Ron Radosh

How a Stealth Communist Wrote the New Deal National Labor Relations Act, and Hid his True Beliefs

You may not have heard of Leon Keyserling — he was one of the bright young men who rushed to our nation’s Capitol to work for FDR after he was elected president, and who helped to fashion a great deal of the New Deal legislation. As his obituary in The New York Times pointed out:

As an aide of Senator [Robert F.] Wagner, a Democrat, [NY] Mr. Keyserling helped draft such measures as the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Social Security Act of 1935 and the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act.

Later, as his Wikipedia entry shows, he went on to work for President Harry S. Truman and continued to advise him on major domestic programs.

His most recent biographer, Donald K. Pickens, argues that Keyserling was what he calls a representative of “integrative liberalism,” which he defines as a phrase that best explains the realistic and pragmatic quest for a “deeper national community” that would unite all Americans around economic growth and a government commitment to programs to help the needy and regulate business. Hence, it would be a “country in which no one is left out.” According to FDR’s other aide, Rexford Tugwell, it meant a series of programs which they helped build for the New Deal that was accomplished “without resort to revolution or abandonment of the Constitution.”

His previous biographer, W. Robert Brazelton, argues that Keyserling believed in economic growth as the prerequisite for progress, but that he understood that some sectors of the economy were weaker than others, as were some groups in society, and hence that meant the federal government had to institute policies to maintain full employment. In other words, like other mainstream liberals, he believed the economy needed government programs to keep it in keel, and that it was the job of government, not the free market, to create full employment.

You might wonder, at this point, why I am even writing about him. The answer comes from a review that appeared recently in The Times Literary Supplement (London) of July 12, 2013, by David Hawkes, a review that unfortunately is not available online.  Hawkes offers the first review of a recent book by a left-wing historian named Landon Storrs titled The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.

Storrs presents a typical left-wing narrative of the 1930s. As she develops her story, Professor Storrs argues that the Red Scare of the 1950s forced out of government an entire group of reformers who believed in social-democracy, and who were dismissed and marginalized by McCarthyite zealots who quashed dissent in the name of fighting subversion, as those fighting to oust them failed to distinguish between mainstream socialists and Communists. As the publisher’s summary states:

Storrs demonstrates how the Second Red Scare undermined the reform potential of the New Deal and crippled the American welfare state.

In her book, Storrs tells us that Keyserling and his wife Mary were “prime targets of the anticommunist right.” Both “publicly dismissed their experience” with the loyalty investigations of the 1950s, she writes, “as fleeting manifestations of Red Scare hysteria.” Nevertheless, when Leon Keyserling advised Truman, Storrs acknowledges that the couple “took leading roles on behalf of policies that were at the top of conservatives’ most hated list, including price control, high wages, strong protection of union rights, and the European Recovery Plan.” The essence of what they supported were policies that favored “directing more of productivity’s gains to wages rather than profits.”

Later the Keyserlings would dissemble, arguing that they had always been political centrists though they were actually on the left of the Democratic Party. Later they would serve Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society endeavors, and are remembered by many, Storrs writes, “as loyal Johnson Democrats who favored Cold War military spending, backed U.S. policy in Vietnam, and argued that poverty could be eliminated through economic growth rather than redistribution” of wealth.

It is at this point that historian Storrs uncovered the hidden truth about Leon and Mary Keyserling, a truth that undermines her own thesis, and comes as a revelation that many might have missed, if not for the Hawkes review: Both were not only secret Communist sympathizers and members of various Party front groups, but Leon Keyserling actually advocated violent revolution while he was in the New Deal writing reform legislation!

Mary Keyserling became enthusiastic about communism after she visited the Soviet Union in 1932, and wrote that she became “sympathetic to Communist not only as a Russian idea but as a feasible program when altered for many other countries.” She wrote home that “many of us have come round to an acceptance of the major elements of Communism- altho I think we or I shall work thru the Socialist Party for a while.”

As for Leon, Storrs notes that he became converted to the doctrines of Marx while studying at Columbia University. “Economically,” he wrote to his father from college, “socialism is probably sound … the rich and the poor should not be ‘equal’ before the law. The law should help the weaker party.”

In 1932 he supported Communist candidate William Z. Foster for president, and hoped that he would get two million votes that “will mark in the future the definite turn toward socialism in this country.”

As Hawkes writes of the findings made by Storrs, the first historian to make use of the Keyserling’s previously unavailable personal letters that somehow the FBI and the congressional investigators failed to find, “this new evidence resoundingly corroborates many of the investigators’ charges.” Indeed! Keyserling wrote his father that FDR’s victory was a good thing, but “without a revolution which transfers power to the workers and takes up a socialized state, little will be gained.”

While he was working for Senator Wagner as a legislative aide and working on the draft of the National Labor Relations Act that gave organized labor legal collective bargaining rights, Keyserling wrote in 1934 that “the country is recovering too rapidly. A few more years of depression would have promoted violence, and without violence fundamental reform is unlikely.”

