Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Elitzik

The CPUSA and Black Workers in the 1950s


First Published: Class Struggle, No. 9, Spring 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Publisher’s Note: The following article is based upon ideas first developed by Harry Haywood, who pioneered in the struggle against revisionism in the Black liberation movement and the Communist Party U.S.A. Harry Haywood also read an early draft of the article, providing encouragement and many valuable suggestions.

For a comprehensive treatment of the Communist Party’s Afro-American work and its place in the history of the Black liberation movement, read Harry Haywood’s Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Liberator Press: Chicago, 1978).

* * *

The early 1950s, often remembered as the “McCarthy period” and a time of repression and passivity of the working class, was in fact a period marked by upheaval and fierce resistance. In particular, it was a militant period of the Black people’s movement, in which Black and white workers organized around the National Negro Labor Councils (NNLC) mounted mass campaigns against discrimination in workplaces and communities throughout the country.

During these years, communists were at the center of the Black movement. But at the same time, this period saw a revisionist clique destroy the Communist Party, U.S.A., transforming its remnants into the counter-revolutionary organization it is today. For this reason, the study of the early 1950s raises timely questions about the tasks of revolutionaries in the Black liberation movement and in the trade unions. How do we build the alliance and merger of the workers’ movement and the Black liberation struggle? Against what enemies of the working class should our main blow be directed? What is the role of trade union caucuses and mass organizations, and what are the tasks of communists within them?

In particular, the history of the movement makes clear the decisive role of a communist party in the mass struggle and the need for a consistent struggle against revisionism. It is these last factors which gave a very specific character to three periods of the Black liberation struggle–the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1960s.

In the 1930s, the CPUSA was a force for revolution. It was able to provide the Black liberation movement with working class leadership and unite its struggle with the struggle of the working class movement as a whole. This close unity defeated the trade union color bar and brought hundreds of thousands of Black workers into integrated unions for the first time. Concurrently, some of the industrial unions became a new and powerful weapon in the struggle for Black liberation.

This unity was made possible by the mass struggles led by communists. Their leadership brought white workers and Black people together to fight against the crisis conditions of the Depression years, mobilized mass support among white workers for the special demands of Black people, and trained a cadre of revolutionaries to give leadership in the Black movement. The movement matured through the militant unity of the Scottsboro defense campaign, the miners’ strike of 1931, the unemployed movement, and the underground and armed self-defense organization of thousands of sharecroppers under conditions of the most vicious repression. All this experience helped to prepare the working class for the enormous battles of the late 1930s. These saw the birth of the CIO, which was built through sit-down strikes occupying factories and massive clashes with police and the National Guard.


The 1960s stands in sharp contrast to this period. The revisionists had consolidated their hold over the CPUSA and driven out its revolutionary fighters. The unprecedented mass upsurge of the Black revolt at that time was thus left without organized working class leadership, and the Black liberation movement and the general workers’ movement followed relatively separate courses.

The explanation of the differences between these two periods lies in the struggles of the 1950s. The Black movement, especially among Black workers, here began to reassert the initiative it had shown in the Depression years. But the CPUSA, for its part, was sealing the surrender of the mass movements to the reformists and the labor bureaucrats. This contradiction gave the struggles of the 1950s their own special character and separated the Black movement from the working class movement.

The workers’ movement was faced with new tasks under the changed conditions following World War II. With its victory over Germany and Japan, U.S. imperialism was now able to concentrate on its other enemies–the socialist countries and the third world independence movements abroad and the working class and oppressed nationalities at home. In particular, it was setting the stage for its war of aggression against the people of Korea.

With its domain now vastly enlarged, the U.S. entered a period of rapid economic expansion. The new areas opened for exploitation in Europe and the third world provided the imperialists with an expanded source of superprofits. These were used to foster the growth of the labor aristocracy and to increase the bribery of the labor bureaucrats within the AFL and CIO. With renewed redbaiting and repression tactics, the imperialists worked to crush the revolutionary forces they could not buy or control. The postwar strike wave, the largest in U.S. history, was met with fierce repression, which included fascist-like legislation such as the Taft-Hartley law undermining union rights won previously.

The strategy of the right wing of the CIO leadership also changed in response to the new situation. Comprised of liberals and social-democrats, it put an end to its temporary wartime alliance with revolutionaries and with the Black masses. These bureaucrats within the recently organized unions had only been making use of the progressive forces until they were in a position to come to terms with the imperialists. They soon became open defenders of the job discrimination they had formerly pretended to oppose. Now they “supported” the Black people’s struggle in a sham way, only making ritual condemnations of Jim Crow on ceremonial occasions.


To tighten their grip on the unions, the reformist bureaucrats joined in the combined government and company attacks on those union officials with ties to the CPUSA and on militant workers in general. Years of fierce attacks on working people followed: inflation, unemployment, strikebreaking, the Korean War, unionbusting, mass firings and expulsions of union members and entire unions from the CIO.

These attacks on the working class had an especially heavy impact on Black workers. Many of the employment gains they had made during the wartime labor shortage were partially erased by the decline of war production, by automation and by the postwar recession of 1948-49. In any case, the wartime gains had been confined to a few industries and areas.

