Whittaker Chambers in CP USA Files, 1927-1932

The years of sporadic research in the records of the Communist Party of the USA (CP USA) thus far have not produced any records that shed light on the circumstances behind Whittaker Chambers‘s joining the party or on his early party status. Chambers does not appear in any party discussions on the national or local level (in District One/New York City party files); his name does not appear either among the lists of delegates to national or district party conventions or other events, or as someone holding any party office. Neither does Chambers appear in any of the so-called “expulsion lists” of party members driven from the party during the factional fighting of 1929 and early 1930. CP USA records also do not reveal the circumstances behind Chambers’s leaving the Daily Worker in late 1929. However, it is certain that he was not among the paper’s editorial and business staff expelled for being supporters of the party’s expelled former leader, Jay Lovestone.

The earliest-dated among records discovered so far establish for the first time the exact dates of Chambers’s work at the Communist daily paper, the Daily Worker – from July 1927 through late 1929 – and shed light upon some of the surrounding circumstances as well. These records are also the first to establish the circumstances of Chambers’s suspension from the party ranks in early February 1930, his subsequent expulsion in July of that year and his reinstatement in March 1932.

In mid-October 1929, the political committee of the party’s secretariat discussed the problems involved with the Daily Worker – in particular, the inefficiency of its editorial staff, which was considered not up to the task. This, in a nutshell, was the background behind a “Daily Worker” file I discovered in CP USA records from late 1929. The file included a few Daily Worker personnel lists that document for the first time Chambers’s work at the paper. 1

The most comprehensive of these lists is one from mid-October 1929, which establishes the dating of Chambers’s joining the Daily Worker in July, 1927, and his position and monthly salary as of October 1929. The list also establishes the dates when several other people who appear in Chambers’s account of the period joined the paper’s staff and what positions they held as of October 1929. 2

DAILY WORKER

NAME EDITORIAL FUNCTION TIME EMPLOYED SALARY
Minor Editor 9/27 to date $35.00
J. Louis Engdahl Editor 1/27 – 9/27 40.00
Dunne Ass’t Editor 1/27 – 3/28 40.00
O’Flaherty Columnist 1/27 – 1/28 40.00
Smith Copy Desk 1/27 – 7/27 40.00
Helen Black Labor News 1/27 – 7/27 30.00
Sherman Labor News 1/27 to date 40.00
Intrator Labor News 1/27 to date 30.00
Ellis Cartoonist 7/27 to date 40.00
Freeman Copy-Desk 1/27 to date 35.00
Garlin City News 3/27 to date 35.00
Bowen City Editor 8/27 – 8/28 40.00
O’Connor City Editor 4/27 – 7/27 40.00
Wicks Editorial 3/27 – 3/28 40.00
Pollack Party Activities 1/27 – 5/28 20.00
Rolphe 4/28 – to date 25.00
Harris Re-write 1/27 – 3/27 15.00
Rand 1/28 – 4/28 15.00
Skladman 2/28 – 4/28 20.00
Nagil 3/28 – to date 20.00
Markoff Research 4/27 – 8/27 25.00
Chambers Wrks. Correspondence 7/27 to date 35.00
Hatch Feature 7/27 to date 40.00
Honig Make-up 1/28 to date 25.00
Harvey Army & Navy Column 1/28 – 2/28 30.00
Auerbach Foreign News 6/28 to date 30.00

The centerpiece of the file was a nine-page “Daily Worker Report and Proposals” from October 16, 1929 written by Alfred Wagenknecht, an American Marxist who had played a key role in establishing the American Communist Party in 1919. In 1929, Wagenknecht headed the management department of the Daily Worker. He specifically referred to “the lack of organization” and inefficiency of the paper’s editorial staff:

“… The Daily Worker consists of four pages. Subtract the last page; subtract one-half page for advertising; subtract one-half page for news contributed generally, and there remain two pages which the editorial staff has to produce each day.

These two pages can be produced, and with more skill and higher political content, by a staff of five comrades. There are TWELVE comrades on the editorial staff and their daily production is no credit to them. The names of the members of the editorial staff are: Minor, Wicks, George, Smith, Chambers, Honig, Miller, Burke, Crouch, Moriarty, Ellis, Frank.

