Tag Archives: Peggy Dennis

The primacy of the racial question, 1931

The anti-imperialist national liberation revolution, [Frank Waldron] argued, must be taken out of the realm of abstract slogans and turned into a daily battle on “little issues” that determine the everyday lives of the people, “such as reduction of rent and taxes, resistance to evictions, seizures of food and seed supplies, defense of every democratic right to organize, strike, free speech and assembly that is violated.”

In South Africa, nearly a year later, the problems were different, but Gene’s approach was basically the same. The Communist Party was emerging from a prolonged factional fight in which the all-white leadership and predominantly white membership had been charged with racism. In 1931 the Comintern had intervened from Moscow and the leadership, headed by Rebecca Bunting and her husband, were expelled. Their influence remained, however, and the issues were still being debated. The Buntings had rejected the primacy of the racial and national questions for South Africa. They opposed the Comintern’s goal for an Independent Native Black Republic with “guarantees for the white minority.” They had argued this would “favor a black race dictatorship that would turn the exploited whites into a subjected race.” The Buntings claimed that not a national liberation struggle of the Native Black majority was the strategic goal, but the establishment of socialism by the proletariat–black and white.

As in the Philippines, Gene devoted the first months in South Africa to traveling, asking questions. … Then he applied himself to the problems still tearing the Party apart. he helped initiate methods of collective work to strengthen the ability of the Black comrades newly placed into responsible positions of leadership. He helped establish the concept that the Party had to become, in the first place, the Party of Native Black workers, reflecting the Black Nation character of the country. At the same time, he called for an end to the practice of using “administrative, punitive expulsions” against those whites still influenced by the Buntings’ ideas. He urged “the need to win over vacillators.” He exploded the bombast of those white comrades who refused to work inside the white workers’ trade unions under the guise that they were militantly opposing white chauvinism. “White chauvinism is fought where it exists, not in words from the outside,” Gene countered. He argued, too, against those comrades who refused to work in the reformist organizations, white or Black, under the guise they were protecting the independence and purity of the Party. At the same time, he combated tendencies to subordinate the Party’s policies to accommodation with the reformist leaders, “in the interest of unity.”

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

The life of the expatriate

Scene: Eugene Dennis has been in Moscow for a while, and has begun to consider leaving the USSR to work for the Communist cause in other countries: the Philippines (“it is a US colony and we have a social responsibility”), South Africa (“so closely related to the Negro question at home”), and China (“the key to the whole Far East”).

He sat on the edge of my bed, his hands cupping his pipe bowl, elbows resting on his knees.

“You have a right to be angry, I should have given you the choice. But I was told that you could come even if you decided to go back when I leave. I wanted these couple of months together. You can go back or stay, after I leave. It’s up to you–but at least we’re together now.”

The admission of his love and need ordinarily would have satisfied me, but I pressed on.

“Why so soon? Wouldn’t a couple years here at the Comintern be good, and we’d be together.”

His words came slowly as he paced again. As always, now too he sought the precise words with which to convey his thoughts. He said a short stay in Moscow was beneficial. Exchanging ideas and experiences with comrades from other Parties was helpful. “But a long stay, the life of the expatriate, is not for me; it is not good for anyone.”

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

Eugene Dennis decided to leave: he became the Comintern’s representative to the Communist Party of South Africa, and then of the Philippines, and then he went to Shanghai. After four years abroad, he and Peggy returned to America.

A Communist in Mecca

Scene: Peggy Dennis, a Communist activist, arrives in Moscow on Party orders to join her husband, who had fled there months before, also on Party orders, to escape a prison sentence in America.

Our train slowly crossed the border onto Soviet soil. With face pressed against the window, heart pounding, I hugged Tim tightly in my arms and my eyes blurred with tears. High above, the wooden arch through which our car moved proclaimed: “Workers of the World Unite.” I was in mecca.

When the uniformed border control with the Red Star insignia on their fur hats came to collect passports, I barely resisted giving them the clenched fist salute. I wanted to hand them my Party identificationa more fitting entry permit into the Land of Socialism.

