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Lovestone's Thin Red Line | The Nation

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Lovestone's Thin Red Line

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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.

About the Author

Paul Buhle
Paul Buhle, who published the one-shot Radical America Komiks in 1969, is researching Yiddish and Jewish culture in...

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.

For the following decade, Lovestone ran an organization with changing names and only several hundred members but two key accomplishments. Its paper, an ill-distributed weekly (first titled Revolutionary Age, later Worker's Age), was in some respects the most literate journal on the left, and the organization provided a political base for guiding Local 22 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the largest local in the United States during the early thirties. Under the leadership of the talented and humane Charles Zimmerman, Local 22 not only operated with great efficiency but provided many of the amateur actors for Harold Rome's production of the much-played union musical Pins and Needles.

Unfortunately, Lovestone always had larger aspirations. When John L. Lewis opened the new Congress of Industrial Organizations to the Communist organizers badly needed for the difficult and often dangerous work of reaching unskilled workers, ILGWU czar David Dubinsky was determined to re-establish AFL hegemony by battering the CIO's dynamic center. On orders from Dubinsky, Lovestone provided staff and personally oversaw an attempted palace coup and purge of the United Auto Workers; when that failed, he supported disgruntled ex-leader Homer Martin in an aborted effort to create a company-friendly (and lily-white, according to some followers) union for faithfully anti-CIO auto workers. The plans flopped, and in the balance, Lovestone acquired a lifelong non-Communist nemesis, Victor Reuther. As war neared, Lovestone saw his horizons narrow so completely that he actually dissolved his little political group, an almost unprecedented act on the left.

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