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Harvey Klehr: Life of the Party

David Holzel: Has your thinking about communism changed since we last spoke [in 1995 on publication of "The Secret World of American Communism"]?

Harvey Klehr: Not really. When I went over to Moscow for the first time in the summer of '92, which would have been less than a year after the failed coup, and first looked into this archive, there was… I suppose deep down every author has this fear -- "What if I find something that's going to destroy everything I've ever written about?" Like everyone else who's written about American communism, I had based my writings on what was available in the United States. It was not an enormous amount of information, but in terms of primary resource material it was fairly limited. The internal records of the Communist Party were simply not available.

So you walk into this archive, maybe half the size of the Library of Congress. And they've got everything that the Communist Party ever wrote, or all their internal documents. And there's this fear that you're going to have to write, "I was wrong." So it was an enormous relief when I started going through that material, that it seemed clear to me, and it seems clear now that this stuff has been analyzed, that I was pretty much right. The overall argument that I've been making for the last 15 or 20 years, that the American Communist Party was a tool of the Soviet Union and that the party had never been an independent entity, that was right on the mark. That's primarily what this book ["The Soviet World of American Communism"] is about. "The Secret World of American Communism" was more sensational in a way, because what we got there was documentary evidence of a Communist Party underground, connections between the American Communist Party and Soviet espionage, which really hadn't been known in any detail.

But this book is really about the ties between the American Party and the Soviet Union. It really is a response to the revisionists that I've been doing battle with for 20 years, who have been insisting that the American Party was an independent, democratic, American institution. And I think the evidence is overwhelming that, no way.

You said a lot of people went in and out of the Party, and maybe the reason is that they had this world view, but perhaps they were more democratic [than the Party allowed] and not so ideologically pure.

Well, I think it's certainly true, and it's a point we make in the book: most of the people who joined the Communist Party were in it for a very brief period of time. I once tried to estimate how many Americans have been in the Party and I think somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of a million people had been through the Party. And yet the American Communist Party had at any one time never more than 100,000 members. So there was this constant churning.

And most people joined the Party for very idealistic reasons: They were opposed to racism, they were opposed to fascism, they wanted to support unions. And they thought the Party was a vehicle to do that. The vast majority of people didn't last more than a year or two in it. In some cases they figured out what the Party was like. It was undemocratic. The party line switched, so if you joined because you were an antifascist and then the Soviet Union signs an alliance with Nazi Germany, so you get the hell out.

But there were more mundane reasons that people quit. It was boring. People quit because it took too much time. The famous line that Oscar Wilde supposedly once said, "The problem with Socialism is it took too many evenings." Party literature was full of complaints from people that the Party demanded too much of them. How many times could you go out and sell The Daily Worker? It took time away from family and all the rest. So people dropped out for those reasons as well as well as ideological reasons.

But in a way, this book is really about the people who were the core of the Party. Not just the leadership, but the long-term membership. There were a lot of people in the membership who were in the Party for years and years and years, and they went through change of line and change of line. And these people had to have known the nature of the Party. You couldn't have stayed in the Party two or three years without having hints of the ties to the Soviet Union.

You use the term that they showed "reflexive loyalty" in following Moscow lock-step. I was just amazed. They were working in this direction and they had to suddenly switch and work in that direction.

Yeah. The only way you can explain it is that for many people, and it wasn't just in the United States, it was in Communist parties around the world, the Soviet Union was both the symbol and a concrete manifestation of a better world. And they simply invested enormous amount of hope in the success of the Soviet experiment. This was going to demonstrate that there was a better way of living and that capitalism was flawed and a doomed system. And so anything the Soviet Union did, anything it had to do to survive, was justified. That was the way a lot of people justified the Nazi-Soviet Pact -- this was a tactic the Soviet Union was using to buy time for itself.

