History of the Comintern. Sections
Source: Encyclopedia of the American Left;
Written: by Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas;
Published: by University of Illinois Press, 1992;
The CPUSA was the most important American radical organization from its factionalized 1919 origins well into the 1950s. Since that time, the Party has played a far more modest but not unimportant role within various social movements. During its most dynamic periods, the CP guided a multitude of non-Party organizations and alliances with a far greater following and more impact than the Party proper. At less auspicious times, the CP has isolated itself or, worse, expended most of its energies simply to survive government persecution. Through good and bad times, the Party has had to combat the charge that its politics simply reflect directives passed down from Moscow.
The origins of the Communist movement can be found in the left wing of the Socialist Party and in the alternative political and industrial movements that sometimes cooperated with and sometimes combated the Socialists. This radical spectrum of groups and individuals did not ultimately set Communist policies, especially after the first turbulent years, but they did provide the first wave of American Communists. Their struggles and disputes also underscore the complex native-born and immigrant roots of the new movement.
Left disaffection with the SP had two large components. By emphasizing an electoral politics, Socialists alienated members of the Industrial Workers of the World and many other militants who believed the road to revolution lay through direct or “mass” action. The same critics generally upheld industrial unions as the primary means of organizing and preparing the masses for revolutionary activity.
In contrast to the IWW’s sanguine expectations, Socialists generally held a more realistic view of the problems to be confronted in creating mass industrial unions, and the long-run uncertainty of those unions’ political commitment. But in minimizing the importance of the foreign-born, and maintaining a bureaucratic leadership drawn for the most part from the early years of the movement, the SP alienated the post-1912 influx of new members, who felt themselves less than fully welcome. The SP position regarding world war, crucial elsewhere in fostering Left and Communist dissent, was not a major factor in the United States, despite rhetorical attempts to make it so. The precipitating factor, the October Revolution and the resulting Comintern, did not so much create as bring together earlier dissent and give it the slogans for a formal split.
The Socialist Propaganda League, located in Boston with the support of the strongly pro-Lenin Latvian-American socialists, was the first to send out a call for American Socialist adherence to the principles of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Friends of the Russian Revolution, or Friends of New Russia, formed at the end of 1917, and the American Bolshevik Bureau of Information formed in 1918. Both provided positive information about the Russian Revolution to the general American public. like the first book popularizing the event, Louis Fraina’s anthology The Proletarian Revolution in Russia (1917), these phenomena were American in origin rather than responses to Russian initiatives.
Although the Bolsheviks anticipated splits within the socialist movements as precursive to new communist parties, they had less direct influence in the United States than elsewhere. The course of the conflicts among the language-federation groups and those groups’ largely Pyrrhic triumphs within the SP proved decisive. Furious factionalism and preparations for a split incited moderate, essentially parliamentarist-inclined Socialists to stage their own walkout and to maneuver against a Left seizure of organizational power. Over a six-month period in 1919, a rump National Executive Committee was able to expel or suspend approximately two-thirds of the SP membership.
The left wing now quarreled over the best course to pursue. A majority favored a continuing struggle within the SP, at least until the time of the next national convention. A substantial minority, led by the large and prestigious Russian Federation, called for the immediate abandonment of the SP. Naming itself the Communist Party, this group immediately turned its most bitter attacks upon rival leftwingers. The other, largely English-language group remained in the SP until duly expelled at the 1919 SP convention after a notable floor-fight; it then formed the Communist Labor Party. These battling twins faced, in turn, the Palmer Raids, which (along with the mass strikes of the day, and the brief anticipation of the Russian Revolution sweeping Europe) temporarily reinforced a near-insurrectionary sentiment.
For the next three years, mostly “underground” but under the close watch of federal spies, the Communists accelerated the internecine propaganda war, largely against each other or against other Left groupings. Each of the parties sought membership in the Comintern, and each was told that Moscow would not favor one over the other and that they would have to unify. Each of the original Communist organizations suffered various schisms with departing groups often appropriating the organizational name. Efforts also continued to unite the multiplying factions into a single organization. In 1922 those who had remained in the original Communist Party of America joined with the United Communist Party (a merger of the Communist Labor Party and a faction of the Communist Party of America) to establish the Workers Party of America as a unified aboveground entity. The Workers Party of America was able to gain the adhesion of most other Communist formations within a matter of years, most notably the United Toilers of America, which had also presented itself in 1922 as an aboveground Communist party seeking unification. The new merger was named the Workers (Communist) Party, a name which prevailed until 1929 when it was changed to Communist Party, USA.
