Bertram D. Wolfe

Bertram D. Wolfe
Bertram D. Wolfe, the son of a German immigrant, was born on 19th January, 1896 in New York City. He studied at the City College of New York. He became interested in politics and became a committed pacifist. He also worked for Morris Hillquit in his campaign to become mayor in 1917.

During this period he became friends with Jay Lovestone and the two men joined the Socialist Party of America and the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. After teaching for a year he went to work as publicity director of the Rand School for Social Science. He was also a supporter of the Russian Revolution and in November 1918 joined the Communist Propaganda League.

In February 1919, Wolfe joined forces with Jay Lovestone, Louis Fraina, 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. Wolfe and Reed drafted the manifesto for the organisation. This was later revised by Fraina.

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 Wolfe, Earl Browder, John Reed, James Cannon, Jay Lovestone, William Bross Lloyd, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the Communist Party of the United States. By September 1919 it had 60,000 members whereas the Socialist Party of America had only 40,000.

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. However, Woole and Jay Lovestone supported Nikolay Bukharin. When Stalin emerged as the victor, Wolfe lost a certain amount of influence in the American Communist Party.

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. 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%).

On the death of Charles A. Ruthenberg in 1927 Jay Lovestone became the party's national secretary. Wolfe, Lovestone and James Cannon attended the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. When Wolfe defended Lovestone against the criticism of Joseph Stalin, he was expelled from the party and was under virtual house arrest in Moscow for six months before he could obtain an exit visa.

While in the Soviet Union James Cannon was given a document written by Leon Trotsky on the rule of Joseph Stalin. Convinced by what he read, when he returned to the United States he criticized the Soviet government. Jay Lovestone gained favour with Stalin by leading the purge of Cannon and his followers. Cannon now joined with other Trotskyists to form the Communist League of America.

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. Attempts were now made to purge foreign communist parties who had previously supported Bukharin. Representatives from Stalin arrived in the United States and and Jay Lovestone was ordered to stand down as party secretary in favor of his rival William Z. Foster. Lovestone refused and argued his case with Stalin in Moscow. As a result of his insubordination he was expelled from the American Communist Party.

Jay Lovestone and his supporters, including Bertram Wolfe, Benjamin Gitlow 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. Its journal, The Revolutionary Age, was edited by Wolfe.

Wolfe broke with Jay Lovestone over United States involvement in the Second World War. Lovestone favoured American intervention whereas Wolfe argued it was an imperialist war. However, after the war, Wolfe drifted right and during the Cold War he worked as an advisor to the State Department's International Broadcasting Office which was in charge of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.

As Theodore Draper pointed out in his book The Roots of American Communism (1957): "Lovestone and most of his group, including Bertram D. Wolfe, went through a process of development which led them to become active enemies of communism and Marxism."

In 1966 Wolfe became Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University where he worked at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace's Library. He also served as a visiting professor at Columbia University and the University of California.

Books by Wolfe include Three who Made a Revolution (1956), The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (1963), Marxism (1965), Strange Communists I have Known (1966), The Bridge and the Abyss (1967) and An Ideology in Power: Reflections on the Russian Revolution (1969).

Bertram D. Wolfe died on 21st February, 1977.

Primary Sources

(1) Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (1957)

Wolfe was American-born of a German immigrant father and an American-born mother also of German family background. At the College of the City of New York in the early war years, his first political interest took the form of pacifism rather than socialism. But his pacifist activity led him to take an active part in Morris Hillquit's campaign for mayor in 1917, and he became one of the out-standing young speakers in the Brooklyn local of the Socialist party. After a year teaching high school and a year at law school, he went to work as publicity director of the Rand School for Social Science, the intellectual center of socialism in New York, at the time the proCommunist Left Wing was taking shape. Soon he was caught up in the enthusiasm that flowed out of the Russian Revolution and completed the cycle from pacifism to communism. Yet, at this stage, he thought that the secret of the revolution was to be found in the works of De Leon, not Lenin.

© John Simkin, April 2013