Jacob A. Zumoff, the Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929

By Le Blanc, Paul | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Jacob A. Zumoff, the Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929


Le Blanc, Paul, Labour/Le Travail


Jacob A. Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929 (Leiden: Brill 2015)

THIS BOOK CHALLENGES a long-standing story about the early US Communist Party. Amid the prosperous 1920s, according to the old narrative, a small group of American radicals, out of touch with the US realities, hope to follow the example of Russia's workers and peasants led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who made the 1917 Revolution. The result was a new Communist Party characterized by crazy, sectarian ultra-leftism. A primary culprit was the Communist International, pulling naive idealists into organizational, strategic, and tactical schemes derived from backward Russia, hilariously inappropriate to the most dynamic capitalist country in the world. (I myself heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an early Communist leaflet appealing to the Workers and Peasants of Brooklyn.)

Pushing against what he sees as a caricature of early US Communism, Jacob Zumoff adheres to the original revolutionary perspectives. Whether he is right or wrong in this, his orientation causes him to seek and dig out valuable information about what the early Communists actually thought, did, and tried to do. The result is a picture of an early US Communism far more interesting and impressive than is revealed by the timeworn narrative. Zumoff's thesis is that the Comintern played a positive role in its first four years, but that increasingly afterwards, its negative transformation in the direction of what came to be known as "Stalinism" destructively impacted on the US Communist Party.

The classic study of early US Communism is the two-volume work of 1957 and 1960 by liberal-minded ex-Communist Theodore Draper--The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia. Draper's meticulous work transcended the caricatures yet ultimately was dismissive of US Communism as being dominated by the perspectives and needs not of the US working class but, instead, of the Communist leaders of Soviet Russia.

Zumoff's introduction traces the conflict between Draper and his followers, who see the tragedy of a Soviet-dominated US Communism, and younger 1960s activist-scholars seeing US Communism in its 1930s reformist incarnation as a source of inspiring struggles. He draws from each of the two approaches while transcending both. Fully conversant with the secondary literature, he has also delved into the papers of numerous participants, plus newly available archives of the US Communist Party and the Communist International. And he has drawn all of this together into a well-written, highly informative volume that will stand as a "must-read" source for years to come.

Zumoff's study complements John Riddell's multi-volume edition on the first four congresses of the Communist International. These reveal a richness and diversity of political thought and experience often missed by some historians. Far from imposing inappropriate "foreign" perspectives, we see Lenin, Trotsky, and other leaders of the Comintern insisting (and assisting) in US Communists grounding themselves in the realities of their own political and cultural environment. Up to 1923-24, as Zumoff documents, the relationship proved to be overwhelmingly positive.

Even in the days of relative health, however, a situation of "factional gang warfare" (158) permeated the young party. On one side was the central leader Charles Ruthenberg, assisted by an ambitious protege named Jay Lovestone; on the other side a largely trade union based current headed by William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon.

The problem was worsened by Joszef Pogany, a functionary sent by the Communist International to assist the Hungarian-American federation. Adopting the name "John Pepper," he proved to be a very talented yet irresponsible adventurer. Pepper passed himself off as having far more authority than had been intended by those who sent him and assumed a central role in the inner councils of the Party. …

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