Earl Browder, the son of William Browder, a schoolteacher, was born in Wichita, Kansas, on 20th May, 1891. After an elementary schooling he worked as a cash boy for the Wallenstein & Cohen Dry Goods Company. When he was 15 he joined the Socialist Party of America. Later he attended business college he found employment as a bookkeeper for the Potts Drug Company.
According to the The Witchita Eagle: "Earl W. Browder was efficient and was the average young man in a business office. He had a fair personality, his associates recall, but his political ideas which then began to take shape, gave him a different slant on life and after a time he left the drug company in search for something better. He secured a position in the bookkeeping department of the bank headed by the late L.S. Naftzger and John Moore. Earl was then dividing his time between his job and the activities in the Socialist party until at length his political ambitions became too much for his employers and he lost his job, so it was said by a former neighbor."
Browder, like most members of the Socialist Party, believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. Between 1914 and 1917 Browder made several speeches explaining why he believed the United States should not join the war. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, several party members, including Browder, were arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. Found guilty of opposing the draft, Bowder was imprisoned. When Browder was released he continued to campaign against the war and was imprisoned for a second time.
In September 1919, Jay Lovestone, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, Benjamin Gitlow, Charles Ruthenberg, Mikhail Borodin, William Dunne, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Louis Fraina, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, Max Shachtman, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the Communist Party of the United States. Within a few weeks it had 60,000 members whereas the Socialist Party of America had only 40,000. Browder joined this new party in 1921.
Agnes Smedley met Browder in 1921 when he was living with Ella Reeve Bloor. "In Moscow, amid great poverty, Ella Reeve Bloor wore lace dresses over silk coloured slips; also long strings of coloured beads, rings, etc. And she lived with an idiot. Earl Browder, a young, dainty man of some 25 or 26 who bought (and wore) baby-blue silk Russian smocks in the market; and long black silk ribbons which he wore as belts. And then he, with his baby white skin and fair toothbrush moustache, posed in Moscow as the delegate from the Kansas miners. So help me gawd!! It was awful! I was so disgusted I couldn't even protest. I hate female men above all. And then to have them say they represent miners when I know they haven't been within a thousand miles of a mine. And Mother Bloor posed as the representative of five or six organizations, from the far West to Massachusetts!"
Browder became managing editor of the Communist newspaper, The Labor Herald. He was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of the United States in 1930 and when William Z. Foster suffered a heart attack in 1932, he became leader of the party. John Gates argued that this was a wise choice: "Browder was a native of Kansas, son of a family that went back generations to early America... Shy, diffident, no flaming orator, he was nevertheless far more successful in rooting the Communist Party in American life than any previous leader... As a student of American history, Browder made serious efforts to link the communist movement to the democratic, revolutionary, labor and liberal traditions of the country. The party won substantial influence in labor unions numbering more than a million members. Its reputation was high in Negro life, among farmers, youth and in the arts, sciences and other professions."
In the 1932 Presidential Election, the philosopher, Sidney Hook, endorsed the Communist Party of the United States. He explained in his autobiography: "I had endorsed the Communist Party electoral ticket... In 1932, the depression was close to its nadir. The outlook seemed economically hopeless, and despair pervaded all social circles. Capitalism as a functioning economic system appeared bankrupt. The programs of both the Republican and Democratic parties called for balancing the budget but contained no proposals for major social reforms. The illusion that the Soviet Union had solved the major economic problems flourished, even though it was buttressed by no hard evidence, only remarkable propaganda. To me it seemed overwhelmingly likely that Hitler would soon come to power and carry out the program of war he had frankly outlined in Mein Kampf. The only hope of frustrating his war plans against the Soviet Union was a revolution in Germany that would unite all the opposition forces headed by the working classes.... Our support of the electoral ticket was more symbolic than organizational, an expression of protest, hope and faith nurtured by naivete, ignorance and illusion. At the time I was probably the best known academic personality who had publicly taken this position, although quite a number of other academic figures had declared themselves for Norman Thomas, the American Socialist Party candidate, whose position seemed very little different from that of the Socialist Party in Germany and as ineffectual in preventing the economic debacle there or here."