The CIO’s long awaited drive to unionize the South, which would have had a profound impact on the Black nation, ended in pitiful failure as a result of sabotage by the reformist bureaucrats. The communists, leftists and Black militants who had won the earlier CIO victories were excluded from the organizing staff. Organized instead by corrupt opportunists who were unable and unwilling to inspire and mobilize the workers, the campaign did not challenge segregation and so could not possibly win the support of the Black South. This betrayal proceeded to the point where CIO unions, which had once broken racist strikes and suspended segregated locals, were again allowing Jim Crow practices, especially in the South.

This left Black people without an important weapon against the rise in racist violence which accompanied the cold war repression. In the South, the focus of the attack on “un-Americanism” was the demand for equality and freedom for Afro-Americans.

After the war, the Southern ruling elite was faced with the return of Black veterans and the determination of the people to defend the gains of the previous years. It began a fierce campaign of racist violence, including random attacks on Black people designed to root out any thought of resistance. This campaign was marked by a rise in Klan activity and lynchings, which more and more took the legal form of the carefully packed, all-white jury and the police bullet. Nationwide defense campaigns for some of the victims–the Martinsville Seven, Willie McGhee and Rosa Lee Ingram–drew international support.


Because Black workers had come to play a leading role in the working class struggle, there were also special targets for the postwar attacks on labor. For example, under the Coast Guard’s “screening program” to eliminate “poor security risks” from maritime and waterfront jobs, 65% of the workers screened were Black.[1]

The left-wing unions, under attack for their ties to the CPUS A, were the ones which had fought hardest against discrimination. Here the Black rank and file had the strongest union support and entry into leadership positions. One example was the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards. After surviving CIO expulsion and company attacks, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the shipowners should no longer recognize the union as sole bargaining agent, allowing the shipowners to recognize the rival AFL union. The United Packinghouse Workers and the United Electrical Workers were other unions which faced government attacks and company supported raids from rival unions.

These attacks shaped the special demands of the Black workers. The basic job demands were: upgrading and entry into skilled jobs and adjusted seniority for protection against layoffs. Black workers also called for an end to racist repression, desegregation of housing, and the right to vote in the South. Naturally, they wanted their unions to raise these demands and fight for them.

When the union bureaucrats refused to do so, the additional demand that Blacks be brought into union staff and executive positions was raised. In the UAW this demand was put forward as early as 1939. At the 1943 convention, the Reuther clique was able to defeat it with the argument that this was “racism in reverse,” to which they apparently preferred straightforward racism. Many Black delegates voted with Reuther at that time. But by the end of the war, discrimination had left Black workers disgusted to the point where this had become the demand of the Black membership of the union.[2]

The growing loss of the union as a weapon in their struggle led Black workers to seek other forms of organization, independent of the sellout trade union leadership. Some took the form of rank-and-file caucuses, some the form of community organizations, social clubs or informal groups brought together around a union election campaign or grievance.

A crucial question was thus posed: What direction would these spontaneous organizations take? Would they remain confined to the particular struggles around which they were formed, isolated from each other? Or would they be able to unite and develop into an organized nationwide movement and take up the broader tasks of the struggle against imperialism.

The initiative for such organization could only come from the revolutionary movement. Again, as in the early 1930s, the communists were to play a key role in determining the course of the Black struggle.


The Party, however, had emerged from the war disabled by the revisionist politics of the Browder leadership. It was a politics of surrender to capital on all fronts, which left behind it a movement of revolutionaries without fighting organizations. Browder had used wartime national unity against fascism and the opportunist line of surrendering the CPUSA’s independence and initiative to Roosevelt as the basis for a new theory of American exceptional-ism. He claimed U.S. imperialism still had progressive features that would enable it to resolve its internal contradictions. On the Afro-American question, Browder claimed that it was all but solved, with the Black masses having already exercised the right of self-determination in favor of integration. The class struggle, then, was no longer a necessary feature of the capitalist system. Instead it was supposedly in the capitalists’ own interests to meet the demands of the working class and the oppressed nationalities.

Under Browder’s leadership, the Party opposed many mass struggles. It dissolved its fighting organizations in the workplace–the shop units and trade union fractions, even going so far as to try to enforce a no-strike policy. As for the Party’s wartime position on the Black struggle, it was best expressed by Ben Davis, a Party leader in Harlem, when he said: “We cannot temporarily stop the war until all questions of discrimination are ironed out.”[3] The Browder leadership also quietly supported the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and attacked Blacks involved in the wartime Harlem riots as “pro-fascists” and “fifth columnists.”[4]

The National Negro Congress, a broad Black united front founded in the late 1930s, had ceased to be an organization of mass struggle after the great union drives establishing the CIO. This reflected a revisionist line which saw the demands of the oppressed nationalities as an obstacle to unity, rather than as the only correct and progressive basis upon which Black people could unite with labor.

The Party, however, had not completely lost its roots in the mass movements. Rank-and-file communists everywhere had continued to play an active and leading role throughout the war years, often following their class instincts against the prevailing policies of the Browder leadership. With the expulsion of Browder in 1945, their spirit again filled the Party. Despite Browder’s liquidationist line and the complete destruction in many areas of the work in the Black movement, some 14% of the Party membership in 1946 was Black. What is more, the revolutionary core in the Party, especially among its Black members, was strengthened by the return of Black veterans eager to bring the war against fascism home to the South.


