Closer Readings Commentary

A Summer Seminar on American Communism

By Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, Department of Political Science, Emory University. 

Why should teachers care about the history of the Communist Party in the United States?

Although it never enlisted more than 100,000 members, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) played an outsized role in American life in the 20th century. During the 1930s the CPUSA made significant inroads among American students, intellectuals, and in the labor movement. In the 1940s it was the driving force behind Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party.  By the end of that decade and into the 1950s, communism became one of the defining issues in domestic politics, with the espionage trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, congressional investigations, the Hollywood blacklist, and prosecutions of Party leaders.

Despite the insignificance of the CPUSA in America today, the communist issue continues to resonate. In the past 15 years, movie aficionados have debated the justice of denying famed director Elia Kazan a special award because he had been an informer before the House Committee on Un‐American Activities (HUAC). In 2016 60 Minutes devoted two of three episodes one Sunday evening to questions about the guilt of the Rosenbergs. Novels and plays by Philip Roth (I Married a Communist), Zoë Heller (The Believers), Amy Herzog (After the Revolution), and Tony Kushner (Angels in America) have explored the communist theme, while The Americans, an FX series, has been widely praised for its portrayal of a Russian couple living illegally in America and spying for the KGB. Non‐fiction books about American communism, Soviet espionage in America and “McCarthyism” continue to appear and inspire heated disagreement. Following Barack Obama’s election as President, some conservatives stitched together elaborate conspiracy theories after revelations that a Hawaiian mentor of President Obama, Frank Marshall Davis, was a prominent Communist activist, and several of his advisors, notably David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, were “red‐diaper babies.”

Why has the debate about American Communism been so intense so long after the Party’s heyday in the 1930s? Why does it still resonate in American life? What kinds of dilemmas did and does the communist issue pose for democratic societies? What does recent scholarship suggest about such major symbolic issues as the Hiss and Rosenberg cases?

This summer I will teach a four-week seminar (June 25–July 20) sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities at Emory University in Atlanta. “Communism and American Life” will look at novels and plays by such writers as John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, memoirs by Lillian Hellman and Whittaker Chambers, songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and movies by Elia Kazan and Woody Allen.

All of these texts both illuminate a particular historical moment and offer a very personal response to the challenge posed by communist ideology to Western ideals of liberty and freedom. They provide very different kinds of responses to that ideology, ranging from emotional acceptance through skeptical approval and measured doubt to revulsion. Together, the texts will require participants to think seriously about the attractive power of communist ideology, consider how American society responded to it, and debate the wisdom and effectiveness of that response.

Among the topics we will cover are the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on American communism, why people joined—and left—the Communist Party, the cultural impact of communism on American life, including folk music, Blacks and American communism, Soviet espionage, including the Hiss and Rosenberg cases, McCarthyism and its impact on American life, and the Hollywood blacklist.

Participants will receive stipends of $3,300. Housing is available on the Emory campus.  In previous years many of the participants have been U.S. History and English teachers, although all K-12 teachers are eligible. If you are interested in learning more about the seminar, please visit the NEH website ( or my project’s website

Related Lessons