100 Years of American Communism

The Communist Party USA, which turned 100 this year, has left behind a complicated legacy, filled with great victories and terrible blunders.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party USA.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party USA (CP). The party became, from at least the early 1930s until the 1950s, the preeminent left group in the country, and one with no significant rivals.

It was during this period that Communists led the fight for racial equality, and were the most important organizers of rapidly expanding industrial unions. Long demonized by the Right and challenged by those to its left, it’s vital that we understand the roots of American Communism and the legacy it left behind.

Homegrown Radicalism

The Communist Party was formed in 1919 when the right-wing leadership of the Socialist Party (SP) refused to allow the overwhelming left-wing majority to take control of the organization. The main issues dividing the two tendencies were the left-wing’s support for the October Revolution in Russia and the consistency of its opposition to World War I, especially after the United States entered the war.

The Left had won twelve of the fifteen seats on the SP’s National Executive Committee (NEC) in the March 1919 elections. Even after this period, more local bodies began to support the Left. SP executive secretary Adolph Germer, along with NEC member Morris Hillquit, worked to expel individuals and groups of left-wing supporters, thus overturning the elections. In less than six months, Germer and Hillquit had expelled two-thirds of the SP’s members. At the September 1919 convention in Chicago, Adolph Germer and his brother called the Chicago police to eject the left-wing delegates. Eugene Debs, the nominal leader of the SP, claimed to agree with the left wing, but refused to get involved in the internal party struggle. (Debs had famously publicly declared, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, I am a Bolshevik, and proud of it.”)

SP membership, almost one hundred ten thousand in January 1919 but less than forty thousand in July, had dropped to perhaps ten thousand by 1923. By their violations of any elementary notions of democracy and the exit of the more dynamic left wing, the Socialist Party effectively declared its moral and political bankruptcy, moving closer to the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft union leaders, whom they had previously despised.

The largest number of potential Communists came from the seven language federations (Russian, Lettish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, South Slav, and Polish) that had been suspended within the SP, and the Jewish/Yiddish and Finnish language groupings. From its inception and throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the CP recruited many of the most dynamic radicals from a wide swath of the US population and from every strand of American radicalism. In addition to the SP leftists, large numbers of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies,” joined the Communist Party. Initially, Bill Haywood (the best known and titular leader of the IWW), James Cannon (the future leader of American Trotskyism), Vern Smith, and Bill Dunne joined, as did many more, including others imprisoned for their opposition to World War I. Former IWW general secretary George Hardy joined.

Like many other Wobblies, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn eventually drew close to the party as a result of her involvement with the International Labor Defense (ILD), which played an important role in the US defense movement for Sacco and Vanzetti (1926 and 1927). By 1932 as many as two thousand former Wobblies had joined the CP.

The other radical wing of the labor movement was represented by William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Educational League (TUEL). Foster, along with his hundreds of cohorts, had led the 1918 packinghouse workers’ strike and the 1919 national steel strike. After discussions in Moscow in 1921 with Lenin and Trotsky, Foster was recruited to the leadership of the party. As a result, the Communists gained a decisive hold on the left wing of the labor movement.

The largest foreign-language groups in the mid-1920s were Jews and Finns, each with daily newspapers. The Jewish Socialist Federation’s Morgen Freiheit had, as Tony Michels writes in A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, the “most impressive array of poets and fiction writers of any Yiddish newspaper.” In Superior, Wisconsin, according to a local party report, “the local Finnish branch with one hundred fifty members [had] an orchestra, dramatic club, male choir, brass band, and athletic club, along with a newspaper. Its buildings, papers, and agricultural coops were worth millions.”

Black radicals were slower to join. The split between the right and left Socialists also took place among the small number of African-American Socialists, including its most prominent group around the Messenger magazine in New York City. The left wing, led by Cyril Briggs and Richard Moore, formed the African Blood Brotherhood, whose main leaders were close to, if not already members of, the CP by 1921. By the early 1930s, however, CP leadership in the unemployed movement in inner-city African-American communities, their militant fight for racial equality even in the Deep South, and especially their lead in the Scottsboro defense paved the way for their recruitment of thousands of black radicals into the party.

The Communist Party recruited activists from throughout the country. By the mid-1930s, they were again recruiting many SP members. An indication of the degree to which they were regarded as the only show in town was their recruitment of Meta Berger. Berger was a maverick leader of the SP in her own right, but as the widow of Victor Berger, former Wisconsin Congressman and leader of the SP’s right wing, she was the grand old lady of the party. The South was also not immune. Radical preacher Don West, a leader of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, switched from the SP to the CP in 1934.