How could the Party give leadership to the mass struggles breaking out in the South and elsewhere? First it had to reconsolidate its revolutionary political line, a necessary basis for rebuilding its organizations and guiding its work. In the early 1930s, the CPUS A had seen the right to self-determination as the underlying goal of the struggle against peonage, hunger and lynching. This meant full democratic rights guaranteed by genuine Black political power in the Deep South, which was possible only through the overthrow of imperialism and the plantation system.

It was this outlook which had enabled the Party to recognize the revolutionary character of the Black struggle and to stir the deepest revolutionary aspirations of an oppressed nation. Without it, communists would not have been able to develop a working class core for the Black united front and lead the mass movements.

The Party’s top leaders, who, with the exception of William Z. Foster, had all been supporters of Browder, resisted the restoration of the right of self-determination to the Party’s program. But a prolonged debate brought forth the broad support for the revolutionary program among the membership, and by 1947 the policy had been restored.[5]


The Party was rebuilt in the South and communists again rose to leadership in the Black struggle. The Southern Negro Youth Conference was given new life, bringing more than 1,000 delegates to its 1946 convention in Columbia, South Carolina.[6] In the summer of 1947, communists led the militant strike of the United Textile Workers Local 22, in which 12,000 Black and white workers defeated the attempt of R.J. Reynolds to destroy the left-led union. The Henry Wallace presidential campaign, even within the reformist limitations of the Progressive Party, became a mass protest against Jim Crow as it moved through the Southern states with Paul Robeson. The Civil Rights Congress took up the work pioneered by the International Labor Defense in organizing support for victims of racist persecution. It led mass struggles for the release of the Trenton Six, the Martinsville Seven, and Rosa Lee Ingram.

All these gains were the result of intense struggle within the Party and great initiative by the rank and file. The fact was that many revisionist policies within the Party leadership remained unchanged after the departure of Browder. Many top leaders still relied on an alliance with the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, trying to keep alive ties to the Democratic Party made during the Roosevelt years. The slogan of the right to self-determination was seen as a threat to this alliance, which included the Southern “Jim Crow” wing of the Democratic Party.

Thus advances at lower levels of leadership were constantly undermined at the higher level. In 1948, for example, there were two important Party conferences for the purpose of reevaluating the agrarian question in the South. After a discussion of past errors, a revolutionary agrarian program was restored. But this program was never put into practice.[7]

At an enlarged meeting of the Communist Party’s National Negro Commission, Harry Haywood questioned the liquidation of the National Negro Congress and proposed a mass fighting organization, perhaps led by Robeson, to take its place. He was opposed by Pettis Perry and Betty Gannett, who represented the top leadership. They thought the creation of such an organization would be “sectarian,” that there was no need for another organization among the Negro people. But faced with overwhelming support for the proposal, Perry and Gannett promised to bring it up before national leadership. This was the last ever heard of the idea.[8]

By 1950, however, it was no longer possible to prevent the creation of a national organization. Black caucuses and workers’ organizations of every variety had appeared spontaneously throughout the country. In 1949 a group of Black trade union leaders and activists met in Harlem to plan a national organization. The first national meeting was held in Chicago a year later, drawing over 900 Black and white delegates to the National Labor Conference for Negro Rights. There a committee was formed to organize local councils across the country and prepare for the founding convention the next year of the National Negro Labor Councils.


The Labor Councils began with a sizable base in the left-wing unions and locals of other unions with leadership ties to the CPUSA. This can be seen in the make-up of the delegates to the first convention. The largest delegations were from the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the United Packinghouse Workers, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and other communist led or influenced unions. Less than 7% of the delegates were from the AFL, where communist strength was relatively weak.

While formed out of the rank-and-file movement, the NNLC was basically organized and led by the section of trade union leaders with ties to the CPUSA. The leaders, convention speakers and individuals interviewed by journalists at the founding convention all reflected the large number of union officials participating. It was, then, ironic that the leaders of the AFL and CIO attacked the Labor Councils for “dual unionism.”

How should the role of these union officials be summed up? It is a complicated question, due to the fact that the period was one of transition for the CPUSA. The influence of the revisionists was very strong, but they had not yet completely seized power and driven out the Marxist-Leninists.

This has to be taken into account in assessing the Party’s trade union functionaries. Some of them held to a militant, class struggle stand, if not consistently, then in part. Many others, however, were consolidated around the revisionist line and had become reformist bureaucrats with a militant veneer.

The Labor Councils, then, served as a vehicle for these bureaucrats at the same time as it answered the organizational needs of the rank-and-file workers, especially Afro-Americans. The CPUSA and its trade union functionaries and sympathizers at the time were under concentrated attack by the imperialists. They needed the Labor Councils as a power base from which to curb the campaign to drive them out of the labor movement and, in the long run, they wanted to use it to advance their position in the labor bureaucracy. To do so, however, they had to take up many of the workers’ demands in order to maintain their base, at least temporarily. They were able, nonetheless, to impose a basically reformist outlook upon the mass struggle.

