The presentation of its archives by the defunct Communist Party U.S.A. to New York University’s library reminded me of the days in the 1940s when party members were more open, especially in the trade unions — for example, in their takeover coups in the nascent Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO.
Not everything involving the Communist Party will appear in the archives, especially anecdotal testimonies. One of these came from an ex-communist I will call Ephraim, a onetime assistant editor of a Communist Yiddish daily called Der Freiheit, whom I got to know after he had broken with communism.
He told me of what happened on the day, Aug. 19, 1939, that Moscow announced the signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. There was a news photograph showing Josef Stalin and his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov jollying with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Adolf Hitler’s foreign minister. The Stalin-Hitler Pact wiped out the Popular Front and guaranteed that the Soviet Union would remain neutral when Hitler attacked Poland, which he did less than two weeks after the Soviet-Nazi pact was signed. And not only that, but it came to be regarded among CP members and fellow-travelers as an intolerable heresy to attack fascism, now that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were allies. “Fascism is a matter of taste,” Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov smirked after signing the pact.
The pact threw Communist Party members the world over into consternation. Since the fall of the Weimar Republic, fascism was regarded as the enemy of mankind. Committees, leagues and front organizations were organized against fascism. And here you had the Kremlin ordering an overnight 100 percent reversal. Fascism was no longer the enemy. The Western democracies, France and Britain, were the enemy along with their ally, the United States, since we were helping beleaguered Britain by supplying U.S. destroyers. The communists trumpeted their slogan in the U.S.: “The Yanks are not coming.” A Popular Front communist-controlled organization called the American League Against War and Fascism overnight became the “American League for Peace and Democracy.”
Now comes Ephraim’s story. It’s Aug. 19, 1939, and suddenly he got a phone call from his boss, M.J. Olgin, the Freiheit editor, to drop everything and taxi with him to the Hotel New Yorker for what turned out to be a meeting in one of the hotel suites of the Central Committee of the Communist Party plus trusted invitees like Ephraim. There were in orderly arrays about 40 chairs, all occupied by people some of whom he knew by sight and others by name, including Earl Browder, then head of the Communist Party U.S.A.
Standing in front as the speaker of the day was a man he had never seen before. He learned later that the speaker was a Bronx dentist and, more importantly, was what was known as the “Comintern rep,” Stalin’s official representative who transmitted orders from the Communist International in Moscow to the Comintern branches in the capitalist world. Normally the “Comintern rep” transmitted the Kremlin ukases to Browder, the Kremlin poodle. However, the new “peace” line was such a 180-degree switch — to go from anti-fascism to pro-fascism overnight — that a meeting of the party leadership was convened at short notice to be given the message.
Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t sit well with Ephraim, who knew he would have one hell of a selling job to his readers. And he was right: There was a huge fall-off in Der Freiheit’s circulation as indeed there was in the Daily Worker circulation. Ephraim walked out of the New Yorker lobby with Ben Gold, head of the communist-controlled Furrier’s Union. Both men were aghast at the new pro-fascist party line. Ephraim suggested they meet again in the New Yorker hotel lobby in three days to discuss their future as communist labor leaders.
Three days later, Ephraim showed up but there was no Ben Gold, who had decided to accept the pro-fascist Communist Party line. Even though it was clear Hitler was winning the war, even though France surrendered in June 1940, even though Britain was being bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe, Britain became the target of communism as well. All of Britain’s “sins” as a colonial power were equated with Nazi crimes and the communist machine the world over denounced British “imperialism.”
It all changed on June 22, 1941, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Russia. Winston Churchill overnight went from being a fascist to a heroic democratic leader. That support didn’t last very long because the Kremlin and all its poodles started a clamor for opening a second front: a cross-Channel invasion of the European mainland.
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