In 2013, the Washington Post decided to come up with a list of "America’s top communists of all time
". Unsatisfied, Washington Post blogger Dylan Matthews came up with his own list
of America's "top Communists" (which he then promoted on twitter, spawning the comment thread that featured Ross Douthat's exaggeration of Maoism at Harvard
). I've combined (and somewhat arbitrarily sorted) the lists below (the italicized text comes from the original lists; most of the quoted, bracketed text comes from wikipedia).
Summary: 9/28 who made the list are Jewish (including two who are half-Jewish); 5/28 are black; 4/28 potentially have half or more New England ancestry (and no one else on the list appears to have 1/4 or more New England ancestry); 3/28 have half or more Irish ancestry (and 6/28 are at least a quarter Irish); 3/28 are at least half Southern (and 4/28 likely a quarter or more Southern); 2/28 are half-Scandinavian; 1/28 is Finnish.
This fairly arbitrary list of prominent Communists is of course not representative of CPUSA membership as a whole, which was even more heavily Jewish and foreign (and even lighter on New England-descended children of rich families, notwithstanding moldbug's attempts to hold up John Reed -- the only person on this list who falls into that category -- as in any way representative of US Communists.)
At least 4/9 Jews on the list (White, the Rosenbergs, and Dohrn) are known to have spied for the Soviets or been involved in terrorist activity, along with 2/3 Southerners (Browder and Hiss). As far as I know this can be said of only 1/4 of those of early New England-stock on the list (Bentley, who also happens to be the one who ended up turning on her handlers and exposing Soviet intelligence operations in the US). More representative samples are even more extreme:
Jews were also vastly overrepresented in high-profile cases among those invoking the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself, so that public hearings like McCarthy's inevitably highlighted the Jewish role in communism. For example, in 1952, of 124 people questioned by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Weingarten identifies 79 Jews, 32 non-Jews and 13 with unknown ethnicity. All invoked the Fifth.
Even more remarkably, of the 42 people who were dismissed from their positions at the Fort Monmouth Laboratories in New Jersey on suspicion of constituting a spy ring (the same one that Julius Rosenberg belonged to), 39 were Jews and one other was married to a Jewish woman.
Party leaders / labor leaders
Leader of the U.S. Communist Party from the early 1930s until his expulsion in 1945. Under his guidance, the party reached its peak membership of nearly 100,000 and developed influence in key sectors of American life. Collaborated with Soviet intelligence agencies; expelled after Soviet criticism for minimizing the role of the party.
["Earl Browder was born in Wichita, Kansas on May 20, 1891, the eighth child of an American-born father sympathetic to populism. He joined the Socialist Party of America in Wichita in 1907 at the age of 16 and remained in that organization until the party split of 1912". Southern (Tennessee and Virginia) ancestry.]
Foster, a trade union militant, secretly joined the party in the early 1920s and ran for U.S. president in 1928 and 1932. He died in Moscow.
[From Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910:
William Z. Foster was one of America's most militant Communists. That much is well known. Less so is that Foster's working-class parents were born in Ireland and that his christening as William Edward took place in a Catholic church in New Jersey. He grew up in one of Philadelphia's toughest Irish neighborhoods, the aptly named Skittereen. By any accounting, William Z. Foster (the "Z." was given to him by the Communist Party) was a part of the Irish strain in American labor.
But Foster was also part of labor's western heartland. He spent most of his working life in the West and learned his hardest lessons there.
Lovestone was the party's leader in the 1920s but was expelled by Stalin in 1929. He became a key figure in the American Federation of Labor and worked with the CIA to combat communism in unions overseas.
["Lovestone was born Jacob Liebstein into a Litvak [Jewish] family in a shtetl called Moǔchadz in Grodno Governorate (then part of the Russian Empire, now in Grodno Region, Belarus)."]
Two longtime party leaders. Dennis fled to Moscow in the 1920s to escape criminal prosecution for communist organizing, later became U.S. party leader. Dennis was the lead defendant in the trial of party leadership in 1949 on charges of conspiring to teach and organize the overthrow of the U.S. government. Jailed in the early 1950s, he resumed leadership role after leaving prison, swung support to hard-liners and died of cancer in 1961.
["He began life as Francis Xavier Waldron Jr. on August 10, 1905, in Seattle, Washington. His father was Irish American, and his mother, Nora Vieg, of Norwegian descent."]
Hall became the leader of the declining party in the early 1960s. Opposed Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, later promoted North Korea as a communist model. Died in 2000.