During the underground period, the Communists had lost some five-eighths of their initial Left adherents within the SP, including the vast majority of American-born and older-generation supporters. Two of the most significant segments, the Jewish and German federations, sat out most of the warfare, negotiating their entry at a late point in the process. Much of the working-class membership had in practice done the same, ignoring the internecine political excitement for the more customary Left social and cultural activities.
The emerging Workers (Communist) Party bore the stamp of a new Communist international strategy, the United Front. Conceived by the Comintern to meet the perceived delay in the world-revolutionary process, this policy entailed a strategic reorientation of major proportions. Unlike the old left-wing Socialists and the IWW, the Communists would work within non-Left, mass institutions, including the AFL and labor or labor-farmer parties. Many moderate socialists had long urged these policies, but with their revolutionary aims, Communists were forced to carry out their work in semiconcealed fashion. The tarring of Bolsheviks as bearded bomb-throwers had by this time been so successful, and the general defeat of the revolutionary left so complete, that concealment of one’s affiliation and ideology seemed necessary. No satisfactory theoretical articulation followed from the Communist leadership to address the complex and difficult implications of this maneuver. At a minimum, it tended to make the Communists’ electoral efforts in their own name essentially propagandistic and pro forma. Communists did not seriously expect to be elected, and for that matter no longer held the socialist faith in transforming society primarily through patient, open educational efforts.
Through much of the 1920s, the Communists’ own internecine warfare continued unabated, although with shifting lines of controversy. Midwestern enthusiasts of industrial unionism put most of their energies into the International Labor Defense, while mostly Eastern and predominantly Jewish veterans of the needle-trades struggles called for a more directly political-educational approach. The second group, more content in a sense with the enclave status of the Party’s stubborn ethnic support, proclaimed an “American Exceptionalism” based on the unique status of being the home base of the foremost capitalist power and prescribed a patient, strategic advance upon state power. This view was tolerable to the Comintern during the brief ascendence of Bukharin, but it could not ideologically survive Stalin’s wide Left turn in 1928, and seemed disproved in actuality by the stock-market crash of 1929. The Communist theoretical monthly, the Communist, a generally difficult publication reached its apex of readability during this period but swiftly declined thereafter to wild attacks upon perceived heretics (such as literary editor V. F. Calverton), and reaffirmations of current doctrine.
The Communist factions thus engaged in organizational jousting and traded fierce polemics over the appropriate application of the Russian example to the American scene. With the dubious counsel of Comintern representatives (themselves actors in a far larger, international factionalism), American Communists struggled first of all to create a Left presence within the AFL. The Trade Union Educational League, the most successful of their efforts, indeed rallied many traditional unionists for a fighting program. The rightward retreat of the AFL, along with a number of Communist tactical blunders, ended the adventure and returned many activitists back to the budding fraternal, ethnic institution-building over which the Party had little direct control. The second major effort at mass influence, the formation of a Left-oriented farmer-labor movement, failed for the same internal and external reasons, resulting in the Communists’ isolation from the Progressive Party campaign of 1924 headed by “Fighting Bob” LaFollette. The third and last major effort, the Trade Union Unity league, set out to form new unions of unorganized and unskilled workers. The TUUL filled some of the vacuum left by the IWW collapse and by AFL indifference toward the unskilled. It would be remembered, in later years, for the “shop papers” published by activists with particular grievances aired — a clear anticipation of and preparation for the CIO. On the debit side, the TUUL’s presence tended to pull Left activists away from some important points of influence (such as the needle trades) without being able to build up self-sustaining organizations.
Along the way, the Party had critically reduced its ethnic base in a variety of ways. “Bolshevization” — an attempt to eradicate the Balkanization of the Party and produce a single, unified leadership — proved widely unpopular and among some groups catastrophic. The attempted breakup of language sections in favor of geographic organizations successfully discouraged for a time the insular cultural activity derided as “Banquet Socialism,” and demonstrably weakened language-federation authority. But in the hostile political climate of the 1920s, public activity proved difficult and even economically hazardous to immigrant workers and their middle-class supporters. In any case, the struggle to build up ethnic radical institutions had its own dynamic within working-class life, a factor often regarded too casually by Communist leaders in these early years. In deprecating the priority of choral and theatrical groups, literary circles, clubhouses, language schools for children, and the like, Party political decisions weakened the capacity of the working-class Left to speak for, and build a lasting base within, the immediate community. Ethnic workers, for their part, often came to regard the Russian authority as unerrant, but the American Communist movement as confused and misled.
