Ghosts of Leninist past: a review of The Roots of American Communism

by Juan Conatz on October 13, 2013

Ghosts of Leninist past: a review of The Roots of American Communism

A review and some comments from Juan Conatz on Theodore Draper’s history of the various factions that would become the Communist Party USA.

The Roots of American Communism; Theodore Draper; Elephant Paperbacks, 1989 (First published in 1957)

The Communist Party USA was, technically, my first political home as a young teenager. Although admittedly only a paper member of their youth organization, the Young Communist League, the party’s newspaper and literature were the pillars which my budding radicalism was built on. Being isolated in a solidly Democrat, but socially conservative and, in many ways, racist section of Eastern Iowa, the stories and perspective of the Young Communist League and CPUSA’s publications excited me and made me feel less alone.

Like many paper members of radical organizations, I began to drift away from interest in the group. The CPUSA/YCL not being a real, tangible thing in my life made it easy to do so. During my membership, I never met another member nor was contacted personally by one.

Eventually, I rejected them and their Leninist politics, but I’ve maintained an interest in their more active periods, which is why I recently read Theodore Draper’s book about the American Communist movement in the early years of 1917-1921.

The Roots of American Communism mostly covers the formative years of the CPUSA, from 1917-1921, although it does give background in the form of where the party came from, such as the Socialist Party of America, the Socialist Labor Party and the IWW.

The author, apparently, was a former ‘fellow traveler’ of the party, having been involved in one of its front groups, but never having joined the actual party. He seemed to have broken with them in the early 1940s.

With any book about the CPUSA or their brand of ‘Communism’, you have to preemptively check the background of the author. Many accounts are either fluff pieces that fawn over the party like a true believer, or they are reactionary hit pieces written by right-wing anti-communists who are opposed to any form of working class self-activity.

But this book seems fairly balanced. It criticizes the party line, and points out holes in its official history, but you can also see the author’s sympathy with certain individuals or stances. If I was to describe his overall perspective, it’s from someone who identified somewhat closely with the aims and objectives of the party, but then broke with them in a way that wasn’t bitter. So it has its shortcomings, but it’s basically fair.

Some of how he frames things in the book is a bit annoying though. For instance, there is an overarching sentiment of historical progress and inevitability when describing the development of American radicalism in the early 20th Century. Particularly with the IWW, which is often portrayed as sort of a naive, stubborn throwback when faced with the emergence of the Communists. This is ironic considering that the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW was barely 15 years old at the time, while the seizure of power by a minority of would-be revolutionaries on behalf of the masses is the very definition of a naive, stubborn throwback idea.

One of the most surprising things I learned from this book was the fluid nature of radical politics in America during this period. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising, as this preceded the hard lines of ideology that followed. Back then, though, the lines between syndicalist, Leninist, left communist, anarchist and socialist were quite blurred or didn’t yet exist. For instance, the earliest formations of the CPUSA refused participation in electoral politics or in business unions, stances that are now more identified with the IWW, left communism or anarchism, rather than organizations that maintained a nearly 70 year relationship with the USSR. Also, apparently, future council communist theorist Anton Pannekoek had more influence on the socialist and early American Communist movements than even Lenin until a couple years after the Russian Revolution.

Overview of the CPUSA

In the history of American anti-capitalism, few organizations have seen more members, more influence and more involvement in struggle than the Communist Party USA1. From its roots in the “Left-Wing” of the Socialist Party of America and its foreign language federations up to when it was nearly destroyed by McCarthyism in the 1950s, the CPUSA was a part of nearly every social struggle that existed, in some fashion. Personalities such as James Cannon, Angela Davis, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and William Z. Foster all passed through the party at one time or another. And through its front groups and cultural associations, numerous writers, actors and musicians became ‘fellow travellers’ of the party. They were one of the driving factors behind theCIO’s explosion and secured leadership positions in multiple industrial unions before being red-baited and largely expelled in the late 1940s.

This is, of course, the more positive history of the party. They also slavishly operated as a branch of the Soviet Union’s interests, changing policy and direction as the USSR did. They were probably complicit in the kidnapping and murder of Juliet Stuart Poyntz. During World War II, they supported the no-strike pledges, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the use of the Smith Act against Trotskyists2. And of course, their whole ideology is as responsible for the crushing of 20th Century working class self-activity as any U.S. administration or coalition of capitalists. This particular brand of Marxist-Leninism killed the Hungarian Revolution, sent in tanks against the Prague Spring, slaughtered dissident sailors and workers in Kronstadt, beat the Makhnovists in Ukraine, and jailed or killed anarchists and dissident socialists during the Spanish Civil War. In addition, their ideology’s adherents actively fought against the best elements of May ’68 in France and the post-WW2 wave of factory occupations in Italy3.

