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

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.”