Jay Lovestone is not only one of the oddest characters in the history of the American left but easily its most slippery. From the middle twenties, when as factional leader of the American Communist movement he gained a reputation for both ruthlessness and extraordinary powers of seduction, Lovestone focused his Rasputin-like skills for a half-century upon the manipulation of institutions and personalities. In the end, decades after he had enlisted as the labor movement’s chief CIA liaison, he had arguably outwitted himself. Had he lived ten more years, Lovestone would have seen his protégés forcibly retired from a reformed AFL-CIO and his Machiavellian global policies replaced by the beginnings of cross-border organizing and genuinely democratic internationalism. Perhaps he has been spinning in his grave.
A different version of the Lovestone tale might have treated constant intrigue as the manifestation of a troubled personality; A Covert Life reads too much like the hagiographical treatments of that blustering bureaucrat and fellow Vietnam hawk, George Meany. Even this badly flawed book, however, offers insights into the dark side of the Old Left and into the massive intelligence operations conducted out of the sight of ordinary union members.
Like so many other stories, from showbiz to cerebral politics, this one starts in Jewish New York after the turn of the century. Jacob Liebstein, an immigrant radical who entered the City College of New York in 1915, made himself president of the campus Intercollegiate Socialist Society (a distant ancestor of Students for a Democratic Society) and simultaneously fell hard for the new Russian Revolution. A renamed Jay Lovestone was one of the “City College Boys” who aspired in 1919 to lead the American Bolsheviks to victory.
It was an impossible job, with the nation entering an era of relative prosperity and Moscow calling the shots, often very badly, on the most minor matters. Lovestone himself clearly learned the wrong lessons from the Vanguard Party. (The Wobbly aphorism of later decades put it all too accurately: “The trouble with Leninists is that they all want to be Lenin.”) He never seemed to get a grasp of the alien territory west of the Hudson, and perhaps for that reason he devoted less of his energy to fighting capitalism than to fighting factional opponents.
Morgan seeks to portray his subject as struggling heroically against Russian domination, as if the rising leader had not urgently sought Comintern support for his own side. Lovestone and former college classmate Bertram Wolfe nevertheless had a good idea in “American Exceptionalism,” the theory that capitalism had achieved here a certain stability, and consequently, Communists had to abandon their near-insurrectionary mentality for a nuanced program of tactical alliances. Indeed, the party would do so in the Popular Front era ahead. The trouble was, Stalin shifted toward an ultrarevolutionary strategy in the later twenties while consolidating his power against Trotsky, and old-fashioned Marxist predictions of a final capitalist collapse gained a renewed credibility with the stock-market crash.
Lovestone, who had commanded the party from its own Star Chamber, gravely erred in thinking he could influence either the Comintern or the membership in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Rank-and-file Communists, for their part, innocently admired anyone leading the Soviet Union, while they privately regarded their US leaders, Lovestone included, as puffed-up bumblers. Moreover, his eagerness to expel the “left” opposition (American followers of Trotsky) before Stalin’s supporters fell upon him had demonstrated that Lovestone was none too keen on the democratic procedures that he later, accurately, complained had been systematically violated.