In between the ‘good version’ to be proud of and the ‘bad version’, which is politically and morally objectionable, there is some complexity to the party. Despite its hierarchical nature and its obedience of the Soviet line, how this transferred down to rank-and-file members and what they did seemed to differ depending on the time and place. We have to remember that unlike other regions, where syndicalism, anarchism or other ‘ultra-left’ variants were strong, in the U.S. they weren’t. So organizers and individuals who might have been pulled to one of those tendencies somewhere else, were instead largely pulled into the realm of the CPUSA.

Today, the CPUSA exists as a shell of its former self, consistently hemorrhaging its influence and membership long before the collapse of its major funding source, the Soviet Union. They’ve been reduced to a sort of indefinite hypothetical popular frontism, supporting the Democratic Party even less critically than they did during different times in the 1930s/1940s, except without any sort of mass base or organizational relationship with the Democrats. Probably more than any group, it lives off the reputation of its past, while its actual involvement in existing social movements is tenuous and irrelevant.

American exceptionalism

But there was anticapitalism and anticapitalism. The Populist variety revealed the fears, expressed the hopes and spoke the language of the Middle-western farmer. He was second to none in his hatred of “Wall Street”, Eastern bankers, international financiers, “robber barons”. What sent him into battle, however, was the war cry of “free silver”, not desire of socialization of production. The discontented American farmer wanted more of what the capitalist had, He wanted it without the annoyance of revolution or the encumbrance of ideology – just by coining more precious metal and putting more into circulation. There was in this yearning a peculiar disproportion between the end and the means. The end which inspired all the native protest movements from Jefferson to Bryan was a utopia of nostalgia. It was a dream of recapturing an imaginary idyllic past of independent freeholders capable of supporting themselves on their own land without debts or depressions. The road to this promised land was to be paved with “cheap money”. It was the prototype of those “Share the Wealth” plans which have always appealed to the masses of discontented Americans. Never have they been able to make up their minds whether they dislike big capitalism or only the big capitalists.4

With some slight alterations, this could just as easily describe the Tea Party, American “libertarianism” or even elements of the Occupy movement. I’m not sure what to think about American Exceptionalism, as viewed by early Communists, but it feels strange and unique how dissent is often expressed here.

Where applying this view as conventional wisdom to apply to the United States breaks down is looking at race. The views described above, which reveal a small businessperson (almost artisan) view, has been almost entirely taken up by whites. The racial disparity when it comes to this kind of “anti-establishment” view, also reveals the racial caste system. Not just proportionately, but ideologically, whites are more likely to be and explicitly identify as and with the interests of the middle-class (however defined).

Radicalism as the university

The Marxist movements have been especially favorable breeding grounds for this revolutionary type [ the self-taught intellectual] because they are so top-heavy theoretically. Beginning with Marx himself, the “theoretician” has enjoyed exceptional prestige and authority. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to attain a position of leadership in Marxist movements without the ability to male an economic or political “analysis”, or at least demonstrate a command of the terminology. The very effort required to read the works of Marx and Engels – and later of Lenin and Stalin – can became tremendous incentive to further study or self-improvement. […] For many impressionable, ambitious, and idealistic young men, therefore, the radical movements have been a university as well as a faith.5

Radical movements are a kind of university for many people. This is likely even more true post-New Left than it was in 1957, the year this book was written. Unlike the period the author is speaking about, today radicalism has been largely (but not entirely) marginalized to the actual universities. For those of us with less formal education, the radical left provides us with teachers, study groups, experimentation with tactics, discussion, analysis of outcomes, etc, in a way very similar to what one might generally find in the university. The author correctly points out there is the matter of status at stake, as well. No one wants to feel one-upped by someone who is smarter than them. Often, the goal then is to match that status with an equivalent or greater amount of knowledge than the other person.

Of course, this isn’t always helpful and there are some that dislike both the existence of an intellectual culture on the radical left, as well as its excesses. Finding the latter problematic is understandable, objections towards the former I have less sympathy with. Particularly in the IWW (but also visible within most strands of anarchism), there is a historical tradition, still clung to by a small minority of people, of calling discussion and debate “theory”, which is then placed into an either/or comparison with “action”. Some people like to call this way of framing things as “Don’t think! Organize!”. The two are obviously not opposed. Every large working class movement has included a rich intellectual culture. There has never been a movement without this.