PROPOSALS: That reorganization of the staff occur immediately to effect a reduction of the editorial staff to the five members.” 3

A shorter personnel list in the same file expands on Chambers’s functions at the paper, adding foreign news to the description of his responsibilities:

DAILY WORKER EDITORIAL STAFF

Minor Editor $35.00
Freeman Copy Desk 35.00
Garlin City Editor 35.00
Chambers Workers Corres. &

Foreign

35.00
Sherman Labor editor 40.00
Intrator Needle Trades &
other labor news 30.00
Honig Make Up & rewrite 25.00
Magil Rewrite 20.00
Ralphe Rewrite 25.00
Auerbach Lighter Features 30.00
Fred Ellis Cartoonist 40.00
$350.00

Four names in the list are ticked off in pencil: Sherman, Magil, Ralphe, Auerbach. 4 There is no record showing that Chambers’s functions ever included the copy desk.

Wagenknecht’s proposals were discussed at a January 13, 1930 meeting of the CP USA secretariat, which decided that “the Secretariat [should] request Com. Minor, together with Organization Department to discuss the personnel of the staff [of the Daily Worker] and see if it is not possible to cut down the number and at the same time raise the quality of the work.” A similar decision by the New York District Bureau, made on the same day, sounded more definite: “The District Bureau considers the size of the editorial staff and the duties placed upon the members of the staff such that the staff can readily be decidedly cut.” [[5 515-1-1742, p. 17; 515-1-2066, p. 13.]] Although no record of how this staff reduction took place has been discovered, a Comintern “Review of the Daily Worker” dated August 31, 1930 indicates that the proposed “reduction of the editorial staff” did in fact occur: “It must be stated that the paper is got out under considerable difficulties. … the editorial staff has to be kept down to a minimum …” 5

The party records do not support Chambers’s own appraisal of his role at the Daily Worker as “the indispensable man” with an “immense task”; nor do they support his claim that he was at some point an “acting editor of the Daily Worker,” a person who “daily set forth a political line.” 6 They also do not support Chambers’s rave review of his own performance. In his autobiography, Witness, he wrote that “every year, the Executive Committee of the Communist International sent from Moscow a critique of the successes and failures of the Daily Worker. … The Communist International had roundly damned all of the Daily Worker with a single exception [of] … worker correspondence.” 7

Not a single CP USA or Comintern record that supports Chambers’s self-appraisal has been discovered. However, in Comintern files there is a “Review of the Daily Worker” dated August 31, 1930 and “based on April – May, June – up to August 17th issues.” The report acknowledged that “one of the best features of the Daily Worker is the large amount of worker correspondence it has.” “Nevertheless, the best use is not made of this correspondence … proper selection of letters is not made and they are not properly edited.” The Moscow reviewer points out as a “serious defect” “that no systematic work is carried on with the worker correspondents” and instructs that this “must become a more ‘active’ feature of the paper.” Although written a few months after Chambers left his outpost at workers correspondence, this review may still be taken as a summary of his achievements in that capacity, since the writer of the review notes the paper’s “considerable progress” since December 1929. 8 Further evidence of the unfortunate situation with the workers correspondence is provided by a motion made at the New York District Bureau meeting of May 29, 1930, which speaks for itself:

“Daily Worker Report”/Motions:

… That the attention of the AgitProp should be called to the fact that it must take steps to develop Workers Correspondence.” 9

CP USA files from 1930 provide a first-ever look at the circumstances behind Chambers’s suspension from the Communist Party. In his autobiography, Witness, Chambers described placing himself “outside of the Communist Party”:

Presently, the telephone rang. It was the call I had been expecting. “This is Charles Dirba,” said a deliberately chilling voice. “Comrade, I would like to talk to you. Tonight.” Dirba was the chairman of the Central Control Commission. … I was going to be put through an act before the Central Control Commission. …

I knew that I was putting myself outside of the Communist Party. … There was no point in returning to the Daily Worker office. I never went back. 10

Chambers’s brief account basically checks out in the CP USA files, but the documentary trail it has left is much longer than his brief description. The earliest discovered document related to this incident is dated January 24, 1930 – and it clearly describes a follow-up to a previous episode:

“CCC Presidium meeting, 1/24/1930 [No. A22]

District #1 cases.

