Review: Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War, by Maurice Isserman

“The history of communism in America is bitterly contested terrain,” writes Maurice Isserman on the first page of his 1982 book. Nearly four decades later, it remains bitterly contested. Isserman falls into the category, I think, of historians who were open to re-examining the history of the American Communists, rejecting the overly-simplistic anti-Communist narratives that had been prevalent during the long decades of the Cold War (which was still raging in 1982).

But subsequent research, and in particular the opening of the Soviet archives following the collapse of the USSR, showed that the Cold Warriors had not in fact got it all wrong. The American Communists were, for many years, effectively a tool of Soviet foreign policy. The party was controlled by Moscow, was funded by it, took orders from it, and followed its lead even where it led the party into oblivion.

This should have been clear to Isserman even without access to those archives, as he devotes a considerable part of the book to the party’s darkest period – the nearly two years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact when Communists around the world were forced to focus their attacks on British imperialism, to turn down the volume when attacking Nazi Germany, and to make convoluted defences of Stalin’s decision to partner with Hitler in the division of Poland and much else.

One cannot help but read the story of the decline of the American Communists with sensing a certain sense of justice playing out. The party’s uber-leader, Earl Browder, whose portrait would hang side-by-side with those of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, was unceremoniously kicked out of the Party following yet another Moscow-ordered change on line after 1945. Browder’s rival, William Z. Foster (his enemies said the “Z” stood for “zig-zag”), then inheriting a party facing terminal decline.

A pity that Isserman has nothing to say about Marxist rivals to the Communist Party, not least of all the Trotskyists, particularly those who followed the leadership of Max Shachtman. He treats them with the same disdain as the Communists did, ignoring them completely. He doesn’t even mention what may have been Browder’s final appearance on a public stage, when in 1950 he finally agreed — now powerless and no longer with a Party to lead — to debate Shachtman in front of an audience of over 1,000 people.

At the end of Shachtman’s presentation he turned the face the former unchallenged leader of the American Stalinists and uttered these unforgettable words:

“When I saw him standing there at the podium, I said to myself: Rajk was the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, or hanged, or garrotted. Kostov was the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party. And when I thought of what happened to them, I thought of the former secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There – there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!