And it was not just an ideological loyalty. For a lot of people it was almost a nationalistic loyalty, because an awful lot of the people in the United States had joined the Communist Party because either they or their parents or grandparents had come from the old Russian Empire. And in many ways they were Russian loyalists and there was this emotional attachment to Russian culture and to the Russian land. So in some ways they really were patriots. They were Soviet patriots.

Another phrase that I liked was, in order to show this loyalty and keep shifting, they had to put on special glasses. And yet they had to have known some of the horrible things that were going on. But to put on these special glasses and to keep doing this step, this dance step.

It's very interesting psychologically. It's kind of crude to say it, but a lot of them did have this belief -- you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, that old saw. Some of them were perfectly willing to admit that there were some bad things going on in Russia. But the attitude was, well, the Soviet Union's got enemies and this is a fight to the death, and the capitalists do worse things, the Nazis do worse things, and this is the way we have to fight. So some of them justified it in those terms. Some of them simply pretended that nothing was happening. There were different psychological mechanisms.

But what's absolutely clear is that, the long-term cadre of the Party either pretended not to see or excused or justified some pretty dreadful things. And even in an indirect way, as we indicated in the book, participated in them. American Communists helped send some of their comrades to the gulag and when they heard about some of their comrades being in the gulag, they did not extend a hand to help pull them out. In fact, they helped dump on them even more.

But why should that surprise us? People do terrible things, and even idealistic people do terrible things. In some respects you can think of, there were people who joined the Nazi party because they were thugs and sadists and they enjoyed hurting people. But there were also people who joined the Nazi party because they were idealists and in the service of that idealism they were willing to do absolutely awful, awful things to other human beings. I don't see any difference with Communists. There's a new book that's just out in France, "Crimes of Communism" or something like that and it caused a sensation, because what the authors do is simply tote up the number of deaths that can be attributed to Communism. The conclusion they reach is that Communism was responsible for more deaths than Nazism. Nazism killed people because of their race and religion, while Communism was an equal-opportunity murder system. You got put in a category: kulak or capitalist and you were slated for extermination. And if you add up the murders, Communism far, far surpasses Nazism in terms of its victims. In the service of idealism, tens of millions of people were killed. And there were Americans who were perfectly willing to participate in it.

Reading the documents, and looking back knowing that all this was going on as the backdrop, and reading this ideological nit-picking -- of somebody's forced confession, was it a good enough confession? It was Kafkaesque. You take it and look at it every which way and you never get to the end. And you sort of miss the point.

There's a tragic-comic thing about the American Communists, partly because they never got power. So their sense of self-importance and that so much hinges on the way they use a word. That's comic, because they're small people. What becomes non-comic is when you think, their counterparts were doing this in places where it meant life and death. Mostly death.

I was also thinking that now, with the end of the Cold War, and the relief that the threat we've lived with for so long has receded -- it's become history. But the idealism and the way the mindset can be tapped into such a system still exists today. And I'm wondering, what are the parallels now? I'm thinking of Timothy McVeigh [the rightwinger convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing].

The kinds of parallels I would draw, not necessarily with rightwing extremists, although I suppose you could do that. What I thought of when you started raising that question was not that it's just history, it also involves defining who we are as a culture. I've thought a lot about why the issue of American Communism has been so controversial, and I've referred to the fact that I've been fighting these battles over the interpretation of Communism for 20-odd years. Why are people so obsessed with this issue? The American Communist party was at most 100,000 people. Most of these books on [my] shelf are about American Communism. There's almost as many books about them as there were members of the American Communist Party. Why the obsession with this relatively small political movement?

I think the answer is in part because the fight over the nature of what American Communism is is in a way a fight about the nature of American culture today. One example is, last month was the 50th anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist. There were huge events in Hollywood, big mea culpas, the Screen Writers Guild had this big thing where they apologized formally to the surviving blacklistees, and so on. These things about the terrible things that were done in the 1950s, McCarthyism. Some people argue today that the reason the labor movement is so weak now was that it purged communists in the late-1940s, early 1950s. In some ways, for a lot of people, the whole anticommunist movement in the United States was a defining moment in our culture.

