James P. Cannon

The Degeneration of the Communist Party and the New Beginning

An Analysis of Basic Causes

(Fall 1954)

Written: 1954
Source: Fourth International, Vol.15 No.4, Fall 1954, pp.121-127.
Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.


THE COMMUNIST PARTY, as it stands today, is undoubtedly the most friendless party in the history of American radicalism, and this unpopularity is by no means confined to reactionary ruling circles which are fiercely persecuting the party incident to the cold war. The party is despised and rejected by the workers too, and not only by the ignorant and the backward. For the first time, a party faces persecution without the moral support and sympathy of even the more progressive workers who have traditionally extended their solidarity to any party or group hounded by the ruling powers.

In its later evolution the Communist Party has written such a consistent record of cynical treachery and lying deception that few can believe it was ever any different. A quarter of a century of Stalinism has worked mightily to obliterate the honorable record of American communism in its pioneer days.

Yet the party wrote such a chapter too, and the young militants of the new generation ought to know about it and claim it for their own. It belongs to them. The first six years of American communism – 1918-1923 – represent a heroic period from which all future revolutionary movements in this country will be the lineal descendants. There is no getting away from that. The revolutionist who would deny it is simply renouncing his own ancestry. That’s where he came from, and without it he would not be.

The Communist Party did not change its nature and its color overnight. Between its early years of integrity and its later corruption there was a transition period of the transformation of the once revolutionary organization into its opposite. This transition period, which began in the last half of the Twenties, is the subject of this inquiry.

The degeneration of the Communist Party of the United States in this fateful period did not happen by accident. It had profound causes which must be considered in their entirety. The same can be said of the struggle for the regeneration of American communism which began in 1928.

A complex of external factors, upon which the party tried to operate, also operated upon the party and eventually determined its course. Different problems – posed by national and international developments – confronted the party in the different stages of its evolution. Different influences – national and international – predominated at different times. The actions of the party leaders must be related to their context of time and circumstance. Only from this point of view can one approach an understanding of the party’s retrogressive transformation. The rest is only malicious gossip or special pleading, which presents a mystery without a clue.


The history of the first ten years of American communism properly falls into three distinct periods. These three periods may be summarized as follows:

From 1917 to 1919 the life of the left wing of the Socialist Party – out of which the first troops of American communism were assembled – was governed primarily by international events and influences. Two “outside” factors, namely, the First World War and the Russian Revolution, created the issues which deepened the division between the left and the right in the American SP; and the theoretical formulation of these issues by the Russian Bolsheviks and the Comintern gave the left wing its program. The factional struggle of this period occurred along dearly defined lines of political principle. The left wing, which had previously fought as a theoretically uncertain and somewhat heterogeneous minority, was armed with the great ideas of the Bolsheviks and unified on a new foundation. The left wing as a whole clashed with the traditional leadership of the SP over the most basic issues of doctrine, as they had been put to the test in the war and the Russian Revolution.

Leaving aside all the mistakes and excesses of the left-wing leaders, personal antagonisms engendered in the fight, etc., the lines of principle which separated them from the old leadership of the Socialist Party were clearly drawn. The split of 1919, resulting in the formal constitution of the communist movement as an independent party, was a split over international issues of principle in the broadest and clearest sense of the term.


The period from 1920 to 1923 presents a different picture. After the split with the right socialists, the left wing was preoccupied with differences and divisions in its own ranks, and the issues of factional struggle were different. National considerations dominated the life of the young communist movement at this time.

The big questions in dispute in this period – Americanization, legalization, trade-union work, labor party, leadership – were specifically American questions. The issues of internal controversy were not matters of principle – since all factions supported the program of Bolshevism and all acknowledged allegiance to the Comintern – but of tactics.