As for the quote from the book, I’m not sure this is particularly unique to Marxist movements, though. Religion, atheism, and environmentalism are some examples that have this dynamic as well. What they all have in common with radical movements, notwithstanding forms of volunteerism and activism, is a wholly or semi-encompassing view of how things should be done.

The IWW and the Russian Revolution

In the I.W.W., the Bolshevik revolution also struck a responsive chord. In the Cook County jail in Chicago awaiting sentence after the mass trial, Harrison George wrote the first pro-Bolshevik pamphlet by an American – The Red Dawn -, based on information furnished by Russian cellmates.6

Along with Harrison George’s pamphlet, another pro-Bolshevik pamphlet published by the IWW at the time was Industrial Communism by Harold Lord Varney. It’s interesting that the IWW was the earliest promoter of the Bolsheviks. Like much of the socialist and anarchist movements, there was initial optimism, if not enthusiastic approval of the Bolsheviks. In this, the IWW was not unique.

But, very shortly, even before anarchists like Emma Goldman and the Spanish CNT, the IWW became suspicious of what was actually happening in Russia, and rejected affiliation to both the Third International and the Profintern. The fact that the Russians and the CPUSA insisted that the IWW dissolve into the AFL didn’t help. Eventually, after a war of words between IWW and Communist publications, a few thousand Wobblies left for the CPUSA. By the 1940s, a mere letter from the director of a library in the Soviet Union triggereda scathing response and indictment of the USSR by the editor of the Industrial Worker.

American workers’ councils

The topic of ‘American soviets’ or ‘American workers councils’ has interested me for a few years now. Fred Thompson mentions them in a not very positive light in his history of the IWW7. Calling it a ‘fad’ and charecterizing them as the radical left ‘playing with Soviet terms’, Thompson seems to suggest that they were merely words describing inter-union bodies during a couple major strikes. Draper suggests the same:

In some places, the terminology of the Russian Revolution was noticeable. In Butte, the strike was controlled by “The Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Workers’ Council” to which every union except that of the engineers was affiliated. In Portland, Oregon […] a “Council of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors” was formed to “strike the final blow against the capitalist class”. […] Both “Soviets” expired with the strikes.8

Besides brief mention in these two books,information on these ‘councils’ is relatively sparse. Colin Anderson, in his article ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in the Seattle General Strike‘ mentions Wobblies speaking to the ‘Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Workmens’ Council’ in Tacoma circa 1918.

In Rose Pesotta’s Bread Upon the Waters, she mentions:

All industrial activity in Seattle was stopped by the general strike of 1919. Technically, it was voted in support of a walk-out by the shipyard workers of Seattle and Tacoma, 30 miles south, who wanted guarantees against unemployment and wage-cuts following World War I. But the unions which had pushed the demand for a city-wide tie-up had been stirred into action largely by the passage of a criminal syndicalism law over the Governor’s veto; they knew well that this would be used as a legal club against outspoken union members. The militant locals, too, had been inspired by the recent Russian Revolution; a month earlier the Metal Trades Council had set up a Soldiers, Sailors, and Workmen’s Council, after the manner of the Russians, to aid demobilized war veterans in finding work.

According to John Curl, the councils in Portland, Butte and Seattle were organized by the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America, the predecessors to the CPUSA. The councils were then eventually destroyed by the upcoming Red Scare and Palmer Raids. For what it’s worth, the anti-communist and anti-IWW mayor of Seattle claimed the IWW was behind the councils.

Other regions that had something with the ‘council’ name includes Toledo and Buffalo. The Soldiers’, Sailors’, Workers’ and Farmers’ Council of Buffalo has a bit more primary information available than the Toledo one. In March of 1919, there was a mass meeting called by it. It was met by police clubs and guns.

Fred Thompson talks about the Toledo Soldier’s and Sailors Council, saying that one was formed as an IWW strike spread to other factories9. Apparently, the strike funds raised by this council were instead used to pay for propaganda materials. Since the early formations of what became the CPUSA tended to see strikes in that period as opportunities for general insurrection, this sort of use of the strike funds would make sense in their perspective. So its very possible this council was CPUSA initiated.

Along with the previously mentioned Seattle, Butte, Portland and Toledo, Ward Churchill in The Cointelpro Papers quotes from a book (it’s unclear which one), which adds Denver to the list of post-WW1 councils in the U.S.

Finally, in the April 26, 1919 issue of The Revolutionary Age, a paper run by the “Left-wing” of the Socialist Party, there’s an article, reprinted from the Western Socialist, another “Left-wing” publication, titled ‘American Soviets May Hold Convention’.