Among the casualties of this cultural conflict could be counted the Italian group, mostly older men who had never entirely given up the anarcho-syndicalist faith of their younger days; and the Finns, who bolted in large numbers at the insistence upon Party control of their cooperatives’ financial resources. The simultaneous emigration of Finns by the thousands to work in Soviet Keralia permanently weakened the Finnish-American Left. The Party also lost widely on several other fronts, for a variety of international reasons. Polish nationalism, detached from socialism, buried Left influence for some years to come. South Slavs, who had supported World War 1 for nationalist reasons, remained largely in the SP or became politically inactive. Jews, bitterly alienated in large numbers by the Party’s characterization of the 1929 Palestinian riots as a liberation struggle rather than a pogrom or manipulated conflict between two oppressed peoples, fled the Party and (perhaps more important) its mass organizations in significant numbers. Even Armenians, roused to a high level of mobilization by the Turkish slaughter of homeland nationals and by the Red Army defense of Armenians, lowered levels of activity by the end of the 1920s as the Armenian crisis eased.
Relative to these major losses, the expulsions of “Left” and then “Right” deviationists was less destructive in terms of numbers or influence immediately lost. Only in the needle trades did the expelled carry many members out of the Party with them, and those were mainly a thin stratum of leaders. The long-term impact of the expulsions, however, was considerable. The actions were judged to be the result of direct Soviet interference in leadership of the American Party and reflected struggles about the direction of the USSR rather than that of the United States. Those driven from the Party charged that its basic policies were now being set by the Comintern and that the Comintern reserved the right of final approval of Party leadership. These accusations reinforced popular perceptions of Communism as an inauthentic national movement.
The rightist group led by Jay Lovestone soon formed a relationship with anticommunist labor leaders and would play a major role in the continuing effort to deny Communists any role in the trade union movement. Lovestoneites became particularly influential in the post-1950s reunited AFL-CIO. The Left faction headed by James Cannon founded American Trotskyism, which presented itself as a genuine Leninist movement and a democratic alternative to the Stalinist policies of the CP. The Trotskyists provided a continuing critique of the USSR that gradually won a wide intellectual following. Many of the charges brought against Stalin by the Trotskyists would be validated by future Soviet leaders, tentatively by Khrushchev in the late 1950s and more emphatically by Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
In short, Communists entered the era of the Great Depression — at approximately 18,000 members and a following perhaps five times that size — considerably weaker than might have been expected from earlier levels of activity. They had made, however, several important gains. Despite much confusion and sectarian posturing, they had placed black liberation on the Left political agenda as it had not been placed before, and had taken preliminary steps to appeal to poor blacks north and south. Second, they had in their labor work increasingly encouraged the cadre whose groundwork most definitely prefigured the CIO. Third, they had regularized many internal institutions (such as the Daily Worker) and functions (such as the ethnic-based International Workers Order established in 1932) that could serve better as the Party emerged from sectarianism.
That emergence took some years and exacted considerable costs. William Z. Foster’s 1932 book, Towards a Soviet America, demonstrated little appreciation for the unique qualities of the American mentality even in a potentially prerevolutionary situation. His presidential campaign of that year, despite the backing of noted intellectuals, had little impact relative to Norman Thomas’s Socialist effort, which recorded almost a million votes. Moreover, wild sectarian attacks upon Socialists and reformers delayed or prevented potential alliances against the worst effects of the Depression. Marches upon city halls frequently evoked more violence than a wide potential following felt itself prepared to accept. Some of the best work, rent strikes and related neighborhood relief efforts, grew up among the unprestigious women supporters of largely Jewish neighborhoods, and the lessons sunk in slowly. Veteran youth leaders, such as Gil Green, seemed to grasp most readily the need for a broad new orientation. Hundreds of young Communists entering factories strove to put their ideas into practice but without a general Party line that would facilitate this work. Perhaps only southern Communists, offering a virtual black insurrectionary line, found a constituency whose dire condition might instill faith in Communism — and here, with repression so intense, little opportunity for open organizing existed.
The San Francisco General Strike of 1934 signalled the changing attitudes. Labor activists fought their way to rejoin a sluggish but awakening left-of-center. Permitted to move into wider spheres, with fewer ideological restrictions, activists in many arenas began to find a wide acceptance. Communist participation in the movement for social security indicated another measure of political realism. Harlem activists dared to work with controversial evangelist Father Divine on the one hand, and invite the participation of noted jazz musicians to protest events on the other. Ethnic fraternalists, now striving to reinterpret their cultural traditions in a radical way and to argue openly for the survival of these traditions, began to find new links with economic discontent and labor yearnings around them. Students of socialist, communist, and liberal leanings started to share podiums and finally united a few years later into one organization.
