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The Red Decade, by Eugene Lyons
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The Red Decade, by Eugene Lyons

A remarkable work studiously ignored when it was published in mid-1941 and alternately attacked or maligned by America’s mainstream press and censored class-rooms since. Could perhaps be sub-titled “The Great American Children’s Crusade” except the actors in the piece, though naïve in the extreme, were not children and were far better organized than any medieval crusade. Yet the “incredible revolution” of the burgeoning popularity of Communism in America in the 1930s was just as delusional, and as wildly popular at its height between 1937 and 1941 as that medieval drama. At a time when virtually the entire intelligentsia in the United States, not to mention the rest of the Western world, was swept up in enthusiasm for the “Great Experiment” and the new “workers’ paradise” alleged to be found in the new Soviet Union, Eugene Lyons stood almost alone among Western correspondents who questioned this utopian and outlandish presumption—certainly among the precious few foreign correspondents with on-the-ground experience of actual events in Moscow.

Literate, perceptive, armed with facts, and drenched in acidic observations on the clownish antics and militantly self-righteous statements of Western intellectuals whose experience of Russia was either wholly imaginary or limited to closely choreographed Intourist shadow-plays as Soviet handlers led them by the nose and starry-eyed past Potemkin villages, Lyons’ The Red Decade packs page after page with the story of the birth, life, and finally paralysis and stasis, since it never died, of the Communist Party U.S.A. and its rise to fantastic influence in a land whose history and culture are utterly alien to its militaristic, anti-democratic, conspiratorial, and totalitarian doctrines.

As proof that American Communism was a foreign implant serving only the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union, Lyons traces the public pronouncements of the American party and compares them to the zig-zagging foreign policies of the Soviet regime and finds that the two perfectly coincide. From 1917 to 1921 the Bolsheviks pursued armed world revolution at all costs, forming the Communist International (Comintern) for this widely-publicized purpose. In the U.S the first American Communists, almost entirely East European immigrants with little knowledge or experience with the U.S., forced a break with the majority American socialists, rejecting the latter for their preference for peaceful “reformism.”

From 1922 to 1928 the New Economic Policy (NEP) was implemented in Russia, seeking to rebuild the economy which had collapsed as a result of prodrazhverstka—Bolshevik seizures of hidden food stocks from starving peasants. The Bolsheviks even began signing treaties with foreign “imperialists,” arriving hat-in-hand asking to join international conferences and haughtily indicating that they would deign to accept loans from capitalists whom they thought “desperate” for new markets.

In the US, the new American Communist Party became subdued in its behavior while it was subjected to a series of purges as Moscow established organizational control, first via Comintern delegations (entering the U.S. en masse with fake passports), then by Stalin’s appointees. Leadership finally settled on the frumpy and self-effacing Earl Browder who was awarded formal leadership of the American Communist Party for the sole reason that, unlike his rivals, Browder never voiced support in public or private for any of Stalin’s chief rivals Trotsky, Zinoviev, or Bukharin.

From 1928 to 1935, with Stalin now firmly in control of both the Russian Party and the Comintern, Moscow resumed Lenin’s former policy of agricultural expropriation and world revolution, splitting with socialist and labor parties world-wide who were henceforth attacked as “social fascists” for their heresy of doubting the imminence of the global collapse of capitalism, and scorning collective security arrangements like the “League of Robber Nations,” as Lenin had termed it.

Browder’s party during this period broke with every American socialist party and union movement, viciously attacking Hoover and FDR equally as “tools of Wall Street,” and the New Deal as “fascist.” The Party’s well-financed smear machine condemned American progressives and anyone who upheld “American exceptionalism” as “rotten liberals,” yet spent far more time and devoted far more space in its many propaganda publications to vicious attacks on rival Communist parties that still adhered to Trotsky or purged American leaders like Lore and Lovestone, and non-stop personal attacks on American union leaders like John L Lewis and socialist leaders who defied the Kremlin’s authority like Norman Thomas.

From 1935 to 1939 Stalin panicked at the rise of Hitler, who stubbornly refused every suggestion of possible cooperation from Stalin, and reversed his foreign policy. The Comintern suddenly began calling for united “Popular Fronts” with socialists—and even capitalist bourgeoisie—in every Western country, Stalin even ordering a new “Soviet Constitution” to attract sympathy and support from formerly despised democrats in the West.