["Hall was born Arvo Kustaa Halberg in 1910 to Matt (Matti) and Susan (Susanna) Halberg in Cherry, a rural community on Northern Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range. Hall's parents were Finnish immigrants from the Lapua region, and were politically radical: they were involved in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and were early members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in 1919. The Mesabi Range was one of the most important immigration settlements for Finns, who were often active in labor militancy and political activism. Hall's home language was Finnish, and he conversed with his nine siblings in that language for the rest of his life. He did not know political terminology in Finnish and used mostly English when meeting with visiting Finnish Communists."]
James P. Cannon
I mean, c'mon, dudes. You can't do a list of American Communists and just include folks who sided with Stalin against Trotsky. Cannon was converted to the cause on a trip to Russia in 1928, during which he read one of Trotsky's critiques of the Third International (better known as Comintern), the Soviet Union's international coalition of Communist Parties, and was persuaded. [. . .] The move got him and his co-conspirators expelled. No matter; they formed the Communist League of America (Opposition), which in 1934 merged with the trade unionist American Workers Party, run by the noted Marxist Christian pacifist A.J. Muste, to form the Workers Party.
[From James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928:
A Midwestern, native-born Bolshevik whose parents were Irish immigrants, Cannon shared much with other centrally important individuals in the communist milieu of the 1920s and beyond, among them William Z. Foster, Earl Browder, and Jay Lovestone.
Cannon's benefactors were not his Rosedale chums, the old-style Irish patriots. "I was sick and fed up with the Irish by then. . . . [W]hen I looked around and saw all the god-damned Irishmen were either cops or politicians or grafters and contractors and prosecuting attorneys, I said to hell with it. I disaffiliated." Rescuing him from jail were Kansas City's "radical socialistic Jews," one component of the mass base of the foreign-language federation's left wing.
Released from his cell, Cannon surveyed the revolutionary Left and saw the carnage of the state's campaign of terror and suppression. Alexander Bittelman later characterized 1920 as "the worst year in the history of our movement." As he brooded in the office one day, his clothes a seedy match for his mood, Cannon was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by three determined Jewish comrades. They hustled him down to a Jewish merchant's clothing store, where he was introduced as a distinguished revolutionary. "The Irish community had thought that I was a damn ne'er-do-well," Cannon recalled, "[b]ut there it was a great honor--editor of the paper and a speaker for socialism." Outfitted with a new suit of clothes, the socialists demanded that the merchant cut the price down to wholesale, and kick in an extra five-dollar reduction as his own contribution. It was all for "Comrade Cannon," and it slashed $30 worth of apparel to a mere $15, which the hard-bargaining radicals handed over to the haberdasher. "I walked out of the store with a brand new suit of clothes and an uplifted spirit that kept me going for a long time," Cannon remembered with fondness. "Now, how could I quit on people like that?" A revolutionary native son thus sealed a pact with immigrant left-wingers.
While Cannon stayed true to the Marxist flame, his ally Max Shachtman had a more interesting trajectory. While he followed Cannon to the Communist League of America, and then to the Workers Party, and then to the Socialist Workers Party, in 1940 he clashed with Cannon and Trotsky over World War II. The latter wanted to maintain a position of unconditional defense of the Soviet Union, which would entail honoring the Molotov-Ribentropp Agreement between the Soviets and Nazi Germany, supporting the Soviet "Winter War" against Finland, and backing of the Soviet/Nazi divvying up of Poland. [. . .] Where Shachtman went next was pretty surprising. He started a new party, the Workers Party (a call-back to the Trotskyist party he and Cannon had formed in 1936), which advocated for a so-called "Third Camp" that rejected the two imperialist camps of a) the then-allied Soviets and Nazis and b) the U.S. and British opposing them. [. . .] By the time of his death in 1972, Shachtman was arguing against unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and refused to endorse George McGovern because of his support for it. [. . .] By that point, he had totally broken with the Trotskyist movement and had become a godfather of sorts to the neoconservative one. As Jeet Heer has noted, Shachtman's follower Albert Wohlstetter was a mentor to Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and Shachtman was close to Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.), who was infamously hawkish on defense and whose office employed Perle, Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Douglas Feith at various points. After the 1972 split in the Socialist Party, Shachtman's followers started the Social Democrats USA, whose members, including Abrams and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, featured prominently in the Reagan administration.
["Shachtman was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He emigrated with his family to New York City in 1905."]
Harry Haywood is probably the most important theoretician the Communist Party in the U.S. produced. He served on the Central Committee of the party from 1927-1938, including a 1931-1938 stint on the Politburo. he also lived for four and a half years in the Soviet Union, where he was an active member of the Soviet Communist Party.
