I HAD NOW BECOME an elder statesman of the Teachers Union. I retained my membership as an honorary member and at the direction of the Party I remained on the top communist committee. I helped Rose Russell establish her leadership and I tried to pass on to her what I had learned over the years. I introduced her to the public officials with whom I had worked. She did not have to face the hostility I met when first I went to Albany, for the Party had grown in power, and the organization it controlled was sending many representatives to Albany. The Party now had allies among the lobbyists, the legislators, and the press correspondents. I was in Albany frequently as the representative of the Communist Party and was able to spend much time with Rose.
The previous year my husband obtained a divorce down South. Shortly thereafter I heard he had remarried. These events and the death of my mother led me to immerse myself more completely than ever in my work for the Union and the Party. However, I missed a personal family life and I often talked of adopting children. But the comrades dissuaded me. They reminded me I could not over-come the legal handicaps of adoption for a woman living .alone, and I knew, too, that irregular hours and my limited income would make it difficult. Instead, I continued to move in a world of men who were determined to create new types of human beings who would conform to the blueprint of the world they confidently expected to control. I lived only as part of an ideological group. I was accepted by them and I dealt with them in the direct but impersonal manner I had long cultivated.
In March 1943 I began to spend part of each day at Party headquarters at 35 East Twelfth Street. This building, which ran from Twelfth Street to Thirteenth Street, was owned by the Party. On the first floor was the Workers' Bookshop and entrance to the freight and passenger elevators that served the whole building. The third floor housed the New York County apparatus. The fourth was used to store the books of the International Publishing Company. The fifth held the New York State leadership. The sixth had the publication offices of the Yiddish paper, the Freiheit, and the Jewish Commission. The seventh and eighth floors were used by the Daily Worker. On the ninth floor was the headquarters of the national leadership of the Party.
Despite a campaign to clean up the building, it remained unbelievably drab. For a long time the Communists had resisted any attempt to beautify the place because that was regarded as bourgeois pretentiousness. The only pictures on the walls were those of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin. The only decorations were Red flags.
Under the impetus of Browder's attempt to make the Communist Party American, a cleanup job was begun. The walls got new paint. New photographs of the American leadership appeared. I came on the scene just after the painting was completed - a ghastly cream with brown trim. Lenin and Stalin got equal space on the walls and the photographs of the members of the Politburo, each exactly identical in size and type of frames, were placed in identical positions, none lower, none higher than the other. They ranged high along the walls of the ninth floor. Looking at them, I had the feeling I was entering the abode of some strange secret cult, and I was both attracted and repelled.
Daily as I entered my office on the fifth floor gates and doors were opened and then locked by strange, silent men and women. At first the excessive precaution surprised me, but I was to learn that many of the people who entered that center of intrigue needed protection.
I went to several meetings of the Politburo with Gil Green. There I found Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Bob Minor, Jim Ford, Jack Stachel, John Williamson, and Elizabeth Gurly Flynn in attendance. Browder seemed the undisputed leader, but the others did not seem coerced or intimidated, as later they testified they had been. The meetings were like meetings of a board of directors, one in which all conformed willingly.
As I began to prepare for the work I was assigned to do I was amazed at the lack of files of material on social questions such as housing and welfare. When I complained about this, Gil said: "Bella, we are a revolutionary party, not a reform group. We aren't trying to patch up this bourgeois structure."
I began to realize why the Party had no long-range program for welfare, hospitals, schools, or child care. They plagiarized programs from the various civil-service unions. Such reforms, if they fitted in, could be adapted to the taste of the moment. But reforms were anathema to communist long-range strategy, which stood instead for revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Party wanted me to retain my contacts with the noncommunist world, which had been so easy while I represented the Teachers Union, but which I knew would be difficult as an avowed Communist. Gil was delighted when I discussed the possibility of establishing a law office midtown which I could use to meet non-Party friends of the Party who would not go to the Party headquarters for fear of police surveillance. I set up business with two g lawyers who wanted to practice in the labor field. They thought that my growing power in left-wing politics would aid them.
So Philip Jones, Allen Goodwin, and I found suitable offices at 25 West Forty-third Street. We established the firm and got off to a good start. But I found little time for the practice of law. My office became a place where I met Party and non-Party persons engaged in common enterprises.
