By: Eric Fettman
New York Post | Monday, December 02, 2002
Few New Yorkers today will recognize the name of Vito Marcantonio - which no doubt explains why the City University is actually paying tribute next month to a man of whom U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder once boasted, "He was our spokesman in Congress."
At the Museum of the City of New York on Dec. 8, CUNY's John Calandra Italian-American Institute is hosting a celebration of the centennial of a man who, the Institute says, "fought an increasingly lonely battle against the government's Cold War policies at home and abroad."
John Calandra - a staunchly conservative state legislator and Bronx GOP chairman - is probably spinning in his grave at the thought of Marcantonio being honored in his name.
Nowhere in the institute's publicity release does the word "communist" appear. Apparently, even after the demise of the Soviet Union, it's still a greater sin in academic circles to call someone a communist than to actually have been one.
Actually, Marcantonio always denied being a member of the Communist Party. But during the 14 years he represented a heavily Italian and Puerto Rican East Harlem House district during the '30s and '40s (as the heir and protégé of Fiorello LaGuardia), he did his best to blur the distinction until it was
Throughout his career, Marcantonio worked to secure a place in mainstream political debate for the Communist Party. It was, he maintained, "an American party operating in what it considered to be the best interests of the American working class and people."
Widely acknowledged as the most successful radical pol of the pre-60s era, Marcantonio was more than that. In the words of historian Harvey Klehr, no congressman "so consistently defended and articulated Communist positions" indeed, "The Communists had no better friend in Congress."
Marcantonios positions on nearly every issue were indistinguishable from the CP's. He may never have joined the party, refusing to bow to party discipline, as his defenders argue. But his own discipline was just as doctrinaire and just as uncritical of anything emanating from Stalin's Russia.
Most shamefully, in 1940 he co-founded (with such hard-line party allies as Paul Robeson and John Abt) the misnamed American Peace Mobilization - a CP-controlled antiwar group formed after the Hitler-Stalin pact put an abrupt end to the Left's anti-fascist struggle.
Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, of course, Marcantonio and the CP immediately switched back, become the most fervent supporters of the battle against Germany and demanding "victory over Fascism."
In their history of the U.S. Communist Party, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser recall Marcantonios speech to the convention of the Communist-controlled Progressive Party, which launched Henry Wallaces 1948 presidential campaign.
"As he rose to speak," they wrote, " he began with a lusty 'Com-' [meaning to hail his listeners with the CP salutation "comrades"] - and then, in embarrassment, shifted to "Fellow delegates."
Honoring someone with Marcantonio's record as an Italian-American hero is problematic enough. Deliberately soft-pedaling his record is rank academic dishonesty.
The Dec. 8 event would do better to hear the editorial that appeared in this paper after Marcantonio's death in 1954. Written by Jimmy Wechsler, one of liberal anti-communisms most eloquent voices, it saw Marcantonio as he really was.
Marcantonio, he wrote, "was a prisoner of the Communist bloc for most of his political life" and a "melancholy victim of the Communist machine he served so long. For it inexorably destroyed his political character."
Though hailed for his opposition to special interests, wrote Wechsler, Marcantonio's "independence vanished when he was confronted with sudden shifts and outrageous immoralities in Soviet policy. . . . He often spoke out passionately for civil liberties in the U.S., but he never protested Communist oppression anywhere in the world."
Rather than celebrate Marcantonio, CUNY's Calandra Institute should ponder what Wechsler saw as his sorry legacy: Not that of a hero, but "another dramatic example of the proposition that there can be no honorable alliance between American progressivism and Communist totalitarianism; and that men
who seek to preserve such a tie must ultimately become broken captives, losing their own identities as they compromise the principles of justice and freedom which originally inspired them."
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