On January 5, 2015, the Forward had this long pious op/ed that begins: “When filmmakers choose what to include or exclude from the stories they tell, their choices often have repercussions beyond the drama on the screen. In films based on real-life events, omissions can seriously distort the way we remember the past. “Selma,” a film directed by Ava DuVernay, offers an ambitious portrait of Martin Luther King by zeroing in on a pivotal moment in the black voting rights struggle. The negative way in which President Lyndon Johnson is portrayed has already sparked significant controversy, but the narrative strategy of the film leads to a glaring omission that has not yet surfaced: the contribution that thousands of white people, many of them Jewish, made to the Civil Rights Movement.”
Understandably, the op/ed does not mention the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA) promotion of Civil Rights going back to the 1920s and the dominant role that Jews played in American communism.
The Communist Party USA, ideologically committed to foster a Socialist revolution in the United States, played a significant role in defending the civil rights of African Americans during its most influential years of the 1930s and 1940s. In that period, the African-American population was still concentrated in the South, where they were largely disenfranchised, excluded from the political system, and oppressed under Jim Crow laws…
In its early days, the party had the greatest appeal among black workers with an internationalist bent. From 1920 it began to intensively recruit African Americans as members. The most prominent black Communist Party members at this time were largely immigrants from the West Indies, who viewed a black worker struggle as being part of the broader campaigns against capitalism and imperialism.
At the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern, Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet, and Otto Huiswoud, born in Suriname, persuaded the Comintern to set up a multinational Negro Commission that sought to unite all movements of blacks fighting colonialism. Harry Haywood,  an American communist drawn out of the ranks of the African Blood Brotherhood, a socialist group with a large number of Jamaican émigrés in its leadership, also played a leading role. McKay persuaded the founders of the Brotherhood to affiliate with the Communist Party in the early 1920s. The African Blood Brotherhood claimed to have almost 3,500 members; relatively few of them, however, joined the party.
The Comintern directed the American party in 1924 to redouble its efforts to organize African Americans…
The Sixth Congress of the Comintern held in 1928 changed the party’s policy drastically; it claimed that blacks in the United States were a separate national group and that black farmers in the South were an incipient revolutionary force. The Comintern ordered the party to press the demand for a separate nation for blacks within the so-called “Black Belt”, a swath of counties with a majority-black population extending from eastern Virginia and the Carolinas through central Georgia, Alabama, the delta regions of Mississippi and Louisiana and the coastal areas of Texas…
The party’s most widely reported work in the South was its defense, through the International Labor Defense (ILD), of the “Scottsboro Boys”, nine black men arrested in 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama after a fight with some white men also riding the rails. They were convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women on the same train. None of the defendants had shared the same boxcar as either of the women they were charged with raping.
The International Labor Defense was the first to offer its assistance. William L. Patterson, a black attorney who had left a successful practice to join the Communist Party, returned from training in the Soviet Union to run the ILD. After fierce disputes with the NAACP, with the ILD seeking to mount a broad-based political campaign to free the nine while the NAACP followed a more legalistic strategy, the ILD took control of the defendants’ appeals. The ILD attracted national press attention to the case, and highlighted the racial injustices in the region…
The Scottsboro defense was one of the ILD’s many cases in the South at that time: it also defended Angelo Herndon, a Communist Party activist sentenced to death by the State of Georgia for treason due to his advocacy of national self-determination for blacks in the Black Belt. The ILD also demanded retribution from state governments for the families of lynching victims, for their failure to protect blacks. It pushed for due process for criminal defendants. For a period of time in the early and mid-1930s, the ILD was the most active defender of blacks’ civil rights in the South; it was the most popular party organization among African Americans…
The party was also active in campaigning on issues concerning black Americans outside of the South. The CPUSA made a point of campaigning against racial segregation, both in the independent unions they were organizing during the Third Period and in the American Federation of Labor unions they were attacking. The party also made a concerted effort to weed out all forms of racism within its own membership, conducting a well-publicized trial of a Finnish member of a foreign-language federation in Harlem, who had acted insensitively toward blacks.
The CPUSA organized among African Americans in the North on their local issues; it was, for example, either the first or one of the most active organizations in campaigning against evictions of tenants, for unemployment benefits, and against police brutality. In other instances during this period, the Communist Party joined in existing campaigns, such as the economic boycott, under the slogan of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” launched against Jewish and Italian businesses in Harlem that refused to hire African-American workers…
Communists joined with labor and civil rights groups to form the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which campaigned for civil rights and socialism. A New York City school teacher and party member, Abel Meeropol, wrote the song “Strange Fruit” to dramatize the horrors of lynching in the South, which had reached a peak around the turn of the century.