James Cannon, eventually one of the party’s most trenchant critics, said: “The CP entered the thirties — the period of the great radical revival — as the dominating center of American radicalism. It had no serious contenders.” Or as James Weinstein, a bitter detractor, wrote: “From the early 1930s until 1956 or so, the Communist Party was not only the largest and best organized party on the Left, but for all practical purposes it was the socialist left.”

The Party on the Shop Floor

Communist work in the 1920s and early 1930s contributed to later growth. During the 1920s, as trade union membership declined, worker militancy waned, and working conditions became even more brutal, Communists continued to organize and recruit, largely under the rubric of the Foster-led TUEL — even where company-organized repression involved threat of discharge, no less violence and murder.

Foster’s skills and ability were appreciated by a wide range of people. Both Eugene Debs and Sidney Hillman were enthusiastic supporters of Foster and the TUEL. In 1920, Foster’s speech at the SP convention was greeted with a tremendous round of applause. Conservative labor historian John Commons invited him to speak to his class at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Charlie Chaplin held a reception for him at his home in Hollywood. Theodore Dreiser stated that he admired Foster “more than any man alive.”

Foster’s drive and dedication were immense, even at the risk of his health and life. During the winter of 1912, he hoboed across the country, traveling many thousands of miles on open freight trains, giving hundreds of talks to small groups of radicals. He nearly froze to death riding in “open freights in subzero temperatures” while averaging “one meal a day.”

Foster was clearly a giant of American labor as well as the Communist Party. Like most US socialists, prior to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) he believed that industrial unions were inherently radical. Foster posited that there was a militant minority of left-wing revolutionary activists who could influence the direction of the labor movement. The IWW, on the other hand, believed that these activists should set up independent revolutionary unions. Foster had rejected this view by 1912, claiming that revolutionary trade unionists should stay within the conservative unions (both the American Federation of Labor and the railway organizations); build their internal, left-wing oppositions; and win over members to the revolutionary position, rather than build separate organizations.

Foster was not without his critics. One of the harshest was former IWW and then-Communist leader William “Big Bill” Haywood, who thought the Foster-led 1919 steel strike was a “dismal failure” because Foster had renounced the opportunity for “revolutionary propaganda” and put himself forward as a “patriot.” Haywood also wrote critiques of the TUEL and its obtuseness on questions of race, which circulated throughout the highest levels of the Communist International (Comintern) and the CP. Foster subordinated his politics to building a massive industrial union in steel, thinking it would automatically lead to the revolutionizing of US labor. He was intensely interested in those issues that affected industrial labor, but far less attuned to the importance of international issues, the nature of the Soviet Union, or sticking to broader working-class principles.

Contrary to those who sometimes claim that it was merely a body pushing for rank-and-file democracy, the TUEL had a ten-point program including support for the Russian Revolution and the abolition of the capitalist system and the establishment of a workers’ republic. Foster later argued that three of the demands were central: industrial unionism, a labor party, and recognition of Soviet Russia.

The TUEL led active opposition movements in virtually every union and labor venue in the country. Its resolutions in support of industrial unionism/amalgamation were passed in local unions, central labor bodies, and state federations representing a majority of AFL members. There was hardly a union or industry in which they were not at least major components of the opposition, if not the leaders. This was true in coal, railroads, the building trades, electrical, packinghouse, metal mining, longshore and seamen, and more. In the machinists’ union, their opposition slate against the entrenched leadership garnered strong support. Their members were also active throughout the 1920s in a united front with Socialists in organizing the independent United Automobile Workers (UAW).

The CP had substantial influence in the needle trades. On the basis of its capable organizing and militant strike leadership, it gained overwhelming majority support among fur workers, eventually setting up the CP-led Fur and Leather Workers Union. It had majority support in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), including a large majority in the industry’s center in New York City. It was ultimately defeated by the SP leadership’s bureaucratic and antidemocratic methods (a replay of their earlier expulsion of the Left from the SP), and the ILGWU leaders’ reliance on gangsters to brutalize oppositionists.

From Labor Defense to a Labor Offensive

The CP gained wider support with the formation of the International Labor Defense (ILD) in 1925. The CP had previously been engaged in legal defense work of its own members, notably Foster. Foster had been arrested for his attendance at the 1922 Bridgman, Michigan CP meeting. The support for his legal defense was extensive. Led by the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Roger Nash Baldwin, Foster had a pro bono support team including the then-radical preacher Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, Scott Nearing, Jeannette Rankin (the first female member of Congress and a leading labor party activist), Oswald Garrison Villard (great-grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison), and James Mauer (president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor). Chicago Federation of Labor head John Fitzpatrick arranged for prominent defense attorney Frank Walsh to be Foster’s lead attorney. He was eventually released after a hung jury refused to indict him on April 6, 1923.

