Preview: The CP, 1928–33 – The dawn of the red decade

The following is preview content from the forthcoming document The CP, the Sixties, the RCP, and the Crying Need for a Communist Vanguard Party Today: Summing up a century of communist leadership, organization, strategy, and practice in the United States so that we can rise to the challenges before us by the Organization of Communist Revolutionaries (US). This document will be published in early 2023 as kites #8. Check back here for pre-order info.

The following preview comes from the summation of the Communist Party, USA. See the table of contents to understand how this preview fits into the document as a whole. This is only the first part of a lengthy section covering 1928–33.

1928–33

The dawn of the red decade

Aside from exorcising the curse of factionalism from the CP, the Comintern, at its 1928 Sixth Congress, also imposed political lines that were decisive for putting the CP in a position to lead militant class struggle and movements against the oppression of Black people, transforming the CP into something closer to a real revolutionary vanguard from the years from 1928 to 1935. Consequently, the CP’s practice during those years offers the most positive lessons for today’s communists to learn from, so we will devote considerable attention to summing up these lessons.

The far more revolutionary practice of the CP from 1928 to 1935 is indicative of the Maoist principle that the correctness of political line is decisive in determining the direction of a communist party. After jettisoning Bukharin’s leadership, the Comintern united around Stalin’s analysis that the relative stability of global capitalism in the mid-1920s was giving way to a period of profound crisis—an analysis subsequently confirmed by the stock market crash of Fall 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it. (The best fortune teller has consistently proven to be the application of materialist dialectics.) What came to be called the Comintern’s “Third Period” analysis heralded the greater possibilities for militant class struggle, already in evidence in 1927 with the worldwide movement in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, and adjusted the tactics of communist parties accordingly.

To seize on the growing revolutionary potential, Comintern parties needed to expose the bankruptcy of the reformist socialist parties and other petty-bourgeois and opportunist forces and swing large sections of the proletariat over to its leadership through a “united front from below,” without also aligning with other political forces in a “united front from above.” Doing so required not just vicious polemics against the opportunists, but also directly leading proletarians in militant struggle and organizing them in unions under communist leadership—a move away from working within mainstream trade-unions and emphasis on parliamentary struggle. The analysis, strategic direction, and tactics flowing from the Comintern was the principal reason the CP was able to lead a more revolutionary practice at this time, which speaks highly of the Comintern and Stalin’s leadership, but indicates that the CP’s leadership was still incapable of crafting revolutionary strategy. Indeed, when we consider Third Period analysis and tactics, the ending of factions in the CP, and the CP’s revolutionary line on the Black national question established at the end of the 1920s (which we will explore below), we must declare that communists in the US owe a great debt of gratitude to comrade Stalin, for his leadership played a pivotal role in all these advances.

Leading militant strikes and revolutionary unions

As part of the turn to Third Period tactics, the CPUSA’s labor organizing came in for harsh criticism at the Fourth Congress of the Profintern (the Comintern’s international labor organization) in March 1928. Lozovsky, the head of the Profintern, condemned the decision of US Communists to focus, during a recent miners’ struggle, on saving the existing, opportunist-led miners’ union rather than pushing the struggle in the sharpest direction possible and starting a new union if necessary. Lozovsky was equally critical of US Communists’ continued fixation on trying to “bore from within” the AFL, and advocated moving in the direction of “organizing the unorganized” workers into unions and more sharply exposing and struggling against the opportunist leadership of the AFL. Practically speaking, the new direction dictated to US Communists, over the objections of most of the US delegates to the Profintern Congress (with Weisbord as a notable exception), meant militant dual-unionism.1

With this orientation, Communist labor organizers set out building unions under their leadership in industries where workers faced harsh conditions of exploitation and received little attention from the AFL. By January 1929, there were three Communist-led unions with small but significant memberships: the National Miners Union, the National Textile Workers Industrial Union, and the Needles Trades Workers Industrial Union. The TUEL was transformed into the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) at a national conference of 690 delegates in Cleveland, Ohio that took place from August 31 to September 2, 1929. With the TUUL, for the next five years the CP had an organization under its leadership dedicated to leading militant labor struggles and organizing Communist-led unions.2 Syndicalist influences and a lack of clarity on how labor organizing fit into a strategy for revolution remained with the creation of the TUUL, and the organization’s name suggests a politics of “uniting the unions,” a questionable goal given the opportunist leadership of the AFL and other unions. Despite these and other political weaknesses, TUUL organizers entered into several sharp manifestations of class struggle and set up unions in a dozen industries. In addition to the three unions started before the TUUL’s founding conference, this included unions in steel, machine and tool foundry, marine transport, and cannery and agriculture, involving strategically important sections of the proletariat.3