Earl Browder was then preparing for the Party convention of 1944. At this convention I was to make the public announcement of my Party affiliation. Gil told me that they were preparing a list of close to a hundred trade unionists who would also join the Party openly at the same time.
Like many of the liaison agents of the Party, I now began spending hours in restaurants and cafeterias, meeting with Party people from all walks of life, explaining, urging, cajoling, telling them what to do and what was expected of them.
That spring of 1943 was memorable for the new friends I met. I had moved to an apartment on Seventh Avenue near Fourteenth Street. The rent was small for it was over a restaurant. Nevertheless it was a pleasant flat which could easily be shared for it had two rooms in front and two in back and a kitchen and bath in between.
Before long I had a roommate. Through Blackie Myers, vice-president of the National Maritime Union and his wife Beth McHenry, a writer for the Daily Worker, I met Nancy Reed, who had recently been fired, with much publicity, from a New York State Labor Department job because of exposure of her communist activity, by Godfrey P. Schmidt, then Deputy Industrial Commissioner. The press carried, as a result of the investigations of Stephen Birmingham, lurid stories of how she had buried Communist Party records in the sand at her mother's summer home on Cape Cod. She was out of a job. I offered to share my apartment, and then persuaded the Teachers Union to set up an employment bureau and to make her its director.
Nancy came from a good Boston family. I knew her mother, Ferdinanda Reed, who was one of the three old ladies who technically owned the Daily Worker, the other two being Anita Whitney and my former tenant in the Village, Susan Woodruff. Ferdinanda had come to communism intellectually and remained because, like Susan, she never saw its ruthless side. Her two daughters had followed her into the Party and Nancy's sister Mary, a writer of some note, had left her American husband and taken their infant son and gone to Russia to live. Nancy had visited her there.
Nancy had many friends among the working people for whom she had helped find jobs when she worked for the State Employment Bureau. Also she had great vitality and a love for social life. When I came home at night I found our apartment swarming with people. Some were from the civil-service unions. Many of them were men from the ships, for among her closest friends were Ted Lewis, vice-president of the National Maritime Union, Joseph Curran, Ferdinand Smith, and others of the union leadership. The seamen during those war days were earning good wages, for there were overtime bonuses and special allotments for war risk.
Before I knew it my home became a center for National Maritime Union leaders and seamen of every rank. Among them came Captain Mulzac, the first Negro to become a captain, and scores of engineers, chief stewards, pumpmen, boatswains, and ordinary seamen. Some came only for a single party, but others were regular visitors.
One evening John Rogan of the National Maritime Union brought a tall, slender, red-haired seaman in khaki shirt and trousers who had been a friend of Paddy Whalen. "Red," as his friends called him, proved a fine addition to the party for he talked well and had many stories to tell. He came from Minnesota. He said his grandmother was the first white woman in that state. As he talked of his people you knew he was proud of his heritage. His mother was a French Canadian, a convent-bred girl, and he said he, too, was raised a Catholic. His grandfather from Wisconsin had been killed at the battle of Shiloh and was buried in Springfield, Illinois.
I told him of my former husband's grandfather who fought with the South and lost an arm in that battle. We talked late into the night and I learned that he had left his Church and become an IWW and had worked with the Communist Party at times. I told him proudly of my recent decision to become an open worker in the Party. Dubiously, he asked, "Are you sure that is what you want?" and as I looked surprised, he continued:
"You see, I don't think they have the answer. I simply can't make myself believe that we are only clods of earth and that when we die, we die and that's all. I've seen bad conditions in lots of places, on ships, in jails, and in foreign ports in China and India and Africa and South America. I've fought against these conditions. There's no doubt that out of it all revolution may come - the way the Communists want it to - but what will come after that? What will this crowd do when they've got their revolution? I hate to think about it. But I'm pretty sure they haven't got the answer."
I was startled to hear this sort of talk from a man who had stubbornly worked and fought for labor, often with a reckless disregard for the safety of his life. He was not a "class enemy." As he talked, I sensed the uneasy feeling that sometimes came over me, even though I tried to ignore it. It was as if this man's words were the echo of my own unformulated fears.