It was not surprising, then, that the NNLC did not have a clear view of the reformist labor bureaucracy and its role as an agent of imperialism within the labor movement. While many leaders of the left-wing unions mounted a militant defense against raiding and union-busting, a strong collaborationist tendency had characterized the Party’s trade union line since the end of the CIO drives. Most of the bureaucrats eventually supported the revisionists’ open surrender of the Party-led unions to the AFL-CIO. The NNLC could not take aim at the labor bureaucracy while under the leadership of these people, many of whom cherished the ambition of securing their own nest within it.


The Labor Councils were also held back by the revisionist line on the Afro-American struggle coming from within the top Party leadership. Speeches and publications identified the enemy as “Jim Crow,” rather than targeting imperialism as well. This reduced the struggle for political power and self-determination simply to a matter of equality.

There was, however, a revolutionary tendency within the Labor Councils which posed a threat to the labor bureaucrats. They feared the consolidation of the growing rank-and-file opposition into an organized movement with communist leadership. They tried to isolate the Labor Councils through a press campaign which labeled it as “communist” and “dual unionist.” The trade union apparatus was activated to stop union members from participating.

An example which brings out the strengths and weaknesses of both the caucus movement and the Party’s trade union policy was the struggle for the River Rouge Ford Local of the UAW. This local, with more than 30,000 members in the largest union in the country, was a center of communist activity and the rank-and-file opposition to Reuther’s leadership of the UAW. The local had a history of militant unity between Black and white workers, and the Labor Councils threatened to give this unity organizational form.

Ford had been the most difficult auto company to unionize. It had maintained a consistent policy of dividing the white and Black workers through segregation. It combined this with paternalism towards its Black workers and corruption of local leadership in the Black community. But the UAW organizing drive had mobilized a Black united front in which the communists were the leading force. It was able to bring 1,500 Black strikebreakers out of the plant to join the picket line. Since this breakthrough, Local 600 had a history of multi-national unity, with Blacks elected to the union leadership from the beginning.


What happened at River Rouge in the late 1940s recapitulates the general CIO betrayal. Reuther had come to power inside the UAW mainly because the CPUSA under Browder surrendered the top leadership of the union to anti-communists. Reuther then retreated on the questions of speedup, unemployment insurance, wages, job discrimination, and the demand for 30 hours work with 40 hours pay. After the defeat of Browder, communists formed the Progressive Caucus to organize for the demands Reuther had sold out. By the time of the Negro Labor Councils, the Progressive Caucus had initiated the formation of the Unity Coalition, which won control of the River Rouge local.

A Black leader of the Progressive Caucus, William Hood, had been elected recording secretary of the local, and went on to head the Detroit Negro Labor Council and then become president of the National Negro Labor Council. The Detroit Council drew white and Black auto workers into the movement against discrimination in other industries and led demonstrations against A&P, air line companies, Sears and numerous smaller businesses in the Detroit area.

Together with Local 600, the Detroit Negro Labor Council began mass agitation for a Fair Employment Practices Commission in Detroit, gathering 40,000 signatures in a petition for a referendum. In response, Reuther and other international officers, while claiming to be “sincere advocates of FEPC,” called upon auto workers who had signed the petition to withdraw their names.[9] Reuther was further exposed by the Labor Council’s demand for a Black member of the union’s international executive board. At the same time Reuther was claiming there were no qualified candidates among the Black membership, the Council was giving embarrassing prominence to Black trade union leaders.

The UAW’s attempts to end the communists’ leading role in Local 600 were completely ineffective at that time. The rank-and-file opposition was steadily increasing, and now had a source of strength in the resurgence of the Black movement. In 1950, Joe Hogan, the candidate of the Progressive Caucus, nearly defeated the incumbent president, Stellato, an opportunist who was at that time openly supported by Reuther. Hogan’s strength apparently came from his political positions: opposition to the Korean War and support for the formation of a Labor Party.[10] When Stellato saw he could not defeat the Progressive Caucus, he joined with it in a “Unity Coalition,” and broke with Reuther in order to save his own position.


The government moved to rescue the Reuther leadership, sending the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to Detroit to “investigate” communist activity in Local 600 and in the Detroit Labor Council. Only three days after the hearings had ended, Reuther suspended the local officers and appointed an “administrative board” to manage the union. Reuther used as grounds the provision of the UAW constitution prohibiting a member from holding union office “if he is a member of or subservient to the Communist Party.” Business Week commented that “Reuther and the Committee were working together on the UAW like a well-rehearsed vaudeville team.”[11]

In the next months, the Unity Coalition successfully defied the “administrators.” The campaign focused on the grievances the UAW was unwilling to fight for, making use of a wide variety of tactics, including strikes. Over a hundred elected Black leaders of the local organized to campaign for Hood and brought him nearly twice as many votes as all three of his opponents combined. As a result, the deposed leadership was returned to office by overwhelming pluralities.[12]

This defeat of Reuther’s takeover maneuver was an important victory for the CPUSA. Nonetheless, it was a victory that underscored the overall weaknesses of the Party and its trade union policy. The fact of the matter was that the Party was not able to recapture the revolutionary force of the unity between the working class and the Black liberation movement of the 1930s.