Reunion with Gene, awaited so eagerly, was almost eclipsed by my excitement at being in Moscow. I wandered the streets at every opportunity. Every detail had special significance: the broken, cobblestoned sidewalks and boarded-up empty storessymbols of a painful past; Red Army platoons marching down the street, lustily singing revolutionary songssymbol of a land where the people’s army had triumphed. I smiled broadly at every beshawled peasant woman shuffling by in her knee-high, shapeless, stiff felt boots, the valenki I was soon to wear. I wanted to clasp the hand of each man and woman I passed. I wanted to shout “tovarich!” to all Moscow. Six thousand miles from home, I was Home. Here everything was truly “nahsh”ours, everyone was “nahsh braht”our brothers. After the last two years, the exhilaration at being one of the working class ruling majority was particularly gratifying.

Being an outsider, I sentimentalized the harsh realities of daily life. Life was tough and elemental that winter of 1931. Each day was a struggle to survive–personally, economically, politically. Stalin had declared: “We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in ten years or we shall be crushed.” The socialist countries which were to follow could afford a slower pace; the first socialist state could not.

The First Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize a backward, underdeveloped giant was being compressed into four years. The rest of the world, floundering in economic crisis, scoffed at this mad dream. Even more unrealistic, they said, was Moscow’s insistence that socialism would achieve this miracle of industrial growth without private foreign capital investment. There were no Italian Fiat plants in 1931, only the first Soviet AMO auto plant. There were no U.S. banks with branch offices in Moscow. Capital investment was squeezed out of a Soviet people who for many years were ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fedbuilding for the future.

Yet even in those lean years there existed the concept of social benefits as an individual right. Free medical clinics, child care centers in factories, free education, rest homes, infinitesimally low rentsthese were available to all. Back in the States twenty million were out of work, millions more were hungry and homeless, social security was a revolutionary demand being fought for in the streets.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

Private foreign capital investment is one matter; private foreign capital support, in the manner of Olof Aschberg, is another. (Speaking of Olof Aschberg, Peggy Dennis isn’t the only Communist to have inherited the cause from her parentshere’s what Aschberg’s grandson is up to these days.)

But that’s beside the point.

Read the excerpt closely. Take note of all the social dynamics at work.

Aren’t humans interesting?

As for her claim that she was “one of the working class ruling majority”, she later writes:

Exhilarated at living in this international milieu, I was slow to realize that we were completely isolated from ordinary Soviet life. We did not even know any Soviet persons, except for Boris and Bob who lived in the Luxe and worked in the Comintern with Gene. All of the comrades living there and working at the Comintern were divorced from Soviet life. We were living in Moscow, but were not a part of it. No one could give me a plausible reason why this was so; no one I knew seemed to really care that it was so. …

Boris and [his wife] Musa had recently returned from Comintern assignment in China and Bob and [his wife] Valerie had been to India. The discussions in our room ranged from their experiences abroad to our asking them questions about Soviet life. But they were not typical Soviet citizens and our isolation was not lessened by them.

Upon our return to Moscow in 1937, we could find no trace of them. No one would or could tell us anything. During my third return trip in 1941, I saw Valerie walking towards me on Gorky Street. I started to greet her warmly, but she passed me with a slight flicker of recognition. Insisting upon answers from comrades, I was told that Bob had been executed and Valerie, only recently released from prison, carefully stayed away from all foreign comrades. I was told for her sake to leave her alone. We never heard anything at all about Boris and Musa. In the purges of the Comintern in 1937 and 1938, the very international activity and foreign travel demanded by the Comintern became the basis of charges of “foreign agent” that sent hundreds of Soviet and European Comintern workers to labor camps and firing squads.

Twentieth-century Americanism

Scene: Eugene Dennis (Frank Waldron), a Communist activist, is arrested during a protest and brought to trial.

Of the many arrested March 6, seventeen went on trial in April and for eleven days Judge Bogue, in a state of bewilderment, kept muttering from his bench, “Incredible! Absolutely astonishing!”

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Leo Gallagher, a deceptively mild-looking, grey-haired, wiry fighter, exploded the first shock for the startled Judge when he challenged the entire jury panel. Gallagher charged the defendants would have a better trial if the Commissioner would “stop passers-by on the street and take them into court for jury service”.

The Judge spluttered at Gene and Party organizer Carl Sklar who were acting as their own attorneys:

“You can’t make Communist speeches to prospective jurors. You can’t tell them there are different standards of law for the rich and the poor.”

