The Communist Experience in America

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Harvey Klehr, Andrew Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University. He is the author of the new book, The Communist Experience in America: A Political and Social History.

FP: Harvey Klehr, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

So what inspired you to write this new book, what is it about and how is it different from other works?

Klehr: This book is actually a compilation of a number of articles that I have written over the past forty years.  Several years ago I was approached by Irving Louis Horowitz, publisher of Transaction Books, who asked me to consider collecting a number of the essays I had written on the issue of communism.  I tried to group them into several areas that illustrate both my own intellectual history and a coherent view of the communist phenomenon. And then I wrote an introductory essay about how I got interested in this topic and how an intellectual career can be shaped by a variety of factors, some of which flow logically from a topic and others which are based on serendipity.  Looking back on my career was fun, although once you reach the point where you are asked to collect a lot of what you have written, there’s also the sense that you are also a bit of a dinosaur.

FP: Can you talk to us a bit about your own intellectual history and journey?

Klehr: In graduate school in the late 1960s I was influenced by Marxism.  The first two published articles in the book explore the ways Marx and Lenin tried to understand America and how the USA might fit the Marxist paradigm for the development of capitalism.  I was really curious about why the Left had done so poorly in America – it’s the only advanced industrial country in which a left-wing movement explicitly committed to socialism never came to power or seriously competed for power.  My doctoral dissertation was on the theory of American exceptionalism.  It led me to an interesting episode in the history of American communism – the moment in 1929 when Joseph Stalin himself presided over a Moscow commission that expelled Jay Lovestone and his followers from the CPUSA for the crime of American exceptionalism.  Lovestone’s group, which included some fascinating people – Lovestone himself later became the fiercely anti-communist advisor on international affairs to George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, Bert Wolfe became a noted historian of Russia, Will Herberg a prominent conservative theologian – had the support of 90% of the American party, but that meant nothing to Stalin.

That was what got me interested in the history of American communism.  I spent nearly twenty years studying the CPUSA and its relationship to Moscow.  After my first book, a sociological study of the leadership of the CPUSA appeared, Ted Draper, the dean of historians of American communism, approached me and asked me to finish his project on the CPUSA’s history.  That resulted in The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade.  By the early 1990s, I was sick of the topic and through a complicated set of circumstances, went to Moscow to get information for a biography – that I still intend to write – about a colorful character named David Karr.

I arrived in Moscow just a few months after Boris Yeltsin’s foiling of the coup and was fortunate enough to be the first American to get access to the Comintern archives, where I found stunning documentation of the role played by American communists in espionage operations of the USSR.  The archivists did not realize the material was in the files or its significance and I was able to take copies out of the country.  A few years later Yale University Press published The Secret World of American Communism, which I co-authored with John Haynes and Fred Firsov and I had launched myself on a new career as a writer on espionage.  John and I have written several other books, including Venona, Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, and most recently, Spies, The Rise and Fall of the KGB in American with Alexander Vassiliev.

The more I studied communism and the CPUSA, the more conservative I became.  It was fully as responsible as fascism for the most blood-soaked century in human history.  Individual communists were often motivated by the highest ideals and yet they helped to create and perpetuate many of the worst horrors in human history.  Writing about communists meant I also had to contend with many writers and intellectuals who apologized for or excused these atrocities – even as more and more information about them became available.  So, part of my responsibility, as I saw it, was to call them to account, something that Haynes and I did in In Denial and that is also on exhibit in many of the articles in this new book.

FP: Can you talk a bit about your experience in Moscow?

Klehr: My first trip in the spring of 1991 was a real adventure. The coup against Gorbachev had failed and Boris Yeltsin had seized Communist Party property, including the archive that held the records of the Communist International.Gorbachev had opened the archive, knowing that material in it would discredit the Communists. I was the first American, and one of the first Westerners, to use it. Going through the finding aids, I asked to see a variety of material that sounded interesting. I was a bit nervous; I had been writing about American communism for years without access to some of the most sensitive records of the Party and I couldn’t help but think that I would have to go back to the United States and admit that I had been wrong about the dominant role played by the USSR in the CPUSA’s affairs or other issues on which I had debated and argued with other scholars.  Luckily, that was not the case. While the archival materials deeply enriched what people like me had been saying about the CPUSA, they also confirmed virtually all of our arguments.

