Be an American Communist for me

I’m trying to plot out a novel, and some of my characters are left-wingers in the summer and fall of 1940. I can’t quite figure out how they would be feeling politically, at a point after Stalin has signed a non aggression pact with Hitler (which happened in 1939) but before Hitler broke the pact and attacked Russia (which happened in 1941). What I’m asking you is to imagine that

  1. You’re basically you
  2. But you’re a committed Marxist in 1939
  3. And you learn that Stalin has signed a pact with Hitler.

This exercise does require that you figure out what sort of Marxist you would have been before the pact:

Naïve, fuzzyheaded young person who believes we should all share and share alike?
A Jew who thinks the Communist have the strongest anti-Nazi program going?
A rational thinker who sees Marxism as a scientific economic program?
A liberal disgusted with FDR’s party for making excruciatingly slow progress on civil rights for colored folks?
A victim of the harsh economic realities of the 1930s?
An alarmist who thinks fascism will take over if we don’t pick a side in the looming fascist/communist struggle?

Or any other explanation for why you chose to embrace Marxist thinking. Having figured out why you became a Marxist, I want to know how you remain a Marxist in 1940. (Your reasons may conclude “…but I really couldn’t support this thinking for very long,” which is fine but I’m more interested in your feelings UP TO the point where you left the Communist Party. I’m assuming you spent the last few months of 1939 wrestling with your conscience, but it’s been a year now and though you’re troubled you haven’t yet resigned from the CP. Why not?
Mods: Not sure what the debate point is here, exactly, but it seems a little grand to me for IMHO. If you disagree, please feel free to move this there, or wherever.

Hmmm…were this 1940, & if I was a Communist: a man so angry with the abuses of the “big Eastern Bankers and Captains of Industry” that I am blinded (or willfully ignoring) the limitations of the cause I espouse & the allies I embrace. Ripe with anger is the key.

Not quite what you’re after, but In Dubious Battle (1936), for instance, by Steinbeck might throw some light on reasons to be attracted to socialism or communism…

Or (not US based, I’m afraid) my father grew up in a very left wing household in the 20s & 30s and took to Internationalism and the Esperanto movement in particular to further those ideals.
After the war he still approved of socialism, but not the Soviet system - and he still believed a common language could span most barriers and continued in the Esperanto movement long after he realised it wasn’t going to be the solution.

I’m not sure of the timing or reasons behind his changing views…

Suspect this doesn’t really help you!

Thanks but no, not really. My problem is imagining a thought process while it’s still in mid-stream. There are loads of explanations before 1940, as to why people became Communists (as Steinbeck’s novel does) and loads of post WWII explanations as to why people lost their faith in Communism, but as of 1940, neother would be particularly relevant to the people I’m describing.

If anyone knows of a book or cite that explains some of this emotion, I’ll welcome it, or any further extrapolation of what YOU feel would have applied to your own reaction.

Why did you flip over the tortoise?

“Of course Comrade Stalin signed a pact with the Devil! What did you expect? These Americans, the damn British, they are all secretly in league with him too! At least the Politburo is playing for time, getting ready to defend Socialism at the right moment!”

“Look we all know that Hitler will fail, look at the internal inconstancies in his economic program. The Soviets are waiting for these to cause the Fascists to collapse, then we will liberate the people of Europe.”

“No thanks to America and the British!”

You might want to look at old issues of The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, USA. From other threads, I think I recall that you are a college professor. This newspaper should be available on microfilm at your library. One possible problem with this source is that it was an organ of the Soviet Comintern, which may have controlled content enough to discourage honest expression.

In the period you’re describing, don’t forget, there are two major leftist parties – the Communist Party (pro-Soviet) and the Socialist Party (anti-Soviet). Maybe you’re sticking with the CP because you can’t bear to admit your rivals in the SP might be right. Heretics are always scarier than infidels.

For a good insight into leftist politics of the period, read It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks.

Actually, there is historical evidence for what most CPUSA members felt at the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: membership fell off hugely as they felt that Stalin had betrayed Marxism by dealing with the devil of Fascism. I’ll let you do the research, but I have seen estimates of membership fall-off as high as 2/3 to 3/4 of the total.

The Communist Party (downloadable documents) site provides the official reaction of the CPUSA as they scrambled for damage control just before and just after the signing. (They almost appear to be the template for Orwell’s depiction of people switching opinions in mid-rally at the behest of the government proclamations.)

How would someone who did NOT quit feel? I dunno.

I doubt that this is going to be a debate of any sort. I can see not placing it in Cafe Society since you are looking for historical information, not discussing a(n as yet unwritten) work and I can see not placing it in GQ, since you are seeking opinions.

I’m moving it to IMHO.

[ /Moderating ]

Seeing as I’ve often conducted my own Gedankenexperimenten about what I would have been, said, or done in the '30s, I tried and tried to approach this hypothetical. But one of your provisos stuck in my craw:

1) You’re basically you.

If I’m basically me, I’m my grandfather’s grandson. And he was a capital-S Socialist in the '30s. And to him, Communists were people who came to Socialist meetings and threw chairs at people’s heads.

So I’m afraid I can’t answer your question.

