Q&A with the author of SAN FRANCISCO REDS

Robert W. Cherny, the author of San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919-1958, answers questions on his new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?  

In 1996, I had an appointment as a Fulbright lecturer in US history at Moscow State University. That position attracted me in part because John Haynes, the first American researcher at what is now the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii, RGASPI), had found relevant material there for my research in progress on Harry Bridges. Before I left for Moscow, John assured me that those files were among the richest sources on the 1920s and 1930s not yet used by historians of the United States. My research at RGASPI confirmed John’s comment. I found some information about Bridges (see my Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend, UIP, 2023), and I found a great deal about the Communist Party in California. I left Moscow thinking that I might do a study of the CP in California, and I returned in 2003 to spend several more weeks at RGASPI, collecting material about the CP in California. My research at RGASPI led to two articles on the California CP for American Communist History. My interest in the CP was part of what led me to write Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (UIP, 2017), a biography of a San Francisco artist. That same interest that led to this book. Throughout, my goal has been to be critical but not judgmental. Since graduate school, I’ve considered myself to be a historian of political behavior, and that has always been central as I’ve written on regional history, urban history, and labor history. In my three biographies, of William Jennings Bryan, Victor Arnautoff, and Harry Bridges, I have been centrally interested in those individuals’ political development. This book also takes a somewhat biographical approach to political behavior, as I’ve followed some forty individuals from the time they joined the CP, through the party’s changing policies, to the point when most left the party, and what they did afterward. I’ve tried to emphasize that in my title and sub-title:  this is a book about forty-some individuals who were open Communist Party members.  

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?  

The RGASPI files contain a number of surprises. Previous studies of the CP at the national or international level have included accounts of the intense factionalism that beset the U.S. party in the late 1920s. What I found at RGASPI was that this factionalism was especially intense in California, to the point that, in 1929, there were dueling District Executive Committees, one recognized by Central Executive Committee in New York and the other occupying the district office and refusing to negotiate with the first. The only accounts I could find of these events are in the RGASPI files. Another surprise was that, in the mid-1930s, three Californians successively held the position of the U.S. party representative on the Anglo-American Secretariat, the intermediary body between the CP organizations in English-speaking countries and the executive committee of the Comintern in Moscow. I also pleasantly surprised to find a large number of memoirs, autobiographies, and oral histories in which former party members presented their reasons for joining, their participation in party activities, and, for most, their reasons for leaving. Using such sources, I was able to track some forty individuals and study their political behavior over the course of their lives. Writing biographies, as I have done, as led me to take a long view, to look not just at, e.g., the mid-1930s, but to place such events into a larger pattern of development. 

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn? 

I’m uncertain that my book will either dispel myths or help readers to unlearn previous understandings. However, it may confirm what others have also demonstrated about the CPUSA. In the 1950s, such figures as Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and various members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities were prominent in presenting a view of the CP as a highly organized, tightly disciplined conspiracy directed from Moscow with the goal of overthrowing democratically elected governments, and a view of CP members as life-time agents of this conspiracy. Few recent academics who have studied the CP subscribe to such a view, although variants of that view survive among some scholars. By studying forty-some individual party members, most of whom had some local leadership responsibilities, and following them over decades rather than during a short span of time, I found that most of them came to question their commitment to the CP, though not their commitment to a color-blind, egalitarian society.  

Q: Which part of the publishing process did you find the most interesting?  

Having been through the publishing process several times, I must say that “interesting” may not be the appropriate adjective. I found one peer reviewer to be very helpful. The other peer reviewer insisted that I write a different book. Everyone at the University of Illinois Press has been helpful and supportive.  

Q: What is your advice to scholars/authors who want to take on a similar project? 

Any one intending to do serious research on the CPUSA during the 1920 or 1930s must use the holdings of RGASPI.  Fortunately, those holdings are now all–so far as I can tell–available online, so it’s no longer necessary to go to Moscow as I did. Unfortunately, the website is all in Russian. Fortunately, there is some assistance available online for finding one’s way through the website. Unfortunately, the quality of reproduction of some of the documents is not ideal. But it’s worth the effort. There is still a great deal of material there waiting for researchers.  

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun? 

For the past twenty years or so, my pleasure reading has been mostly in the genres of mystery and espionage. When I find an author I like, I’ll often read everything, from first to most recent. I recently did that with the Roderick Alleyn novels of Ngaio Marsh, which I highly recommend to mystery aficionados. Regarding espionage, however, I find that most recent authors fail to come close to the work of Le Carré, so I’ve not recently been reading much of in that genre. I sometimes like to watch some of the British mystery programs that run (and are re-run and re-re-run) on public television. My age (80) may be the reason I enjoyed the British television series New Tricks (about retired police officers solving mysteries), and I am now following the current Thursday Murder Club novels by Richard Osman (about residents of a senior living community who solve mysteries). At my age, I also like to re-read favorites from decades ago, and have recently done so with works by Kurt Vonnegut, Wright Morris, and Ted Kooser.

Robert W. Cherny is a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University. His many books include Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend and Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.

About Kristina Stonehill