Based on this limited information, there seems like there were 3 types of things called ‘councils’ during this period.

1) Inter-union decision making bodies formed during large or general strikes

2) Structures or organizations initiated by Communists, who then tried to fill them by calling for mass meetings

3) Some other body initiated by CPUSA radical left competition.

Race and the Communists

The Negros counted least of all in the early Communist movement. Not a single Negro delegate seems to have attended either convention. So little was the Negro problem in the Communist consciousness that the Communist Labor program had nothing at all to say about it. The Communist party’s program connected the “problem of the Negro worker” with that of the unskilled worker.10

One major criticism of the Old Left by the civil rights movement and New Left of the 1960s was their total in-adequateness when it came to the issue of race in the United States. While I do think some leeway should be given to people from a different time and place, and some credit should be given, there is a limit. Even in this time period’s best example of interracial cooperation in radical movements, Local 8 of the IWW on the Philadelphia docks, there were limitations because the unity was at least partially achieved through an affirmation of masculinity11. In the case of the early Communist movement, in the face of a resurgent KKK, an anti-lynching movement and a massive migration of black southerners up North, it seems inexcusable and mind-boggling that these issues were not on their radar. Eventually this changed, as the CPUSA advocated ‘self-determination’ in the ‘black belt’ of the Southern U.S., did antiracist organizing in Alabama12 and were instrumental in the appeal for the Scottsboro boys.


Draper’s book is incredibly detailed and a good resource for those interested in this period. Some of the questions faced by the CPUSA, Socialist Party and IWW then are ones we still deal with today, so it’s worth going back to when those questions started. The author wrote a follow-up, American Communism & Soviet Russia that takes the history of the CPUSA up to 1929. I plan to read that as well.

  • 1.The Communist Party USA has been the name of the party which was officially recognized as THE Communist party in the United States by the Comintern and USSR since 1929. But it has been known by other names, such as Communist Party of America, Communist Labor Party, United Communist Party, Communist Political Association, and the Workers Party of America . Additionally, there were a number of short-lived splitoffs and ideologically very similar factions and parties that could be considered still part of the broad Party, such as The Workers Council, United Toilers of America, and the Communist Party USA (Opposition).
  • 2.Encyclopedia of the American Left; Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas;University of Illinois Press, 1992
  • 3.Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian autonomist Marxism; Steve Wright; Pluto Press, 2002
  • 4.The Roots of American Communism; Theodore Draper; Elephant Paperbacks, 1989, p. 37
  • 5.Ibid., p. 63
  • 6.Ibid., p. 110
  • 7.The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years; Fred W. Thompson and Jon Bekken; IWW, 2006, p. 121-123
  • 8.The Roots of American Communism; Theodore Draper; Elephant Paperbacks, 1989, p. 139
  • 9.The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years; Fred W. Thompson and Jon Bekken; IWW, 2006, p. 123
  • 10.]The Roots of American Communism; Theodore Draper; Elephant Paperbacks, 1989, p. 192
  • 11.Letter number 38; Mouvement Communiste/Kolektivně proti Kapitălu; May 2013, p. 10
  • 12.Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; Robin D. G. Kelley; University of North Carolina Press, November 1990

(Originally published here)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

michael098762001 October 13, 2013 at 7:42 pm

The Roots of American Communism by Theodore Draper was the 1st book I ever read on the CPUSA, as a young radical back in the late 70’s, and like the author above, I’d still recommend it. But, as others who read North Star will hopefully concur, his approach was not w/o its critics, who emerged out of the New Left. On both methodological and political bases, his work, along with those he influenced such as Klehr and Haynes, was critiqued for its social democratic anti-communism and being top-down rather than bottom up , lacking a social historical orientation, seeing Party policy as being driven by the Comintern in Moscow entirely. Draper engaged these critics , in the NYRB, and, . His critics comprise the bulk of the volume from Monthly Review Press reviewed here,


juanconatz October 14, 2013 at 12:34 am

This came up on Facebook, so I thought I’d say something about the author’s political background post-‘fellow traveller’ period. Apparently he became a liberal anti’communist’ after World War II. This book was also published by funds from the Ford Foundation. In the New York TImes obituary of him,it’s mentioned that the New Left criticized the book for taking “an institutional approach obsessed with the heavy hand of the Soviet Comintern.”