So the fight over the nature of Communism, or of the movement to which these people gave their allegiance… Were the Hollywood Ten, for example, as one writer put it, "moral exemplars"? Or, people who maybe had some bad things done to them, unjustifiable things done to them, were not moral exemplars but moral lepers? Or the people who were kicked out of the labor movement because they were communists, is that something that should be applauded -- one of the high points of American labor, because it rejected Communism, or one of the moments it should be most ashamed of? These things are very much alive in out culture.

So in a way it's history. But it goes beyond that. It really involves the question of who we are as a country. As another example, the whole debate about McCarthyism, which is something I'm starting to get into with John Haynes and I have another book that I just delivered the first draft to Yale and I hope will be out a year from now -- on the Venona Decryptions, which are these WW2 cables that deal with Soviet espionage in the United States that were sent by the KGB in the United States back to Moscow to be decrypted. So they really reveal the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1940s. It raises very, very serious questions about the whole McCarthy era. Was this, as the dominant interpretation would hold it, a period of paranoia and a period in which America lost its soul? Or were there very real dangers and threats that we responded to, sometimes rationally, sometimes irrationally? What kind of country were we and are we? The Communism issue raises that.

Is that the theme you take up with your students? Undergraduates for whom even Gorbachev is history?

I try to. Unfortunately with, say, McCarthy, not only do they not know who Joseph McCarthy is, they don't know who Eugene McCarthy is.

Paul McCartney is a little…

Paul McCartney, right. It's ancient history for a lot of them. But last year or the year before, the national center that introduced standards for teaching history in high schools generated enormous controversy. The initial draft of their proposal, the discussion of the post-WW2 period used the word "McCarthy" and "McCarthyism" dozens of times. It was the theme. When it referred to Soviet espionage, the Hiss and the Rosenberg cases as well, it was very neutral about whether they were guilty or innocent. McCarthyism was a kind of irrational paranoiac American response to the cold war.

Well, we're learning that the world was a little more complicated. That, again not to excuse aspects of McCarthyism or what McCarthy himself did. But there were spies. Whether the response was always measured was another question. These issues remain very, very controversial.

When I had thought of the Oklahoma City bombing, I think I was going into the psychology again. It's one thing that interests me about these sorts of people. Especially when you have blood flowing for a cause. You almost ignore the fact that people are dying, that people's lives are ruined, just because the confession isn't right. There seems to be a more than normal weight on the idea, and less than normal -- I'm using normal on purpose, maybe to raise the question of 'is there normal?' -- on the fact that people are killed. You bomb innocent people to make a point about something else.

One difference is, with a handful of exceptions, American Communists did not initiate violence. They were not particularly nice people, but they didn't set off bombs. There's a similarity in the sense that certainly they sometimes defended killing people. Certainly they defended the purge trials in the Soviet Union, they had no compunction about cheering on mass murder done afar. The similarity, I guess, is that for some people the cause is so important that certain individuals have to be sacrificed. "Yes, innocent people have to be killed, but look at how many innocent people are killed by the system." That's the rationale. And so by sacrificing a few innocent people now, we can save others later.

In that sense, I suppose, all kinds of extremists find common ground.

One of the sections of the book has to do with the Soviet gold. The full-time Communist leaders here were employees of the Soviet Union.

I think it's absolutely clear that the American Communist Party could not have done the kinds of things it did without enormous Soviet subsidies over the years, that began from Day 1 and continued virtually until the very end. Millions and millions and millions of dollars over the years. In the early years gold and jewels; in later years cash on the barrel. I suppose the thing that surprised me most was simply the extent of it. The amounts are kind of staggering. Not a particularly good investment.