The Communist approach to the 1936 election set the tone for the virtual abandonment of its traditional strategies and slogans. Roosevelt’s promulgation of a “Second New Deal,” replete with real and promised social benefits, had won over millions of immigrant voters (or previous nonvoters), including the mass base of industrial unions. As veteran SP notables abandoned their party to support Roosevelt, Communists pronounced a de facto support of Roosevelt against Alf Landon — the first time an official U.S. Marxist organization had taken such a position. In a broader sense, the Communists had gone over to a Center-Left alliance with measured emphasis upon the Left.
Shifts in the Communist press reflected this broad reorientation. The New Masses became a popular magazine among the left-liberal middle classes, especially in the East, and the Daily Worker toned down its earlier sensationalism for a more workmanlike approach to creating a solid Left journalism. The Communist, however, revealed the most dramatic shift. long an arid mechanism of doctrinal self-justification, in the hands of political-intellectual chief Alexander Bittelman the monthly became notably more strategic and tactical-minded. His own editorial essay, considered at the time the definitive up-to-the-moment political statement from the Party, shrewdly argued for something like an advanced social democracy.
At the climax of this reorientation, in the later 1930s, the Party reached 65,000 members and attained a very wide following in many sections of American life. Providing national, regional and local leadership of many important industrial unions as well as liberal, student, and cultural organizations, Communists and “fellow travelers” served as a dynamic wedge of radicalism within the dominant New Deal liberalism. Left activists had, in an important sense, followed the inclinations of their own constituencies toward Roosevelt. For the moment, this strategic adaptation largely coincided with imperatives set out by the Comintern.
Influence in labor, especially, grew rapidly after John 1. Lewis agreed to use Communist organizers in the nascent CIO. Communist leaders, rising out of the ranks, won wide approval through their fearlessness and their dedication. Communists in New York State’s American Labor Party (which repeatedly sent the radical Vito Marcantonio to Congress), in Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, and in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, came to be looked upon as agents not of Moscow but of the democratic agenda. Influential Communists could be found in cinema, the theater, music, and the graphic arts. The vital social theater and mural art of the Works Progress Administration, especially, were at their highest creative levels, often quite pro-Communist in sympathies. Communist identification of racism as the running sore of democracy and the mark of incipient fascism, combined with Communists’ ardent efforts to uplift the cause of minorities both politically and culturally, prompted liberal respect almost bordering upon awe.
Communist efforts in international affairs had more mixed results. The Spanish Civil War became a liberal cause celebre, and its fallen heroes the martyrs of a generation — even if millions of unquestioning American Catholics did not think so. For many East European immigrants, anti-Nazi Russia with all its flaws seemed vastly preferable to its alternativesuch as the collaborationist regimes in Hungary, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, and other nations. Liberals, dismayed by the lack of resistance against fascism from democracies like France and Great Britain, were likewise willing to forgive Soviet shortcomings. Jewish support for the Communist movement rose precipitously.
On the other hand, the public portrayals of Russia as a virtual paradise for workers and peasants required great credulity, even in the best of times, and the later 1930s were far from the best of times. Stalin’s purges of the “Old Bolsheviks through the Moscow Trials required ideological overkill from American Communists, which baffled and pained their liberal allies. The unquestioning acceptance of such positions by ordinary Communists raised serious questions for non-members. The undemocratic character of American Communism’s inner organizational life did not greatly exceed that of the Republican or Democratic parties, but the perceived gap between deed and word expanded just as Communists staked their claim upon being the tribunes of democracy.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact and the turn of Communists to extreme antiwar positions permitted conservatives their long-awaited opportunity at legal repression. The pact might have been defended as a forced necessity, but Communists mercilessly attacked those who held to the anti-Hitler front, alienating themselves from the very groups with whom they had been most intimate. loss of Party membership was slight, but sympathizers were stunned at the sudden shift in directions, broadly rekindling old fears of American Communism as a Soviet pawn. Opponents of the Party within the CIO and liberal circles took advantage of the opportunity to puncture Communist moral authority. Congressional committees played upon public fears to savage the most left-leaning New Deal programs. Party leader Earl Browder went to jail on a passport violation, reminding Communist regulators that their gains in American life had never been secure. Roosevelt’s new “Doctor Win-the-War” strategy signaled the virtual collapse of the liberal agenda, but Communists had long since come to the point of no return. To remove themselves from the Democratic Party coalition meant isolation.
Following the German invasion of the USSR, the Communists again switched their line to unrelenting opposition to the Nazis. Under the Democratic Front policy the Party worked with all other democratic forces to rally new levels of popular support for Soviet-American cooperation. Party membership would hit its all-time peak of 85,000 in 1942. If there was a moment when the Communists might have totally surfaced all their members in the trade union movement and other organizations, this was it. Earl Browder, in fact, attempted to tailor his organization to American conditions by formally abandoning the designation of “party” for the Communist Political Association, which indicated the organization would now function as a political pressure group.