Nevertheless, the political nature of the differences in that period stands out very clearly above all secondary questions of personal antagonisms, rivalries, etc. The international factor – the Comintern – appears in this period as a helpful advisor in the settlement of national questions. The American party was throwing up its own indigenous leadership and fighting out its own battles with the help of the Comintern, rather than, as in the preceding period, simply reflecting and re-enacting the international fight on American grounds.


The years 1924 to 1928 stand out as the great dividing line between progress and regression in the evolution of the Communist Party of the United States.

Prior to that time national conditions, on the whole, had favored the consolidation of a revolutionary party, even though a small one, and the process was greatly aided by the powerful inspiration of the Russian Revolution and the friendly intervention of the Comintern in matters of doctrine and policy. The party, like all other parties, had developed in the course of internal struggles. The issues of these struggles, as written in the record, stand out in retrospect sharp and clear. Everything that happened in those earlier periods makes political sense and is easily comprehensible. The record explains itself. The evolution of the party in the last half of the Twenties must appear as a puzzle to the student who tries to decipher the formal record of this period; for the record was in part falsified even while it was being made, and has been even more falsified in later accounts. In these years real differences between the factions over national policy actually narrowed down, and they were usually able to agree on common resolutions, but the faction fight raged fiercer than ever.

Something went wrong, and the party began to gyrate crazily like a mechanism out of control. The purposeful and self-explanatory internal struggles of temporary factions in the earlier periods, by which the party was propelled forward in spite of all mistakes and inadequacies of the participants, gave place to a “power fight” of permanent factions struggling blindly for supremacy or survival in a form of political gang warfare. People who had started out to fight for communism began to lose sight of their goal. Factionalism, which in earlier times had been a means to an end, became an end in itself. Allegiance to communism and to the party gave way, gradually and imperceptibly, to allegiance to the faction-gang. There could be no winners in this crazy game, which – unknown to the participants at the time – was destined to find its eventual solution in a three-way split and a new beginning.


What threw the machine out of control? That is the question. Stories told about the unsightly squabbles and scandals of that time of troubles, whether true or false, which leave unanswered the question of basic causes, are mere descriptions which explain nothing and properly come under the heading of gossip.

Such gossip represents the individual participants in the events of that period as masters of their own fate. This gives them too much credit – or too much blame. The party leaders did not operate in circumstances of their own making. Their actions were far less significant than the forces that acted upon them. To be sure, they were communists, committed to the service of a great cause. By that fact, they were superior to others of their generation who limited themselves to small aims. But they were neither gods nor devils, and they were not able to make history according to their will. They were not even able to stick to their original design.

The story of the Communist Party in the different stages of its evolution is a story of different people, even though some of the names are the same – a story of people who changed. In examining the record of the early days one must try to see the people as they were then, and not as they became after the passage of time and many pressures had wrought their changes. The period of party history under review was a time of change – in the party and in the people who headed it.

In order to understand what happened to them it is necessary to recognize what was happening in the world at large and how they were affected by it. Like many before them and after them, they who had set out to change the world were imperceptibly changed by it. They meant well – with possible exceptions. Their fault, which was their undoing, was that they did not fully recognize the forces operating upon them.

This made it all the easier for objective factors in the national and international situation of the time, which proved to be weightier than their will, to convert most of them into instruments – at first unconsciously – of a course which contradicted their original design and which eventually brought the majority of them, by different routes, into the camp of renegacy.


It has long since become fashionable for ex-communists, repenting of the idealistic follies and courageous excesses of their youth – along with others who lack this distinction – to attribute all the evils and misfortunes which befell the native left-wing movement to “Moscow domination” exerted through the Communist International. From this it is implied that everything would have been all right with American radicalism if it had followed a policy of isolationism and rejected the “outside influences” of the outside world.

At the same time, without noticing the contradiction, the representatives of this school of thought – if you want to call it that – fervently recommend a “One World” policy of internationalism to American imperialism, whose virtues they have belatedly discovered and which some of them serve as unofficial advisors, and even, in some cases, as direct agents.