In many ways the more significant part of my trip was when I started coming across memos and notes signed by a man named Pavel Fitin, whom I had never heard of before.  Many of them were to or from Georgi Dimitrov, head of the Comintern, and asked for information, or provided information, about Americans.  And, they were marked “Top Secret.”  I recognized some of the names as people who had been named by Elizabeth Bentley as Soviet spies.  Since the memos were date in 1943 and 1944, they couldn’t have been in response to her naming them- she didn’t go to the FBI until late 1945.  When I found out that Fitin was the head of foreign espionage for the KGB, I knew that I had uncovered real gold.  I marked all this material – along with lots of other documents- for copying.  That was another adventure; there were no copying machines available to researchers in the archive- you marked what you wanted and when your research stay was over, the staff gave you a microfilm reel containing your material.  When I flew out of Moscow, I had two reels of documents, with many documents labeled top-secret.  It was a surreal experience going through customs with microfilm labeled top secret- a sign of how much the world had changed.

FP: As you state, the Left has a hard time being held accountable in your field. Many of my own colleagues who argued for years about the innocence of the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss don’t receive the evidence like people who are too concerned about the truth or about the historical record. They end up justifying their guilt (after having argued their innocence) or further denying against all reality or just dismissing everything with deafening silence or scornful ridicule (i.e. historians who had defended Hiss laughed at me for chasing old ghosts. . . historians). There is obviously a deeper agenda at work. What is that agenda?

Klehr: I think that for some people, it’s simply a matter of religious faith.  No empirical evidence will ever persuade them.  For others, their loyalty to the USSR or to its narrative is so strong that they construct Rube Goldberg-like explanations to account for the evidence.  In many cases, where the individuals themselves are or were not communists, admitting what the new evidence shows, would require them to rethink their understanding of America and its history, most notably, the history of the McCarthy era.  To admit that Whittaker Chambers or Elizabeth Bentley told the truth, to admit that Richard Nixon was right about Hiss – they just can’t do it.

FP: How does it work that people motivated by the highest ideals help to create and perpetuate many of the worst horrors in human history?

Klehr: I think, unfortunately, it’s very easy. If your ideals are so wonderful and the only thing standing in the way of realizing them are ignorant and reactionary people, well, they just have to be eliminated –or even sacrificed for the greater good.  If you have persuaded yourself that you know how to end poverty or eliminate racism, why let a bunch of flawed human beings stand in the way?

FP: So what has been the communist experience in America?

Klehr: It’s been a story of brief period of success sandwiched between long eras of failure.  From its origins in 1919 until about 1935, the CPUSA was largely ineffectual.  It occasionally led dramatic strikes or recruited a prominent intellectual, but it remained small and widely despised, in large measure because of its ties to the USSR.

When Soviet foreign policy, reacting to Hitler’s consolidation of rule in Germany, started advocating a popular front against fascism, the CPUSA was able to make itself a significant factor in American life.  Its membership jumped to nearly 100,000 before 1939, its front groups enlisted millions of sympathizers for specific causes, it was a major presence in the CIO, and it achieved a certain respectability.  But all that ended with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The Party made recovery during WWII, when the USA and USSR were allies – although we now know that the Party leadership during that period was helping the KGB establish an extraordinarily large stable of spies throughout the American government.  As the Cold War heated up, the CPUSA’s unyielding defense of the interests of the Soviet Union made it a pariah in American society and revelations abut espionage helped to destroy it.  In the mid-1950s most of its remaining loyalists had enough when Khrushchev admitted Stalin’s crimes, the USSR crushed the Hungarian Revolution and revelations of anti-Semitism stunned many of the Party’s Jewish members.  It has been on the margins of American life ever since.

FP: What are you thinking about these days?

