Professionals in a Soviet America

During the last few years, American professional workers have lost their former indifference to political matters. They used to think that science and culture could progress indefinitely within the framework of capitalist society, and that the periodic dislocations of the “business world” did not influence their work or their professional lives. This illusion has been shattered by recent events. The economic crisis of capitalist and the growth of fascism, on the one hand, and the building socialism in the Soviet Union, on the other hand, have had direct effects upon every field of human endeavor and every category of men. Professional workers have felt these effects, and they have begun to understand how intimately their lives are connected with political events. They know that the course and the outcome of the present intense political struggles are of the greatest importance for them. However, they are not yet clear as to what the nature of these struggles is, what the possible outcomes are, and exactly what effects the outcomes on them will be.

So opens Professionals in a Soviet America by Edward Magnus, published in the midst of the Great Depression (November of 1935). It bears the imprint of Workers Library Publishers, which was used by the Communist Party’s aboveground arm (the Workers Party of America) and whose pamphlets would have been advertised in The Daily Worker. I purchased it for a dollar at the United States’ finest left-wing literary emporium: Bolerium Books.

Pamphlet cover showing draftsmen at work

I have not been able to find any information about Magnus - perhaps it was a pen name. It occurs in the report on communist propaganda by front groups issued by House Un-American Activities Committee. If anyone can find the full text of the above-linked Appendix to the report, please send it my way.

The most high-profile use of the “soviet america” slogan was W.Z. Foster’s Toward Soviet America, written to support his 1932 presidential bid on the communist ticket. A few months before this pamphlet was published, the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern ratified the Popular Front strategy, taking such slogans out of circulation. The new slogans downplayed the party’s international ties and presented communist ideology as a natural outgrowth of endogenous political traditions (e.g. “Communism is the Americanism of the Twentieth Century!”). Popular Front pamphlet cover

The back cover advertises other quite intriguing titles in the series: The Negroes in a Soviet America (co-authored by Foster’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1932 campaign, James W. Ford), The Miners’ Road to Freedom, The Farmers’ Way Out, Social Security in a Soviet America, and Happy Days for American Youth. The CPUSA had something for everybody.

The gist of the pamphlet is quite simple: professionals are not a part of the revolutionary proletariat but can be of service to it. They have nothing to fear in contemplating its eventual triumph. Under a Soviet government, there would be more, not less, demand for professionals’ skills (lawyers excepted1!).

The experience of “bourgeois specialists” in the Soviet Union a decade prior did not accord with this narrative2:

Cooperation with bourgeois specialists was party policy during the NEP. But workers and rank-and-file Communists did not see it as a ‘natural’ Communist policy, and even the leadership usually justified it on grounds of expediency rather than principle. At factory level, it seemed more natural to regard the chief engineer - often the sole remaining representative of the pre-revolutionary bosses after the flight of the owner and the expulsion of unpopular foremen - as a class enemy rather than an ally. Spetseedstvo (specialist-baiting) was endemic in the NEP factories, although it was often rebuked by higher authorities: in 1926, for example, the Vesenkha newspaper ran a series of articles criticizing the Communist director of the Vakhitov soap factory in Kazan - a factory with a proud Civil War tradition of worker self-management and armed resistance to the Whites - for driving out a number of engineers by his contemptuous attitude to the ‘bourgeois’, degree-holding specialists.

  1. Page 31: “There is one group of professionals in America who will be liquidated along with the bourgeoisie. Lawyers under capitalism are trained as the servants of a system of class justice which will soon become obsolete. Soviet America will have another kind of class justice, in which human rights, the rights of those who toil, will be moved into the primary position which is now held by private property rights… To the 160,000 lawyers in the United States we can only say that there will be abundant other opportunities and their general training. Few of them are so fond of their present work that they will regret changing it for another job…” ↩︎

  2. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union 1921-1934, p114 ↩︎