What was the nature of these weaknesses? The CPUSA for years had made the River Rouge Ford plant a point of concentration. The Party had a sizable membership there which exercised broad influence through its shop units, elected union officials, distribution of The Worker and other Party literature, and through the Progressive Caucus, which was under its leadership.

How did this work of building the Party reflect a revisionist line? Gil Green, using the pseudonym “Swift,” praised the work at River Rouge in this way:

Through leaflets and literature, the Party in Michigan explained to the Ford worker every important issue. Not only economic issues, such as speedup and runaway shops were dealt with, but also political issues related to war and peace, to Negro-white unity, to labor unity, to political action, etc. All this sustained activity served to educate a substantial mass of workers who were thus equipped to resist the poison of Red-baiting. This undoubtedly helped create the conditions for progressive policies to become the policies of the Ford workers.[13]

What is missing in this account? There is no indication that this was a communist party being built, a party essentially different from a “labor party” or the Progressive Party the CPUSA had supported. There was little or no discussion of the struggle against imperialism, the struggle for socialism and self-determination. Politics were discussed, to be sure, but it was trade union politics, not communist politics.


Even this approach to party-building was soon neglected. As the Party’s control of the trade union apparatus was extended, the distribution of Party literature declined. The organization became much looser, with the “shop clubs” meeting irregularly. Nor did the Party have fractions in the union. These had been dissolved back in 1939, as a concession to the labor bureaucrats. Finally, the Party-led Progressive Caucus was itself virtually dissolved in the process of forming the Unity Coalition with the Stellato faction.

Reuther had been temporarily thwarted and the Party maintained leading union positions. But these gains rested on a house of cards. Even the top Party leadership, through Green’s article, criticized the Michigan communists for a number of opportunist concessions, especially “surrendering their right to criticize” their reformist anti-Reuther allies.[14]

The CPUSA leaders, however, were in fact advocating essentially the same opportunist line on the question of alliances. Green’s criticisms were mainly of a tactical nature. He was not arguing against a strategic alliance with reformist bureaucrats for the sake of holding on to or capturing some top union posts. He was only upset over the fact that the Party was being downplayed in the process.

It was not simply a question of the “right” to criticize Stellato, but of whether or not the Party carried out any fundamental revolutionary education of the workers as to the nature of Stellato and other typical representatives of the labor bureaucracy. Instead of doing this, the Party praised him for sticking to the Unity Coalition and only pointed out that he had wavered on redbaiting and had allied with Reuther in the past.

Actually Stellato joined the Unity Coalition as a way of serving his own ambition and, in the end, Reuther’s interests as well. After Reuther’s takeover ploy was defeated, the UAW head shifted tactics and let Stellato run unopposed. While there was widespread speculation about a Stellato-Reuther deal, Green refused to face it. “We do not know what Brother Stellato has in mind,” Green says. All he knew is that Stellato was not breaking unity and was sticking with the coalition.[15] But the fact was that backing Stellato was Reuther’s best tactic for opposing the Party at the time. This tactic is what both opportunists understood and carried out.

This orientation towards “winning over” the agents of imperialism within the trade unions placed definite limits on Party work in the unions and the Black movement. Within these limits, the Party could not carry out revolutionary education of the working class. Party literature would have to be safely economist and there could be no fundamental challenge to white chauvinism, on which the power of the Stellatos, as well as the Reuthers, was based.


Despite these weaknesses in the Party’s orientation, the Labor Councils played an important role in Black working class struggles. Many of the most advanced struggles of those years were based upon the unity of white and Black workers, and these struggles provided positive examples of work carried on by the communist-led unions.

One especially dramatic example was the strike of 17,000 workers of the United Electrical Workers (UE) against International Harvester in 1952 in Chicago. The strike was preceeded by the first factory occupation since the CIO drives of the 1930s. The workers of a predominantly Black local sat down to prevent the company from moving its twine mill to New Orleans. After the occupation was broken by a police attack, the workers tore up the streets to throw paving stones at the trucks which came for the machinery. The bitter strike saw the workers militantly defeat government attempts to frame a Black union official and NNLC leader, Harold Ward, for the murder of a scab. Intensive educational work succeeded in mobilizing mass support against a HUAC investigation of the union, which was timed to coincide with the strike.

Also in Chicago, the United Packinghouse Workers Union forced Armour Meat Co. to desegregate some of its skilled all-white departments. This campaign involved work stoppages and demonstrations of several thousand white and Black workers. In the South, the union forced Armour, Swift and Cudahy to hire Blacks, tear down the “white only” and “colored only” signs, and integrate locker rooms, wash rooms and cafeterias. Through mass educational campaigns, they mobilized their members to defeat company and Klan-organized counterattacks making use of the more backward white workers.


The most elaborate and carefully prepared campaign of the Labor Councils was the mobilization to force the hiring of Blacks for production and skilled jobs by GE in Louisville, Kentucky. GE was scheduled to open a plant employing 16,000 workers, and the campaign was to initiate a broad assault to open production jobs to Blacks in the South. The Labor Councils and the UE, uniting with the local NAACP, Urban League and Black churches in a years-long campaign, forced GE, Westinghouse and Reynolds to hire Black men and women production workers for the first time.

