By The Organization of Communist Revolutionaries
Mao succinctly summed up that “Classes struggle, some classes triumph, others are eliminated.”1 Before there were Marxists, before there was an attempt to organize a communist party, there was, of course, class struggle on the North American continent. The oppressed and dispossessed waged courageous revolts against their oppressors for centuries: the Indigenous peoples against colonizers, slaves against slave masters.
Marxism began to spread and proletarian organization began to develop in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1851, Joseph Wedemeyer, a comrade of Marx and Engels, arrived in the US after the failed 1848 revolutionary uprising in Germany (and all over Europe) and carried out socialist propaganda among German proletarian immigrants and fought on the Union side in the Civil War as a staunch abolitionist. Various efforts at organizing proletarians included the early Knights of Labor, while the strictly craft union approach of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was geared more towards the emerging labor aristocracy. The first attempt at building an organization in the US based on Marxist principles was the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Founded in 1876, the SLP was the US affiliate of the First International, a collection of mostly European organizations, with Marx and Engels playing a leading role in the International. The SLP played an important early role in spreading Marxist propaganda in the US. Under the leadership of Daniel De Leon, the SLP hinged its entire strategy on the idea of building socialist “dual unions” (staying out of established unions such as the AFL and attempting to build its own instead) as a path to socialism in the US, dooming itself to early irrelevancy.2
In the early twentieth century, the two most important formations that generated members for the future Communist movement were the Socialist Party of America (SP) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The SP, the US affiliate of the Second International (an international, but mostly European, organization of socialist parties), was formed in 1901 and was best known for its main leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. Debs, a leader of the railway workers union, read Marx’s Capital while in prison for leading a strike of Pullman company railway workers and decided to identify as a socialist. Debs gained prominence in the SP and the labor movement for his skills as an orator, and stands out from his contemporaries in the socialist movement because he was born in the US, in contrast to the largely European-born leaders and members of the early movement. The SP found a political and electoral base among immigrants on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest, and among small farmers and agricultural proletarians out West, especially in Oklahoma.3
The SP had militants within its ranks and Debs himself occasionally mentioned revolution in his speeches, but the program of the SP advocated a reformist transition to socialism through elections, alongside support for union struggles. The SP had some electoral success, getting two Congressional representatives (Victor Berger from Wisconsin and Meyer London from the heavily-immigrant Lower East Side of Manhattan) and dozens of mayors in office, including three in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Where they had some measure of local power, the SP mayors generally focused on delivering good government services rather than advancing the class struggle. The Milwaukee Socialists were so proud of how well they administered the city’s sewer system that their inter-Party rivals started calling them, derisively, “sewer socialists.”4 The biggest black mark on the SP was its refusal to place opposition to white supremacy front and center in the Party’s platform, or even make opposition to racism a prerequisite for Party leaders. At best, the SP treated the oppression of Black people as a social problem that would fade away with the elimination of class exploitation; at worst, SP members joined in the American tradition of white supremacy.5
The other organizational antecedent of the early Communists was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies), the bold, revolutionary syndicalist union founded in 1905. The founders of the IWW were a “who’s who” of the radical militants of the era: Debs and De Leon, the famous anarchist Lucy Parsons (widow of Albert Parsons, the Haymarket martyr), Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (an early female labor leader), and the revolutionary Irish socialist James Connolly. The most important IWW leader was the labor leader and syndicalist William “Big Bill” Haywood. Early in its existence, the IWW split, driving out those who favored an electoral program and focusing most of its energy on trying to organize workers along industrial lines, into “One Big Union,” rather than by the crafts to which workers belonged (the AFL’s approach). This philosophy, and some good class instinct on the part of Haywood and other leaders, caused the IWW to seek out some of the most exploited sections of the proletariat and join some of their most militant struggles.6
The IWW’s syndicalist politics imagined that through organizing the whole of the working class into industrial unions and waging general strikes, the rule of capital could be overturned, perhaps even on a global scale. This syndicalist conception of revolutionary change denies the necessary leadership role of a communist vanguard party and the need for proletarian class-consciousness to go beyond the confines of the struggle for “control of the factories” to encompass a materialist understanding of all class forces in society and the all-around struggle required to revolutionize all of society—not just the factories. That proletarian class-consciousness cannot be developed solely through labor struggles, even the most militant ones, but requires a communist vanguard party to carry out all-around exposure of the capitalist-imperialist system, drawing proletarians into debates and struggles over all the political, social, and cultural questions in society.
Within the horizon of syndicalist politics, the IWW led struggles and developed a base of support among US-born western workers, transitory workers in mines and logging camps, and in the mass of immigrant proletarians on the East Coast in places like Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey. Completely dominated by the textile industry, Lawrence had an average life expectancy of 39 when, in 1912, more than 20,000 textile workers, mostly immigrant women and children, went on strike. Led by the IWW, including Haywood and future Communist Party member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the strikers confronted the state police and the national guard. Three strikers were killed and many more were arrested and injured. Beyond the battle lines, the IWW and the proletarians of Lawrence were adept at building public support for the strike: when food and supplies were running low, strikers sent their children to temporarily live with supporters throughout New England. The sight of children leaving their families dramatized the conditions of the Lawrence workers across the region and fostered broader sympathy. The strike ultimately won a wage increase for the lowest paid women, and the mass public support developed by the IWW led to the acquittal of arrested IWW leaders.7
The Paterson strike—a strike of silk workers for the eight-hour workday—ended in a loss, with Flynn and Haywood imprisoned and the AFL’s opportunism undercutting the strike. While there was more than a little bit of anarchism in the IWW, and their propaganda emphasized individual acts of sabotage, they were not fetishists of small group actions (unlike many of today’s Leftists and anarchists). They organized truly massive and mass-based strikes and drew important allies from the petty-bourgeoisie to support the proletariat in class struggle. In the case of Paterson, the IWW attracted the attention of bohemian journalists, including future Communist John Reed. Reed visited and wrote about the Paterson strike and organized a pageant in Madison Square Garden to popularize the strike and raise money for the strikers.8
The IWW was beset by government repression and the deportation of many of its leaders, and while it led some significant class struggles, it never developed a strategy for revolution or the subjective forces to carry one out. The IWW’s idea of revolution hinged on a fantasy of a general strike that never came.9 While maintaining some inroads in the union movement, the IWW’s membership declined through the late 1910s, with the 1919 Palmer Raids (government raids on political radicals that arrested many and led to deportations) decimating the IWW’s leadership. Repression was certainly one reason for the IWW’s decline, but, more to the point, its politics were called up short by the concrete experience of the communist-led 1917 Russian Revolution. The IWW did prove that class struggle could step outside of the bounds of status-quo craft unionism and was an important training ground for the earliest generation of US Communists, but its contributions to the revolutionary movement had run their course by the 1920s, and its syndicalist strategic orientation had proven incapable of meeting the challenges of making revolution.10
The greatest weakness of both the SP and the IWW was concerning the Black national question,11 which both treated as secondary to and subsumed under the exploitation of labor. While the IWW had Black members and leaders, it did not have a political program in relation to the oppression of Black people, and it is unclear where Southern sharecroppers fit into the IWW’s “One Big Union” scheme. The IWW’s syndicalist outlook could not account for the semi-feudal conditions that prevailed in the US rural South, where the Black population was concentrated at the time, and, consequently, its militant class struggle approach did not extend to Black sharecroppers in the South. And despite Debs’s personal hostility to racism, there were openly racist SP leaders in the South. Since the SP and the IWW were the main organizational antecedents to the US Communist movement, the glaring weakness of both concerning the Black national question, politically and organizationally, carried over into the foundations of the US Communist Party.
We would be remiss here if we did not also mention the anarchist movement as an important antecedent to the US Communist Party. Though the CP did not draw much of its membership from the anarchist movement, anarchism in the US during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago to the heroism of Sacco and Vanzetti in the face of execution in 1927, played a positive role in fostering an attitude of militant class struggle among some proletarians, exposing the illegitimate nature of bourgeois rule, and popularizing—and carrying out—revolutionary violence (it was an anarchist who assassinated President McKinley in 1901). A summation of the revolutionary anarchist tradition is far beyond the scope of this summation of the CP, and anarchism as a political philosophy has proven incapable of defeating bourgeois rule and leading the struggle for a communist world. But we honor the revolutionary spirit, and the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of revolution, of the anarchist movement and offer our gratitude for its positive contributions to fighting bourgeois rule and cultivating a radicalism that social democrats like the SP leadership or all subsequent revisionists can never match.12
The significance of the imperialist war which broke out ten years ago lies, among other things, in the fact that it gathered all these contradictions into a single knot and threw them on to the scales, thereby accelerating and facilitating the revolutionary battles of the proletariat.
-Joseph Stalin on World War I13
The early twentieth century saw waves of European immigrants come to the US, including those with experience in the class struggles that preceded the First World War, such as the “1905ers” (veterans of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905) and others who fled national oppression under the Kaiser or the Czar. From Europe, they brought radical ideas, experience in socialist organizations, and Marxist literature with them. As Vivian Gornick describes, “When millions of Jews crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the first years of this century, packed in among the pots and pans and ragged clothes were the Talmud, Spinoza, Herzel, and Marx.”14
Those radical immigrants, alongside their US-born comrades, populated a variety of organizations, including the SP and its various foreign language sections, the latter being sections of the SP organized along the lines of specific immigrant groups based on the languages they spoke, i.e., the Russian foreign language federation, the Latvian foreign language federation, etc. The radical elements of the SP, who were concentrated in particular foreign language federations (especially the Russian, Latvian, and Finnish ones) coalesced around a series of positions that would come to be identified as the “Left Wing” of the socialist movement. They supported the IWW and the idea of dual-unionism against the leadership of the AFL, identified with the revolutionary tradition of specific European socialists (especially Karl Liebknecht in Germany and, from 1917 on, the Bolsheviks in Russia), and opposed the reformist evolutionary electoral socialism that dominated the SP at the time. These forces first started to coalesce politically in 1913, when the IWW leader Haywood was expelled from the Executive Committee of the SP for refusing to denounce revolutionary violence. Many of the future leaders of the Communist Party (including the notorious Earl Browder) left the SP in protest of Haywood’s expulsion.15
It was the outbreak and mass slaughter of World War I (WWI), accompanied by the betrayal, of the masses and revolutionary principles, of most of the Second International parties, that clarified with brutal honesty the necessity of forging a revolutionary alternative that could confront imperialism with revolution. While the SP took obligatory stands on paper against the war, and Debs was eventually incarcerated for speaking out against the war, the SP failed at manifesting real opposition to the war or consistently opposing it. Meyer London, the Socialist Congressman from New York, voted against the war but supported the war once it began, and the elected SP aldermen in NYC voted in favor of “Liberty Bonds” to fund the war effort.16 In this respect, the SP’s actions around WWI were consistent with the majority of parties in the Second International. WWI revealed that these parties were not willing to temporarily lose their mass base or their secure position as legal parties operating within European parliaments and large trade unions in order to oppose imperialism, and that many SP leaders were, in fact, on the side of their own bourgeoisie when it came to their “national” (imperialist) interests.17
Many within the SP and socialist movement grew increasingly frustrated with the SP leadership. Some left the SP in protest, others fought to change it from within, and some went to prison for taking an anti-war stand. But no coherent revolutionary leadership emerged in opposition to the bankruptcy of the SP or as a better alternative to other existing organizations, such as the IWW. It would take the 1917 Russian Revolution—in which the Bolsheviks decisively seized power rather than waiting for electoral legitimacy and renounced Russian imperialism and moved to pull Russia out of WWI—to bring ideological and political clarity to would-be revolutionaries in the US and begin to galvanize them organizationally into a communist party. While truly internalizing the lessons of the Russian Revolution was a task that US Communists would struggle to fulfill for decades, the revolutionary seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia firmly established the horizon of revolution in the hearts and minds of radicals and many socialists all around the world, and the direction and vision of the new Soviet Union gave a clear name to their political movement: communism.
Forming the Party…well…Parties
With the establishment of the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, the proletariat decisively held the reigns of state power and intended to keep it, and had the tools to do so. Soon renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian Revolution and the new socialist state viewed their actions as part of advancing the world revolution as a whole. Even as the Soviet Union in formation was besieged by the imperialist powers, its leadership formed a new Communist International in 1919 to spread the lessons of the Russian Revolution and unite those frustrated with the bankruptcy of the Second International and those newly inspired by the victorious Russian Revolution to take up communist politics. The impact of the newly formed Soviet Union on revolutionaries and the popular classes the world over cannot be overstated.18
In the US, immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution, people of the socialist Left Wing and their allies, including a number of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, set up organizations to propagandize for and support the emerging Soviet government and support the revolutionary demand for an end to WWI. The Italian immigrant Louis Fraina heralded the Revolution in the the publications The New International and The Revolutionary Age, which were published by the Socialist Propaganda League, an East Coast organization that grew out of the Latvian section of the SP in Boston. Fraina was a former SLP member and a prolific writer who had met Bolshevik leaders Bukharin and Alexandra Kollontai when they were in the US (unfortunately Fraina also met Trotsky, who, true to opportunist methods, stayed outside of the Bolshevik Party until it started to become a serious contender for power).19
While Fraina was popularizing the Russian Revolution in the US, journalist John Reed was in Russia observing the events of the Revolution firsthand. Born in Portland, Oregon, Reed became a Greenwich Village bohemian and a prominent journalist, writing a firsthand account of the Mexican Revolution and contributing to the socialist magazine The Masses. Reed was in Russia during the overthrow of the Kerensky government and Constituent Assembly. He interviewed Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders, and took part in the Revolution by working as a translator for the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and speaking at the Third Congress of Soviets. While Reed was in Russia, he was indicted in the US for sedition because of his writing opposing WWI. Upon his return to the US, he was immediately arrested and his papers, containing notes from his time in Russia, were seized by government authorities. Despite his legal troubles, Reed dedicated his life to promoting the Russian Revolution and supporting the nascent Communist movement, writing articles and giving speeches describing his experiences in the newly born socialist state. Eventually his papers were returned to him, and Reed wrote his seminal account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World.20
US-born and having made a name for himself as a journalist even before his eyewitness accounts of the Russian Revolution were published, Reed was the most well-known public figure among the early US Communists. By 1919, Reed was editing the New York Communist, the weekly newspaper of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party local in New York. If Reed was the most prominent Communist, Fraina was probably the most prolific. His voluminous output included the 1919 Left Wing Manifesto, which placed itself squarely in the revolutionary camp, as evidenced by the following passage:
The present structure of society—Capitalism—with its pretensions to democracy, on the one hand, and its commercial rivalries, armament rings, and standing armies, on the other, all based on the exploitation of the working class and division of the loot, was cast into the furnace of the war. Two things only could cast forward: either international capitalist control, through a League of Nations, or Social Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Both of these forms today are contending for power.21
The manifesto identified the Left Wing with the Bolsheviks and German revolutionaries of the Spartacus League.22 It aimed its polemical fire at the petty-bourgeois reformists of the SP Right Wing and the Second International, calling them out with an excellent diatribe provided by Rosa Luxemburg—“sausage socialists”23—and articulating the immediate goal of the Left Wing as the seizure of the SP.
