Book Write-Up: The Whole of Their Lives, by Benjamin Gitlow

Benjamin Gitlow. The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America—-A Personal History and Intimate Portrayal of its Leaders. Western Islands, 1965.

This book was originally published in 1948. Benjamin Gitlow was a former member of the Communist Party in the United States.

Among the topics of interest in this book:

—-As the subtitle indicates, the book is a portrayal of the leaders of CPUSA. If you saw the 1981 movie Reds, starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, you know about Jack Reed, an American journalist who supported the Soviet Union. He is featured in this book, as Gitlow had interactions with him. Reed was initially enthusiastic about the U.S.S.R. but became disillusioned with its authoritarianism and how its leaders enriched themselves and preserved the oligarchies. Gitlow presents some of Reed’s eccentricities, such as his delight in showing Marxist know-it-alls how better versed in Marx he was than them. Also discussed is how William Z. Foster rose to high position in the Party from obscurity and Earl Browder’s ultimate marginalization within the Party.

—-A key point that Gitlow makes is that the CPUSA takes its orders from the Soviet Union, with sometimes awkward results. The U.S.S.R. opposed Hitler, then sided with him, then sided with the United States against Hitler, then opposed the United States in the Cold War. The CPUSA tried to keep up with these trends and adjust its political strategies and message accordingly. Gitlow states that the CPUSA had so infiltrated U.S. military installations, that it could have significantly undermined the U.S. war effort in World War II had Russia not joined with the Allies.

—-The Soviet Union’s geopolitical strategy is discussed in this book. Stalin was shy about exerting power against other nations when Russia lacked sufficient military and economic resources. Yet, Stalin had a stake in the Spanish Civil War because of Spain’s strategic location and resources.

—-The alliance between the New Dealers and the CPUSA is another topic. The CPUSA was initially quite vocal in its criticism of the New Deal, believing that it upheld and benefited wealthy capitalist interests. But the two struck a secret alliance. The CPUSA came to see the New Deal as preferable to a lot of other alternatives, and the New Dealers thought that the CPUSA could be a valuable ally because it could mobilize grassroots support for the New Deal; this would be important because Southern Democrats were opposing the New Deal effort.

—-The ouster and execution of Trotsky is covered. Trotsky was an effective military strategist and public speaker, but he was politically naive. Stalin sought to eliminate Trotsky as a competitor. Trotsky fled to the West and sought to undermine Stalin from the outside. Stalin had him killed in Mexico, and the assassin, in prison, enjoyed a life of luxury. Trotsky reminds me, of course, of Snowball in Animal Farm: a rousing speaker who was accused of trying to sabotage the farm after his ouster. In Gitlow’s portrayal, Trostsky was much more vain than Snowball. Gitlow does not really talk about the supposed ideological differences between Trotsky and Stalin, i.e., Stalin being nationalistic and wanting to focus on industrial development of the Soviet Union, whereas Trotsky was cosmopolitan and sought to encourage world revolution. Perhaps that is because Gitlow thought that Stalin, too, supported world revolution.

—-Gitlow talks about CPUSA strategy. They may consider a strike a success, for example, even if it fails, and the reason is that the strike at least inspires workers to rebel.

Wikipedia’s article on Gitlow says that some doubt the accuracy of this book because it is juicier than Gitlow’s autobiography, written earlier. The book did not strike me as particularly juicy, though, and its presentation of Communist goals and strategies made sense: I can realistically picture people acting in such a manner.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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