In the U.S, FDR and the New Deal were suddenly found to be “communist” at heart, and the CP-US’ multifarious and voluble media proclaimed undying support and friendship for U.S culture and history, condemned U.S. isolationism, and endorsed the virtues of collective security and military intervention in the Spanish Civil War. This at a time when Hitler’s Wehrmacht was still conducting secret military training inside the Soviet Union under the terms of the Weimar Republic’s 1922 Treaty of Rapallo (terminated by Hitler in 1935), and Stalin was happily selling oil to Mussolini which fueled his Fascist invasion of Abyssinia (1935) and again during Italy’s military intervention in Spain (in 1937-39).

In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact which enabled Hitler’s invasion of Poland and triggered World War II. As if turning on a dime, Stalin’s international propaganda machine suddenly found Nazism to be something much less than the fount of all evil. Collective security overnight reverted to anathema, and imperialism and capitalism once again became the only enemy of Communists everywhere.

Stalin’s zig was matched precisely by a zag in policy and pronouncements of the CP-US, which within hours of the Pact hastily issued reformulated slogans and propaganda proclaiming the virtues of US isolationism, unlimited support for non-interventionist “peace coalitions” like the League for Peace and Democracy (changing the name from “League Against War and Fascism”), flooding their executive boards with salaried Communist Party functionaries, and implementing strikes by Communist-infiltrated unions such as the C.I.O which halted the production of half the military aircraft production in the US during early 1941 until FDR sent in the army to run the plants, all in an effort to impede U.S. aid to Britain and France while they sought to resist Hitler.

Lyons makes the interesting point that one of Hitler’s motivations in signing the Pact may have been to recruit a Stalin-dominated global Comintern as a foil against the US, consciously seeking thus to prevent American aid to Britain and France, believing that Stalin’s Comintern had such powerful influence that it could keep the U.S. out of the war. The SA’s own street battles with the Comintern in major German cities throughout the 1920s and early 1930s certainly makes it plausible that Hitler viewed the Comintern as a global power. In hindsight, this strategy may indeed have worked for a time.

The ultimate zigzag followed in June 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Reversing on the same dime, Nazism suddenly reverted to being the sole enemy of Mankind, U.S. isolationism overnight returned to being the worst of evils, and the virtues of collective security were suddenly and desperately proclaimed by Communist Parties world-wide as the Wehrmacht invaded Russia and approached Moscow.

In the propaganda of the CP-US, “Uncle Joe” became America’s best friend interested only in peaceful democracy. The CP-US feverishly promoted the American war effort, blocking all union strikes thus ensuring the smooth production of America’s war materials, and immediately began calling for implementation of a “Second Front” to halt the Nazis. Given the accuracy of Lyons’ analysis, amazingly perceptive for 1940 and 41 when most Americans were enamored with “Uncle Joe,” one can almost imagine an agent of the Comintern whispering in Tojo’s ear, “Don’t invade the Workers’ Paradise…attack those evil capitalists in the U.S instead!” Strange how it all worked out for Stalin in the end, and for the Comintern.

Only in 1950 did this period end when Stalin tested the West in Korea, finally triggering a significant anti-communist reaction in the U.S that quarantined the CP-US and contributed in its long-term decline.

It is hardly possible to do justice here regarding the wealth of information provided by Lyons on the penetration of American institutions by Communists and Communism in the Red Decade of the 1930s. Every conceivable industry, educational institution, unions and labor movements, the theater, arts, publishing, and every branch of the New Deal’s make-work projects were infiltrated by Party members. The Party swelled from a few thousand in 1932 to tens of thousand by 1939, not to mention millions of supporters, seeming to represent ideas whose “time had come.”