A number of important SP locals, alongside seven of the numerically significant foreign language federations, joined the Left Wing, and the Left Wing won twelve of the fifteen seats on the National Executive Committee of the SP. Among those twelve Left Wingers supposed to join the SP’s leadership were Fraina, Reed, and the Cleveland socialist and future Communist Party leader Charles Ruthenberg. The Right Wing leadership of the SP had no intention to go along with the communist takeover of its party, regardless of how democratic that takeover was. They summarily expelled the entire Michigan SP, suspended a number of other locals, and expelled the seven foreign language federations that sided with the Left Wing, ensuring the Right Wing’s organizational control over the SP.24 The thoroughly undemocratic actions of the Right Wing in 1919 are but one example of many throughout history of socialists and Leftists who emphasize that socialism must be democratic— and howl endlessly about the authoritarianism of Communists—blatantly violating democratic procedures in order to impose their politics.
There was both sensible logic and serious illusions behind the Left Wing’s attempt to organizationally take over the SP and turn it into a vehicle for proletarian revolution. A revolutionary mood was gaining ground among proletarians around the world, including in the US, with the victory of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet government providing not only inspiration but a practical path out of the disaster, for the masses, that was WWI. Revolutionaries around the world thought, for good reasons and with some illusions, that this revolutionary mood and the crisis of imperialism that led to and was further exacerbated by WWI could be seized on to seize power. Indeed, even Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed the revolutionary seizure of power to be potentially eminent in much of Europe, and there were mass revolutionary uprisings in several European countries at the time, all of which either held onto power very briefly (Hungary) or were drowned in blood before they could seize power (Germany).
Despite our best wishes, however, the firm and farsighted leadership and vanguard party required to make communist revolution generally needs a process of training and development through a period of intense class struggle, full of advances and setbacks. The Bolsheviks had steeled themselves in exactly such a process, and thus were in the position to seize on the revolutionary crisis that emerged in Russia in the course of WWI. The revolutionaries that created the US Communist Party had their fair share of experience in intense class struggle, both in the US and (among immigrant members) in Europe, but had lacked a democratic centralist organization firmly united under communist principles like the Bolsheviks to collectively sum up their experience, develop a unified strategy, and lead through the twists and turns of the class struggle. They were trying to forge a vanguard from scratch, with only a beginning clarity on communist principles that was largely imported from the Soviet Union, and turned to the SP as the organizational vehicle through which to accomplish this task.
The SP was the main organizational force from which to gain members for a genuine Communist Party. The SP had a nationwide organization of over 104,000 members in 1919, and a large percentage of those members—perhaps even a majority—were frustrated with the SP’s leadership and turning to the political model provided by the Russian Revolution. The SP had considerable influence among some sections of the proletariat, with regular publications and social organizations in various languages.25 Its main national spokesperson, Debs, was known and respected far outside of socialist circles, and had won more than 900,000 votes in the 1912 US presidential race (good for 6% of the vote).26 But they were adamantly not a Leninist party in any recognizable sense: there was no clandestine core, no training of its members in communist principles and politics, and no thought of, let alone strategy for, the seizure of power through revolutionary armed struggle. In fact, the SP leadership had balked at the very idea of revolutionary violence when it expelled Bill Haywood.
Even with all of the revolutionary rhetoric of the early US Communists, it seems they still envisioned some combination of electoral activity and mass strikes leading to revolution, and not a revolutionary civil war, and saw a mass, red, but ultimately aboveground and legal SP as the vehicle to drive that revolution. They did not take into account the need to thoroughly ideologically remold members of the SP who were inspired by the Russian Revolution but had yet to firmly grasp communist principles or be trained in the practice of communist politics. And they faced the practical dilemma that the overwhelming majority of SP members who came over to the Communist movement did so through the SP’s foreign language federations, and thus were significantly disconnected from proletarian life in the US beyond the immigrants from the nation from which they originated owing to language barriers and cultural preferences. (To be clear, since the proletariat in the US at the time was substantially immigrant, it was important for Communists to develop organizational forms and publications in the languages of those immigrant populations, but they needed to do so from a strategic standpoint of uniting a multinational proletariat under the leadership of a unified communist party.)
It is understandable that US Communists, full of revolutionary enthusiasm inspired by the Soviet Union then in formation, were groping in the dark to figure out how to quickly forge a communist party to seize on the crisis at the end of WWI, and still had one foot in the thinking and practice of the SP from which most of them had come out of. The lessons of the Russian Revolution and the theoretical and political breakthroughs of Lenin had yet to be fully assimilated outside the Soviet Union—indeed, few US Communists had even read any of Lenin’s writings prior to 1917, and the Bolsheviks had been outliers to the socialist movement of the early twentieth century. But the failure on the part of those seeking to form a communist party in the US to be clear about the need to decisively overthrow the bourgeois state through revolutionary civil war, and their failure to rupture with the bureaucratic training they received in the labor movement and the factional petty-bourgeois politics of the SP, would have destructive ramifications for the future Communist movement, which the Communist Party, USA would have difficulties overcoming.
An explanatory note on terminology and capitalization: we capitalize Communist when referring to the organized Communist movement in the US with the (at this point in the summation still emerging) Communist Party at its core and the individuals, especially Party members, that were part of that Communist movement. We do not capitalize communist when using it in the more general ideological and political sense.
Double vision blurs eyesight, and double parties blur the revolutionary path forward
Organizationally, the old-guard Right Wing of the SP was determined to hold on to their party, and planned to exclude the Communists at the August 1919 convention of the SP. The SP faced not a united communist opposition, but one splintering into two factions. Fraina, the foreign language federations (including the well-respected Russian language federation), and the expelled Michigan section of the SP felt that the SP was already a lost cause, and intended to build a new party. Many of the English-speaking Communists, including Reed, thought that it was important to demand the seats on the SP’s leadership body that they had been elected to and take over the SP from within. Politically, the differences between the two groups seem to have been minor, and based on differences in personality rather than politics. The organizing of factions around personality, region, and language would mar the Communist movement through this whole period.27
Reed and his crew were denied their seats in the SP leadership and removed from the SP convention, held in Chicago, by the police. They founded the Communist Labor Party (CLP) in the basement of the same union hall that was holding the SP convention. The next day, the Communist Party (CP) was founded, also in Chicago, by Fraina, the Michigan group that had been expelled from the SP, and the Communist-aligned foreign language federations. Historian Theodore Draper estimates the membership of both groups as somewhere between twenty-five to forty thousand, with the CP the larger of the two parties owing to the participation of the foreign language federations. These might have been “communist” parties, but they were clearly not communist parties in the Leninist sense. Both conventions were held in open, public locations, and in plain view of the police. Both conventions were observed by federal agents, and the CP convention was raided by the Chicago police. Politically, while the CP and the CLP both rejected reformism, syndicalism inherited from the IWW remained a strong part of their outlook, including by way of a “dual unionism” policy. Furthermore, the membership base was not drawn together in firm unity around a political program, but on a rejection of SP reformism and the inspiration of the Russian Revolution.28
The one discernible line difference between the two organizations was over the role of the foreign language federations. The federations who joined the CP provided an important source of membership and financing, and could provide an organizational “backbone” to a new organization (members with experience in overseas political struggles and organizations, and foreign language federations that published newspapers and had assembly halls). However, the foreign language federations were not organizations of cadre who could provide the political backbone of a party that could wage a revolutionary civil war. They were largely a blend of political and cultural institutions that were sympathetic to revolutionary politics but not organized to carry them out. For example, the large Finnish language federation based in the Upper Midwest was mainly focused on the organization of economic co-operatives rather than communist revolution. These federations could have served as a rearguard of financing, support, and meeting places, public and private, for an emerging communist vanguard party (for example, perhaps the Party could have held underground meetings at the farm houses of Finnish immigrants in Minnesota). But it was a mistake to allow them to play a key role in steering the politics and organization of an emerging communist vanguard party. Furthermore, in the context of the US, practically speaking, for members of the foreign language federations to play leadership roles in the class struggle and the development of the subjective forces for revolution, they would have needed to integrate more fully into the larger political and cultural life of the US, not to “become Americans,” but to be able to do political work outside of their own nationalities.29 Reed and the CLP drew attention to the problem of trying to make revolution in the US with a membership that mostly did not speak English and was not integrated with the masses outside of those who spoke their language, while the CP was undisturbed by this issue.
Let’s get this Party started?
While the CP and the CLP were organizing themselves and engaging in polemics with each other and the old SP, neither the CP nor the CLP was in a position to intervene in, let alone lead, the significant class struggles of the time. Just a month before the founding of the two communist parties in Chicago, that city was rocked by the “Red Summer” “race riots” of 1919. Precipitated by the unprovoked murder of a Black teenager, the riots were marked by the typical orgy of white supremacist violence. 1919 also marked the development of organized Black self-defense, usually spearheaded by Black WWI veterans.30 While both communist parties made note of the oppressive conditions Black people were subjected to in the North and South, there were few Black people organized into the Communist movement, and there is no evidence that the CP or CLP took notice of the qualitatively new phase of Black resistance to white supremacist violence in cities.
It would take several more years and prodding from the Communist International (Comintern)—the Third International that had been formed by the initiative of the Bolsheviks—for Communists in the US to put the struggle against the oppression of Black people in a central position within revolutionary strategy in the US. Objectively, the fact that the membership of the two communist parties was drawn mostly from the SP and the IWW and was mostly foreign-born, combined with the reality of legal segregation in the US at the time, put the Communist movement at a social distance from the masses of Black people—a problem that was not its fault per se but that it needed to consciously and quickly overcome, but did not, at the time, prioritize or even really acknowledge. Subjectively, the failure of US Communists to prioritize making an analysis of the Black national question—the oppression of Black people and how that oppression can be ended through communist revolution—and begin making political interventions in struggles over the oppression of Black people was a serious strategic blunder that only compounded the objective problem.
The revolutionary mood at the end of WWI was the background for a wave of labor strikes across the country. The courageous textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts went out on strike again, as did coal workers all over the country. Seattle was shut down by a five-day general strike directly inspired by the Russian Revolution; one pamphlet disseminated there declared: “The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going do about it?” The spontaneous zeal, among workers engaged in class struggle, for taking up the lingo of the Russian Revolution was taken further by miners in Butte, Montana, who declared their strike to be led by “The Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Workers’ Council.”31 And 365,000 steel workers on strike shut down their industry for months. A key leader in the 1919 steel strike was William Z Foster, who would come to play a leading role in the Communist movement in the coming decades, but was not yet a Communist at that time. Neither of the two newly-formed communist parties played any significant role in relation to this strike wave outside of issuing written propaganda, often rather dogmatic in character, to strikers, although some future Communist Party members and leaders were on the frontlines of these class struggles.32
One major issue holding back Communist intervention into these significant class struggles was a deterministic, mechanical, and ultimately dogmatic view of labor struggles. The Communists had inherited from the IWW a justifiable hostility and hatred towards the leadership of the AFL, including and perhaps especially the AFL’s founder and then president, Samuel Gompers. But when it came to figuring out how to exert leadership within labor struggles, both the CLP’s and the CP’s programs did little more than put a red spin on the old IWW dual-unionism platform. Because neither Party was embedded in any significant section of the proletariat or had the ability to organize dual unions, the refusal to carry out communist political work inside any AFL union meant that both the CP and the CLP were isolated from the masses that they claimed to lead. Since, at the time, neither Party had the ability or the trained cadre to effectively intervene in the strike wave, the dogma of dual unionism was cover for bowing to spontaneity, essentially waiting for the workers to magically break with the AFL leadership and become revolutionary rather than taking responsibility to practically lead the proletariat to that conclusion.
Interventions by the bourgeoisie and the Comintern
While the Communists were trying to respond to the emergence of new waves of class struggle, the bourgeoisie was not content to issue statements. Fearing the influence of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bombings, the bourgeoisie unleashed a wave of repression against socialists, Communists, anarchists, and labor militants in late 1919 and 1920, the high point of which was the well-coordinated Palmer Raids of January 1920 (named for then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer). Thousands of people were arrested and hundreds of foreign-born radicals were deported, most famously the anarchist Emma Goldman. Both the CP and the CLP decided that going underground was the only way to deal with this intense repression, shrinking significantly in the process. The combined membership of both organizations dropped to around 10,000 after the Palmer Raids, and then fell by perhaps 50% during the period of underground functioning until 1921. While repression and the decision to go underground cut the Communists off from the masses to a substantial degree, it did have the positive side effect of separating the wheat from the chaff—determining who was down to stick it out when the going got tough.33
While the two communist parties were learning to function underground, two important events in the Communist movement shaped their future plans and practice: the Second Congress of the Comintern and a split in the CP. Charles Ruthenberg led a split in the CP in April 1920 that broke with the foreign language federations out of frustration with their isolation from the masses and from practical political struggles; Ruthenberg desired a “Party of action.” By Summer 1920, Ruthenberg’s faction merged with CLP to form the Unified Communist Party (UCP), moving closer to building a single unified Party in the US.34
Meanwhile, the Second World Congress of the Comintern was held in the Soviet Union in the Summer of 1920. Delegates arrived at that Congress to find copies of Lenin’s seminal “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which sharply criticized trends within the new communist movement that had sprung up after 1917 that left communists isolated from the masses in the name of political purity. Fraina and Reed were among the US delegates, and a new UCP delegate arrived in the middle of the Congress.35
At issue in the Second Comintern Congress were the categories for admission into the Comintern, Communist work in the trade union movement, and the orientation of the Communist movement towards national oppression and the colonial question. Lenin gave the main reports on the national and colonial questions, arguing with remarkable prescience that Communists should firmly oppose national chauvinism and support the struggles of oppressed and colonized nations, including when they are led by the bourgeoisie of those nations, while also making clear that Communists should fight for proletarian leadership of those struggles.36 Lenin and the Comintern leadership had not yet developed specific guidance on the Black national question in the US, but the line and policies developed by Lenin should have made clear to Communists in the US the urgent need to develop a line and strategy for building organization and resistance among Black people in both the North and South for reasons of principle and strategy.
