The Tragedy of American Communism


By Maurice Isserman

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"The wisest, most eloquent history of the Communist Party USA that has ever been written" (Michael Kazin, author of What It Took to Win), revealing how party members contributed to struggles for justice and equality in America even as they championed a brutal, totalitarian state, the USSR  
After generations in the shadows, socialism is making headlines in the United States, following the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns and the election of several democratic socialists to Congress. Today’s leftists hail from a long lineage of anti-capitalist activists in the United States, yet the true legacy and lessons of their most radical and controversial forebears, the American Communists, remain little understood.  

In Reds, historian Maurice Isserman focuses on the deeply contradictory nature of the history of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), a movement that attracted egalitarian idealists and bred authoritarian zealots. Founded in 1919, the CPUSA fought for a just society in America: members organized powerful industrial unions, protested racism, and moved the nation left. At the same time, Communists maintained unwavering faith in the USSR’s claims to be a democratic workers’ state and came to be regarded as agents of a hostile foreign power. Following Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation of Joseph Stalin’s crimes, however, doubt in Soviet leadership erupted within the CPUSA, leading to the organization’s decline into political irrelevance. 

This is the balanced and definitive account of an essential chapter in the history of radical politics in the United States. 

  • "History is splendidly covered in Reds."
    Wall Street Journal
  • "A trenchant, decades-overdue book on the history of the U.S. Communist Party."
    Foreign Policy
  • "How could blind disciples of Joseph Stalin also have been among the most dedicated fighters for unions and against racism in their nation? Maurice Isserman has not just produced the wisest, most eloquent history of the Communist Party that has ever been written. Reds is also vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the promise and agony of the American left in the twentieth century.
    Michael Kazin, author of What It Took to Win
  • “In Reds, Isserman recognizes the fundamental contradiction at the heart of American Communism: a movement that recruited idealists and professed a commitment to democratic ideals, but also provided several hundred recruits for Soviet espionage and voluntarily tied itself to a totalitarian regime hostile to democracy. Isserman’s brisk account of the Party’s history from 1919 to the early 1990s is the best one-volume book on the most important radical organization of twentieth-century America.”
    Harvey Klehr, Emory University
  • “Isserman’s all-too-aptly subtitled Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism is indeed a classic in the Greek mode. Nuanced, judicious, and elegantly written, this wide-ranging story of a doomed movement places it within the broader context of a turbulent twentieth century. Highlighting the inherent contradiction between the Communist Party’s once dynamic contributions to American life and its obeisance to the Soviet Union, Isserman offers a sobering reminder of how blind partisanship can blight the best efforts of those who seek a better world.”
    Ellen Schrecker, Yeshiva University

On Sale
Jun 4, 2024
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Maurice Isserman

About the Author

Maurice Isserman is the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History at Hamilton College. A former Fulbright visiting professor in Moscow, he is the author of award-winning books on the history of the Left and other topics. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. He lives in Clinton, New York. 

Learn more about this author