Communism lite

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 11 07:35:21 MST 2003

NY Times, Jan. 11, 2002
Party's Over, Comrade, It's History Now

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."

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