Open Letter to James Billington, Librarian of Congress
Dear Mr. Billington,
As the Chief Librarian and Archivist of the Reference Center for Marxist
Studies in New York City, an independent educational
institution with custodianship of the library, documentation and records
of the Communist Party USA, it is of great interest to me
how the historical papers of the CPUSA, sent to the USSR for safe-keeping
during a turbulent period, have become the
property of the principals involved in the recent announcement from your
office "Library of Congress Opens to Researchers the
Records of the Communist Party, USA".
There is a unfortunately more than a whiff of the old Cold War mentality
in the press release which is most disturbing. In fact,
one has the impression that these papers of the CPUSA are being treated as
the booty of the Cold War!
These papers in question are, it should be strongly emphasized, the papers
of a legitimate, continuously existing and still
functioning American organization and there has been, as far as I know, no
consultation with the CPUSA about the disposition
or further distribution of its records from 1919 through 1944, in
particular by the "new Russian government" as you describe it.
The Russian government which took control of these papers did so without
warrant, with no discussion with -- or even
notification of -- the CPUSA and I believe this, as well as their dealings
with LC -- is in violation of ethical archival practice, if
not possibly illegal. The disposition of the records generated by the
CPUSA and stored in the USSR during this period, primarily
to protect its members from the witch-hunts which began with the Palmer
Raids in 1919, which continued with the formation of
HUAC in 1938 and was followed by the Smith Act "thought control"
legislation and prosecutions beginning in 1940, should have
been considered, unless otherwise agreed, to have been at the prerogative
of the organization which produced them or, at the
very least a decision which should have been made in consultation with the
I would like to see the evidence of provenance and documentation --for
instance a deed of gift or some legal instrument -- of
legitimately accessioning and processing this material by the Russian
Archive, with which institution the Library of Congress
chose to deal, completely without regard to possible concerns of the
generators of this material whose historical legacy they
As a librarian and archivist I am, of course, pleased that these records
exist and that they will provide richer documentation of
the activities of the CPUSA and a better understanding of the role it has
played in the shaping of modern America. I, along with
many of my colleagues, should, however, like to hear from a representative
of the Library of Congress about the exclusion of the
CPUSA from the "opening" of the papers, urge you to address ,as well, the
related matters elaborated below, and consider
remedy for the mishandling of the CPUSA's material.
Let me dispose of several misconceptions up front.
Besides the obviously 'political' exclusion of representatives of the
CPUSA from decisions about its own records, which is
invidious, the characterization of the CPUSA in your press release as
having "always been a secret organization" is tendentious
and incorrect. It is also incorrect to suggest that the availability of
documents of the Party has been very limited. Many leaders,
organizers, prominent supporters and sympathizers of the CPUSA have left
significant holdings of personal papers and
organizational records of the Party to various academic institutions and
archival facilities for the sake of preserving the historical
record of an organization which played such an important part in the labor
movement, in the struggle for civil rights, in the fight
against fascism, in creating a popular culture with wide and deep
influence in American arts and letters and in the achievements
of significant social reforms which we all take for granted.
The assertion in the LC press release that the existence of this CPUSA
material in the former USSR was a matter "discovered"
in 1992 by John Earl Haynes is ridiculous. It was a well-know fact that
this material was in the Soviet archives. That he
consequently collaborated in using bits and pieces of the material, when
it became accessible, to attempt to document his
speculative theories about relations between the CPSU and the CPUSA does
not argue for his responsible and fair supervision
of an archival project.
Further, given the highly partisan atmosphere in which these papers are
being released here through the Library of Congress, and
the sensationalist nature of the press release announcing the availability
of this microfilmed material -- in addition to the ethical
concerns already pointed out above, about the complete exclusion of the
CPUSA , whose papers these are, from all discussion
of their disposition and distribution -- there are the following, hardly
inclusive, scholarly concerns:
1) Photocopies of contested archival material: It is impossible to verify
the authenticity of documents from microfilm. It is
precisely the authenticity of certain documents which is -- or may be in
the future even more so -- in question, as well as the
impossibility of verification/verifiability of the date, time, provenance
etc. of material.
2) The lack of disinterestedness and even extreme prejudice of the project
heads against the organizations whose files they are
organizing, interpreting and making available. These are people who have
staked their scholarly reputations on proving a highly
negative thesis about the relationship between the USSR, the CPUSA and
mutually-arranged significant, extensive,
well-organized espionage, a case (against the CPUSA) which remains
unproved even with all the documentation at their
disposal, and which involves arguable interpretations of data which bear
on the reputations of individuals (some of whom are
3) There is no way to know how the microfilming has altered, by accident
or design, the arrangement of materials, possibly
included materials which were not there originally, or altered, elided or
made illegible text etc. which appears on film.
4) The irresponsibility of making public papers which may bear on the
lives and reputations of living individuals, families of
individuals, still-existing organizations, without any discretion given to
those people, groups or their representatives.
I remind you and more to the point, those who themselves are actually
librarians and archivists bound by certain ethical,
professional principles, that the CPUSA papers were sent to the USSR to
protect members and sympathizers of the Party
against violations of free thought and free speech, to protect fighters
against war, fascism, racism, exploitation who were being
systematically persecuted by the US government, not for espionage, but for
their political affiliation and expression of ideas.
The history of government infiltration, harassment, threats, raids,
confiscations, phone taps, etc. the extent of which is now
known, in part, through the heavily redacted records obtained through the
FOIA, provides the true background against which
the sequestering of this material from the 20s through the mid 40s was
considered then and should be considered today. The
violation of free speech and free thought which was perpetrated in past
anti-Red campaigns is continued in no small measure by
the circumstances under which these papers are being released.
I look forward to the Librarian of Congress addressing these concerns for
myself and a growing number of individuals, both in
the library/archives profession and in the scholarly community.
As it stands, it seems the Cold War lives at the Library of Congress, and
not merely as an historical phenomenon.
Mark C. Rosenzweig
Reference Center for Marxist Studies