The Communist influence in certain regions became considerable in the 1940s. In New York City neighborhoods where housing struggles continued to be popular and where Communists offered the only thoroughgoing perspective for the creation of a multiracial and multicultural democracy, Communist candidates were elected to municipal offices. Moreover, major social-political figures considered close to the Party, notably Harlem’s Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, exerted even wider influence. Simultaneously, and for the first time, Communist spokespersons, such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in her Daily Worker column, began to argue for a forceful advancement of women’s rights, not merely protective legislation or special consideration as women workers. In such matters, especially in relation to liberal organizations of many types, subtle shifts from proletarian to lower-middle-class orientations served the Party well.
Despite the obvious strengths of the Communist movement, there were numerous handicaps. The frequent zigzagging in political line, with equal ferocity brought to instantly changing positions, had sapped its intellectual credibility. The near-fanatical attachment to wartime national unity seemed all too characteristic of past adaptations Across a wide spectrum of efforts, the Party paid a heavy price, as Popular Front organizations (e.g., the Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples) that had been created under difficult conditions were now suddenly abandoned or dissolved. In like manner, Communist insistence upon the no-strike pledge in war industries and other curbs on militancy, while not universally applied, nevertheless created hostility among some of the most militant industrial workers. Support of the Smith Act usage against Trotskyists and support of the confinement of Japanese Americans raised serious doubts about Communist commitments to civil liberties.
The Party also had an unrepresentative geographic spread, being concentrated mainly in a few urban areas, particularly New York. Communist membership on the New York City Council and a factory base not unlike modest-size European Communist parties were totally unrepresentative of national Communist strength. A majority of the Party was female and worked from neighborhood rather than factory bases. Many male Communists who joined the armed forces would return from war greatly changed and in many instances would be propelled from the working class by benefits offered in the GI Bill.
By the time the war drew to a close, the Communist accommodation to the liberal and labor establishment swelled to a crescendo without, however, winning over or neutralizing stubborn opponents who awaited an opportunity to isolate the Party. The emerging Cold War soon placed Communists at an enormous disadvantage. The problem was compounded when Browder was removed as leader of the Party after Russian disfavor was signaled via a critical letter issued by the head of the French CP. Considerable internal confusion ensued and Americans already skeptical of CP independence saw Browder’s fall as another sign of the Party’s domination by a foreign power.
The Party, now gravely weakened, reestablished its form in 1945, but its leadership was in disarray. Organizational feuding resulted in numerous individual expulsions and in collective cynicism among many longtime supporters. left ethnics faced a considerable influx of new, largely middle-class, and in some cases, formerly collaborationist refugees bitterly hostile to Communism. They, as Communists in general, also faced the hard reality of oppressive Russian rule in Eastern Europe and growing perceptions about the long-term prospects for Stalinist restrictions on rights and liberties. Rapid reorientation of the Left under these conditions became almost impossible.
The first hints of a cohesive anticommunist campaign — from Cold War liberals and social democrats to far Right organizations to government agencies — offered disturbing glimpses of the future in store. The Union for Democratic Action, predecessor of the Americans for Democratic Action, announced Communist exclusion as one of its main tenets. The more conservative CIO and AFL leaders began to pinpoint Communist centers of influence to be eliminated, and to buttress significant labor support (the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists offered a semimass base, while liberals such as the Reuther brothers supplied organizational muscle) behind a drive to marginalize the Party faithful.
In response, the Party led a spirited antiCold War effort across many sectors. Among liberals who hoped for postwar detente between America and Russia, the Progressive Citizens of America used celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and a compulsive mobilization of well-placed activists to fight the lure of President Truman’s mix of domestic reforms and international aggressiveness. The American Veterans Committee, farm groups, race leaders, and others rallied opponents of American leaders’ de facto plan to dominate the postwar world through economic power and atomic weapons.
The Party threw itself desperately into the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948, and suffered dire consequences both before and after Wallace’s ignominious defeat. By pressuring friendly union leaders to support Wallace, at a time when the CIO had shifted rightward on foreign policy and was simultaneously cracking down bureaucratically on its own rebellious ranks, the Party propelled some of its former stalwarts and their unions out of the left orbit. Individuals who accepted CP positions faced expulsion from the CIO in 1949, either from their office or with their entire unions. With ever fewer institutional defenses to support liberal and labor activists, the Red Scare tactics of government and business found ready prey. Thousands of activists, members and former members of the CP or Left-linked movements, were grilled by FBI agents, their family and fellow workers intimidated, mail and phone service intercepted, and (especially for those in conservative districts) a public outcry incited against them by the active Right.
