Benjamin Gitlow was born in Elizabethport, New Jersey, on 22nd December, 1891. His father, Lewis Albert Gitlow, an ethnic Jew, had emigrated from Russia in 1888. Theodore Draper has argued in his book The Roots of American Communism (1957): "Gitlow... spent his childhood in the grimmest poverty. The boy grew up in a home filled with stories of the Russian Socialist movement - its heroes, their experiences in prison and Siberian exile, their dreams of a future paradise on earth."
After leaving school Gitlow worked in a department store in Newark. He was active in the Retail Clerks Union until he was discharged from his job and blacklisted by the Merchants' Association.
In 1909 Gitlow joined the Socialist Party of America. Gitlow was also a supporter of the Russian Revolution and joined the Communist Propaganda League. In February 1919, Gitlow joined forces with Bertram Wolfe and Jay Lovestone to create a left-wing faction that advocated the policies of the Bolsheviks in Russia. In April 1919 he became the business manager of The New York Communist. A journal edited by John Reed.
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. This group, including Gitlow, Earl Browder, Jay Lovestone, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, 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. By the end of 1919 it had 60,000 members whereas the Socialist Party of America had only 40,000.
The growth of the American Communist Party worried Woodrow Wilson and his administration and America entered what became known as the Red Scare period. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's attorney general, ordered the arrest of over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists. These people were charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government".
Gitlow was one of those arrested. His trial began in New York City on 22nd January, 1920. He told the jury: "The socialists have always maintained that the change from capitalism to socialism would be a fundamental change, that is, we would have a complete reorganization of society, that this change would not be a question of reform; that the capitalist system of society would be completely changed and that that system would give way to a new system of society based on a new code of laws, based on a new code of ethics, and based on a new form of government. For that reason, the socialist philosophy has always been a revolutionary philosophy and people who adhered to the socialist program and philosophy were always considered revolutionists, and I as one who maintain that, in the eyes of the present day society, I am a revolutionist."
Gitlow was found guilty on 11th February, 1920 and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He served over two years at Sing Sing prison. On his release in 1922 he was given a full-time post with the American Communist Party as Industrial Organizer for a large area which stretched from New York City to Philadelphia.
Gitlow associated himself with the group led by Charles A. Ruthenberg and Jay Lovestone that favoured a strategy of class warfare. Another group, led by William Z. Foster and James Cannon, believed that their efforts should concentrate on building a radicalised American Federation of Labor.
Lenin died on 21st January 1924. The group led by William Z. Foster believed that Joseph Stalin should become the new leader in the Soviet Union. Jay Lovestone and Bertram Wolfe supported Nikolay Bukharin. When Stalin emerged as the victor, they lost a certain amount of influence in the American Communist Party. Gitlow decided to back Foster and was no longer seen as part of the Lovestone faction.
It was decided that because William Z. Foster had a strong following in the trade union movement that he should be the party candidate in the 1924 Presidential Election. Ben Gitlow was chosen as his running-mate. Foster did not do well and only won 38,669 votes (0.1 of the total vote). This compared badly with the other left-wing candidate, Robert La Follette, of the Progressive Party, who obtained 4,831,706 votes (16.6%).
In November 1925, Ben Gitlow was ordered back to Sing Sing Prison by the court to finish his sentence. He was released the following month after receiving a pardon by Governor Al Smith.
William Z. Foster and Gitlow were the candidates of the American Communist Party in the 1928 Presidential Election. Once again Foster and Gitlow did badly and only won 48,551 votes (0.1%). This time it was Norman Thomas (267,478 votes) of the Socialist Party who was supported by those on the left.
On March 16, 1929, Gitlow was appointed to the post of Executive Secretary of the party. Max Bedacht and Earl Browder made-up the three men leadership team. By this time Joseph Stalin had placed his supporters in most of the important political positions in the country. Even the combined forces of all the senior Bolsheviks left alive since the Russian Revolution were not enough to pose a serious threat to Stalin.