On the case of W. Chambers, who has failed to comply with the call to appear before the CCC, it was decided to send another notice with a warning of disciplinary measures in case this notice also should be disregarded.” 11

Two weeks later, Chambers was officially suspended from the party:

CASE [penciled]

February 6, 1930.

NOTICE OF CENTRAL CONTROL COMMITTEE DECISION ON CASE OF
W. Chambers

The Central Control Committee suspends Comrade Chambers from the Party until he should comply with the demands of the Central Control Committee. The Secretary was instructed to obtain information as to the Party standing of Comrade Whittaker Chambers (when he joined the Party, what work he has done or position filled, etc., etc.).

CENTRAL CONTROL COMMITTEE,
COMMUNIST PARTY – USA

[signed] C. Dirba

Secretary 12

The follow-up decision turns up on the last page in the Central Control Committee’s file – on the second page of an undated and untitled document containing summaries of the cases brought before the committee:

“…
W. Chambers of New York, formerly member of the Editorial Staff of the Daily Worker, repeatedly called to give information to the Central Control Committee, which calls Comrade Chambers entirely ignored.

Decision: The Central Control Committee suspends Comrade Chambers from the Party until he should comply with the demands of the Central Control Committee. The Secretary was instructed to obtain information as to the Party standing of Comrade Whittaker Chambers (when he joined the Party, what work he has done or position filled, etc., etc.). [[14.515-1-2037, p. 191.]]

In mid-July 1930, Chambers’s indefinite status in the party was ended: following the decision of its Central Control Commission, he was finally expelled at its meeting on July 19, 1930:

“Whittaker Chambers; D. [District] 2 (NY)
Formerly on the editorial staff of the Daily Worker; suspended on Feb. 6th until he should comply with the demand of the CCC to appear before it and to answer certain questions; the secretary has written to him now, but without getting any reply.

Decision – Chambers shall stand stricken from membership rolls of the Party.” 13

Chambers reappears in CP USA files in March 1932 – when he is reinstated in the party at the meeting of its Central Control Commission:

Whittaker Chambers; Distr.#2, N.Y.; doing literary work; joined C.P. in 1924; was expelled about two years ago for refusal to appear before the CCC when called several times to disclose information pertaining to frictions in the Daily Worker editorial staff, of which he was a member from 1927 to end of 1929; has now applied for readmission, stating that he recognizes the erroneousness of his action for which he was expelled, that he has not had and does not have the slightest political differences with the Party and that he will unreservedly obey its discipline.

CCC DECISION – to readmit Comrade Chambers into the Party with the provision that, besides his literary work, he should do also some direct mass organization work.

M. Zorin (Raisin); D.2, N.Y.; salesman and office worker; in C.P. since 1920; has worked in “A” since 1927; …

CCC Decision – to criticize Comrade Zorin for petty- bourgeois tendencies …, to withdraw his transfer to the USSR, …” 14

A month after his re-admission to the party, Chambers is on record as being involved in “mass organizational work” – signing a protest petition of one of the party’s mass organizations – the Anti-Imperialist League:

“Release Monday, April 25 [1932], Anti-Imperialist League, … 200 signers of a protest against the Japanese invasion of China and American aid to it, …

Josephine Herbst, Erwinna, Pa
Michael Gold
Joe Kaplan
Sol Wilson
John Hermann, Pennsylvania
W. Chambers

15

In late spring 1932, Chambers – now on the editorial board of New Masses – was chosen to cover the Communist Party Nominating Convention that would open in Chicago on May 28:

“The Natl. Nominating Convention of the Com. Party opens in Chicago on May 28th. …

The information Buro of the Com. Party will have a staff of trained newspapermen, feature writers, photographers, and artists to assist in covering the convention. Including in the group of 11 will be:

Michael Gold — author of “Jews without money” and “120 million”
Eugene Gordon – nationally known negro writer
Whittaker Chambers — of the New Masses Editorial board
Joseph North – Editor of the Labor Defender
William Gropper and Hugo Gellert – nationally known artists.