Klehr: This summer will be relaxing; for the first time in many years I don’t have a big project to finish.  I will be writing an article on David Karr in an effort to get back to his biography and see if I can start plugging some of the holes in his life that I will have to fill before that project would be feasible.

FP: Harvey Klehr, thank you, it was a pleasure to speak with you.

  • Guest

    Klehr and Haynes' books are nearly as important to an understanding of Soviet Communism as The Gulag Archipelago is.

  • Jake Saunders

    Excellent. Thank you Harvey Klehr. Thank you for revealing what others wish to hide. What some of us have known about American communism will never be accepted by those who worship the communist fantasy. But the more these facts reach reasonable minds, the less chance Obama and his ilk have of imposing their own brand of communism on the American people.

    • Tom

      And who are and where are these millions of secret Reds, nourishing this deep fantasy of Communism being the utopia of mankind? Huh? Are you kidding? Are YOU living in a fantasy land? Seems like it to me. If the left, as Klehr himself had, had a BRIEF romance with the far left, some with Communism, but for nearly all it was for mostly idealistic reasons. (Let's exclude sad, solipsistic neurotics like Whittaker Chambers.) As a historian I also know that people came and left the CPUSA in rapid numbers. They never had more than 100,000 members, and most of that was barely covered in the rapid turnover. But they wanted to stop Franco-Hitler Fascism..They sent lawyers to the Scottboro boys and decried racism forthrightly. They said big corporations should stop sending thug squads to break up riots. These WERE and are good ideas. They are not a fantasy. Yes, people DID hang on to those beliefs (not fantasies) even as those interested in Communism as a route mostly left after a short time. But when the truth was apparent most everybody woke up and smelled the coffee about communist, which is not the same thing as still endorsing the New Deal in the '50s. Please get you facts and timelines straight. See my full comment below.
      Like I say, where oh where—even in Russia today—are all these wandering fantasizing Communists you still believe in, like the tooth fairy? I suspect, and you may tell me I am wrong, that this is just a smokescreen for you and people like you to sneer at anything that talks about justice and equality in society—because "that is what the Commies used to say, too." We all agree most Communists, the hardcore professionals, were frequent liars, so let's get past that. But they were a mere handful of people, then and even moreso now.

      • codetalker

        I woukd say about 1/2 of professors in universities thru outthe western world,Trade unions,AND the media-especiallymedia,some churches seem to be influenced.Have you ever been in the military-There you signed that you were not a member of a list of organizations as long as your arm,and every one had the name of peace,justice,and so forth. There is a new book delving in to the thousands of Americans who went to russia-the workers paradise in the 1930's.One of the interesting things was about 18,000 US passports dissapeared along with their owners….During the war hundreds of russians came into us at a airfield in montana. The name of the book is "The Forsaken" A must read for anyone interested in early russian influence in USA..

      • Ray Fleischman Jr.

        Stalin killed more Jews than Hitler even before Hitler got started and directed and supported North Korea to invade South Korea. Communism has freed nobody but its sure killed plenty of 'em. But yopur a Histroian and know that huh?

  • PAthena

    I suspect that Vladimir Lenin was trying to establish the Permanent Reign of Terror, following Maximillian Robespierre, trying to prevent Thermindor, when Robespierre and the Jacobins were overthrown. The term "left" comes from the French Revolution, with the semi-circular seating of the National Assembly. Robespierre and the Jacobins seated on the far left.

    • Guest

      Left from the perspectitve of the front of the Assembly, looking toward the delegates.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Indioviejo Indioviejo

    Another exceptional interview by Jamie Glazov ! The deeper agenda," I think that for some people, it's simply a matter of religious faith. " This says it all, we will never be rid of communist, progressives, liberals and other vermin, because their narrative is their reason for living. It is what it is, and we must be eternally vigilant of our liberties, and our rights.

