Louis Carlo Fraina, the son of Antonio Fraina, was born in Salerno, Italy on 7th October, 1892. His family emigrated to New York City in 1898. His father found work as a waiter but found it difficult to earn enough money to feed his family. Fraina later recalled: "I remember that my mother refused charity, even when bread was scarce. There was something in her that resented charity." According to Theodore Draper: "At the age of six Louis sold newspapers on the Bowery near Chatham Square. After school, he worked in a tobacco factory as his mother's helper and picked up extra money shining shoes."
Fraina left school in 1908 after the death of his father and found work as a clerk for the Edison Company. He spent his spare-time reading the works of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, George Bernard Shaw and Theodore Dreiser. Fraina contributed an article, Shelley, the Atheist Poet, in the agnostic journal The Truth Seeker in 1909. Arthur Brisbane read the article and gave him a job as a reporter for the New York Journal.
Fraina joined the Socialist Party of America. However, after six months he left because he did not consider it radical enough. He was also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World before he became a follower of Daniel De Leon and he became a member of the Socialist Labor Party. He also wrote for its newspaper, The Daily People. In 1914 he criticised De Leon for his approach to politics: "He was temperamentally a Jesuit, consistently acting on the principle that the end justified the means. And he attacked opponents with all the impersonal implacability of the Jesuit."
In May 1914 he joined The New Review. According to the author of The Roots of American Communism (1957): "Soon he also became a member of the board of directors, secretary of the publishing company, business manager, and chief contributor. Increasingly, the policy and tone of the magazine took on his personal coloration." Theodore Draper claimed that Fraina's writings provided "by far the best insights into the mind of the left wing before and after the outbreak of the war."
Fraina was an opponent of the First World War. He argued: "War, particularly a general world war, tests the capacity of all whom it affects. The world war is a war that has thrown into the crucible of change all ideas and institutions; and out of this molten mass is emerging a new order... War develops out of the class struggle, and the class struggle develops in and through war. While bringing with it the collapse of Socialism as an organized movement, the war has simultaneously demonstrated, in a new way and emphatically, that the proletariat holds the future of the world in the hollow of its hand."
In 1917 he was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and joined the Communist Propaganda League. "Class antagonisms have been sharpened, while officially and apparently they have been modified through national unity; and Capitalism has shown its utter incapacity to preserve and promote civilization and progress. Moreover, the Russian Revolution has projected upon the stage of history the new revolutionary class in action, the class of the revolutionary proletariat. The Socialist conception of the proletariat as a class that will engage in the revolutionary struggle against Capitalism, and overthrow Capitalism, is no longer simply a theory, but a fact."
According to Paul M. Buhle: "Fraina rejoined the Socialist Party at this point in 1917, evidently for strategic reasons rather than any newfound attraction. He was not so different, in this move, from thousands of immigrant late-comers building up the various immigrant federations. They, too, had trouble taking the party seriously up to this point. But Fraina had both a distinct personal history and purposes that the ordinary enthusiasts of the Russian Revolution had probably not clarified in their own minds. As Fraina had called upon SLPers to do in late 1912, he entered the mainstream of American socialism with a sword."
In February 1919, Fraina joined forces with Jay Lovestone, Bertram Wolfe, John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow to create a left-wing faction in the Socialist Party of America that advocated the policies of the Bolsheviks in Russia.On 24th May 1919 the leadership expelled 20,000 members who supported this faction. The process continued and by the beginning of July two-thirds of the party had been suspended or expelled.
In September 1919, Fraina, Jay Lovestone, Earl Browder, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, Benjamin Gitlow, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Charles A. Ruthenberg, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, 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.
Fraina argued in The Proletarian Revolution in Russia (1918): "The Bolsheviki have subjectively introduced the revolutionary epoch of the proletariat, objectively introduced by Imperialism in the war... Socialism in action, Marxism becomes life-that, in sum, constitutes the achievements of the Bolsheviki."
Fraina became editor of party publications. Along with Charles A. Ruthenberg, Jay Lovestone, Harry M. Wicks and Alexander Bittelman, Fraina joined the Central Executive Committee of the American Communist Party. One of the leading members of the party, James Cannon, argued that: "Fraina was the first writer of pioneer American Communism. He did more than anybody else to explain and popularize the basic program of the Russian Bolsheviks. American Communism owes its first serious interest in theoretical questions primarily to Fraina."
In the summer of 1919, Ferdinand Peterson, was recruited by the United States Department of Justice as Special Agent FF-22. His task was to create problems for the emerging communist movement. Later that year he informed Santeri Nuorteva, the Russian Soviet Government Bureau's secretary in New York City, that Fraina was working as a spy for the United States government. Peterson claimed that he had seen him go three times into the New York headquarters of the Department of Justice.
Fraina was investigated by the American Communist Party but Jay Lovestone and Alexander Bittelman were able to confirm that he had been in Chicago on two of the dates stated by Peterson. Fraina was ordered to Moscow but after two "trials" it was decided he innocent of these spying charges. However, John Reed argued that Fraina could not be trusted and should not be allowed to return to any leading position in the party.
In December 1920 Fraina was sent from Moscow to distribute money from the Comintern to various communist groups. While in Berlin he gave $25,000 to John T. Murphy of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Another $10,000 went to Charles E. Scott of the American Communist Party. He took another $10,000 to Mexico where he was to become the Comintern representative in that country.
Fraina left the communist movement in 1922. He sent a letter of resignation and a financial report to the Comintern and to Charles A. Ruthenberg, the secretary of the American Communist Party. He later explained that the reasons why he left was factionalism, the disappearing freedom of thought and Soviet domination of the movement. However, he remained a Marxist and still considered he was still a "communist at heart".