In August 1922, while on a speaking tour to support the national railroad shopmen’s strike, Foster was kidnapped by Colorado state rangers, dumped on the open range near the Nebraska state line, and threatened with murder if he returned. With the help of the ACLU, the kidnapping became a central issue in Colorado politics, contributing to the gubernatorial victory of William Sweet, a liberal Democrat from Denver, over the incumbent who had apparently ordered the kidnapping. Foster was subsequently invited back to Denver and spoke to a large crowd at the Printers’ Union Hall, with support from the Colorado State Federation of Labor.

Foster had many other run-ins which only served to add to his fame and notoriety. On August 27, 1923, for example, three gunmen attempted to assassinate Foster while he addressed two thousand garment workers in Chicago; he refused to stop talking during the attempt. The idea for the ILD seems to have originated with “Big Bill” Haywood, who apparently convinced Cannon to form a broad united front defense organization led by the CP to defend all who were threatened by the capitalist state apparatus.

Under Cannon’s leadership, the ILD mobilized wide support for both Communists and non-Communists, including Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney, among others. Many regard the 1920s Cannon-led ILD as a compelling example of how a radical party should engage in united front activity.

The Third Period in the United States

In 1928, the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern declared the existence of a “Third Period” in the growing crisis of world capitalism. The “First Period” was after World War I, when the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in a period of revolutionary struggles. The “Second Period” was one of capitalist stabilization, supposedly beginning sometime after 1923 with the defeat of the last German workers’ uprising.

The Comintern (CI) declared a Third Period beginning in 1928, which would witness the final capitalist crisis, the rapid growth of Communist organizations, the disintegration of reformist workers’ groups, and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. To understand what all this meant for the US party, one must view what this meant internationally, especially for Germany.

The policies following from this analysis nowhere had more disastrous impact than in Germany. The German Communist Party and the CI vastly exaggerated their own influence, minimized the threat of the Nazis (even arguing that if the Nazis took power it would pave the way for a Communist-led workers’ revolution), and continued to focus their attack on the “social fascist” Social Democrats as the main enemy, even after the Nazis had seized power.

The schemata of the CI with respect to Germany had no empirical basis in reality. First, the Social Democrats were not disintegrating. Despite some electoral losses, they continued to dominate the trade unions, shop groups, and other working-class organizations. The KDP (German Communist Party), on the other hand, could not make inroads due to its highly sectarian and divisive policies, especially that of forming revolutionary unions outside the established organizations.

Despite huge growth in Nazi membership and votes and the growing murderous violence of their storm troopers, the CP continually underestimated Nazi strength. While the slogan of “After Hitler, Us” (Nach Hitler, Kommen Wir) is actually traceable to the SPD, it was clearly also the KDP’s assessment.

In general, past commentators on the Third Period activities of the US CP have described it both as highly sectarian and detrimental to Communist mass work and organizational growth. Such was, however, not always the case. For example, a funeral was attended by fifty thousand people in January 1930 for Steve Katovis, a party activist killed by New York City police at a demonstration. A similar funeral in Detroit in 1932 for four party activists killed by police in a protest march on Ford’s River Rouge plant was attended by “twenty thousand to forty thousand people.” “Above the coffin was a large red banner with Lenin’s picture,” a report at the time noted. At the initiative of the Comintern, the CP took the lead in unemployed work by organizing demonstrations on International Unemployment Day, March 6, 1930, attended by over one million in the United States alone.

Membership increased from seven thousand to twenty-six thousand from 1929 and 1933 (an almost four-fold increase). In contrast, however, SP membership increased roughly 9,500 to 18,500, a little less than doubling during this same period. Perhaps the high point was achieved in Chicago. In 1931, five hundred people in a Chicago South Side black neighborhood returned furniture to the home of a recently evicted widow. The police returned, opening fire and killing three people. The coffins were viewed, again, under an enormous portrait of Lenin.

The funeral procession of sixty thousand participants and fifty thousand cheering onlookers was led by workers carrying Communist banners. “Within days, 2,500 applications for the Unemployed Councils and five hundred for the party were filled out,” Harvey Klehr writes in The Heyday of American Communism. Sectarian and militant, admittedly; ineffective, hardly.

An Antiracist Record to Be Proud Of

The Third Period commitment to fighting black oppression made the CP unique. The CP was the first largely white US radical group to focus attention on the plight of blacks.

The IWW organized black workers since it stood for the militant unity of all workers in one big revolutionary union, but it had no program for fighting discrimination. The SP policy ranged from the benign neglect of Debs to the undisguised white chauvinism of SP leader Victor Berger. What the SP line permitted in practice is seen in the publication of racist jokes in the United Automobile Workers newspaper under SP leadership. A small, radical grouping within the Socialist Party, centered in the South at the Highlander Folk School, believed in fighting for racial egalitarianism, working with Communists, and sympathy for the Soviet Union. They had little influence within the SP, however.