His chief idea was that African-Americans living in the "black belt" in the South have a right to national self-determination, same as any other national group under Stalin's theories of nationalism. They should secede and form a Marxist workers' state, he argued. The area in question looks like this:
In the 1950s, he judged that the Communist Party had fallen down on its commitment to black Americans, and realigned himself with Mao Zedong, who at the time was feuding with Soviet leadership. Eventually he and other Maoists started the "New Communist Movement" of the 1970s and 1980s, which sought to capitalize on revolutionary energy generated by opposition to the war in Vietnam and had some success in organizing black auto workers in Detroit.
Harvard grad, prominent journalist, Greenwich Village bohemian and radical enthusiast, who was portrayed by Warren Beatty in his 1981 film “Reds.’’ In Moscow during the Russian Revolution, he wrote the widely praised book “Ten Days That Shook the World.” After helping found the U.S. party, returned to Moscow to fight for recognition from the Comintern against rival American sects. He died of cholera in 1920 at age 32 and was buried in the Kremlin Wall. File photo
["John Reed was born on October 22, 1887, in his maternal grandmother's mansion in Portland, Oregon, with Chinese servants in today's Goose Hollow neighborhood. He wrote of paying a nickel to a "Goose Hollowite" (young toughs in a gang in the working-class neighborhood below King's Hill) to keep from being beaten up. A memorial bench overlooks the site of Reed's birthplace in Washington Park  His mother, Margaret Green Reed, was the daughter of a leading Portland citizen who had made a fortune through three enterprises: as owner of the first gas works in Oregon, owner of the first pig iron smelter on the west coast, and as second owner of the Portland water works. John's father, Charles Jerome Reed, was the representative of an agricultural machinery manufacturer who had come to town from the East. With his ready wit, he quickly won acceptance in Portland’s business community. The family's wealth came from the Green side, not the Eastern-transplanted Reed side." No doubt had significant New England ancestry via upstate New York, but also had some Welsh and German Pennsylvania and New York ancestry.]
In his youth, he was a member of the Young Communist League — the youth branch of the Communist Party USA — owing to the fact that the Communists were just about the only political party in the 1930s to be fully opposed to segregation. "Living in Harlem, he saw that whenever blacks got into trouble, it was invariably the Communists who were willing to defend them," his biographer, John D'Emilio, writes. "Other radical groups, like the Socialist Party or assorted Trotskyist organizations, promised gains only after the revolution." His ties to the party would get him investigated by the FBI once he became a well-known leader of the civil rights movement.
He also used to be a Maoist. In the late 1960s, he was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, a still in existence group that rejected the Soviet Union of the time as a perversion of true Marxism-Leninism and embraced developing world regimes like those in China and Vietnam instead. Putnam was targeted by the Harvard administration in the late 1960s for his views, despite being a tenured professor, and in turn was intensely critical of more conservative faculty who he thought were collaborating with the Vietnam war or promoted scientific racism.
In 1973, Putnam quit the party and has said he regrets his membership.
[1/2 Jewish and 1/2 Southern/mid-Atlantic.]
Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers
The Progressive Labor Party, of which Putnam was a member, was the chief rival of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), a group, also Maoist in orientation, within the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society group. RYM later renamed itself the Weathermen, and then the Weather Underground, and began a campaign of bombings meant to defeat the U.S. government, end the war in Vietnam, and create a socialist workers' state in America.
Among its most prominent leaders were the married couple of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The latter came from a prominent Chicago family, and his father ran the biggest electrical utility in Illinois. That connection got Dohrn hired by the Chicago firm Sidley Austin, despite her inability to join the Illinois bar. She's currently a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern.
[Dohrn: half-Jewish, half-Swedish. "While in high school, Dohrn's father changed the family name from Ohrnstein to Dohrn because he wanted to avoid being accused by his customers of "Jewing" them out of their money. Dohrn attended Miami University of Ohio, where she tried to get into one of the most exclusive sororities but was rejected because of her father's Jewish background. She then transferred to the University of Chicago in her junior year. This change of academic location sharpened her social awareness of inequality and racial discrimination." [Klaus P. Fischer. America in White, Black, and Gray: A History of the Stormy 1960s]
Ayers: "Ayers grew up in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. His parents are Mary (née Andrew) and Thomas G. Ayers, who was later chairman and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Edison (1973 to 1980), and for whom Northwestern's Thomas G. Ayers College of Commerce and Industry was named. He attended public schools until his second year in high school, when he transferred to Lake Forest Academy, a small prep school. Ayers earned a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from the University of Michigan in 1968. (His father, mother and older brother had preceded him there.)"
