John Gates, the son of Polish Jews, was born in New York in 1913. His name was originally Solomon Regenstriet but he later changed it to John Gates. His parents owned a shop in the Bronx. "My father was now owner of the inevitable candy store. Six years later he bought a large ice-cream parlor on Fordham Road in the Bronx."
The family lost their business after the Wall Street Crash. He recalled in his autobiography: "My father went back to work as a waiter. He finally scraped enough money together to buy another candy store and returned to the drudgery of a sixteen-hour day and a seven-day week."
In 1930 Gates enrolled in the City College of New York. While a student he discovered the writings of Karl Marx: "These writings provided me with what seemed to be the key to the universe. Poring over the pages, I found the answers I had been searching for: the causes of depression, of war, of injustice, oppression and inhumanity, and the solution through the socialist reorganization of society and the creation of a world brotherhood of man." Soon afterwards he joined the Young Communist League. He also became involved in the campaign to free the Scotsboro Boys.
Gates moved to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1932 where he met Joe Dallet, the local American Communist Party organiser. According to Cecil D. Eby, the author of Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007): "Gates... had surrendered his Regents Scholarship at City College to join the YCL as a Party organizer in the steel industry."
As an active member of the American Communist Party, Gates found it difficult to obtain work: "When I moved from Warren to Youngstown, I lived with various families who shared their scanty larder with me. After a year of living this way, I managed to get on relief which amounted to $1.75 a week for single men and was later raised to $2.25 and to $2.75. Then as various works projects got under way, I obtained a job at $7 a week on a National Youth Administration project, at $25 under the Works Progress Administration, and at $35 on Public Works Administration construction. Many public works were built which still stand in Youngstown today - bridges, roads, grade crossings, buildings - all of them monuments to the government programs of those days. Even had we never built anything of permanence, this program would have been more than worthwhile; it was an investment in human beings. Nothing is more demoralizing than to be out of work with no prospect of getting a job. The projects restored the confidence of millions of Americans in themselves and in their country, gave them back their self-respect, brought them hope again."
In May 1935 Gates was arrested for distributing leaflets during a strike in New Castle, Pennsylvania. "The town mayor acted as judge in the case. I was not even given a chance to plead, let alone explain my case. The mayor proceeded to read me a lecture and denounced me as a foreigner in Pennsylvania since I had come in from Ohio. Without permitting a word to be said, he pronounced me guilty and sentenced me to spend thirty days in jail, or drink a glass of castor oil. No loving relatives had ever succeeded in forcing castor oil down my throat when I was a child, and no two-bit would-be Mussolini would either. I served the thirty days."
At the beginning of 1937 Gates decided to join the International Brigades, an organization that was attempting to to defend the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War. He arrived in Paris in February: "Beautiful as Paris was, we were all impatient with the three days' delay. A train carried us to Perpignan on the Mediterranean at the Spanish border. There we simply boarded a bus for Figueres, and in a few minutes we were in Spain."
After spending time in Albacete he was sent to the southern Cordoba front. Later that year he received a letter with a clipping from the Youngstown Vindicator containing his picture and a story that he had been killed in action in Spain. He remarked in The Story of an American Communist (1959): "I immediately wrote the Vindicator that I had read about my death but could not confirm it."
The American forces suffered heavy casualties in the war. In March 1938 the Lincoln-Washington Battalion lost two of its most senior officers, Robert Merriman and David Doran, when they were killed at Gandesa on the Aragón front. Milton Wolff now assumed command of the battalion and Gates became battalion commissar. As Joe Dallet pointed out in a letter to his wife: "This is a funny place. Some of the most prominent people back home... turn out badly here, while some insignificant people like Johnny Gates rise to the top."
John Gates soon developed a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. He later admitted that he became "intolerant of criticism. I increasingly used vile language against subordinates, and disciplined people for minor questioning of my authority." For example, in March 1938 Paul White was sent to get further supplies of ammunition. Instead, he deserted and drove to the French border. However, on hearing that his wife had given birth to a son, he began to feel remorse for what he had done. White wanted his son to be proud of his father and he returned to the front where he made a full confession of his actions.
White was unlucky that John Gates was now the battalion commissar. Gates recently had ordered that all deserters should be court-martialed and some of them should be executed as an example to the rest of the soldiers. Milton Wolff agreed with Gates and White was charged with desertion.
At his court-martial White confessed: "After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France." Paul White was found guilty of desertion and the following day he was executed by a six-man firing squad. Joe Bianca complained bitterly about the way White was treated, but as Cecil D. Eby pointed out: "Having just been publicized as the best soldier in the Battalion, Bianca had passed beyond the range of commissariat retaliation."
Soon afterwards Gates and Milton Wolff conducted the trial of Bernard Abramofsky, accused of multiple desertions and black marketeering. Abramofsky was executed by a firing squad. The news of these executions caused a great deal of dissent in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and it was quickly announced that no further executions would take place.
On 25th September 1938, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced for diplomatic reasons that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. John Gates later recalled: "The main farewell took place in Barcelona on Oct. 29. For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. Despite the danger of air raids, the entire city turned out... We paraded ankle-deep in flowers. Women rushed into our lines to kiss us. Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. The people of the city poured out their hearts. Our blood had been shed with theirs. Our dead slept with their dead. We had proved again that all men are brothers."
