WHEN THE LEFT HELD SWAY IN THE US OF A

This semester I’ve been teaching an undergraduate American history course at Florida International University on Monday evenings on the theme of Communism and anti-communism in film and history. The class explores the relationship between documentary and popular films, and socialist agitation and conservative reaction in America. The class began by looking at the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) in the early 1900s and will conclude with the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. During the last two Saturdays, a number of my students have come to the Wolfsonian library for presentations of materials related to the course.

 

During the last two Saturdays, a number of my students have come to the Wolfsonian library for presentations of materials related to the course.

The students have recently viewed documentaries about the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti and Scottsboro Boys trials—and mass demonstrations—that dominated the headlines of the 1920s and 1930s. During their visits they have had the opportunity to see some rare literary and visual materials related directly to those cases.

In the 1920s, when the Socialists split into rival factions, the Communist Party emerged as a small but determined revolutionary organization dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist system. Early Party strategies focused on winning labor to the cause, while the legal arm of the organization (the International Labor Defense, or ILD) took to the courts to defend jailed strikers and other “labor prisoners.”

The years following the 1929 Stock Market crash and the ensuing decade-long depression appeared to bear out the Communists’ predictions of the inevitable decline and fall of Capitalism, winning the CPUSA more recruits and respectability than at any other time in American History.

The library holds several pamphlets, “radical” songs books, and other materials from the 1930s, and has recently added a few rare juvenile periodicals to the collection.

 

The latter serials show how the American wing of the Party followed the dictum of the Communist leader of the failed Spartacus uprising in Germany, Karl Liebknecht, who had claimed that: “He who has the youth, has the future.”

PURCHASED WITH FUNDS DONATED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

Between 1935 and 1939—the so-called Popular Front period—the CPUSA abandoned their go-it-alone struggle and aligned their party with other leftist, Liberal, and progressive reform parties and anti-fascist movements.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Not only were American Communists involved in supporting, organizing, and recruiting fighters for the International Brigades battling fascism in Spain, but native-born CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder argued in speeches that socialism and patriotism were not at all incompatible, and that “Communism is twentieth century Americanism.”

Of course, the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 shocked and offended many progressive liberals and committed socialists, resulting in the collapse of the Popular Front coalition and the Communist Party’s precipitous decline and descent into disgrace in the United States. The previous July, Earl Browder had laughed off the possibility of a Socialist-National Socialist alliance, claiming that “There is about as much chance of such an agreement as of Earl Browder being elected president of the American Chamber of Commerce.” It took the stunned CPUSA general secretary a few days first to believe, confirm, and then to conform to the new party line.

GIFT OF MARTIJN LECOULTRE

GIFT OF STEVE HELLER

Filmed in the aftermath of the revelation of the pact, the Hollywood farce Ninotchka sympathetically treated the “high ideals” of the Communists, even as it ruthlessly lampooned the chilling realities of life in Stalin’s worker’s paradise.” The plot revolves around Ninotchka, a cold, unsentimental bureaucrat from Moscow dispatched to Paris; there her heart slowly thaws and she evolves into a humane woman who dreams of forming a new party in which the kiss would replace the clenched fist salute.

Produced in the immediate aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the film satirizes the Communists claims at being at all different from their National Socialist neighbors. Early on in the story, three Soviet trade delegates race to the train station to meet their superior for whom they have no description. Just as they are about to approach a man who “looks like a Comrade,” they are stopped dead in their tracks when the man clicks his heels and delivers a “Heil Hitler” salute. While the three Marxist stooges conclude that he “is definitely not a comrade,” the audience would have immediately caught the joke that after 1939 it was hard to distinguish between the “Communazis”—a label derogatorily lumping together disciples of either of the totalitarian regimes.

In the wake of the German-Russian Non-aggression and Friendship pacts, the invasion and partitioning of Poland, and Soviet military aggression in Finland and other neighboring states, disillusionment and disgust with Communism grew exponentially, and a “little Red Scare” developed in the United States. Repressive legislation was passed, Earl Browder was sentenced to a four-year prison term for passport violations, and other measures were taken to crack down on “radicals” and Party leaders.

 

GIFTS OF FRANICS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Only the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the U.S. entry into the war against the Axis in December temporarily brought about a thaw in relations. Earl Browder was pardoned by the President, and the U.S. government, Communist Political Association, and Russian allies worked together against the common enemy.

 

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

GIFT OF ELINOR J. BRECHER MADE IN MEMORY OF HER GRANDFATHER, LEO BRECHER

During the war years, Hollywood churned out films that put their Soviet allies in a more positive light. Next week the class will be watching Warner Brother’s Mission to Moscow—(later derisively referred to by conservative detractors as “Submission to Moscow”). This and other war films like The North Star, Counter Attack, and Song of Russia may have helped the war effort by convincing the public to support our Russian war allies, but they caused the producers, directors, actors, and screenplay writers years of grief in the post war period.

Amidst the climate of fear and suspicion that came to characterize the Cold War era, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) turned its own spotlight on Hollywood. Staunch anti-Communists like the Russian-born émigré Ayn Rand railed against “propaganda” films like Song of Russia for portraying the people as smiling and happy under socialism in her testimony before the committee.

“Hostile” witnesses who had either flirted with Communism in the thirties or had joined Popular Front organizations were subpoenaed and force to recant, name names, or risk being blacklisted as crypto-Communist sympathizers or “fellow travelers.”

Other artists with leftist leanings unapologetically continued to produce socially conscious, politically charged artwork in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Wolfsonian library holds important collections of the work of Rockwell Kent, Hugo Gellert, Lynd Ward, and other such artists.

~ by "The Chief" on October 5, 2011.

One Response to “WHEN THE LEFT HELD SWAY IN THE US OF A”

  1. Good combination of videos, images and history. Great blog!

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