Positively, despite the small number of Black people in the US Communist movement at the time, Reed and his comrades had some grasp of the oppression of Black people in the US. In Reed’s remarks at the Second Comintern Congress, he denounced the horrors of Jim Crow segregation and lynching and noted the growing proletarianization of Black people who had migrated North. And Reed was especially attuned to developing forms of resistance among Black people, including self-defense against white supremacist violence in cities like Washington, DC, Chicago, and Omaha, where Black veterans of World War I organized against white mob violence. Reed also pointed out increasing Black participation in union struggles and the 180,000 monthly circulation of The Messenger, a Black socialist periodical published by A Philip Randolph.37
Reed’s presentation also revealed some major blindspots in how US Communists viewed the Black national question. He was either unaware of the strength of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association or contemptuously dismissive of it, proclaiming that “The Negroes do not pose the demands of national independence. A movement that aims for a separate national existence, like for instance the ‘back to Africa’ movement that could be observed a few years ago, is never successful among the Negroes. They hold themselves above all to be Americans, they feel at home in the United States.” And he went on to suggest that “The only correct policy for the American Communists towards the Negroes is to regard them above all as workers.”38 Reed and his comrades made a distinction between racial and national consciousness, between Black people viewing themselves as a separate people and nation versus viewing themselves as a racial group among Americans. This false and mechanical distinction was being proved wrong at the time by the Garveyite movement, and did not reflect the call that Lenin had put forward, in that same Comintern Congress, to base policy “on an exact estimate of the specific historical situation.”39
The other weakness of Reed and his comrades was what we would now call class reductionism. While Reed did not dismiss the specific conditions of Black people under white supremacist rule, nor the need to fight racism and chauvinism among white workers, he saw the main front of struggle as being the struggle of workers as workers. While aspects of this thinking were important (fighting discrimination and segregation in unions, for example), the narrow focus on “workers” would result in US Communists failing to really grasp the burning situation of Black people as Black people inside and outside of the workplace, to say nothing of the potential for winning Black people from other classes to the revolutionary struggle or the potential tinderbox of the US South.
In response to the isolation of US Communists and their infantile refusals to go to the masses, Lenin and other Comintern leaders argued for a strategy of political work within reactionary unions. Since a substantial portion of the proletariat belonged to those unions, Lenin believed it was essential for Communists to work within them while not adopting their politics in order to connect with the masses, rather than avoiding them in the name of revolutionary purity. Reed vociferously disagreed with this policy, arguing that the IWW was the revolutionary union for the US Communists to engage with, but, at least at the Congress, Soviet leadership within the Comintern prevailed over the stubborn dogma of US Communists.40 The debate over this issue revealed that many US Communists still believed in the syndicalist politics they had picked up from the IWW and had not yet thoroughly ideologically remolded themselves as communists. Unfortunately, the more correct position coming from the leadership of the Comintern could not be internalized by US Communists simply because it was dominant at Comintern meetings.
An initial word is in order here on the relationship between US Communists and the Comintern. Anti-communists have howled that the “Russians” were pulling the marionette strings of US Communists, and genuine revolutionaries have raised real criticisms of the concept of “father party” and the tendency of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern leadership to dictate policy in ways that ignored local conditions and thus did not provide effective means for making revolutionary advances, in some cases leading to severe setbacks. This is an issue we will return to throughout this summation. For now, let us state that we must make a concrete analysis of different stages in the relationship between the Comintern and Soviet leadership, on the one hand, and the US Communist Party, on the other. For example, after capitalist-roaders took power in the Soviet Union in 1956, the Soviet social-imperialists did treat various pro-Soviet CPs as almost literal puppets. But in examining the early relationship between US Communists and Comintern leadership from the founding of the latter through the early 1930s, it becomes clear that Comintern intervention, at times heavy-handed, was crucial to the US Communist Party arriving at a correct position on a number of questions, including the labor question at the Second Comintern Congress.
The American “communist” principle of unity – factionalism – unity
The other crucial intervention of the Comintern on the US Communist movement in this period was forcing a merger between the CP and UCP, which were combined to form the Communist Party of America (CPA) in May of 1921. The Comintern literally imposed a deadline on the CP and UCP to merge, which ultimately had to be extended, but nevertheless was a correct example of Comintern dictates, even if it only solved the problem of factionalism formally rather than politically and ideologically. The CPA in 1921 had a membership somewhere between ten to twelve thousand, still consisting of an overwhelming foreign-language majority, but the independent power of the now twenty-one foreign language federations was curtailed, with greater control over them by central leadership. The CPA platform finally ended the promotion of dual-unionism and argued for Communist participation in elections for the purposes of propaganda.41
A combination of the new political line from the Comintern in command and the continued influence of the socialist society under construction in the Soviet Union gave the CPA new openings with important forces in the labor movement, none more important than William Z Foster. Foster came from a proletarian background and had decades of experience in labor struggles, most recently as a leader of the 1919 steel strike, but he had previously been dismissed by US Communists for working with the AFL. Following the 1919 strike, Foster started the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) as an organization for radicals trying to work within the labor movement. After the line change of the Second Comintern Congress, the CPA sought to work with the TUEL. The Comintern also assigned the CPA to assemble a delegation to the first conference of the Red International of Labor Unions, better known as the Profintern (from its name in Russian), which took place in Summer 1921 in Moscow. The US delegation to the Profintern conference included several future Communist Party leaders. James Cannon, a Midwesterner CPA leader (and future Trotskyite) recruited Earl Browder, whom he knew from organizing together in Kansas City, to head the US delegation. Browder, who had been imprisoned twice between 1918–1920 for conspiring against the draft and not registering for the draft, in turn recruited Foster as an observer to the Profintern conference.42
Foster was deeply inspired by witnessing the proletariat in power in the Soviet Union and joined the CPA on his return to the US, bringing the TUEL along with him and finally giving US Communists a firm foothold in the labor movement.43 The political content of this foothold, however, does not seem to have gotten much beyond the horizon of radical trade-unionism and syndicalism. The TUEL focused much of its efforts on propagandizing for united industry-wide unions by distributing 250,000 copies of a pamphlet titled Amalgamation. While TUEL developed militant labor organizers in 48 cities, its politics continued to echo the old IWW “One Big Union” dream rather than spreading proletarian class-consciousness in the Leninist sense and revolutionary organization.44
The Third Congress of the Comintern took place in the Summer of 1921 and raised the slogan “To the masses!” in opposition to those “communists” who remained isolated from the political life and class struggles of the masses in the name of political purity. Lenin and the Comintern leadership were beginning to recognize that revolution was not on the immediate horizon in Europe and adjusting the tactics of communist parties accordingly, essentially attempting a tactical retreat, countering the danger of becoming isolated from the masses by working within reactionary parliaments and trade-unions and fighting to maintain the ability to function legally and openly.45
At the time, the CPA was still an underground organization, with the Palmer Raids less than two years in the past and some Communists still imprisoned as a result of them. The CPA interpreted “To the masses!” as the need for an aboveground organization, and formed the Workers Party of America (WPA) in late December, 1921 so that it could reach the masses publicly, publish newspapers, run for political office, and intervene in class struggles under its own banner. The Workers Party program made no mention of revolution or the dictatorship of the proletariat, instead putting forward a program for a “workers’ republic.” The Comintern began to speak of the need for a “united front” at this time, and in 1922 conceptualized a “united front from below” as Communists finding ways to unite and lead the membership of non-Communist socialist and proletarian organizations and a “united front from above” as an alliance with the leadership of socialist parties, with the latter a tactical maneuver only to be used in combination with the former when necessary. The CPA tried, but largely failed, to bring other political forces into the formation of the WPA—it never developed into a united front organization.46
While it was clearly necessary for the CPA to develop organizational vehicles that could function publicly and openly when bourgeois legislation and repressive actions placed considerable limits on openly advocating and organizing around revolutionary politics, the conception of the Workers Party was about as mechanical as possible an approach to public work. It was basically a carbon-copy of the existing CPA structure. CPA members enrolled en masse in the WPA, the leadership structure was virtually duplicated, and local organizations were almost identical. Nonetheless, forming the Workers Party did facilitate expanding the reach of the CPA to some extent.
The move to form the WPA also brought back the curse of factionalism only months after US Communists had united into a single party at the insistence of the Comintern. A “left opposition” emerged that argued for the continued need for an underground party apparatus and criticized the WPA program for not openly advocating revolution. However, this left opposition formed its own legal party, the United Toilers of America, in February 1922, essentially duplicating the WPA and thereby demonstrating that factionalism rather than principled differences over political line was in the driver’s seat. The early US Communist movement seems to have operated on the opportunist principle of “unity – factionalism – unity” rather than the Maoist principle of unity – struggle – unity. Indeed, two factions emerged within the CPA over the question of the WPA, with one side wanting to make the WPA the sole party, and the other side insisting on the continued need for an underground party in addition to the WPA (these two sides called each other the liquidators and the geese, respectively).47
Indicative of the fact that factionalism was in command over the struggle of how to carry out legal, open political work, no one within the US Communist movement proposed a solution that applied the Leninist concept of a vanguard party to the contemporary concrete conditions that required combating repression and finding ways to link with and lead the masses with communist politics. The closest attempt at that came from Robert Minor, who went on to play a leading role in the CP. Minor came up with a compromise between the two factions within the CPA, recognizing the need for a permanent underground party apparatus but with a legal party making some necessary compromises in its political program to maintain legality (the latter aspect being a slippery slope with the danger of promoting reformism). All three factions appealed to the Comintern to sanctify their position, and the “left opposition” was strongly rebuked by Comintern leadership—its boasts of having the majority of comrades on its side were met with the Comintern response “whose comrades are they?” (not Lenin’s). Once again, Comintern intervention was necessary to bring an end to factionalism and unite US Communists into a single party. A Comintern representative—Valetski—was sent to play a leading role in the CPA’s August 1922 Convention held in secret in Bridgman, Michigan. Valetski managed to unite the Convention around the principle of “Strong underground organization, but the center of gravity in the open work” before Convention delegates had to flee to escape an impending government raid made possible by the presence of a government agent at the convention.48
However, the move aboveground with the WPA reveals deeper problems in the foundations of the US Communist movement that could not be remedied simply by formally adopting the overall correct political lines coming from the Comintern. Throughout its history, the US Communist Party tended to use Comintern policies as justifications for its own dogmatism or for tailing bourgeois-democracy, with the WPA tending in the latter direction. To what extent the theoretical breakthroughs of Lenin and the political lines that flowed from them were ever really internalized by US Communists in the 1920s is questionable at best.
At the root of the problem is not a question of an underground or a legal Party—the Leninist conception is clear on the need for both an underground Party apparatus and open, legal political work (whenever it is possible) to connect with the broad masses—but a question of developing a revolutionary strategy on the foundations of Leninism. In the early 1920s, despite moves to develop communist political work within labor struggles via the TUEL and for Communists to function openly and legally via the WPA and thereby gain wider influence in society, the emerging Communist leadership in the US still had no strategy for revolution. The comrades who formed and developed the US Communist Party correctly condemned the capitulation and reformism of the AFL and the SP and aligned themselves with the Russian Revolution and the newly formed Soviet Union and its leadership. But they were still ideologically immersed in syndicalism and reformist socialism, imagining that a spontaneous uprising would emerge out of the economic/labor struggle. Their desire to connect with the masses was hindered by their own dogmatism and by the vicious repression of the Palmer Raids, which drove them underground. Even with the 1921 merger of the CP and UCP into the CPA in 1921, factionalism rather than rigorous debate over political line continued to render US Communists an ineffective fighting force. When they were able to build an aboveground front with the WPA, their efforts were recreating a bolder, redder version of the old SP—a legal social-democratic party—rather than a real Leninist communist party, even if their intentions and to some degree their politics were leaning towards communist revolution. For example, when the WPA ran candidates for office, it is unclear if the intention behind these electoral efforts was to propagandize for communist revolution, to organizationally build the Party, or to win office and carry out reforms from positions within bourgeois government.
At its April 1923 National Convention, the CPA became the WPA, doing away with the dual underground and aboveground party model. There was certainly some degree of continued underground apparatus, especially for the purposes of communication with the Comintern leadership, but, for better and worse, the prevailing wind in the Party was blowing towards a legal organization capable of reaching the broad masses of people. At this juncture in the Party’s history, it claimed 16,000 members; Draper estimates that the membership was more like 8–10,000. Its membership was majority-proletarian and largely foreign-born. Foreign language federations continued to play an important role in the culture of the Party, with the Finnish federation accounting for perhaps 45% of Party membership. Only 5% of Party members spoke English as their first language, with 45% speaking at least some English as a second language.49
While the Party formed a Women’s Commission in 1922, its analysis of women’s oppression remained undeveloped and it failed to strategize a political program for connecting with political movements for women’s rights or the cultural winds of greater women’s independence in the 1920s. In this respect, it suffered from an economist, male-centric image of the industrial working class as the leading force in proletarian revolution. Consequently, the portion of women members in the Party was small and often relegated to “traditional” women’s roles, though there were a few women in leadership positions, such as Ella Reave Bloor, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, and Rose Pastor Stokes.50
While there was only one Black comrade—Otto Huiswoud—at the founding of either US communist party in 1919,51 the early 1920s saw the first, albeit small, wave of Black comrades into the Party via the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). Cyril Briggs, a Black Caribbean revolutionary intellectual who had emigrated to New York, founded a publication called the Crusader in September 1918 that connected the struggle for Black liberation to the revolutionary struggle against bourgeois rule, and used the readership of the Crusader to form the ABB in late 1919. Led mostly by Caribbean immigrants in New York, the ABB never managed to lead any substantial mass struggles, but did provide a forum for radical political education and discussion and an organizational home for its membership, which was drawn mainly from WWI veterans, stable sections of the working class, and an emerging new intelligentsia. The ABB itself phased out of existence after 1922, with some of its members absorbed into the US Communist Party (then the CPA and WPA). Some ABB leaders went on to play important roles within the Communist movement, with Briggs continuing to be an important intellectual and writer and Richard Moore becoming one of the Party’s greatest agitators and speakers.52
There are several reasons for the rather small number of Black comrades in the early US Communist movement, including the previously elaborated weaknesses of the IWW and SP on the Black national question. While the TUEL took a far stronger position against the oppression of Black people than any other labor organization at the time, US Communists had yet to lead any substantial mass struggle against the oppression of Black people, and had little organization in the South. Communist analysis of and positions on the Black national question remained underdeveloped and politically weak in 1923, although there were initial signs of improvement on these fronts owing in part to the impact of Briggs’s writings. Robert Minor was one of the few white comrades in a position of leadership to push for the importance of the Black national question. But the main impetus for a stronger position came from outside the US—from the leadership of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, whose positions on the “national and colonial question,” developed by Lenin and Stalin, along with firm policies against national oppression in the Soviet Union, were a strong point of attraction for Black people and provided the theoretical and political basis for a correct communist position on the Black national question.
