We bring a long excerpt from “Lying for the Truth: Munzenberg and the Comintern.” by Stephen Koch.
Munzenberg was Stalin’s propaganda operative.
Like Lenin, like Stalin, Münzenberg was almost laughably ignorant about the United States. He visited it only once in his life, in 1934, and was surprised to discover how agreeable, how free and open a place it was, compared to what he had known. Yet even at remote control, Willi managed to insinuate his plans and people into the moral life of America with durable results. Around 1925, the Comintern entrusted Münzenberg and his propaganda machine with a little-known but large role in giving shape and political function to the Communist Party of the United States as it was to be under Stalin. At that time, the American party, that congregation of the militant naïve, home and battleground for John Reed and Louise Bryant, needed to be re-assembled. It had been left in a shattered state by its late-Leninist internal struggles combined with devastating police action inflicted on it by what later became the FBI.
The course adopted then is revealing. No effort was made to create a mass-based movement appropriate to the seizure of power in America. It is plain that Stalin had no serious interest or belief in an American “revolution.” He never attempted to create an American party or Communist movement capable of even remotely challenging the constitutional power, as he would do in Germany, Italy, France, Greece, and the Balkans. That was not to be the American party’s job. The apparatus of American Communism would be directed instead toward discrediting American politics and culture and assisting the growth of Soviet power elsewhere. It sought not revolutionary power inside America but moral authority developed through the propaganda of righteousness in politics. It sought not the outright destruction of the American democracy, however much that might be desired, but practical influence on its culture, the placement of agents who would over the long term seek to smoothe and promote the advance of Soviet influence and assist the apparatus in its work of espionage. The American right may have given itself nightmares about the red flag flying over the Capitol and commissars storming the East Room, but I know of no evidence showing that such a thing was ever really part of Stalin’s dream; his 1927 remark, made to gullible visitors, that the Sacco–Vanzetti scandal showed America in pre-revolutionary turmoil, was surely a matter of atmospherics. Lenin’s mind was centered upon Germany; Stalin’s was on Russia and its vast sphere of power. America lay beyond, a very distant albeit important place, an irritating mystery. An irritating myth. And it was in the arena of myth, not that of the seizure of power, that America had the Soviets’ full and frightened attention.
For the world proletariat of 1925, the leading counter-myth to the myth of revolution was, by far, the idea of America. That vision—the notion of the melting pot, the Golden Door, the Land of Opportunity— is what held the real political attention of the International. To the Bolsheviks, this was the true American menace. And in 1925, the task of the American party was to counteract it.
So Münzenberg’s first idea was to create and sustain a worldwide anti-American campaign that would focus its appeal upon the mythology of the country’s immigration. The purpose of such a campaign would be to instill a reflexive loathing of the United States and its people as a prime tropism of left-wing enlightenment. To undermine the myth of the Land of Opportunity, the United States would be shown as an almost insanely xenophobic place, murderously hostile to foreigners.
To this end, Münzenberg surveyed his options, in search of a cause that would disgrace America in the eyes of the proletarian foreign-born. He found it in the obscure case of two anarchist immigrants who’d got themselves into some very bad trouble: Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Every so often, talking with me in Munich, Babette Gross would drop a remark that made the foundations of the world seem to shift a little. One of these was over Sacco and Vanzetti. The Sacco–Vanzetti case? “It was,” she said with a dry shrug, “Münzenberg’s idea.”
Münzenberg’s idea! Is that possible? Together with the Dreyfus case, this is perhaps the most famous legal struggle in the whole history of modern propaganda and injustice. It seemed at first incredible to me that this epochal case could have been manipulated at such a distance, and so cynically.
And indeed the origins of the Sacco–Vanzetti case are far more complex than that. Yet in one sense the Sacco–Vanzetti campaign does turn out to have been “Münzenberg’s idea.” It was indeed at Münzenberg’s instigation that Communist propaganda networks worldwide took up the plight of the two Boston immigrants and made it the centerpiece of a vast new anti-American operation—just as a little later it was Willi’s executive decision to turn the Scottsboro Boys into prime martyrs for the International. The Comintern and Willi’s organization were the ones who transformed a case of troubled local injustice into a worldwide cause célèbre.