There is no doubt that the Russian Communist Party, itself corrupted into conservatism under Stalin, transmitted its own corruption to the other parties of the Comintern which looked to it for leadership. But that’s only part of the story. There were other influences working to sap the revolutionary integrity of the party – right here at home. It took more than outside influences – from Russia or anywhere else – to ruin the Communist Party of the United States.

As a matter of fact, in the modern world, internationalism is not an outside influence at all. The whole is not foreign to its parts. America, especially since 1914, has been a part of the “One World” and a very big part indeed. In reacting to events in other countries, America also reacts upon them. There is no such thing as “the international situation” outside and apart from this country. And the American communist movement, in all its reactions to international influences, was never free from the simultaneous influence of its national environment. The causal factors which brought the Communist Party into being in the first place were both national and international. The same holds true for its later evolution at every stage. American communism, at the moment of its birth, represented a fusion of the Russian Revolution with a native movement of American radicalism. it is not correct to say that “everything came from Russia.” The ideas of the Russian Revolution needed a given social environment to take root in, and receptive people to cultivate them; as far as we know, the Russian Revolution did not create a Communist Party on the moon.

International events and ideas were the predominating influence in bringing the American Communist Party into existence, but these events and ideas needed human instruments. These were provided by the native movement of American revolutionists which had grown up before the Russian Revolution out of the class struggle in the United States.


These two combined national and international factors likewise operated interactively on the American Communist Party in the later transition period of its gradual degeneration, which began in the middle of the Twenties and was virtually completed by the end of the decade. At that conjuncture the deadening conservatism of American life, induced by the unprecedented boom of post-war American capitalism, coinciding with the reactionary swing in Russia, caught the infant movement of American communism from two sides, as in a vise from which it could not escape.

In this period the reactionary Russian influence, transmitted through the Comintern, wrought unmitigated evil in the American party. There is plenty of evidence of that. But here again it is false to ascribe all responsibility to the Russians, as an outside and uncontrolled force, for they, in turn, were powerfully influenced by the evolution of American capitalism. The American boom of that period, carrying European capitalism with it to a new stabilization after the post-war crisis and revolutionary upsurge, was the prime influence generating the mood of retreat to national reformism, and therewith the rise of Stalinism in Russia.

At the same time, the astounding vitality of expanding American capitalism seemed to close off all perspectives for a revolutionary movement in this country. As the wave of labor radicalism was pushed back by the ascending prosperity, the party began to run into difficulties on all fronts.

All the get-rich-quick schemes of Pepperite adventurism, all the “high politics” of bluff and make-believe, had blown up in disaster. Even the previous achievements of solid work began to crumble away. The trade-union successes, which had piled up so impressively in the preceding period, were turned into a series of defeats which became a virtual rout, while the Gompers “red hunt” rode triumphantly from one end of the labor movement to the other. The poor showing of the party in the presidential election of 1924 testified most convincingly to the party’s isolation.

All the bright prospects which had fired the ambition of the party leaders to build a mass party of American communism in a short time, by a series of forced marches, had gone glimmering by the time the party picked up the pieces after the election campaign of 1924. And the worst was yet to come.

It was a time for the party to re-examine its prospects in the light of basic doctrine and to settle down for a siege; to recognize the new, unfavorable situation in the country, but not to mistake it for permanence. The party needed then a serious theoretical schooling, and a historical perspective upon which to base a confident and patient work of preparation for the future. But that was precisely what was lacking.

The great crisis of the Thirties, with its limitless possibilities for the revolutionary party, was just around the comer, but the party leaders could not see it. They spoke about it, from old habit, but they began to doubt it. The degeneration of the party as a revolutionary organization definitely began already then, and partly for this reason. When the crisis finally arrived – pretty much on schedule according to the Marxist prognosis – the party was no longer the same party.