Besides internal deficiencies, the greatest challenge the Communist movement faced in recruiting Black members was the popularity, especially among Black proletarians, of Marcus Garvey’s politics and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). UNIA, the largest ever Black organization in the world, was at its height of influence in the US during the 1920s, and Black capitalism was a core part of its politics. The ABB tried to work within UNIA, but Garvey essentially excised the ABB, with him and Briggs engaging in heated polemics that took a bitter personal turn. While the ABB being denied organizational access to UNIA’s large membership and Garvey’s hostility to communist politics certainly hindered the Communist movement’s maneuvering room, there was a deeper challenge rooted in objective conditions. As historian Mark Solomon sums up,
The [B]lack communities of the North, formed by migration, provided a degree of insularity from a hostile white society, which the masses of new [B]lack proletarians did not wish to engage unless forced to do so. To a considerable extent, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working class people as Briggs’s ABB could not, because the former vibrantly expressed outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order.53
Given that communist revolution is the most direct and dangerous challenge to bourgeois rule, US Communists faced an uphill battle to win over Black proletarians to risk the marginally better conditions they had found up North, in comparison to the South, in order to fight for revolution. Meanwhile, Garvey could offer the safer path of blustery rhetoric without the risk of revolutionary sacrifice (though of course even Garvey’s brand of Black nationalism was not tolerated by the US bourgeoisie when it gained traction among the masses and showed the prospects of successful Black-owned business enterprises). It would not be until the 1930s that Communists succeeded in overcoming this challenge, bringing large numbers of Black people into mass struggle against white supremacy and bourgeois rule and, in the process, recruiting many Black comrades.
The Party’s immigrant-heavy and majority-proletarian demographic composition was parallel with its geographic concentration in a few major cities, with 80% of its membership in New York, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Detroit. New York, an immigrant-heavy metropolis, was then and continued to be the center of Party activity and membership, with 25% of Party members living there. In 1923, the Party had significant if small organization on the West Coast in California in particular, but little westward of Kansas City until California. It had yet to make any significant inroads in the South.54
The Party generated and led a wide array of organizations over its existence, but the most important and enduring of them was the Young Communist League (YCL). Founded April 20, 1922, the YCL was an important training ground for Party members, including some future Party leaders, and, in the 1930s, became an important vehicle for tapping into the rebel spirit of youth. Unlike other Party-led organizations, the YCL carried the word “communist” in its name and expected its members to more directly follow the political and ideological leadership of the Party. In the prevailing dual party structure of 1922, the Young Workers League was formed in May 1922, shortly after the YCL, but we will only use the YCL label hereafter.55
The Party’s (or Parties’) name underwent several changes in the 1920s. The Workers Party of America moniker was modified to the Workers (Communist) Party of America in 1925. The name Communist Party, USA was finally settled on in 1929.56 For reasons of clarity, from here on, we will refer to the Party as the CP or Communist Party, using CPUSA when necessary to distinguish it from the communist parties of other countries.
Grandiose schemes and outmaneuvered maneuvers
In contrast to the post-WWI crisis, the Comintern analyzed the mid-1920s as a time of “partial stabilization” of the capitalist system that required a new set of tactics to avoid communist parties becoming too isolated from the masses when revolutionary politics were not immediately popular. What came to be known as the Comintern’s “Second Period” (1923–28) approach dealt both with the reality of the post-WWI high tide of revolutionary struggle in Europe subsiding and the need to correct dogmatic errors in the ways in which newly-formed communist parties interpreted the lessons of the Russian Revolution, as addressed in Lenin’s 1920 “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. For the CPUSA, these “Second Period” policies were used as a rationalization for ill-conceived attempts to leap to the head of an emerging farmer-labor third-party electoral movement by virtue of organizational maneuvering.
Because capitalism is capitalism, even with “partial stabilization” and the affluence of the “roaring twenties” in the US, substantial sections of the masses faced bitter poverty, exploitation, and financial ruin. Impoverished farmers and segments of the proletariat were coalescing into an alliance that sought to challenge bourgeois power, including in the electoral arena. The emerging farmer-labor movement won significant electoral victories in Minnesota in 1922 and 1923, and began to strategize a challenge to the dominant two parties in national elections. Sections of organized labor, most notably the Chicago Federation of Labor led by John Fitzpatrick, saw an opportunity to develop an electoral vehicle to further their interests.57 The CP viewed this situation as an opportunity to get to the head of the farmer-labor movement and the electoral vehicle it was giving birth to. How a farmer-labor electoral party would serve revolutionary objectives was never solidly answered by the CP except with delusional grand schemes, and likely rested on illusions within the CP about the nature of state power. Nevertheless, it was correct for the CP to recognize and attempt to intervene in the emerging farmer-labor movement given that it involved large sections of masses.
The CP’s mistake was imagining that it could get to the head of the movement by way of organizational maneuvers. Foster and the TUEL had a previous relationship with John Fitzpatrick and ties with the Chicago Federation of Labor, which they used to play a prominent role in the July 1923 Farmer-Labor Party conference. This conference brought together various forces in the labor movement, with delegates representing 600,000 people. The CP used its disciplined organization to maneuver for organizational control at the conference by having its delegates ensure that votes went the way the CP wanted. Its maneuvers were interpreted by others, rightly or wrongly, as opportunism, and led to animosity between Fitzpatrick and the CP and to the TUEL being effectively cut out of the Chicago Federation of Labor. The CP emerged from this conference exercising leadership over the Federated Farmer-Labor Party, as distinguished from Fitzpatrick’s Farmer-Labor Party. While some CP leaders heralded the Federated Farmer-Labor Party as a great victory, the reality was that little political unity was won from non-CPers within it, so it never became a viable tool for accomplishing anything, electorally or otherwise. 58 The CP gauging success as gaining control of large organizations through tactical maneuvering rather than winning the masses in them over to its leadership through the development of their political consciousness and through concretely demonstrating its ability to lead, in the interests of the masses, through the twists and turns of the struggle would be a repeated problem in the CP’s history, and one that bred opportunist outlooks within its ranks. In this case, it also led to reneging on important matters of principle: at the Farmer-Labor conference, in the name of achieving unity, all but one CP member gave up on fighting for a platform that included Black equality and, as a result, “all references to social equality and an end to segregation were eliminated” from the Farmer-Labor platform.59
Within the growing farmer-labor movement, Robert LaFollette, a progressive Wisconsin senator, emerged as the most popular figure and the most viable candidate for national elections. The CP’s efforts to enter into an alliance with LaFollette and get him to adopt the platform of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party were rebuffed. LaFollette’s Conference for Progressive Political Action, held July 4, 1924, adopted its own platform, and LaFollette denounced communism as the enemy of the progressive movement. While the CP ran Foster as its presidential candidate, only garnering 33,300 votes, and busied themselves with denouncing LaFollette with harsh polemics, LaFollette managed to score an impressive 4,825,000 votes in the 1924 presidential election, against 15,720,000 votes for Coolidge and 8,380,000 for Davis. LaFollette’s votes came substantially from proletarians and poor farmers.60
The problem with the CP’s tactics in the 1924 election was not that it scored so poorly in a bourgeois election—that is a terrible gauge for the work of a communist party, especially in an imperialist country. The problem was that the CP failed to develop a way to relate to the farmer-labor movement, and the mass desire for a third party in the elections, on the basis of revolutionary objectives. It opportunistically imagined it could leap to the head of the movement and use third-party electoral schemes to leapfrog over the need to consciously and conscientiously win over the masses to its politics. The CP needed to be addressing the masses who were drawn to the LaFollette presidential campaign with agitation and propaganda aimed at moving those masses from where they were at towards proletarian class-consciousness, which could not be achieved by dogmatic denunciations of LaFollette (though his limitations, and the limitations of bourgeois elections in general, needed to be pointed out to the masses). And the CP needed to move those masses practically towards a politics of militant class struggle. These are undoubtedly difficult objectives to achieve when a reformist politics holds sway among sections of the masses, but they are far better and more productive objectives than tactical maneuvers for organizational control and alliances founded on opportunism.
The CP’s attempted interventions in the farmer-labor movement and the LaFollette campaign started out as grandiose schemes for mass influence but ended up as fiascoes that further isolated them from the masses. On top of those disasters, when Samuel Gompers consolidated his leadership over the AFL at its 1923 conference, TUEL organizers were effectively expelled from it and no longer able to “bore from within” existing AFL trade-unions.61 Even though this setback was not the fault of CP leadership, it contributed to further isolating the CP from the masses. From 1923–25, the CP failed to lead any significant mass struggles.
Further down the spiral of unity – factionalism – unity
The grandiose schemes behind the CP’s actions in relation to the farmer-labor movement and the LaFollette campaign were theoretically and politically rationalized in CP leadership by John Pepper (Joseph Pogany). Pepper argued that agriculture was the weakest link in the US economy, and that a farmers’ revolution was on the horizon that would pave the way for a proletarian revolution. His two-stage revolution delusion was wrapped up in an analogy to the Russian February and October Revolutions of 1917, with LaFollette as the American version of Kerensky.62 This analogy had appeal to a still politically immature US Communist Party reared on the almost mythical stories of how the Bolsheviks came to power, and Pepper was the right person to tell these tales. For Pepper was a Hungarian comrade who had participated in the short-lived revolutionary government in his country and, after its defeat, had worked for the Comintern. He came to the US as part of the Comintern delegation to the 1922 Bridgman Convention and stayed, becoming part of the CP’s leadership. He used the prestige of the Comintern to dazzle his US comrades, whose own culture of factionalism led them to treat Pepper’s insider knowledge of the Comintern as a tactical advantage. The fact that such a dubious character as Pepper had so much sway in the CP says much about how deeply factionalism was festering in its ranks.63
Pepper’s analysis was a shoddy, mechanical application of the experience of the Russian Revolution to American circumstances, and rested on a view of revolution as emerging out of spontaneous crisis. It led him to put forward one grandiose scheme after another and ignore the strategic failures those schemes were sprouting. He found an ally in the Party leadership in Ruthenberg, and the two of them pushed ahead with the Federated Farmer-Labor Party over the objections of others in Party leadership, including Foster, who was especially concerned about provoking an irreconcilable rupture with Fitzpatrick (probably more for opportunistic reasons of maintaining an organizational position in the labor movement rather than out of acting on principle).64
What emerged from the internal struggle over the farmer-labor movement was a new round of factionalism. Foster and Cannon, two Party leaders associated with labor organizing, emerged as the leaders of the faction in opposition to Pepper and Ruthenberg. There were at times factions within factions, as well as a third, smaller faction led by Ludwig Lore of the German language federation. Rather than engage in principled line struggle, developing their positions and enabling the Party as a whole to debate them out and become more theoretically and politically capable in the process, the different factions maneuvered for organizational control over different spheres of the Party’s work, such as labor organizing, jockeyed to get a majority of Party members on their side not unlike bourgeois politicians, and appealed to Comintern leadership for support.65
With factionalism prevailing in the CPUSA, the Comintern frequently had to play the role of outside arbiter of internal disputes, and a spiral-like dynamic of Comintern-imposed unity giving way to factionalism and then (temporarily) resolved by Comintern-imposed unity shaped the CPUSA throughout the 1920s. While the Comintern sought to unite the factions around a revolutionary line rather than putting one in control over the other, it did frequently bolster one faction or another based on which faction’s tactics were more in line with the Comintern’s policies at the time. But whatever faction was more in line with Comintern policies at a given time, their unity with the Comintern leadership was only a surface-level unity based on the best tactics for the particular juncture rather than the deeper ideological, political, and strategic unity that communist organizations require. This “a new year, a new faction in command” dynamic was corrosive to the functioning of the CP.
Although the Comintern was overall struggling for principled unity within the CP, the culture of intrigue and opportunism that defined the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party out of which the Bolsheviks emerged as a revolutionary party seeped into the Comintern to some degree, especially through the figure of Zinoviev, who headed the Comintern at this time.66 Moreover, the mid-1920s witnessed life-and-death line struggles over the direction of the Soviet Union, with Stalin fighting to continue building socialism in the face of no revolutionary advances in Western Europe against Trotsky’s insistence on giving up the advance of socialism in the Soviet Union in the name of inadequate productive forces.67 While Stalin and the revolutionary line in the CPSU won these battles using overwhelmingly principled, aboveboard methods of line struggle, Trotsky employed opportunist methods, going outside the channels of democratic centralism and attempting to organize a faction around his line, as did the subsequent factional opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev to Stalin’s revolutionary line. CPUSA leaders, many of whom had been steeped in SP petty-bourgeois political methods, bureaucratic union leadership practices, and American pragmatism, likely imbibed the intrigue and opportunism that seeped its way into the functioning of the Comintern rather than recognizing it as bourgeois baggage to be cast off. Indeed, CP leaders, factionalizing their way through the 1920s, often related to the Comintern from the perspective of tactically maneuvering to get the Comintern leadership behind their faction rather than struggling to unite around a revolutionary line.
Political, organizational, social, and cultural glue
While ill-conceived grandiose schemes and factionalism prevented the CP from making any practical breakthroughs in this period, its membership was sustained and its practice developed through a variety of publications, organizations, and institutions that came to constitute the political, organizational, social, and cultural glue of the CP. Party leadership and the political line in command were overall decisive in determining the direction of the Party, but that leadership and line was transmitted through publications and organizational vehicles, which, combined with the overall cultural life in and around the CP, defined the daily lives of Party members and supporters.
The CP established its main publication for a mass audience, the Daily Worker, in 1924, after Comintern prodding to establish a daily newspaper in English. The Daily Worker transmitted the CP’s views on everything from international events to US politics to sports, and alerted readers to changes in the CP’s line and leadership. In addition to the Daily Worker, various local, regional, and “shop” (serving a particular factory or factories) newspapers developed, as well as periodicals in languages other than English. Furthermore, many CP-led organizations developed their own regular publications, creating a considerable network of written propaganda. In late 1925, the CP reported having “twenty-seven publications in nineteen languages with a total circulation of 177,250.”68 The practice of developing a diverse array of publications serving different political purposes and audiences while maintaining a regular centralized publication for a mass audience is certainly something to emulate. However, communist publications should avoid dogmatic or, as Mao put it, “stereotyped Party writing,” which CP publications certainly suffered from.69 Reflecting a substantial degree of what Lenin called economism, the Daily Worker tended to put too much focus on the immediate conditions of the factories and narrowed the focus of its audience to their immediate conditions of exploitation.
The CP also published a theoretical journal—The Communist70—and, later, a journal devoted to problems and challenges of organizing and leading the class struggle—The Party Organizer—to give summations of the Party’s work, go more deeply into political questions than could be done in the context of a newspaper, and debate out line questions within the Party. While the quality of the articles in these journals is of quite a mixed bag and the CP never produced theoretical work that left a positive, deep impact on the international communist movement, their journals did serve a need for deeper political engagement. At their best, these journals provided honest appraisals of the Party’s organizing efforts.