Profintern leadership proved correct about the growing opportunities for Communist-led unions and labor struggles. Well before the onset of the Great Depression in Fall 1929, sections of the working class were facing wage cuts and worsening conditions. As a result, spontaneous struggles began to erupt among workers without the leadership of existing forces in the labor movement, who were reticent to step into sharp class struggles, without good prospects for victory, among the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat. Communists stepped into the void, and “So it was that in textile mills, in coal fields, in automobile factories, and in the fields of California’s Imperial Valley, Communists led a series of strikes.”4

The first great Communist-led strike of this period was among textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina. The CP has sent an organizer, Fred Beal, who was experienced working in textile mills up North and in union organizing, to Gastonia in light of the spontaneous strikes breaking out at textile mills in the South. The strike that broke out at Loray Mill in Gastonia in April 1929 was met with harsh repression, with the police, deputized men, and the National Guard violently attacking organizers and strikers and the local media fomenting a “red scare,” spreading absurdly inflated warnings of a nefarious communist plot underway. The CP sent more organizers to Gastonia, including Albert Weisbord, and but its attempts to create a rolling strike wave—spreading the strike to other nearby textile mills—was suppressed, strikers were kicked out of company housing, and there was inadequate relief support to sustain the striking workers. Attempts to reignite the struggle resulted in even harsher repression, with a shootout with police breaking out on June 7, 1929 leaving several police and strikers injured and the Gastonia police chief dead (at least there was one small victory to celebrate). Unfortunately the people’s side subsequently lost one of its valiant fighters when Ella Mae Wiggins, a strike leader and songwriter, was shot dead shortly after the June 7 incident.5

As a strike for economic demands, Gastonia was a spectacular failure, as were many other strikes led by various forces in the labor movement in the South at this time. But as an act of fierce class struggle and as a political mobilization, it put the CP on a new footing in relation to labor struggles. With fifteen strikers and Communists put on trial for the murder of the police chief, International Labor Defense (ILD) organizers were brought in to wage a vigorous political and legal defense. Ultimately seven people were convicted of lesser charges. While some Communists waffled on the stand and did not use the opportunity to make a defiant political statement, one defense witness openly advocated revolution and declared herself an atheist, a bold move in a Southern courtroom. Through the ILD and other CP-led efforts, the struggle at Gastonia gained national notoriety, with the the harsh repression of the strike exposed in The Labor Defender and other publications. Communists also challenged Southern segregation in Gastonia, with the ILD organizing a “workers’ jury,” with the Black and white members of this mock jury sitting together in the Jim Crow gallery that was designated for Black people, thereby breaking the rules of Southern segregation.6

In the couple years that followed the Gastonia strike, the CP jumped into a number of other labor struggles and sought to push them in the most militant direction possible and organize unions (or strengthen existing unions) in the process. The CP entered this period with little labor organization in comparison to the AFL, but the dedication of its organizers, its firm stand with the most exploited among the working class, and its determination to seize on opportunities in the midst of sharpening class antagonisms put the Party in the middle of the some of the sharpest labor struggles of the early years of the Great Depression. An objective difficulty it faced was that, as historian Fraser Ottanelli puts it, “Rather than initiating their own strikes after careful preparation and planning, with few exceptions Communists found themselves taking over the leadership of ill-timed and poorly organized spontaneous movements.”7 As a result, most of the strikes the CP led failed to win practical victories, and, worse yet, did not consolidate much in the way of new Party members or union membership.

The latter is, to some degree, a subjective failure, and the CP’s tendency to emphasize trade-union consciousness rather than proletarian class-consciousness in the Leninist sense is likely significantly to blame. The former is a failure in the face of an unfavorable balance of forces, with the full force of the repressive state apparatus in company towns, in coal mines and California fields isolated from larger urban populations, and in the violent white-supremacist social order of the South brought against strikers and Communist organizers. There was no shortage of violence and martyrs in these strikes. There is a question of whether Communists could have developed some type of guerrilla military force to supplement the mass labor struggles that erupted and to contend with the repression by way of organized armed defense of strikers where appropriate (some of that happened spontaneously) and selective assassinations of agents of repression. However, if we are keeping it real, that type of supplementary guerrilla military action would have likely resulted in even harsher repression (which still does not rule out the question, however).