In 1929 Nikolay Bukharin was deprived of the chairmanship of the Comintern and expelled from the Politburo by Stalin. He was worried that Bukharin had a strong following in the American Communist Party, and at a meeting of the Presidium in Moscow on 14th May he demanded that the party came under the control of the Comintern. He admitted that Jay Lovestone was "a capable and talented comrade," but immediately accused him of employing his capabilities "in factional scandal-mongering, in factional intrigue." Gitlow and Ella Reeve Bloor defended Lovestone. This angered Stalin and according to Bertram Wolfe, he got to his feet and shouted: "Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you? When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives." Stalin then went onto warn the Americans that the Russians knew how to handle troublemakers: "There is plenty of room in our cemeteries."
Jay Lovestone realised that he would now be expelled from the American Communist Party. On 15th May, 1929 he sent a cable to Robert Minor and Jacob Stachel and asked them to take control over the party's property and other assets. However, as Theodore Draper has pointed out in American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960): "The Comintern beat him to the punch. On May 17, even before the Comintern's Address could reach the United States, the Political Secretariat in Moscow decided to remove Lovestone, Gitlow, and Wolfe from all their leading positions, to purge the Political Committee of all members who refused to submit to the Comintern's decisions, and to warn Lovestone that it would be a gross violation of Comintern discipline to attempt to leave Russia."
William Z. Foster, who had already gone on record as saying, "I am for the Comintern from start to finish. I want to work with the Comintern, and if the Comintern finds itself criss-cross with my opinions, there is only one thing to do and that is to change my opinions to fit the policy of the Comintern", now became the dominant figure in the party.
Jay Lovestone and his supporters, including Gitlow, Bertram Wolfe and Charles Zimmerman, now formed a new party the Communist Party (Majority Group). Later it changed its name to the Communist Party (Opposition), the Independent Communist Labor League and finally, in 1938, the Independent Labor League of America.
In 1939 Gitlow gave evidence against the American Communist Party before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies of Texas. The following year he published his autobiography, I Confess: The Truth About American Communism. His second volume of autobiography, The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America, was published in 1948. In the 1960s Gitlow was closely associated with another fanatical anti-communist, Billy James Hargis.
Benjamin Gitlow died in Crompond, Westchester County, on 19th July, 1965.
(1) Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (1957)
Gitlow, the senior in both years and political experience, was only twenty-eight years old in 1919. The son of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, he spent his childhood in the grimmest poverty. The boy grew up in a home filled with stories of the Russian Socialist movement - its heroes, their experiences in prison and Siberian exile, their dreams of a future paradise on earth. He was a full-fledged Socialist at eighteen and, shortly after, head of the Retail Clerks Union of New York. Soon the gust of Big Bill Haywood's syndicalist heresy swept through the Socialist party and young Gitlow was drawn into I.W.W. activity, though he did not go all the way with Haywood on the subject of violence. Not content to remain a clerk, he spent a couple of years studying law.? This varied experience led to his nomination for assemblyman on the Socialist ticket in the Bronx in 1917 and he was one of the ten New York Socialists elected that year. Gitlow had put in almost a decade of Socialist activity and enjoyed the prestige of an elective office when the Russian Revolution hit him
(2) Benjamin Gitlow, speech in court, 5th February, 1920.
I am charged in this case with publishing and distributing a paper known as The Revolutionary Age, in which paper was printed a document known as the Left Wing Manifesto and Program. It is held that that document advocates the overthrow of government by force, violence, and unlawful means. The document itself, the Left Wing Manifesto, is a broad analysis of conditions, economic conditions, and historical events in the world today. It is a document based upon the principles of socialism from their earliest inception. The only thing that the document does is to broaden those principles in the light of modern events.... The socialists have always maintained that the change from capitalism to socialism would be a fundamental change, that is, we would have a complete reorganization of society, that this change would not be a question of reform; that the capitalist system of society would be completely changed and that that system would give way to a new system of society based on a new code of laws, based on a new code of ethics, and based on a new form of government. For that reason, the socialist philosophy has always been a revolutionary philosophy and people who adhered to the socialist program and philosophy were always considered revolutionists, and I as one who maintain that, in the eyes of the present day society, I am a revolutionist.
