A Communist Odyssey

A Communist Odyssey: The life of József Pogány/John Pepper

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Pages: 267
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  • Book Info
    A Communist Odyssey
    Book Description:

    A group of Central European communists, most of them Hungarians, in the interwar period served the world communist movement as international cadres of the Comintern, the Moscow-based Communist International. As an important member of this cohort, József Pogány played a major role in the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, the “March Action” in Germany in 1921, and, under the name of John Pepper, in the development of the American Communist Party of the 1920s. During the 1920s he was an important official in the Comintern apparatus and undertook missions on three continents. A prolific writer and effective organizer, he was one of the most flamboyant and controversial communists of his era. Some of his comrades praised him as “the Hungarian Christopher Columbus.” Others, like Trotsky, called him a “political parasite.” This study is based on newly available primary sources from Hungary, Russia, and the United States; it is the first ever written about this colorful and well-travelled Hungarian communist. Examines Pogány’s development as a socialist and communist, the influence of his Jewish origins on his career, the reasons for his remarkable success in the United States, and the circumstances that led to his arrest and execution in the Stalinist terror.

    eISBN: 978-615-5225-52-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Making of József Pogány
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Hungarian, who as József Pogány would play an important role in the short-lived Communist regime of 1919, was born in Budapest on November 8, 1886, as József Schwarz. The only available account of Pogány’s early life is found in the memoirs of the woman he married in 1909, Irén Czóbel. She stated that her husband came from a “poor, provincial family” that always lived in “straitened circumstances.”¹ This perhaps presents too bleak a picture. Pogány himself later made a confession in a Comintern questionnaire that most Communists of the time would have tried to avoid, namely that he came...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Revolutionary, 1918–1919
    (pp. 17-34)

    When in January 1918, Pogány had disparaged the leaders of the mass strike in Budapest as “pretend Bolsheviks,” he had argued that radical action was premature because, among other things, those seeking revolutionary change could not count on any support from the armed forces. In the political and social turbulence of late October in Hungary, Pogány’s political instincts told him that he could best use his talents in the cause of the revolution by attempting to win over the soldiers. Hungarian socialists at the time had ambivalent feelings toward the military. For many, the nearly five years of devastating war...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Communist
    (pp. 35-52)

    The Hungarian Soviet Republic, which lasted only 133 days, has been called a “bizarre experiment of doctrinaire war Communism.”¹ It provided the opportunity for zealous Hungarian Communists and Socialists to attempt to put into practice the abstract principles that they fervently believed would abolish the old order based on superstition and class oppression and would bring into being a workers’ paradise. A messianic strain can be detected in the thinking and oratory of many of the leaders of the Hungarian Communist regime.² This was especially true of Pogány, who was exhilarated by the turn of fortune that had transformed him...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Vienna, Moscow, and Berlin
    (pp. 53-74)

    Although the band of Hungarian Communists who arrived in Austria early in August 1919 was granted asylum, they were at first not given the freedom to move about the country. Instead, they were placed under protective custody at Karlstein Castle, a dilapidated relic in northern Austria. The Austrian authorities not only feared that the émigré Communists might create political disorder if allowed complete political freedom, but also that anti-Communist organizations might target them for retribution and even for execution. The Hungarians were soon complaining to the Austrian government about the primitive conditions at Karlstein, including the remote location, lack of...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The “Hungarian Christopher Columbus”
    (pp. 75-100)

    The American Communist movement that Pogány, using the name Joseph Lang, encountered upon his arrival in New York in mid-July 1922, was in considerable disarray, racked by a bitter factional struggle, a proliferation of rival organizations, and economic woes. Since its inception in 1919, the CPUSA had to contend with state and federal authorities that sought to suppress the movement. As a result, in its first two years the party had been forced to operate underground. By 1921, however, government repression had eased and at the insistence of the Comintern a legal Communist Party, called the Workers’ Party (WP), was...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “Pepperism” in America
    (pp. 101-126)

    Of the hundreds of delegates who were to attend the “monster convention” scheduled to begin on July 3, 1923, in Chicago, only ten were officially allocated to the Workers’ Party. But Pepper, who as an organizer in Hungary and Germany, had learned certain innovative methods for artificially enhancing the influence of the Communist movement, was confident that with proper planning the Workers’ Party would be able to play the leading role in the transformation of the FLP into a mass Labor Party dominated by the CP. What the Communists lacked in numbers would be compensated for by discipline, ingenuity, and...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Comintern Cadre
    (pp. 127-146)

    Although in the summer of 1924 Pepper indicated to his American friends that he had hopes of returning before long to the United States, upon sober reflection he must have realized, with regret, that such a prospect was highly unlikely, at least in the immediate future. His nearly two-year long sojourn in the New World had been an exhilarating time for him. He had employed his dazzling oratory, leadership skills, and writing prowess to help form the newly emergent American CP. To be sure, he had become the focal point of an acrimonious factional fight and had been in constant...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Pepper and the “American Question,” 1924–1928
    (pp. 147-166)

    In the first two years of his Comintern work, 1924–26, Pepper had become involved in a myriad of activities. Few of his colleagues could match him in the production of articles and pamphlets, which he managed to publish in many languages in leading Communist journals and newspapers worldwide. It is true that his ambition to become the Comintern’s acknowledged expert on Great Britain had been thwarted. But no one was able to successfully challenge his claim to be the authoritative voice on all things American. Pepper devoted a good deal of time to maintaining his connections to the CPUSA....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Return to the New World
    (pp. 167-190)

    It was in mid-March that Pepper arrived in New York unannounced, to the delight of Lovestone and his other friends and to the consternation of the Fosterites. Toward the latter, Pepper was uncharacteristically gracious and conciliatory. He requested private meetings with Foster and Bittelman, at which he apparently promised to refrain from name-calling and other divisive activities that would exacerbate the factional struggle. His rivals soon realized they had been out-maneuvered. Unlike his first stay in the United States, when he never actually showed anyone the Comintern letter that spelled out the nature of his mission, this time Pepper passed...

  14. CHAPTER 10 End of the Odyssey
    (pp. 191-216)

    On February 20, 1929, Pepper checked into the Hotel Granaton in Bronxville, New York, under the name “John Rogers.” There he was to remain for more than a month, only occasionally making his way surreptitiously to his regular apartment on 104th Street in New York, where he planned his strategy with Lovestone and Jack Stachel, the only party leaders who knew his true whereabouts. Two party stenographers were also in on the secret. One or the other reported to him daily in his hotel room and typed up the various theses and proposals that Pepper produced for the annual convention....

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 217-232)

    As a young man of considerable intellectual ability and educational attainment, József Pogány had many careers open to him in the first decade of the twentieth century. With the exception of government administration and the officer corps, Hungarians of Jewish backgrounds were free to enter any of the professions, and did so in remarkable numbers. Although Jews represented only 5 percent of the population of the Kingdom of Hungary, in this period they constituted 42 percent of all journalists, 49 percent of all medical doctors, 49 percent of all lawyers, and 85 percent of all bankers.¹ During his student days...

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-244)
  17. Index
    (pp. 245-249)
  18. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 250-253)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 254-254)