Desertions accelerated on all sides. For instance, while the Party shifted away from support of third parties after the Wallace defeat, many “progressives” such as those grouped around the National Guardian asserted their independence, taking up causes such as Vito Marcantonio’s last Congressional campaign, which was viewed askance by the Party. For such people, the Communists had ceased to be the center-point of progressive politics, not only because of the Party insistence upon unquestioning loyalty to Soviet pronouncements, but also because Communists could no longer deliver organizational muscle.
The anticommunist movement that had been building since the 1940s with a full panoply of public and private acts thus fell upon the Party at its weakest moment. With most leaders and celebrities already gone, investigators could pick off remaining supporters through a combination of jail threats and deprivation of public access. Communist opposition to the Korean War impelled wide fears about a coming world conflict, with American Communists as a “Fifth Column” subverting defense efforts. Newspaper tabloids whipped up a frenzy, with headlines like FBI TO STRIKE AT 20,000 REDS, identifying Communists with potential military subversion. The Hiss case, the Rosenberg case, and a host of others were orchestrated — with careful preparation by the FBI, often in the form of prompting witnesses with pat answers — to demonstrate that America had “lost” China and the A-bomb secrets due to Communist infiltration of government. Meanwhile, fishing-expedition hearings essentially demanded of witnesses that they repudiate their past Left activities, and further more give testimony against their trusted friends and co-workers of many years.
Two sectors suffered especially from these varied forms of repression. The fraternal international Workers Order, a financial backbone of the Party and a symbol of Communist respectability among aging European immigrants and many of their descendants, was quashed. Communists lost contact with several generations of working-class activists who, without joining, had taken Party teachings and local representatives seriously. Fraternal and folk-dance groups, summer-camps, shuls, choruses, and other activities remained, but far smaller and more insular. Second, the youth sector, reorganized in 1949 as the Labor Youth League, practically had to operate underground. The Party lost, in effect, virtually an entire generation that might have bridged the gap to the New left.
Political opportunities to advance the Lef-tliberal program therefore fell by the way. Urgently needed contemporary reform projects — such as the National Negro Labor Congress, established with wide black support to further racial equality within the labor movement — attracted only hostility from liberal-minded non-Communists. Remaining local activists worked on their own at any rate, as the foremost Party leaders had gone underground, and (preparing for the worst by reducing themselves to hardened cadres) the organization dropped many faithful members who had merely neglected their membership renewals.
Two international events of 1956 brought new chaos to the Party: the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and revelations of Stalin’s misdeeds at the Twentieth Soviet Congress. Individuals long faithful to the Party now felt betrayed and wondered privately and openly if their political lives had been built upon self-delusion.
Self-appointed reformers centered around the Daily Worker briefly sought an internal transformation into an open, democratic movement. An unprecedented wave of collective self-criticism appeared in the pages of the Party’s national organ. The departure of many like-minded members, filled with despair or disgust, contributed to their defeat by doctrinaire loyalists. With the victors stood a considerable section of the ethnic faithful, many of whom had personally experienced the Palmer era repressions and now refused to be cowed by or to accept the various revelations as sufficient cause to leave the movement. Their now increasingly prominent presence, in a smaller organization, revealed a new demographic reality: the Party had been aging. This process was not as abrupt as it seemed. Recruitment of young people had peaked in the 1930s. That tendency would now become a dominant trend.
Greatly weakened as the Party ranks were, they still included many extraordinary individuals, and within the Party’s surviving peripheries were many more. Ironically, the Party’s weakness made for better work in alliances. Party activists rarely felt the necessity, much less the opportunity, to impose their positions on non-Communists. Some of their opponents in mass movements had also grown weary of ideological and organizational struggle. frequently having moved upward to bureaucratic office or occasionally recognizing the harm done to labor and reform movements by the old internecine squabbling. Anti-Stalinism lacked left-wing credentials in a society whose obsessive anticommunism had become a primary public rationale for the arms industry, unrecalcitrant racial segregation, and the unhampered political activity of FBI and CIA operatives. All this did not mean that future fellow activists with Communists accepted the persistently claimed virtues of the Communist-led nations, only that the issue had been put aside as less pressing than matters at hand.