The 1928 Sixth World Congress of the CI placed the “Negro Question” at the center of the US CP’s strategy. The CI resolution argued that blacks were an oppressed nation with a territory in the Black Belt region of the South, so-called because of its dark soil in which cotton flourished. Blacks were entitled to the democratic right of territorial secession if they so desired. The demands against black oppression were viewed as posing a fundamental challenge to the whole capitalist system. Also, winning whites to the fight for these demands was seen as a prerequisite for winning them to revolutionary positions. The CP successfully involved white members in fighting discrimination, even penetrating to its extensive immigrant membership. Another key result was to put special emphasis on organizing blacks in the South, giving an impetus to party activities among black workers centered in Birmingham, Alabama.

The party’s position on the South also led it to publicize and fight against the lynching of blacks. In 1931, the heart of the Third Period, the CP took an initiative that was to gain it major political leadership among blacks throughout the country. This was the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths seized on a freight train in rural Alabama and accused of raping two white girls who had been riding with them.

The Scottsboro defense laid the basis for large-scale influence and recruitment of blacks of every stratum throughout the United States. Defense activities involving significant numbers of whites, as well as many blacks, were numerous, widely attended, broadly supported, and well-publicized. As Mark Naison comments:

The campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, more than any single event, marked the Communist Party’s emergence as a force in Harlem’s life. The party’s role in the case, and its conflicts with the NAACP, were front-page news for years, and its protest rallies gave it entry to churches, fraternal organizations, and political clubs that were previously closed to it.

The diverse and highly successful work of the CP among blacks during the early 1930s underscores the need to move beyond the limited stereotypes about the Third Period in the United States. The CP’s audacity and radical approach, sectarian as it might have been, gained numerous supporters.

In August 1929, the CP formed the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL). The TUUL conference outlined several strategies. The first, although far from exclusive, strategy was the formation of independent “red” trade unions in coal, textile, steel, and wood.  Throughout the Third Period, it also organized left-wing oppositions in existing AFL unions when the opportunity presented itself. TUUL unions led strikes in coal, wood, and textile throughout the Third Period.

This organizing should not be underestimated. It not only gained valuable experience for thousands of TUUL and CP labor cadre, but these activists also gained immense respect from their coworkers, often planting the initial seeds of organization which laid the basis for the later industrial union upsurge. It is estimated that CP had as many as fifteen thousand AFL members between 1934 and 1936.

Problems and Inconsistencies of the Third Period

In many ways, the work was contradictory, zigzagging between cooperation with other groups and sectarianism, destructive attacks, refusing to work with them, and labeling them as stool pigeons and fascists.

At its worst during the Third Period, the CPUSA poisoned the well and made enemies forever. On February 16, 1934, five thousand CP supporters, led by Daily Worker editor Clarence Hathaway and politburo member Robert Minor, physically assaulted and broke up an SP rally at Madison Square Garden called to protest the murder of Austrian SP workers by the fascist Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss.

The CP’s contradictory stance on united fronts helped destroy one of the most important defense movements during the 1930s, the case of Tom Mooney, previous leader of the left wing of the California labor movement. Mooney and Warren Billings were convicted of bombing a 1916 Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco. It soon became clear that the conviction was based on perjured evidence, a conclusion drawn by both President Woodrow Wilson and a conservative federal commission.

Mooney’s case became an international cause supported by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals from the ACLU to conservative AFL unions to radicals. In 1932, still imprisoned, Mooney issued a call for a wide defense coalition to free him and Billings, specifically including the CP and its many followers and allies. A united front conference of over one thousand delegates took place in May 1933 in Chicago, although the actual control of the conference executive committee was in the hands of the CP. James Cannon, leader of US Trotskyism, played a major role, elected to the National Council of the developing organization. Many called for broader actions and a national day of action to free the prisoners.

This all was too much unity for the Third Period CP, which moved quickly to sandbag the developing broad organization and actions, quickly deciding they wanted no relations with other organizations, only a “united front from below.” Finally, even Mooney, who had originally invited the CP’s participation, grew tired of their stalling and sabotage, and repudiated the new organization.

Nonetheless, despite much of the self-destructive sectarian behavior of the Communists, between 1928 and 1934 the party made huge gains in support and membership. Thus, we can draw several conclusions.

First, the harsh stances of the Communists appealed to millions of angry destitute people across the country, be they unemployed, workers, farmers, students, African Americans, or many others. They also focused people’s attention on both immediate demands and a powerful indictment of the whole capitalist system. Len De Caux summarizes this well. With respect to the unemployed movement,

The Communists made immediate demands. More relief, in cash and jobs. Public workers at union wages. Hot lunches for school children. An end to evictions. They exposed and fought racist discriminations . . . they fought . . . by raising hell to force concessions from the rulers . . . The Communists didn’t fail to emphasize that capitalism was proving a losing system, and should be replaced . . .

