Secret Societies: Rise of the Communist International

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By Professor Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the rise of Communism and it didn’t sit too well with the capitalists who feared that it would lead to communist domination and the end of capitalism. Backed by the Communist International or Comintern, the American Communist Party carried out its mission in secret — prepare for a revolution.

Image of a group of people attending a secret meeting
The American Communist Party organised secret meetings in the early 1900s. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

The Secret Meetings

In the summer of 1922 a large group of men and a few women, who claimed to be a ‘singing society’, gathered at Karl Wulfskeel’s resort at the village of Bridgman, Michigan. They rented the entire village and kept strictly to themselves. They gathered in a wooded hollow during the nights and passionately argued for hours, not always in English. While the debate continued among some members, some furiously typed away, taking down notes. This group was the secret convention of the American Communist Party, an entity that legally did not exist.

In 1921, fed up by government harassment, the American Communist Party cloned itself and created two parties with overlapping membership. While the new Workers Party of America conducted all political activities according to the letter of the law, the former Communist Party went underground to carry on preparations for a revolution. They were closely guided by the Communist International, or Comintern, headquartered in Moscow.

The main objective of this secret convention wasn’t plotting a revolution, but rather healing factional rifts. To ensure that everything went smoothly, Moscow’s Communist International — the Red Holy of Holies— sent over special emissaries. Leading this team was veteran Polish Bolshevik Henryk Valetski, and assisting him were Boris Reinstein, a Russian-American dentist from Buffalo, New York, and a Hungarian, Joseph Pogany, alias John Pepper. Joseph Pogany was also a member of the Soviet secret police.

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The Communist Party’s Strict Security Measures

The Communist Party’s inner sanctum or the central committee took serious steps about its security. The party members had to travel on different routes and repeatedly changed trains. Few members even knew the exact location until they reached there. Members were given aliases, and no one asked for real names. At the lodge, no one could leave without permission, nor send any messages. They were strictly prohibited from talking with the locals.

Any incriminating papers were handed to the inner sanctum that either burned them or hid them in barrels in the dunes. The main reason for the Communist Party’s rigorous security was to avoid being detected by the agents of the US government, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, unknown to them, an FBI agent was already present in their midst. His codename was K-97 but, to his comrades, he was known as Comrade Day.

Image of a spy in the 1900s
Unknown to the American Communists, an FBI agent had infiltrated their secret society. (Image: Kamil Guliev / Shutterstock)

The FBI’s Raid

Francis Morrow started out as a party organizer in New Jersey. However, disgusted by the factional differences and squabbling, he became a federal informant—Comrade Day. On his last stop at the town of St. Joseph, before reaching Wulfskeel’s resort at Bridgman, Morrow managed to get a message to Washington about the whereabouts of the secret convention. The FBI immediately dispatched one of its best agents, Jacob Spolansky, to track down the convention’s precise location.

On Sunday, August 20, Spolansky and another agent posed as vacationers and wandered onto Wulfskeel’s property. When they found the guests reserved and uncommunicative, Spolansky knew he was in the right place. He contacted the local sheriff and laid plans for a raid. However, the appearance of outsiders spooked the party members at the lodge. They burned or buried their papers and slipped away.

By the time law enforcement raided the site on the morning of August 22, only 17 comrades remained and Marrow was one of them. Another was the general secretary of the Workers’ Party, Charles Ruthenberg. Ruthenberg and a few others later stood trial for “criminal syndicalism.” But the arrests did not affect the party or its leadership. It only proved that the Workers’ Party was nothing but a front and that the underground party was fully controlled by the Soviet-led Communist International or Comintern.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Why was the Comintern Formed?

The Comintern was formed in Moscow in March 1919 to pursue Vladimir Lenin’s goal of world revolution. Lenin grandly predicted that through the Comintern, an international Soviet Republic would be a reality by 1920. When things didn’t go according to plan, Lenin commanded the Comintern to “create a whole solar system of organizations and smaller committees around the Communist Party [and] working … under the influence of the Party.” The most important of these would be “mass organizations, sympathizing with our aims, and able to aid us for special purposes.”