I should look into old Daily Workers, to see what I can gather. Good idea. It will at least tell me how it was being officially rationalized.

I don’t know, by 1940, the Socialists had pretty much died as a party, due in large part, in fact to Communists joining and the infighting over that (a lot of Trotskyites joined after the CPUSA kicked them out and tried, unsuccessfully, to take the Socialists over). So even if our hypothetical Communist might have considered jumping ship to join the Socialists, there’s no guarantee they’d want to be associated with him or trust him.

If you are thinking of an american communist trying to justify the non-agression pact, I could think of a couple of reasons.

  • Capitalist dictators going to war are trying to exploit the workers for their own benefit - workers should unite and not be fighting each other. Didn’t Lenin declare a truce with Germany in World War I?
  • From a pragmatic point of view, why would Russia fight Germany unless Germany attacks it? In the course of time, the capitalist government of Germany will become a paradise of the workers.
  • Why should we ally ourselves with France, Great Britain and the United States, countries that supported the White Armies trying to overthrow our government in 1918?

The capitalistic exploitation is showing it,s face right now. The robber barons of the early 20th century are taking over now. I think an argument for Communism or Socialism will be made if the present trends continue. Capitalism is on it,s way to exploitatiom world wide. So the fears of the worker movement took longer to realize. We are removing the victories of labor and destrpying unionism. i think a case can be made that at our present course ,we could relive the turbulent times of the 20s. However the cops who are protectors of the status quo have more guns and are more freedom to use them. The labor ,communist or socialist, will be reluctant to engage in confrontation.

Hopefully Olentzero is still lurking.

Hitler is fighting Western Europe. Western Europe is hopelessly corrupt. Why should the Soviet Union get mixed up with it?

Oh boy, I remember reading about this. From a geopolitical angle, Russia wanted to be in mutual protection pact. France and Britain tried to put together a treaty thta would prevent Hitler from encroaching in Eastern Europe. Hitler, of course opposed what he termed an “Eastern Locarno.” The Soviets were prepared tp join such a pact, but Poland and Romania refused to allow the Russian army within their borders, even in the event of a German attack. They believed (and rightly) that the Russians would never leave (I say Russian here, because Stalin pursued the same foreign policy strategy as the Czars did). The talks repeatedly broke down, and Ribbentrop took advantage of the situation to bring Russia into an entente with Germany, with another partitiion of Poland. A true believer could simply accept that Stalin was placing tactical expediency ahead of broad principles. The Communists did this all the time when they participated in Union drives or supported leftist candidates who were not (or even anti-) communist.

By the way, here is a debate between Max Shachtman (Trotskyite) and Earl Browder (CPUSA president during the 30s) on the Soviet Union.

“Stalin is waiting out the inevitable German revolution. The workers of the world have been inspired by the Soviet example and are even now being educated by Communists both in their own countries and from established Communist strongholds. This pact between the Nazis and the Soviets is the last act of the doomed Nazi régime. History is on our side. We will bury them.”

“The Nazis aren’t crazy. They are ideologues, yes, but I daresay we have some of those in our own ranks. It would be suicide for them to take on the worker’s paradise, to throw slaves against free men and one country against half a continent. No leader since the Great War would be such a fool. The war wouldn’t even last long enough for anyone to dig trenches: The Soviet Army would recruit the Polish comrades and sweep into Germany in a matter of weeks.”

“Germany has made strides in the areas of economic improvement and might yet beat this terrible depression caused by the parasitic scum in the stock exchanges. They lack the vision of the Five-Year Plans, but in their own way they are doing what is needed. No workers in Germany are sitting idle, I can assure you of that much.”

“That last is the downfall of the Fascist system. Once the burden of immediate starvation is lifted, the political education of the proletariat naturally follows. The German worker is not stupid. He sees the inequalities of the Capitalist system and the essential contradictions of the Fascist state, and he is perfectly capable of staging his own revolution to rectify matters. And the Soviet state will be right there with him, as will working people from around the world!”

It’s naïve, yes, but no more than I think would be reasonable. There wasn’t much reason for an American college student earnestly passing out Communist Party fliers and attending meetings to suspect Hitler, or anyone else, would be crazy enough to start another world war. Plus, this line of thinking feeds into his belief that he is really doing something in the world, that his own education and his education of others is significant in some global struggle.

These are pretty good. Thanks. I just got Ring Lardner jr.'s memoir I’D HATE MYSELF IN THE MORNING from inter-library loan. On p 101 he writes:

"From [the pact until Hitler’s invasion], to remain a Communist you had to believe the following:

  1. That in the Munich pact of 1938, the ruling forces of Britain and France had sold out Czechosloavkia and abandoned the policy of collective security with the purpose of turning Hitler against their real enemy, the Soviet Union

  2. That to forestall this plot, the Soviets had had no choice but to make a purely tactical deal with Germany, enablilng them to strengthen their borders and build up their military power.

  3. That their occupation of eastern Poland and southeastern Finland were not aggrandizing acts but necessary defensive moves against Germany

  4. That the best interests of the United States lay in neutrality."

Not sure what he means by “aggrandizing acts” in item 3, but this seems to cover much of the territory we’ve been getting at.