The party needed then such ideological and political help from the Comintern as it had previously received in the time of Lenin and Trotsky – when the purpose of its intervention had been, in truth and in fact, to help the young American communists to build the party of the American revolution. But that was lacking too. The Comintern itself, following the Russian party, was sliding down into national reformism, dragging all the other parties with it.

The dimming of international revolutionary perspectives, and the loss of confidence in the capacity of the working class to transform society in the advanced countries, had motivated the retreat to national reformism in the Soviet Union and the wish to come to terms with world capitalism; to “coexist” with it; and to settle for “Socialism in One Country,” which implicitly signified a renunciation of the program of international revolution.

The acceptance of this theory by the other Communist parties in the capitalist countries, prepared by their own weariness and loss of historical perspective, implicitly signified their renunciation of the revolutionary program in their own countries. At the same time, it gave them – for consolation – an ersatz program which enabled them to save face in making the transition to reformism, and to pretend to themselves and others that they were still fighting for “socialism” – in another country.

A more efficient way of cutting the revolutionary guts out of the Communist parties in the capitalist countries could not have been devised. This anti-Leninist theory of “Socialism in One Country” and “coexistence” with capitalism in all other countries, transformed the Soviet bureaucracy into the most effectively conservative, anti-revolutionary force in the world, and debased the Communist parties in the capitalist countries from agencies of revolution into border guards of the Soviet Union and pressure groups in the service of its foreign policy. Comintern intervention in the affairs of the American party, under this new and revised program, only aggravated the difficulties of its national situation and confounded the confusion.


The party was influenced from two sides – nationally and internationally – and this time adversely in each case. Its decline and degeneration in this period, no less than its earlier rise, must be accounted for primarily, not by national or international factors alone, but by the two together. These combined influences, at this time working for conservatism, bore down with crushing weight on the still infant Communist Party of the United States.

It was difficult to be a working revolutionist in America in those days, to sustain the agitation that brought no response, to repeat the slogans which found no echo. The party leaders were not crudely corrupted by personal benefits of the general prosperity; but they were affected indirectly by the sea of indifference around them.

“Moscow domination” did indeed play an evil role in this unhappy time, but it did not operate in a vacuum. All the conditions of American life in the late Twenties, pressing in on the unprepared infant party, sapped the fighting faith of the party cadres, including the central leaders, and set them up for the Russian blows. The party became receptive to the ideas of Stalinism, which were saturated with conservatism, because the party cadres themselves were unconsciously yielding to their own conservative environment.

Some of the original leaders became Stalinists, and as such, have made an occupation of betraying the American workers in the interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Others made their way in stages, over the bridge of Stalinism, into the direct service of American imperialism. Others fell by the wayside. That did not happen all at once. It was a long, complicated and involved process. It took time. But once the process got fairly started, time worked inexorably to demoralize its victims and turn them into traitors.

I believe the corruption of the pioneer cadres of American communism – by its wholesale scope, by the extremes it called forth of self-repudiation and of treachery to a noble cause once espoused – is the most disgraceful and the most terrible chapter in American history. Never has a movement of social idealism suffered such a moral catastrophe, such a rotting away of its human material. Still, it must be recognized that – apart from its depth and scope – there is nothing really new or strange in this ugly spectacle of men and ideals devoured by time and circumstance.

By and large, that is the story of the gradual evolution of all backsliders in the history of the labor movement, from the early leaders of British labor reformism who had once belonged to the First International with Marx and Engels, to the latest CIO functionary, grown worldly-wise and fat around the ears, who will tell you, with shyly proud self-deprecation, that he “used to be a socialist himself.”

This materialistic analysis of the ugly transformation of the pioneer leaders of American communism deprives them of their halo, which did not fit them in the first place, and also frees them from judgment by demonology. It simply shows them in their true light as human, capable of error and default under pressure. They stood up better and longer than others of their generation, but in the end they too succumbed to the pressures of their time. There is tragedy in their downfall, if the wretched renunciation of youthful allegiance to a great ideal deserves that name. But there is no mystery about it.