Besides publications, another form the CP developed to conduct political education was Party schools. The New York Workers School, opened in 1923 at Union Square, was the CP’s flagship in this respect, serving hundreds of mostly immigrant proletarian students in the 1920s and thousands in the 1930s. “Fundamentals of Communism” was the core course, with other courses serving to deepen students’ theoretical grasp of Marxism or train them in methods of organizing.
To carry out its political objectives and to organize people beyond Party members under Party leadership, the CP developed a variety of organizations, including unions and labor organizations, unemployed and tenants organizations, social and cultural groups, and efforts focused on particular political struggles. Some examples of such organizations set up during the 1920s include the National Council for Protection of the Foreign Born (opposing anti-immigrant hysteria and deportations), the All-American Anti-Imperialist League, the United Farmers’ Educational League, the Anti-Fascist Alliance of North America, and the Labor Sports Union of America.71 These organizations varied in shape and size; some consisted of mainly Party members and others drew in substantial numbers of Party supporters. Some developed into large mass organizations, and some were built as alliances involving non-Communist political forces. These organizations have been variously called Party auxiliaries, front groups, united fronts, and mass organizations. For purposes of our summation, a general term accurately encompassing all of them is Party-led organizations, and from there we can arrive at the specific function and achievements of particular Party-led organizations through concrete analysis and label them accordingly. While the quality of the CP’s Party-led organizations varied considerably, the sheer breadth of them was impressive, and points to an important necessity of revolutionary strategy: to create multiple avenues for different sections of the popular classes to come in contact with, work under the leadership of, and join the vanguard, a communist party must construct a wide variety of organizations that address an equally wide variety of political, social, and cultural questions.
In addition to publications, forms for political education, and Party-led organizations were cultural institutions and the more general culture of Party members and supporters. Immigrant CPers were often part of social clubs based among people of their country of origin. The CP cultivated a variety of cultural institutions and events, from dances to summer camps, which reached their height in the 1930s and, at their best, promoted communist values among their participants.72
Around the membership of the Party, the CP developed and led a large network of sympathizers and supporters who did not have the same level of commitment as Party members, but took an active part in the Communist movement and provided important forms of support to the Party, including funds. Party supporters subscribed to Party publications, were active members of Party-led organizations, and were part of the cultural life around the Party.73 In this respect, there was a dialectical relationship between “things” and “people,” with publications, organizations, and institutions created and driven by, and in turn sustaining, the people involved in them in various ways.
An overarching form of political, social, and cultural glue that ran through virtually everything described above was identity formation—in particular, identifying as, or with, workers. This worker identity formation played a principally positive role, delineating an “us” from “them” with a clear sense of class antagonism, and addressed two important dimensions of class formation.
(1) The US was an industrial powerhouse during the 1920s and 30s, with large numbers of proletarians working in the so-called “basic industries”—industries central to industrial production such as mining, steel, and auto manufacturing. The industrial proletariat at this time was bitterly exploited in oppressive working conditions, and was concentrated in large numbers in conditions of production that were directly social in character, making it a class with considerable revolutionary potential. While the CP’s construction of a worker identity could be, and was, expanded to encompass other sections of the proletariat, sharecroppers, poor farmers, agricultural laborers, and even the lower petty-bourgeoisie, it tended to foreground the industrial proletariat. The negative side of putting this particular identity in the foreground was that it was male-centric (most workers in “basic industries” were men) and downplayed other, strategically important, bitterly exploited sections of the proletariat, such as garment workers (who tended to be women and children). Furthermore, foregrounding the industrial proletariat went alongside strong tendencies towards economism and the continued influence of syndicalism in the CP.
(2) The proletariat in the US was then and is now multinational, consisting of people of different nationalities, both US- and foreign-born. A key social dynamic that defined the objective conditions in which the CP operated was what historian Michael Denning describes as “the restructuring of the American peoples by the labor migrations of the early twentieth century from Southern and Eastern Europe and the sharecropping [US] South.” As a result of this dynamic and the prevailing structure of white supremacy in the US, “These people were ethnicized and racialized by that social formation.” Consequently, “Ethnicity and race had become the modality through which working-class peoples experienced their lives and mapped their communities.”74 That dynamic fed into the so-called “race riots” after WWI in which Black communities were violently targeted, and put various “white ethnics” (Jews, Italians, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Irish) in a competition with each other and against Black people for jobs and economic advancement. The bourgeoisie “resolved” this dynamic by fully admitting those “white ethnics” into the white oppressor nation,75 which it could do after World War II by virtue of its position at the top of the imperialist world order—imperialist plunder was used to raise the class position of most of those “white ethnics” into the bourgeoisified sections of the working class and the petty-bourgeoisie.
However, especially given that this multinational proletariat was very much in formation in the 1920s and 30s, there was a real basis for the Communist movement to resolve the contradictions between different ethnicities (or, in communist parlance, nationalities) among the proletariat on the basis of shared class interests and politically unify the multinational proletariat towards revolutionary objectives. As Denning’s analysis puts it, “Though the forms—the rituals and emblems—of ethnic cultures differed, the content had much in common: it was the content of working-class tenements, sweatshops and factory labor, and cheap mass entertainment. The invention of ethnicity was a central form of class consciousness in the United States.”76 While Denning is correct that class was then (and continues to be today) understood through an “ethnic” or racial lens, a fully proletarian class-consciousness, in the Leninist sense, required going beyond the “ethnic” class-consciousness he describes. To this end, the CP’s construction of a worker identity played an overall positive role as a means to politically unite proletarians from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds without necessarily assimilating them and subsuming their culture into a dominant white American culture (until the Popular Front period beginning in 1935, a complicated question we will save for later). Owing to the crucial role of the foreign language federations in forming the CP, the large percentage of immigrants in the CP, and the Comintern’s imposition of a correct line on the Black national question in the late 1920s, the CP did attend to the important cultural dimensions of the multinational proletariat, sometimes successfully, and sometimes veering in the direction of one or another error—tailing nationalism and chauvinism or subsuming national cultures and national oppression under a worker identity.
In any event, politically uniting the multinational proletariat was and remains a very real challenge for communists in the US in the strategically positive and negative sense.77 The CP’s worker identity was a mostly correct approach to navigating this challenge in the 1920s and 30s, but is not something that should be resurrected for contemporary conditions in the US. “Worker” is just not a popular identity among the masses like it was a hundred years ago; numerically, the industrial proletariat has sharply declined; and a substantial portion of the proletariat in the US today, especially among Black people, is a more or less permanent reserve army of labor locked out of employment—they are not “workers.” Communists today will have to figure out what forms of identity formation can best unify the multinational proletariat around its common class interests and towards revolutionary objectives while attending to the particularities of national oppression and distinct cultures; popularizing the word and concept proletariat seems one important initial step towards addressing this challenge.
An aside on debates over historical interpretation of the CP
Here is probably as good a place as any to address the question of historical narrative. One thing we can agree with the postmodernists on is that history is the stories we tell about the past, not the past itself or a collection of facts from the past (although to tell accurate stories about the past, we need to collect the facts). History is always told through the prism of specific class outlooks to serve specific class interests, even if unconsciously, and different historical narratives will articulate different class outlooks and interests. Our evaluation of the CP is based on analyzing it as a vehicle to overthrow bourgeois rule through revolutionary civil war and lead the socialist transition to communism. As dialectical materialists, we believe such an evaluation can only be made with as accurate an understanding of the facts as possible. But how we interpret and present those facts, and what facts we choose to emphasize, is a decidedly partisan affair.
Our information comes mostly from the writings of historians who have carried out systematic research into the history of the CP. At times we also draw on their analysis and interpretations of that information, but the interpretation and narrative of this summation is overwhelmingly our own. To date, no historian has written about the CP from a communist perspective, evaluating the successes and failures of the CP from the standpoint of making revolution. Some have written with great sympathy for its ideals and respect for its role in the just political struggles of the masses, but even the most sympathetic of these historians is still coming from a fundamentally bourgeois-democratic, if radical, perspective.
The only well-researched, comprehensive accounts of the CP from its foundations to the late 1920s are written by Theodore Draper, a Cold War-era anti-communist whose narrative of CP history is of “Moscow” pulling the strings of the American Communists. The same class outlook and historical narrative is applied by Harvey Klehr to the CP of 1929 to the beginning of World War II in his book The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984). Despite the perspective of Draper and Klehr, their work pulls together a treasure of information and, taken together, provides a fairly comprehensive history of the CP in the 1920s and 30s, with a few notable blind spots, especially their inadequate (or distorted) attention to Black people and Black struggles. Because of their anti-communism, they are fairly attentive to the decisive role of the leadership and line of the CP (and the Comintern) in determining its direction and practice, even if their interpretations of the CP’s line comes through the prism of anti-communism.
In and around the 1980s, a new wave of scholarship on the CP was produced by so-called New Historians—professional historians who were part of or in some ways identify with the radical movements of the 1960s and, to some degree, with the postmodernist turn in liberal academia (but generally before that postmodernist turn reached the absurdities it has arrived at today). They called their scholarship “social history” or “cultural history,” and focused their attention on the everyday practices of the Communist movement, rather than its leadership and political line, in a conscious rejection of Draper’s and Klehr’s approach. To some degree these New Historians fill in important gaps in previous histories of the CP, flesh out the motion and development of the CP, paint a more vivid, nuanced picture of the Communist movement, and give due credit to its impact on US history.78 But their work largely dodges the decisive question of the political line leading the CP, which set the overall direction for the everyday practices of the Communist movement, even if those everyday practices involved the creative application and development of that line. These New Historians often try to fit the CP practices they value into their own radical bourgeois-democratic outlook, a trend aided by the fact that the CP substantially adopted radical bourgeois-democratic politics in the second half of the 1930s.79 At worst, the New Historians paint a distorted picture of creative activity coming “from below,” from the rank-and-file of CP members and the masses, disconnected from or in opposition to the line and leadership of the Party.
In the 1980s, debate emerged among historians of the CP between Draper and the New Historians; representative views from each side can be found, respectively, in the “Afterward” to the 1986 edition of Draper’s American Communism and Soviet Russia and the Preface and Introduction to New Studies in the History of American Communism (Monthly Review Press, 1993). Ironically, the rabidly anti-communist Draper comes closer to our method (but not our class standpoint) of evaluating the CP because of his insistence on making the political line and leadership of the CP central to historical narrative. However, both sides of this debate among professional (that is, petty-bourgeois) historians share a more fundamental unity with each other in their rejection of revolution as a viable or desirable goal and in insisting on separating communist vanguard leadership from the creative potential of the masses.
Why do debates within academia over CP history matter to us communists? Who reads this stuff anyway? While the readership of historical studies of the CP is relatively small, the new generation of Leftists in the US has certainly picked up some of these books,80 and, in the absence of a communist summation of the CP, is trained in their historical narrative. But outside of that small readership, scholarship produced in universities—important ideological state apparatuses in bourgeois society—has a way of filtering down to the people, including the basic masses, and impacting their political outlook and understanding. So while we will not be going out of our way to contend with specific historical interpretations by scholars of CP history in this summation, our overall narrative stands in contrast to even the best of those historical interpretations due to our class outlook and thoroughly partisan political objectives.81
Bolsheviks gonna bolshevize; factionalists gonna factionalize
Mao Zedong made clear that in the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), while the immediate goal was to overthrow capitalist roaders within the Chinese Communist Party, the larger objective was to transform world outlook. Even before the GPCR, Mao gave great emphasis to the need for communists to continually ideologically remold themselves to stay on the revolutionary road. Owing to Lenin’s teachings and decades of experience, the Bolshevik Party had some sense of this principle in the 1920s, even if it had yet to be more fully developed by Mao. In an application of this principle, in the mid-1920s, the CPSU and Comintern leadership moved to “bolshevize” all the parties that were a part of the Comintern, imposing democratic centralist organizational principles, ending factionalism, developing ways of functioning that could connect the communist politics of the vanguard more deeply to the proletariat, and cultivating a membership of cadre dedicating their lives to revolution.
Owing to the failure of the CPUSA leadership to thoroughly remold themselves as communists and rupture with the factionalist mentality that infected them, the problems within the CPUSA occupied considerable time and attention at Comintern meetings. In 1925, the Comintern sent a representative, Sergei Ivanovich Gusev, an “old Bolshevik” with impressive revolutionary credentials who stood with Stalin in the line struggles within the CPSU, to the US to oversee the bolshevization of the CPUSA. Like Valetski before him, Gusev brought the Comintern smackdown on CP leadership, with temporary unity imposed at the Party’s Fourth Convention in August 1925 with Ruthenberg’s faction in the upper hand. A “Resolution on the Bolshevization of the Party” was passed at this Convention, which began the process of transforming the Party organizationally along the lines of the Bolshevik model.82
While bolshevization would ultimately take years to complete, several important transformations flowed from the 1925 Convention. The internal organization of the Party, which had been built along electoral district lines owing to the SP model on which it was based, was moved towards shop (factory) and street nuclei. Little headway was made in building shop nuclei until the 1930s, but this model did organize the Party more in line with reaching the proletarians it was attempting to lead. Party-led organizations were treated more in the Leninist sense of conveyor belts between the Party and the masses, with the Party cadre in these organizations reporting up to and carrying out the strategic approach of Party leadership (at least in theory).83
The foreign language federations, which had bolstered factionalism within the Party from its beginnings, were eliminated. In their place, foreign-language sections within the Party were organized for practical purposes so that members who did not speak English could participate in internal Party life, but these sections were under central Party leadership. Externally, foreign-language Workers Clubs provided an organizational vehicle to interact with and lead immigrant proletarians, with Party fractions (organizational units of Party members working within broader membership organizations; not to be confused with factions) organized within them to carry out Communist political work. The Party fraction approach in the foreign-language Workers Clubs correctly maintained the important distinction between Party cadre and masses who may be sympathetic to Communist politics but had not made the leap and commitment to joining the Party.84
In addition to organizational changes, bolshevization was also achieved by way of sending waves of CP cadre for political education and leadership development at Comintern schools, such as the Lenin School, in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, several CP members spent periods of time carrying out international tasks for the Comintern in different parts of the world, thereby directly receiving training from the Comintern. A negative side effect of this international interaction was that, with the pervasive factionalist mentality in the CP, some CP members who received training from or worked directly for the Comintern used the insider knowledge and connections they gained for factionalist advantage and careerist ambitions. Earl Browder, who led the CP (ultimately into the swamp of revisionism) in the 1930s and early 1940s, is the most notorious example of this negative side effect; he spent the late 1920s abroad working for the Comintern before catapulting up to top leadership in the CP back in the US.85
More than organizational changes, bolshevization implied a Party of much more serious cadre whose entire lives were dedicated to revolution. Not surprisingly, the immediate effect of bolshevization was a dramatic decrease in CP membership roles, from over 14,037 in September 1925 to 7,213 one month later. A substantial portion of CP members in the foreign language federations, many of whom tended to treat the Party as more of a cultural organization with revolutionary trappings than a serious communist vanguard, account for this exodus. Overall, quality is principal over quantity in the membership of a communist party, and, in this instance, the decrease in membership that accompanied bolshevization was a positive step forward, but the CP took time to quantitatively rebound from the late 1925 drop in membership. It reached 9,500 members in 1927 and did not experience significant growth after that until the 1930s.86
The idea and goal of a “mass party” was often a part of Comintern discourse. Especially in imperialist countries, where a communist vanguard is unlikely to develop a numerically large following during “normal times” owing to the parasitism of imperialism and the relative social stability it creates, striving to turn a communist vanguard into a “mass party” can easily lead to degrading the vanguard role of the party and sinking its politics to what will have immediate mass appeal. Certainly communist parties in imperialist countries need to find ways to sink roots among the masses, develop broad influence, and lead mass movements and mass organizations during times when revolution is not immediately on the horizon, and must not wait for a grand crisis in the capitalist system to occur before developing the quantitative strength of the subjective forces for revolution. But the frequent talk of the need to become a “mass party” within Comintern discourse contributed to pragmatism and reformism on the part of communist parties in Europe and the US and Canada, and paved the way for full-blown revisionism before, during, and after WWII. Bolshevization of the CPUSA, grounded in Lenin’s conception of a communist vanguard as expounded in his seminal 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, was a far better orientation that opened up revolutionary possibilities than the many ill-conceived attempts to turn it into a “mass party.”