Ayers's father is 1/2 Scottish, 1/4 post-1790 German, and 1/4 Southern and Mid-Atlantic via the Midwest. His mother is 1/2 (Scottish-surnamed) Canadian and at least 1/4 (probably 1/2) post-1790 German.]
Davis, a philosopher and protege of the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, was a longtime member of CPUSA. That membership, indeed, got her fired from UCLA's philosophy faculty, at the direction of then-California governor Ronald Reagan. Shortly thereafter, she was tried for her alleged involvement in a hostage-taking incident at a courthouse in Marin County, California. She owned the guns used in the event but was found not guilty.
Entertainers / "intellectuals"
Oklahoma-born singer and songwriter joined the party in California. Major figure in evolving folk-song movement, singer for party benefits and, eventually, famous for "This Land Is Your Land" and other songs. Inspired several generations of folk singers, including Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Hear Woody Guthrie.
["Guthrie was born in Okemah, a small town in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, the son of Nora Belle (née Sherman) and Charles Edward Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate soon to be elected President of the United States." 3/4 Southern, 1/8 Irish, 1/8 New England.]
African American intellectual, author of “The Souls of Black Folks,” founder of the NAACP. Moved close to the party in 1930s and 1940s, moved to Ghana in 1961 and joined the U.S. party that year.
Talented African American athlete, actor and singer who secretly joined the party. Robeson was identified with communist causes for years. Despite knowledge of Soviet persecution of Jews, he refused to publicly criticize the Soviet Union. He charged the United States with committing genocide against blacks and praised Stalin. Blacklisted and in declining health, his career never recovered.
Best-selling novelist, author of books such as "Spartacus" and "Freedom Road." Fast was a prominent communist activist in 1940s and 1950s, left the party in 1956 and published a scathing attack on it called "The Naked God." Worked as Hollywood screenwriter and published a popular book series, "The Immigrants." Before his death in 2003, he repudiated his anti-communism, writing another autobiography that praised the party.
Burnham, an ally of Shachtman's in the Socialist Workers Party, resigned in 1940 after the latter was purged. However, unlike Shachtman, he combined his resignation with a wholesale rejection of Marxism, which became clear in his 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution. He argued that Nazism, Italian fascism, Bolshevik Communism, and New Deal liberalism all moved in the direction of societies governed by a special class of "managers" that controlled the means of production. He was clear that the New Deal was the mildest form of this, but argued it undermined support for capitalism all the same. He predicted that this sort of managerial system would eventually replace capitalism altogether.
Burnham moved even further to the right in the 1940s and 1950s, becoming an ardent Cold War hawk and helping William F. Buckley found the National Review. In 1983, Ronald Reagan gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, as seen in the above photo.
[Zero grandparents born in America. Father born in England. Maternal grandmother born in Ireland. Of Highland Scottish ancestry via Prince Edward Island on maternal grandfather's side. Raised Catholic.]
Eastman, like Burnham and, to a lesser extent, Shachtman, was a Trotskyist who became a true right-winger by the end of his life. He was the one who raised the funds so that John Reed (the Warren Beatty character in Reds; Eastman was played by Edward Herrmann) could go observe the October Revolution in Russia. He performed a true service to Trotsky by making Lenin's Testament — a document that, while also critical of Trotsky, made it clear the Soviet leader did not want Joseph Stalin to succeed him — widely known in the West, and was friends with Trotsky until his assassination in 1940.
But by then Eastman was distancing himself from Marxism and becoming enamored of free market economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. In his role as an editor at Reader's Digest, Eastman serialized the latter's The Road to Serfdom, which includes an account of Eastman's alienation from socialism. Eastman joined the free market Mount Pelerin Society, as well as the anti-Communist American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and was briefly a fan of Joseph McCarthy's (though he later labeled him a "reactionary"). He was one of the initial editors of National Review, whose board he left when he felt it had become too explicitly Christian.
He's also responsible for one of my all-time favorite quotes about Marxist philosophy: "Hegelism is like a mental disease; you can't know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you have got it."
[Eastman's father was a Congregational minister, likely of predominantly New England stock. However, his mother was of Pennsylvania ancestry, including German, and evidently Eastman and his sister "attributed their progressive ideas to their mother’s influence."]
The original Post list had Woody Guthrie, but his friend and fellow folk singer Seeger was a card-carrying CPUSA member for many decades. He joined the Young Communist League in 1936 and the actual party in 1932, and, along with Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, wrote anti-war songs in 1941 until the Soviet Union was invaded, at which point he switched to supporting intervention.