The very vocabulary of intellectual discourse in the U.S. was transformed as high-society ladies of leisure, college professors, penny novelists, and media moguls equally proclaimed themselves “workers,” donned brimless workers’ caps, and championed the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, calling for “liquidation of the bourgeoisie as a class,” by definition including themselves and their own families. “Innocents Clubs” mushroomed across the country. “Fascist” became a new derogatory term hurled at any socialist who strayed from Moscow’s control, the foremost example being Mussolini, who had been the most popular socialist leader in Italy until he broke with Moscow and traded the hammer and sickle for the ancient Roman fasces. “Fellow-travelers” volunteered to man “front organizations” and assist “transmission belts” to promulgate the latest “party line.” For those whose membership in the Party was to remain secret, there was “boring from within” and turning capitalism “inside-out.” And for all, a fascination with “Proletcult,” proletarian culture, with faux workers’ parties in high-society penthouses, and Ivy League intellectuals eager to prove their working-class sympathies by plunging their pink uncallused hands into farmsoil and machine oil.

The devils of the day became “Hearst and Hitler” and anyone who had the audacity and bad taste to mention the deaths of millions by state-caused famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s or the bloody purge of millions more in the late 1930s, including not only virtually the entire officer corps of the Red Army, but most Bolshevik veterans of the Russian Revolution of 1917, by a paranoid Stalin who wished no reminders of his embarassingly small role in that event to survive. The influence of Stalin can be measured by the pick-ax murder of his Bolshevik rival Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, the murderer subsequently given a public parade in Moscow.

The influence of Stalin’s supporters in the U.S. can be measured by the nomination of Uncle Joe’s loyal supporter, Henry A.Wallace, as Vice-President in the campaign of 1944, and by the Hollywood productions of the pro-Soviet propaganda films North Star and Mission to Moscow. The former, an attempt to portray a famine-devastated and collectivized Ukraine, whose citizens joyfully welcomed the Nazis in 1941 as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny, instead as an autonomous happy-go-lucky village of prosperous free farmers with ample livestock, extensive private farms, and the latest consumer goods, fervently supportive of the regime in Moscow. The latter, a bald propaganda piece extolling Stalin’s thuggish war-mongering despotism as a mirror image of the U.S, with a supposedly functional Constitution, democratic procedures in the Soviet government, and a genial Uncle Joe devoted to world peace.

Even the film Citizen Kane bore traces of the Communist inundation, being a personal torpedo aimed at William Randolph Hearst, a contract-hit on the CP-US’s most visible and frequent target, by Orson Welles. Indeed, to publicly oppose the CP in Hollywood in the late 1930s meant to be subjected to the notorious Blacklist, which only the most famous movie stars could afford to publicly defy, which was far more effective and complete than the feeble anti-communist “greylist” of the 1950’s.

As Lyons carefully describes, capacity to resist the flow of the Children’s Crusade for Communism was rare. For formal CP-US members, to lose one of the repeated power struggles in its ranks merely meant expulsion from the Party. Higher-ups could not simply resign—this would bring public embarassment to the Party. Rather a resignation was always followed by a highly public personal smear in the many Party publications, with vicious attacks and invented calumnies and offenses. For former fellow-travelers who defected and attempted to publish anything critical of the Party—or worse, of the Soviet Union—all the resources of the vast marketing machine in the US and abroad would be employed to enforce “Communist discipline.”

Americans today have difficulty comprehending what this meant for true “cult-members” who strayed. The Communist Party, in the U.S as in other countries for many years, was far more than merely a political party. It was, as Lyons said, “a movement, a lobby, a religion, and a racket.” And more: it was a tribe which took care of its own. Lyons points out that higher officials at times employed Mafia hit men and union thugs to eliminate or intimidate rivals within the Communist Party. A defector was, by definition, a traitor to the community and must be dealt with by any means available. Anyone who questioned the party line, whether a member or a perpetual critic, would be subjected to social ostracism and personal invective that reached far beyond mere dislike to embrace professional sabotage and the blacklisting of employment opportunities that could reach into the highest governmental levels.

It was a movement in that the Communist Party’s Marxist and Leninist ideas reached into the furthest reaches of popular discourse and seeming geographical isolation, defying any attempt to bring public attention to inconvenient facts in the Soviet Union.