    • Tom

      You must be joking.
      But let see if I have this right. You define "vermin" as:
      -Communists.
      Well, OK, certainly as practiced in other countries, few will argue.
      -Progressives
      Oh, wow. Like Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman? Environmentalists wanting national parks? Doesn't really fit.
      -Liberals
      Hey, you know what? I think you are more interested in smearing, than you are in thinking. Because this is simply not the truth.
      Sigh.
      All the best in your journey toward a better life and fuller understanding……

    • Tom

      You must be joking.
      But let see if I have this right. You define "vermin" as:
      -Communists.
      Well, OK, certainly as practiced in other countries, few will argue.
      -Progressives
      Oh, wow. Like Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman? Environmentalists wanting national parks? Doesn't really fit.
      -Liberals
      Hey, you know what? I think you are more interested in smearing, than you are in thinking. Because this is simply not the truth.
      Sigh.
      All the best in your journey toward a better life and fuller understanding……

  • bill

    In Response to Indioviejo…And your narrative is??? And of course this would not
    be your reason for living..Maybe your reasons for hating..liberal vermin..
    Come on buddy..You like your world view story just as much as thew next guy.
    Oh..But of course yours is the truth..or correct..or right…I would not waste my time
    on this eternally vigilant thing..But..if you want to talk sometime..we could have a beer
    and I could pick apart your narrative..bit by bit……..

    • codetalker

      ommunism et al is a Godless religion….

  • Tom

    This is a rather extremist view. All the supposed horrors of American Communists, and then toward the end the truth: two or three desultory paragraphs saying Communists had little impact in the USA, and that was only in the brief period of about 1935 to 1955. And four or five of those years was Republicans and Democrats united in being grateful to them as an ally against Hitler–even Henry Luce in Life magazine was favorable. By the late 40s, liberal Democrats with any lingering Communist ties were fleeing rapidly. That is when the Americans for Democratic Action was formed (around 1947)—specifically EXCLUDING Communists from those being welcome. And 1955 is really too late. Intellectuals had mostly abandoned—with a few prominent exceptions it is true, but not many—by 1950-1953. The numbers defending Alger Hiss grew microscopic and by the early 70s he had almost no defenders. The Rosenbergs was a messy case. They have been proven guilty it is true. But the rest of this article is self-congratulatory nonsense, apart from condemning the Soviet Union which was a semi-good idea gone terribly wrong within six or seven years. There is lazy thinking here that tends toward viewing all liberal or leftish ideas as being part and parcel Communism the way Reagan used to get things like Medicare mixed up with "socialized medicine." It just ain't true. Make it very clear what you are talking about, instead of trashing those crazy kids in the 60s who got all messed up and suddenly found the ultraconservative American right. Something doesn't smell right.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

    It would appear that Mr. Klehr's thesis about leftism being a "religious faith" is striking a chord. The Marxist priesthood seems to be out in force, preaching a their denial that Marxism has ever existed. The attack on Whittaker Chambers was amusing …

    But to get to the point of the matter. America has never needed its communists — it has the Democrat Party.

    • Tom

      I do not see anyone denying that Marxism ever existed. NO ONE. Absrud statement.

      Invented out of whole cloth, even.

      The will to ignore textured reality is striking in some of these views.

      It is certainly not intended to merely mock the sad Mr. Chambers, who had a psychologically tormented life and needed a religion to fill his emptiness and depression. First, he found it in his conception of the "religion" of Communism, and then bounced to the other extreme, in neither case being able to see a more subtle reality. "True believers" DO come in all stripes.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

        So, let's talk about the "sad Mr. Chambers" …

        He came into the House Un-American Activities Committee and raised some eyebrows by stating that both he and Alger Hiss had been communists, and Mr. Hiss was channeling State Dept. documents to the Soviets. You DO know, don't you, that until 1989, the primary loyalty of American communists was not to their own country, but to the USSR, right?

        Soon after, without even being asked to testify, Alger Hiss came before the Committee, under oath, and testified that he had never even known someone named Whittaker Chambers. That caught the attention of a young California Congressman by the name of Richard Nixon. A lawyer hears two people testify, under oath, with diametrically opposed statements. Someone's lying. Fun stuff!