(3) Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960)
The chairman of the American Commission, Kuusinen, presided. He opened the meeting by reading the report of the commission, embodied in the proposed "Address" of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. Then Gitlow read a declaration in the name of the ten American delegates stating that they could not accept the Address because it would promote "demoralization, disintegration and chaos in the Party." This declaration warned that acceptance "would make it absolutely impossible for us to continue as effective workers in the Communist movement."
One after another, leading members of other parties appealed to the Americans to remain faithful to the Comintern and give their approval to the commission's proposals. All the other Americans present, especially the large contingent from the Lenin School which had been efficiently mobilized for the occasion, rose and called upon the delegation to obey the will of the Comintern. As this long procession of hostile speakers dragged on, the isolation of the ten Americans increased steadily and the pressure on them mounted visibly.
Of all the speeches made before the Presidium voted, the most important was of course Stalin's. He devoted most of his speech to the evils of factionalism and the virtues of discipline. He conceded that Lovestone was "a capable and talented comrade," but immediately accused Lovestone of employing his capabilities "in factional scandal-mongering, in factional intrigue," and he scoffed at the idea that Lovestone was so talented that the American party could not get along without him. Foster, he added, had not repudiated the "concealed Trotskyists" in his group in time, because "he behaved first and foremost as a factionalist."...
The last American to speak was Gitlow, and he parted company with the other delegates for the opposite reason. As the recently appointed party Secretary, Gitlow had potentially more to lose by the new set-up demanded by the Comintern than anyone else. An irascible man, he could not bow his head with the heartsick resignation of Bedacht or contain his anger with the cold calculation of Lovestone. Instead Gitlow declared that not only did he oppose the Presidium's decision but that he would go back to the United States to fight against it.
Gitlow's outburst brought Stalin to his feet. Usually Stalin spoke so softly that he forced his listeners to lean forward to hear him. Now he shouted in anger. The published version of this speech is comparatively mild and self-controlled, but witnesses agree that it hardly does justice to the fury in his voice and the violence of his language.
According to the official account, Stalin paid tribute to the "firmness and stubbornness" of the eight American hold-outs, but admonished them that "true Bolshevik courage" consisted in submitting to the will of the Comintern rather than in defying it. He assailed Lovestone, Gitlow, and Ella Reeve Bloor by name for acting like anarchists, individualists, and strike-breakers, and concluded by assuring them that the American Communist party would survive the downfall of their faction.
But, according to Wolfe, Stalin also shouted: "Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you? When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives."
According to Lovestone, who later called it the "graveyard speech," Stalin warned the Americans that the Russians knew how to handle strike-breakers: "There is plenty of room in our cemeteries."
Stalin stepped down from the platform and strode out first. Guards and secretaries flocked after him. No one moved until he had walked down the aisle. But as he reached the Americans, he stopped and held out his hand to the Negro delegate, Edward Welsh, who stood next to Lovestone.
Welsh turned to Lovestone and asked loudly, "What the hell does this guy want?" and refused to shake Stalin's hand.
The American delegates, totally shunned by everyone else, walked out into the gray dawn and bought oranges from a street peddler.
Lovestone still hoped that all was not lost. The cable to the two caretakers, Minor and Stachel, arrived in New York on May 15, the day after the Presidium's meeting. He counted on them, especially on Stachel, to carry out the plan to take over the party's property and other assets, and he wanted to get back to the United States quickly enough to bring the delegation's story to the party membership before the Comintern could mobilize all its forces against him.
The Comintern beat him to the punch. On May 17, even before the Comintern's Address could reach the United States, the Political Secretariat in Moscow decided to remove Lovestone, Gitlow, and Wolfe from all their leading positions, to purge the Political Committee of all members who refused to submit to the Comintern's decisions, and to warn Lovestone that it would be a gross violation of Comintern discipline to attempt to leave Russia. The "loyal" American Communists - Bedacht, Foster, and Weinstone - were permitted to leave Russia immediately. Also dispatched to the United States was a special Comintern representative, the secretary of the American Commission, Mikhailov (Williams), sent secretly to take charge of the shake-up in the American party.