Lovestone’s Thin Red Line

Lovestone’s Thin Red Line

Jay Lovestone is not only one of the oddest characters in the history of the American left but easily its most slippery.


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.

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.

But another career had already begun, one with more potential than Lovestone had imagined since his days as a boy Bolshevik: intelligence operative. More properly, there was only a gap in this career. As documents released from the Moscow archives have revealed, until 1936 Lovestone worked quietly with Russian intelligence agents even while openly attacking Moscow’s policies, obviously hoping to demonstrate the loyalty needed to re-establish his former position. In 1941 Dubinsky introduced Lovestone to AFL second-in-command George Meany, avowing, “he’s been converted.” Three years later, Meany made Lovestone head of the AFL’s semisecret cold war division. By changing sides, Lovestone had come home to himself.

Here, the ur-text of A Covert Life opens. Often haphazardly researched (Morgan provides no precise footnotes, only “sources” for text pages, and offers up old chestnuts like the claim that socialist leader Daniel DeLeon regarded himself as descended from Ponce de León), the book treats early cold war intrigue as the narrative high point. Careful readers will find such tasty details as Lovestone checking personnel files of the Truman Administration for Comsymps to be blacklisted, and using columnist Walter Winchell to air useful rumors and scandal against real and imaginary enemies. But most of the ground on Lovestone’s international operations has been covered in other histories. It was detailed, using interviews with former high-level intelligence officials, in Ben Rathbun’s equally eulogistic British biography of Lovestone’s chief field officer, The Point Man: Irving Brown and the Deadly Post-1945 Struggle for Europe and America, a work curiously little deployed here.

By taking Lovestone’s assumptions and actions at face value, Morgan misses the real importance of labor spy work. With the Marshall Plan operating in Western Europe and the East frozen into Stalin’s cordon sanitaire, restabilization was inevitable, contrary hopes and fears notwithstanding. But what kind of Europe? Lovestone viewed the aspiration of non-Communist leaders like Léon Jouhaux and British Laborites for a “Third Way”–leading labor and socialistic governments on a course independent of either superpower–as a heresy exceeded only by Communism. Morgan does not explicate the widespread buying of votes and union officers (at low rates, in those distressed times). Nor were Lovestone and Irving Brown averse to propping up erstwhile Nazi collaborators (in Greece) or employing the Mafia to break certain unions’ strikes. All these tactics, with the exception of the fascist connection, had indeed been standard in garment district wars for decades. Lovestone essentially internationalized business unionism.

A Covert Life slips worse in the treatment of Lovestone and the labor world after 1950. Even as Europe rumbled, the Third World skyrocketed in strategic importance, and Lovestone was clearly out of his depth. His CIA handler, the paranoid but powerful James Jesus Angleton, insured a rapid increase of covert funding. But unaccountably, Morgan does not bother to treat the hot spots of Latin America, where Lovestone’s office assisted dramatically in a series of coups during the fifties and sixties, resulting in tens (and finally hundreds) of thousands of casualties thanks to US support of the region’s business and military elite. Morgan’s treatment of Africa is also clipped; he insists that Lovestone supported “moderate” nationalism, a convenient disguise for policies set to create reliable postcolonial friends of US business. The same is still more true of Southeast Asia, where anti-Communism quickly became synonymous with massive assassination (“neutralization”) campaigns and carpet-bombing.

Morgan argues that by the sixties, the “great churning of worldwide activity was over.” Not true. The Kennedy Administration set up formal international labor agencies estimated conservatively at a cost of $100 million per year, a figure that grew rapidly during the eighties. Decades of financial and political assistance could be arranged for Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, world-class terrorist and key military ally of South Africa’s apartheid government. Grand programs could be launched in vital corners of US influence like the Philippines, where the AFL-CIO’s affiliate loyally supported the Marcos regime until it fell. And so on across the map. Lovestone himself, convinced until the end of his life that détente was only a Soviet ruse, became more and more of an anachronism, except of course in the hawkish command headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

The disclosure of CIA funding, fervently denied until exposure overwhelmed the familiar lies, was mortifying and enraging to George Meany’s minions. Thirsting for revenge against union peaceniks, Lovestone threw himself into the failed presidential campaigns of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the “Senator from Boeing.” He also sought out the company of Henry Kissinger, who had begun writing for the AFL’s CIA-sponsored press from Harvard in 1960. Lovestone raged at Nixon for recognizing China. He remained close to Angleton when decades-long CIA activities against US citizens were also finally exposed and the spy chief was propelled into retirement. Never one for personal loyalty, Meany simply dumped Lovestone in 1974, replacing him (in typical AFL fashion) with a son-in-law in need of a career boost.

But of course the world had not changed so much after all. Lovestone kept up contact with his good friends Alexander Haig and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose triumph over Bella Abzug in the 1976 senatorial primary was celebrated as the quashing of McGovernite-pacifist “New Politics.” And he helped collect his papers in the Reagan Revolution homeland of the Hoover Institution, where his old friend Bert Wolfe held a sinecure. Morgan suggests that after 1979–that is, after Lovestone and Meany–the AFL-CIO built a new foreign policy independent of the CIA. Nothing could be less true, as the growing scholarship on the labor movement’s abysmal Central America adventures conclusively demonstrates.

A Covert Life winds down with Lovestone in his coffin, at a memorial service in which (quoting a friendly former Carter official) “there were more CIA men…than labor men.” Eight years later Meany successor Lane Kirkland, who offered heartfelt praise at Lovestone’s bier, was cashiered by a labor movement that had nearly lost itself after practically abandoning domestic matters in search of one last, great international victory of business unionism. That strategy had already failed miserably, and we can even now wonder that a Jay Lovestone could wield so much power for so long, with so little support or even knowledge of those who paid the dues to keep the gold-plated offices shiny for their masters.

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