On his return to the United States Gates was appointed head of the Young Communist League in New York State. He also served as Secretary of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In the Young Communist Review Gates upset some members when he argued that as the Soviet Union was "a socialist island in a sea of hostile capitalism" it would be understandable if Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler.
In private Gates was highly critical of Stalin's foreign policy. He later admitted how the party attacked people like Eleanor Roosevelt: "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."
After Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941, the American Communist Party, under instructions from Joseph Stalin, changed its policy towards the war: "This is not to suggest that our lightning-change was made without pangs of conscience. Many of us were ashamed now of the policy we had followed since August 1939 and were determined to make up for it. We were justified in emphasizing the new danger to America from Hitler's attack on Russia; but had not the invasion of France and the bombings of Britain endangered us too? We who had fought in Spain had been called premature anti-fascists (which had always made us feel proud); when Russia was invaded we had become anti-fascists come-lately, of which we could not be proud. Even from the narrow point of view of supporting the Soviet Union, our policy of 1939-41 had been stupid. Had it prevailed, our country's ability to assist Russia in the moment of crisis, let alone defend ourselves, would have been considerably weakened. In fact, had our stand against aiding the allies won out, the United States might never have aided the Soviet Union at all."
Gates, like many members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, immediately joined the US Army in order to take part in the Second World War. As Hank Rubin pointed out in Spain's Cause Was Mine (1997): "We were pariahs to our government. When Brigaders volunteered for the armed forces in World War II, the official army line, at first, was that we were not to be sent outside of the continental limits, so that we would not have contact with European communists."
Gates was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Field Artillery Training Centre. After spending over a year at the base, the division was sent to Europe. However, because of Gates' communism, he was left behind. Gates personally contacted Franklin D. Roosevelt in his attempt to fight for his country. Earl Browder, Vito Marcantonio, Drew Pearson and Clare Booth Luce, all took up his case.
In an attempt to serve on the front-line, Gates volunteered to join the Army Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. "In my class were 1,600 men, but only five of us were over the age of 30. The rest of the men were under 23. Parachute jumping is definitely a young man's game and I was soon called Pop. The younger men found the physical training under the supervision of All-American athletes fairly easy; for me it was most difficult. On the other hand, while the younger men found the psychological hazard of jumping from an airplane extremely difficult, this was somewhat easier for me because I had joined to get into combat. Even with this incentive, however, every jump was frightening; the paratroopers said nobody ever jumped, they were pushed. But finally I passed all the tests. The paratroops were an elite corps and I was not at all modest about my special wings insignia and characteristic jump boots."
In April 1945, Gates joined the 17th Airborne Division in Nazi Germany. The unit had jumped a few days earlier on the east side of the Rhine. As he later pointed out: "This was the last combat jump in the European war and I had missed it." The war in Europe ended a few weeks later. Gates now expected to be sent to the Pacific but Japan surrendered after the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Gates was stationed in England after the war. He immediately enrolled at the University of Manchester "spending three delightful months there, little of it at the university but a great deal with my British friends from Spain." He also spent time watching the Labour Party that had just won a landslide victory in the 1945 General Election.
Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party, 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."
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."
On his return to the United States, Gates became editor-in-chief of The Daily Worker. Gates remained a secret supporter of Earl Browder, but he accepted that he had lost the power-struggle with William Z. Foster for leadership of the American Communist Party.
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary and eleven other party leaders, including Gates, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".
The trial began on 17th January, 1949. As John Gates pointed out: "There were eleven defendants, the twelfth, Foster, having been severed from the case because of his serious, chronic heart ailment." The men were defended by George W. Crockett. It was difficult for the prosecution to prove that the eleven men had broken the Alien Registration Act, as none of the defendants had ever openly called for violence or had been involved in accumulating weapons for a proposed revolution. The prosecution therefore relied on passages from the work of Karl Marx and other revolution figures from the past.
When John Gates refused to answer a question implicating other people, he was sentenced by Judge Harold Medina to 30 days in jail. When Henry M. Winston and Gus Hall protested, they were also sent to prison.
The prosecution also used the testimony of former members of the American Communist Party to help show that they had privately advocated the overthrow of the government. The most important witness against the leaders of the party was Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the party's newspaper, The Daily Worker.
Another strategy of the prosecution was to ask the defendants questions about other party members. Unwilling to provide information on fellow comrades, they were put in prison and charged with contempt of court. The trial dragged on for eleven months and eventually, the judge, Harold Medina, who made no attempt to disguise his own feelings about the defendants, sent the party's lawyers to prison for contempt of court.
After a nine month trial John Gates and other leaders of the American Communist Party were found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Robert G. Thompson, because of his war record, received only three years. They appealed to the Supreme Court but on 4th June, 1951, the judges ruled, 6-2, that the conviction was legal.
Justice Felix Frankfurter argued: The particular circumstances of this case compel me to conclude that the trial judge should not have combined in himself the functions of accuser and judge. For his accusations were not impersonal. They concerned matters in which he personally was deeply engaged... No judge should sit in a case in which he is personally involved... At frequent intervals in the course of the trial his comments plainly reveal personal feelings against the lawyers.... Truth compels the observation, painful as it is to make it, that the fifteen volumes of oral testimony in the principal trial record numerous episodes involving the judge and defense counsel that are more suggestive of an undisciplined debating society than of the hush and solemnity of a court of justice. Too often counsel were encouraged to vie with the court in dialectic, in repartee and banter, in talk so copious as inevitably to arrest the momentum of the trial and to weaken the restraints of respect that a judge should engender in lawyers... Throughout the proceedings... he failed to exercise the moral authority of a court possessed of a great tradition.
