BY APRIL, 1945, there was evidence of trouble in the Communist Party. Uneasiness increased among its functionaries. I first became aware of this in my work with the Italian Commission of the American Communist Party.
One day two foreigners appeared in our midst, recently come from Italy. Berti and Donnini were a smooth, attractive pair, who called themselves professors and had become leaders of the Italian Commission. They immediately started a controversy, about the, work among national minorities.
Earl Browder at the convention of 1944 had insisted 9n the elimination of a sense of difference among the foreign-born and had moved to have them treated as part of the American labor movement. To this Professors Berti and Donnini offered strenuous objections. They emphasized the importance of separate national organizations, of encouraging the foreign-born to use their languages, and of circulating foreign-language newspapers. They encouraged the organizing of the different national groups almost as if these were foreign colonies. It would strengthen the sense of nationalism among them, they asserted, a necessary thing for the building of world communism.
These two Party functionaries found themselves on the carpet for their unwelcome views. Plans were on foot to expel them. Then, suddenly, came the amazing news that they were members of the Italian Communist Party! Up to this point, like others, I had regarded them as honest but misguided foreigners with a penchant for disputation.
Now I realized that nothing they said had been unpremeditated, and that they were not speaking for themselves. They represented the International Communist movement and it was clear that Browder's approach to the national problem was in disfavor with some sections of world communism.
During a bitter meeting I learned that these two men vv ere responsible for translating and giving to the Scripps-Howard press a letter by Jacques Duclos, published previously in a communist magazine, Cahiers du communisme, in France. This letter was to change the whole course of the communist movement in this country.
The letter, which appeared in the World-Telegram in May,1945, ridiculed the Browder line of unity, his Teheran policy, and charged the American Communists with having betrayed the principles of Marx and Lenin. It called upon the American Communists to clean house, and literally demanded that they get back to the job of making revolution. It branded Browder as a crass "revisionist" of Marxism-Leninism, and it called for his removal from office.
Immediate confusion and hysteria permeated the Party. Ninety percent of the membership did not know who Jacques Duclos was, nor did they understand what "revisionist" meant. No attempt was made to enlighten them. More important things were happening.
For one thing, a palace revolution was taking place at Twelfth Street, with William Z. Foster leading the forces of Marxist fundamentalism. The large corps of jobholders in the Party added to the confusion, for like horses in a burning stable they had lost all sense of discretion. Frightened at being caught in a state of "revisionism," even if they did not know what it meant, and feeling that the voice from overseas presaged a change in the line of world communism, they tried frantically to purge themselves of the error they did not understand but which they had evidently committed. They confessed in private and in public meetings that they had been remiss in their duty, that they had betrayed the workers by support of a program of class collaboration. There were some demonstrations of public self-flagellation that stirred in me feelings of disgust and pity.
It was a bewildering time. To me nothing made sense. Over and over I heard people say they had betrayed the workers. I saw members of the National Board look distraught and disclaim responsibility, plead they had not known what was going on, or that they had been afraid to speak up when they saw errors. They cried that Browder had confused and terrorized them. It was distressing to watch these leaders, who were at best ignorant of what had gone on or were at worst cowards.
Gil Green went about white-faced and distraught because he had been so closely identified with the chief had, in fact, been known as Browder's boy. He, too, quickly disavowed all he had said about imperialism having come to an end. In fact, it was clear that we were now to believe again that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism, that it would inevitably lead to war and the communist revolution, and that the United States was the worst offender. Again we were to despise our own country as an exploiter of the workers.
Gil and Israel Amter asked me to write a public statement to be published in the Daily Worker in which I was to repudiate the recent policy and confess my errors. I tried, but my pen would not write the words. I excused myself by saying, "I don't understand what has happened. We don't seem to have all the facts." For I remembered how, as recently as the previous May, members of the Communist International had been present at the Party convention and had approved the line. And I remembered, too, that it was William Z. Foster who nominated Browder as president of the Communist Political Association. It was Foster who seconded the motion to dissolve the Party in 1944.
This was certainly a turn-about-face, a complete repudiation of a policy which had not only the unanimous support of the communist leadership in the United States, but he open support of the Soviet Union. We had even been told that the Teheran policy had been prepared with the assistance of Ambassador Oumansky, the accredited representative from the USSR to the United States.
Today it is obvious that after Stalin had gained diplomatic concessions at Yalta, and after the Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks conferences had placed concealed American Communists in positions of power, world communism did not want the patriotic efforts of Earl Browder and his band of open Communists who longed for participation in American affairs. Only later did I learn that Foster's belated, polite, and restrained opposition to the Teheran line the year before had been suggested through private channels from abroad, as preparation for the upheaval of 1945.