The party tailored its campaign for unity against fascism to appeal to the black community, as in the case of its opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Black members went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War; the Lincoln Brigade was the first military force of Americans to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and black officers commanding white troops…
The Communist Party made the fight against racism within the labor movement and Jim Crow outside it one of its consistent principles from the early 1920s forward. While maintaining a position against white supremacy, the Party made special efforts to organize black miners in the strikes its National Miners Union led in western Pennsylvania in 1928…
During the Popular Front era the party attracted support from a number of the brightest lights in African-American literature, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, some of whom joined the party, only to break with it in later years. Paul Robeson, a vocal defender of the Soviet Union, apparently never joined the party, but was loyal to at least a few of its members including Ben Davis who was jailed under The Smith Act.
The Communist Party also took up benign issues. The party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, started agitating for integration of major league baseball in the mid-1930s. The party also made a point of integrating its dances and other social events and continued to ostracize and expel members accused of “white chauvinism”…
In 1946, the NNC and the ILD merged to form the Civil Rights Congress. The CRC continued its activities during the height of postwar attacks on the Communist Party, denouncing discrimination in the judicial system, segregated housing, and other forms of discrimination that blacks faced in both the North and the South.
Kevin MacDonald writes in his book Culture of Critique about the extensive role that Jews played in American communism:
The best evidence that individuals have really ceased to have a Jewish identity is if they choose a political option that they perceive as clearly not in the interests of Jews as a group. In the absence of a clearly perceived conflict with Jewish interests, it remains possible that different political choices among ethnic Jews are only differences in tactics for how best to achieve Jewish interests. In the case of the Jewish members of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) reviewed below, the best evidence that ethnically Jewish members continued to have a
Jewish identity is that in general their support for the CPUSA waxed and waned depending on whether Soviet policies were perceived as violating specific Jewish interests, such as support for Israel or opposition to Nazi Germany…
Moreover, as was the case with the CPUSA, actual Jewish leadership and involvement in Polish Communism was much greater than surface appearances; ethnic Poles were recruited and promoted to high positions in order to lessen the perception that the KPP was a Jewish movement (Schatz 1991, 97). This attempt to deceptively lower the Jewish profile of the communist movement was also
apparent in the ZPP. (The ZPP refers to the Union of Polish Patriots—an Orwellian-named communist front organization created by the Soviet Union to occupy Poland after the war.) Apart from members of the generation whose political loyalties could be counted on and who formed the leadership core of the group, Jews were often discouraged from joining the movement out of fear that
the movement would appear too Jewish. However, Jews who could physically pass as Poles were allowed to join and were encouraged to state they were ethnic Poles and to change their names to Polish-sounding names. “Not everyone was approached [to engage in deception], and some were spared such proposals because nothing could be done with them: they just looked too Jewish” (Schatz
When this group came to power after the war, they advanced Soviet political, economic, and cultural interests in Poland while aggressively pursuing specifically Jewish interests, including the destruction of the nationalist political opposition whose openly expressed anti-Semitism derived at least partly from the fact that Jews were perceived as favoring Soviet domination.77 The purge of Wladyslaw Gomulka’s group shortly after the war resulted in the promotion of Jews and the complete banning of anti-Semitism. Moreover, the general opposition between the Jewish-dominated Polish communist government supported by the Soviets and the nationalist, anti-Semitic underground helped forge the allegiance of the great majority of the Jewish population to the
communist government while the great majority of non-Jewish Poles favored the anti-Soviet parties (Schatz 1991, 204-205). The result was widespread anti-Semitism: By the summer of 1947, approximately 1,500 Jews had been killed in incidents at 155 localities. In the words of Cardinal Hlond in 1946 commenting on an incident in which 41 Jews were killed, the pogrom was “due to the Jews who today occupy leading positions in Poland’s government and endeavor to introduce a governmental structure that the majority of the Poles do not wish to have” (in Schatz 1991, 107).