But they did not alter my decision to be formally inducted into the Party leadership. For years I had functioned with the Party without a Party card or other formal indication of allegiance. Now Gil Green gave me my first party card, and when he asked to which branch I wanted to be assigned I named the section in East Harlem. To become effective in that area I now moved to a house on upper Lexington Avenue, a neighborhood that had once been Irish and where there still remained a scattering of Irish and Italian families, but where there were an increasing number of Puerto Rican, West Indian, and Negro families. I called our block the street of all nations.
On the corner of 102d Street was a Negro Episcopal church and I became a good friend of the minister and his family. Next to it was a Puerto Rican boardinghouse run by an Italian spinster. Nearby was a grocery store owned by an Irishman from the old country, who spoke with a brogue. We all lived together in peace as good neighbors.
I gave one floor in my house to Clotilda McClure and her husband Jim. Mrs. McClure had worked for me in the early days of my marriage when we lived at the house on Eleventh Street. I was happy to have them in the house because we were good friends and also because Clotilda helped me with the care of the house.
I had moved into this particular neighborhood because, as a Party functionary, I wanted to work in this community and I wished to study its special problems. I was assigned to the Garibaldi Branch of the Party located on 116th Street, a Party club which concentrated on recruiting Italians. The club was ineffective and drab, due in part to the fact that Italians in America were loath to join the Communist Party and in part also to Vito Marcantonio, who represented the American Labor Party and actively worked for the Communist Party. But he did not relish a strong local Communist Party in his district, perhaps because he thought it might get in his way when he made fast deals with the diverse forces.
His own center of political activity was a brownstone clubhouse on 116th Street near Second Avenue. There congregated a strange assortment of smooth, sophisticated communist boys and girls, going and coming in the game of political intrigue, members of local gangs, known racketeers, ambitious lawyers, and political opportunists looking for the crumbs of his political favor.
There were also people of the neighborhood who needed a friend. Marc listened to their stories, assigned lieutenants to their cases, or called on communist-led unions for help. He wrote his people many letters from Washington on his letterhead as Representative. Nothing made these simple people so happy as to receive one of his letters from the capital, and they carried them in their pockets and displayed them proudly. It did not matter even if the letter said nothing; the fact that they knew a congressman who wrote them a letter was enough. He could have been elected on a Wooden Indian ticket by these people for they belonged to no party. They followed Marc as a personality.
The Garibaldi branch of the Communist Party was a block from his club. This branch of fifty or sixty members consisted chiefly of Italians, Jews, Negroes, and Finns. Some of the Italians were old-time anarchists. Yet they felt at home with the Communists if only because of their atheism and belief in violence. I found plenty of work to' do in East Harlem, but I soon learned that the Labor Party and its activities, the Communists, were concerned mainly about getting out the vote. Certainly they were not concerned about the welfare of the people. This was a new type of political machine, attracting not only the voters but the actual precinct workers by vague promises of future social betterment.
By January 1944 I was firmly established at Party headquarters on Twelfth Street. There I organized the legislative program of the Party; but, more important still, I supervised the legislative work of the unions, chiefly the unions of government workers on a state, local, and national level, of the mass organizations of women, and of 'the youth organizations.
All over the building there was a noticeable feeling of excitement and optimism. Browder's book, Victory and After, placed communist participation in the mainstream of American life, and there was among us less and less left-wing talk and activity. At a state board meeting Gil gave a talk on the new era at hand, and startled us with perspectives new to those who had been brought up on Lenin's thesis that imperialism is the last stage of capitalism. Gil now said that the age of imperialism had come to an end, that Teheran had canceled out Munich, and that Soviet-American unity would continue indefinitely after the war. Together, he added, the United States and the Soviet would solve the world's colonial problems and indeed all other world problems.
Through December, 1943, we at headquarters had heard nothing but Teheran. What had happened at that conference was by no means clear to us. We did know that Browder was writing another book dealing with it. We also knew that Teheran was now the password, that it meant maximum co-operation of Communists with all groups and all classes. The political line which for two years had been called the "Democratic Front" now became the "National Front." That Christmas Teheran did cancel out Bethlehem for us.