Justice William Douglas agreed: "I agree with Mr. Justice Frankfurter that one who reads the record will have difficulty in determining whether members of the bar conspired to drive a judge from the bench or whether the judge used the authority of the bench fo whipsaw the lawyers, to taunt and tempt them, and to create for himself the role of the persecuted. I have reluctantly concluded that neither is blameless, that there is fault on each side, that we have here the spectacle of the bench and the bar using the courtroom for an unseemly discussion and of ill will and hot tempers."
This decision was followed by the arrests of 46 more communists during the summer of 1951. This included Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was also convicted for contempt of court after telling the judge that she would not identify people as Communists as she was unwilling "do degrade or debase myself by becoming an informer". She was also found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to two years in prison.
As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "To many in the leadership, this meant that the United States was unquestionably on the threshold of fascism. Had not Hitler's first step been to outlaw the Communist Party? We saw an almost exact parallel."
On his release from prison in 1955, Gates became editor of the Daily Worker. During the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Gates became a supporter of Khrushchev and at his direction the newspaper printed the full text of Khrushchev's speech. This brought him into conflict with leaders of the American Communist Party.
John Gates also encouraged debate on this issue by devoting one page of the newspaper to their readers' views: "The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature... Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years."
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.
John Gates was highly critical of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev and stated that "for the first time in all my years in the Party I felt ashamed of the name Communist". He then went on to add that "there was more liberty under Franco's fascism than there is in any communist country." As a result he was accused of being "right-winger, Social-Democrat, reformist, Browderite, peoples' capitalist, Trotskyist, Titoite, Stracheyite, revisionist, anti-Leninist, anti-party element, liquidationist, white chauvinist, national Communist, American exceptionalist, Lovestoneite, Bernsteinist".
On 22nd December, 1957, the American Communist Party Executive Committee decided to close down the Daily Worker. Gates argued: "Throughout the 34 years of its existence, the Daily Worker has withstood the attacks of Big Business, the McCarthyites and other reactionaries. It has taken a drive from within the party - conceived in blind factionalism and dogmatism - to do what our foes have never been able to accomplish. The party leadership must once and for all repudiate the Foster thesis, defend the paper and its political line, and seek to unite the entire party behind the paper."
Gates resigned from the American Communist Party on 1st January 1958: "I have come to this decision, after 27 years in the Communist movement, because I feel that the Communist Party has ceased to be an effective force for democracy, peace and socialism in the United States. The isolation and decline of the Communist Party have long been apparent. I had hoped, as a result of the struggle that has been going on in the party for the last two years, that the party could be radically transformed... I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the party cannot be changed from within and that the fight to do so is hopeless. The same ideals that attracted me to socialism still motivate me. I do not believe it is possible any longer to serve those ideals within the Communist Party."
Gates published his memoirs, The Story of an American Communist, in 1959. He wrote: "The American Communist Party has failed, and has disintegrated. Less than 5,000 members remain, of whom no more than a third pay dues, and few carry on meaningful activities. The average age level is past 50, and for a decade there has been no recruitment of young people or new members. All of which contrasts with the 75,000 members at the close of the World War, apart from 20,000 young Communists, and it contrasts also with at least the 17,000 members when the party's crisis broke open in 1956. But all other socialist groups and parties in America have also failed. Their membership is negligible and their influence insignificant.
Over the next few years Gates worked as a senior research assistant for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). He remained a socialist: "I did not quit the American Communist Party in order to embrace the ideas of John Foster Dulles, or to enlist in the cold war. For what we have to do, as a matter of defending the nation's security, is to end the cold war."
Gates hoped that a new left-wing party, committed to equal rights, similiar to that of the British Labour Party, would emerge in the United States. He thought it was the younger generation that would make this possible: "The society they inherit from their elders is not what they had the right to expect, and they surely will remake it. They bear no responsibility for our mistakes, but they may learn from our past, with its great and meaningful moments, and its unworthy ones. These young people will continue the best in our American heritage, in terms of the present as they understand it, and the future they want. To the youth of America, in the hope that they will succeed where we did not."
I was mainly interested in the Socialists and the Communists. Already socialist-minded in a hazy, untroubled way, I soon learned that the adherents of socialism were in violent disagreement among themselves. I listened entranced to their fierce debates. Their doctrinal disputations over what Marx and Lenin had really said and really meant, their waging of the Russian Revolution over and over again, led me to the Marxist classics in the college library. A new world began to open up before me.
These writings provided me with what seemed to be the key to the universe. Poring over the pages, I found the answers I had been searching for: the causes of depression, of war, of injustice, oppression and inhumanity, and the solution through the socialist reorganization of society and the creation of a world brotherhood of man.
When it came to the disputes between the followers of socialism, it seemed to me that the Socialists only talked, while the Communists acted. Had not the Communists brought into being the first successful socialist country, the Soviet Union? And wasn't this accomplished over the opposition of the Socialists? Was not the Soviet Union moving forward with its Five Year plans, was it not planning production and abolishing unemployment when the richest country in the world, the United States, was in the throes of terrible depression?
New impetus was given to the efforts of the American Communist Party to become a serious political trend in American life, an indigenous socialist organization. A variety of new anti-fascist movements came into being here, in which Communists took part: the American League Against War and Fascism, the National Negro Congress, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Commonwealth Federation of the State of Washington, the New York American Labor Party initiated by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and others.