If the Communists were as nasty, cantankerous, conspiratorial, and subversive as charged, that scared the ruling class . . . all the more and forced more concessions. Somehow the Communists didn’t scare the unemployed. In hundreds of jobless meetings, I heard no objections to the points the Communists made, and much applause for them. Sometimes I’d hear a Communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience — shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap. They liked that stuff best of all.

The Communists proved to be the hardest working, most reliable, and courageous of activists in daily struggles in the workplace or elsewhere. These attributes won the trust of millions of the most militant and radical in the population during the Depression. The CP’s potential was far greater than even their dramatic, large-scale gains during the Third Period would suggest. Thus, one can easily speculate that a less sectarian Communist Party that was more balanced in its united front work would have had far more influence and support, perhaps even many times its size and outreach.

Between 1935 and 1937, Communist Parties in most countries, the United States included, changed dramatically. This change was signaled by the 1935 Seventh World Congress of the Comintern, led by Georgi Dimitrov. The 1935 break was dramatic. In order to evaluate this change, first toward a redefinition of the United Front, then to the Popular Front, and at times to a People’s Front (which included so-called progressive segments of the capitalist class), it is helpful to begin with the overall goals of Communist Parties, espoused forcefully over many decades.

An Evaluation of the Communist Party

From the time of Marx and Engels, Communists had two interrelated, sometimes seemingly contradictory goals. The first was to build the mass movements for reforms in the broadest possible fashion, especially among workers. For Lenin, this meant being “a tribune of the people.” For the revolutionary IWW in the United States, this translated into “fan the flames of discontent.” For Marx, it was necessary for workers to resist every instance in which capitalists continuously and invariably tried to worsen their conditions. If they should abandon such resistance, “they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.” And, if they should “cowardly” give up “in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”

The CPUSA, as we have seen so far, often excelled at this aspect of the struggle. But this was not enough. According to Marx, these struggles were only temporary “palliatives, not curing the malady.” At the top of their banners must be, not reform demands, but the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system.”

The IWW also claimed to adhere to this goal. As the preamble to their constitution stated, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. . . . Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wages system, and live in harmony with the earth.” For Communists, this meant continuously engaging in education and propaganda to convince working people of the need to reconstruct society on a socialist basis. The failure to put forward this goal was a major component of IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood’s critique of Foster’s leadership in the 1919 steel strike.

The view that both the capitalist class and the working class were international is derived from this second goal. Workers should not fight against fellow workers of other countries in wars for the gains of their own national capitalist class; their allegiance was to their fellow workers, not their country.

This involved support for struggles around the world. The IWW, with its flare for the dramatic, often burned American flags at the beginning of their meetings to underscore this point. Along with support for the Bolshevik Revolution, these three shared values attracted and recruited the more radical Wobblies to the CP, the reason Communist Parties internationally originally made strong overtures and recruiting efforts toward revolutionary syndicalists like the IWW.

The Communists, however, had two other important principles which distinguished them from revolutionary syndicalists like the IWW. The first was a commitment to a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries with a unified program, a division of labor, and the rooting of members in shops and other groups, wherever oppression and mass protest existed.

A second key differentiation from the revolutionary syndicalists was the CP’s strategy of winning the masses of workers and other parts of the population to their long-term goals. This strategy was dubbed the United Front, elaborated in various writings of Lenin and the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Communist International.

It had two major components. On the one hand, Communists were to work within conservative organizations, including AFL trade unions which had the allegiance of large numbers of workers, presenting demands and programs to transform these organizations into militant fighting units. They were also to participate in electoral politics — not to win executive positions in the “bourgeois state,” but to gain a greater platform to espouse their views. As the pre–World War I German Social Democrats, who had substantial representation in the German parliament, used to say, their role was not to merely pressure for more far-reaching reforms, but to talk “auf dem Fenster” (literally, out the window), using their positions as a larger platform for their views.

On the other hand, Communists were to form “united fronts” with other left and working-class parties, in order to broaden the radical and popular movements, while at the same time maintaining their own independence to propagate their long-term goals. Submerging themselves in reform coalitions without this independence constituted abandonment of their revolutionary goals.

With these principles in mind, it is instructive to look at the Popular Front period to see the extent to which they adhered to, deviated from, or abandoned their principles.

The Popular Front Period

The Popular Front period (roughly 1935 to 1939, and during World War II, beginning after the June 22, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany until the end of the war in 1945), was a period in which the Communist Party was barely recognizable from the Third Period Communists. CP influence in US life during the Popular Front period was extensive.

