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Sat Jan 11 07:35:21 MST 2003
NY Times, Jan. 11, 2002
Party's Over, Comrade, It's History Now
By EMILY EAKIN
Shop in advance." "Keep things simple but attractive." "Mayonnaise is
cheaper and will do instead of butter."
As party planning tips go, these would hardly rate a second glance except
that they were compiled by an organization better known for its
factory-floor radicalism than for its mayonnaise dip: the American
Communist Party. Who knew the Reds had a Martha Stewart streak?
To be sure, "Give a Party for the Party" is no ordinary how-to manual.
Published in the late 1930's by the party's New York State branch and
recently rediscovered by a Brandeis University historian browsing in his
campus's collection of radical pamphlets, it's a 15-page illustrated
tutorial in the art of ideologically correct fraternizing: long on
political indoctrination and penny-pinching strategies and notably
short on scented handicrafts.
Among the suggested high jinks: cutting editorials from The Daily Worker
into little pieces and having guests compete to see who can put them back
together fastest; passing around pictures of party leaders and having
guests try to name them correctly; holding a mock convention on, say,
nonintervention in Spain. "One guest is made chairman. Another is
Chamberlain, another Leon Blum, a third Mussolini," the pamphlet cheerfully
explains, adding, "A clever gathering can do wonders in political satire.
It's grand fun."
Or why not try a round of anti-Fascist darts? "Buy darts from your
stationer's, sporting goods or department store," the pamphlet instructs.
"Draw a picture of Hitler, Mussolini, Hague or another Girdleresque pest.
Put it on a piece of soft board with thumbtacks. Six throws for a nickel,
and a prize if you paste Hague in the pants, or Trotsky in the eye." (Mind
you, all this doctrinaire diversion is to be had on the cheap: the pamphlet
recommends conserving beer by pouring into the middle of the glass, a
method that "gives more foam and less liquid stretches each barrel
"For those who believed in it in the 1930's, the party was not just a
political movement but a whole social context," said David Engerman, the
Brandeis historian who found the pamphlet. Dispelling clichés about
humorless hard-liners, "Give a Party for the Party" was deemed sufficiently
eye-opening, and amusing, to merit inclusion in the inaugural issue of
American Communist History, the first nonpartisan scholarly journal devoted
to the history of the party in the United States. Scheduled to appear twice
a year, this peer-reviewed journal is the latest sign of communism's
transformation from a divisive ideology into a hot academic subject ripe
for nuanced even, where appropriate, lighthearted analysis.
Other features in the inaugural issue, which arrived in libraries in
November, include an essay on the party's activities in California during
the early 1930's that draws on newly opened Comintern archives to show how
local Communist leaders often exercised considerable independence from the
Soviet Union on tactics and policies; a critique of "Song of Russia," a
pro-Soviet Hollywood film from 1944; and a biographical account of Harvey
Matusow, a disgruntled former Communist and paid witness for the Justice
Department who later admitted to lying under oath during the trials of
several party officials.
"Is it ever justifiable in a democracy for the government to maintain a
stable of paid witnesses to testify on its behalf about the political
affiliations (almost always lawful and First Amendment protected) of
individuals holding unpopular views?" the article's authors, Robert
Lichtman and Ronald D. Cohen, wonder. "How to explain the actions of
Justice Department lawyers, ethically obligated to avoid the use of
perjured testimony, who chose to present as witnesses persons whose
truthfulness they had substantial reason to question?"
This thoughtful, searching tone is in keeping with the journal's
aspirations to objectivity. "The key to the journal is that it's middle of
the road," said the editor, Dan Leab, a history professor at Seton Hall
University in South Orange, N.J., and a leading member of Historians of
American Communism, the organization sponsoring the journal. "It covers the
waterfront but leaves the fringes out."
He noted that the journal's dispassionate approach benefits from the
release of formerly classified documents in the United States and Russia,
as well as the death of controversial cold war figures like Alger Hiss and
Whittaker Chambers. "It's much less likely that people will sue," Mr. Leab
said. (The second issue will include an analysis of Congressional committee
transcripts from the Hiss case that were declassified a year and a half ago.)
Not that the word Communism has lost its ability to provoke visceral
reactions in some quarters, he added. When his organization applied for
nonprofit status, he said, government officials were wary. "It took a while
to convince the government to give us our 501(c)3 status," he recalled. "My
impression is that they're still more concerned about Communists than they
are about Enron."
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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