American Communists began to study American history with its democratic, labor and socialist traditions. Earl Browder, the party's general secretary at that time, coined the slogan "Communism is 20th Century Americanism" and our influence grew not only in the labor and Negro people's movements, but in intellectual circles as well. These years of 1934 to 1939 were the heyday of Communist prestige in the United States.
With thousands of others, I was part of that tempestuous history before I was old enough to vote. Those years were an education which, despite all the minuses, I would not exchange for anything.
The new change in the Communist movement was symbolized by what happened to William Z. Foster's Toward Soviet America. Written in 1932, this was an atrocious book even for those sectarian and super-leftist days, outlining a blueprint for the U.S.A. along the exact same lines as the Russian revolution. Now it was officially discarded by the party, including Foster himself. It was forgotten and ignored by everybody, except J. Edgar Hoover and assorted prosecutors and investigating committees who considered it such a handy weapon that they have not let go of it to this day. The concept of the People's Front against war and fascism was a sound one and enormously effective. It should have become a permanent feature of Communist theory and practice. Instead it proved to be a temporary expedient and tactic and this was its Achilles heel.
When I moved from Warren to Youngstown, I lived with various families who shared their scanty larder with me. After a year of living this way, I managed to get on relief which amounted to $1.75 a week for single men and was later raised to $2.25 and to $2.75. Then as various works projects got under way, I obtained a job at $7 a week on a National Youth Administration project, at $25 under the Works Progress Administration, and at $35 on Public Works Administration construction. Many public works were built which still stand in Youngstown today-bridges, roads, grade crossings, buildings - all of them monuments to the government programs of those days. Even had we never built anything of permanence, this program would have been more than worthwhile; it was an investment in human beings. Nothing is more demoralizing than to be out of work with no prospect of getting a job. The projects restored the confidence of millions of Americans in themselves and in their country, gave them back their self-respect, brought them hope again.
One day in May, 1935, I was arrested in the open-shop steel town of Newcastle, Pa. I had been distributing leaflets in the course of a strike in a small factory there, when I was picked up. The town mayor acted as judge in the case. I was not even given a chance to plead, let alone explain my case. The mayor proceeded to read me a lecture and denounced me as a foreigner in Pennsylvania since I had come in from Ohio. Without permitting a word to be said, he pronounced me guilty and sentenced me to spend thirty days in jail, or drink a glass of castor oil. No loving relatives had ever succeeded in forcing castor oil down my throat when I was a child, and no two-bit would-be Mussolini would either. I served the thirty days.
At Barcelona we disembarked for an overnight stay and paraded through the city to our barracks in a sort of triumphal procession. Barcelona was impressive, clean and modern, with its own type of rococo architecture. Propaganda posters had been developed to a fine art in Spain and they were plastered everywhere, displaying power and vividness. In addition to the posters, huge slogans had been painted in red on every wall, shouting "Muerte al Fascismo" (Death to Fascism), "Viva Espana Popular" (Long Live People's Spain), "Viva Rusia" (Long Live Russia).
Today it is difficult to appreciate the enormous prestige which the Soviet Union enjoyed in Spain. The Soviet Union, with Mexico, was almost alone in coming to the assistance of the Republic. The only government willing to sell arms to Spain, the Soviet Union from the very beginning sent in massive shipments, especially while the French border was still open. Most of the volunteers were Communists and credit for the International Brigade went to the Soviet Union too, although no large number of Russians ever came to Spain. The words, "the cause of republican Spain is the cause of all advanced progressive humanity," had been spoken by Joseph Stalin, an idea that was to plant itself deep in the conscience of mankind.
When we arrived in Albacete, we really got down to business. Outfitted with uniforms (French) and with rifles (Russian) still packed in cosmoline, we were assigned to units. My outfit was an experiment, an international battalion composed of four companies, an English-speaking one, a French-Belgian, a Slav and a German-Austrian. The battalion commander was Italian and the commissar French. This was an independent battalion not assigned to any of the International Brigades.
The International Brigades were five in number, each with its dominant language: French, German, Italian, Slav and English, although numerous nationalities were scattered among them. The International Brigades had their own base but for training purposes only. Actually, the brigades were part of the Spanish Republican Army, subordinate to its command and discipline.
I discovered to my surprise that as regular members of the Spanish Army we were to receive pay. I knew nothing about armies and the thought of money had been farthest from my mind. We were given the same rate of pay as the Spaniard: for a private 10 pesetas a day, equivalent to the American dollar-a-day army pay of that time. To American volunteers, the money never meant much since we had little opportunity to spend it. To the Spanish soldiers who had families to support, it meant a great deal.
Just after the stragglers of the Lincoln Battalion set up their camp at Marsa in April 1938, an order came down to Commissar John Gates from Division: court-martial all deserters and execute some as examples. Massive desertion must never be allowed again. Accordingly, Gates improvised a tribunal consisting only of brigade commissars and Party cadres. Three deserters received death sentences: an Algerian, a Spaniard, and an American named Paul White. White, a seaman with a splendid record in the Party, had deserted at least once before. (Merriman had complimented him for "doing a good job" in rounding up and provisioning the men scattered all over Madrid at the time of the Aragon offensive.) Executions followed that night. According to the later testimony of Major Umberto Galleani, the firing squad was commanded by a "very excitable" New Yorker known as "Ivan."