The CP also made some tactical blunders in its militant zeal, in particular refusing to end strikes when it may have been correct to accept a partial victory and make a tactical retreat. Such was the case in the miners strike in Western Pennsylvania of Summer 1931. Led by the TUUL’s National Miners Union (NMU), in contrast to most Communist-led strikes of the time, this one was well prepared, with solid organization, strong relief efforts to sustain it, and additional organizers brought in as the strike developed. Starting with 10,000 and expanding to involve 40,000 miners, this was the largest Communist-led strike yet.8 It was also an advanced experience in forging unity between Black and white workers, with the Party making a concerted effort to challenge white chauvinism and move Black miners past initial skepticism about joining the strike—understandable skepticism given the labor movement’s poor history when it came to standing with Black workers, who would inevitably face the worst repression and repercussions. To assuage their doubts, the CP held a picnic and brought in Richard Moore, a prominent Black comrade and one of the Party’s best speakers, to convince Black miners to join the strike; 6,000 of them did.9

This Western Pennsylvania miners’ strike was met with the familiar pattern of repression, with two strikers killed. But more than the repression, the length of the strike began to weaken morale, and miners started to return to work when they had no other way to survive. The Communist leadership of the NMU failed to assess its increasing inability to keep the strike going beyond the dedicated hardcore of the miners and did not move to negotiate a settlement with the mine owners. According to Harry Haywood, a Comintern representative was unimpressed with the glowing reports of the strike coming from CP leaders, insisted on exact data on strikers returning to work, and suggested, to the shock of CP leadership, a tactical retreat. The syndicalist movement in which most of the CP’s comrades responsible for leading labor work had come up did not prepare them for the art of compromise. The miners’ strike ended without any practical victories won because by the time the NMU negotiated a settlement, they were doing so from a position of weakness with miners already returning to work, and what could have been a substantial organizational gain among a section of the proletariat slipped out of the CP’s grasp. Through the course of the strike, it had recruited (according to Klehr) 25,000 into the National Miners Union and 1,000 into the Party, but retention proved difficult when it failed to win victories in the class struggle, and how ideologically consolidated those new Party members were is questionable at best. The most advanced among the masses might be willing to stick with you out of firm principle, but the broader layer of intermediate swept up under your leadership during the high tide of mass struggle are unlikely to stay unless you can move their political consciousness substantially forward and create favorable new conditions through struggle. The National Miners Union started to fall apart due to its tactical failure in this strike.10

Aside from its willingness to dive into the fiercest class struggles among workers at the point of production, the greatest strength of the CP in relation to strikes was turning localized strikes into national political questions through the weapon of exposure and by enlisting elements from the progressive petty-bourgeoisie as public supporters and publicizers of strikes, thereby maximizing the impact of militant strikes on society broadly regardless of the outcome of the strikes themselves. Probably the best example of this strength was the CP’s work in relation to the struggle of miners in Harlan County, Kentucky that started in 1931.

After initial organizing through the United Miners Workers union, a rival of the CP’s NMU, 10,000 miners in Harlan were on strike in March 1931. Harlan quickly became the site of violent class struggle, with the miners looting food to survive, beating scabs, and destroying mines with dynamite. Gun battles were part of the struggle, with one miner and three deputies killed in a shootout on May 4, leading to murder charges for 34 union members. The strike was brought to an end through vicious repression, but the struggle continued, with miners in the area facing starvation as the Great Depression pushed not just the unemployed but also the working class into worsening poverty. The CP jumped into the struggle, sending TUUL and NMU organizers into Harlan in the summer of 1931, redeploying some from the Western Pennsylvania coal fields as the strike there came to an end. By Fall 1931, the NMU had recruited 3,000 miners in the Harlan area despite the fact that the mere act of joining a union could bring down the wrath of the local repressive state apparatus. The NMU attempted to organize a second strike starting January 1, 1932. While it had lots of support from militant miners who had been blacklisted, there were not enough employed miners on board with the strike plans—only 5,000 went out on strike. Inadequate preparations hindered the strike’s chances of success, and repression, including a raid on the local NMU office and arrests of organizers, effectively prevented the strike from continuing.11 One thing that NMU organizers got right was opposing segregation. When strikers were worried that white and Black workers eating together in the strike kitchen could be used to justify raids under Jim Crow laws, Communists spent hours struggling with them over the political importance of integrating the strike kitchen, winning them over in the process.12

In the face of intense repression, including the murder of Communist Harry Sims by a sheriff’s deputy on February 10, 1932, and due to its own tactical mistakes, Communists were unable to further the practical struggle of miners in Harlan. But they were able to bring national attention to the struggle and expose the naked rule of bourgeois class dictatorship in Harlan. In addition to exposures in the publications of the CP and Party-led organizations, Party-led organizations mobilized several delegations of prominent writers to Harlan, the first led by Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, who held public hearings and wrote about the miners’ struggle. The intensity of the repression and the CP’s work to expose it nationwide led to investigations in Harlan by the American Civil Liberties Union and a Senate subcommittee. Nationwide impact was also achieved in the realm of culture: NMU organizers Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Jim Garland were also musicians, and songs they wrote about the Harlan struggle became known throughout the labor movement.13

