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Saturday, August 1, 1981

A Reviewers Notebook: A Life in Two Centuries

Bertram D. Wolfe’s A Life in Two Centuries (Stein and Day, 728 pp., $29.95) is a fascinating book by a man of great talent who spent most of his life trying experiments that were bound to fail. Eventually he came around to common sense views, but his ordeals were always prolonged by an innate romanticism that gave continuing scope to his imagination while it kept him from giving up on the ideals that fired his youth in Brooklyn slums and at City College in New York.

Wolfe’s biggest mistake was to take a most important part in founding the American Communist Party. The story of how he got into this is one of inadvertences and serendipitous happenings that defy all logic yet are entirely understandable in terms of feeling. The young Wolfe took the atmosphere of the stable years preceding World War I quite seriously. He believed in the Nineteenth Century, which had been one of prolonged peace after sensible men named Metternich and Castlereigh and Talleyrand had thrashed out an enduring treaty at Vienna in 1815. When Woodrow Wilson went back on his campaign promises and took us into the war, Wolfe was outraged. And when a compulsory draft was instituted, giving the state the power to command young men’s bodies, it seemed a violation of everything that America, in contrast to the Old World, had symbolized.

Wolfe’s pacifism could find no place in the Democratic and Republican parties, but socialism, particularly left-wing socialism, made room for pacifists. So Wolfe joined the Socialist Party with no interest whatsoever in its economic theory. He became a socialist street corner orator with no particular knowledge of Marx. The big thing was to oppose the war.

The Marxist Years

Contact with Marxism as a literature came slowly. When right-wing socialists began to buy and sell Liberty bonds, Wolfe found himself pushed to the socialist left by another of those serendipitous circumstances that were to govern his life. Came the Russian Revolution, and left- wing socialism, which to Wolfe was pacifism, merged into Communism. Wolfe found himself editing a journal called Facts: The People’s Peace Paper. It couldn’t last, for when the Espionage Act was passed, sending people to jail for daring even so much as to question the good faith of America’s allies, Wolfe had to kill his own magazine merely to protect those who had been his contributors.

Wolfe soon found himself mixed up with what Lenin, the new star on the radical horizon, called “splits, splits, splits,” glorying in their purgative value. The left wing of the Socialist Party split with the right wing. With John Reed, Wolfe wrote a left-wing manifesto. Then the left wing itself began to split. Going with his feelings, Wolfe found himself working with the founders of the so-called twin parties, the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party. As splintering continued, communists of all stripes, including those who were mainly pacifists, had to go underground.

Bert Wolfe never liked the factionalism that had engulfed the “movement.” But he put up with it while he edited something called the Communist World. One day, as he was putting his paper to bed, he got wind of the fact that seventeen of his friends had been arrested. Knowing that he would be the eighteenth if he were to be caught, he simply failed to go home to Brooklyn. He wound up in California with a changed name and a Van Dyke beard. As “Arthur Albright,” he became a West Coast labor leader—and Communist. His wife Ella joined him for an “idyllic” period that came to an end when, as a delegate to the underground Communist convention at Bridgeman, Michigan, he was almost trapped by an F.B.I. raid on the assembled Leninists. Escaping by a Ford car in the darkness while his wife stumbled through the woods in her own separate escape, he had to give up the name of Albright. He went to Boston where, by an inadvertence, he ran into a man who was recruiting English teachers for Mexico. What the man really wanted was a ghost writer to help extol the wonders of the Mexican revolution.

Thinking they were hired to teach English to Mexican girls, Wolfe and his wife settled down in Mexico City. Mexican socialism did not seem to be a paradise to Wolfe—there were too many homeless boys, thrown into the streets to become beggars and pickpockets. So he refused to take Carleton Beals’ place as ghost writer for the school recruiter. On their own, the Wolfes stayed in Mexico, becoming local communists in a socialist state that tended more and more to return to capitalism as retiring presidents departed with funds which they used to float themselves off as influential tycoons.

On to Moscow

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Communism in the East pursued its futile bickering ways. By removing himself to California and then Mexico, Wolfe escaped the dreary factional infighting. He still had his illusions when the Mexicans sent him to Moscow as a delegate. It was the first of Wolfe’s trips to the “Holy Land,” and he wasn’t disillusioned all at once. His final rejection of Communism had to wait until 1929 when, with Jay Lovestone, Ben Gitlow and other American Communists, he had the temerity—and the sublime innocence—to challenge and oppose Joseph Stalin, who retaliated by ordering a minority of subservient hacks to take the American party away from its democratically elected leaders.

Wolfe, Lovestone and Gitlow, among others, found themselves trapped in Moscow when Stalin was completing his theft of the American party. How they managed to get out makes for some spine-tingling reading.

Disillusionment with Stalin didn’t turn Bert Wolfe to the right all at once. He became a member of the Lovestone Communist “opposition.” But by degrees he was rescued for common sense. He went to Spain, where he sided with John Dos Pas-sos against Ernest Hemingway in condemning the treatment of anarcho-syndicalists, socialists and plain republicans by the Stalinists who had taken command of the anti-Franco armies. Back home, he pursued linked careers as a teacher and writer. A most tenacious researcher, he wrote some great books. Two that stand out particularly are Three Who Made a Revolution: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. But the most exciting of all is this autobiographical A Life in Two Centuries.

How is it that such a chronicle of mistaken allegiances and foolish political choices can be so compelling? Partly it is a matter of Bertram Wolfe’s ability to make you see, hear and feel. Much has been written about the horrors of Stalinism, but Wolfe excels all others in making you feel the malevolence of the man. He is just as compelling in his presentation of the crazy, tender and fundamentally loving Diego Rivera, whose murals, though propagandistic in intention, have the authenticity of great art.

In spite of a lifetime devoted to collectivist causes, Wolfe remained an individual. The truth is that he was never really a communist. What he liked about Russia in the early Twenties were its NEP peasant farmers, all individualist to the core. What he liked about the Mexican “revolution” was that it gave wall space to great painters. Eventually, after four decades of belief in Buk-harin’s version of Marxian economics, Wolfe stumbled on the truths of the Austrian marginal utility school. In the last twist of a breathlessly adventurous life Wolfe saw the light as it was vouchsafed to him by Ludwig von Mises. Could anything be more deliciously ironic?

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.