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Dr. No

A COVERT LIFE: Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spy;\o7 By Ted Morgan; (Random House: 388 pp., $29.95)\f7

May 09, 1999|STEVE FRASER | Steve Fraser is the author of "Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor" and co-editor of "The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order."

Once upon a time, at the dawn of the Cold War, the battle between East and West raged most fiercely on the labor front. Today, the "labor question" has receded from public view. The labor movement is a pale shadow of its once mighty self. So it may be hard to recall that it once loomed so large in the competing imperial designs of the Soviet Union and the United States. After all, Bolshevism presumed to speak for the international working class in its historic struggle to overthrow the regime of wage slavery. If the West was to defend itself against the "evil empire," it needed to frustrate the Soviet demarche which deployed its satellite Communist parties around the world to control trade union federations and the political parties with which they were often allied.

Enter Jay Lovestone. Lovestone lived his life in the shadows and liked it that way. After a youthful escapade as a precocious leader of the fledgling American Communist Party in the 1920s, he converted and spent the rest of his very long life on the other shore as a cloak-and-dagger agent for the CIA and the American Federation of Labor. His behind-the-scenes reign as the labor movement's unofficial secretary of state lasted a whole generation. Lovestone was the original cold warrior, his gimlet eye mercilessly tracking and confounding real and imagined efforts by the Soviet "evil empire" to subvert to its own nefarious purposes labor movements on at least four continents. James Jesus Angleton, the head of counter-intelligence for the CIA until his own hallucinatory ravings about internal double-agents led to his dismissal, was Lovestone's admired good friend. Together they inhabited a solipsistic universe, consoling and maddening at the same time, a world cleanly bifurcated between its dark side and its light side yet overrun with paranoid fantasies about diabolical conspiracies and intimate betrayals.

A biography of Lovestone might have treated his life as a clinical case study in the psychopathology of the Cold War. Or it might have explored the domestic as well as the international consequences of the covert dealings between the AFL and the national security state which arose in this country after World War II and which Lovestone embodied. "A Covert Life," Ted Morgan's life of Lovestone, however, does neither. Instead, Morgan's is a kind of book-length gossip column about the closeted life of a monomaniacal anti-Communist. If you happen to care about this, then Morgan's book works. It works because he's made wide, if rather randomly organized, use of newly opened files at the Hoover Institution, the FBI and the archives in the Kremlin that once belonged to the Comintern, the Soviet-run high command of the international Communist movement. Whatever juice the book has is squeezed from these sources. And whatever else one might say about it, Morgan's biography offers incontrovertible proof that the AFL wittingly offered its services to the CIA, a relationship AFL President George Meany and the rest of the labor officialdom spent decades denying.

The breezy superficiality of "A Covert Life" is apparent almost immediately in its offhand remarks about how Jewish immigrants arriving around the turn of the century (Lovestone came here as a child in 1907) were natural-born socialists because they'd lived as an oppressed minority under the czars. What about the vast majority who didn't become socialists, what about those who opted instead for Zionism, what about the innumerable hundreds of thousands who remained loyal to the faith of their ancestors?

Morgan's carelessness, however, is symptomatic of a deeper intellectual abdication peculiar to this field of study. Just as the science of Kremlinology was really a form of soothsaying, so too what has often passed for the history of communism has really been a form of theology, a literature of didactic allegory. In this Weltanshauung, communism, as a kind of quintessential evil, rises above (or sinks below) the level of everyday empirical reality. As a metaphysical subject, it's exempted from the norms of historical narration and interpretation. It becomes instead the dramatic center of a modern-day version of the medieval morality play. This in turn allows for a level of crusading invective and analytic incoherence that would be found impermissible were the subject not Soviet Russia. So, for example, when he is describing the formative years of the American Communist Party, Morgan follows the custom of characterizing party utterances as willful "deceit," designed to "mask their true purpose." Yet within these same few pages he also describes Lovestone's "veritable Niagara" of pamphlets and speeches declaiming from the rooftops the naked, undisguised revolutionary intentions of the party. But why worry about the inconsistency when there are bigger fish to fry?

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