Well, it's like what they say about mutual funds now. You don't just keep pulling them out and putting it someplace else. As I went through the book, there were periods -- the Popular Front period [1935-39] when they were teaming up with other people, building coalitions, making inroads with unions, supporting FDR, being -- from a non-radical mindset -- the good guys -- and gaining membership. And then the line would change and they would pull all the plugs. And then I'd go, "Guys, why are you doing that?" and then I'd tell myself, if their standard of success was how much they toed the line, they were actually being very successful. So maybe it was a good investment for Moscow, if they got people who were absolutely loyal.

And certainly that's what they got. One of the defining documents in that book is… it's the middle of the Popular Front, the Party is enjoying successes it's never had in the United States. It's doing wonderfully. Things are booming all around. And the Russians call in this poor shnook who's an American representative in Moscow and they say …. The American Communist slogan is "Communism is 20th Century Americanism." A great line. They're using it to tremendous advantage. And the Russians say, that slogan has got to go. It's ideologically unsound. We want you to cooperate with Roosevelt, but that's just fostering illusions. And they do it! So in the middle of their period of being good Americans, the Russians tell them to change their slogan -- and they do. At a moment's notice, it vanishes.

That was something totally unexpected. I had known that they had stopped using that slogan, but nobody knew exactly why. And here, in the middle of the Popular Front, when they're supposedly the most American of all their periods… The revisionist historians have boasted about the Popular Front. This was the true communism. Well, at the height of that they're still so much under the thumb of the Russians that they immediately drop their most successful slogan. So, yeah, the Russians got what they paid for.

There were times when they had problems. [American Communist leader Earl] Browder eventually did defy them, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, although maybe part of it may be because Browder's hubris or something. Maybe Browder thought he had close enough ties to Franklin Roosevelt through Josephine Adams, this woman who had deceived him. But Browder defied them. But they got exactly what they wanted then, too. Everybody turned on Browder. As soon as there was this signal from Moscow. This article written in Moscow and presented through the French Communists. The American Communists dumped Browder like a smelly sock. [1945]

We don't have it in the book, but in the Browder papers there's a couple of wonderful letters. After Browder is expelled from the Party, his dentist, who of course is a Communist, writes him a letter saying, I can no longer treat you. His doctor writes him a letter: I can no longer treat you. Everybody abandons the poor guy. He's got to go out and find new dentists and new doctors. And this was the guy who led the Party to its greatest success. This was the symbol of American communism and they dumped him without any compunction.

And on a personal basis, this poor guy, look what he did, and is there no loyalty? But of course there is loyalty. But it was not to the individual.

That's right. He should have known exactly what was going to happen to him. And maybe he did. For a couple years after he was expelled, Browder kept hoping he'd be called back and he refused to criticize the Soviet Union. In fact he went on a trip to Moscow, and he met with Molotov, the foreign minister. The Russians gave him the rights to sell Russian books in the United States. Maybe the Russians were keeping him in reserve in case the leadership did something bad. He wound up losing all his money. So they cleaned him out too. [chuckles]

The story that I really liked, maybe because on the one hand it seemed so innocent and on the other hand it's so emblematic of Stalinism, was about Jenny Klevitan. We were talking about students and here's a student…

Yeah, she's a student at the student at the Lenin School, a young American communist selected to be trained by the Russians. She's the one who makes the comment that the food is bad. She gets called up for aiding the capitalists by criticizing Russian food. I guess she learned her lesson. We don't know what happened to her. We don't even know if Klevitan is her real name.

A lot of those things at the Lenin School are on the one hand hilarious, and on the other hand very sad. The one guy who… the students are criticized for not discerning that their teacher is imparting Trotskyist propaganda….

If you didn't criticize it meant you were ideologically lax, and if you did criticize you had to be very careful that you had the right kind of criticism, because that would be undermining the party. Psychologically it was a nice little trap.