I guess I can agree that it is more of an institutional history. That’s a problem of many history books that revolve around a political movement or organization. Does it invalidate the book, though? I’m not sure it does. If it had been written about the 1930s-1940s, when the CPUSA was more involved in mass movements, this would be a massive shortcoming to write an institutional history, but as this is mostly focusing on 1917-1921, the formative years, when the CPUSA had not many links to any movements at the time, and was mostly focused on propaganda and internal squabbling, it makes sense. His follow-up book, goes to the late 1920s, I’d be curious if it retains that same institutional history.

Thought it was interesting that the Trots from the Socialist Equality Party do state that he was a bitter anticommunist, but that he approached the book dispassionately and that it is accurate. Also, they pick up on the sympathies for individuals that I mention in my review, and ascribe this to some sort of unrecognized preference for Trotskyism (which may or may not be true). James Cannon also seemed to agree with the accuracy and details of the book, although he didn’t agree with the author’s perspectives. The letters he wrote to Draper for the book were published as The First Ten Years of American Communism, btw.


Jason S. October 14, 2013 at 8:22 am

Of course, Theodore Draper was the brother of Hal Draper, who became a Marxist in the 1930s and never stopped being one. BTW, the CPUSA stopped having “Leninist politics” in any real sense by the time the leadership kicked out the Trots.


Da Huuuuuudge October 15, 2013 at 9:13 pm

This is a completely subjective take. Did they adhere to Lenin chapter & verse? No. Did they champion him, publish his writings, burn incense? Very much. So what distinguishes ‘Leninism’ gets complicated, and I would say impossible to characterize as pure or impure in any form. Better to analyze their positions and actions in historical context.
Don’t know where the name above came from but I am Ethan Young.


Jason S. October 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Yeah, and the CPUSA did much the same where Marx is concerned. Has CPUSA politics, at least since the Pop Front days (I’d say since the Third Period days too) had much to do with the politics of Marx? Any serious scholar would say “no.” My point is that CPUSA politics doesn’t have much to do with Lenin’s politics either.


Andrew October 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. “The Roots” is a great book, and trying to think through the legacy of American Communism is probably one of the most contentious fields out there.

Draper became an anti-communist, but his work was incredibly thorough. Scholars of communist history still visit his archive–Robin Kelley’s great book “Hammer and Hoe” on the Communist activity in Alabama drew heavily on Draper’s archive. Draper’s book is full of membership roles, collected newspapers, letters–things that help understand the Communists with empirical evidence. (A lot of people still don’t realize that there were three competing Communist parties to begin with!) You have to be careful for his off-the-cuff statements about “universal truths” of the socialist movement, but like any book if you read it with some skepticism you’re sure to get a lot out of it.

One thing about this book though is that its famous for its thesis that the Communist Party was essentially a foreign policy instrument of the Soviet Union, and its fealty to the USSR would also trump the party’s domestic pursuits. Obviously you can point to the turns, turns and more turns that support that notion: from the ultra-left Third Period of the 30’s to the Popular Front, supporting the Hitler-Stalin Pact and then becoming pro-war to protect “the motherland” (and in turn, supporting No Strike pledges). But most of the scholarship since then has tried to point out that the activity of many rank and file communists and Communist locals were more independent than they’ve been painted.

Anyway, great book. Thanks for pulling it up again in review.


juanconatz December 25, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I just started Fraser Ottanelli’s The Communist Party of the United States: from the depression to World War II. In the introduction he talks about how the study of the CPUSA has been mainly influenced by the early works in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Draper’s. These histories have mostly been concerned with the Party from the perspective of the “Soviet origins of [its] policies”. He advancesHarvey Klehr’s work, which picks up where Draper left off, as the most extreme example of this.

Ottanelli also says the New Left historians like James Weinstein and Stanley Aronowitz also concentrate on the relationship between the USSR and the CPUSA, although for different reasons. They implictly agree with Draper and Klehr, but as radicals, they are more concerned about how this effected the possibility of a developing socialist movement. It was my impressions that the New Left critique was that Draper gave no room for the story of the rank-and-file, but Ottanelli says these stories have appeared in “recent studies”. The book is from 1991, so ‘recent’, I’m assuming means the late 1980s. When I think of the term New Left, I don’t think of it encompassing anything in the 80s, so now I’m wondering if the New Left actually did have a critique of Draper’s work at all.

Ottanelli goes on to say that these more recent “social histories” and rank-and-file stories have added balance to the overall material, but taken by themselves, they skew too far in the opposite direction. At the end of the day, the CPUSA “was a highly centralized Leninist organization that had little room for the diversity […] that characterized the Socialist Party”. So a merging of the two perspectives is needed. What the CPUSA did depended on a number of factors, how the Party saw its situation, Soviet demands, rank-and-file activity, etc.


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