The Communist Experience in America

A new book examines the American communists who betrayed this country -- and the leftist apologists who defend them.

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.