        The rest is history. Chambers might have been sad, he might have been psychologically tormented, and he might have needed a religion to fill the void in his life. We all do. But HE told the truth, and Hiss went to prison.

        • Cary

          By general acknowledgement, Hiss was a perjurer and Chambers exposed him. Nixon, with an uncanny ability to recognize a poseur and liar (wonder why?), made poltical hay out of it, his electioneering technique of preference. Fine and dandy so far.
          But that did not make Chambers worthy of sainthood or qualify him to be a deep political philospher, especially when he thought all liberal social action was if not equated to Communism, awful darn close, e.g. Social Security is the first step toward collectivization and forcing women out of the home and into the workplace, etc.
          It is interesting that people like the cheerful President Ronald Reagan lionized him, despite the thinness of Chambers' "philosophy."
          Yep, he probably nailed Hiss. Way past the time to move on from that. The defects of Chambers' total outlook remain unaswered, however, however much sympathy one may have for the tragedy and depression in his life.

  • badaboo

    Life and politics as viewed from the prism of present day narrowminded conservatives , is quite comical , and even revisionist .Yes there have been the goldbergs and the Alger hiss' , Benedict Arnolds as it were , ideological and national traitors , ….just as today as we have seen many of our own Naval personell and CIA and FRBI selling out their country , truly traitors .
    To extrapolate that to the American Communists party , of the 20's thru the 50's is just simply STUPID , and expresses an ignorance of one's own American history .It is even MORE stupid to correalate SovietCommunism to those Americans and the present day Democratic party .
    It seems that the history of American Labor , and the abuses it suffered at the hands of the early Tycoons are what many are in denial of . This in fact was the impetus of the leanings towards the whole idea of communism in this country . Nearly none knew of the real abuses that the Soviet people suffered under Lenin and Stalin . What they did know was that trhat system at the time was the only supporter of , or so bthey thought , of humane treatment of workers .

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

      Babadoo, people like Lincoln Steffens, who had actually seen the sufferings of the people of the Soviet Union, could have told them the truth. Instead, he came back from his trip to the USSR and said, "I have been over into the future, and it works." (Note: Sometimes, this quote is written, "I have seen the future, and it works.")

      You might wish to note that I did not say that the Democrat Party was a communist party. They have merely played the role of the far-Left party in American life. Want some proof?

      "Among the points in the party's "Immediate Program" are a $12/hour minimum wage for all workers, national universal health care, and opposition to privatization of United States Social Security. Economic measures such as increased taxes on "the rich and corporations," "strong regulation" of the financial industry, "regulation and public ownership of utilities," and increased federal aid to cities and states; opposition to the Iraq War and other military interventions; opposition to free trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); nuclear disarmament and a reduced military budget; various civil rights provisions; campaign finance reform including public financing of campaigns; and election law reform, including Instant Runoff Voting." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_USA

      Sounds like Obama, to me …

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

      Babadoo, people like Lincoln Steffens, who had actually seen the sufferings of the people of the Soviet Union, could have told them the truth. Instead, he came back from his trip to the USSR and said, "I have been over into the future, and it works." (Note: Sometimes, this quote is written, "I have seen the future, and it works.")

      You might wish to note that I did not say that the Democrat Party was a communist party. They have merely played the role of the far-Left party in American life. Want some proof?

      "Among the points in the party's "Immediate Program" are a $12/hour minimum wage for all workers, national universal health care, and opposition to privatization of United States Social Security. Economic measures such as increased taxes on "the rich and corporations," "strong regulation" of the financial industry, "regulation and public ownership of utilities," and increased federal aid to cities and states; opposition to the Iraq War and other military interventions; opposition to free trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); nuclear disarmament and a reduced military budget; various civil rights provisions; campaign finance reform including public financing of campaigns; and election law reform, including Instant Runoff Voting." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_USA

      Sounds like Obama, to me …

  • Thomas

    Typical easy misrepresentation, I am afraid. Because both the Communists and Obama praise blue skies, they are both "proven" to be fellow comrades?
    Think a little more rigorously, please,