In March 1933, Hook was asked to meet Earl Browder: "I want to talk with you about some things much more important to our movement... We and what we represent are handicapped by our inability to counteract the capitalist press. It molds public opinion in powerful ways. We think that there is a way of getting our voice heard so that our position on the crucial issues of the day, without being identified as that of the Communist Party, will get a hearing beyond anything possible by means of our own press. We would like you to find plausible occasions to visit the chief metropolitan centers of the country from Boston to San Francisco - it wouldn't be necessary in New York - and help build up circles of sympathizers, individuals not known to be politically active in any of our organizations but friendly to the Soviet Union and therefore to us. They should be primarily professionals and small businessmen and women. When an important problem arises on matters of domestic or foreign policy, on a signal from you or transmitted through a trusted local intermediary whom they know, we would ask them to write letters to the press - national and local - stating in their own way and in their own modes of expression, a position that we believe would further the cause of peace and greater social justice. Properly done, there would be enough variation in these communications to the editors to allay any suspicion of organized action. The cumulative effect of these letters to the press, bearing authentic names from authentic addresses, is sure to have a strong effect on editorial opinion. At the very least they would do something to counterbalance the class bias of the news reports on labor, on what is happening in Germany, and developments in the Soviet Union."
Browder then went on to argue: "I now come to something of vital importance. There is little doubt that Hitler will rearm Germany and, with the help of the Western capitalist powers, unleash war against the Soviet Union. The defense of the Soviet Union is the first and overriding duty of anyone who believes in the cause of socialism. It is the chief bulwark against fascism. You have an opportunity to be of immense service, particularly because of your university connections. We would like you to find opportunity to travel to the major campuses of the country that are centers of scientific and industrial research. It should not be difficult to find and cultivate the acquaintance of at least one trustworthy individual sympathetic to the Soviet Union and its need for defense and survival against the threat of fascism. After his reliability has been established, all he would be asked to do is to report on the work being done, the experiments and projects under consideration, any new inventions or devices particularly of a military and industrial character. Even partial and incomplete information might be of the utmost significance. Most valuable of all would be word about secret research of any character. The reports of your informants would be channeled through you to us. You would not be asking any antifascist to do anything dishonorable, for he would be helping to defend the Soviet Union and the cause of the international working class."
Sidney Hook reported later in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "Stripped of its euphemisms, this was a request that I set up a spy apparatus! Before Browder was through outlining the details of this third proposal, I was in a state of panic. At first I thought it was a kind of test of my resoluteness and loyalty, to see how I would react. But why should I be tested? I had not applied for membership in the Communist Party. All the overtures had come from them to me. When Browder finished speaking, I was at first at a loss for words." When Hook pointed out he was not a member of the Communist Party of America Browder replied: "I know, but for some kinds of work official membership in the Party is not necessary. Sometimes it is an advantage to be able to say that one is not a member." Hook was later to discover that Browder was himself a Soviet spy and that the main objective was to recruit non-party members to obtain secret information. had a strategy of recruiting spies who were not party members. Hook rejected the offer and cut off all contact with the party.
Gaik Ovakimyan was sent to the United States in 1933 under cover as an engineer at Amtorg (American-Soviet Trading Corporation) in New York City. One of the first agents recruited was Earl Browder (codename RULEVOY). According to a memorandum sent by Vsevolod Merkulov to Joseph Stalin: "Starting in 1933 and into 1945, Browder rendered the NKGB... and the GRU... help, recommending to our representatives in the U.S. Communist Party for agent work. At Browder's recommendation, eighteen people were drawn to agent work for the NKGB and... people for GRU. In addition, through the Central Committee's functionaries controlling illegal groups."
Browder worked closely with Jacob Golos. He introduced him to members of the Communist Party of the United States who were willing to be Soviet agents. Christopher Andrew, argues in The Mitrokhin Archive (1999): "Browder's recruitment leads also included foreign Communists and fellow travellers who had taken refuge in the United States. Among the most important was the French radical politician Pierre Cot, six times Minister of Air and twice Minister of Commerce in the short-lived governments of the pre-war Third Republic."
Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999), has argued that "Browder had been an eager and productive participant in a range of Soviet espionage efforts during the 1930s... recruiting from his 'open' Communist cadres a significant number of those who later became prominent NKVD agents and sources within the American government." Browder's second wife, Raissa Berkman, was also an agent. So also was his sister. Golos pointed out that he paid "Browder's sister... a certain amount of money every month."
Browder worked closely with Jacob Golos. He introduced him to members of the Communist Party of the United States who were willing to be Soviet agents. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Mitrokhin Archive (1999): "Browder's recruitment leads also included foreign Communists and fellow travellers who had taken refuge in the United States. Among the most important was the French radical politician Pierre Cot, six times Minister of Air and twice Minister of Commerce in the short-lived governments of the pre-war Third Republic."