In that effort, however, the Communists latched onto the Sacco–Vanzetti case as latecomers and opportunists. Sacco and Vanzetti were not themselves Communists, and theirs was not, at first, a Communist struggle. The two Italians were anarchists, and so their political myth was shaped during the early 1920s by anarchists, guided especially by that doyen of Italo-American radicalism, Carlo Tresca.
By the mid-1920s, however, the political sponsorship of the case decisively changed. In 1926, the American Communist Party stood directionless and in disarray, very much in need of a new motivating spirit and a new task. At the same time, the International was demanding its anti-American cause. The Soviet propagandists decided to satisfy both these needs at once. In 1926, speaking to his colleagues in the WIR, Münzenberg announced it was their task, as propagandists, to rescue the American party and supply its new direction. And so it was: the first task of a revived American party was to seize and hold the Sacco–Vanzetti case for its own, while around the world the Comintern turned it into the preoccupying moral issue of the era. By 1928, Willi was cooly and quite correctly claiming credit for the Sacco– Vanzetti campaign, understood as a worldwide political moral mania, and among the highest triumphs of his apparatus.
Here is how it worked. Way back in 1920, two Italian immigrants, both militant anarchists, were arrested and charged with stealing the payroll of a Braintree, Massachusetts, shoe factory and murdering its paymaster and his guard. In 1921, they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
The two men belonged to a small anarchist cell of Italian immigrants like themselves. When the pair was arrested, this group immediately formed a defense committee. Naïvely convinced that the two would get off, they proposed creating “great publicity for the anarchist movement.”
But Sacco and Vanzetti did not get off. Nor did their case advance the anarchist cause; its later co-option by the Communists was used to betray and undermine American anarchism. The Defense Committee was right about one thing: These two men’s condemnation offered the basis for a political vision.
That vision in its anarchist incarnation was the creation of one man above all: an eccentric Westerner, one of the grand lawyers of the American left, a brilliant but more flaky Clarence Darrow named Fred Moore, recommended to the Defense Committee by Carlo Tresca. Moore was, in the words of his assistant, Eugene Lyons, an “artist handicapped by a genius for non-conformity.” He was a heavy-using cocaine addict (the Defense Committee more than once used their less idealistic Italian connections to keep him supplied), a drawling Westerner with his revolver often slung in his back pocket, given to affronting judicial dignity by padding around courtrooms in his stocking feet.
Moore invented the case. He set out to rescue his clients with any and every maneuver a fertile legal mind could conceive, convinced they were lost without the pressure of outraged world opinion. To this end, long before Münzenberg knew anything about the case, he single-handedly created the political argument of Sacco and Vanzetti: that they were powerless, despised, radical immigrants being subjected to judicial murder by a smug, chauvinist, puritanical, nativist, red-scared New England establishment. In promoting this defense, Moore was unscrupulous, ingenious, indefatigable, driven. Of his passion and sincerity there can be no doubt. He was a man obsessed. And his belief in his clients’ innocence was quite genuine. At first.
Except unfortunately their innocence wasn’t quite genuine. Best evidence shows beyond all reasonable doubt that Sacco was in fact one of the Braintree gunmen and the murderer of the guard, whom he shot to death after the man had fallen to his hands and knees, begging for his life while struggling to reach his own revolver. Vanzetti may have been innocent of the Braintree holdup, though he probably knew or guessed Sacco’s guilt. He certainly had guilty knowledge of Sacco’s participation in an earlier robbery where no blood had been spilled.
In a way, the facts make the two men’s political solidarity all the more compelling. One word of the truth from either man—Sacco in ordinary decency; Vanzetti in ordinary self-protection—would have saved Vanzetti’s life. But it also would have demolished their cause in disgrazia. Bartolomeo Vanzetti laid down his life on the bloody altar not of justice but of propaganda. He died lying for the truth.
The murky integrity of this self-sacrifice gives Vanzetti—he was in every way the more interesting of the pair—a tremendously affecting dignity. It also sustained his stumbling, broken, justly famous eloquence. “If it had not been for this thing, I might have live out my life talking on street corners to scorning men. I might have die unknown, unmarked, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph.”
The little coterie of anarchists on the Defense Committee also knew the truth, and they too maintained the vow of silence for la causa. The last survivor, a man named Ideale Gambera, wrote a full account of the affair for disclosure by his son after his death. Gambera died in 1982, and his son released the documents to Francis Russell, a principal scholar of the case. It was the last word.
