given as 23,467, and rising (ibid. p. 225). Even allowing for upward massaging these figures are difficult to reconcile with a membership not exceeding 26,000 reported by Sir Ronald Lindsay in 1937 or the 15,000 reported by the 'Communist bureau' at Chicago Detective Headquarters in 1934 (FO 371/17604/A 8922, p. 16). Given that the population of the United States in 1937 was 130 million, membership of the Communist Party was insignificant, but evidently a little less insignificant than appeared to outside scrutiny. Also it was rising rather than declining.

The report also overlooks the extent to which the Communist Party of the United States was redeploying in the mid-1930s. Its flirtation with the Socialist Party in the early days of the Popular front era, followed by its increasing support of the New Deal -- to the extent of giving covert assistance to Roosevelt during the 1936 presidential election even though they were running their own no-chance candidate -- and the adoption of the slogan 'Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism', seem to have assisted recruitment. A shift in organizational emphasis from shop and factory-based units to county and assembly district-based units coincided with the new opportunities presented by the split in the American Federation of Labor in November 1935, when the miners' leader John L. …

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