Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Communist Experience in America

Check out Jamie Glazov's interview with Harvey Klehr, the author of, The Communist Experience in America: A Political and Social History.


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.
Klehr's curriculum vitae is here. He's currently the Andrew Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University.

Hat Tip: Washington Rebel.


IrishCicero said...

We likes them hat tips, baby! Keep 'em comin'!

I like your blog, by the way. I think I've mentioned that before.