The degeneration of the Communist Party did not swallow up everybody in its ranks. A small minority revolted against Stalinism without capitulating to American imperialism. There were reasons for that too.

Those gossips who explain the degeneration of the majority as the natural result of their personal traits and delinquencies, or as the logical outcome of immoral communism, are puzzled by this apparent deviation from the rule. They are at a loss to explain why a few of the original communists became neither Stalinist flunkeys nor government informers, but remained what they had been and continued the struggle for the revolutionary program under the leadership of Trotsky and the Russian Opposition.

The moralistic judges have been especially puzzled by the circumstance that I was among them; was, in fact, the initiator; and – still more inexplicably – have held consistently to that position in 25 years of struggle. These noble commentators on the doings and motivations of others never fail to point out that I was mixed up in all the factional alley-fights of the party, without any pretensions to non-partisan holiness, then or afterward, and that I have neglected to offer any apologies or make any confessions – and on this point they do not lie. How then, they ask, could such a person “come out for Trotsky” after he was completely defeated, expelled, and isolated in exile in far away Alma Ata?

That question has really intrigued the kibitzers, and there has been no lack of speculation as to the causes for my action. In my reading of the political tradepapers, which is part of my routine, I have seen my revolt against the Stalinized Comintern in 1928 variously described as a “mistake,” an “accident” and a “mystery” – the mistake, accident or mystery being why a communist faction fighter of the Twenties who, like all the others, fought to win, should deliberately align himself with a “lost cause” – and stick to it.

There was no mystery about it, and it was neither an accident nor a mistake. In the first chapters of my History of American Trotskyism, I have already told the truth about the circumstances surrounding my action in 1928 and the reasons for it. These reasons seemed to me to be correct and logical at the time as the simple duty of a communist – which I was, and am – and 25 years of reflection, combined with unceasing struggle to implement my decision, have not changed my opinion.

When I read Trotsky’s “Criticism of the Draft Program” at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, I was convinced at once – and for good – that the theory of “Socialism in One Country” was basically anti-revolutionary and that Trotsky and the Russian Opposition represented the true program of the revolution – the original Marxist program. What else could I do but support them? And what difference did it make that they were a small minority, defeated, expelled and exiled? It was a question of principle. This may be Greek to the philistine, but it is not an “accident” for a communist to act on principle, once it becomes clear to him. It is a matter of course.

My decision to support Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1928, and to break with all the factions in the Communist Party over that issue, was not a sudden “conversion” on my part; and neither was my earlier decision in 1917 to support the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks and to leave the IWW behind.

Each time I remained what I had started out to be in my youth – a revolutionist against capitalism. The Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks in the first instance, and the heroic struggle of the Left Opposition in the second, taught me some things I hadn’t known before and hadn’t been able to figure out for myself. They made me a better and more effective fighter for my own cause. But they did not basically change me into something I hadn’t been before. They did not “convert” me to the revolution; I was a revolutionist to start with.


I have nothing more to say about that. But here, following my exposition of the basic causes which brought about the degeneration of the Communist Party, I will undertake to explain why the initiators and organizers of the revolt and the new beginning came – and had to come – from the same party which, in its majority, had succumbed to external pressures; and why, therefore, the revolutionary movement of the present and the future must recognize its ancestral origin in this party. Objective circumstances are powerful, but not all – powerful. The status quo in normal times works to compel conformity, but this law is not automatic and does not work universally. Otherwise, there would never be any rebels and dissenters, no human agencies preparing social changes, and the world would never move forward.

There are exceptions, and the exceptions become revolutionists long before the great majority recognize the necessity and the certainty of social change. These exceptions are the historically conscious elements, the vanguard of the class who make up the vanguard party. The act of becoming a revolutionist and joining the revolutionary party is a conscious act of revolt against objective circumstances of the moment and the expression of a will to change them.