The artists and writers who followed the Communists began to interpret Teheran in their work. For every activity Teheran was the key. Huge murals commemorated it as well as cafe society songs and political skits. For some time this line brought a pleasant sense of security, but by January we heard rumblings of trouble from the ninth floor as they prepared for the coming Party convention.
Dissension had arisen among the leaders. Sam Darcy, the Party organizer from California, disagreed with the proposed change of the Party line and Gil announced at a New York State Board meeting the Politburo decision to expel Darcy, a decision with which he obviously agreed. Strong support of Browder by Gil was no surprise, for we all looked on Gil as Browder's henchman and his choice to succeed him.
A vote was taken supporting the action of the national Politburo to expel Darcy. Like all votes in the Communist Party, it was unanimous. I was startled by the anger displayed against this man who, Gil said, refused to throw aside "revolutionary dogma" to meet a new situation. Only a few days before they had all called him "comrade."
With the expulsion of the dissident Darcy, peace reigned again. We heard that William Z. Foster had also been critical of the proposed change. Nevertheless he had bowed to the majority. And we came together at the convention of 1944 with a rising Party membership and growing prestige for Browder in national politics. We were confident of the Party's importance in the current American scene. We knew Browder was on the inside track on news of the war from overseas and from Washington.
The convention that year was held at Riverside Plaza, a hotel on West Seventy-second Street. It was well attended. Besides the delegates, many trade-union leaders and men of national reputation were there. The Communist International had been, at Roosevelt's insistence, technically dissolved the previous year, but several of its members were in New York and came to our convention. From France, Lucien Midol brought a letter from the Central Committee of the French Communist Party, approving the new American line. There were a few grumbling old-time trade unionists who did not like the new trend and one said sarcastically, "This is the convention in which the workers and the bosses become bedfellows."
My own role, as I have said earlier, was to announce publicly my adherence to the Party. In this I was to be joined by about a hundred trade unionists. When the time came, almost all candidates chosen had found urgent reasons for not making a public declaration. In the end only two, and these from insignificant unions, joined me in becoming open Party members.
The first evening of the convention brought tragic news: Anna Damon had jumped to her death from the window of a nearby hotel. An important auxiliary member of the Politburo, Anna was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago family. She was assigned to work with Charles Ruthenberg, the first secretary of the American Communist Party, and had come East after his death when the Party shifted its headquarters to New York. Here she exercised a powerful influence over the rising Party leadership. She was reputed to have developed for the Party such figures as Earl Browder, Roy Hudson, Charles Krumbein, and others of the Politburo.
I had first met her in the thirties when she was executive secretary of the powerful International Labor Defense, a mass organization with great financial resources and wide contacts with the legal profession. This was the committee which organized communist participation in the Scottsboro and Herndon cases, and in the Gastonia and other labor strikes.
A friend took me one evening to her home on East Sixteenth Street and I remember my amazement that a Communist Party member should be living in such a lavish apartment, with fine paintings and a terrace that looked out over the city and the East River. Marcantonio, over whom she also had great influence and whom she had trained in left-wing politics, was there that evening; and so were Robert Minor and his wife. Everyone except Marc wore evening clothes. When we left, I said a little thoughtfully to the friend who had brought me, "This could be the new aristocracy of our country."
Why Anna Damon killed herself I never learned. The rumors were that she had broken with Browder on the new policy. The Party carefully spread the impression that she had cancer and had taken this way out of pain. But the beginning of a convention of a Party in which she had great power was a strange time to choose for her exit from life - if indeed she did take her own life.
At this convention Earl Browder's speech calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party was, next to Anna's suicide, the most surprising event. Some old-time functionaries could not understand it. Some pretended to see in it an attempt to cancel out the teachings of Lenin.
But the Party machine worked with planned precision. The American Communist Party dissolved itself and then by another resolution the delegates re-established it under the name of the Communist Political Association, with the same leaders, same organization, same friends.
I was elected as a member of the National Committee of this Communist Political Association, which brought me into its fop leadership. I was now supposedly a part of the inner circle.