Image showing a leaflet of the Communist International for their theoretical magazine
The Communist International published a namesake theoretical magazine from 1919 to 1943 (Image: Originally uploaded by Carrite, Transferred by Bagratun / Public domain)

A German communist named Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Münzenberg, dubbed the Red Millionaire, was the Comintern’s master of propaganda during the 1920s and 1930s. Münzenberg became a media tycoon who controlled newspapers, magazines, film studios, publishing houses, and even orphanages. He created front organizations that abetted and concealed communist activity. He soon realized that control of media was key to effective propaganda.

Using the Kremlin’s money, he built a trust of media outlets reaching all the way to America, and even to the Far East. However, he didn’t believe that being a communist meant foregoing the finer things in life. He used Comintern money to support his lavish lifestyle.

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Willi Münzenberg’s Propaganda

Image of Willi Münzenberg, a German communist
Willi Münzenberg was a German communist and the Comintern’s master of propaganda during the 1920s and 1930s (Image: Unknown Author / Public domain)

Born the same year as Adolf Hitler, Münzenberg met Lenin in Switzerland during World War I. The Comintern’s Youth Wing was one of the Münzenberg’s first creations for the Bolsheviks. In 1921, Münzenberg settled in Berlin where he formed the International Workers’ Aid Organization. Its official objective was to collect foreign aid for famine victims in Soviet Russia. However, Münzenberg diverted some of the money toward his propaganda.

In the US, the Workers’ Aid worked as another front called the Friends of Soviet Russia that collected more than one million for their cause. Münzenberg’s propaganda was based on three pillars — anti-militarism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Fascism. The main point of this was to attract as many communists as possible. Münzenberg used the nickname ‘Innocents’ Club’ for his fronts. It was imperative that fellow members believed they were acting on their own initiative and not under the guidance of the Comintern.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League is one of the best examples of a highly successful Innocents’ Club. This league was organized by one of Munsterberg’s most skilled operatives, the Czech-born Comintern agent Otto Katz, in the mid-1930s. Katz, who presented himself as a cynical, international playboy, quickly made friends in Hollywood. Famous personalities such as James Cagney, Fredric March, and Dorothy Parker strongly campaigned for the Anti-Nazi League just as Münzenberg expected.

Although he was devoted to the Red cause, Münzenberg hated Joseph Stalin, and Stalin too suspected him of having sympathies toward Leon Trotsky. In 1936, the infamous purge trials commenced in Moscow and a few months later, Münzenberg openly proclaimed himself an anti-Stalinist and fled to Paris. He was still there when Hitler invaded France in 1940. Later, his decomposed body was found in the woods in southern France and the official verdict was suicide. However, it was obvious that the Red Octopus, in the guise of Stalin’s assassins, had exacted its revenge.

Communist success had always depended on secret society techniques — selective recruitment, rigorous discipline and fanatical loyalty. This was one of the main reasons that gave birth to secret societies such as the Comintern, the Innocents’ Club, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. The members of these societies believed in the party’s propaganda and their loyalty had led to the growth of these societies.

Commonly Asked Questions About the Comintern

Q: Why did the American Communist Party cloned itself?

In 1921, fed up by government harassment, the American Communist Party cloned itself and created two parties with overlapping membership.

Q: Where did the members of the American Communist Party meet in the summer of 1922?

In the summer of 1922, the members of the American Communist Party, who claimed to be a ‘singing society’, gathered at Karl Wulfskeel’s resort at the village of Bridgman, Michigan.

Q: What was the main objective of the secret convention held by the American Communist Party?

The main objective of the American Communist Party’s secret convention was healing factional rifts, rather than plotting a revolution, as it was widely believed.

Q: Why was the Comintern formed?

The Comintern was formed in Moscow in March 1919 to pursue Vladimir Lenin’s goal of world revolution. Lenin grandly predicted that through the Comintern, an international Soviet Republic would be a reality by 1920.

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