Communist-led strikes were rarely successful in winning economic demands, but they did make the intensifying class struggles of the early 1930s more two-sided by stepping into a void and attempting to lead the unorganized and most exploited workers. Organizational consolidation proved difficult; there were 40,000 members of TUUL by 1932, and Communist-led unions did not garner large memberships, sometimes falling apart in the face of repression or when the high tide of a particular struggle subsided.14 Dogmatic interpretations of the dual-unionism favored by Comintern Third Period tactics occasionally contributed to these shortcomings. For example, when a spontaneous strike broke out among textile workers in Fall 1931 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Communist organizers competed with and set up strike committees separate from opportunist labor organizers in the field. This competition between different political forces ultimately contributing to the failure of the strike despite the mass support and militancy of the workers.15 In this instance, the “unity” in the TUUL’s name would have been good to champion.

With consistent prodding from the Profintern, the TUUL fought for unity and equality between Black and white workers in the midst of strikes and within unions, and put Black comrades in leadership positions.16 Communist labor organizing stood in stark contrast to the white supremacy that permeated the labor movement, especially the AFL. Communists also made valiant efforts to organize immigrant workers in the field of California, contending with intense repression and working through language barriers in the process.

The greatest weakness of Communist labor work was the narrow horizon that CP leadership never saw beyond. Debates within and summations by CP leadership concerning labor struggles generally stayed within the confines of the politics of union tactics, never reaching the level of revolutionary strategy and objectives. Nevertheless, Comintern Third Period politics instilled in CP members assigned to labor organizing a spirit of militant class struggle. The result was a core of cadre in steeled in the art of militant labor organizing who made deep political and social contact with proletarian masses—a substantial advance over the first decade of the CP’s existence.

The most fitting way to end this section on the CP’s leadership of militant strikes and revolutionary unions is with the story of one of those involved in these efforts who exemplified the Maoist imperative to integrate with the masses. Marian Moran, a YCL member in California whose parents were radicals, was sent to the Imperial Valley in 1930 at the age of 18 to organize with fruit pickers who went on strike. She stayed there for four years and gave the following description of the transformative experience:

The years with the fruit pickers became a world within the world, a microcosm of feelings that never left me, not even when I left them. I lived with the pickers, ate, slept, and got drunk with them. I helped bury their men and deliver their babies. We laughed, cried, and talked endlessly into the night together. And, slowly, some extraordinary interchange began to take place between us. I taught them how to read, and they taught me how to think. I taught them how to organize, and they taught me how to lead. I saw things happening to people I’d never seen before. I saw them becoming as they never dreamed they could become. Day by day people were developing, transforming, communicating inarticulate dreams, discovering a force of being in themselves. Desires, skills, capacities they didn’t know they had blossomed under the pressure of active struggle. And the sweetness, the generosity, the pure comradeship that came flowing out of them as they began to feel themselves! They were—there’s no other word for it—noble. Powerful in struggle, no longer sluggish with depression, they became inventive, alive, democratic, filled with an instinctive sense of responsibility for each other. And we were all like that, all of us, the spirit touched all of us. It was my dream of socialism come to life. I saw then what I could be like, what people could always be like, how good the earth and all things upon it could be, how sweet to be alive and to feel yourself in everyone else.17

1Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (Vintage Books, 1986 [1960]), 285–89.

2Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984),

3Roger Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism edited by Michael Brown, Randy Martin, Frank Rosengarten, and George Snedeker (Monthly Review Press, 1993), 166–67.

4Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (Rutgers University Press, 1991), 23.

5Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 28–30.

6Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 29–31; Denning, The Cultural Front, 262; Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936 (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 108–10. CP leadership insisted that its organizers take a firm position against Jim Crow segregation and white chauvinism in Gastonia, including among the strikers, and subsequently criticized some comrades for not sticking to this firm position. Weisbord was among those criticized; given the culture of factionalism in the CP and the fact that he had challenged CP leadership, it is difficult to assess whether this criticism of Weisbord for not challenging white chauvinism was accurate without further research.

7Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 23.

8Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 44–45; Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Liberator Press, 1978), 371–74.

9Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 164.

10Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 45.

11Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 45–46.

12Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 104–5.

13Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 46–47; Denning, The Cultural Front, 263.

14Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 27.

15Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 41–42.

16Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 107.

17Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (Basic Books, 1975), 100.