The party and its allies were the leaders of the National Negro Congress, a large consortium of civil rights groups that set the tone and stage for virtually all such struggles; it allied itself closely with the CIO, receiving strong support from many of its leaders, including John L. Lewis. Party members were the leaders of the main left-wing student group, the American Student Union, and its more inclusive successor, the broader American Youth Congress. They led broad coalitions of antiwar and antifascist organizations and were key activists and leaders in farm organizations. Within the labor movement, party activists controlled or had influence in a large part of the CIO.

To what degree did the Popular Front period mark merely a change in revolutionary tactics, and to what degree was it an abandonment of the Communists’ proclaimed revolutionary role?

The Popular Front period(s) was a complete reversal of their previous stances. The Communist Party dropped its revolutionary slogans and criticism; allied with moderate leaders and groups; and not only failed to distinguish itself from its allies, but in most cases even failed to criticize them. The CP’s attitude toward President Roosevelt also evolved substantially. During the Third Period, he had been criticized on virtually every policy, even being called a “fascist.” During 1936, the party uneasily moved from advocating a Farmer–Labor party to tacit support for FDR’s reelection. The so-called People’s Front or antifascist coalition was eventually extended to include the Democratic Party.

In 1936, the party had criticized FDR for failing to lend aid to the embattled Loyalists in Spain. By 1937, it republished and lauded his speeches in the Daily Worker. In late 1937, it described him as “the most outstanding antifascist spokesman within the capitalist democracies.” At the May 1938, Tenth National Convention, the hall was decorated with American flags, and delegates sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and a sanitized version of “The Internationale.” The party became Roosevelt’s abject apologists. When the president refused to support anti-lynching legislation, it blamed reactionaries in Congress and refused to criticize him directly. The CP blamed his policy on Spain on members of his cabinet. It even claimed at times to be the most consistent of New Dealers.

Within the trade union movement during this period, party work was mixed. Often its members remained the most militant, dedicated rank-and-file unionists. Yet the party itself often abandoned its members in order to preserve harmonious relations with national CIO leaders, bending the stick far to the right.

In steel, the CP supported steelworkers union president Philip Murray unequivocally, even as he was eliminating, purging, and transferring key CP activists who had been the major organizers of the union. The CP did much to create the myth of Murray by continuously describing him as “progressive” and democratic, although he ruled a labor organization as racially backward and authoritarian as any.

In auto, their slavishness seemed to know no bounds. The second UAW Convention was held in April 1936 in South Bend, Indiana. The convention was dominated by the Unity Caucus and its popular leader and early organizer CPer Wyndham Mortimer. All commentators suggest he would have easily been elected as president. But party leaders did not want to alarm national CIO leaders and demanded that Communist delegates support the incompetent Homer Martin. Mortimer withdrew his name from candidacy and became the union’s first vice president.

A similar scene was repeated in 1939. The Unity Caucus again dominated the convention. Mortimer, the most prominent member of the caucus, was forced by national CP leaders to withdraw his candidacy even for an executive board position. When Murray and Hillman objected to Unity Caucus leader and CP ally George Addes running for president, he settled for secretary treasurer. In a union where the CP and its allies had majority support, no CPer ran for the executive board.

Some regard this as the fatal decision which lost the party’s influence within the union, paving the way for the ascendancy of Walter Reuther and the purge of the Left in 1949; it would have been difficult for CIO right-wingers to destroy the CP if the party had still controlled the UAW.

The national CP leadership was often willing to sandbag its own members when they were “fanning the flames.” After the 1936–37 Flint sit-down strike, the UAW demanded Chrysler recognize the union. When the company refused, workers seized all their plants. The strikers voted to stay in the plants after an injunction was issued, while an estimated forty thousand sympathetic workers picketed outside. Lewis, supported by the CP, agreed to have the plants evacuated.

In the 1941 California North American Aviation strike, ultimately broken on orders from the CIO, the party sided with the more conservative UAW leaders and the national CIO, refusing to defend Wyndham Mortimer, the main national organizer of the strike. Mortimer was fired and never had a responsible position in the union again.

By 1939, the Communists disbanded their shop units (which were allegedly the vehicles both for deciding tactics within the workplace and for articulating their independent anti-capitalism, and, according to Lenin, the root of party identity). It was not just individual members, however, that the party left out to dry. In organization after organization, they supported anti-Communist resolutions which attacked their own legitimacy.

At the 1940 CIO convention in Atlantic City, rather than defend themselves politically, the Communists supported a unanimously adopted resolution stating that “totalitarianism . . . such as Nazism, Communism, and Fascism . . . [has] no place in this great modern labor movement.” The resolution was in fact introduced by CP supporter and CIO corporate counsel, Lee Pressman. The Communists supported a similar resolution at the 1946 Convention. At this convention, the resolution to rein in the CP-led city and state CIO councils was introduced by Reid Robinson, CP president of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Swelter Workers. This was hardly the way Communists were supposed to engage in united front work.

