Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Peter Shapiro

Book Review: What Can We Learn from the CPUSA’s History?


First Published: Forward, No. 4, January 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Harvey Klehr, Heyday of American Communism, Basic Books.
Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression, University of Illinois.
Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On?, Wesleyan University Press.

For 15 years, beginning early in the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was the dominant force on the U.S. left and a major force in U.S. society. It was instrumental in the historic drive to unionize basic industry. Its mass organizing helped force adoption of unemployment insurance, social security and other social legislation. It contended for leadership in the Black Liberation Movement. It had an enormous impact on intellectuals. It came to wield real power in the Democratic Party, especially in several states where it helped forge progressive political machines. At the height of its influence it shaped government policy, touched the lives of millions of people and won thousands to support the struggle for socialism.

With the end of World War II came massive official repression. Aided by the party’s own internal weaknesses, the McCarthy era red hunts reduced the CPUSA to a shambles by the mid-1950s. It was more than ten years before the U.S. communist movement began to revive, leaving a broad gulf between two generations of revolutionary activists.

The gulf was all the wider because a new generation of communists who wanted to learn from the experience of the old had few places to turn for information. What little there was to read, even the supposedly “objective” studies of professional scholars, was little more than Cold War propaganda. Its message, in a nutshell, was that U.S. communists were simply agents of the Soviet Union, with no legitimate role to play in U.S. life, and their suppression was both justified and necessary to “national security.”

In the last ten years, this “official” line has met a powerful challenge from younger scholars and activists determined to find out what the CPUSA was all about. There has been a flood of books on different aspects of the party’s work during the Depression and World War II. The most recent include Harvey Klehr’s Heyday of American Communism, Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression, and Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?

Klehr’s book, unfortunately, is a throwback to the old “orders from Moscow” school, revealing less about CPUS A history than about the current rightward trend in academia. But Naison and Isserman have given us a gold mine of information, raising questions as well as giving insights about the history of the CPUSA.

In 1929 the United States was hit by the worst economic crisis in its history. Officially, 12 to 14 million people were jobless, about as many as during the worst period of the “Reagan recession,” but back then it was at least 25% of the labor force. And there was no government relief or unemployment insurance to tide people over while they looked for work. Businesses failed and farmers lost their land. Evictions, hunger and outright starvation were widespread.

It was a worldwide depression. The international communist movement had expected it, believing it the inevitable outcome of the frenzied capitalist expansion of the 1920s. Communists felt the economic crisis would create a revolutionary situation in capitalist countries.

The CPUSA was, at the time, a small, struggling, inexperienced organization, less than a decade old. But it was confident that the terrible hardships of the depression would make U.S. workers see the need to overthrow capitalism, and drive them into the party’s ranks. The communists threw themselves into spontaneous mass struggles, calling for revolution and sharply attacking those who called for anything less.

Despite the party’s optimism, important conditions for a mass revolutionary movement were lacking in 1929. When the Depression hit, U.S. workers had almost no organized voice. The entire left – not just the CPUSA – was weak and isolated. The existing trade unions were small and firmly under reactionary leadership, with no presence at all in the crucial basic industries like auto and steel.

Thousands were struggling for simple survival, and the communists stepped forward to provide leadership. If workers needed relief, communists helped organize “hunger marches.” If they walked off the job, communists showed them how to set up strike committees and draw up formal demands. If they faced eviction, the party would mobilize the neighborhood and physically prevent the eviction from taking place.

People welcomed the party’s help, but short of revolutionary slogans the CPUSA had no strategy for building the working class movement that went beyond the needs of the moment.

Revolutionary strategy

By 1934, however, the experience of five years had taught the party some important things about linking immediate demands with longer range goals. They mounted ongoing campaigns, not just militant one-shot demonstrations. They led fights for union recognition, not just spontaneous walkouts. They made tactical alliances that they would have shunned a few years before. They were organizing people, not simply agitating.

That year saw communists provide crucial leadership to the historic San Francisco general strike. It saw Congress debate an unemployment relief bill that communists had drafted. It saw communists leading the struggle to force the American Federation of Labor to establish effective and democratic unions for workers in basic industry. It also saw the communists thinking seriously about struggling within the electoral arena, as widespread discontent spawned political candidates like Upton Sinclair in California and Floyd Olsen in Minnesota, who ran as Democrats but talked radicalism and socialism.

While all this was happening in the U.S., Hitler had taken power in Germany. Increasingly, the international communist movement sought to build the broadest possible united front to stop the spread of fascism. The socialist Soviet Union appealed to the capitalist democracies to join it in “collective security” arrangements to defend against Nazi aggression. Without abandoning their commitment to socialism, communists tried to ally with bourgeois politicians like President Franklin Roosevelt in the U.S. in a common struggle against fascism.

Electoral work

Thus began the communist “heyday” Klehr refers to. In describing how the party extended its influence during the period that followed, Klehr cynically claims they were just riding Roosevelt’s coattails, and they were effective because their political line had changed, on Moscow’s orders, to make them virtually indistinguishable from liberal Democrats. In truth, it was the mass base the communists had already built up, and the effective independent work they had already done, that made an alliance with Roosevelt possible. In one of the few really useful chapters of his book, Klehr gives a sense of how effective this alliance had become by 1938. In California, Washington, New York and Minnesota, the CPUSA was deeply involved in the electoral campaigns of various left-wing Democrats, and in getting out the vote for Roosevelt. They built up strong progressive political organizations whose usefulness was not lost on the president. Though the communists never openly acknowledged their role in these electoral campaigns, Roosevelt found it increasingly important to woo CPUSA support.