The Jewish-dominated communist government actively sought to revive and perpetuate Jewish life in Poland (Schatz 1991, 208) so that, as in the case of the Soviet Union, there was no expectation that Judaism would wither away under a communist regime. Jewish activists had an “ethnopolitical vision” in which Jewish secular culture would continue in Poland with the cooperation and approval of the government (Schatz 1991, 230). Thus while the government campaigned actively against the political and cultural power of the Catholic Church, collective Jewish life flourished in the postwar period. Yiddish and Hebrew language schools and publications were established, as well as a great variety of cultural and social welfare organizations for Jews. A substantial percentage of the Jewish population was employed in Jewish economic cooperatives…
Similarly, the communist-oriented Jewish subculture, including organizations such as the International Workers Order (IWO), included Yiddish-speaking sections. One such section, the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order (JPFO), was an affiliate of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and was listed as a subversive organization by the U.S. Attorney General. The JPFO had 50,000
members and was the financial and organizational “bulwark” of the CPUSA after World War II; it also provided critical funding for the Daily Worker and the Morning Freiheit (Svonkin 1997, 166). Consistent with the present emphasis on the compatibility of communism-radicalism and Jewish identity, it funded children’s educational programs that promulgated a strong relationship between
Jewish identity and radical concerns. The IWO Yiddish schools and summer camps, which continued into the 1960s, stressed Jewish culture and even reinterpreted Marxism not as a theory of class struggle but as a theory of struggle for Jewish freedom from oppression. Although the AJCongress eventually severed its ties with the JPFO during the cold war period and stated that communism was a threat, it was “at best a reluctant and unenthusiastic participant” (Svonkin 1997, 132) in the Jewish effort to develop a public image of anti-communism—a position reflecting the sympathies of many among its predominantly second- and third-generation Eastern European immigrant membership.
David Horowitz (1997, 42) describes the world of his parents who had joined a “shul” run by the CPUSA in which Jewish holidays were given a political interpretation. Psychologically these people might as well have been in eighteenth-century Poland:
“What my parents had done in joining the Communist Party and moving to Sunnyside was to return to the ghetto. There was the same shared private language, the same hermetically sealed universe, the same dual posturing revealing one face to the outer world and another to the tribe. More importantly, there was the same conviction of being marked for persecution and specially ordained, the sense of moral superiority toward the stronger and more numerous goyim outside. And there was the same fear of expulsion for heretical thoughts, which was the fear that riveted the chosen to the faith.”
A strong sense of Jewish peoplehood was also characteristic of the leftist Yiddish press. Thus a letter writer to the radical Jewish Daily Forward complained that his nonreligious parents were upset because he wanted to marry a non-Jew. “He wrote to the Forward on the presumption that he would find sympathy, only to discover that the socialist and freethinking editors of the paper
insisted… that it was imperative that he marry a Jew and that he continue to identify with the Jewish community… [T]hose who read the Forward knew that the commitment of Jews to remain Jewish was beyond question and discussion” (Hertzberg 1989, 211-212). The Forward had the largest circulation of any Jewish periodical in the world into the 1930s and maintained close ties to the
The relationship of Jews and the CPUSA is particularly interesting because the party often adopted anti-Jewish positions, especially because of its close association with the Soviet Union. Beginning in the late 1920s Jews played a very prominent role in the CPUSA (Klehr 1978, 37ff). Merely citing percentages of Jewish leaders does not adequately indicate the extent of Jewish influence, however, because it fails to take account of the personal characteristics of Jewish radicals as a talented, educated and ambitious group (see pp. 5, 95-96), but also because efforts were made to recruit gentiles as “window dressing” to conceal the extent of Jewish dominance (Klehr 1978, 40; Rothman & Lichter 1982, 99). Lyons (1982, 81) quotes a gentile Communist who said that many working-class gentiles felt that they were recruited in order to “diversify the Party’s ethnic composition.” The informant recounts his experience as a gentile representative
at a communist-sponsored youth conference:
“It became increasingly apparent to most participants that virtually all of the speakers were Jewish New Yorkers. Speakers with thick New York accents would identify themselves as “the delegate from the Lower East Side” or “the comrade from Brownsville.” Finally the national leadership called a recess to discuss what was becoming an embarrassment. How could a supposedly national student organization be so totally dominated by New York Jews? Finally, they resolved to intervene and remedy the situation by asking the New York caucus to give “out-of-towners” a chance to speak. The convention was held in Wisconsin.”
Klehr (1978, 40) estimates that from 1921 to 1961, Jews constituted 33.5 percent of the Central Committee members, and the representation of Jews was often above 40 percent (Klehr 1978, 46). Jews were the only native-born ethnic group from which the party was able to recruit. Glazer (1969, 129) states that at least half of the CPUSA membership of around 50,000 were Jews into the 1950s and that the rate of turnover was very high; thus perhaps ten times that number of individuals were involved in the party and there were “an equal or larger number who were Socialists of one kind or another.” Writing of the 1920s, Buhle (1980, 89) notes that “most of those favorable to the party and the Freiheit simply did not join—no more than a few thousand out of a following of a hundred times that large.”