Somewhere along the way, Fred Moore seems to have stumbled onto the truth as well. There is no evidence that this in any way modified Moore’s passion for his clients’ defense, but in 1923, in the midst of a paranoid psychotic episode (he’d attempted suicide and was hospitalized), Sacco dismissed Moore in a violent incoherent rage. Taking his dismissal with dignity, Moore packed up, got into his car, and drove back west, selling knickknacks as he went to pay for his gasoline.
The case now began to die. The appeals dragged on, but the headline makers of the world had dropped the Massachusetts fishmonger and shoemaker. Then, in 1925, on orders of Münzenberg and the Comintern, an American branch of the Red Aid called the International Labor Defense, created in Chicago with James Cannon as its director, was set up to be the focus of organization for the new American Communism. Its first mission was to make the Sacco–Vanzetti case into a worldwide myth.
The campaign became a juggernaut, tenaciously co-ordinated from Berlin, vast and unrelenting. Now, once again, protest meetings gathered to shout and sob in the great squares. From all its outlets, organs of the Trust produced an unstanchable stream of attacks on the assassin viciousness of American justice, defending the innocence and holiness of the immigrant martyrs in Braintree. Around the world, heart-rending appeals for cash were staged to provide for Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense and “protection.” Children gave their pennies, workers donated wages, philanthropists opened their checkbooks.
The apparat’s fund-raising was, incidentally, an almost complete fraud. Sacco and Vanzetti and their Defense Committee saw next to none of the money raised in their names. Of the approximately half-million dollars raised in the United States, the Defense Committee received something like $6,000. Of large sums collected in mass protest meetings around the world, the Defense Committee saw precisely nothing.
Cannon seems to have understood that Sacco was guilty, and so Münzenberg very possibly also knew the truth. Not that anybody cared. The Communist goal was never to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. Acquittal would have dissolved the whole political point. Katherine Anne Porter, like hundreds of writers and artists of the time, participated in the Boston deathwatch. She reports an exchange with the Comintern agent who was her group leader, Rosa Baron, “a dry, fanatical little woman who wore thick-lensed spectacles over her accusing eyes, a born whiphand, who talked an almost impenetrable jargon of party dogma. … I remarked … that even then, at that late time, I still hoped the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti could be saved. … ‘Saved’ she said, ringing a change on her favorite answer to political illiteracy, ‘who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?’”
Francis Russell, in his Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved (1986), describes the European demonstrations:
Demonstrations took place that autumn in France and Italy, with lesser demonstrations in Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, and South America. A bomb exploded in the American embassy in Paris. Another was intercepted in the Lisbon consulate. Reds in Brest stoned the consulate there. American consuls in Mexico were threatened with death if Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. In Rome, thousands of workers marched on the American embassy demanding justice for their compatriots.Some of this agitation was anarchist inspired, some actually spontaneous, but most of it was directed by Communist leaders in Paris.
Best evidence suggests that one of the witting Münzenberg men on the scene in Boston was a rather appealing personality of the American left, named Gardner Jackson. Jackson was another charmer, a hard-drinking sandy-haired journalist in the Will Rogers vein, who loved cowboy boots and old tweeds, a radical who had spent his life claiming to be just a guy on the left, nothing but a rich boy from Wyoming who liked his bourbon and wanted to see the little guy get an even break. In truth Jackson was intimate with Münzenberg’s most senior operatives in America, and though he was probably a much-manipulated fellow traveler rather than a fully witting operative, by 1939 Gardner was fronting for Gibarti in the Roosevelt administration. He was almost certainly a front man in the Sacco–Vanzetti campaign as well.
With his lanky manner and sinning smile, Jackson was very successful with women. Dorothy Parker, for example, became quite infatuated with him during the Sacco–Vanzetti protest, and it may well have been he who guided Parker toward what seems to have been her secret membership in the Communist Party. It was a link of real importance to the apparatus six or seven years later when, along with Lillian Hellman, Parker became a leading celebrity front figure in Hollywood fellow-traveling networks. Looking back on la causa from the Hollywood Hills, Parker seems to have found some essential element of her identity in this kind of politics. It may seem bizarre today to see Communist politics shaping and giving direction to the smart-cracking bittersweet comedy of such a woman, with her curious comic blend of self-righteousness and self-contempt. But in its time, Parker’s union of style and Stalinist attitudes was a natural fit. Through the chic of her hard-left commitments, Parker could both validate her love of glamour and mask it with an appropriate look of disdain for all the vanities.
