The Composition of the CP
The Social Basis of American Communism.
by Nathan Glazer.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 244 pp. $5.50.
What social groups contributed the most members to the American Communist party from its beginnings in the early 20’s to its decline in the mid-50’s? What accounts for the unequal susceptibilities of different groups to Communist appeals? To what extent were the Communists successful in recruiting members from such groups as native-born industrial workers and Negroes, which for doctrinal reasons were the main targets of their organizing drives? What shifts occurred in the social composition of the party’s membership as American society underwent major changes? How did the party revise its preferences for members from particular groups when its general line shifted between revolutionary “left” and popular front “right” positions?
Nathan Glazer addresses himself to these essentially sociological questions in The Social Basis of American Communism. Despite the implied comprehensiveness of his title, he devotes considerably more attention to some groups, notably ethnic communities, than to others, and the balance between documentation and interpretation varies markedly from chapter to chapter. Inevitably, this gives the book an uneven cast and lends a somewhat perfunctory air to the treatment of several topics. Yet his selective approach represents on the whole a wise economy of effort: the subject of American Communism has been dealt with rather fully in recent years, particularly by the Fund for the Republic’s series on Communism in American Life, to which Glazer’s volume is a contribution.
The role of immigrant groups in the party is the Subject of the longest and most fully documented chapter. In spite of the party’s efforts to win a following among native Americans, immigrants organized into separate foreign-language sections made up nearly 90 per cent of the party’s total membership throughout the 20’s. Although the top leadership included native-born individuals, the foreign-language groups were the chief raw materials from which the party fashioned the militants who carried its influence into other segments of American society in the 30’s and 40’s. Communist influence was greatest among immigrants from East European nations bordering on Russia who, in contrast to the Poles, were not strongly Catholic.
Industrial workers, particularly those employed in heavy industry and organized in trade unions, and Negroes were the two groups that the Communists were consistently most eager to influence. Their preference for workers in heavy industry clearly stemmed from Marxist-Leninist ideology and, as Glazer points out, they clung to it even in the late 40’s and 50’s when their main objective was to influence public opinion on foreign policy through the mass media rather than to paralyze the economy by revolutionary action—an objective that middle-class intellectual sympathizers were obviously more able to promote than miners or steelworkers. In a brief but perceptive chapter on the Negroes, Glazer shows that “the appeal to Negroes, the most oppressed and potentially the most radical segment of the population according to Communist theory, rises in Left periods, is muted in Right periods.” The massive failure of Communist efforts to win a large following among Negroes has been thoroughly documented in several previous studies; Glazer argues, however, that for a considerable time the Communist party was unique in its rigid insistence on complete equality in all interracial contacts and that this policy created a broadly favorable image of the party among Negroes which survived into the years of the cold war.
The confrontation between the American population and the Communists, determinedly proselytizing those citizens they regarded as the most valuable converts, led to the apparent paradox that “when the party made the strongest efforts to get members, the members it got were the least satisfactory.” When a worker or Negro found a new job or was aided by a new aggressive union, he soon came to believe that he had more to lose than his “chains” and was likely to leave the party as quickly as he had joined it under the stress of unemployment or involvement in a bitterly fought strike. The members conforming most closely to the Bolshevik conception of hardened, militant “cadres” were middle-class converts who had surrendered not their chains but their souls to the party, joining out of ideological conviction rather than material interest or in response to special incentives offered them. Thus the New York party, far less proletarian in composition than the Detroit party, more faithfully carried out the directives of the leadership and had a far lower rate of turnover in membership.
The depression enabled the party to expand its base considerably beyond its original nucleus of immigrant workers. Native-born industrial workers, drawn especially from the ranks of the unemployed, and trade union activists joined in large numbers after 1930, but there was an even more striking increase in recruits from the middle class. By 1941 no less than 44 per cent of the party was reported as professional and white collar. An important though numerically insignificant proportion of the middle-class membership were the intellectuals and artists, whose role in American Communism has been so widely and heatedly discussed in the past decade. Happily, Glazer avoids still another recounting of that oft-told tale and concentrates on the relatively neglected topic of the occupational and ethnic backgrounds of the middle-class recruits. From the middle 30’s to the early 50’s, the years of the party’s greatest size and influence, it was almost alone among Communist parties of the Western world in possessing so marked a middle-class character.
