Oral Histories

Interview of Ben Dobbs

Labor organizer and executive committee member of the Southern California chapter of the Communist Party.
Democracy and the American Communist Movement
Z: Orphan Interviews pre 1999
Social Movements
Communist Party
Labor Movement
Biographical Note:
Labor organizer and executive committee member of the Southern California chapter of the Communist Party.
Furmanovsky, Michael
Dobbs, Ben
Persons Present:
Dobbs and Furmanovsky.
Place Conducted:
Dobbs's home in West Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Michael Furmanovsky, UCLA Oral History Program; B.A., University of Warwick, Great Britain; M.A., C.Phil., UCLA.Furmanovsky prepared for the interviews by basing his questioning and direction of the interview on his research for his dissertation on the history of the Communist Party in Los Angeles during the Depression. He also reviewed the California State Legislature's Report of the Senate Fact Finding Committee on Un-American Activities and several books on the subject.
Processing of Interview:
George Kodak, editorial assistant, edited the interview. He checked the verbatim transcript of the interview against the original tape recordings, edited for punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling, and verified proper names. Words and phrases inserted by the editor have been bracketed.The edited transcript was sent to Dobbs in August 1988. He made some corrections and additions, verified proper names, and returned the interview in March 1989.Richard Candida Smith, principal editor, prepared the table of contents and index. Paul Winters, editorial assistant, prepared the biographical summary and interview history.
14.6 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Family background--Growing up in Boyle Heights--Parents' political values--Introduction to the communist movement--Assessing the attraction of Marxism-Leninism.
The Depression--The Blue Blouses--Agitprop theater--Developing as a public speaker--The John Reed Club--Joining the Young Communist League (YCL)--Literature agent for the Young Pioneers--Looking to the Soviet Union as a model of socialist development--Involvement in trade union organizing among tire workers--Elected secretary of the local--Youth director of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL)--The Los Angeles Milkers Union strike--Organizing a social club for young people in the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union--The curse of racism in the American labor movement--Communist discipline--Counselor at a Young Pioneer summer camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains--Recuperating from a mild case of tuberculosis--Attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in Long Beach--Raided by naval intelligence--Marriage to Eleanor Milder--Malvina Reynolds--David Milder.
Interest in the arts and in sports--National Youth Day--Sectarianism in the Communist Party--Involvement with the EPIC movement--YCL campaigns, 1932-1936--The American Youth Congress--The campaign to recall Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw--The National Youth Act--Party policy on revealing membership--Anticommunism--The Communist Party's leading role in the fight for democracy--Hursel Alexander.
Infiltration of the Los Angeles Communist Party by police spies--Leading the YCL in San Francisco, 1935-1938--The Archie Brown case--Developing a sports center--The Department Store Employees Union, Local 1100--Appointed organizational secretary of the YCL--Frank Carlson--Organizing youth groups around the state--The difficulties of sustaining local organizations--Pardon of Tom Mooney--Returning to Los Angeles in 1939--Marriage to Harriet Moscowitz--Defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Appointed chair of the state YCL in 1940--German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941--Browderism-- Drafted into the army in 1942--Advocating labor peace in support of the war effort--Unconditional support for the Soviet Union--Reflection on the abrupt change in Communist Party policy toward the war after the invasion of the Soviet Union--Deciding to tell the army that he is a communist--Army camp life--Running into Smiley Rincon-- Assigned to the Forty-fifth Division--Spied on by army intelligence--Transferred to the military police.
Friendships in the army--The Young Communist League dissolves in 1942--Assigned to the military police at Camp Forest, Virginia--Protesting segregation policies--Nazi sympathizers at Camp Forest--Military police duties--Transferred to stockade duty at Fort Meade, Maryland--Reassigned to a combat unit--The Sixteenth Armored Division-- Getting the runaround--Becomes charge of quarters.
Duties as charge of quarters--Promoted to staff sergeant--Harassment from the intelligence officer of the division--Shipped to Europe in February 1945.
Promoted to technical sergeant--Stationed in France--Guarding German prisoners of war--Meeting French communists in Paris--Moving into Germany-- Liberating Stribro, Czechoslovakia--The surrender of Pilsen--VE Day--Connecting with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia--Contact with the Soviet army--Promoted to battalion sergeant major.
The government of liberated Czechoslovakia--The expulsion of Sudeten Germans--Hearing Paul Robeson sing for the troops in Marienbad-- Assigned to run the Hotel Continental in Pilsen-- Distributing food and clothing to the Czech people--Recruiting drive by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia--Arguments over the role of the Communist Party in society--Campaign to rebuild the Skoda plant--The Duclos letter--Impressions of Czechoslovakia.
The United States Army sabotages Czechoslovakia's currency reform--Communist Party finances--The black market--Visiting Prague--Returning home to America--Rejoining the American Communist Party-- The shattering effect of the Duclos letter-- Rebuilding the party organization in San Jose, California--Lessons in the difficulty of working against the two-party system--Appointed labor secretary of the party in Los Angeles--Nemmy Sparks--The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) strike.
More on the CSU--Herb Sorrell--Dobbs's assessment that the CSU strike could not be won--Unrealistic expectations of using the CSU to win control of the labor movement in Los Angeles--Los Angeles's development into a major industrial center--Philip "Slim" Connelly--The People's World--Structure of party organization in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s--Network of supporting organizations--The International Workers Order--The Jewish People's Fraternal Order--The International Labor Defense-- The "progressive" labor unions in Los Angeles--The California Council of Democratic Clubs--Destruction of the network of supporting organizations during the McCarthy persecutions--Activities as labor secretary of the Los Angeles Communist Party--On the role of a communist in the union movement--Fighting the Taft-Hartley Act--Noncommunist affidavits--Industrial versus community organizing--Fighting to elect a black to the state executive council of the American Federation of Labor in 1947--The California Federation of Labor.