Right around the same time, Gardner Jackson was developing his influence over another woman in Boston. This was Marion Frankfurter, the wife of Felix Frankfurter, then a leading professor of law at Harvard and later one of this century’s great justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Frankfurter was drawn into the affair by the dual force of his passion for justice and his concern for his wife. Marion Frankfurter had a frightening history of mental instability. Her delicate psychiatric state preoccupied her husband and of course tangled his otherwise steadfast loyalty and courage with inevitable emotions of guilt, fear, and the wish to escape.
During the Sacco–Vanzetti campaign, Gardner Jackson placed the cultivation of a thoroughly ingratiating relationship with the Frankfurters high among his prime concerns. His point of focus was Marion. Jackson was a famously seductive man; though his attentions to Marion Frankfurter were surely platonic, they were also incessant. He lucidly saw and exploited her insecurity, her need to anchor herself in a cause, her problem balancing her own sense of inadequacy against the brilliance of her incandescent and intensely ambitious husband.
Marion Frankfurter became preoccupied with Gardner and, through him, with the case. Gardner in turn flattered Marion continually. He arranged to have her join him as co-editor of Sacco and Vanzetti’s letters. He involved her at every public level.
It seems plain that the real purpose of this tactic was to reach Felix. Gardner seems to have guessed that Frankfurter’s wish to support his wife’s cause would lead him into the fold as well. He was correct. The couple became mutually obsessed, egged on at every step by Jackson, who became their constant companion. When the condemned men’s last appeal was denied, the outraged Felix proceeded to write one of the most powerful polemics of his career, a denunciation of the case’s legal history, a brilliant exercise in controlled vituperation. The piece appeared in The Atlantic. It was more influential than any other factor in marshaling American non-radical opinion behind the pair, and it was even more influential in Europe. Münzenberg’s Berlin office arranged for it to be reprinted throughout the world, while in London H. G. Wells produced a flamboyant summary which promptly became the received British view.
What followed was orchestrated multinational mass hysteria.
August 22 was the night of the executions, and around them the apparat, poising itself for the outpouring of international grief, organized a vast international deathwatch. Francis Russell describes the event:
After the news flashed from Charleston that Sacco and Vanzetti had at last been executed, the reverberations were international. Demonstrations in American cities were duplicated and in many places exceeded all over Europe. In Paris the Communist daily Humanité printed an extra sheet on which was splashed the single block word “Assassinés!” Crowds surged down the Boulevard Sebastopol, ripping up lampposts and tossing them through plate glass windows. Protective tanks ringed the American embassy, and sixty policemen were injured when a mob tried to set up barricades there. Five thousand militants roamed the streets of Geneva the evening before the executions, overturning American cars, sacking shops selling American goods, gutting theaters showing American films. One of the greatest demonstrations in the history of the Weimar republic took place in Berlin; there were tumultuous demonstrations in Bremen and Wilhelmshaven and Hamburg, and a two hour torchlight parade in Stuttgart. During that turbulent week, half a dozen German demonstrators were killed. No one was killed in England, but on the night of the executions, a crowd gathered in front of Buckingham Palace and sang “The Red Flag.”
The night of the executions was marked by a vigil at Charleston Prison. Before this dour building an enormous crowd gathered in the dark. “I was never in that place before,” Porter wrote, “but I seem to remember that it was a great open space with the crowd massed back from a center the police worked constantly to keep clear. They were all mounted on fine horses and loaded with pistols and hand grenades and tear gas bombs.” The law in its generosity provides that the condemned are entitled to every minute of their last day. After having been granted this largess, Sacco and Vanzetti were led to the death chamber at midnight exactly. Sacco entered it first, at 12:11. Vanzetti followed at 12:20. By 12:27 both had been pronounced dead. Both men met their end with indescribable dignity.
So the American Communist Party was revived, in part, to function as a local instrument in a worldwide and remarkably successful effort to create a new anti-American myth, the support and development of which persisted for decades to come.