For a few decades — from the 1930s until Communism’s demise as an effective political force in the 1950s — New York City was the one place where American communists came close to enjoying the status of a mass movement. Party members could live in a milieu where co-workers, neighbors and the family dentist were fellow Communists; they bought life insurance policies (excellent value for money) from party-controlled fraternal organizations; they could even spend their evenings out in night clubs run by Communist sympathizers (like the ironically named Café Society on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, a showcase for up-and-coming black performers like Billie Holliday).
What became the Communist Party U.S.A. (its name varied in the early years) was founded in Chicago in 1919 and, following a period of underground organization, opened its national headquarters in that city in 1921. But the bulk of the movement’s members were in New York, and in 1927 Communist headquarters were shifted to a party-owned building in Manhattan, at 35 East 12th Street, two blocks south of Union Square. (The building still stands, although under new ownership, and in what has evolved into a considerably less proletarian neighborhood than in the old days.)
New York would remain the capital city of American Communism from then on. Leading communists, including such figures as William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, had their offices on the top floor of the 12th Street building; accordingly, within the movement, it became the custom to refer to party leadership as the “ninth floor.” (And, for some reason, even in non- and anti-Communist left-wing circles, “the party” was always understood to refer to the Communists, rather than any rival organizations.)
Immigrants, many of them of Eastern European Jewish background, provided the main social base for the party in New York City in the 1920s: As late as 1931, four-fifths of the Communists living in the city were foreign-born.
Of course, immigrant radicalism was nothing new in New York. The socialist leader Morris Hillquit, born in Riga, Latvia, won more than a fifth of the votes cast in the 1917 mayoral election. Socialists initially hailed the news of the Bolshevik Revolution, but many of them — except for those who left to become Communists — came in time to understand and oppose the Soviet regime’s abandonment of the left’s traditional democratic and egalitarian ideals.
Neither of the two main rival left-wing parties, Socialists or Communists, enjoyed much success in the 1920s. But with the onset of the Great Depression, Socialists were poised once again to become the dominant party on the left. In the 1932 presidential election, the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, won almost nine times the votes that the Communist candidate, Mr. Foster, received. (Neither of them had a fraction of the support of the actual winner, Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
But the balance of power on the left was about to change, and nowhere would that change make itself felt more dramatically than in New York. With the Depression spiraling out of control in the early 1930s, the Soviet Union began to be viewed in a new and more sympathetic light by millions of people around the world, including many in the United States. The “workers’ state” with its planned economy, viewed at a hazy distance and with a lot of wishful thinking, seemed to offer a desirable alternative to the cruel irrationality of a failed capitalist system, with its mass unemployment and widespread social misery.
Marxism-Leninism, Communists proclaimed, was a science, whose practical application by centralized and disciplined revolutionary parties in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere, held the key to unifying the workers of the world. Within a few years of the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, Soviet leaders shifted their international strategy from promoting world revolution to seeking anti-fascist alliances with Western democratic powers. In the era of the “popular front,” as American Communists stressed the need for anti-fascist unity, they began to win grudging respect in labor and liberal circles, as useful allies in the struggle for social change.
The New Yorker, March 31, 1934 P. 40
A little Communist group in Jones Street. Gwendolyn summed up the living situation in these words. "Anna and I are both on Home Relief. It's ever so much better than working. We get coal, and something on the rent, and ten dollars between us every two weeks in food tickets. So with what the boys upstairs contribute and the rent from the studio, and our all eating together, we do awfully well. And then we have time to work for the Party...
It seems communism is back in vogue at The New York Times.
A sad but common issue in the modern West is that progressives have created a fanciful and distorted picture of socialism to make it seem like an intriguing alternative to American-style capitalism.
Ikea socialism—with Sweden as the model—is an utterly distorted, but at least understandable, example for leftists to trot out as a demonstration of success.
And it’s even a bit amusing how they try to dance around the fact that Venezuela—which is utterly collapsing and egregiously abusing human rights—is a socialist country they praised just 10 years ago.
But The New York Times now has actually found a way to create fanciful notions of Soviet-style authoritarianism—and whimsical tales of its influence in America—in a new section dedicated to the “Red Century,” which explores “the history and legacy of communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution.”
While some of the pieces explore the horrors and failures of communist rule, others delve into topics that would seem funny if the subject matter weren’t so horrifying.
For instance, the Times ran what can aptly be described as a “puff piece” on Vladimir Lenin, the man who led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and is linked to the death and murder of millions of people.
The article, titled “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” paints the man as some kind of Siberian John Muir, and incredibly concludes that leaving “landscapes on this planet where humans do not tread” was the Soviet dictator’s “legacy.”
As absurd as that piece was, the Times managed to outdo itself with another article on, no joke, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.”
This piece is an idealized account of how life under an absolutist government could be liberating and possibly a better model for the feminist movement.
The author wrote:
Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change—which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things—needs an emancipation proclamation from above.
The absurdly romanticized account of life under tyrannical government explains little of the hopelessness of a system where an individual has no hope and no future.
These examples certainly weren’t the first, or the worst, instances of the Times engaging in communist revisionism. One of the most egregious examples of “fake news” in the mid-20th century was conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty in the 1930s.
Duranty, who was the Times’ Moscow bureau chief, wrote a series of glowing pieces about the USSR’s policies under General Secretary Josef Stalin in 1931.
While millions of people were starving in Ukraine, Duranty reported back that things were going swimmingly under the communist regime despite a few bumps in the road.
“Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please,” Duranty wrote. “Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin’s program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding.”
He attacked reports that portrayed the Soviet policies in a negative light as “malignant propaganda.”
Though the total number of deaths due to forced starvation in the Holodomor is unknown, estimates are generally around 3 million from 1932 to 1933.
It would be good on The New York Times if it ran a piece about Duranty’s egregious reporting and disinformation campaign that gave Americans a distorted picture of communist reality, but, alas, that hasn’t happened amid the various fables about socialist “successes.”
It may seem easy to dismiss The New York Times accounts as eyerolling fantasies of the left trying to defend a broken ideology, but the danger of this historical revisionism is real.
Dangerous Historical Fantasy
A worrying study sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that millennials are generally clueless about communism.
“Just 37 percent of millennials had a ‘very unfavorable’ view of communism, compared to 57 percent of Americans overall,” according to a Daily Signal report.
Perhaps even worse, a full third of millennials say they think that more people were killed under former President George W. Bush than under Stalin.
Historical ignorance of communism’s crimes is ultimately dangerous.
As The New York Times joins with others to peddle a warped image of what communism is really about, generations that have never witnessed its horror may be lulled into buying the clichéd line that “real communism has never been tried.”
As historian Sean McMeekin wrote in his book, “The Russian Revolution,” after communism’s “century of well-catalogued disasters … no one should have the excuse of ignorance.”
Communist revival is growing in Western countries even as it is nearly extinct in places it was tried. This is folly fueled by historical blindness.
“Today’s Western socialists, dreaming of a world where private property and inequality are outlawed, where rational economic development is planned by far-seeing intellectuals, should be careful what they wish for,” McMeekin wrote. “They may just get it.”