Maurice Isserman.

Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History, wrote an essay titled “I spent years studying American communism. Here’s what I learned” for The Guardian published on May 16. Reflecting on “why so many intelligent and admirable people remained so loyal for so long to a fundamentally flawed movement,” Isserman delved into the paradoxical nature of American communism.

In his article, Isserman highlighted the historical significance and complexities of the Communist Party USA, founded in 1919. Early scholarship on the subject lacked awareness of the extent to which the party was involved in Soviet espionage during the 1930s and 1940s. This revelation underscores the broader mystery of why many highly intelligent and idealistic individuals remained devoted to a movement that wasn’t realistically viable in the United States.

Isserman recounted his interviews with aging communists and ex-communists during his research in the 1970s. These individuals, members of what he terms the “YCL generation,” joined the Young Communist League during the Great Depression and later transitioned to the adult communist movement. Many were deeply involved in labor organizing and advocacy, some even facing imprisonment under the Smith Act in the 1950s.

Despite their disillusionment following Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Joseph Stalin, these former communists remained thoughtful and self-critical in their reflections. Isserman appreciated their introspection and the lessons they shared, even as he acknowledged that his younger self might not have found them as appealing during their staunchly ideological years. He described the central contradiction of American communism as attracting egalitarian idealists while breeding authoritarian zealots.

In his closing remarks, Isserman reflected on the potential of the current generation to learn from past mistakes. He hoped that today’s burgeoning interest in leftist ideals will avoid the pitfalls that ensnared earlier idealists, fostering a genuinely American left untainted by the flawed legacy of the Bolshevik revolution.

book cover for Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism by Maurice IssermanHaving authored three books on American communism, Isserman thought he was finished with the topic until an editor suggested that resurgence of interest in socialism might prove another volume a reasonable endeavor. The result is his latest book, Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism, which will be released in June.

Isserman also wrote an article for the spring issue of Dissent Magazine titled “Sins of Omission” focused on Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, excerpted from his book, Reds. He explored the parallels implied in the play between the “perversions of justice,” as described by one critic, in 17th-century Salem’s witch hunts and mid-20th-century America’s search for communists.

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