[Roughly 3/4 New England, 1/8 mid-Atlantic, 1/8 French]
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Prominent physicist and secret U.S. party member in the late 1930s. Dropped out of party activities after being selected to head the Manhattan Project. Despite numerous efforts by Soviet intelligence to contact him, steadily moved away from the party as he played major role in postwar U.S. atomic policy. Lost his security clearance in 1954 amid charges of communism and lying to U.S. security. Directed the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., from 1947 to 1966, a year before his death.
["Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, the son of Julius Oppenheimer, a wealthy Jewish textile importer who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1888, and Ella Friedman, a painter."]
Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were protagonists in a spy case that helped establish anti-communism as major factor in American political life and that boosted the career of Richard M. Nixon.
[One grandparent born in Ireland, other three in Maryland.]
Chambers was the star government witness in the spy case. Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official, was convicted of perjury for lying about Chambers's charge that Hiss had provided him with secret government documents in the 1930s. The case riveted the nation and remains controversial today, despite overwhelming evidence that Chambers told the truth.
["Whittaker Chambers was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,[. . .] His family moved to Lynbrook, Long Island, New York, in 1904, where he grew up and attended school. His parents were Jay Chambers and Laha (Whittaker). Chambers described his childhood as troubled because of his parents separation and caring for their mentally ill grandmother. Chambers' brother committed suicide shortly after withdrawing from his first year of college. Chambers would cite his brother's troubled life and eventual suicide as one of many reasons that he was drawn to communism as a young man.
After graduating from South Side High School in neighboring Rockville Centre in 1919, Chambers worked at a variety of jobs before attending Williams College in 1920. He later enrolled as a day student at Columbia University. At Columbia his fellow students included Meyer Schapiro, Louis Zukofsky, Clifton Fadiman, John Gassner, Lionel Trilling [. . .]
In 1930 or 1931, Chambers married the young artist Esther Shemitz (1900–1986).  Shemitz, who had studied at the Art Students League and integrated herself into New York City's intellectual circles, met Chambers at the 1926 textile strike at Passaic, New Jersey."
Appears to be 9/16 (post-1790) Irish and Scottish; on the predominantly colonial American half of his ancestry, it looks like three great-grandparents were born in Pennsylvania, and one in New Hampshire (but with a father who was born in England).]
A Vassar grad dubbed ''the blond spy queen,'' Bentley joined the party, worked for and eventually became the lover of Jacob Golos, the U.S. party's contact with Soviet intelligence. After Golos's death in 1943, she took over supervision of his espionage rings, most of them composed of government employees in Washington. Unstable and depressed by Soviet efforts to push her aside, Bentley went to the FBI in 1945, setting off a major investigation of Soviet espionage. Although unable to prosecute anyone because of a lack of hard evidence, the government confirmed her charges through decrypting of Soviet messages. Bentley helped stoke the anti-communist fervor of the 1940s and 1950s.
["Elizabeth Terrill Bentley was born in New Milford, Connecticut to Charles Prentiss Bentley, a dry-goods merchant, and May Charlotte Turrill, a schoolteacher. In 1915 her parents had moved to Ithaca, New York, and by 1920 the family had moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania and then to Rochester, New York. Her parents were described as strait-laced old family Episcopalian New Englanders." She does appear to be predominantly of early New England ancestry. Golos was Jewish.]
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
The Rosenbergs were low-level communists. Julius, an engineer, volunteered to assist Soviet espionage and developed a highly effective ring of former college classmates working in the defense industry during World War II. Turned over vital information on jet propulsion, radar, sonar and the proximity fuse, as well as atomic bomb information provided by Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, a machinist at Los Alamos, N.M. Convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair rather than reveal members of their ring, becoming martyrs to the pro-Soviet left. A campaign to clear their names continues today, despite abundant evidence that they were guilty.
["Julius Rosenberg was born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New York City on May 12, 1918. . . . Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, to a Jewish family in New York City."]
Harry Dexter White
As Neil's interview with Benn Steil explains, Harry Dexter White was a senior FDR-era Treasury department official, who eventually was tasked with negotiating the Bretton Woods agreement, which would establish the World Bank, IMF, and General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now the WTO). White was not an official member of the Communist Party, but he did pass state secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. Steil notes in his book that White's actual economic views didn't appear all too Marxist, but it seems clear that at least at some moments in time, White sympathized with the Soviet economic model. "Russia is the first instance of a socialist economy in action," he wrote in a 1944 manuscript. "And it works!"
["Harry Dexter White was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the seventh and youngest child of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Joseph Weit and Sarah Magilewski, who had settled in America in 1885."]