The beginning of the Cold War--Effect on the United States labor movement--The Marshall Plan-- The development of the Independent Progressive Party in California--The union-dues checkoff system--Development of employer-paid health insurance and pension programs--Weaknesses of left-led unions in the late 1940s--Decertification campaigns--The destruction of the International Workers Order--Campaign to remove Philip "Slim" Connelly as secretary of the Los Angeles Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) Council--Differences between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO--Prevalence of red-baiting--Campaign to put the Independent Progressive Party on the ballot in California--Debates within the Communist Party over the wisdom of a third-party policy--Communist influence in the California Council of Democratic Clubs--Arrest of the national leadership of the Communist Party in 1948--Strategies for defending the party--The Los Angeles 21 case.
More on the Los Angeles 21 case--Interrogation by Los Angeles County Grand Jury--A Fifth Amendment defense--Jailed for contempt of court--Dobbs elected organizational secretary of the Los Angeles Communist Party in 1949--National leadership's assessment that the United States was heading towards fascism--Building an underground apparatus--Dobbs's experiences in the underground--Under FBI surveillance.
Arrest--Motions to lower bail for the Smith Act defendants--Prosecuting attorneys--Judge William C. Mathes--The Smith Act--Preparing a defense--Raising bail--Sharing a jail cell with Mickey Cohen--Defense attorneys--Arranging for volunteer typists to prepare copies of the trial transcript--Doing background checks on prosecution witnesses--Trial testimony--Stool pigeons.
More on stool pigeons--High morale among the defendants--Conviction--Motions for release on bail during appeals--Struggles between the underground and the open leadership of the Communist Party--Going to work as a mechanic in a machine shop--Investigated by the Internal Revenue Service--Pettis Perry and the campaign against white chauvinism within the party--The Negro national colonial question--The rise of hard-line leaders in the Communist Party in the 1950s.
Opposition to William Z. Foster's leadership of the party after 1956--John Gates--Joseph R. Starobin--Eugene Dennis--Evaluation of democratic centralism--Fighting for the right to express dissenting positions--Gates's arguments for dissolving the Communist Party and reforming as a political association--Differences between the California and national parties--Reactions to Khrushchev's disclosures of Stalin's crimes--The "cult of the individual"--Gus Hall's campaign for general secretary--Hall's reversal of the move to a more democratic, less sectarian party--Resignations from the party after 1957--Response to the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and to Soviet intervention--The Communist Party's role in the progressive movement in the United States after 1957--The formation of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1967--The Communist Party's principal goals in the early 1960s--Relationship to the civil rights movement--The end of McCarthyism and the rise of the student movement.
More on Gus Hall--"The Struggle against Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism"--Hall's opposition to Communist Party participation in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)--Ada Dobbs leaves the party in 1957--Dobbs' s isolation within the party after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968--The McCarran Act--Dobbs takes a job in a dry-cleaning machinery company in 1961--Speaking before student groups in the 1960s--The Los Angeles Peace Action Council--Subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities--More on the development of the Peace and Freedom Party--"Participatory democracy."
Attempt to form a national third party--Splits within the Peace and Freedom Party--Sectarianism in the New Left--Dobbs runs as Peace and Freedom candidate for Congress in 1968.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia--Gus Hall's defense of the Soviet Union--Dobbs's faith in a democratic communist movement--Opposition within the Communist Party of the United States to Gus Hall's report on Czechoslovakia--Opponents to Hall labeled "strikebreakers"--Institutionalism within the Communist Party--Struggling against sectarianism--Dobbs's close personal and ideological ties with the group that left the party in the mid-1950s--Devoting more time to his family--Dorothy Healey and Al Richmond resign from the party--Dobbs's increasing isolation within the party--Gus Hall's analysis of the 1972 presidential election--Dobbs's assessment of the tasks facing the progressive movement after the end of the Vietnam War--Disagreements over the party's organization of a support committee for the movement in Chile leads Dobbs to resign from the party in 1974.
Summary of the reasons for Dobbs's resignation--Arnold Lockshin--Communist Party campaign against the Freiheit newspaper--Dobbs diagnosed as having emphysema in early 1970s--The New American Movement--The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee--The National Conference of State and Local Alternative Public Policy--The Campaign for Economic Democracy--Tom Hayden--Joining the New American Movement in 1975.
Political philosophy of the New American Movement--Dobbs elected to the national interim committee--Focus on developing local organizations--Dobbs's assessment of the three major functions of national conventions--Community organizing in Los Angeles--Conflicts between the Old and New Left in the 1970s--New Left fears of centralized organization--The genesis of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee--Michael Harrington--Building a coalition of the left within the labor and community movements--Merger between the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America--Disappointment with organizational weakness and lack of growth after the merger--A strategy based on influencing the Democratic Party--The relationship of communists to the American two-party system.
Assessment of the Democratic Party--Necessary conditions for building a successful third party--New Left rejection of the Democratic Party--Coalition politics and the left--Eurocommunism--The role of criticism and self-criticism in building a viable organization--American liberalism--Assessing the failure of the American communist movement--Political consciousness within the American working class--Confusing the communist and popular movements destroyed democracy in socialist countries--Hopes for Gorbachev and the reform of Soviet political structures--Ongoing work for the Democratic Socialists of America--Learning from the women's movement--Dobbs's relationship with his children--Ada Dobbs--Human agency in history.