Who were the middle-class American Communists? “Another characteristic of the American Communist party that differentiated it from almost every other Communist party in the Western world,” Glazer writes, “was that a large proportion of its members were of Jewish origin. . . . The party was so heavily middle class in large part because it was so heavily Jewish.” The question of why many American Jews—though, of course, they amounted to only a tiny fraction of the total American Jewish population—were attracted to Communism has rarely been fully confronted. For different reasons, the Communists, the government, and the Jewish organizations themselves have shied away from public discussion of it. Glazer’s effort to deal with it is the most original feature of his book.
Yiddish-speaking Jews had constituted one of the largest foreign-language groups in the party during the 20’s. But the middle-class Jews who became Communists during the Popular Front period were of the second rather than of the original immigrant generation. And most of them were strongly committed to assimilation and indifferent or hostile to all organizations concerned with specifically Jewish interests—religious, political, or cultural. Moreover, the Jewish organizations, with the exception of a few surviving Yiddish-speaking immigrant groups, were anti-Communist. Nor did the Communists, except for a few years in the late 40’s, make any appeal to Jewish interests as such, beyond condemning Nazi anti-Semitism; on the contrary, the party violently opposed Zionism and Jewish “sectarianism.” Glazer argues, therefore, that it was the upwardly mobile second generation’s entry into white-collar work and such semi-professional occupations as social work and teaching that gave middle-class Jews a distinctive susceptibility to Communist appeals. Jews as latecomers to white-collar and professional fields frequently encountered discrimination; moreover, of the occupations they entered in the largest numbers, some, like social work, had an intellectual tradition favorable to social reform and critical of capitalist institutions, while others, like education, were at this time sympathetic to such an outlook. In short “an intricate combination of religio-cultural background, historical experience, and the special occupational history of Jews in America explains why so many Communists were Jews.” Glazer attempts to unravel these separate influences with admirable sociological penetration and sureness of touch, but he is forced to concede in the end that they are inextricably interwoven.
It is unlikely that there will be much further research of this kind on American Communism and even more unlikely that someone of Nathan Glazer’s political and sociological sophistication will be available to undertake it. The very merits of his book lead me, therefore, to regret that he fails to explore even briefly—although touching on them incidentally here and there—two additional questions which would provide a needed larger context for his main subject. First, a comparison, however rough in view of the paucity of sources, of the membership of the American Communist party with that of other Communist parties in Western countries would have provided a useful epilogue to his concluding remarks on the in-hospitality of American society to revolutionary Marxism. And secondly, why were the Communists, although they utterly failed to become a major force in American life, nevertheless more successful than competing radical and socialist groups?
In discussing the success of the Communists in capturing control over important trade unions and again in noting the involvement of young second-generation Jews in radical movements, Glazer observes that in particular situations it was frequently accidental which radical group succeeded in taking advantage of existing opportunities for power or for winning followers. Even tiny sects like the Trotskyites and the Lovestoneites were able to capitalize on their superior political skill and militance to win positions of influence in such major unions as the Teamsters and the United Automobile Workers when the mass surge toward unionism began in the middle 30’s. And “such things as who his friends were, where the local headquarters was located, what his father or his uncle had been, who ran the best (social) parties” often determined whether a young urban Jew joined the Socialist party, the Communists, or one of the Marxist splinter groups. Why, then, did the Communists succeed by the end of the 30’s in establishing a virtual monopoly over the radical left in America?
The obvious answers are, of course, broadly true: the Communists were in fact less doctrinaire and radical than other groups during the Popular Front period and they had the prestige of the Soviet Union behind them. But, as Glazer amply demonstrates with respect to other questions, the obvious answers are never sufficient to account for the facts in detail. In general, Negroes and certain groups of workers became Communists because they were oppressed and economically exploited, Jews because they suffered status discrimination, whereas businessmen, Old Americans, and farmers contributed few recruits to the party. But to explain why some of the insulted and injured were more responsive than others, and why they were more prone to join in some periods rather than others, requires the more discriminating analysis both of the Communist appeal and of the groups exposed to it that Glazer has given us. A similar analysis of the success of the Communists in their competition with other radical parties would have rounded out his study.