As the Cold War eased, and Third World liberation struggles replaced great power face-offs as the immediate focus of foreign policy. Communists began to reemerge. Communists played a key role in the new Africa-support movement, in many cases educating church people to the real effects of neo-colonialism and helping to establish liaisons between liberals and the newly independent states. CP supporters, meanwhile, continued their longtime pioneering work in the South. quietly establishing themselves within the new civil rights movement, although never becoming the dominant or manipulative force that conservatives imagined. Freedomways magazine, established with Party assistance, had an authoritative quality among many, especially older, black activists. Comparable political work was accomplished in northern industrial areas with minority populations and militant trade unions. The Party retained pockets of labor strength, especially among officials and older rank-and-filers among the West Coast longshoremen, but also in other scattered industries and locations. The ethnic networks, however reduced, continued to maintain a sufficient following for a dozen daily presses and a variety of other activities.
When a renewed radical movement took shape in the 1960s, the CP — for the first time in its existence — was not the dominant force on the Left. In major cities, the CP network of trade union contacts — seasoned veterans of Left-liberal coalitions and ethnic activists — could be counted upon to form broad alliances against war and racism, but there were other radical formations of equal or greater strength. Frequently, Party commitment to work within the Democratic Party and the broad liberal spectrum put local Communists at a disadvantage within the embryonic New left. In 1964 nearly all activists could agree upon the defeat of Barry Goldwater as a pressing priority. Thereafter, the role of the Democratic Party mainstream gave the arguments for liberal coalitions more obvious contradictions. Communist political sniping at New Leftists, while never reaching the orchestrated heights of 1930s-1940s anti-Trotskyism, precipitated an uncomfortable generation gap between many veteran militants and their own children or grandchildren, a conflict that New Leftists’ own youthful arrogance personalized and exacerbated.
As a result, while Communists took a leading role in some specific fronts of the anti-Vietnam War movement, pacifists and Trotskyists ultimately staffed most of the movement’s infrastructure. The new W. E. B. DuBois Clubs (organized in 1965) renewed campus activism but with far fewer members than Students for a Democratic Society and fewer chapters than the Young Socialist Alliance. Successful CP mechanisms among youth, such as the Che-Lumumba Club of Los Angeles, tended to be local in nature and dependent upon particularly accommodating CP leaders. One strong point, the Party’s fraternal links with revolutionary movements in Vietnam, Mozambique, South Africa, Cuba and elsewhere in the Third World, gave the Party its highest contemporary prestige and influence, without however prompting any wide-scale recruitment even among Third World support activists.
The Communists had few contacts with the emerging sexual liberation movements, notwithstanding the past Party membership of the Mattachine Society founders and past Popular Front links with some senior women’s liberation figures such as Bella Abzug. While some parts of the now “Old Left” would rally to the gay movement as it emerged, the CP remained aloof. Likewise, while the CP had long supported women’s rights as part of the progressive agenda, it was not prepared for an autonomous feminist movement that appeared to replace class with sex as the primary contradiction. Like the painfully antifeminist perspectives of some black liberation leaders, Communist fears of black women not supporting black men’s activities betrayed a lack of fundamental commitment to gender issues. Communists could not place themselves on record for so mild a measure as the Equal Rights Amendment, and therefore benefited little from the women’s liberation movement with all its ramifications.
Little improvement could be seen with the collapse of the New Left. Trotskyists and, especially, Maoists rather than Communists recruited most of the New Left activists turning toward Leninism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Intense factionalism and disillusionment with the Chinese regimes soon destroyed hopes for a “new communist party” with the strength of the old CP, but relatively few younger activists on campus (many now notably influenced by religious ideas) or in communities turned to the Party for leadership. Continuing uncritical support for the USSR, especially in the face of Eastern European dissent and occasional uprising, sustained the anxieties of the middle 1950s and provoked further internal discontent. The resignation of West Coast leader Dorothy Healey in 1973 was taken as a signal to many outsiders that the established Party leadership had determined to remain impervious to the democratic challenges heard in Eurocommunism.
Nevertheless, American Communism had over the decades acquired an invaluable asset upon which it would now draw freely. The most historical-minded generation in the American Left, graduating from campus and community activism, collaborated with Party stalwarts and sympathizers as well as non-Communist radicals in celebrating American traditions of militancy. A wave of documentary films, written histories, memoirs, and public events, some widely acclaimed and even government-funded, commenced in the middle 1970s. At the local level, high officials turned out for prestige banquets to sanctify and vindicate the lives of elderly Communists. Over the objections of many critics, and despite the virtual end of controversial public funding in the Reagan era, American Communism became a recognized and even respected part of American reform history.