It was a lobby in that the Party was constantly engaged in loudly promoting specific political agendas, even if at times totally reversing its stated goals, then reversing yet again. Or in attacking specific programs and any public personae associated with those programs. The Party indeed practically invented the art of personal assassination by the press, since adopted by the U.S. media as standard practice, the Party having learned this technique from the Russian official press organs during Stalin’s campaigns against “Trotskyism” and “Bukharinism”—witness the CP-US campaign in the late 1920s against merely one of its former leaders in the form of its hysterical press campaign against “Lorism,” a CP-US leader who lost a power struggle and was purged by the Kremlin.

Communism was a vibrant, if decadent, religion. Like the Vatican, the global Communist parties had a monastic world headquarters which was the Kremlin; a series of Popes the first of whom was Lenin and the second Stalin; a holy text which was Marx’s Das Capital, followed by works by Lenin and Stalin; a pantheon of saints being Marx and Engels to whom was later added Lenin and other fallen Communist heros; a dogmatic doctrine which was “After the Revolution, the Workers of the World will unite and establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat over any non-proletarians who may survive”; a priesthood which was the current membership of the Russian CP (being a native speaker of Russian was an absolute prerequisite, and being Jewish helped); a Heaven which was the utopian Communist state to follow the establishing of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which a Providential History made inevitable; a Hell which was the current system of “capitalist exploitation” marked by smoking “satanic mills” and any other trace of non-egalitarianism; an “army of Christian soldiers” which was of course the Soviet Red Army; an inner core of disciplined Jesuits which was the GPU, the NKVD, and the KGB; and a Satan, which was of course Trotsky, then Hitler, then whoever happened to be the current American President. And most important of all: a clear distinction between “the saved” and “the damned” determined exclusively by whether one was a loyal and obedient member of the single correct and infallible Communist Party, ie, that local Party branch that was recognized by and unquestioningly obedient to the dictates of the Russian Kremlin and which alone received its financial subsidies—no small factor during the Depression, when many thousands of CP loyalists saw no alternative but to remain loyal to whomever currently dispensed the Party paychecks, paralleling the situation in Russia where to be purged meant to face starvation since private employment was a crime.

To risk falling from grace with this monolithic, vast, and extraordinarily powerful cult and be excommunicated from its ranks required a degree of personal bravery that few possessed, especially after witnessing the attacks on former members who strayed and were subjected to vicious retaliation and ostracism from life-long friends, co-workers, employers, union rank and file, government officials, neighbors, church-members, even spouses and one’s own family. How much easier to go slack and silently mouth “red-baiter” along with the rest of the cultic sheep. Yes, even church-members. Earl Browder, for instance, came from a family of Unitarians, as did this reviewer, who knows well what it means to be raised in an atmosphere where the only causes are left-wing, the only doctrines Socialist doctrines, the only “gods” radical icons and dead Communist saints.

It was a racket in that the upper levels of the CP-US were as corrupt as any Tammany Hall, except the currency was more than mere money, but fame and power. Power over potential victims of the massive smear machinery that could be unleashed on anyone naïve enough to personally provoke a high-level party functionary, or block a job application for a New Deal project. Fame in that mere association with the Holy Cause of aiding the Great Experiment in the remote Asian hinterland, where no one knew exactly what was happening but “felt” it was good, made one giddy from the attention and praise that one received.

Walter Duranty, for example, the long-term foreign correspondent in Moscow for the New York Times, knew well what was happening in the Ukraine as hundreds of starved peasants threw themselves at his train on each “fact-finding” trip, but reported only that the Great Experiment required a few eggs be cracked—and other than that, all was well in Russia. The clamor and acclaim that Duranty received in his occasional visits to the U.S where his upbeat correspondence had made him the toast of New York’s Left elite, doubtless made him more drunk than a box of Moscow vodka, culminating in his being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his careful omission of the word “famine” even as his special train ran over corpses of the starved—more evidence of the Cult’s penetration and extraordinary dominance of American media and social elite in the 1930s.

As Lyons pointed out already in 1941, and as legions of former-travelers attempted to point out afterward, American leftists, liberals, and progressives were obsessed with non-existent utopias, and the more distant and less accessible, the more certain they were that glorious Socialism was being built there. Piles of dead—Duranty’s “cracked eggs”—did not deter them from locating their utopia in Russia, just as a generation later China became their favorite despite even greater heaps of corpses of innocents, into the tens of millions. And subsequent identifications of Communist Utopia with Yugoslavia, East Germany, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and now Venezuela, have never been inconvenienced by the slaughters and collapsed economies accompanying the Communist takeovers of any of those states, or deterred by the eventual rejection of Communism by virtually all of those same states when finally freed of their respective despots and secret police.