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, exemplify the powerful sense of Jewish identification among many Jews on the left. Svonkin (1997, 158) shows that they viewed themselves as Jewish martyrs. Like many other Jewish leftists, they perceived a strong link between Judaism and their communist sympathies. Their prison correspondence, in the
words of one reviewer, was filled with a “continual display of Judaism and Jewishness,” including the comment that “in a couple of days, the Passover celebration of our people’s search for freedom will be here. This cultural heritage has an added meaning for us, who are imprisoned away from each other and our loved ones by the modern Pharaohs” (pp. 158-159). (Embarrassed by the selfperceptions of the Rosenbergs as Jewish martyrs, the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] interpreted Julius Rosenberg’s professions of Jewishness as an attempt to obtain “every possible shred of advantage from the faith that he had repudiated” [Svonkin 1997, 159]—another example of the many revisionist attempts, some recounted in this chapter, to render incompatible Jewish identification and political radicalism and thus completely obscure an important chapter of Jewish history.)
As in the case of the Soviet Union in the early years, the CPUSA had separate sections for different ethnic groups, including a Yiddish-speaking Jewish Federation.80 When these were abolished in 1925 in the interests of developing a party that would appeal to native Americans (who tended to have a low level of ethnic consciousness), there was a mass exodus of Jews from the
party, and many of those who remained continued to participate in an unofficial Yiddish subculture within the party. In the following years Jewish support for the CPUSA rose and fell depending
on party support for specific Jewish issues. During the 1930s the CPUSA changed its position and took great pains to appeal to specific Jewish interests, including a primary focus against anti-Semitism, supporting Zionism and eventually Israel, and advocating the importance of maintaining Jewish cultural traditions. As in Poland during this period, “The American radical movement glorified the development of Jewish life in the Soviet Union… The Soviet Union was living proof that under socialism the Jewish question could be solved” (Kann 1981, 152-153). Communism was thus perceived as “good for Jews.” Despite temporary problems caused by the Soviet-German nonaggression pact of 1939, the result was an end to the CPUSA’s isolation from the Jewish community during World War II and the immediate postwar years.
Interestingly, the Jews who remained within the party during the period of the nonaggression pact faced a difficult conflict between divided loyalties, indicating that Jewish identity was still important to these individuals. The nonaggression pact provoked a great deal of rationalization on the part of Jewish CPUSA members, often involving an attempt to interpret the Soviet Union’s actions as actually benefiting Jewish interests—clearly an indication that these individuals had not given up their Jewish identities.81 Others continued to be members but silently opposed the party’s line because of their Jewish loyalties. Of great concern for all of these individuals was that the nonaggression pact was destroying their relationship with the wider Jewish community.
At the time of the creation of Israel in 1948, part of the CPUSA’s appeal to Jews was due to its support for Israel at a time when Truman was waffling on the issue. In 1946 the CPUSA even adopted a resolution advocating the continuation of the Jewish people as an ethnic entity within socialist societies. Arthur Liebman describes CPUSA members during the period as being elated because of the congruity of their Jewish interests and membership in the party. Feelings of commonality with the wider Jewish community were expressed, and there was an enhanced feeling of Jewishness resulting from interactions with other Jews within the CPUSA: During the postwar period “Communist Jews were expected and encouraged to be Jews, to relate to Jews, and to think of the Jewish people and the Jewish culture in a positive light. At the same time, non-Communist Jews, with some notable exceptions [in the non-communist Jewish left]…accepted their Jewish credentials and agreed to work with them in an all-Jewish context” (Liebman 1979, 514). As has happened so often in Jewish history, this upsurge in Jewish self-identity was facilitated by the persecution of Jews, in this case the Holocaust.
This period of easy compatibility of Jewish interests with CPUSA interests evaporated after 1948, especially because of the altered Soviet position on Israel and revelations of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many Jews abandoned the CPUSA as a result. Once again, those who remained in the CPUSA tended to rationalize Soviet anti-Semitism in a way that allowed them to maintain their Jewish identification. Some viewed the persecutions as an aberration and the result of individual pathology rather than the fault of the communist system itself. Or the West was blamed as being indirectly responsible. Moreover, the reasons for remaining in the CPUSA appear to have typically involved a desire to remain in the self-contained Yiddish communist subculture. Liebman (1979, 522) describes an individual who finally resigned when the evidence on Soviet anti-Semitism became overwhelming: “In 1958, after more than 25 years with the Communist party, this leader resigned and developed a strong Jewish identity which encompassed a fierce loyalty to Israel.” Alternatively, Jewish CPUSA members simply failed to adopt the Soviet party line, as occurred on the issue of support for Israel during the 1967 and 1973 wars. Eventually, there was virtually a complete severing of Jews from the CPUSA.
