Bertram Wolfe was born January 19, 1896 in Brooklyn, New York. His mother was a native-born American and his father was an ethnic Jewish immigrant from Germany who had arrived in the United States as a boy of 13.
Wolfe was active with the Socialist Party of America in his youth and was an active participant in the Left Wing Section which emerged in 1919. Wolfe attended the June 1919 National Conference of the Left Wing and was elected by that body to its nine-member National Council. He helped draft the manifesto of that organization, together with Louis C. Fraina and John Reed.
In 1919 Wolfe became a founding member of the Communist Party of America (CPA). Together with Maximilian Cohen, Wolfe was responsible for The Communist World, the CPA's first newspaper in New York City.
During the period of repression of leading Communists in New York conducted by the Lusk Committee, Wolfe fled to California. In 1920 he became a member of the San Francisco Cooks' Union. He also edited a left wing trade union paper called Labor Unity from 1920 to 1922. Wolfe was a delegate to the ill-fated August 1922 convention of the underground CPA held in Bridgman, Michigan, for which he was indicted under Michigan's "criminal syndicalism" law.
In 1923, Wolfe departed for Mexico, where he became active in the trade union movement there. He became a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Mexico and was a delegate of that organization to the 5th World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1924. Wolfe was also a leading member the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern) from 1924 to 1928, sitting on that body's Executive Committee.
Wolfe was ultimately deported from Mexico to the United States in July 1925 for activities related to a strike of Mexican railway workers. Upon his return to America, Wolfe took over as head of the Party's New York Workers School, located at 26 Union Square and offering 70 courses in the social sciences to some 1500 students.
After his return to the United States, Wolfe became a close political associate of factional leader Jay Lovestone, who became the leader of the American Communist Party following the death of C.E. Ruthenberg in 1927. He was editor of The Communist, the official theoretical journal of the Communist Party, in 1927 and 1928.
In 1928, Wolfe was made the national director of agitation and propaganda for the Workers (Communist) Party of America. He also ran for U.S. Congress as a Communist in the 10th Congressional District of New York.
Late in December 1928, with the election campaign at an end, Wolfe was dispatched by the Lovestone-dominated Central Executive Committee of the American Communist Party to serve as it delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), where he replaced J. Louis Engdahl. In that capacity, he became involved in the attempt of Jay Lovestone to maintain control of the American organization over the growing opposition of Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, who ultimately supported the rival faction headed by William Z. Foster and Alexander Bittelman.
According to Benjamin Gitlow's 1940 memoir, I Confess, Wolfe was directed by the Comintern in April 1929 to be removed from his post in Moscow and to instead accept a dangerous assignment to Korea - at the time under Japanese rule - as part of the campaign against the Lovestone group in the American Communist Party. Wolfe refused the assignment, providing a long statement of his reasons to ECCI for this decision, according to Gitlow.
In June 1929, Wolfe was expelled from the Communist Party, USA for refusing to support the Comintern's decisions regarding the American Communist Party, which effectively removed Lovestone from power.
Communist Party (Opposition)
Upon returning to the United States, he and Lovestone, who had also been expelled from the party, formed the Communist Party (Opposition) to further their views. Having expected a majority of American Communists to join them, they were disappointed at only being able to attract a few hundred followers. Wolfe became editor of the CP(O)'s newspaper Worker's Age and its chief theorist. Initially, Lovestone and Wolfe hoped to eventually be welcomed back into the Communist movement but when changes in the Comintern's line failed to result in a rapprochement, the CP(O) moved further and further away from communism. Wolfe and Lovestone were sympathisers of Nikolai Bukharin and helped found the International Communist Opposition (also known as the International Right Opposition) which for a time had some influence before petering out.
In the 1930s, Wolfe and his wife, Ella Goldberg Wolfe, travelled around the world visiting Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City in 1933 and spending time in Spain prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
The CP(O) meanwhile moved further away from the left and went through several name changes finally becoming the Independent Labor League of America in 1938 before dissolving at the end of 1940 in part because of a break between Lovestone and Wolfe on their interpretation of World War II - with Lovestone favoring American intervention and Wolfe opposing support for what he argued was an imperialist war.
Wolfe's political perspective changed with time, however, and during the Cold War was a leading anti-Communist. In the 1950s, he worked as ideological advisor to the State Department's International Broadcasting Office which was in charge of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. He then joined Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace's library as Senior Fellow in Slavic Studies and, in 1966, became a Senior Research Fellow at the institution. He also served as a visiting professor at Columbia University and the University of California. In 1973 Wolfe was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II.
Death and legacy
Wolfe died February 21, 1977, from burns he suffered when his bathrobe caught fire. He was 81 years old at the time of his death.
- Branko Lazitch with Milorad M. Drachkovitch, Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern: New, Revised, and Expanded Edition. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986; pp. 514-515.
- "Wolfe Starts Campaign Tour: Communist Candidate to Speak in Many Cities," Daily Worker, vol. 5, no. 235 (October 4, 1928), pp. 1, 3.
- "Red Ticket Goes on Ballot in NY State," Daily Worker, vol. 5, no. 241 (October 11, 1928), pg. 3.
- Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia. New York: Viking Press, 1960; pg. 392.
- Benjamin Gitlow, I Confess: The Truth About American Communism. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1940; pp. 547-548.
- "Humanist Manifesto II". American Humanist Association. Retrieved October 9, 2012.
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