A few criticisms might be leveled against Lyons. For one, he suggests that most Communists were unaware of the reality of events in Russia and had their hearts in the right place. Fifty years after this book was written, with the Soviet archives wide open to anyone’s inspection, it can no longer be said that Communists today are unaware of those events, and given the perceptivity of Lyons in the 1930s, not to mention many others who attempted to report accurately what was actually transpiring in Russia, including many ex-Communists, political refugees, victims of NKVD death-squads, and survivors of Siberian death-camps, but were shouted down at public meetings and defamed in print by the Communist apparatus, their earnest submissions rejected by fellow-traveling publishers as “red-baiting,” it seems impossible to this reviewer that any thinking person with an ounce of moral or intellectual integrity in the 1930s could truly have been unaware of the Communist atrocities—being willfully ignorant if not consciously lying.

Given that rumors of Nazi concentration camps were taken as established fact by the Left elite in the U.S. without a shred of proof as early as 1934, it seems more than strange that the vastly larger Communist gulags and slaughter of much huger numbers in Stalin’s blood purges of 1937-39 should be dismissed as “red-herrings” or as “primitive anti-communism” by uninformed disgruntled “right-wingers.” Decades later, this reviewer listened to a college professor of American history at the University of Texas in Austin smugly denounce anti-communists who, in his opinion, were ignorantly attempting to pin the blame for the murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in east Poland on the Red Army, when “as everyone knows” Nazis were the perpetrators. This he said in the 1970s after it was proven that Stalin’s KGB were indeed the culprits who had massacred the Polish officers in order to guarantee absorption of eastern Poland into the Soviet sphere in late 1939, and which was finally proved beyond all dispute in the 1990s by evidence from the Soviet archives.

In short, most American Communists were not the innocent naïfs that Lyons gave them credit for, misled by a vacuum of information in the U.S in the 1930s, but in fact knew full well what they were about, and what the facts were.

Second, Lyons restates the Trotskyist view that Stalin himself was of no consequence, but merely the expression of an impersonal force of burocracy. But this sidesteps the central fact, crystal clear through a century of hindsight, that Communism itself, as a political and social and economic system, is fundamentally flawed and inevitably degenerates into a Fuhrer-type regime run by cadres of secret police. This too was amply clear already by the late 1930s to anyone who cared to remove their rosy spectacles and read any daily newspaper by the light of open day.

Third, Lyons might have explored the overlap of the American Mafia, particularly the early Jewish gangsters, with unions in New York, seeing as how a symbiotic relationship apparently existed among the three entities, the New York garment and manufacturing and kosher food unions being ground zero in the U.S. for Communism, organized crime, and Jewish immigrants. How far this relationship went may even shed light on the ties that existed among the Communist Lee Harvey Oswald, the crime boss Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, and unions in Chicago where the Jewish Jack Ruby originated. But this is highly speculative, and is not meant to suggest that Communism was an ethnic phenomenon, reviewed by Glenn Roberts for Siriusreviews.com.

All in all, a great and easy read, and highly entertaining and educational concerning a momentous social movement that has since receded into history, leaving little more than the gigantic self-contained gulag that is Stalinist North Korea—Lenin’s last remaining “workers’ paradise” imprisoned by its own broken “egg-shell.” Lyons’ book is a unique work, and, given the still lingering legacy of profound media suspicion which the Comintern, being the greatest marketing and propaganda machine that ever existed, historically managed to attach to any work with even the barest hint of inconvenient facts that may lend themselves to the remotest criticism of Communism, may remain highly unusual.

First rate—read it, and learn some actual facts about American history which the reviewer guarantees the censorship of the Establishment Left will never allow inside a class-room or on a cable-channel near you. —Glenn Lazar Roberts for SiriusReviews.com.

Sendas Malomar

The Red Decade, by Eugene Lyons, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings
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