Lyons’s (1982, 180) description of a Jewish-Communist club in Philadelphia reveals the ambivalence and self-deception that occurred when Jewish interests clashed with communist sympathies:
“The club… faced rising tension over Jewishness, especially as it related to Israel. In the mid-sixties conflict erupted over the club’s decision to criticize Soviet treatment of Jews. Some
orthodox pro-Soviet club members resigned; others disagreed but stayed. Meanwhile the club continued to change, becoming less Marxist and more Zionist. During the 1967 Middle East War, “we got dogmatic, for one week,” as Ben Green, a club leader, puts it. They allowed no discussion on the merits of supporting Israel, but simply raised funds to show their full support. Nevertheless, several members insist that the club is not Zionist and engages in “critical support” of Israel.”
As in the case of Poland, there is every reason to suppose that American Jewish Communists regarded the USSR as generally satisfying Jewish interests at least until well into the post-World War II era. Beginning in the 1920s the CPUSA was financially supported by the Soviet Union, adhered closely to its positions, and engaged in a successful espionage effort against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union, including stealing atomic secrets (Klehr, Haynes & Firsov 1995).82 In the 1930s Jews “constituted a substantial majority of known members of the Soviet underground in the United States” and almost half of the individuals prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1947 (Rothman & Lichter 1982, 100).
“Although all party functionaries may not have known the details of the special relationship with the Soviet Union, ‘special work’ [i.e., espionage] was part and parcel of the Communist
mission in the United States, and this was well known and discussed openly in the CPUSA’s Political Bureau… [I]t was these ordinary Communists whose lives demonstrate that some rank-and-file members were willing to serve the USSR by spying on their own country. There but for the grace of not being asked went other American Communists. The CPUSA showered hosannas on the USSR as the promised land. In Communist propaganda the survival of the Soviet Union as the one bright, shining star of humankind was a constant refrain, as in the 1934 American Communist poem that described the Soviet Union as “a heaven… brought to earth in Russia.” (Klehr et al. 1995, 324) Klehr et al. (1995, 325) suggest that the CPUSA had important effects on U.S. history. Without excusing the excesses of the anti-communist movement, they note that “the peculiar and particular edge to American anticommunism cannot be severed from the CPUSA’s allegiance to the Soviet Union; the belief that American communists were disloyal is what made the communist issue so powerful and at times poisonous.”
“Communists lied to and deceived the New Dealers with whom they were allied. Those liberals who believed the denials then denounced as mudslingers those anti-Communists who complained of concealed Communist activity. Furious at denials of what they knew to be true, anti-Communists then suspected that those who denied the Communist presence were themselves dishonest. The Communists’ duplicity poisoned normal political relationships and contributed to the harshness of the anti-Communist reaction of the late 1940s and 1950s. (Klehr et al. 1995, 106)”
The liberal defense of communism during the Cold War era also raises issues related to this volume. Nicholas von Hoffman (1996) notes the role of the liberal defenders of communism during this period, such as the editors of The New Republic and Harvard historian Richard Hofstadter (1965) who attributed the contemporary concern with communist infiltration of the U.S. government
to the “paranoid style of American politics.” (Rothman and Lichter [1982, 105] include The New Republic as among a group of liberal and radical publications with a large presence of Jewish writers and editors.) The official liberal version was that American Communists were sui generis and unconnected to the Soviet Union, so there was no domestic communist threat. The liberals had seized the intellectual and moral high ground during this period. Supporters of McCarthy were viewed as intellectual and cultural primitives: “In the ongoing kulturkampf dividing the society, the elites of Hollywood, Cambridge and liberal thank-tankery had little sympathy for bow-legged men with their American Legion caps and their fat wives, their yapping about Yalta and the Katyn Forest. Catholic and kitsch, looking out of their picture windows at their flock of pink plastic flamingos, the lower middles and their foreign policy anguish were too infra dig to be taken seriously” (von Hoffman 1996, C2).
However, besides poisoning the atmosphere of domestic politics, communist espionage had effects on foreign policy as well…
Glazer (1969) estimates that approximately 1 million Jews were members of the CPUSA or were socialists prior to 1950.