But in revolting against their social environment and striving to change it, revolutionists nevertheless still remain a part of the environment and subject to its influences and pressures. It has happened more than once in history that unfavorable turns of the conjuncture and postponement of the expected revolution, combined with tiredness and loss of vision in the dull routine of living from day to day, have tended to make conservative even the cadres of the revolutionary party and prepare their degeneration.

On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionary cadres, who revolt against their social environment and organize parties to lead a revolution, can – if the revolution is too long delayed – themselves degenerate under the continuing influences and pressures of this same environment.

This was the case with the pre-war German Social Democracy whose original leaders had been the immediate disciples of Marx. The same thing occurred in the Communist Party of Russia, whose leaders had been taught by Lenin. It happened again – with a big push and pull from the Russians – in the Communist Party of the United States, whose leaders lacked the benefit of systematic theoretical instruction and who had, in addition, to work in the most unfavorable social environment in the richest and most conservative country in the world.


But the same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. The exceptions are the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionists who remain faithful to the banner. The basic ideas of Marxism, upon which alone a revolutionary party can be constructed, are continuous in their application and have been for a hundred years. The ideas of Marxism, which create revolutionary parties, are stronger than the parties they create, and never fail to survive their downfall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead the work of reconstruction.

These are the continuators of the tradition, the defenders of the orthodox doctrine. The task of the uncorrupted revolutionists, obliged by circumstances to start the work of organizational reconstruction, has never been to proclaim a new revelation – there has been no lack of such Messiahs, and they have all been lost in the shuffle – but to reinstate the old program and bring it up to date.

They have never sought to destroy and cast out the positive values and achievements of the old organizations, but to conserve them and build upon them. They have never addressed their first appeals to the void and sought to recruit a nondescript army out of people unidentified and unknown. On the contrary, they have always sought – and found – the initiating cadres of the new organization in the old.

This was demonstrated when the Second International, which collapsed so ignominiously in the First World War, nevertheless provided the forces, out of its own ranks, for the new parties and the new International. Some socialists remained socialists; not everybody capitulated and betrayed. From the Russian party, in the first place, from the German party, and from every other Socialist Party in the entire world, uncorrupted socialists, who simply remained true to themselves, stood up against the degeneration of the old organizations and began to build the new. Even the Socialist Party of the United States, that ugly duckling of the Second International, which really wasn’t much of a party, furnished cadres not undeserving of mention in this honorable company.

The same thing happened in almost exactly the same way – according to the same laws and the same exceptions to the laws – in the case of the Communist International. The degeneration of the leading cadres of the Russian party, and of all the other parties of the Comintern, including the American party, followed the same general pattern and was induced by the same basic causes as the degeneration of the Second International. The great majority of the leading cadres of the Russian party, and of all the other parties of the Comintern, betrayed the program.

But not all. Once again the old organizations provided the forces, out of their own ranks, to begin the determined struggle for the old program. Again, the Russian party provided the leaders, and again all the other parties in the International provided supporting cadres. Even the Communist Party of the United States, with all its handicaps of ignorance and inexperience, with all its faults of unfinished youth and premature senility, furnished its quota of uncorrupted communists for the new struggle and the new beginning.


Those who see a “mystery” or an “accident” in this origin of the revolutionary party of the present and the future, who ask why and how it was possible for the original banner-bearers to come from the Communist Party of the late Twenties, which has been described here so unsparingly, really ought to be answered with another question: Where else could they come from?

The struggle for the regeneration of American communism was a task for people capable of understanding the responsibilities and hazards of their undertaking and prepared by their past to stand up to them. Where else could such people be found at the end of the first decade of American communism outside its ranks?

Certainly not from the Socialist Party or the IWW, not to mention the Socialist Labor Party and the Proletarian Party of pretentious pundits. By 1928 these organizations were hollow shells of futility, sucked dry of all revolutionary juice. By 1928, when the big fight started, all the organized revolutionists – that is to say, all those who professed allegiance to socialism and were willing to do something about it – were organized in the Communist Party, and nowhere else.