Some Lincolns bivouacked at Marsa heard isolated shots fired that night. Then four men were shaken out of their blanket rolls by one of Tony DeMaio's henchmen, who handed them shovels and said, "Follow me, and don't ask questions." They dug a trench in the hillside and dumped in a body. By morning everyone in the battalion knew that someone had been shot without being told the details. Later in the day they were told that Paul White had been executed as a deserter "by the unanimous [sic] decision of the battalion." They, the men of the battalion, had decided nothing - certainly not unanimously. Joe Bianca, a friend from the New York waterfront, who knew that White's wife had just had a baby, vented his anger by shouting over and over, for all to hear, "Those sons of bitches!" Having just been publicized as "the best soldier in the Battalion," Bianca had passed beyond the range of commissariat retaliation." (According to John Gates, many years later, on the next day an order come down from Division countermanding the executions. It arrived too late for Paul White.) At this time Gates and Wolff conducted the trial of Bernard Abramofsky, accused of multiple desertions and black marketeering. This was held in a darkened room with a single light shining on his face. Like White, he was executed by a nocturnal firing squad.
I was now with a group of three. We ran into a fascist foot patrol but got away successfully into the brush. Deciding now that it was unsafe to move by daylight, we hid and went to sleep, and moved only under cover of the dark. That night we reached the river near the town of Mora del Ebro. We could find no boats, no materials with which to build a raft. Coming upon a small house, we decided to go in. I was leading the way, grenade in hand, when from inside came a call: "Who's there?" My impulse was to throw the grenade and run, but I was suddenly struck by the realization that the words had been spoken in English and the voice sounded like George Watt, who had been in the rear of our column the previous night. I answered "It's me." Sure enough out came George and several other of our men. They had bedded down for the night-very foolishly, I thought, in view of how close they had come to being killed by their own men. Watt told me later that his group had come just as close to opening fire on us. It made a good story to tell afterwards, and a never-settled debate on which of us had been more unwise.
The river was very wide at this point and the current swift. Some of the men were not sure they could make it, so fatigued were we all, but we decided to join forces and swim across at dawn. We stripped naked, threw away all our belongings, and made for the opposite bank. Three of us got across safely just as the day was beginning to break. The bodies of two other men were washed up on the shore several days later. Besides myself, those who made it were Watt and Joseph Hecht, who was later killed in World War II. In the excitement I had kept my hat on.
Between the river and the road stretched a field of cockleburrs which we now crossed on our bare, bruised feet. This was the last straw: naked (except for my hat), hungry and exhausted, I felt I could not take another step. I had sworn never to surrender to the fascists but I told Watt that if they came along just then, I would give up (actually, we would not have had much choice, having no arms).
We lay down on the side of the road, with no idea of who might come along, too beat to care much. Suddenly a car drove up, stopped and out stepped two men. Nobody ever looked better to me in all my life-they were Ernest Hemingway and New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews. We hugged one another, and shook hands. They told us everything they knew - Hemingway, tall and husky, speaking in explosions; Matthews, just as tall but thin, and talking in his reserved way. The main body of the Loyalist army, it seems, had crossed the Ebro, and was now regrouping to make a stand on this side of the river. The writers gave us the good news of the many friends who were safe, and we told them the bad news of some who were not. Facing the other side of the river, Hemingway shook his burly fist. "You fascist bastards haven't won yet," he shouted. "We'll show you!"
We rejoined the 15th Brigade, or rather the pitiful remnants of it. Many were definitely known to be dead, others missing. Men kept trickling across the Ebro, straggling in for weeks afterwards, but scores had been captured by the fascists. During the first few days, I took charge of what was left of the Lincoln Battalion; we were dazed and still tense from our experience. Meanwhile, the enemy conducted air raids daily against our new positions, but we were well scattered and the raids caused more fear than damage.
It took two more months to leave Spain. Transportation had to be arranged for the long voyage back; we had to be outfitted with civilian clothes; the League of Nations had to count us; it was almost more difficult to leave Spain than it had been to get in. Meanwhile, the Spanish people wanted to give us a proper farewell. Fetes and banquets were held everywhere as people showed their gratitude to the 25,000 men from all over the world who had come to help Spain in her hour of need.
The main farewell took place in Barcelona on Oct. 29. For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. Despite the danger of air raids, the entire city turned out. Whatever airforce belonged to the Loyalists, was used to protect Barcelona that day. Happily, the fascists did not show up. It was our day. We paraded ankle-deep in flowers. Women rushed into our lines to kiss us. Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. The people of the city poured out their hearts. Our blood had been shed with theirs. Our dead slept with their dead. We had proved again that all men are brothers. Matthews wrote about this final day, remarking that we did not march with much precision. "They learned to fight before they had time to learn to march."
Finally, on a day in December 1938, we boarded a train near the French frontier and left Spanish soil. The French government sealed our train and we were not permitted to get off until we reached Le Havre and the ship that was waiting to take us home. The Italian and German members of the Brigades were interned in French concentration camps; there they led a miserable existence until World War II freed them and they were able to use the experience of their Spanish days in the various Allied armies which they joined.
Three months after we crossed the Spanish border, and two years and eight months after Franco had begun his revolt, the Republic of Spain fell to the fascists. It was a bleak day for mankind.
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. The American Youth Congress, in which the Young Communists had stepped so carefully, now underwent great strains as we tried to bend it toward our policy without regard for consequences.