He saw hope, however, “in the certainty of even more serious depressions in the near future.” He then wrote that “there is no chance for lasting gains to either farmer or laborer save by revolution, and the only materials for revolt are the industrial workers.”

These comments puts Keyserling in the ranks of the far left of the Communist movement, a supporter of those who believed in the doctrine of “the worse the better,” the stance taken in Germany by the German Communists, who branded the Socialists in Weimar  Germany as “social fascists,” and who eschewed any front or alliance between the two leftist groups to defeat Hitler and the Nazis at the polls.

At that point in Communist politics, the Comintern had not as yet created the new policy of the Popular Front (an alliance of Communists with liberals and socialists), and was still beholden to the belief that revolution was imminent and that Communists had to oppose reform and try to split the trade unions and to get members into CP-led trade unions that would work for revolution rather than reform.

As reviewer Hawkes acknowledges: “clearly the McCarthyites were right to be suspicious.”

I would put it a bit differently, and say instead: the Red-baiters, and not the Reds, were right.

Both Keyserlings hid their real views, and clearly had gone into governmental work to advance the revolution by stealth means, through creating laws that they hoped would strengthen the working class and give them true class-consciousness. Then, they would play their rightful role as the agent of Revolution, as Marx predicted was their role in history and the class struggle.

As time passed, like President Harry S Truman both Keyserlings began to understand the true face of Soviet Communism, and came to understand that their earlier communist beliefs and their faith in the USSR was ill-conceived. They became part of the founding generation of Cold War liberals — the group that founded Americans for Democratic Action — and that was based on the belief that liberals could not and should not form any alliances with Communists and fellow travelers in the United States. In personal terms, it meant backing for the likes of Hubert Humphrey, the anti-Communist Minnesota political leader and future vice president, rather than the naïve Communist dupe Henry A. Wallace.

How do Hawkes and scholar Landon Storrs see this change? Hawkes writes that Leon Keyserling and his wife “tried to curry favour with their inquisitors,” who forced them to “renounce deeply held, perfectly rational beliefs through the very process of self-examination itself.”

Parse that amazing sentence.

Hawkes actually is suggesting that changing one’s beliefs — and Communism is apparently a “rational” belief — means trying to gain the approval of the right-wing by lying! He evidently cannot even conceive that any sane person could become disillusioned with the Soviets and Communism, and for any other reason than not wanting to harm his chances for a government job.

FBI investigations, Hawkes writes, “rattled the bravest people,” and “the Keyserlings were not especially brave, and they were more than rattled.” Yes, Leon Keyserling did foolishly lie about his past to investigators and congressional committees, even claiming falsely that he was a Republican in the 1930s and that he held views “to the Right of … the New Deal.” Hawkes says that the Keyserlings “were  otherwise highly principled people who must have been deeply troubled at having to perform this kind of public self-abasement.”

One can forgive them. After all, they had changed, much to the consternation of leftists like Mr. Hawkes and historian Storrs. This was especially the case because, having understood the need to stand firm against Soviet expansionism and Stalinism, the Keyserlings now supported, as Hawkes writes, lobbying “heavily for enormous increases in military spending,” for a high defense budget “necessitated by the dire threat to national survival posed by the Soviet Union.” Mr. Hawkes thinks, foolishly, that there was no Soviet threat. Thus he argues, without evidence, that the Keyserlings “were otherwise highly principled people who must have been deeply troubled at having to perform this kind of public self-abasement.” According to Hawkes, they decided to make
their lies into truth.”

Hawkes argues that Leon Keyserling even repudiated wealth redistribution, “pointing out that it was the policy of Communists, and persuaded the leaders of American labour to follow the ‘guns for butter’ strategy of full employment through huge defence spending, rather than social welfare programmes.” Actually, Keyserling took a position very similar to that of the social-democratic and anti-Communist civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who argued in the 1960s that America could afford both guns and butter, and both defense spending and necessary social welfare policies and programs. His argument that Keyserling alone is the man who “convinced the leaders of the AFL-CIO to back the Vietnam War” is an insult to the very smart George Meany and his associates, who had the advice of men like Jay Lovestone and later Tom Kahn. They did not need Leon Keyserling to “convince” them to stand with a strong U.S. foreign policy in opposition to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Hawkes then writes that former leftist Wilbur Cohen, once a radical welfare expert, “become an advocate for workfare rather than cash assistance.” Shocking! Imagine someone concerned with the poor arguing that handouts from the government is not the answer to poverty. Clearly to Hawkes, such a person is a sellout. His arguments reveal much about his own views, which he transfers to those he is writing about.

He ends by bemoaning the fact that “the anti-communists could claim to have scored a convincing victory.” Thank God! At least the American people, unlike Mr. Hawkes, showed that they had common sense.