The assault on Jim Crow in the South was enthusiastically welcomed at the Labor Councils’ Third Congress in 1953. It was not long after, however, that its activity began to decline and its larger mass mobilizations ended. The cause clearly stemmed from the role of the Party. Its earlier revolutionary line on the Afro-American question had been set aside, and a revisionist line was being implemented in practice, even though it was yet to be formally adopted. The revisionists dreamed of a romance with the reformist and liberal politicians, and the revolutionary line was clearly an obstacle. This policy undermined the work of the Labor Council until they were virtually a paper organization, thus justifying in advance its eventual dissolution in 1956.

The reason put forward at the time for the dissolution of the Labor Councils was its citation by the Subversive Activities Control Board. The Party pointed to the difficulty of raising the necessary funds for a legal defense, estimated at $100,000.

This explanation, still put forward by the revisionists today, is a complete sham. The Labor Councils had proved capable of mobilizing over 1,000 delegates for its conventions. It had been able to mount nationwide campaigns against racist hiring practices and had active councils in over 50 industrial centers. It had the support of important national and local unions as well as ties with the Black community and the revolutionary movement. To say that such an organization could not raise $100,000 for its own survival only exposes the treachery of the revisionists.

In any case, the Party leadership did not wait for the government to destroy the Labor Councils. They were an embarrassment to the revisionists’ attempt to ally with the NAACP, liberal politicians and labor bureaucrats. While government repression certainly played an important part in the demise of the Labor Councils, a far greater importance must be attached to the growing strength of reformism and revisionism in the Black movement and the CPUSA.


Government repression created an opportunity for the revisionists. They used it to give substance to the view that the main task of communists was the struggle for democracy, arguing that U.S. imperialism was entering a period of fascism. While there was a fascist danger, this was an incorrect overestimation of the enemy. Even if it had been correct, however, the liquidationist policies and tactics employed were incorrect. This strengthened the tendency, directed by the revisionists, to dissolve the independent work of communists, submerging it in the mass organizations. As a result, the communist movement tailed behind the reformists.

The result? The NAACP was recognized as the leadership of the Black movement, and the labor bureaucrats as the leadership of the trade union movement. Any obstacle to unity with these “progressive forces” was eliminated from the Party’s literature.

The tendency to tail after reformists had another source in the growing influence of reformism in the Black movement. It reflected the other side of the classical imperialist strategy against the oppressed peoples: systematic repression was complemented by an equally systematic program of bribes to encourage the development of a “native” elite. Grants were made to Black institutions, and high-paying jobs and prestige were awarded to intellectuals who defended the idea that significant progress and equality could be achieved within the framework of the capitalist system. This was in large part a concession to world opinion in the U.S. attempt to compete with the USSR for influence in the third world. One aspect of the Supreme Court decision of 1954, outlawing segregated schools, was that it gave still further impetus to reformism.

The Party leadership accepted these reversals with complacency. They now conceived of left-led mass organizations such as the Civil Rights Congress and the Labor Councils simply as pressure groups with the task of “influencing the larger mass organizations of the people now led by reformists and social-democrats in a constructive and progressive direction.”[16]

’FREE BY ’63’

Both the Party and the Labor Councils, for example, supported the slogan of the 1953 NAACP convention, “Free by ’63,” unembarrassed by its promise of full equality within the framework of U.S. capitalism.[17] The NAACP was praised for its prestige among Black people and was considered to be their leadership. It was on groups like this that the Party was supposed to “base” its work among Blacks.[18]

But not everyone in the Party shared this revisionist conception of the Black bourgeoisie’s “positive role.”[19] There remained a strong revolutionary current, based in the Party’s mass organizations. These people were under attack for “sectarianism,” because they resisted “placing chief emphasis upon work within the main organizations of the Negro people–NAACP, Elks, Churches, etc.”[20]

The revolutionary tendency did not find the pages of the Party press open to them. Whatever influence they had on national leadership bodies was lost when the Party entered its so-called “underground period.” There was no Party convention, there were no full national committee meetings between 1950 and 1956, and the revolutionaries had no representation among the so-called “operative leadership.” This disruption of party democracy and discussion, with its consequent disorientation of the cadre, was a convenient result of the revisionists’ decision to “go underground.”

The actual substance of the “underground” adventure was an attempt to liquidate the Communist Party. The revisionists pretended they were turning the Party into an “underground” organization in the space of a few months–despite the fact that the Party was without an illegal apparatus and had no recent experience in illegal activity. Nonetheless, it was argued that the Party could only continue to function as a “cadre” organization, with a “skeletal force” and a much smaller membership. Only in this way, it was claimed, could the Party survive “fascism.”[21]

Policies were adopted which drastically reduced Party membership. As described by Harry Haywood: “Party offices and sections were closed down, mass work cut back and membership consciously allowed to drop off. The Politburo dissolved the Southern region of the Party... .Thousands of.. .Party members. . .were actually directed to go out and start new lives for themselves, to have no contact with the Party, to do no political work. Many were never heard from again.”[22]

This organizational maneuver went hand-in-hand with an assault on revolutionary political positions as well. On the national question, for instance, it was impossible for the revisionists to maintain even a formal commitment to self-determination for the Black nation for much longer. But this line continued to receive strong support from many Black cadre and the Party’s left wing. Despite attempts to sneak it away, the position was not formally abandoned until 1959, and even then against considerable opposition.