This is not to suggest that our lightning-change was made without pangs of conscience. Many of us were ashamed now of the policy we had followed since August 1939 and were determined to make up for it. We were justified in emphasizing the new danger to America from Hitler's attack on Russia; but had not the invasion of France and the bombings of Britain endangered us too? We who had fought in Spain had been called premature anti-fascists (which had always made us feel proud); when Russia was invaded we had become anti-fascists come-lately, of which we could not be proud. Even from the narrow point of view of sup¬porting the Soviet Union, our policy of 1939-41 had been stupid. Had it prevailed, our country's ability to assist Russia in the moment of crisis, let alone defend ourselves, would have been considerably weakened. In fact, had our stand against aiding the allies won out, the United States might never have aided the Soviet Union at all.
A majority of Americans had awakened to the fascist danger later than we Communists did, but when they did awake they displayed a consistency which we Communists could not claim. One can speculate, of course, whether Roosevelt and Churchill would have promised help to Russia so promptly if the West had not suffered such terrible defeats at Hitler's hands the preceding two years. Nor should it be forgotten that people like Harry Truman, then an influential member of the Senate, proposed that in the Soviet-German war we should help whichever side was losing at a particular moment so that in the long run they might bleed one another to death. Surely this attitude was no less harmful to America's interests than our own since 1939. Proof of this was to come at Pearl Harbor.
Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. The Communist Party was holding a national conference, the main address being delivered by Robert Minor, a Texan, famous cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an earlier day, and now acting secretary of the party during Browder's term in prison. Minor's theme was the imminence of war between the United States and Japan and the need for the country to step up its defenses. While he was talking, someone ran into the hall with the news-the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. There was stunned silence. The meeting was recessed so that fresh proposals could be prepared in view of the grave new situation.
Many of us knew what we had to do, as we had known once before when Americans were volunteering to fight in Spain. The next week I spent in helping the organization ready itself to give full support to the war, and in preparing for someone to take my place. On Dec. 16, 1941, I went to the main army recruiting office and volunteered. I was sworn in on Dec. 17, Private John Gates, army serial number 12037342. We were allowed three days to terminate our personal affairs before reporting for induction.
All over the country, young Communists, and older ones too, were volunteering. In fact, some 15,000 American Communists were to become members of the armed forces, a very large proportion of the organization's membership at that time. In many places, ceremonial meetings of the party took place, as send-offs. It so happened that the New York Communists were holding a meeting of leading people, some 2,000 in all, the day I was sworn in. Tremendous applause greeted the announcement that I had just joined the U.S. Army, on leave from the Communist Party. The audience stood as I saluted the flag and repeated the pledge: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In my class were 1,600 men, but only five of us were over the age of 30. The rest of the men were under 23. Parachute jumping is definitely a young man's game and I was soon called Pop. The younger men found the physical training under the supervision of All-American athletes fairly easy; for me it was most difficult. On the other hand, while the younger men found the psychological hazard of jumping from an airplane extremely difficult, this was somewhat easier for me because I had joined to get into combat. Even with this incentive, however, every jump was frightening; the paratroopers said nobody ever jumped, they were pushed. But finally I passed all the tests. The paratroops were an elite corps and I was not at all modest about my special wings insignia and characteristic jump boots.
Upon my return from furlough, my officers were confident that I would be transferred back into the battalion. In fact, an order to this effect arrived soon afterwards from Armored Force Headquarters. I thought victory was finally at hand, when everything was upset again. Newspaper columnist Drew Pearson published an account of my case just as I have described it here. Syndicated coast-to-coast, the column meant well but it contained all kinds of unauthorized, secret military information-the name of my battalion, the fact that it had been alerted for overseas, my letter to the President and his reply, and the officers' affidavits. As a result of this violation of military secrecy, the date for the outfit going overseas was postponed, the order restoring me to my battalion was countermanded and I was out of it for good. It seems that some of my friends, a bit overzealous in my cause, had given Pearson all this information, thinking the publicity would do me good.
Judge Medina not only bore a marked resemblance to actor Adolphe Menjou; like Menjou, he was a consummate actor. From the outset he assumed the star role in the proceedings. Evidently believing that the prosecution could not produce any evidence to back up the charge on which we were indicted, he proceeded to prosecute us on a charge which he dreamed up himself: we and our lawyers were supposed to be conspiring to obstruct justice by dragging out the trial-a charge which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected.
Although our case was a hopeless one under the circumstances, the defendants made every mistake in the book. We permitted the trial to become a duel between judge and defense; it is difficult enough to get a federal jury to vote against the government prosecutor, it will never vote against the judge. Medina baited and provoked our lawyers and they fell into the trap. With the press solidly behind the judge and against us, no matter what we did was reported in a bad light, and our defense tactics often made a bad situation worse.
Atlanta Penitentiary was a famous place for me; Eugene Victor Debs had served there for his opposition to the first world war, as had Earl Browder in the early years of World War II. I was rather thrilled when I was placed in a cell three doors away from the one in which Debs had done his time. The Socialist leader had been pardoned by President Harding in 1921 and although none of the officers or inmates of that time were still around, the prison library contained books which told of Debs' experiences in that very place.
The prison had been built around 1900, a huge institution with some 2700 inmates and several hundred guards and other employees. It was a combination of the mediaeval and the modern. Most of the men were herded into small eight-men cells with a toilet in the center, and with one table and four chairs; the men slept in four double-decker bunks.