Browder obviously was caught offguard and unprepared. He was now compelled officially to present the Duclos letter to the membership for "discussion" through the columns of the Daily Worker. At meetings of the Party there was a wave of confused discussion, and the culmination of it was the calling of an emergency convention in June, 1945.
Much was to happen before that took place. The National Committee, almost sixty in number, was called into session at Twelfth Street to prepare for the convention. At first Irving Potash of the Furriers Union took the chair. Later Foster occupied it.
Browder was in the room. He had been ill and his appearance was that of a man in pain. Person after person studiously avoided speaking to him, and when he sat down he was entirely alone. Yet a hundred times I had seen these same people jump up when he came into a room and sing, "Browder is our leader. We shall not be moved." Now, when they looked at him, their faces were grim with hate, or perhaps it was fear.
I did not know Browder well. I was one of the newest members of the National Committee, but suddenly I could not bear this any longer. I arose from my seat at the opposite end of the room and walked over to Browder's chair and shook hands with him. Then I sat down in the empty chair next to his, though I was aware my action would not go unnoticed. I urged him to offer some explanation or at least to stay and meet the charges to be brought. But he said he could not stay for the meeting.
"I will not defend myself," he said firmly. "This is leftwing sectarian nonsense. They will come back."
I knew little about high politics within the communist apparatus, and I could not understand the upheaval nor why he gave up so easily. Even then I did not believe, as he evidently did, that there would be any return. Later, when he went to the Soviet Union, I realized that he had gone to Moscow in the hope of reversing the decision.
The old National Committee met for three days. The meetings began early and lasted late. I looked for signs of understanding and kindness and compassion. I thought to find them at least among the women, but they were not there either. I thought that at least Mother Bloor, the so-called "sweetheart" of the movement, would counsel moderation, for she had been close to Browder. Instead, this old woman talked angrily about how stubborn Browder was and how "arrogant."
Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, formerly of the IWW, whom Browder had taken into the Party in 1938 and elevated to the National Committee, was not far behind Mother Bloor in her remarks. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard her state coldly that she had been intimidated by Browder, that she had been unaware of the fact that he was "liquidating" the Party, that she was out of headquarters so much that she had no knowledge of what was going on. I heard Ann Burlak, once known as the "Red Flame of New England," whom years as an organizer for the Party had reduced to a pallid, thin-lipped, silent creature, speak up and join the accusing pack.
I, myself, was neither for nor against Browder. Yet I almost got in trouble by replying to Ben Davis when he made a particularly cruel speech. Ben Davis was a Negro, a member of the New York City Council, and the previous year he had joined a Tammany Hall Democratic Club in order, he said, to get support for his next campaign for the City Council. Now he excoriated Browder for his "betrayal" of the Negro people in disbanding the Communist Party in the South. Browder had urged that the Party work in the South through broad front committees, such as the Southern Committee for Human Rights, because he felt that the very name "Communist" shut all doors there.
I had seen this same Ben Davis use the united front line of collaboration in the crassest possible way to promote his own political ambitions and now I suddenly knew I must speak. I took the floor and asked where Ben Davis had been at the time when all this was being done. Surely anyone as sensitive as he to any betrayal of the Negro, I said, should have spoken up then and not have waited until now.
Ben Davis promptly turned his violence on me: I was guilty of chauvinism, he insinuated, since I expected him as a Negro to be sensitive to the problem of the Negro. This strange illogic left me wordless.
That same day several of the Negro members of the National Committee took me to lunch. Pettis Perry and William Patterson, both of whom I liked, tried to justify Ben Davis' intemperate attacks and said I did not understand the national minority question well. All I could think as I listened was, "Has everyone gone mad?"
Later that afternoon we heard more wailing and saw more breast-beating. When Pat Tuohy, an active Party organizer, formerly a Pennsylvania miner with memories of the Molly Maguires, got up to speak, I thought that now something sensible would be heard. Instead, Pat burst out crying, and said he had never agreed with the Teheran line, but that Browder had intimidated him by saying, "Pat, you're getting old. We can dispense with your services if you are in disagreement." Were these the men I had thought fearless fighters in the cause of justice?
Just before the National Committee closed its meeting it set up committees to prepare for the Emergency Convention. I was surprised to hear myself named to serve on a temporary committee of thirteen which was to interview all members of the National Board and National Committee, estimate the extent of their revisionist errors, and recommend to the National Convention those who should be dropped and those who should be retained for new leadership.
My work on that committee of thirteen was an experience I shall never forget. Bill Foster was technically chairman. His constant attendant was Robert Thompson. Davis of the Philadelphia A.F. of L. food workers' union and Ben Gold of the CIO Furriers were the ranking members. The procedure was fascinating and fantastic. It was the nearest thing to purge trials I have ever seen.
