Emory Report

March 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 24

American communists followed
party line, Klehr contends

The Cold War may be history, but the debate over communism's influence in the United States is far from settled, Harvey Klehr believes.

"The fight over the nature of American communism is, in a way, a fight about the nature of American culture today," said Klehr, a professor of political science who specializes in American radical movements.

For instance, last fall marked the 50th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist. "There were huge events in Hollywood, big mea culpas," Klehr said. "The screenwriters guild had this big thing where they apologized formally to the surviving blacklistees." The blacklist was created at a time when even suspicion of communist ties was enough to prevent someone from getting work.

The reaction to communism can still be felt in another prominent sector of American society, Klehr said. "Some argue that the reason the labor movement is so weak now was that it purged communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For a lot of people, the anticommunist movement in the United States was a defining moment in our culture."

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a turning point in Klehr's research. In 1992 he became the first Western scholar to visit the newly opened archives of the Communist International in Moscow. In the section containing documents about the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), Klehr found what he said was confirmation of his long-held beliefs about the relationship between the CPUSA and the Soviets. Klehr's second book based on the research, The Soviet World of American Communism, written with John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress and Kiril Anderson of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, has just been published by Yale University Press.

"The overall argument I've been making for the last 15 or 20 years, that the American Communist Party was a tool of the Soviet Union and that the party had never been an independent entity, was right on the mark," Klehr said.

Other scholars have argued that the CPUSA was "an independent, democratic, American institution," Klehr said. "And I think the evidence is overwhelming that no way was that the case."

American Communists showed "reflexive loyalty" to Moscow, Klehr said, as the CPUSA followed the Soviet Union's zigzag from one party line to the next. During the "Popular Front" period in the mid-1930s, American Communists formed a successful coalition with unions, New Deal liberals and the Roosevelt administration that brought the party into the mainstream for the first time. When the Soviets allied with Nazi Germany in 1939, the CPUSA immediately abandoned the coalition.

"One of the defining documents in the book comes in the middle of the Popular Front period. The party is enjoying successes it's never had in the United States. And the Russians call in this poor shnook who's an American representative in Moscow," Klehr said.

"The American Communist slogan is 'Communism is 20th Century Americanism.' A great line. They're using it to tremendous advantage. And the Russians say, 'That slogan has got to go. It's ideologically unsound.' And they do it! So in the middle of their period of being good Americans, the Russians tell them to change their slogan-and they do. At a moment's notice."

Paranoia was a primary component of the communist movement. And while conspiracy theories seem to have more proponents on the right these days, Klehr argues the mindset is not limited to extremists.

"I think in a way people are prone to see conspiracies everywhere they look. Modern American society is filled with conspiracies-just go see an Oliver Stone movie," he said.

"Psychologically, it's comforting in a way. It confirms that you have very powerful enemies; that's one reason why you're not winning. That's one reason the struggle is so intense. That's one reason why you have to be so hard. It's because your enemies are so vast and so dangerous and so clever. We do it all the time in more benign ways."

The post-war anticommunist backlash-personified by Sen. Joseph McCarthy-is famous for its paranoia and hysteria. Klehr and Haynes have finished a book about the Venona encryptions, cables the KGB sent from the United States to Moscow during World War II. Soviet espionage in America was extensive, Klehr said. And this raises questions about how to view the McCarthy era.

"Was this, as the dominant interpretation would hold it, a period of paranoia and a period in which America lost its soul? Or were there very real dangers and threats that we responded to, sometimes rationally, sometimes irrationally?

"What kind of country were we and are we?" he continued. "The communism issue raises those questions."

-David Holzel

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