This overcrowding was the prison's worst feature. On the other hand, each man had earphones for listening in on the radio, and we received clean sheets once a week. While we had a prison hospital with a modern operating room and psycho-therapeutic treatment, we also had a "hole," as solitary confinement for extreme punishment was called. The cells were so crowded that the policy was to keep the men out of them as much as possible, either at work or at recreation.
The only "good" feature of the jail was its enormous recreational area with three baseball diamonds, two basketball courts, eight tennis and ten handball courts, shuffleboard, horseshoe pitching, volleyball and bocce courts, weight-lifting facilities, a quarter-mile track, a grandstand, and room for men who just wanted to talk and lounge around. We were allowed into the "yard" (the recreational field) every day if weather permitted. We saw a movie once a week. At Atlanta I personally experienced both the old and the new; learning to play tennis for the first time and, for the first time, spending a week in the "hole."
The food was ordinary and tasteless, but enough to keep a man from starving. Meat and desserts were strictly rationed, but bread, vegetables and potatoes were available in unlimited quantities, the only proviso being that once taken they had to be eaten on pain of punishment. Since we were in the South and most of the prisoners were from that region, the cooking was southern-style everything was cooked in fatback, which I disliked intensely...
One day I was given the order to lock the men up. I refused. Hauled before the authorities, I explained that I was a convict and not a guard, that I would gladly release the men from their cells, but I would not lock them up. The response of the authorities to this was to throw me into the "hole" for seven days.
The "hole" meant solitary confinement and starvation rations. You were stripped naked and given coveralls and scuffs instead of shoes. After supper a mattress was thrown into the cell and removed the next morning before breakfast. The rest of the day the cell was bare and you walked or sat down on the cold concrete. Meals consisted of two slices of bread, a cup of black coffee without sugar, and a couple of vegetables-no meat or desserts.
For a week I had no one to talk to, nothing to read. Ironically, my cell in solitary was larger than the one in which eight of us normally lived; for a while I even relished the peace and solitude after the noise in my regular cell. Of course. the novelty soon palled. The "hole" is a barbaric system, a carry-over from the dungeons of the days of feudalism. I was not starved or beaten to death (although the men told stories of some who had been) but the purpose of the punishment was to humiliate, debase and degrade, to break down the human spirit.
This is what is wrong with the underlying philosophy of prisons. They do not serve to deter or reduce crime; in fact, they are often schools for crime. They rarely rehabilitate a human being and more often make` him worse. If much of the money and personnel that go for prisons were put into efforts to improve the conditions of society and to perfect a system of parole and personal guidance, the results would be far better. The present system solves little. It aggravates the situation in many ways and costs more for society.
My experience in the "hole" only made me more bitter. I learned from many others who had gone through the barbaric treatment that they felt the same way.
Although the Atlanta penitentiary was a federal institution, segregation was enforced among the prisoners. This was so not only because the prison was in the South (even Lincoln's birthday was not celebrated in the prison), but segregation was the rule in all federal prisons in the North as well. In living quarters and the mess hall, whites and Negroes were kept strictly separated. While segregation could not be enforced with full strictness at work, Negroes generally were given the dirtiest and most menial jobs. There was some mixing in sports, but even here the organized teams were all-white or all-Negro. The main ball team of the prison would play outside army teams or college outfits; the visit¬ing teams were often mixed while the prison team was all-white. Occasionally a big league club would visit the prison and play for us and, of course, had both Negro and white players.
Six of the tennis courts were reserved for whites, and two for Negroes. At one of the annual tournaments, I decided to pair up in the doubles with a Negro prisoner. There were some strange looks but nothing happened, and we reached the finals before we lost (we got this far because my partner was an excellent player).
I understand that later on Negro players were finally allowed on the institution teams together with whites, but all other forms of segregation remained in force. Dennis and I had to be careful in our associations with Negro and Puerto Rican prisoners (of whom there were many in Atlanta); we were under close surveillance at all times and this placed those with whom we associated under suspicion. In some cases, discrimination in jobs and parole was practiced against men merely because they were friendly to us.
All this did not make me question communism. But it shook my belief in Stalin's infallibility, in Soviet perfection. It made me eager to re-examine all policies, all ideas, everything. My mind was receptive to new ideas for the first time in many, many years.
It was in this context that I decided to read George Orwell's 1984, which was in the prison library. There would seem to be nothing remarkable about deciding to read a book; but we had considered Orwell a Trotskyite, which meant his books were anathema, to be denounced but not read. For years I had been curious about 1984 because it had had such a profound effect on liberals and former Communists, but I could never bring myself to read it; even if I had, I would have rejected every word of it. When I first became a Communist, my mind was opened up to a vast new body of ideas, broadening my knowledge and outlook (for the works of Communist writers were largely proscribed in our capitalist America which has its own subtle forms of censorship).
But I also entered upon a closed system of thought which cut us off from large areas of human knowledge and eventually narrowed and stultified our minds. Reading Orwell did not open my eyes; rather it was the fact that events had opened my eyes and this caused me now to read Orwell. I did not like his book. I felt it to be negative and despairing of humanity. Nevertheless I had to admit that much of what he said was true; at least he was presenting an important aspect of truth, despite the faults and distortions of which I considered him guilty. I was certain that his savage picture of the - danger of totalitarianism was true for capitalist society, as well as for communism. But then I had long known this about capitalism. What hurt now was the recognition that some of the evils which he depicted existed under communism.
