I’m writing an addendum to an earlier post, “Not even a whisper of concern.” While it’s brief, I believe, it fills an omission in that post.
What went unmentioned was the nearly unqualified support of Gus Hall, the Communist Party’s General Secretary for 40 years for the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Granted it is hard to quarrel with the Soviet Union’s assistance to countries fighting – Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa to name a few – for their independence from colonial rule or its insistence on the relaxation of tensions between our two countries or its readiness to enter into arms negotiations or its economic assistance to countries in the Global South or its support for the Palestinian people and an independent Palestinian state.
But that is only one side of the coin. On the other side, a different picture obtains. Gus threw his full support to the Soviet Union when it invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and crushed socialist reforms and democratization there. In a report to Central Committee, Gus said the action was regrettable, but necessary to prevent “a counter revolutionary takeover.” Gil Green, who opposed the party’s position, on the other hand, called it “a very serious blunder” in a statement to the New York Times, while at the same time resigning from the Central Committee.*
When Soviet Party leader Leonid Brezhnev in the invasion’s aftermath declared that the Soviet Union and other socialist states have a right and duty to invade other states in Eastern Europe if they believe the future of socialism hangs in balance there, Gus was on board.
A decade later Soviet troops in the spirit of the Brezhnev Doctrine gathered on Polish borders to “defend socialism,” while other troops invaded Afghanistan in late December 1979. Not a word of criticism to these actions came from the mouth or pen of Gus.
Nor did he oppose the actions of communist parties across Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, when they initially employed force to block the desire of tens of millions for democracy and a better life.
Ditto when a handful of Soviet communists organized a putsch on the morning of August 19, 1991. On the same day – Moscow is a few time zones ahead of us – at a meeting in the party’s national office (I was there), Gus, who had become a fierce critic of Gorbachev by then, expressed a cautious optimism that the putsch might succeed. He warned us to be circumspect though, since it wasn’t yet clear if that would be the case. When it quickly collapsed and its organizers were arrested, his only reaction was to flail the incompetence of the coup organizers and the backwardness of the “Russian” people.
If this wasn’t enough, at the first meeting of the National Board after the failure of the coup, a resolution was introduced to “neither condemn nor condone”* the coup. As you might expect, the resolution, was opposed by a number of NB members and narrowly passed, further straining the already strained relations between the two competing camps in the party at that moment. I don’t know if this clash was the final straw in the internal fight going on in the party at the time, but it did exacerbate divisions. A few months later at the party’s national convention in Cleveland, nearly half of the leadership and membership left in protest.
As I have indicated, Gus wasn’t a lone wolf. In each instance above, the majority of the National Committee, including most who left the party in 1991, supported most of these policies and positions up until the time that Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party and gave everybody license to criticize Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War years. Aside from Czechoslovakia, which predated me, I include myself in this camp. No whisper of concern, let alone a forceful objection, was heard from me. And not out of fear; I drank the Kool Aid too.
Only later, in the mid-1990s, did I reconsider my earlier positions supporting Soviet interference and interventions (and much else) and reached the conclusion that I as well as the party were wrong. In my new calculus (1) democratic aspirations, democracy, and national sovereignty shouldn’t be reduced, as we did, to a second order concern, occupying a back seat to the imperatives of the “defense and consolidation of class power and socialism;” (2) no socialist country should be above critical examination nor act as the broker of political correctness; (3) inordinate decision making power shouldn’t be invested in any one person, which, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, was the practice in most communist parties where the General Secretary was much more than first among equals; the U.S. party was no different, (4) nothing good will come from the subordination of marxism to the interests of a socialist state nor should a socialist state – in this case, the Soviet Union – claim to be its official interpreter and codifier, and (5) each of us has to independently make decisions, resisting where warranted collective pressures to fall in line.
Some see this exercise of mine as blame shifting, a political diversion, nothing more than resurrecting old corpses that would be better off left dead. I heard that criticism to my earlier post. I will probably hear it again, perhaps with greater insistence. So be it. I don’t share that point of view. Indeed, with the rise of China and its drift toward authoritarianism and the uncritical support accorded to it by some on the left, the resuscitation of this old history seems like a good idea to me.*
What is more, the old corpses of the past are a reminder that the building of vibrant collective and decision making culture that encourages competing views and thinking outside the box in an atmosphere of equality is, as difficult as it may be, a necessary task.
Finally, the buried bones of yesteryear underscore that the theories and analytical framework that backstop our practical work require regular and collective scrutiny as well as elaboration. Not only should they guide our political practice, but they should be constantly tested against it. No one has a franchise on marxism or radical thought.
- Dorothy Healy, Al Richmond, and a few others members of the Central Committee opposed the invasion too.
- Only later did I learn, while recently reading Al Richmond’s memoir, “Long View from the Left,” that a similar language is found in a resolution at the time of the Soviet intervention in Hungary.
- The consolidation of authoritarian rule in China provides a ground floor for similar practices in other states challenging imperialism and pursuing a non-capitalist path of development.