Earl Russell Browder (May 20, 1891–June 27, 1973) led the American Communist Party (CPUSA) to its greatest size and influence during the Great Depression and World War II. Meanwhile, he was recruiting and directing, with a degree of autonomy, spies for the Russian secret police and Soviet military intelligence.
Browder, the eighth of ten children, was born to Kansas parents who had lost their homestead to drought, disease, and debt. Earl's disabled father, William, and his homemaker mother, Margaret, taught populism, socialism, and anticlericalism to their offspring. Poverty forced the boys to leave elementary school. Earl drifted through left-wing movements, most notably the Kansas City bookkeepers and accountants' union and the Socialist Party. His opposition to World War I caused him to be imprisoned for a time in Leavenworth Penitentiary. There he read about the Russian Revolution, and became a dedicated Marxist-Leninist. He entered the Communist Party at mid-level, organizing an American delegation to the first Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions, held in Moscow in 1921. Known by its Russian abbreviation, Profintern, and subordinate to the Communist International (Comintern), it had its own staff, funds, and networks in foreign countries. In mid-decade, Browder became intimate with Raissa Luganovskaya, a Profintern attorney and former commissar of justice in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov during the Russian Civil War. She helped him land a position organizing illegal trade unions to resist China's right-wing government. The post gave Browder undercover experience that served him well. After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin removed CPUSA head Jay Lovestone in 1930, Browder became part of a three-person leadership that also included William Z. Foster and William W. Weinstone. There Browder proved a vicious infighter; after Foster was debilitated by a heart attack in 1932, Browder won firm control of the CPUSA.
Browder soon championed the Popular Front policy, directed by Moscow. Between 1933 and 1939, his CPUSA called for antifascist unity and supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Browder painted the Communists as heirs to American radical traditions, at the very time when the CPUSA was changing from a sect of immigrants to a party of ethnic and black Americans. It included 82,000 members and influenced many times that number. Browder even achieved a degree of autonomy in domestic politics, with Soviet approval. Yet as early as 1933, he had begun building an espionage network among federal employees.
The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact killed the Popular Front and left the CPUSA morally bankrupt. When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, Browder led the charge back to vigorous antifascism. The CPUSA regained members and Browder came to see himself as an independent Communist leader. After Stalin dissolved the Comintern to placate the West, Browder propounded his Teheran Thesis, arguing that the wartime conference of United States, British, and Soviet leaders in Iran signified the acceptance of Communism as a permanent force in the world. At home, big business could play a role in defeating fascism and extending prosperity into the postwar era. He also reconstituted the CPUSA as the Communist Political Association, a nonpartisan leftist lobby. This action constituted a grave heresy because it violated V.I. Lenin's concept of the vanguard role of the Communist Party set forth in 1903. Once victory in Europe became certain, the Soviets engineered Browder's removal and took his espionage agents. When he died not one Communist newspaper in the world printed his obituary.
Haynes, John Earl, and Harvey Klehr. Venona: DecodingSoviet Espionage in America. 1999.
Isserman, Maurice. Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War. 1982.
Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: TheDepression Decade. 1984.
Ryan, James G. Earl Browder: The Failure of AmericanCommunism. 1997.
Weinstein, Allen, and Alexander Vassiliev. The HauntedWood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era.1999.
James G. Ryan