The Communist Party leaders who had been imprisoned in 1950 now came out of jail, and John Gates, the best of them, the most innovative and independent, resumed his job as executive editor of The Daily Worker. It was under him that I joined the staff; a new life began for The Worker, and at the same time, a split in the leadership of the party between Gates and William Z. Foster, now seventy-five.
Since this is not a history of the Communist Party, I will not go into great detail concerning this split in the leadership; the origins of it were long in making and long in coming. William Z. Foster, Ben Davis, and Gene Dennis stood by the rigid doctrines of the Leninist pattern of organization, a party governed by theory that was neither pragmatic nor relevant to the American situation, a party of unbreakable discipline taking its cues from the Soviet party and rejecting every criticism of the Soviet Union. The opposition to this, led by John Gates, held that the Russians made grave errors, for which they must be criticized, that the rigid Leninist form was neither right for America nor helpful in the struggle of the American left, that it isolated the party, and was now bringing the party to its final moment of self-destruction. This, of course, is the briefest definition of what was happening.
Few were more shaken by the Khrushchev revelations than the Daily Worker staff, which had the daily responsibility of commenting on events. Alan Max spoke his mind boldly, on March 13, 1956, admitting that the Soviet Congress had jolted him: "We went overboard in defending the idea of Stalin's infallibility, in opposing any suggestion that civil liberties were not being fully respected in the Soviet Union."
"Where were the present Soviet leaders during the period when they say collective leadership was lacking?" he asked. Then he broached the key question: "What about our own mistakes?"
"What do our readers think about the matter?" Max went on. The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature, a permanent department entitled "Speak Your Piece." Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years.
I do not consider the death of the Daily Worker inevitable... Substantial funds which would help to meet the paper's emergency are being deliberately withheld by a minority of comrades who are in effect waging a political strike against the program of the last Convention, against the majority of the national leadership and against the paper whose policy is in accord with that of the leadership. The national leadership must come to grips with this attempt to choke the Daily Worker. It must smash the boycott. The national leadership must face the fact squarely that the Daily Worker is not dying a natural death. It is being murdered.
The paper is being destroyed by a small group of willful and reckless comrades in the leadership who never believed in the 16th convention program in the first place and have done everything possible to reverse it. This group has been led by Comrades Foster and Davis and in recent weeks have been joined by Comrade Dennis . . . Throughout the 34 years of its existence, the Daily Worker has withstood the attacks of Big Business, the McCarthyites and other reactionaries. It has taken a drive from within the party - conceived in blind factionalism and dogmatism - to do what our foes have never been able to accomplish. The party leadership must once and for all repudiate the Foster thesis, defend the paper and its political line, and seek to unite the entire party behind the paper. It must reiterate the policy of the 16th Convention with its placing of dogmatism and sectarianism as the main danger and with its call for a new course in the party's theoretical and organizational work.
I hereby submit my resignation from membership in the Communist Party of the United States, effective immediately. I have come to this decision, after 27 years in the Communist movement, because I feel that the Communist Party has ceased to be an effective force for democracy, peace and socialism in the United States. The isolation and decline of the Communist Party have long been apparent. I had hoped, as a result of the struggle that has been going on in the party for the last two years, that the party could be radically transformed. The program adopted by the last National Convention gave some promise that this might happen. Not only has this program never been carried out, it has been betrayed. I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the party cannot be changed from within and that the fight to do so is hopeless.
The same ideals that attracted me to socialism still motivate me. I do not believe it is possible any longer to serve those ideals within the Communist Party. Obviously, under these circumstances, my continued employment as editor-in-chief of the Daily Worker and the Worker will no longer be desirable to you. Consequently, my function as such ceases as of this moment.
Early in 1958 John Gates resigned from the Party, saying it had "ceased to be an effective force for democracy, peace and socialism in the United States", and that he did "not believe it is possible any longer to serve those ideals within the Communist Party'. Gates's Party career had been an illustrious one. He had fought in Spain where he became the highest-ranking officer of the Lincoln Brigade. As one of the first group of Smith Act defendants, he had done time in the Atlanta Penitentiary. Under his editorship the Daily Worker had been transformed from a house organ for transmission of policy directives by the leadership into a lively forum for debate. His resignation was a heavy blow indeed.
We may be on the threshold of a new popular upheaval such as produced the New Deal. The 1960 elections may usher in a new era as did the 1932 elections. The trend now, as then, is away from Big Business government. But the coming to power of men like Lyndon Johnson and Speaker Rayburn would be no solution, only a shift from Republican to Democratic conservatism. What is required is a new New Deal, a program that will go beyond the New Deal, for the situation is more advanced today than in the ' Nineteen Thirties and requires more advanced solutions. The original New Deal was led by liberal capitalists and the social forces that backed it were the small businessmen and farmers, the labor movement and the Negro people...
The kind of mass popular party that will evolve in our country will probably be similar to the British Labor Party, which is a coalition party of trade unions, cooperatives, the professional and white collar classes and small businessmen. It will not, of course, be exactly like it; for example, it will not be socialist in program (although neither was the Labor Party at the outset). It is not excluded that the Democratic Party can be transformed into such a party through the elimination of the Dixiecrats and the more influential role of the trade unions, Negro organizations, scientists, educators in the affairs of the Party. If this cannot be done, then the Democratic Party will inevitably burst asunder and a new party will be formed.