Klehr has less to say about the CPUSA’s role in the historic drive to unionize workers in basic industry under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but what the party achieved here was even more impressive. When General Motors workers launched their dramatic sit-down strike in late 1936, party cadre provided tactical leadership, and a communist, United Auto Workers Vice President Wyndham Mortimer, represented the strikers at the bargaining table. Communists edited the CIO’s newspaper and served as its top legal counsel. Party organizers brought thousands of workers into fledgling CIO unions like the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, the United Rubber Workers and the Packinghouse Workers.

The victory of the CIO drives removed one of the biggest single obstacles to the growth of working class political clout in the U.S. It was a key element in the anti-fascist popular front the communists hoped to build. It gave the party a major role to play in U.S. life. And it gave millions of workers who had been on the edge of starvation a few years earlier a chance to earn a decent living with a semblance of security.

Work in Harlem

What did the party’s day-to-day work among African Americans look like during these years? From Naison’s account of their experience in Harlem, we get some wonderfully detailed answers.

As early as 1932, Naison says, the CPUSA emerged as a leading force in the Black Liberation Movement when it took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys – nine Black Alabama teenagers being framed for rape. Its aggressive defense effort, far more effective than the cautious tactics of the NAACP, won it tremendous respect. As a multinational organization, its positive role in fighting for Black liberation gave lie to the claims of Black nationalists who had dominated Harlem politics in the 1920s.

From the first years of the Depression, Harlemites with landlord troubles or problems with employers or government agencies turned to the party for help. Black and white communists blocked evictions, led mass unemployed marches, fought for better medical care at Harlem Hospital and better treatment of Black children in the public schools.

Though they had widespread influence and respect among Harlem’s masses, the communists got most of their prominent recruits from its intelligentsia. Talented artists and writers like Richard Wright got their careers launched with communist help, after having been repeatedly thwarted by racism and discrimination. The party used its political clout to get government money for community cultural workers and government jobs for Harlemites with white collar skills.

Naison also shows some important weaknesses in the communists’ work. In their eagerness to demonstrate that white workers were valuable allies of the Black Liberation Movement, white party cadre were often guilty of paternalism. This made it hard for masses of Black people who appreciated the party’s work, and were more than happy to have white allies, to actually become active communists.

In Harlem and elsewhere, the communists’ work was undermined by a more serious failing. They never did find a way to bridge the kind of mass revolutionary agitation they had done in the early 1930s with the broad united front work they did in the latter part of the decade, and again in the World War II years covered in Isserman’s book. The more their organizational influence grew, the more they tended to liquidate their independent role as communists, and the weaker their ties to the masses became. No sooner had they begun realizing the full potential of their tactical alliances with Roosevelt and CIO chief John L. Lewis than they began uncritically tailing them.

This contradiction became apparent during World War II, as Isserman shows. Throughout the war, the communists retained their positions in the CIO national office, and they gained unprecedented influence in the federal government. They used these positions to engineer a high-level deal which was supposed to insure uninterrupted war production without sacrificing the living standards of workers in the war industries, or threatening the organizational strength of the CIO.

The deal broke down because, despite all the talk of “equality of sacrifice” in the battle to defeat fascism, the capitalists took advantage of wartime conditions to intensify the exploitation of their workers and send their own profits soaring. When workers fought back, the CPUSA, unwilling to jeopardize its influence in high places, failed to back them up. Many workers who had won the right to union protection a few years before because of the party’s militant dedication now concluded that the communists could not be trusted to defend their rights.

Communists defeated

After the war, the communists were decisively defeated in a number of unions. Within a few years they had been expelled from the CIO. Their mass organizations collapsed under widespread government attack as the Cold War witch hunts began. Their leaders were indicted and jailed. Communists were smeared in the media, harassed by the FBI, fired from their jobs. Two party sympathizers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were accused of being Russian spies and executed.

How could the CPUSA’s enormous accomplishments of the prewar years have been destroyed so quickly?

For Klehr, whose hostility to the CPUSA is unbridled, the collapse was inevitable since the party never had any legitimate political objectives to begin with, and served the needs of the Soviet Union rather than the U.S. working class.

Isserman, a social democrat, is sympathetic to what the party was trying to do, but argues that its commitment to Marxism-Leninism and the concept of a vanguard party cut it off from its mass base, and deprived it of needed flexibility in understanding a complex U.S. reality. The trouble with this argument is that a wide open mass socialist organization of the sort Isserman apparently prefers would be just as capable of making the sort of rightist errors the CPUSA increasingly made. But it could never have provided the kind of effective leadership that the CPUSA at its best offered to the working class.

Naison is closer to the mark when he suggests, towards the end of his book, that the party’s growing unwillingness to jeopardize its political alliances with the leadership of the CIO and the Democratic Party led it to temper its aggressive defense of the interests of the people of Harlem. Naison does not really analyze this politically, but he does put his finger on a sore spot. The communists began as political outcasts who pinned their hopes for revolution on the notion that the masses would turn to them out of desperation when capitalism had so destroyed their lives that they would have no alternative but revolution. By 1938, the party’s effective and often heroic work to build the organizational and political strength of the working class had brought it close to a prominent position in U.S. life.

If the CPUSA was seduced by this newfound respectability, it wasn’t simply because “power corrupts.” It was because the party had failed to analyze how its day-today work contributed to its long-range goal of working class revolution. Having lost its bearings, it was unable to develop its impressive gains into lasting victories. But it left a rich history from which the present generation of communists can learn a great deal. A half century later, a central task of the revolutionary movement in this country remains the building of a genuine communist party to lead the working class struggle.

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Peter Shapiro has been active in the movement against plant closings and is a labor writer for UNITY newspaper.