Is this simply a projection of Stalin's paranoia? Or what happens when people, to save themselves, try to brace themselves against paranoia. Or is this part of the human experience in general?

I think in a way people are prone to see conspiracies everywhere they look. Modern American society is filled with conspiracies, just go see an Oliver Stone movie. But the Communist Party played on that. It was easy for a lot of people to believe that reactionary capitalists were in league with -- depending on the particular point in time -- Franklin Roosevelt, or they were in league with Leon Trotsky. And that everyone was determined to crush this small, noble band of communists who were standing up for truth and life and the salvation of mankind. Psychologically it's comforting in a way. It confirms that you have very powerful enemies. That's one reason why you're not winning. That's one reason the struggle is so intense. That's one reason why you have to be so hard. It's because your enemies are so vast and so dangerous and so clever. We do it all the time in more benign ways.

Who do we have to thank for the particular language that the Bolsheviks spawned? The "cadres" and the "correct," everything is "correct"…

It was Lenin. Lenin really transformed the language of socialism into a very military language. To Lenin, the Bolshevik party was a military-style operation. He was building an organization to fight czarism. It had to be underground. He argued that an open Party, like most socialist parties had been until that time, would be unable to fight the kind of battles that were necessary. That you needed professional revolutionaries. Shock forces. Cadres. Those are military kinds of terms. Of course all comunist parties around the world mimicked that organizational structure, and that language. It's very stilted, tough kind of language.

I understand now, how this language spread to other radical movements, how there was a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The idea that this was some sort of coalition, a popular coalition.

And, you know, the correct line. The phrase "political correctness" came out of the Communist movement. People would be warned that their attitude was not politically correct.

Is there also some justification in the Marxist idea that all of this was inexorable and because of that there were certain things that were naturally correct?

Yeah, there was Truth. Part of Marxism is there are laws of history. Laws are true. You don't debate them. Einstein's law of relativity of Newton's law of gravity -- it's the Truth. In the same way the idea was there are laws of history and the Communist Party is the one that understands them. The analogy that I've used before, is that it also contributed to the willingness of individual communists to park their judgment and accept whatever the Soviet Union said. Because, after all, the Soviets had had a successful revolution, which meant that they had understood the laws of history. And they had completed their revolution.

If you're a beginning physics student and you're trying to understand the laws of physics, who do you ask to explain them? Do you go to your next-door neighbor? Or do you go to Einstein? Well, the Soviet Union was Einstein. So when they told the American Communists to do something, were the American Communists going to say, no, we know better?

And it makes sense, in that perspective. In the last year I re-read "Darkness At Noon," and now, post-Soviet Union, it's a little gem. When I first read it, and when it was written, it took on an ominous tone. Because it made sense in a way. If you look at it in a certain way, there was an inevitability about everything. And yet, and this is what Koestler puts in, that when you put in the human element, the secretary [Rubashov] sacrificed even though she had never done anything wrong…

Yeah, and even at the end, when Rubashov accepts his death as a kind of punishment for everything he has done, there's a part of him that says, Well, maybe the Party is right. Maybe I'm wrong. Who am I to claim that I know better than the Party. Which is why it was so hard for many communists to surrender, to give up communism. It was part of their entire being. It was why a lot of these people who were in the West, and were recalled to the Soviet Union, and knew they were going back to their deaths, went back. They simply could not conceive of living without the Party, in opposition to the Party.

[Here Klehr draws an analogy with Whittaker Chambers, an American communist who denounced the Party and, in doing so, labeled himself a reactionary.]

There's an irony there. Because someone like him, even as he was breaking out, he couldn't break out of the definitions and the assumptions. Couldn't rationalize himself to be a good person outside of that framework. Rationalizing is something that the Party did daily -- rationalizing how this was good and then how the opposite was good.

In part, because to the Party there was an end. To get to the end you have to zig-zag. What made the Party attractive, even to many people that were not communists or were too cautious to join, was the belief that somehow there was an end to history. That history is moving in a certain direction. After all, if it's moving in a direction, shouldn't you be able to push it? That famous phrase, jump on the train of history.