Though willing to compromise on virtually all their sacred principles on domestic issues as avowed Communists, the CP brooked no quarter in their defense of Soviet domestic or foreign policy. This was especially true of their vituperative attacks against those who questioned one of Stalin’s greatest crimes: the preposterously staged 1936–38 Moscow show trials and the execution of numerous party members, including virtually all the old Bolshevik leaders.

Interpreting the Role of the Communist Party USA

How can we summarize the Communist Party and its role and influence in the US labor movement? During the 1920s through the early 1950s, the Communist Party combined several characteristics that seemed utterly incompatible.

On the one hand, with some noted exceptions, from the 1920s until the mid-1950s, Communists were generally the most committed, militant, and fearless activists and organizers for the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities, doing and accomplishing what no other group (especially majority white) had done. Their commitment to the cause was head and shoulders above others, a fact recognized both by conservative African-American newspapers and organizations and, even at times, by their bitterest critics. Even after the expulsion of CP-led unions from the CIO in 1949, they continued to fight to open up hiring for blacks and other minorities, especially in the South.

In general, the trade unions which they led were far more democratic than their Socialist, liberal, and right-wing competitors, a fact denied by their earlier critics but proven unequivocally by the best modern scholarship. What’s more, the CP played a decisive role in building the union upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s, something which is unlikely to have occurred in their absence.

The CP-led unions themselves had upwards of one million members at their height, with the CP-led United Electrical Workers, the third-largest union in the CIO. This figure does not include those unions in which Communists were the primary organizers, but whose leadership positions were forsaken. The UAW’s unionization of GM and Ford, for instance, was led primarily by Communists — including Mortimer and Robert Travis, who devised the infamous GM sit-downs. CIO president, John L. Lewis, relied on CPers to unionize steelworkers, leading to his characterization of the CP as the “dog” in his question, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”

The CP’s dedication to interracial class solidarity, as well as their experience, militancy, and tight organization allowed them to succeed where others failed. Indeed, the absence of CP organizers in the post-WWII CIO attempt to unionize the South, Operation Dixie, as well as their earlier purge from the International Woodworkers of America, partly explains the overall failure to unionize the South.

However, their own organization was far from democratic. By 1928, the top leadership of the CPUSA was not merely beholden to Moscow, but its policies were subject to change with little or no input or debate not only from rank-and-file members, but even from the top CPUSA leadership. This was in sharp contrast to the large-scale open debates in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, as well as the situation in the early and mid-1920s, where the CI leaders in Moscow struggled at length to get the US party factions to unify, to emerge from the underground, to work within AFL unions, and, over a lengthy period of time, to place the struggle against white supremacy at the center of the party’s activities.

CPUSA leaders’ about-faces and changes in leadership often made them appear to be “trained seals,” in the words of James Cannon. The degree of control from Moscow at times concerned general policy, at other times changing the leadership of the party by fiat, at still other times micromanaging daily activities.

From its Third Period sectarianism to the Popular Front activities, the party abandoned all semblance of the radical project. Finally, until the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Community Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Nikita Khrushchev’s speech, the US Party defended not just the seemingly positive social policies of the Soviet Union (full employment, national health care, free education, and a rhetorical, if not actual, commitment to equality for women) and the elimination of capitalism, but the most horrific policies of the terror and the gulags.

The Comintern, Stalinism, and the Roots of Communist Schizophrenia

In 1919, the Comintern was established. Its goal was to coordinate and assist Communist Parties around the world to build revolutionary movements to eliminate capitalism and begin building new societies. Between 1924 (after the death of the leader of the Bolshevik Party and Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin) and 1928 (under the leadership of Soviet Party general secretary Joseph Stalin), the goals of the Soviet Union and the CI changed. No longer primarily oriented toward world revolution, the goal was now to build “socialism in one country.”

The role of the Communist Parties in developed countries changed from building revolutionary movements to overthrow capitalism, to helping protect the USSR while it developed. The Soviet government was buying time, attempting to secure “peaceful coexistence” with capitalist countries and governments, particularly in developed countries. Communist Parties in these countries eventually oriented themselves toward building broad reform coalitions.

The most penetrating theoretical analysis of these changes is that of Leon Trotsky, most fully developed in The Revolution Betrayed, which examines the domestic dynamics of Soviet society, and his The Third International After Lenin, which focuses on a critique of the new program of the Third International at its 1928 Sixth World Congress. Trotsky analyzes the changes in the CI line which reduces Communist Parties to instruments of Soviet foreign policy, superimposed on their role as the leaders of militant popular movements.