On any given day now some fifty people were either in jail, in court, or beaten by police on the outside. Physical and legal self defense became simultaneous weapons of the local unionization and unemployed struggles. A delegated conference of local organizations set up a “general self defense organization” whose purpose was “the physical protection and defense of all militant struggles, organizations and demonstrations of the working class, to protect them from the reactionary attacks of the fascists and the state apparatus.”

On the legal front the International Labor Defense conducted orientation sessions throughout the city enabling arrested workers to defend themselves in court. Frank Spector, Southern California head of that organization, and one of the seventeen before Judge Bogue, told the court:

“When the laws are against the interests of the working class and the courts are essentially an instrument in the hands of the employer class, we advise workers that the laws be violated and the court decisions be ignored.”

In its summation, the prosecution intimidated the jury: “If you will not convict them, then you will show that you too are against our government.”

Gene told them:

“A verdict of guilty will mean you approve the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist government. It will mean you approve police brutality and that you agree with Police Commissioner Thorpe that we ought to be deported. But even if you put us in jail now, you can’t break our Movement. Hundreds, thousands of others will take our place and carry on the struggle until this system will be abolished and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as in the Soviet Union, will be established.”

Our comrades in the courtroom were no less startled than was Judge Bogue and the reporters to hear Gene tell the jury:

“It is because I love my country and the American people from which I spring that I fight today and will always fight in the interest of the people. It is our country, it is our Bill of Rights, it is our American way of life that you would betray here today.”

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

The result:

The grand jury indicted seventeen T.U.U.L. [Trade Union Unity League] and [Communist Party activists on “conspiracy to foment revolution during the cantaloupe season”. This was later changed to the more stylized charge, “suspicion of criminal syndicalism” involving charges to overthrow the government on a number of separate counts that could total 42 years in prison for each defendant. Of the seventeen, fourteen were arrested, but the police could not find [Frank] Spector, [Carl] Sklar, and Gene. They had disappeared from sight after leaving the courtroom that April 14.

Spector, Sklar, and Gene “hid in friendly strangers’ homes, moving every few days to a new place. They stayed in contact with activity and decision-making processes through complicated courier systems. We were all waiting for a higher Party decision in New York as to whether they should or should not surrender to the Valley arrest warrants.” The Party voted to have Spector and Sklar surrender; Eugene Dennis remained a fugitive, under the alias “Tim Ryan”, and the Party eventually decided to have him flee to Moscow. His wife Peggy joined him there later with their son, although she had to fight her Party organizer, a new arrival from New York, to be allowed to do so: the organizer said, “We cannot handle this request routinely. We would be guilty of rank male chauvinism if we agreed to transfer this leading young woman comrade merely so she may join her husband.” About this, she wrote:

I had some heavy thinking to do. I was uncomfortable with my Party organizer’s defense of me as a leading woman comrade. The more I hassled with the feeling that something was wrong, the more I disliked the context in which the question had been placed. I felt like I was being subjected, with praise, to a subtle male chauvinism which rejected the possibility that a woman can be a wife and leading activist. Under the guise of upholding my rights, I was being told I had to choose between being a housewife at the beck and call of her man or becoming the classic version of an unencumbered male. … All I knew was that I wanted to join him. The framework for my activity would have to be found within that context, always.

Her parents disapproved.

The Trade Union Unity League

Four weeks after our return from Seattle, Gene wrote in the national Daily Worker of the 90,000 jobless in our city. From official statistics he noted that the majority of Mexican workers in the country were unemployed. He concluded, “with ninety percent of the working class outside the organized labor movement, our burning need is to organize the unorganized, militant industrial trade unionism and class struggle versus class collaborationism.”

Gene was now Southern California head of the Trade Union Unity League, a militant Left center organized first in 1922 as a rank and file movement inside the craft union, almost lily-white A.F.L. Now it was shifting, as was the Party, to greater emphasis on independent organization of the unorganized and the formation of new industrial unions outside the A.F.L.

A citywide general strike in the needle trades was Gene’s first initiation into his new work. The strike symbolized graphically the multi-aims of T.U.U.L., for it contained four fronts of struggle: the action against the employers; rank and file opposition to the old A.F.L. and Socialist Party leadership within the union; conflicts between the skilled, mainly male, dominantly Jewish craftsmen who were oldtime unionists and the young, unskilled, Mexican women workers new to the union and in their first strike; and the building of the T.U.U.L.’s Needle Trades Industrial Union.

