Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist)

Errors of CPUSA: Plant Organizing in the 1940’s

First Published: The Communist, Vol. II, No. 10, July 20, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is the story of two older communists who were very active in the party from the early 30’s until the late 1950s. They were involved in different cities, concentrating on the organizing of the unemployed during most of the thirties. In order to learn in depth about the successes and errors in the work of these comrades and the party at that time, we will concentrate on one area of work at a time. At present it is essential we give our full attention to the building of factory nuclei and to the struggle against economism: the basis on which the new communist party must be formed. So we will now concentrate on the work of the comrades in the Cudahy packing plant in Omaha. At that time meat packing was the largest industry in that part of the midwest and Omaha was beginning to replace Chicago as the world’s largest meat packing center.


To begin, let us see what type of training and preparation these comrades were given by the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) for their work in heavy industry. These comrades entered the party at a time when the depression had just begun to hit the nation. With the depression a tremendous interest in communist ideas sprang forth. In the LA area the party grew from 7 small cells to 1500 members within 18 months. It was during this timer that the comrades were recruited into the party. The vast majority of people were recruited directly from the unemployed movement, which was growing rapidly. People were chosen for the party on the basis of militancy, loyalty to their fellow unemployed workers, resistance to the police and seeing socialism as the answer to their problems. The party was desperately trying to keep up with and lead the unemployed movement. Therefore it was decided to recruit people on the above basis without any ideological preparation, and then train them once inside the party. Each comrade was told by the local district leadership to choose people with these characteristics, integrate with them, get to know their personal backgrounds and then invite them to a forum where a communist would be speaking, but where most of the members were not openly known. Another tactic used by the new, closed members was to discretely mention that there was a meeting the comrade had heard about and was thinking of going to, and to invite the contact to come along.


Once inside the party, comrades were advised by their local cell to remain secret. The decisions about local work were made by a local cell no larger than 6 to 8 people with a member of the county committee in attendance, who would make a report from this higher body. The local cell would meet once a week, with a planned time limit of two hours, and an agenda that would include practical work and a regular study assignment. The study materials included THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, FOUNDATIONS OF LENINISM and THE STATE AND REVOLUTION. A problem around the study was recruitment was occurring so rapidly that the level of discussion never got past a certain point and often works were not even finished.

Once a month 3 to 4 cadre from the entire LA area were chosen to go to the state school in San Francisco. There they were given a one month intensive program of Marx’s WAGE, PRICE AND PROFIT, Engel’s ON THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE, excerpts from Lenin and Stalin on the national question, and readings from the Comintern. The comrades do not remember reading about or talking about Marx’s or Lenin’s writings on the trade union question and there was no discussion of the writings of Lenin or the Comintern on the question of the organization of the party in the factory nuclei as opposed to street cells. However, from the beginning the comrades were told that it was better to form cells in the factories because this was the place socialized labor took place. To be able to stop capitalism, they were told, you had to be based in the factories – it was through the factories that you could control the economic life of the country.

Later, in the mid-30’s, one of the comrades was sent to the national training school for three months. Both of the comrades remember reading parts of WHAT IS TO BE DONE? during that time. At each meeting the local cell would discuss a topical issue such as the Scottsboro Boys, self-determination in the Black Belt South, the Tom Mooney case. They would be given a directive from the central committee or county committee, often a study guide accompanying the directive or position of the party on certain questions. However, this was not consistently organized in the local cells and there was not emphasis on the importance of ideological guidance to the practical, day to day work. The comrades emphasized that during this period of the mid-30’s the party warned against tailism. They characterized this period as a time when the party was leading the spontaneous movement, rather than being dominated by right opportunism.


In 1936 the directive came down nationally from the central committee for people to devote most of their energy and cadre to work in the factories. The first place the comrades worked was Kansas City, but after a series of incidents and personal illness, they made a move to Nebraska where they first worked for two years among farmers and then were told to get into heavy industry.

At that time it was easy to get a job in the packing plants if you were from a farm. Working with the local party committee in Omaha, led by the District secretary, the comrades went to work in the canning department and the ham cooler area of the packing house. The packing houses were closed shops as a result of the struggles led by the United Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA). The comrades were advised by the local leadership to go to the packinghouses because of the progressive union which had led many struggles against discrimination and was militant in fighting for better working conditions. Also there were many party contacts in the union, as well as open and closed members in all levels of the union leadership as well as rank and file.

What were the conditions of work like at that time in the packinghouse? One comrade packed pickled pigs feet. She would split the pigs feet and put them in jars. At that time the plants had little automation, so there were few production lines. Most of the time the workers were on their feet standing around a large table. The work was not heavy. The other comrade loaded carts with hams, pushed the full cart into the cooler and took the hams from, the cooler to the loading dock. Much time was spent in the cooler, a difficult condition resulting in early arthritis in many workers. Conditions, however, were better than in most industry at that time due to the struggles the union had waged. Most of the initial contact with the workers was during the morning and afternoon break and at lunchtime in the locker room.