In theory, bolshevization should have put an end to factionalism in the CP, but in reality, the 1925 Party Convention was the beginning of the last time around the spiral of the unity – factionalism – unity dynamic in the CP. This time around, the pervasive factionalism that immediately followed the temporary unity imposed in 1925 by Gusev from the Comintern continued until 1929, with Comintern intervention, including from Stalin himself, decisively ending the existence of organized factions within the CP (although the factionalist mentality would continue to infect the CP). From 1925 to 1929, Ruthenberg and then Lovestone, following Ruthenberg’s death in 1927, led the faction in power, with Foster and Cannon leading the opposition faction. The two factions persistently jockeyed for organizational power and Comintern approval, and the corrosive effects of the factionalist mentality in command continued to prevent the CP from fulfilling its obligations to the masses.
Labor struggles: policy vs. practice
In the early 1920s, Comintern leadership insisted that the CP abandon the dual-unionism dogma that it had inherited from IWW syndicalism, bolstering Foster’s approach to labor organizing in the process. In the mid-1920s, the Comintern and the Profintern (the Comintern’s international labor organization) began to advocate that the CP take a more tactically diverse approach to labor organizing in order to seize on all possible opportunities, and put more emphasis on organizing workers who were presently not organized into labor unions. In July 1924, the Profintern suggested “organizing the unorganized” with various methods, including “through the AFL, through independent mass unions, and through the Workers Party’s [i.e., the CP’s] shop nuclei,” the latter referring to organizational units of the CP in factories, of which it had very few. With this diverse array of tactics in mind and with a priority on organizing the unorganized, in Spring 1925, Comintern leadership continued to see the potential “to convert the TUEL into a great opposition movement of the Left bloc” against AFL domination of the US labor movement.87
How the CP leadership interpreted Comintern guidance, and what were the concrete strategic possibilities during this time period, is another question. As with all things, Comintern guidance was refracted through the prism of factionalism, with the two dominant factions—Ruthenberg’s and Foster’s—attempting to show that their tactics conformed to Comintern policy. Making matters worse, with a factionalist outlook in command and without a thorough ideological rupture with a syndicalist outlook, tactics, in the most narrow sense, rather than the revolutionary objectives and strategy guiding tactics, set the terms of debate within the CP in ways that further bred narrowness and factionalism. The different factions rushed to take credit for any achievements made in labor struggles and blame their factional adversaries for any setbacks and mistakes. Foster treated the TUEL as his fiefdom, and successfully appealed to Comintern leadership to maintain control over it while Ruthenberg’s faction was in overall control of the Party. Ruthenberg’s faction tried to outmaneuver Foster’s faction in labor organizing efforts, resulting in an ill-conceived attempt to send organizers openly identifying as Communists into a coal miners’ strike in Fall 1925; those organizers were quickly arrested, preventing them from linking up with the strike.88
What CP leadership should have been debating, in relation to labor organizing, was how the most advances could be made towards revolutionary objectives within the concrete conditions and with the subjective forces under its leadership at the time. The TUEL had been purged from the AFL, so working through the AFL was not much of an option, and “boring from within” it would have required slow, patient work by cadres capable of developing contacts within AFL unions without being outed as Communists. Given the relatively low numbers of Communist labor organizers, it probably made little sense to devote many comrades to this task.
The prospects for organizing the unorganized with revolutionary objectives in command, by contrast, were considerable at this time, given that the AFL largely ignored those sections of the proletariat and unorganized workers tended to be part of the “lower and deeper” sections of the proletariat who constitute the bedrock social base for revolution in imperialist countries.89 Moreover, any success in organizing the unorganized could have been used to expose the bankruptcy of the AFL’s leadership and its labor aristocrat class outlook and develop the independent leadership and organizational strength of Communists. That would have widened antagonism between the CP and the AFL leadership, and could have resulted in isolation and defeat, but it was probably worth “going for broke” given the opportunities available (and unavailable) at the time. Furthermore, the CP needed to make a sober, but not pessimistic or capitulationist, appraisal of what was possible with the available subjective forces for revolution—not a great mass labor movement under Communist leadership, but solid revolutionary beachheads that could successfully contend with the opportunist-dominated official labor movement and become models for subsequent, broader efforts.
A further question with organizing the unorganized, not through the AFL, would be which particular sections of workers, in which industries, to focus on. In official policy, the CP seemed to have its sights set on industrial workers in basic industries, but it made little headway in organizing those workers into unions or leading class struggle among them prior to 1928. In fact, the CP’s greatest successes in labor organizing and leading class struggle in the mid-1920s were with garment and textile workers in and around New York. CP leadership did not seem to sum up the reasons for these successes, in contrast to its failures among workers in other industries, likely due to a combination of economism, factionalism, and interpreting Comintern guidance dogmatically. If it had, it may have considered the fact that the garment and textile industries in the Northeast employed large numbers of immigrant women in conditions of bitter exploitation, suggesting the mix of factors that made such workers a more ripe social base for a revolutionary line.
In New York, Communists managed to win leadership of the Fur Workers Union of 10,000 workers in 1925, making it the first Communist-led union in the US. The Fur Workers Union led a successful strike in 1926 for a pay raise and a forty-hour work week, and the union’s Communist leadership successfully rebuffed attempts by AFL leadership to take over the union. Communists also carried out work within the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in New York and did manage to lead its Needles Trades Committee in a six-month strike in 1926. But when Communists refused to settle the lengthy strike for a partial victory, ILGWU leadership managed to step in and edge Communists out of leadership.90
A thorny contradiction in CP-led labor struggles was the question of when, whether, and how to end strikes. Revolutionary objectives, rather than partial victories, must always fundamentally guide how communists answer this question, which often means pushing labor struggles in the most antagonistic direction possible. However, tactical retreats and settling for partial victories can also be necessary to demonstrate to the masses the effectiveness of communist leadership, prevent other political forces from wedging in and winning over the masses, and consolidate what can be gained at that particular juncture of the class struggle. The CP tended to err in the direction of failing to make tactical retreats and accept partial victories, owing more to the limitations of an inherited syndicalist outlook than revolutionary zeal. However, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all resolution to this contradiction, and we will have to revisit it in specific examples and try to sum up what would have been the best course of action based on available historical evidence.
The most significant CP-led strike during this period, and one of the most significant strikes in the mid-1920s US, took place among textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey. In September 1925, thousands of textile workers there were hit with a wage cut to their already low wages. These were non-unionized workers whom the AFL had ignored—50% of them were women and many were immigrants. After three months of preparation, Communists led over 15,000 textile workers in Passaic on a strike that started on January 25, 1926. Vicious repression, legally justified by a Civil War-era Riot Act, followed, but the strike generated widespread popular support, including from several prominent public figures, and national press coverage.91
Among the cadre involved in the Passaic strike was a young Albert Weisbord, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who had succeeded at the game of American upward mobility. Weisbord was in his last year at Harvard Law School when he quit the Socialist Party, joined the Communist Party, and started working in the textile mills of Massachusetts, carrying out the Maoist imperative to integrate with the masses.92 Weisbord subsequently moved to New Jersey and emerged as a leader of the Passaic textile workers strike. Weisbord was determined to take the strike in the most radical direction possible, and the workers seem to have been on board with Weisbord. But CP leadership thought otherwise: they turned to the AFL’s United Textile Workers to settle the strike in August 1926, winning the right for the striking workers to be rehired but little else. Besides bringing an episode of sharp class struggle to an end without much in the way of even a partial victory, this tactical retreat resulted in little organizational consolidation for the CP. AFL leadership decided to exorcise radicalism from its ranks by expelling the Passaic local of the United Textile Workers in 1928, leaving the workers there without the backup of a national union, and the CP only had fifteen members in Passaic by 1929.93
Weisbord was frustrated not only with CP leadership’s botched handling of the Passaic strike, but also with the CP’s strategic approach to organizing the unorganized. On the basis of his integration with the masses and role in sharp class struggle, Weisbord advanced a thesis that the CP should shift its emphasis from large industrial cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago to the smaller industrial towns. Places like Passaic, New Jersey had emerged as important sites of industrial production employing substantial numbers of bitterly exploited proletarians. These “factory towns” were often run by one specific industry (such as textiles). Their populations may have paled in comparison to New York and Chicago, but they concentrated significant numbers of proletarians and held great potential as concentration points of class struggle. For the high proletarian proportion of the populations in “single industry” towns, class antagonism with the bourgeoisie was focused up into a direct conflict between themselves, intimately connected to each other through socialized production in the same industry and the social connections forged by living together in smaller cities and towns, and a single employer (or a group of employers in direct collaboration with each other), who usually played a dominant role in local government. In the prevailing conditions of factionalism within the CP, the Weisbord thesis appears to have never been seriously debated.94 Whether or not the CP should have focused its limited forces on the small industrial towns, the large industrial cities, or split its forces between them, the overarching problem was that CP leadership failed to develop a revolutionary strategy and tactics for intervening in labor struggles and organizing Communist-led unions during the mid-1920s, a few minor success stories notwithstanding.
…A parenthetical on how the Weisbord thesis might apply today
Today, we seem to live in a Weisbord bizarro world. Many small cities that were once centers of industrial production are now rotted out, deindustrialized hellscapes with decaying infrastructures that leave the masses without access to basic necessities like clean water. Since these Weisbord-bizarro-world cities occupy no important strategic role in the global economy, the bourgeoisie can in effect abandon them, neglecting to provide the government resources necessary for the masses’ daily survival. Unless a growth industry decides to set up shop or the hipster petty-bourgeoisie is enticed to move in, these Weisbord bizzaro worlds are likely to further rot, with dire consequences for the proletarian masses living in them. In place of the harsh labor exploitation of the 1920s, today’s Weisbord bizarro worlds are defined by the disintegration of infrastructure. As the climate crisis heats up, these small cities with decaying infrastructures that are subject to government neglect are likely to face the brunt of climate catastrophes, as happened in Jackson, Mississippi in 2022 after flood waters overwhelmed an already decayed water system. Notably, three small, deindustrialized American cities—Flint, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; and Jackson, Mississippi—have faced water system crises over the last decade.
In combination with deindustrialization and government neglect, these cities are also defined by national oppression. This is perhaps most stark in Newark and Jackson, where Black mayors who are the sons of prominent revolutionary Black nationalists have been left holding the bag when state government officials and an eroding tax base have denied them the financial resources to solve the dire problems of the masses (if we did not know better, we might call this a conspiracy). While Flint, Newark, and Jackson are concentrations of Black proletarians, it is also notable that two of these cities also contain substantial numbers of residents who put the proletarian in white proletarian, making them concentration points of both national oppression and the multinational proletariat—a strategically favorable combination for proletarian revolution.
Given that unemployment and severe government neglect put these masses in such dire straits, these Weisbord bizarro worlds hold great potential for sharp class struggle, mainly through the prism of mass movements demanding the bourgeois state address the crises at hand, and for the establishment of revolutionary authority—were there a force to step in and lead the masses, including but not only at finding collective solutions to their pressing problems. The more that bourgeois government abandons these cities, the more potential there might be for some not-quite-territorial control of them by revolutionaries, especially if there were to be more severe climate catastrophes.95 How to approach today’s Weisbord bizarro worlds and how much strategic weight to give them is a question for a (hopefully not too far in the) future communist vanguard party to figure out…
Party-led organizations: the ILD and the ANLC
While factionalism hindered the development of Party-led organizations and mass struggles throughout the 1920s, and Party-led organizations were often opportunistically used to bolster one faction or another within the Party, in 1925, the CP launched what went on to become its most successful national Party-led organization: the International Labor Defense (ILD). Founded at a conference in Chicago on June 28, 1925, the conception behind the ILD was to defend and support “class war prisoners” and radicals being framed up by the bourgeoisie’s repressive state apparatus for their militant participation in labor struggles. By the early 1930s, the ILD extended its mission to include defending Black people and people from other oppressed nationalities being subjected to “legal lynching”—i.e., when the legal system was used to, in effect, lynch Black and other oppressed people with trumped-up charges and sham trials that resulted in heavy prison sentences or even the death penalty.