The new change of name puzzled many both in and out of the Party. I had listened closely during the convention and it was not at all clear to me. I knew, of course, that one immediate reason was to lay the basis for leadership of the Communists for the reelection of Roosevelt, since Earl Browder was the first to call publicly for his re-election to a fourth term. I also knew that the new name had a less ominous sound to American ears. Even so, it had been a drastic thing to do.
By those who thought they knew the reason it was explained to me thus: the current line in world communism was now based on the Roosevelt pledge to the Soviet Union of mutual co-existence and continued postwar Soviet-American unity. If that pledge were kept and if the march to world communist control could be achieved by a diplomatic unity arising out of official Soviet-American relations, then there would be no need of a militant class-struggle party. In that case the Communist Political Association would become a sort of Fabian Society, doing research and engaging in promoting social, economic, and political ideas to direct America's development into a full-fledged socialist nation.
The convention over, we turned to the most important item on the Party's agenda, the re-election of President Roosevelt for a fourth term. For this end the National Committee met immediately after the convention. Browder proposed that the Party contribute five thousand dollars to help develop the Willkie Memorial, no doubt as a gesture of amity to the Social Democrats who were also intent on this election. But David Dubinsky and others in charge of the project of building Freedom House as a memorial to Wendell Willkie refused the offer publicly. After that the Communist Political Association moved independently in its self-appointed task of promoting a Roosevelt victory.
It was necessary first to bring the various districts and subdivisions of the organization to quick acceptance of the decision of the convention. Each of us on the National Committee attended little secret meetings, spoke to the comrades, explained the new perspectives, made them feel they were right at the heart of the important things that were going on.
We highlighted Browder's astuteness and our confidence in him and told how prominent people outside the Party agreed with us in this. This was true, for his perspicacity had been praised by Walter Lippman and other publicists. He was praised also for the new constitution of the Communist Political Association, written in conformity with American-type organizations, and for the change from foreign communist terminology, such as "Politburo," to American expressions such as "national board."
Some of us knew, however, that though Browder was Americanizing the appearance of the organization he was having difficulties, because of numerous professional revolutionaries who could not change their speech, manner, and way of thinking so swiftly.
My duties were various. I continued to exercise control over the communist teachers. Before I had left the Union I had been able to lay the basis for affiliation of the Teachers Union with the NEA. In June 1944 I was assigned to speak at a meeting of more than five hundred communist teachers and their friends at the Jefferson School on the new communist perspectives as applied to education. I held out the prospect of a new approach to education soon to be disclosed by American leaders who controlled the purse strings of the nation. I urged the communist teachers to exercise their influence for unity on all teachers' and citizens' groups.
I pointed out that the NAM had established a tie with the NEA and had pledged itself to help build education and to support a nationwide school-building program; `that this would grow into a program of continued co-operation on all educational subjects. To those who questioned this perspective I said that the progressive businessmen were playing a revolutionary role. I repeated the explanations given by Gil and other leaders of the new National Board.
As an official member of the New York State Board of the Party and on the state committee, I was second to Gil Green in charge of political campaigns. I was assigned two immediate tasks: the defeat of Hamilton Fish in. the twenty-ninth Congressional District and the building of a New York division of the progressive farmers and businessmen for the re-election of Roosevelt.
The story of communist manipulation for the defeat of Hamilton Fish is too long to tell here. In the other task I teas to see for the first time how a tiny minority, well organized, with members in both majority parties, and within trade unions, and with control of small labor parties, could serve as a brain to do what larger groups of uncoordinated citizens could not do. In this election the Communists served as the major co-ordinating factor.
In the little town of Catskill, on a bright June Sunday of 1944, a handful of chicken farmers from Sullivan, Columbia, and Orange counties met with an organizer of the Farmers Union, Gil, myself, and Charles Coe, a silent chubby man who was associated with a farmers' publication. Together we planned a Progressive Farmers Committee for the re-election of Roosevelt. Some months later, when the campaign was in full swing, few knew from what small beginnings the large-scale work among the farmers had begun.
In New York the CIO Political Action Committee was staffed with many sophisticated Communists with years of experience in the nation's capital. The Independent Committee of Artists, Scientists and Professionals, under the chairmanship of Jo Davidson, the sculptor, was under strong Party direction.