Communists also gained from long-standing political contacts in the black community. Victories of black mayoral and congressional candidates with decades — old ties to the CP — a short list would include Coleman Young and George Crocket in Detroit, Gus Newport in Berkeley, and somewhat more ambiguously, Harold Washington in Chicago — helped to rehabilitate the Party image. Like the continuing struggle against racism within unions, this public vindication brought a trickle of new black and Latin members, although never enough to compensate for the attrition in the aging fraternal networks.
The CP managed to emerge from the 1970s in far better organizational shape than might have been expected and much stronger than any of its immediate political rivals. The perenially fractured SWP had shrunk to its pre-1960s size and influence, and was in the odd ideological position of emphasizing the theories of Fidel Castro over those of Leon Trotsky. None of its numerous breakaway groups, all of which were closer to original Trotskyist doctrine, had attracted a significant following. The Maoists, whose various organizations had had a combined membership in the thousands, had all but disappeared as had would-be successors to SDS. The only other large Left group was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which remained smaller than the CP (which still claimed it had over 10,000 members), and had a less activist rank and file. Both DSA and the CP could boast of more than a few trade union members, officials, and sympathizers. But only the CP was strong enough to maintain a daily newspaper, the Daily World.
The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the USSR in 1985 gave American Communists an unexpected, if also sometimes unnerving burst of new interest and new issues. With the Cold War fast fading and the USSR increasingly seen as the superpower most committed to ending the nuclear arms race, the CP could claim vindication for its long-term foreign-policy orientation. As many Americans voiced enthusiasm for Gorbachev’s reforms, the CP stood to gain more public visibility. Although Communists were no longer central to movements such as those opposing apartheid in South Africa or supporting the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, they had placed themselves respectably within those broad currents. CP influence also extended into the newer political refugee communities (notably the Chilean, but also the Salvadorean, among others). Like smaller ideological groups but with generally more public impact, the CP campaigned vigorously against political repression of native-born and immigrant racial minorities.
The new Soviet candor also freed the Communists, at least in theory, from the need to support every regime in Eastern Europe and from the need to maintain that the Bolsheviks executed by Stalin had been truly the “agents of capital.” By the end of the 1980s, the Party had not yet embarked upon its own programs of glasnost or perestroika, and the Gus Hall leadership evinced little eagerness to do so. Yet an avenue for internal reform had been opened. The irreversible decline of the Communist Party into insignificance — long predicted with great confidence by its critics — seemed at the very least decidedly premature. See also: Abraham Lincoln Brigade; African Blood Brotherhood; Allerton Avenue Co-ops; American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born; American League Against War and Fascism; American Negro Labor Congress; American Slav Congress; American Soviet Friendship; American Student Union; American Writers Congress; Anticommunism; Antirevisionism; Aptheker, Herbert; Armenian Americans; Berry, Abner; Birmingham, Alabama; Bloor, Ella Reeve; Bridges, Harry; Brodsky, Joseph; Browder, Earl; Bulgarian Americans; Cannon, James P.; Chinese Americans; Civil Rights Congress; Congress of American Artists; Daily Worker; Davis, Angela; Davis, Benjamin; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley; Foner, Philip; Foster, William Z.; Fraina, Louis C.; Freiheit; Gastonia Strike; Gellert, Hugo; Gold, Michael; Green, Gil; Grey, Eula; Hall, Gus; Haywood, Harry; Healey, Dorothy; HitlerStalin Pact; Hollywood Blacklist; Hollywood Left; Hudson, Hosea; Hungarian Americans; ILGWU; ILWU; Inman, Mary; International Publishers; International Workers Order; Jefferson School; Jones, Claudia; Krushchev Revelations; Latvian Americans; Lawson, John Howard; Lithuanian Americans; Lore, Ludwig; Lovestonites; McCarthyism; Mainstream; Minor, Robert; Moscow Trials; National Maritime Union; National Woman’s Commission; New Masses; Olgin, Moissye; Paterson, William; Patterson, Louis Thompson; Peekskill; People’s World; Popular Front; Progressive Party; Public Sector Unions; Puerto Ricans; Rapp-Coudert; Radical Filmmaking; Red Daiper Baby; Red Scare; Reed, John; Rent Strikes; Robeson, Paul; Rosenberg Case; Ruthenberg, Charles; San Francisco General Strike; Scales, Julius Irving; Share Croppers Union; Southern Negro Youth Congress; Southern Worker; Rose Pastor Stokes Summer Camps; Taft-Hartley Loyalty Oath; Teachers Union; Toveritar; Trade Union Educational League; Ukrainian Americans; Unemployed Movements of the 1930s; United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union; UCAPAWA; UPOWA; Vanguard Party; Williams, Claude; Winston, Henry; Workers Schools; Working Woman/Woman Today; Young Communist League.