In their first attacks on the right to self-determination, the revisionists tried to give it a reformist content. It originally meant the overthrow of the imperialists and the landowning class in the Deep South, together with the establishment of the political power of the Black masses and their allies there as part of the overall socialist revolution.

But Black political power, for the revisionists, meant “breaking the monopoly of the white supremacists at the ballot boxes” and “the legal fight for first-class citizenship.” The revolutionary demand for the redistribution of the land and the dismantling of the plantation economy became “the mass fight for the economic demands of the Negro workers, farmers and farm laborers.”[23] Betty Gannett, who was managing Party affairs together with Pettis Perry during the “underground” period, made it clear that the struggle for self-determination was mainly a struggle for Black representatives in government: “The realization of full nationhood, the rightful position of the Negro people in the Black Belt of full equality as a nation, can today best be advanced in the struggle to achieve Negro representation.”[24]

The Labor Councils were also under open attack from the Party’s right wing. The militancy of the caucus movement, and its ability to mobilize the Black community for direct action against racism, embarrassed the section of the Party’s leadership which saw building militant workers’ organizations as antithetical to gaining influence within the NAACP and the labor bureaucracy. It was these right wingers who openly called for the dissolution of the Labor Councils. But other rightists in the leadership used a more sophisticated ploy. They insisted that the reformist organizations of the Black bourgeoisie should be the main focus of work, while at the same time attempting to appease the left by defending the existence of the Labor Councils. Both of these groups agreed, however, that the main danger in the communist movement was the “sectarianism” of the left wing, because it wanted to base the Party’s mass work on the “left centers” such as the Labor Councils.

By 1956, after a few years of undermining the work and prestige of the “left centers,” the Party leadership was able to dissolve the Labor Councils without open debate of the real reasons for doing so.

These reasons were soon made clear, however, by Ben Davis. In his report to the June 1956 meeting of the Party’s National Committee, he asserted that the Labor Councils led to “the isolation of many Negro trade union cadres from the main body of the Negro and white workers. This cadre, many of them experienced and revered, became almost powerless to affect the mainstream of organized labor, moving in the direction of the merged AFL-CIO, and toward improved conditions for Negro workers.”[25]


Far from entering the mainstream, Davis was mired in the swamp of opportunism and was trying to drag everyone else along with him and his revisionist clique. He made the political basis for his attack even clearer when he added: “Congress can become an instrument of national social progress when the power of the Eastland Dixiecrats is destroyed and when the Dixiecrat-Republican alliance is broken.”[26]

The Labor Councils were not the only organization sacrificed. Beginning in 1953 there was a debate in the Party over the existence of all “left centers,”[27] which led to the dissolution of all these organizations in Negro work: the Civil Rights Congress; the Council on African Affairs, led by W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Alpheus Hunton; and Freedom, the newspaper with which Paul Robeson was associated, “the sole organ of the left in the Black liberation movement.”[28]

The term “left center” raises questions about the Party’s policy on work in mass organizations. The Labor Councils were, in fact, a center for the communist-led forces in the trade unions, a center for taking up the national question. But why call it a “left” center, instead of describing it simply as a mass organization led by communists and revolutionaries? After all, one did not have to be a “leftist” to join.

The reason was that the Party was liquidating its independent role, with the open work of the “left center” becoming a substitute for the independent work of the Party. The term’s suggestion of confusion between the nature of the mass organization and the nature of the Party betrays the anti-party line. “Left center” was, then, a “left”-sounding term which concealed a right-opportunist content: the liquidation of struggle for socialism and for building the Party.

By setting on such a confused and opportunist basis the organizational forms in which the revolutionary activity was concentrated, the revisionists prepared the conditions for attacking the Party’s left wing and the revolutionary activity itself.


The confusion around “left centers,” however, was only part of a general reorientation of the Party affecting all its mass work. As early as 1952, under the slogan “into the mainstream,” the foremost Communist leaders called from their hiding places in the “underground apparatus” for the return of the left-wing unions to the AFL and CIO.[29] “Into the mainstream” meant capitulation to the union bureaucrats who had driven the left wing out of the CIO and then raided their locals. The “mainstream” slogan disgusted even many left-wing union officials. It was very effective in spreading defeatism and splitting the only unions with real communist strength. The slogan justified, with Party sanction, the defections of whole locals and union leaders to rival anti-communist unions.

An example which shows how much damage was done is the experience of the UE, one of the few Party-led unions strong enough to survive those years. The approaching merger between the AFL and the CIO in 1954-55 gave rise to reformist illusions which converged with fear of repression when the Subversive Activities Control Board began its campaign against the UE. A large number of local and national UE leaders defected to rival unions and managed to take 50,000 members with them. One revisionist UE leader, who resisted CP policy at that time, admitted: “The mainstream was really a sewer. We maintained that only through a strong independent union could we build eventual unity.”[30]

By likewise undermining and liquidating the Labor Councils, the Party leaders took an obstacle out of the way of union officials who wanted to openly join the chauvinist AFL-CIO bureaucrats. But the dissolution of the Labor Councils was clearly the result of something more than an attack on self-determination and the revolutionary tendency in the Party’s Afro-American work, just as it was not only the Party’s line on the national question or trade union which was changing. Actually, all of the most basic questions of revolution were involved: the question of reformism, the state, and the vanguard role of the party.