—Autobiography of an American Communist, Peggy Dennis.

Dennis doesn’t see fit to mention it in her book, but the T.U.U.L. was part of the CPUSA. She doesn’t avoid the topic of the CPUSA in generalhow could she, when she was married to Eugene Dennis, who became the General Secretary of that party after Moscow removed Earl Browder? I suppose I’ll find out soon whether she bothers to mention the favor she and her husband must have had in the eyes of the Soviets. Anyway, here’s her obituary in the New York Times.

One page later, in March 1929, Dennis gets pregnant:

Basking in Gene’s excited pleasure, I nervously prepared to break the news to Mama, but made Gene promise to support my claim that it was an “accident.” With abortion completely out of our awareness at the time, the act was irrevocable. All I had to contend with was Mama’s displeasure. I carefully chose the moment as we rode the Brooklyn Avenue streetcar, so she could not make the scene I expected.

Mama was an intense feminist. She was more the protagonist for woman’s unshackled spirit than a sign-toting activist for equal rights. She believed the two to be inseparable, that individually women could live the first while fighting for the second. Frustrated by ill-health and transplanted to a foreign land and alien culture she refused to adapt to, Mama did not personally act on her beliefs, but she was determined that her two modern daughters would.

My sister and I were willing pupils, and we early absorbed Mama’s special pride in being female, destined for greater things than merely being some man’s wife. We acquired the conviction that personal love was not a sufficient singular purpose in life; that for women, no less thaan for men, there must be much more to an enriched life. Conventional marriage was the deadly trap and motherhood was the snaplock to that trap door.

Mama scorned housekeeping and cooking; they were unavoidable chores to be disposed of with minimum effort. She knitted, crocheted, and sewed beautifully, but she refused to teach us, saying we had more important things to do with our time and abilities—like studying, writing stories, making speeches, attending meetings, planning the revolution.

Papa had been a quiet supportive influence in all this. Slight of build and height, he was gentle and sensitive and there seemed to be no female/male roleplaying in our family. He often buffered with good humor and with dance and song Mama’s tense moodiness. He washed supprt dishes and scrubbed kitchen floors, urging us to go to the library or write the composition due at school. …

When Bill began staying overnight in my bed, Mama kept the fact secret from his parents, for his sake. When we were legally married to mollify his mother, Mama was furious. In joining Gene, a year later, I was exercising my courage to go my own way, as they had taught me. Now I was pregnant and I had betrayed twenty years of revolutionary and feminist conditioning.

I could not define to Mama or to myself the changes in me. I was torn with the contradictions between my emotions and my theory. With Gene I had become the classic handmaiden to love, a role blatantly contrary to what I believed in, and yet I was revelling in it.

The making of a Communist

When Mama and Papa came to America they were not seeking the legended golden mecca. As young Jewish revolutionaries, they knew they were coming to a capitalist America, but at least it was not tyrannical, monarchistic Old Russia. …

The 1905 revolution in Russia raised jubilant hopes among the young emigrés, and Mama, pregnant with my sister, made plans to go home. The revolution failed; going-home talk slowly receded, but Mama and Papa and the aunts and uncles did not assimilate into the new country. They rejected the mores of capitalist America. They were critical of those among their emigré circles who adjusted and tried to make it by the exploitative measures needed to succeed. Their goals remained alienated from those of this country. They wore their poverty like a badge of honor, continued to meet in small groups which at least now were no longer illegal as in Old Russia, and talked about the needed revolution. …

Through it all we children grew and played in this self-contained, foreign-born, radical community. We were enrolled in the Socialist Party sunday school at the Labor Temple at the time we started public school kindergarten, and the former was more important than the latter. Among my early memories are those of being lifted each week onto a table in stark meeting halls and lisping my way through recitations of revolutionary poems by Yiddish writers my parents and their comrades loved so passionately. Papa coached me at home, explaining the pathos and courage and hope of the words I was to recite. …

In 1922, at the age of sixteen, my sister Mini, already a Young Communist League member, organized the first Communist children’s group in Southern California. I was her first recruit and rapidly became that organization’s public spokesperson—a fiery, tense thirteen-year-old. In school I was selected to recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” poems at PTA meetings; out of school I made eloquent speeches at Communist mass meetings, denouncing the Rockefeller and Morgan warmakers and urging support of the new children’s revolutionary movement.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975