A Communist Odyssey

The Life of József Pogány / John Pepper
$79.00 / €69.00 / £63.00
Kindle edition is available through Amazon
Publication date: 
265 pages

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.














"Thomas Sakmyster‘s well documented and insightful scholarly biography of József Pogány/John Pepper is a highly valuable and much needed contribution to the history of the American Communist Party. In the 1920s Pepper was a major figure, dominating the party for a time… Sakmyster also fills in Pepper’s earlier Hungarian background and role in the short-lived Hungarian Communist regime of 1919 as well as his later grim fate in Moscow during Stalin’s mid-1930s Terror, subjects about which little has been known."
"Coming from the author of Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground, this is a pioneering book on yet another post-World War I Hungarian émigré who became involved in the Communist movement in the U.S. Professor Sakmyster presents not only a solitary warrior, but also an important chapter of the Comintern as directed from Moscow. The book contributes to the understanding of the interrelations of Leftist politics and turbulent societies in both Stalinist Russia and in the United States. It reveals the various factions of the Communist Party of the U.S., the intrigues and political infighting, the often embittered party politics of the 1920s, the petty struggles for recognition, and money. The author did outstanding primary research in German, Soviet, and American archives. This is a thrilling, exciting, and engaging book."
"Thomas Sakmyster relates all in his wellresearched, informative and easy-to-read biography. Between his arrival in Moscow and his death in the same city Pogány was, for most of the time, a Comintern agent, sent to different countries to assess the situation and sometimes generate pro-communist disturbances. A fiery brand of Hungarian red pepper - Sakmyster covers the intriguing American period of John Pepper - as Pogány now called himself - in detail. Pepper comes across as someone who was disruptive rather than unifying. The American communists didn’t quite know what to make of him, this messenger from “Mecca”, as they used to call Moscow. “Pepperism” became a term, both in the US and Moscow, to describe the latest line that he happened to be promoting"
"Sakmyster has written a fascinating and important study of a largely forgotten Hungarian communist who was both a witness to history and a history maker himself, in Europe and the US... Meticulously documented, this work offers yet another glimpse into the interwar communist world, one that adds important new insights into the relationship of the US Communist Party and its leaders with the Comintern and its international agents. Highly recommended."
"Sakmyster wrote a highly important book on the life and political career of one of the most controversial characters in Hungarian history. The book is based on a number of new, hitherto unknown or underused primary sources, such as the unpublished oral memoirs of Pogány’s wife, Irén Czóbel, the archives of the Communist International and the Com­munist Party of the United States, and the FBI files on John Pepper. The book makes a major contribution to the study of the Hungarian civil war after the First World War and to the understanding of complicated factions within the Communist movement both in Europe and the United States. But the Communist Odyssey is, first and foremost, an enjoyable read. ..."
"Thomas Sakmyster has combed through an impressive range of sources, including Federal Bureau of Investigation files, Comintern records, Communist party publications, and, most importantly, previously unavailable Hungarian-language material, such as the records of the Béla Kun government and the unpublished memoirs of Pepper’s wife, Irén Czóbel, to produce a comprehensive study of Pepper’s life and career. Sakmyster portrays Pepper as a sincere Communist who could have achieved much as a member of capitalist society, but he also does not hesitate to reveal his ruthless ambition, obsessive need for praise, power-seeking behavior, love of the trappings of the good life, and compulsive womanizing."
"Pogány/Pepper—who like other Communists of the era used several other pseudonyms as well—remained something of a mystery until now. Before this book, Hungarian historians knew of József Pogány who had been a major figures in the Hungarian Revolution and the Americans knew John Pepper who had played a key role in the American Communist Party, but now we have the full picture of this fascinating figure in a highly engaging and illuminating biography. Thomas Sakmyster, a scholar in the area of international relations, Communism, and Hungary, making use of Hungarian, Russian and American sources from the archives of the Communist International to the records of the FBI, as well as the memoirs of Pepper’s wife and many other papers, has produced the first comprehensive biography of Pogány."
"A Communist Odyssey is a well-documented and fascinating book. The factional fights and personalities in the American Communist Party can almost bewilder at times, though to say this is not a reflection on Thomas Sakmyster's scholarship, which is thorough and praiseworthy. He writes clearly and intelligently. Does his book tell a tragic story? It's hard to feel much sympathy for Pogány. He was prepared to treat other people in an offhand and ruthless manner, and his unprincipled behaviour was noticeable right from the start of his activities as a radical. I don't doubt that he would have been prepared to shoot his opponents in the American Communist Party, had it been necessary to do so, and if he could get away with it. I can't help wondering what was going through his mind as he was led away to be shot?"
"The protagonist of Thomas Sakmyster’s study was a thoroughly reprehensible character. József Pogány was a scoundrel. Even his loving wife described him as arrogant, supercilious, excessively ambitious, and unpleasant. He had more pseudonyms and played more roles than most actors. He utterly lacked principle and loyalty. When it suited his ambitions, Pogány was a Hungarian nationalist, then he was a socialist and later a communist. Without exception he betrayed everyone who was close to him: his wife, his children, his parents, his friends, and, most relevant to the historian, all of his political allies. Pogány was Jewish and Hungarian by birth, but neither seemed important for the identity that he had created for himself. Evidently he was a smart man, who learned languages easily, wrote well, and also must have had a certain charisma to be able to get away with his betrayals as long as he did. Judging from his pictures, he was physically unimpressive; nevertheless women were... more