Our editorial plans are as follows: …” 16

In less than two weeks, Chambers got another party writing assignment – this time a long-term project for the coming election campaign:

June 6, 1932

National Election Campaign Committee to A. Trachtenberg

This is to remind you of the decisions of the Election Campaign Committee to the effect that a number of general agitational pamphlets are to be issued during the election campaign, written by Mike Gold, Joe Freeman, Whittaker Chambers, Melvin Levu, etc. The suggested titles were: “Democracy for Whom?”, “The Effect of the Crisis on the People”, “Riches for the Few – Hunger for the Many”, etc. 17

Chambers appears in the CP USA files again in August 1932 – discussed in correspondence as one of the candidates to write a firsthand description of the life of a young Communist:

“William Morris Poole (from G P Putnam’s Sons, 2 West 45 St, NYC) to Robert Hall, Esq.,
National Student League, Aug. 13, 1932
Dear Mr. Hall:

You will find that I am enclosing a letter of introduction from my cousin Nathaniel Weyl. At his advice I am writing you to see if you could put us in touch with a young American communist who could write interestingly of his daily life. The manuscript should be book length and should not be obviously propaganda but merely a vivid description of his experiences. …

Robert Evans to Dear Earl [Browder], Aug. 15, 1932

I am enclosing a copy of a letter forwarded to us by the National Student League. The letter comes from someone connected with Putnam’s Publishing House. It seems to me that a splendid opportunity offers itself here for a book that will create a profound impression if it is properly done.

I think what is required here is not an abstract thesis or bald agitation but that irresistible propagation of ideas which the skillful handling of imaginative literature can achieve. The book should be an authentic record, not only of the “daily life” of a Communist, but of the basic ideas and purposes which inspire that life. Above all the book should be well written.

There are various ways of doing this, such as picking a central figure who travels for the party a great deal and is thus able to participate on various fronts, by bringing in meetings with comrades who return from other centers, by including letters describing experiences elsewhere and of course describing party and YCL conferences and conventions …
… All this ought to be done not in the flat style of newspaper reporting, but – while giving the real picture of the struggle – should be done in the style let us say of Hemingway or Mike Gold.

Perhaps Mike Gold or Whittaker Chambers might be delegated to write the book. Or at any rate to look over the manuscript if it is written by someone else. Martin Russak is another possibility as author for such a book …

… it seems to me that such a book … should come to the attention of the Polit Buro which should take the necessary initial steps to see that it is done with the necessary responsibility. …” 18

Watch for alerts on this website to read more about crosschecking Chambers’s early stories in CP USA and Comintern files.

  1. Comintern Archives, Files of the Communist Party of the USA, fund 515, description 1, file 1720 (515-1-1720), RGASPI, Moscow.
  2. Ibid., p. 67.
  3. Ibid., p. 43.
  4. Ibid., p. 68.
  5. Comintern Archives, Files of the American Commission of ECCI, fund 495, description 37, file 79 (495-37-79), p. 2, RGASPI, Moscow.
  6. Whittaker Chambers, Witness, Henry Regnery Company (Chicago), 1952, pp. 228, 246, 253.
  7. Witness, Op. Cit., pp. 227-228.
  8. 495-37-49, pp. 1-16; original in English, RGASPI, Moscow.
  9. Minutes of CP USA District 2 Bureau meeting, May 29, 1930, 515-1-2066, p. 87.
  10. Witness, Op. Cit., pp. 258-259.
  11. 515-1-2034 (“Minutes of CCC Presidium meetings, 1/10 – 12/10, 1930”), p. 12.
  12. 515-1-2037 (“Central Control Committee files/personnel issues”), p.144 (signed original; also see 515-1-2038, pp. 20 and 34; for handwritten notes on Chambers’s case, see 515-1-2030 (“Minutes of CCC Meetings, January-June, 1930,” pp. 31, 32, 34.
  13. 515-1-2031 (“Minutes of CCC Meetings, July-December, 1930”), p. 4.
  14. Minutes of CCC Meeting, March 11, 1932 # B-87 (investigations, cases), 515-1-2769, p.19 and 21. Note that the case of an individual who worked in “A” was discussed at the same meeting as Chambers’s case.
  15. 515-1-3028, pp.13-16-17.
  16. Joseph Pass, Director of Information, to the Editor, May 23, 1932, 515-1-2958, p. 95 (unsigned copy of a circular letter to editors).
  17. 515-1-2958, p.122. In fact, none of these planned pamphlets was discovered in 1932 party files.
  18. 515-1-2777, pp. 19, 20-21.