These election committees, made up of Communists and non-Communists, were under communist control. If the chairman of the committee, was a non-Communist, its executive secretary was inevitably under communist domination.
New York, because of its large voting power, was the directive center of the campaign. Press releases from New York, enlarged on by the leading New York papers, set the line for hundreds of newspapers and radio stations in the hinterland.
For the success of this election the American Labor Party moved into high gear. The New Liberal Party, organized by Alex Rose and David Dubinsky, along with George Counts and John Childs, also played an important role. This latter group differentiated itself from the Communists and often attacked them. In reply the Communists moved into action. They wanted all the credit for achieving the election victory, so they took time out to attack Dubinsky and the newly formed Liberal Party, even though they were on the same side in the election campaign.
In that campaign the Communists were everywhere. We did not trust the district leaders of the Democratic Party to deliver the votes, so we sent bright young left-wingers into the Democratic clubhouses to jog the old fellows into action, and it was amusing to see them in that rough-and-tumble atmosphere.
To gather in the votes which the Labor Party could not win and which the Democratic organizations might fail to reach, we set up a National Citizens Political Action Committee. This loose organization held local rallies and collected funds. Its executive committee had many glittering names. The real work was done by the same dedicated little people, the ones who were looking for no personal reward save the right of participation in the building of a new world.
It was fascinating to see how easily the Party personnel acclimated itself to its new role of pulling all forces together. They rubbed elbows with district leaders, with underworld characters, and with old-line political bosses whom they really regarded as caretakers of a disintegrating political apparatus.
While I was in active work I was reasonably happy, but, when the campaign was over and Roosevelt re-elected, I found myself depressed. One reason was a peculiar struggle for power which I saw emerging. During the election I had seen effective work done by Communists who were concealed members. Disputes began to develop between open communist functionaries and these concealed Communists who were safely ensconced in well-paid jobs in powerful organizations. These disputes were resolved by Browder himself, if necessary, and always in favor of the concealed members. I felt a growing competition between these groups, and I wanted to run away from it. One day I spoke about it to Elizabeth Gurly Flynn who was with me on both National and State Committees. She said that it was only in New York that the comrades acted like that. She explained it was often due to male chauvinism at headquarters.
"Go and see a little of the rest of the country," she advised me. "That will make you feel better."
So in 1945 I substituted for her at communist gatherings in the Middle West. From my first talk I realized there was resistance among workers to the new line on co-operation and unity. Many did not like a postwar "no strike pledge," or adoption of a labor-management charter proposed by the Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Communists. The new line was unacceptable to skeptical workers who had been schooled in the class-struggle philosophy and who were at that time feeling the effects of the greed of the powerful monopolies. These were reducing wages, and laying off workers despite the increasing cost of living.
I spoke in Cleveland, Toledo, Gary, and Chicago. I came back feeling no happier than when I left. Nor did my next task make me feel any better. I worked for a while with the Communist Youth who were just starting a campaign in favor of universal military training. This campaign troubled me for it did not seem to fit in with the Teheran perspective for a long-term peace, nor with the happy optimism that was promoted when the Nazi armies were broken and peace seemed near.
The campaign for universal military training, the no-strike postwar pledge which the Communists were ballyhooing, and the labor-management charter were all straws in the wind and pointed to one thing: ultimate state control of the people.
When the Yalta conference had ended, the Communists prepared to support the United Nations Charter which was to be adopted at the San Francisco conference to be held in May and June, 1945. For this I organized a corps of speakers and we took to the street corners and held open-air meetings in the millinery and clothing sections of New York where thousands of people congregate at the lunch hour. We spoke of the need for world unity and in support of the Yalta decisions. Yet at the same time the youth division of the Communists was circulating petitions for universal military training.
The two seemed contradictory. But Communists do not cross wires in careless fashion. The truth was that the two campaigns were geared to different purposes: the need to control the people in the postwar period, and the need to build a world-wide machine to preserve peace. Since the communist leaders were evidently not envisioning a peace mechanism without armies, the obvious question then was: for whom and to what end were the Communists urging the building of a permanent army? Did they not trust their own peace propaganda?