One by one the leaders appeared before this committee. We were silent and waited for them to speak. Men showed remorse for having offended or betrayed the working class. They tried desperately to prove that they themselves were of that working class, and had no bourgeois background and were unspoiled by bourgeois education. They talked of Browder as if he were a sort of bourgeois Satan who had lured them into error because of lack of understanding due to their inadequate communist education. Now they grieved over their mistakes and unctuously pledged that they would study Marx-Lenin-Stalin faithfully, and never betray the working class again. One by one they came before the committee and I began to feel like one of Robespierre's committees in the French Revolution.
It was weird to see tall, rawboned Roy Hudson pick and choose his words with pathetic care, to hear him plead, as if it were a boast, that all he had was a third-grade education and that he came from a povertystricken background. It was weird to hear Thompson talk about his proletarian father and mother. It was strange to hear Elizabeth Gurly Flynn beg forgiveness and offer in extenuation that she was of Revolutionary stock, for her father had belonged to the R.A. in Ireland, then promise to study Marx and Lenin and to become a true daughter of the coming American revolution.
Sometimes an honest statement came, and it was a great relief. Such a one was when Pettis Perry said he had been an illiterate share cropper in the South and that the Party had helped him to learn to read and write and had given him the opportunity to discover what he could do.
As I listened to this insistence on poverty and lack of formal education as the qualifications for admission to this Party, I began to feel uneasy, and I turned to Alexander Trachtenberg, one of the thirteen on the committee.
"I don't think I belong here," I said. "It is true that my father and mother worked hard, but my father became a successful businessman and we owned a house and I went to college."
Trachtenberg, himself a well-educated man, caught the irony in my statement. He stroked his walrus mustache and said reassuringly: "Don't worry about that. Remember Stalin studied to be a priest and Lenin came from a well-to-do family and studied to be a lawyer. You must be a proletarian or identify yourself with the proletariat. That's all."
As the comrades continued to come before the examining committee the thought came to me that there was not one real worker among them. Foster, though he affected the khaki shirt of a workman, hadn't done a stroke of work in a long time. He had been sitting in little rooms planning revolutions and conniving for power for twenty-five years. Thompson and Gil Green had graduated from school right into the Young Communist League. Thompson had gone to Spain as a commissar of the Lincoln Brigade and when he returned he worked for the Party, and Gil became a Party functionary at an early age.
That was the pattern of these American revolutionaries, and I felt as I looked at them that they really could know little about the ordinary worker.
At the end of June the Emergency Convention met. Because of wartime travel restriction, Foster announced that there would be only a small number from the rest of the country. Some fifty delegates came. The New York delegates swamped the convention. The out-of-towners were window dressing. When Foster strode in with Thompson and Ben Davis at his heels I could think only of the victorious Fuehrer and his gauleiters.
The debate and the argument that went on at that convention I can only compare to conversation in a nightmare. One sensed threatening danger in the frenzied activity, but there was vagueness as to what it was all about, and as to where we were going. Confusion and universal suspicion reigned at the Fraternal Clubhouse on Forty-eighth Street which was the arena of the convention.
Close friends of many, years' standing became deadly enemies overnight. Little cliques, based on the principle of mutual protection and advancement, sprang up every where. Some shouted slogans from Jacques Duclos. Some shouted down anyone who suggested logical discussion of problems. The mood, the emotions, were hysterically leftist with the most violent racist talk I ever heard.
Bill Lawrence, New York State secretary, who had fought in Spain, was attacked because of Browderism. He fended that off by asserting his loyalty to the Party. Then someone charged him with having been a coward in Spain, and I saw tears run down his face as he tried to explain to a group that wanted not explanations but executions. Ben Davis attacked Jim Ford, a Negro member of the National Board, and called him an "Uncle Tom," because he had been restrained in his attack on Browder.
The newly elected National Committee, which was elected on the third day, held its first meeting at 4 a.m. A new chairman and a secretary were still to be selected. Browder had appeared briefly at the Convention to address it. When this had first been suggested there were calls from the hall for his immediate hanging and loud cheers at the suggestion. However, he was allowed to speak, and he was most conciliatory, saying he approved the draft resolution and the establishing of a new line. He promised to co-operate.
When he finished, there was scattered applause in which I joined. I was sitting at a table with Israel Amter and I caught his beady black eyes fixed on me. Months later he brought me up on charges of having applauded Browder.
The Convention carried out various measures. It voted to dissolve the Communist Political Association and to re-establish the Communist Party. It voted to re-dedicate itself to its revolutionary task of establishing a Soviet America. It voted to intensify Marxist-Leninist education from the leaders down to the lowliest member. It voted to oust Browder as leader. It voted to return to the use of the word "comrade."
As for me, from that time on I became allergic to the use of that word, for I had seen many uncomradely acts at the Emergency Convention in the Fraternal Clubhouse.