When taken together with the “underground” adventure and dissolution of the “left centers,” it becomes clear that a second liquidation of the Party was being carried out. Like the first under Browder’s leadership, it disorganized the Party and left it subservient to reformists and incapable of carrying on revolutionary work. The leaders who effectively dissolved the Party at this time included Browder’s closest associates, who had maintained their posts after his expulsion. Now they were again in a position to seize the remnants of the organization and establish the CPUSA as a reactionary, bourgeois party.


The consequences of the liquidation of the CP for the Black liberation movement were treacherous. The Black workers were left without a fighting organization, and the Black people were left without an alternative to the NAACP. The subsequent careers of Labor Council leaders reflected this development. A number of them became active in the Democratic Party and one, Coleman Young, finally became mayor of Detroit.[31]

The Party was able to destroy the Labor Councils, but not the movement upon which it had been based. As the struggle of the Black masses developed, there would be other attempts to create a national organization to give this movement coherence and leadership. The Party, however, was not in favor of such efforts.[32]

The ultimate consequence of this betrayal stood out in sharp relief in the face of the Black revolt of the 1960s. The “gradual integrationism” of groups like the NAACP was thrust aside by the Black masses themselves. But, in contrast to the 1930s, there was no revolutionary Communist Party to give leadership to the upheaval, to unite it with the general workers’ movement, and to consolidate its gains. The CPUSA was destroyed; the organization which bore its name was now a counter-revolutionary force.

In summary, a study of the 1950s explodes the myth that the working class and the Afro-American people were passive, defeated and backward. It also exposes the lie that the decline of the revolutionary movement was solely or even primarily the result of government repression.

The 1950s in fact was a period marked by sharp class struggle, by resistance as well as repression. The working class and the oppressed nationalities fought many battles demonstrating that it was entirely possible to defeat combined government, company and union bureaucrat attacks.

There is no way of telling how far the struggle might have advanced in those years, or how close the unity between the working class and the Black people might have grown, if there had been revolutionary leadership. But it is clear that the main obstacle that stood in the way of the proletariat’s ability to meet the challenge of the imperialist assault was the reformist labor bureaucrats and especially the treachery of the revisionists.


Much of the information on the struggles of the 1950s was taken from articles in The Worker, The National Guardian and The Chicago Defender, in addition to the sources mentioned below.

[1] March of Labor, April 1952, p. 22, quoted in Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 286.

[2] Foner, p. 289.

[3] The Daily Worker, September 16, 1941, quoted in Foner, p. 279.

[4] The Daily Worker, August 1943 (complete date not given), quoted in Foner, p. 279.

[5] William Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1952), p. 478.

[6] William Z. Foster, The Negro People in American History (New York: International Publishers, 1954), p. 486.

[7] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978), pp. 555-56; Lem Harris, “Toward a Democratic Land Program for the South,” Political Affairs. March 1949, pp. 87-96.

[8] Haywood, p. 558.

[9] Foner, p. 296.

[10] Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the C.I.O. (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1964), p. 423.

[11] Business Week, March 22, 1952, quoted in Preis, p. 460.

[12] 12,567 for Hood against 6,500 for his three opponents. John Swift (Gil Green), “The Ford Local Union Elections,” Political Affairs, November 1952, p. 19.

[13] John Swift, “Reuther’s Seizure of the Ford Local” Political Affairs, July 1952, p. 19.

[14] Ibid., p. 18.

[15] Swift, “The Ford Local Union Elections,” p. 25.

[16] John Swift (Gil Green), “The Struggle for a Mass Policy,” Political Affairs, February 1953, p. 28.

[17] See Abner W. Berry, “On the Slogan ’Free by ’63,’” Political Affairs, February 1954, p. 13.

[18] William Z. Foster, “Notes on the Struggle for Negro Rights,” Political Affairs, May 1955, p. 40.

[19] Andrew Stevens, “The Fight Against White Chauvinism,” Political Affairs, May 1955, p. 63.

[20] Ibid., p. 63.

[21] Joseph Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 221.

[22] Haywood, p. 585.

[23] Berry, p. 11.

[24] Betty Gannett, introduction to Pettis Perry, Negro Representation (New York: New Century Publishers, 1952), quoted in Joseph C. Mouledous, “From Browderism to Peaceful Co-Existence: An Analysis of Developments in the Communist Position on the American Negro,” Phylon, Spring 1964, p. 85n.

[25] Benjamin J. Davis, The Negro People on the March (New York: New Century Publishers, 1956), p. 31.

[26] Ibid., p. 8.

[27] See notes 18 and 19.

[28] Haywood, p. 601.

[29] Starobin, p. 203.

[30] Interview with James Matless, Studies on the Left, Winter 1965, p. 54.

[31] See Mindy Thompson, “As Valid as Today’s Struggles,” Daily World, January 16, 1971.

[32] Edward E. Strong, “Developments in the Negro-Labor Alliance,” Political Affairs, February 1956, pp. 50-51.