At some point, in '20 or '21, when there was a huge fight in the Soviet Union about some repressive act the Bolsheviks had taken, Trotsky was being criticized by many of his old comrades, the social democrats. These are people he had been allied with. And he makes this passionate speech and concludes with, "You've fallen off the train of history. You're on the garbage heap of history. Get out of the way so we can move along." Well there were lots of people that may not have been in the Communist Party, but thought that somehow history was moving along, the Party was moving along in a certain direction. Now you're off the train, and you were helpless and hopeless. What do you do? The train is moving and it's leaving you behind. You can't influence its direction. You can't influence its rate of speed. And the Communists could. They had that confidence. And that was attractive to lots of people, even people that were not in the Party. Of course the irony is that not long after that, Trotsky was off the train of history as well.

But for somebody like Chambers, there was no train. [laughs] In some ways, someone like Nietzsche may have explained it even better. Nietzche argued that when God was dead, that meant that everything was now possible. There were no restraints on human beings. Of course Nietzche exulted in that. The 20th century was confirmation that when there are no restraints on human beings, people are capable of doing all kinds of things. In that respect, maybe Chambers was right.

I don't know if we should be in a hurry for the century to end or not.

Well, it's been a pretty dreadful one. It's been the century of total ideology. When you think about the human consequences of both Nazism and Communism, which have been the two major ideologies of this century, it's been pretty dreadful. Of course, people have managed to slaughter in the name of God as well.

Maybe it's one of the consequences of the world becoming a smaller place.

And also the instruments of mass murder. Religious movements certainly killed lots of people. But they didn't have the modern techniques to do it. The 20th century saw the conjunction of the ideological movements which justified it and the means of mass murder, which previous centuries didn't have.

I'm thinking I heard it said that in Rwanda, they were killed with machetes, with clubs, with non-technological weapons.

I think it's probably true. On the other hand, too, the one thing of technology that aided it was the use of the radio and mass means of communication to urge people to actually do it.

Let me see if I've got a wrap-up question here. Is you work turning to any other directions?

We've just finished this book on the Venona decrypts, which will hopefully be the definitive work on Soviet espionage. I'm probably going to do one more book for Yale, based on these documents. I'm going to take a few years off before I do it. And I don't know what I'm going to do after that. These documents are incredibly rich. And they're wonderfully evocative. But at some point you reach a limit. I worry sometimes that I've reached that limit.

There's a lot more in Russian archives that we haven't seen.

Are they open enough at this point?

It's very… tense. This book, even. My editor is going over next week because they still haven't declassified a whole bunch of these documents. Whatever that means. I've got the documents here [in the office]. The book's going to be published. Part of it is just the bureaucracy over there. Part of it also is… I don't think the Russians quite understood the significance of some of the documents. Although a lot of the documents in "The Secret World of American Communism" have been re-classified. So if you go to Russia now you can't see those documents, even though they've been published.

And part of it is, with "The Secret World of American Communism," I think they realized what was in the archive. They did not realize those top-secret documents were in the archive. Most of these documents are not top secret. But they're embarrassing in various ways. I think the Russians' attitude is, why cause embarrassment to ourselves? And the instinctive response of any bureaucratic agency is, the best way to not be embarrassed is to not let anybody see anything. Because who knows what can be embarrassing?

We know that there are certain parts of the archive that I looked at that they don't let people see. The personnel files. We had limited access to those. I'm sure there's wonderful material in it. You occasionally hear rumors about other sections of the archive that exist.

It's still a mystery story.

Yeah, it is. It is. And I'm not terribly optimistic. When the political situation becomes a little more tense over there, they tighten the screws on researchers a little bit more. And this is in an archive that is relatively open.

Copyright 1998 by David Holzel

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