Despite variations between parties and a certain amount of domestic flexibility, the Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union were treated largely as tools of Soviet policy by the late 1920s.

Why the Communist Party Failed

The immense influence that the Communists had in the labor movement and in other spheres of US society — an influence that could have been far greater — was virtually all lost by 1950. The question remains: what led to the decline of the CP?

The traditional explanation of those who defend the general policies of the CP hinges on at least five factors: the backwardness of US workers, the tenuousness of the CP leadership among them, postwar affluence, the intensity of the Cold War, and the extent of the repression faced by the party.

These objective conditions need little elaboration. Any radical movement in the post–World War II period would have been on the defensive and facing a difficult situation. Were it not for the conjuncture of all these unfavorable conditions, the CP might well have maintained its strong toehold in US politics. An analysis of the role played by these conditions is usually absent from the explanations of more conservative writers.

The view I find most plausible about the Communist Party’s demise is put forward in the   writings of James Cannon, founder and leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP): the fundamental cause of the CP’s demise, according to Cannon, was its moral bankruptcy, a characteristic that became more and more apparent to militant workers, as well as to liberal and left critics. The accumulation of perfidy, unprincipled behavior, and outright treachery from the 1930s on eventually caught up with the Communist Party.

Much of the moral corruption of the CP is exposed in its 1940 support for the federal government’s prosecution of the SWP’s Trotskyist leadership under the Smith Act, later to be used against the CP itself in the late 1940s. In 1940, the CP supplied briefs on the SWP to the government. It branded the SWP as enemy agents, sometimes as imperialist agents (during the pact period), at other times as Nazi agents. Some of the CP “exposures” were used by the national Teamster leadership when it broke a militant SWP-led Minneapolis truckers’ local.

The culmination of these activities may well have been the summary way the CP, on orders from Moscow in 1945, first attacked Earl Browder, their longtime general secretary, then removed him from the leadership, and finally expelled him.

In 1944, Browder, who had been called the world’s greatest English-speaking Marxist and “the American Stalin,” had overseen the dissolution of the CP and the formation of the Communist Political Association. In this activity in May 1944, he had the unanimous public support of the whole CP leadership. In July 1945, after indirect criticism from the Soviets in the form of a public letter from the French CP leader Jacques Duclos, Browder was denounced as a “revisionist,” getting not a single vote from his former supporters. Cannon refers to such behavior by the whole CP leadership as degrading.

While their moral bankruptcy was the underlying cause of their rapid demise, the immediate cause was their policies in the labor movement during World War II: the CP backed a no-strike pledge during the war. Unlike the left groups and labor leaders who opposed the pledge, the party lost leadership of the increasingly militant workers in the CIO. This was reflected in day-to-day shop activities, in many local union elections, and in some convention meetings. They shared this growing isolation from rank-and-file workers with other top labor leaders.

The resulting bureaucratization of the labor movement during World War II is described in detail by Nelson Lichtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. Their activities also placed them in opposition to all other forces on the Left, many of whom were gaining support based on their association with the anti-no-strike pledge. The CP came more and more to depend on its bureaucratic relations with other union officials to maintain its position.

When the tide had turned and the Cold War began, moderate labor leaders, whose alliance with the CP had only been based upon a coincidence of wartime interests, turned on the party. These labor leaders had corporate and government support in their attacks. What the CP lacked was the backing of militants, in whose eyes they had become discredited, and other left forces, whom they had denounced and betrayed to the government during the war. With few friends, unable to generate much credibility, the CP, unlike previous radical groupings under attack, was easily blown away with nary a trace.


Like the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, there are important lessons to draw from understanding the history of the US Communist Party, lessons that can help us chart the best path in building a socialist movement today. One must admire the dedication and bravery of the tens of thousands of militant activists in the CP. Their commitment to building mass movements, especially their roots in workplaces and their organizing of workers, even in the most dismal of times, is impressive.

The CP’s uncompromising activities in highlighting the fight against white supremacy is a heritage to embrace. Unpopular at the time, it is the root of our commitment to fighting for the rights of all people oppressed in modern society — blacks and other people of color, immigrants, women, LGBT people. And the focus on organizing and transforming the US South has special relevance for us today. In addition, their emphasis on international issues and broad education generally is worthy of emulation.

Yet their ability to engage in united front activities is decidedly mixed, from the destructive sectarianism of the Third Period, to their later slavish subjugation to Democratic Party politicians as well as conservative trade union leaders. Avoiding these pitfalls is essential for us. Finally, their inability and unwillingness to engage democratically in both internal and external discussion of issues, especially after the more freewheeling period of the 1920s, is in need of study (and of avoidance). The growth of the movement toward a socialist future relies on evaluating both the beacons and deficiencies of the movements of the past.