The cadre were given the directive, when they first began, to get well oriented to the work as they, in particular, had little previous experience in heavy industry. They were also told from the start to get active in the union. This meant full participation in the spontaneous union activities: promoting union meetings, getting familiar immediately with the contract and constitution of the union, consistently participating in the discussion on the union meeting floor, getting to know the history of the union’s struggles.

Early in their work the FBI visited the plant, telling their employers of their past communist activity. Word of this spread among the workers. However, by that time the comrades had won the respect of enough workers to ’get elected to local stewardships. This respect was won through daily hard work of fighting for grievances and raising new issues to organize around. However, very little did the comrades raise the day to day issues from a class perspective, a socialist perspective from the point of view of a cadre in the CPUSA. This was due to a clear directive from the central committee that “socialism is not the issue today – better working conditions and stopping fascism is our goal now”. This revisionist, economist position was reflected in the day to day work of these comrades. This activity led the way for revisionism to consolidate itself and for the party to be in such a weak position by the time the McCarran Act and the McCarthy era arrived.

In 1948 the comrades, like CPUSA members across the country, campaigned vigorously for Henry Wallace running on the Progressive Party ticket. The basis of this support was not that Wallace supported aspects of communist ideology, but that he was for peace. He was to end the cold war. It is clear that the basis of the campaign and work with the Progressive Party was all unity, no struggle. Again the party acted like social-democrats. This was not. because of its support for Wallace, but because of its lack of struggle with the Wallace forces. It was acting like Kautsky and the opportunists of Russia in the early 1900’s who saw parliamentarism not merely as a tactic, but as THE MAIN FORM OF STRUGGLE. In the work the comrades did in the plants they spoke only of the need for peace in the era of “the cold war”, not the need for socialist revolution as the only way to insure peace.

Toward the end of their work in Omaha, the comrades came out against the Korean War. However, most of the agitation done at that time was on moral grounds – “we have no business there, if they came over here, we would have to run them out of our country”. There was no in depth explanation through propaganda or agitation about how imperialism exploited the working class here as well as the people of Korea. They did not explain that the war benefitted only the wealthy industrialists, like the owners of the packinghouse, and that the working people were being forced to suffer the consequences of the war by having their sons being sent to Korea to fight and die. A class explanation was not presented by the party or the local cadre.


In the three years the comrades were there, there was no attempt to build a core or nucleus. Because of this there was no material basis for support when harassment increased. By late 1949 the union leadership began to take anti-communist stands, showing their allegiance with the bourgeoisie. They organized specifically against those who spoke out against the war. As Lenin explains in SOCIALISM AN WAR, it is the trade union bureaucracy that are the main mouth-pieces of the bourgeoisie at all times but particularly at times of war. They are the first and foremost at whipping up national chauvinism, anti-communism and organizing backward workers into fascist groups and gangs.

This is what happened in the Cudahy Packinghouse to the two comrades. Using their closest friends in the leadership of the Catholic Church, the union leadership called on the most backward workers to fight the comrades who were taking their stand against the war. Even though the comrades never openly said they were communists, or took open communist stands in the union, they were labeled as communists for the agitation they were doing against the war. A sit-down strike was organized by the union leadership which had the support of all the other workers in the comrade’s department. The strike was to get rid of the comrade. She was then transferred to another floor where, although her stewardship had not been taken away from her, she had no support from her fellow workers and her position was useless.

The party hadn’t been prepared for what happened to the comrades and gave them little support. They were told that as a result of the McCarran Act (under which it was expected that mass arrests’ would come) it would be better for them to travel to a large city where legal defense as available.


We can see many of the social democratic characteristics that Lenin and the Comintern pointed out in the arties in western Europe. First, most of the work of the CPUSA district was based in the communities and street cells, not in the factories. For example, the cadre did not sell the DAILY WORKER in the plant or at the gate, but did sell it in the community. The local committee, led by the district secretary, said little of organizing factory nuclei in the packing house or anywhere else. There was little secret work among contacts and no newsletter separate from the union’s.

By that time the CPUSA was in some positions in national leadership in the union, but talked and acted only like militant trade unionists, not like communists. The main activity in the local cells was to discuss day to day union activity, not to give it a planned communist character, but simply to be better organized and take leadership when possible. Economism was discussed, saying “we had to do much more than just get the immediate demands of the workers met” – but in practice nothing else was done.

The WORKERS CONGRESS (M-L) has always said that the party must be built on the basis of factory nuclei and a sharp break with social democracy. In practice it means that we must build a core of workers which combines study of Marxism-Leninism with practical work, whose members participate most vigorously in the spontaneous trade union struggle. To take leadership of the spontaneous struggle and to fail to build nuclei and link the spontaneous struggle firmly to the overall objective of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class is a right opportunist error. This is exactly the error the party and many of its cadre made in the 1930s and 40s.