The ILD’s strategy for defense involved a vigorous and combative legal defense in court, recruiting and working with lawyers willing to fight for radicals and oppressed people, and, more importantly, a public political defense using the weapons of exposure, agitation, and mass mobilization. The ILD published and publicized exposure of the legal cases it took on, held public meetings with rousing speeches, and worked to mobilize the proletariat and popular classes in protest and support actions. The ILD’s insistence that a public, mass defense was principal over the struggle in court (without shortchanging the latter) set an important precedent for political movements in the US and made a material reality of the Maoist principle that “the masses are the makers of history.” With this orientation, the ILD mounted serious and sometimes successful interventions into the most important cases of political repression at the time, galvanizing large numbers of people, in the US and even internationally, in militant and broad-based struggle. The ILD also served a very necessary practical purpose: defending CP members who were brought up on legal charges for their political activity, managing to keep some out of jail or free them after unjust convictions. All communist parties will have to move through the revolution – counterrevolution – more revolution dynamic on the road to the seizure of power, and the ILD proved an exemplary tool in that dynamic whose history should be studied by anyone serious about making revolution in the US.96
The ILD got its start with considerably greater breadth than other Party-led organizations. Its first national committee included several well-known political figures with substantial ideological differences with the CP, including the socialist icon Eugene Debs and the feminist Alice Stone Blackwell. While such prominent supporters did not, for the most part, play an organizational role within the ILD, the fact that they were willing to lend their names to it speaks to the potential and necessary breadth required in mass movements against political repression. Numerically, by the end of 1926 the ILD “claimed 156 branches with 20,000 individual members and 75,000 collective memberships” (the latter referring to organizations that joined the ILD).97 Even if these numbers exaggerate the actual mass participation in the ILD, they demonstrate a further breadth of support. The ILD’s publication, The Labor Defender, had a broader reach than other CP-led publications, and featured compelling exposures of cases of political repression.
In its first few years of existence, the ILD combined a bedrock of ongoing support work for political prisoners with bold initiatives around cases of political repression with national significance. On the former, it “sent $5 a month to 106 ‘class-war prisoners’ in the United States,” most of whom were members of the IWW. On the latter, it played a strong role in the movement to free Thomas Mooney and William Billings, two labor leaders who had been framed and imprisoned for a 1916 bombing in San Francisco, and in the movement to stop the execution of and free Sacco and Vanzetti. The latter were anarchist Italian immigrants framed for murder in a 1921 trial in which their political beliefs, along with American anti-immigrant hysteria, were used against them. The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 did not go down without a fight—their case became an international rallying cry, with protests all over the world demonstrating a growing combative mood among the international proletariat.98 The ILD’s involvement in these and other high-profile cases of political repression earned it growing respect and gave the CP important experience in working with other political forces at mass mobilization. The fact that cases the ILD took up often involved people with whom the CP had substantial ideological differences, such as anarchists, indicates an important principled, non-sectarian approach on the CP’s part, at least in this sphere of work.
While never attracting substantial numbers or having significant political impact, the other noteworthy Party-led organization formed in 1925 was the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC). The ANLC was the CP’s first substantial attempt to make a political intervention into the struggles of Black people against their oppression. The conception behind it seemed to be asserting proletarian class interests into the struggles of Black people, albeit with a considerable degree of economism and workerism, while also cultivating a breadth of support from different Black political and class forces. On the latter, it largely failed, in part because the political platform of the ANLC was not much different than that of the CP, though its founding conference in October 1925 in Chicago did generate substantial debate in the pages of Black newspapers and among Black organizations over the role of Communists in the Black struggle. On the former, the 33 delegates of the conference were mostly Black proletarians, but the ANLC never managed to use the buzz and controversy about the conference or the broad agitation carried out on Chicago’s South Side prior to it to recruit many dedicated members.99
Subsequently, the ANLC failed to become a mass organization of Black proletarians, suffering from a small membership, a lack of funds, and a failure to develop a strong political line for mounting effective interventions. It had no organization in the South, and no plan for stepping into and leading struggles against lynching, segregation, and the bitter exploitation of Black sharecroppers. The two mass struggles it did play a significant role in—a strike by a hundred Black women workers at a stuffed-date factory on the South Side of Chicago in Fall 1926 and a strike by Black projectionists at the white-owned Lafayette Theater in New York—were both too localized to have a national impact. The ANLC’s only substantial foothold among Black proletarians working in basic industries was among coal miners in Primrose, Pennsylvania, where ANLC member Charles Fulp was a local union leader. It was not until 1928 that ANLC members played a more significant role in class struggles in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and among tenants in Harlem—topics which we will return to below. By 1930, the CP gave up on the ANLC as an organizational form, replacing it with the League of Struggle for Negro Rights.100
On the positive end, the ANLC represented a beginning, if flawed, step towards the CP making the Black national question a strategic priority. It did bring a new, if small, wave of Black comrades into the Party, including James Ford, who went on to play a prominent role in national leadership and in the Party’s work in Harlem in the 1930s, and George Padmore, a revolutionary intellectual who later left the Communist movement for the Pan-Africanist movement, becoming a bitter anti-communist in the process. On the negative end, the ANLC demonstrated that the CP at the time had no strong analysis of the revolutionary potential of Black sharecroppers and the struggle against lynching and Jim Crow rule in the South, and tended to treat the Black national question through an economist lens, as a matter of labor exploitation with the addition of discrimination. Moreover, most of the CP’s membership compartmentalized political work among Black people as the responsibility of Black comrades in the ANLC rather than a question for the whole Party to take up, in effect confining the Black national question to a “specialty” of Party work rather than a strategic centrality.101
Last time around the unity – factionalism – unity spiral
Charles Ruthenberg, who then occupied the formal position of top leader in the CP, died unexpectedly on March 2, 1927, shortly after an operation for appendicitis. Ruthenberg had come up through the SP, grew disenchanted with its reformism, caught the revolutionary spirit at the end of WWI, and was arrested for leading a militant May Day protest in Cleveland in 1919 that was attacked by the police. He went on to play a key role in holding the CP together organizationally but—forgive us for speaking ill of the dead—he failed to become the visionary and strategic revolutionary commander that the CP needed. As Draper put it, Ruthenberg “gave American communism an efficient, respected, colorless office manager; he did not give it an authoritative, inspiring, path-finding leader.”102
Predictably, a high tide of factionalist fervor swept through the CP after Ruthenberg’s death. Jay Lovestone, a close ally of Ruthenberg in the Party’s leading levels, made a bid for control of the Party. Foster, Cannon, and William Weinstone constituted themselves as the National Committee of the Opposition Bloc and distributed circulars in the Party in an attempt to rally support for their faction’s attempt to take over the reigns of the Party. Both sides appealed to the Comintern for support, and Lovestone published Comintern messages that bolstered his position in the Daily Worker. Lovestone emerged triumphant from this factionalist battle, organizationally enshrined as top CP leader at the Fifth Party Convention that took place from August 31 to September 7 of 1927. He used his newfound power to push the Opposition Bloc aside, confining their organizational authority to trade-union work.103
As with all factionalist battles, principled differences over political line were never the driving force in the fight that followed Ruthenberg’s death. However, Lovestone developed political lines that, had they been allowed to develop and lead the CP much longer, would have taken it decisively off of the revolutionary road. He took a capitulationist attitude towards the ways in which the US bourgeoisie dispensed some of the spoils of imperialism to bribe sections of the people into allegiance, from the bourgeoisification of sections of the proletariat to creating paths for upward mobility for some of the masses to the forms of “welfare capitalism” and “company unionism” created under President Coolidge. Lovestone’s analysis of these phenomena concluded that US capitalism was still in economic ascendance, with little possibility for economic crisis (the Great Depression around the corner would soon prove him wrong), failing to find footholds for revolutionary advance. Furthermore, under his leadership, the CP started to make a more positive appraisal of the American Revolution, and Lovestone himself praised slave owner Thomas Jefferson, presaging Earl Browder’s “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism” of the late 1930s.104 Lovestone’s analysis of the Black national question was downright Trotskyite; he viewed Southern sharecroppers as a social base for reaction owing to their agrarian way of life rather than a social force with great revolutionary potential, and heralded their transformation into urban proletarians in the North and the mechanization of agriculture as the only way they might join the ranks of the revolution.105
The Opposition Bloc criticized the growing rightest tendencies of Lovestone’s leadership, but failed to put forward a revolutionary line in opposition. In place of Lovestone’s emphasis on the stability of US capitalism, they hyped up the potential for crisis, in essence a mirror image of Lovestone’s analysis of objective conditions that, like Lovestone except with a different conclusion, hinged revolutionary possibilities on a sudden, calamitous decline in the stability of capitalist rule. The Opposition Bloc may have been uncomfortable with and criticized the Lovestone faction’s warming up to the 1776 American Revolution, but they offered no thorough and passionate condemnation of what historian Gerald Horne has accurately called the counterrevolution of 1776 (a counterrevolution principally due to its defense of slavery).106 And they did not offer an analysis of the Black national question that placed agrarian revolution in the South and the revolutionary potential of Southern Black sharecroppers on the agenda.107
The increasing factional battle within the CP between Lovestone, backed up by Pepper, and the Opposition Bloc occurred at the same time as growing differences in the CPSU and the Comintern between Stalin and Bukharin (who had replaced Zinoviev as leader of the Comintern). The chief line difference was over whether the so-called “second period” of capitalist stabilization that began in 1923 would continue, or the global capitalist system would enter a period of crisis. The latter position was put forward by Stalin, who also saw a rising militancy among the international proletariat, as evidenced by the large worldwide movement to prevent the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. Aside from being proven correct by subsequent world events, Stalin took the principled route of fighting for his position within the democratic centralist structures of the CPSU, and the question was not yet settled within the CPSU when the Comintern’s Sixth Congress began in the Summer of 1928. Nevertheless, the growing tensions within the Soviet leadership were evident to onlookers, and the two factions of the CPUSA tried, in opportunistic fashion, to use these tensions to garner support for their faction from Comintern leaders. Lovestone’s analysis of US capitalism’s stability was not only in basic unity with Bukharin’s position, but he also had some personal connection to Bukharin, which caused him to go out of favor with Comintern leadership as the CPSU united around Stalin’s position and Bukharin was knocked down from Comintern leadership. Some within Foster’s faction smelled blood (Lovestone’s) at the Sixth Comintern Congress and sought to expose him as a rightest aligned with Bukharin, but Stalin and other Comintern leaders were too principled to get sucked into taking an immediate position over factionalism rather than go through a democratic centralist process of line struggle.108
Following its Sixth Congress, Comintern leadership grew increasingly critical of Lovestone’s political line and frustrated with the factionalism, rather than principled line struggle, that defined the CPUSA. Even though his politics were diverging from Comintern leadership, Lovestone managed to get the overwhelming majority of support from delegates at the CP’s Sixth Party Convention in March 1929, no doubt in part through factionalist maneuvering. The Comintern’s representatives to this Convention, armed with a letter from Stalin, were critical of the political lines of both factions and, moreover, with the whole culture of factionalism. They fought for unity between the two factions to be expressed in the selection of Party leadership, proposing that Foster be made General Secretary (the highest position) and Lovestone be sent to Moscow (one way the Comintern dealt with leaders they did not want in charge of Comintern parties). But this time, the Comintern’s attempted intervention, in the face of not only the usual factionalism but also the rightest politics of Lovestone, failed. However, the Comintern’s prestige was so great within the CP that it was able to insist that representatives from both factions, including Lovestone himself, come to Moscow for adjudication.109
The proceedings of the American Commission of the Comintern in Spring 1929 put the final smackdown on factionalism in the CPUSA. Stalin himself forcefully intervened during the proceedings. While criticizing Lovestone’s capitulationist analysis of the stability of US capitalism, he made clear that the “main defects” of the CP were not the political lines of either faction, but the “unprincipled factionalism” that reigned within it. With no patience for opportunism, Stalin decried how both factions, but especially Lovestone’s, related to the Comintern “not on a principle of confidence, but on a policy of rotten diplomacy, a policy of diplomatic intrigue.” In case any US Communists still thought they could practice factionalism at the Comintern, Stalin made clear that calling yourself a “Stalinite” did not curry favor with him (he renounced the term), and declared that “the Comintern is not a stock market. The Comintern is the holy of holies of the working class.”110
Lovestone had no qualms about desecrating the holy of holies. He had left for Moscow with a plan in place for his supporters to take the reigns of the CP if the Comintern rejected his leadership over it. As the debate within the Comintern’s American Commission continued and Lovestone’s supporters among the American delegates began abandoning him, he cabled coded messages back to New York instructing his factionalist allies to carry out their opportunist plan. But the Daily Worker printed the Comintern’s address to the CPUSA resolving the factional struggle to Lovestone’s disadvantage, and Party leaders Robert Minor and Jack Stachel decided not to carry out Lovestone’s secret plan.111 When exposed, the only real tools opportunists have at their disposal are factionalism, duplicity, and intrigue. The Comintern had revolutionary principles, the dignity of actuality of the Russian Revolution and Soviet socialism, and the well-earned respect of the revolutionary masses around the world, including the membership of the CP, on its side.
A new central leadership of the CP was constituted with leaders from both factions, with Foster continuing to play a prominent role and Max Bedacht occupying the position of (acting) General Secretary. (A three-person secretariat of Foster, Earl Browder, and William Weinstone soon assumed formal leadership, with Browder emerging as the top leader among the three.) After Lovestone left the Soviet Union without Comintern approval, he formed an organization called the CP (Majority Group) that, despite its name, only gathered 200 members out of the nearly 10,000 in the CP at the time. Lovestone played a minor role as an unrepentant opportunist in the class struggles of the 1930s. While few joined with Lovestone, the corrosive effects of factionalism, with Lovestone heralded one minute as a great leader and knocked down the next by the Comintern, did lead to some disenchantment, with 2,000 members leaving the CP in the year after Lovestone’s fall.112
Prior to the Comintern’s forceful intervention of Spring 1929, organized Trotskyism had reared its head on the American scene. James Cannon, a CP leader associated with Foster and labor organizing, left the Comintern’s Sixth Congress a dedicated Trotskyite, was soon expelled from the CP for trying to spread Trotskyism in its ranks, and then began a publication called The Militant (which has long been jokingly dragged as “The Hesitant”). He went on to form the Socialist Workers Party, a dogmatic Trotskyite organization that continued to be obsessed with the “basic industries” (in their words, the “four key industries”) well into the 2000s despite never making any headway among the workers in them. Unfortunately, the Socialist Workers Party’s publishing house, Pathfinder Press, managed to gain the publishing rights to Malcolm X’s speeches and writings despite the obvious discord between Malcolm X’s politics and Trotskyism of any variety. Some other CPers found their way to Trotskyism, and though for most of them, Trotsky’s politics and methods appealed to their own ingrained opportunism, legitimate criticisms of conservatism on the part of the CP at times also fed into the scourge of Trotskyism. That would be the most charitable explanation we can give for Albert Weisbord’s conversion to Trotskyism in the 1930s; he had been deeply critical of Lovestone’s leadership and was frustrated that a considerable number of Lovestone’s factional allies remained in CP leadership after the Spring of 1929.113
* * *
The story of factionalist intrigue outlined above drives home the most essential lesson to take from the 1920s history of the CPUSA: organized factions and the factionalist mentality have absolutely no place in a communist vanguard if it is to fulfill its responsibility to make revolution. Lenin was entirely correct to ban factions from the Bolshevik Party after the Russian Revolution and should have done so sooner, and Mao was right to insist that members of a communist party continually ideologically remold themselves through repeated struggle against bourgeois ideology, including the factionalist mentality. Principled debate and line struggle are not only necessary, but are the lifeblood of a communist vanguard, but such debate and line struggle must take place through the organizational structure of democratic centralism, not through organized factions or serving factionalist intrigue.