It may be that there were other people, outside all parties, in the United States in the year 1928, who were better informed in matters of theoretical doctrine and more qualified by intellect and character, than those who came forward to lead the struggle out of the rough-and-tumble faction fights of the Communist Party. I cannot deny it because I have no way of knowing. But I do know that if there were such people, they remained in hiding, and no clue to their whereabouts has been discovered till this day. They didn’t show up for the battle, as they had also failed to show up for the previous work and struggles of American communism which had sifted out and tested the people for the new responsibility.

These hypothetically superior forces were not committed; as the French say, they were not “engaged.” And therefore they did not count. Abstentionists never count when responsibilities and hazards are involved. The fight had to be started by those who were on hand and ready. The fulfillment of the assignment by some previously unknown and uncommitted people – some strange Men from Nowhere – would indeed have been a mystery and an accident.

The original Trotskyists in the United States, the initiating nucleus of the revolutionary party of the future victory, came from the Communist Party because the Communist Party – and the Communist Party alone – contained the human material prepared by the past for the work of reconstruction. There were, and could be, no other volunteers for the burden and the hazard, no other candidates for the honor – to call the thing by the right name.


Long experience has shown that economic conditions, which produce revolutionary movements in the first place and largely regulate the tempo of their growth, can also, in changed circumstances, halt their progress and push them back. Individuals on both sides of the class struggle can do only so much, for they are required to operate within this general framework. It would be well to keep this in mind if one is to make head or tail of the ups and downs of early American communism and see something in the process besides personal delinquencies, quarrels and accidents.

The current witch hunt in the United States is apparently motivated by the theory that a revolutionary movement is created by the will of conspirators, and conversely, that it can be eliminated by police measures. This assumption finds little support in the history of the first ten years of the Communist Party in this country.

The American radical movement, in all its branches, was fiercely persecuted during the war and post-war period (1917-1920). Vigilante raids on radical meetings were the order of the day. Practically all the prominent leaders were indicted. Thousands were arrested. Whole shiploads of foreign-born radicals were deported. Hundreds were imprisoned.

It took tough people to stand up against all that, but the pioneer communists were pretty tough, as the record shows. The persecution cut down the numerical strength of the movement, but did not break its basic cadres. The party emerged from the underground at the end of 1921 with a strong morale and with a leadership tested in the process of natural selection, including the test of persecution.

The quick recovery of American economy after the crisis of 1921, and the beginning of the long boom, was accompanied by a relaxation of the political tension and a virtual suspension of police action against the radicals. That did not help the revolutionary party, far from it. That’s when it began to run into real trouble.

The prosperity, which appeared to push revolutionary perspectives far into the future, dealt heavier blows to the party than the earlier persecution. The persecution had cut down its numerical strength, but its cadres remained intact and self-confident. The prosperity sapped the confidence of the cadres in the revolutionary future. Persecution inflicted wounds on the body of the party, but the drawn-out prosperity of the Twenties killed its soul.

Across the sea the same basic objective factor – the new stabilization of European capitalism sparked by the American boom – had similarly affected the ruling majority of the Russian party, and through them, the Comintern; and the conservative Comintern brought a heavy retrogressive influence to bear on the American party which had already begun to acquire the senile disease of conservatism before its youth was spent.

This is the true setting within which the history of the party in the last half of the Twenties must be studied. There is an instructive lesson here for our present times too. From the whole experience we can conclude that the present slump of American radicalism is due more to the long prosperity than to the witch hunt, and that a new economic crisis will set the stage for a revival of the movement, with or without the witch hunt.

We can also expect that the new revival will find more worthy leaders, who have learned from the mistakes of their ancestors to stand up against an unfavorable conjuncture and keep the historical perspective clear. This perspective reads: The stability of American capitalism is only the transient appearance of things; the revolution of the American workers is the true reality.

Last updated on: 14 April 2009