In the 1936 Presidential Election Browder won only 79,315 votes (0.2%). Norman Thomas did better with 187,910, but the left overwhelmingly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt (27,752,648), as they approved of his New Deal policies. The leadership of the American Communist Party remained loyal to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was argued that this was the best way to defeat fascism. However, this view took a terrible blow when on 28th August, 1939, Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler. Browder and other leaders of the party decided to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
John Gates pointed out that this created serious problems for the party. "We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy and who still considered Hitler the main foe. People whom we had revered only the day before, like Mrs. Roosevelt, we now reviled. This was one of the characteristics of Communists which people always found most difficult to swallow - that we could call them heroes one day and villains the next. Yet in all of this lay our one consistency; we supported Soviet policies whatever they might be; and this in turn explained so many of our inconsistencies. Immediately following the upheaval over the Soviet-German non-aggression pact came the Finnish war, which compounded all our difficulties since, here also, our position was uncritically in support of the Soviet action."
Browder was the American Communist Party candidate in the 1940 Presidential Election but the government imposed a court order forbidding him to travel within the country. His campaign efforts were limited to the issuing of written statement and the distribution of recorded speeches. In the election he won only 46,251 votes. Later that year he was found guilty of passport irregularities and sentenced to prison for four years. When the United States joined the Second World War and became allies with the Soviet Union, attitudes towards communism changed and Browder was released from prison after only serving 14 months of his sentence. Membership of the party also grew to 75,000.
Browder controversially announced in 1944 that capitalism and communism could peacefully co-exist. As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "Browder had developed several bold ideas which were stimulated by the unprecedented situation, and now he proceeded to put them into effect. At a national convention in 1944, the Communist Party of the United States dissolved and reformed itself into the Communist Political Association." Ring Lardner, another party member, explained: "The change seemed only to bring the nomenclature in line with reality. Our political activities, by then, were virtually identical to those of our liberal friends."
Howard Fast was another supporter of Browder: "In 1944, Browder, the leader of the party through some of its most bitter struggles during the thirties, had attempted to change the party from a political party that offered candidates in elections to a sort of educational Marxist entity. His move, I believe, was based on the wartime and prewar influence of the party on Roosevelt's New Deal, and on the hope that it might continue."
Except for William Z. Foster and Benjamin Davis, the leaders of the American Communist Party unanimously supported Browder. However, in 1945, Jacques Duclos, a leading member of the French Communist Party and considered to be the main spokesman for Joseph Stalin, made a fierce attack on the ideas of Browder. As John Gates pointed out: "The leaders of the American Communists, who, except for Foster and one other, had unanimously supported Browder, now switched overnight, and, except for one or two with reservations, threw their support to Foster. An emergency convention in July, 1945, repudiated Browder's ideas, removed him from leadership and re-constituted the Communist Party in an atmosphere of hysteria and humiliating breast-beating unprecedented in communist history."
Browder's biographer, Malcolm Sylvers, has argued: "Expelled from the Party in February 1946, Browder held a position for a few years as U.S. representative for Soviet publishing concerns, but this in no way led to his political rehabilitation. In the years of his withdrawal from all public life... he worked on several versions of an uncompleted autobiography."
On 6th May 1946, Gaik Ovakimyan and Vassily Zarubin, had a meeting with Earl Browder: "It was reported that the "NKGB of the USSR believes that Browder's expulsion from the party may lead him into a transition toward extreme means of struggle against the Communist Party and may inflict damage to our interests. Therefore, the NKGB of the USSR considers it expedient to allow Browder's arrival in the Soviet Union. We should see if it is possible to recommend... to the Executive Committee of the American Communist Party that Browder be reestablished in the party under a convenient pretext and that the American Communist Party adopt a more tactful line of behavior with regard to him." Reference was made to the recent defection of Elizabeth Bentley. They feared that Browder was a dangerous man to upset as he had the names of a large number of Soviet agents in the United States.
William Z. Foster now became the new leader. Two years later, after being criticised by leaders in the Soviet Union, Browder was expelled from the American Communist Party. He was later to argue: "The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language."
In April, 1950, Browder was called before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee investigating communist influence in government. Questioned by Joseph McCarthy, Browder was willing to criticize the American Communist Party but refused to answer questions that would incriminate former comrades. Charged with contempt of Congress, Judge Frederick Dickinson Letts, ordered his acquittal because he felt the committee had not acted legally. Sidney Hook saw Browder during this period and described him as "a broken political man, only half-sober, thrown outside as no longer useful by those whom he had served so faithfully."
Browder published Marx and America in 1958. He declared in 1960 that he was no longer a Marxist: "The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language. I knew I could not maintain that leadership in open struggle against Moscow influence.... I have opposed the Communist cold war line ever since, both by public utterance and by private help to trade unionists breaking free from the Communist influence. I abandoned the party apparatus to Stalin's adherents in order to prevent them from capturing the party's former mass influence almost a decade I have not considered myself a Communist, nor even a Marxist in the dogmatic sense."