Comintern calculated that Fraina was guilty of spending $4,200 of its money. They began to circulate stories that Fraina had "embezzled" $500,000 and was on the run. Fraina, fearing for his safety, adopted the name, Joseph Charles Skala and arrived back in New York City in 1923. He found work in a dry-goods store at $12 a week. After a few months he found work as a temporary proof-reader at the New York Times.
On 5th May, 1926, The New Republic published an article by Fraina entitled How is Ownership Distributed? was an attack on the ideas of Thomas Nixon Carver, the author of a book, The Present Economic Revolution in the United States, that had been published earlier that year. He had argued that the ownership of stock in the great corporations was becoming so widespread that the workers would soon own and control American industry. Fraina's article attempted to show that corporate ownership was not being democratized, despite the multiplication of stockholders. The article was not signed by Louis C. Fraina or Charles Skala but Lewis Corey.
Fraina was totally disillusioned with Joseph Stalin and the communist government in the Soviet Union. "I once believed, as a Marxist, that dictatorship of the proletariat would relax and pass away; but the dictatorship grew tighter and tighter until it became a totalitarian state. Some years ago I concluded that dictatorship was to blame. But was it?"
Fraina remained a Marxist and said of the Great Depression: "Another and more fundamental aspect of the crisis involves the decline of American capitalism. It is a crisis of the economic order itself. This is evident in the inability to restore prosperity on any substantial scale. The future is one of incomplete recovery: of economic decline, mass disemployment (including millions in clerical and professional occupations), lower standards of living, and war. Every depression is in a sense a crisis of capitalism. But this depression represents the development of a fundamental, permanent crisis in the economic and social relations of American capitalism."
Over the next few years Lewis Corey became a well-known economist. In 1930 he published The House of Morgan. He also became editor of The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. A job that was to last between 1931 and 1934. His most important work, The Decline of American Capitalism, a Marxist interpretation of the American economy, was published in 1934. When the American Communist Party discovered that Corey was Fraina, they published a 64-page pamphlet written by Alexander Bittelman, dismissing his ideas.
The socialist philosopher, Sidney Hook, argued: "Lewis Corey was in many ways a remarkable person. An autodidact, he learned enough about Marx and economics to hold his own with conventional academic economists. Despite a speech defect and strabismic vision, he became a skillful orator, whose intensity of conviction was communicated to his audiences regardless of his topic. Most impressive of all, he was prepared and able to test his first principles or dogmas in the light of experience. He was the first Marxist who, before the decade was over, recognized that the rise of the democratic welfare state had made the corpus of Marx's writings largely irrelevant to the understanding of our modern economy. He did have one marked intellectual defect. He was completely devoid of a sense of humor and without the saving grace of any awareness of its absence. He recognized what I was trying to do, was extremely helpful, and sensible enough not only to steer clear of any actual Trotskyist entanglements but (as distinct from me) of any appearance of it."
In 1935 Fraina published The Crisis of the Middle Classes. Once again he used the name Lewis Corey. It received a good review in the New Masses and after that date he published several articles in the magazine. Fraina also joined the Communist Party (Majority Group), an organisation formed by Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram Wolfe and Charles Zimmerman, after they had been expelled by the American Communist Party in 1929.
In 1937 Fraina found work as an economist for the Works Progress Administration in Washington, D.C.. The job only lasted for six months and he returned to teaching at the New Workers School that had been established by Jay Lovestone. He also worked for the Winter School that had been set-up by the Independent Labor League.
In 1941 Fraina became professor of political economy at Antioch College. He therefore became one of the few professors in American academic history who never went to high school. He also went onto publish a series of articles entitled Marxism Reconsidered in The Nation. This was followed by the book, The Unfinished Task.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Fraina took a position of non-intentervention. Disturbed by the growing power of Adolf Hitler, in 1940 he changed his mind on this issue and helped establish the Union for Democratic Action, an organisation that called for American assistance to defeat fascism. Other members included Reinhold Niebuhr, George S. Counts, Louise Bowen and Philip Randolph.This brought an attack from The Daily Worker under the headline: "Lewis Corey - Ludicrous Salesman of Nice Imperialism".
Following the 1945 General Election Fraina/Corey looked to the British Labour Party as a model for American socialists. According to Paul M. Buhle: "He believed, as late as 1945, that Europe could not return to capitalism, and democratic socialism in Europe would thus regain its strength. A new order was emerging all over the world, even if it would take generations to realise."
During the 1948 Presidential Election Fraina/Corey denounced Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace, as an agent of Joseph Stalin. He described the Soviet Union as the "greatest slaveholder in history". According to William V. Shannon his "attacks on Communist ideology were unsparing".
In 1951 Fraina/Corey became educational director of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers Workmen. On 24th December, 1952, the United States government served him with a writ of deportation. It was part of their campaign to deport alien communists. A month later the union dismissed him from his job.
The chief government witness against him in the hearing the following April was Benjamin Gitlow. According to his lawyer, "Gitlow testified quite freely as to Corey's activities in the 1920s but claimed to be totally unaware that Corey later became actively anti-Communist." For the next six months he waited anxiously to see if he was going to be deported. This waiting came to an end when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on 16th September 1953. As Paul M. Buhle pointed out in A Dreamer's Paradise Lost (1995): "Two days posthumously a Certificate of Lawful Entry arrived along with a notice from a publisher for a contract for the projected book, Toward an Understanding of America."