Owing to factionalism, careerism, and the failure to thoroughly ideologically remold its members as communists, the CP failed to produce a visionary, strategically far-sighted, and tactically adept revolutionary leadership or make any substantial strategic advances in its first decade of existence. It was the prestige of, and class love for, the Soviet Union and the Comintern among CP members and supporters and the overall correct leadership of the Comintern, rather than a truly revolutionary leadership within the CP, that prevented a large exodus from the Party to Trotskyism or the Lovestone faction and that kept the CP from going decisively down the revisionist road or organizationally imploding. Some practical experience was gained and some comrades were steeled as dedicated revolutionaries during the CP’s first decade of existence, but no coherent strategy for revolution in the US was forged to guide the CP’s work.
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 between 1928 and 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 Communist 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’s Sixth Congress 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.
A procedural note concerning the relationship between content and form is in order before moving to the fun stuff. Up until this point, we have written a mostly chronological summation of the CP. In summing up the CP from 1928 through the 1930s, however, we can no longer stick to a more strictly chronological approach given the sheer breadth of the CP’s activity during the “red decade” and our desire to pull out the essential political lessons for today’s communists. We still find it appropriate to divide the CP’s history into periods (1928–33, 1933–35, etc.) defined by key political developments, with the Comintern’s 1928 Sixth Congress and the CP’s July 1933 Extraordinary Party Conference as the beginning and end of the period we are now addressing. However, we are less interested in calendar dates than we are in political developments, and to that end, at times the political developments we trace in this and the next section (on the period 1933–35) will break out of the confines of our calendar periodizations (just like the factionalism thread central to 1925–28 was not properly laid to rest until 1929).
Furthermore, we will be tracing a few central political threads that overlap, so this section and the next will proceed less chronologically than previous sections of our summation. From the perspective of CP history, the three main threads analyzed in this section overlap in time but most logically proceed in the following order: labor struggles, organizing the militant movement of the unemployed, and building resistance to the oppression of Black people. However, since these threads are intertwined, we will be weaving connections between them throughout this section, with a fuller treatment of the Black national question coming after addressing labor struggles and unemployed militancy.
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.114
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 of 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.115 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.116
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. Those forces were reticent to step into sharp class struggles among the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat that did not have good prospects for victory. 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.”117
The first great Communist intervention in a strike of this period was among textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina. The CP had 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, but its attempts to create a rolling strike wave—spreading the strike to other nearby textile mills—were 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 7th incident.118
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 in Gastonia gained national notoriety, with the the harsh repression of the strike exposed in the ILD’s 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.119
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.”120 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.121 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.122
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 militants among 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. According to historian Harvey Klehr, through the course of the strike, 25,000 miners were recruited into the National Miners Union and 1,000 into the Party, but retention proved difficult with the failure to win practical 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 revolutionary leadership out of firm principle, but the broader layer of intermediate swept up under revolutionary leadership during the high tide of mass struggle are unlikely to stay unless that leadership 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.123
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, thereby maximizing the impact of militant strikes on society broadly regardless of the outcome of the strikes themselves. It did so through the weapon of exposure and by enlisting elements from the progressive petty-bourgeoisie as public supporters and publicizers of strikes. 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 Mine 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 of them 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.124 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.125
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.126
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.127 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 contributed to the failure of the strike despite the mass support and militancy of the workers.128 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.129 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 fields 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 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.130
Realizing the revolutionary potential of the reserve army of labor (the unemployed)
While the exploitation of employed proletarians intensified with the crisis of the global capitalist system commonly called the Great Depression, the plight of the unemployed generated an even sharper class antagonism during this period. The workings of capitalism require a reserve army of labor, a surplus population that can be added to the labor force in periods when capital can profitably exploit their labor power, to be discarded from the production process when capital has no use for them. For this reason, the reserve army of labor holds great revolutionary potential as a segment of the proletariat that exemplifies the state of dispossession that is a defining feature of the proletariat as a whole, whose desperate life conditions make it potentially more amenable than other sections of the proletariat to revolutionary solutions.131 The early 1930s saw a vast expansion of the reserve army of labor in the US, with five million unemployed in March 1930 (a tenfold increase over the previous year) and reaching a peak of fifteen million unemployed in March 1933. At the onset of the Great Depression, the US bourgeoisie had yet to create a public relief system for the unemployed, giving this section of the masses no means of survival or redress. The CP correctly summed up that the struggle of the unemployed was “the tactical key to the present state of class struggle.”132
The CP dove into mobilizing the unemployed in class struggle, and the Comintern provided shape and direction to these efforts with a call for an “International Unemployment Day” of protests on March 6, 1930. The March 6 unemployed protests proved to be the largest and most combative single day of action ever organized by Communists in the US, tapping into a growing reservoir of discontent among the proletariat that no other political force dared to unleash. The Party threw everything it could into mobilizing for these protests, distributing one million leaflets and conducting street agitation anywhere the unemployed gathered. According to CP publications, over one million people participated in the March 6 protests nationwide, with over 100,000 in New York and Detroit, tens of thousands on the streets in Chicago, Boston, and Milwaukee, and thousands in other cities. Even if these numbers are inflated, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of unemployed proletarians responded to the CP’s call for protests on March 6. One indication of just how much the International Unemployment Day of protests resonated with the masses is that in Flint, Michigan, where the CP only had 22 members at the time, 15,000 people came out to the protest.133
Alongside the impressive quantitative results was the quality of the protests. In cities across the country, CP members in a sea of unemployed proletarians took to the streets and fought the police. The New York protest was perhaps the most violent, with the crowd marching down Broadway Avenue towards City Hall from the initial rally at Union Square despite negotiations with the police for a march permit failing. Police attacked protesters along the march route and protesters fought back, leading to over 100 injured. Far from a routine register of dissent, the determination to deliver demands to the seat of power resulted in the arrest of several Party leaders in front of City Hall, which had been militarized to prevent the protesters from getting inside. Party leaders William Foster, Robert Minor, and Israel Amter spent six months imprisoned for leading the protest. Police mobilizations were intense beyond New York, with all 3,600 cops in Detroit deployed that day and provoking two hours of street fighting. March 6 protests in the industrial cities of Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Boston as well as the nation’s capital turned into violent street clashes, and in Los Angeles, Japanese comrades who had martial arts training used their fighting skills against the police.134
In addition to the combative character of the protests in the face of police repression, the unity of proletarians of different nationalities was also a great qualitative strength of March 6. On that day, Black and white proletarians rioted together, in stark contrast to the “race riots” that occurred in cities across the country in the years after World War I in which mobs of white people violently attacked Black neighborhoods.135 Black protesters in New York were told to “go back to Harlem” by police, but defied white supremacist stereotypes of Black docility with daring militancy. In the South, mobilizations of the unemployed demanding relief from the government at times brought Black and white proletarians together in public manifestations, deeply significant given how white supremacy and segregation were embedded into the social structures of the South.136
Much as the CP deserves great credit for the outpouring on March 6, 1930, its initial summations of the day of protest reveal a failure to distinguish between a mass movement and developing the subjective forces for revolution, and, on a deeper level, a view of revolution as a spontaneous uprising generated by capitalist crisis rather than a consciously organized act of war that seizes on opportunities created by crisis.137 Party leader William Weinstone called March 6 “a historical turning point in the revolutionary development of the American proletariat” that “signalizes the birth of the mass Communist Party in the United States.” The Daily Worker declared that with the actions of March 6, “fully a million and a quarter of the American working class now follow [the CP’s] leadership.” Despite these proclamations, few joined the Party after March 6 and attendance at CP-led May Day rallies less than two months later paled in comparison to the turnout on March 6.138
A more accurate assessment of March 6, 1930 would be that large numbers of masses were willing to move in combative ways to protest their loss of jobs and plunge into poverty, and were willing to respond to the CP’s call for action in the absence of any other leadership seeking to mobilize their discontent. Winning them over to the Party’s overall leadership and revolutionary objectives required deeper and more protracted ideological, political, and organizational work. It was correct to declare March 6 as a qualitative step forward in the class struggle, but the Party was “dizzy with success” (to borrow a phrase from Stalin) and unprepared to seize on its success owing to its worship of spontaneity.
Nevertheless, a mass movement of the unemployed, demanding government-funded relief and taking matters into its own hands to provide the masses with basic necessities, developed under Communist leadership in the wake of the March 6 protests. 1,120 delegates attended a National Unemployment Convention in Chicago in July, 1930. Unemployed Councils under Party leadership developed in cities across the country, holding large mass meetings and drawing in tens of thousands of members nationwide, even if they depended on Party cadre as their organizational backbone. Local chapters of the Unemployed Councils held militant protests at government offices to demand relief and, when people were evicted from their homes and their furniture dumped on the sidewalk, the Unemployed Councils moved them and their furniture back in and even sometimes posted signs taking responsibility for the act of defiance. As historian Fraser Ottanelli sums up, “Communist militants became experts in restoring disconnected gas and electricity with meter jumps.” The actions and organizational form of the Unemployed Councils embedded the CP into proletarian neighborhoods and, importantly, involved proletarian women to a greater extent than many of its other efforts.139 The correct combination of finding solutions for the problems of the masses outside of bourgeois law and order and demanding that bourgeois government provide relief for the masses helped establish revolutionary authority for the Party among the masses and made the Unemployment Councils real fighting organizations of the masses; particular examples of the Unemployed Councils in action will be explored below when we turn to summing up the Party’s work in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side.
The CP continued to lead national protests of the unemployed, with Hunger Marches involving thousands of people on Washington, DC in December of 1931 and 1932. These Hunger Marches brought specific demands for unemployment insurance and relief, along with a spirit of militancy and a little bit of lobbying in Congress, to the nation’s capital. They also defied segregation in DC and along the way, with white and Black proletarians refusing to abide by Jim Crow laws and social practices any place they went. Veterans played an important role at actions in the nation’s capital, demanding bonuses in order to survive, taking over and camping out in abandoned buildings in DC, and raising the slogan “We fought the last war for the capitalists; we will fight the next war for the workers.” These and other actions in DC provided avenues for the CP to make direct programmatic demands on bourgeois government; while their specific demands were not immediately met, the creation of social security, unemployment insurance, and other public welfare measures during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency beginning in 1933 was undoubtedly in part the result of the Communist-led movement of the unemployed.140
Local hunger marches and protests of the unemployed continued to turn into violent confrontations with the police. The sharpest example of this dynamic was the so-called Ford Massacre of March 7, 1932. When 3–5,000 embarked on a Hunger March “from Detroit to the River Rouge Ford plant in nearby Dearborn to present a list of demands to the company’s management,” including no foreclosures on ex-Ford workers’ homes, police fired on the protesters as they approached the Ford plant. Four were killed, including sixteen-year-old YCL district organizer Joe York. The martyrs of the Ford Massacre were given a proper Communist funeral, with red flags and posters of Lenin, and 30,000 people attended the funeral march, indicating the high level of mass support for the Communist-led movement of the unemployed.141
When CP leadership tried to understand why organizational consolidation lagged behind the impressive qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the mass movement of the unemployed under its leadership, it blamed the lack of concrete demands and, in their place, the imposition of revolutionary slogans.142 There is some truth to this assessment; dogmatic sloganeering was pervasive in the CP, and slogans that were not directly related to the unemployed movement, such as the “Defense of Chinese Soviets,” were at times superimposed on it.143 The Comintern consistently criticized the CP for abstract revolutionary slogans that did not allow room for winning partial reforms through the struggle of the masses, and also criticized the Party for not creating enough of its own relief efforts, such as soup kitchens.144 However, given the predilection of CP leaders for taking Comintern advice and using it to justify their own reformism, it is important to insist that the problem was the failure to connect the immediate needs and demands of the masses with larger revolutionary objectives, and in the process doing poorly at fighting for and realizing programmatic demands short of revolution and at carrying out all-around agitation and propaganda for revolution (not to be confused with making dogmatic declarations).
In other words, the problem was not the presence of revolutionary slogans unrelated to the immediate goals of the mass movement, but the failure to distinguish between two important roles the vanguard party must play within any mass movement under its leadership: (1) practically leading the mass movement through the twists and turns of the struggle, and (2) injecting revolutionary politics into the mass movement while not insisting on making those revolutionary politics the dividing line of the mass movement. Carrying out these two roles well and handling the (non-antagonistic but real) contradiction between them is the key to making advances in the expansion and consolidation of the subjective forces for revolution during and through a mass movement and achieving real victories in the practical class struggle, with those victories feeding into a revolutionary movement rather than reformist illusions. In the mass movement of the unemployed, the CP organized and led impressive mass actions involving large numbers of masses far out of proportion to its own members and supporters. This was not a problem in and of itself, but the CP’s failure to diminish this disparity between two different numbers (in communist parlance, resolve the contradiction) is a quantitative expression of the CP’s failures to make greater advances, through the mass movement, towards the goal of revolution.
* * *
CP interventions into the spontaneous struggles of working proletarians and the unemployed at the onset of the Great Depression cultivated a spirit of militant class struggle, with no shortage of violence, martyrs, and arrests. These interventions created favorable new conditions through struggle, demonstrated the potential power of the proletariat and, by drawing out and contending with fierce repression, exposed the nature of bourgeois rule as a class dictatorship over the masses. It is worth noting that the militant character of CP-led struggles during this period was not just confined to labor organizing or the unemployed movement, but extended to other spheres of political work, such as anti-imperialism.
For example, early on in the application of Comintern Third Period politics, the CP led a protest on December 14, 1929 in New York against US imperialist military intervention in Haiti. There was no attempt to keep this protest peaceful, with the 2,000 protesters violently clashing with hundreds of police outside the Federal Building and City Hall before marching to Union Square.145 This internationalist protest in support of the Haitian people against the actions of the US government demonstrated that, with Communist leadership, militancy was possible beyond actions that concerned the daily lives and immediate concerns of the masses.
Becoming a vanguard of the struggle for Black liberation by way of Comintern intervention
In addition to playing a vanguard role in the struggles of the most exploited sections of the working class and of the unemployed, in the early 1930s, the CP became a vanguard in the struggles of Black people against their oppression in both the North and the South. The latter especially but also the former represented a leap forward in the CP’s relationship to the masses of Black people and commitment to fighting against the rule of white supremacy, for prior to the early 1930s it had virtually no organizing efforts among Black people in the South and little organized strength among Black people in the North. Practical advances in becoming a vanguard in the struggle for Black liberation rested on ruptures with previous political lines and the development of a revolutionary line on the Black national question. Not surprisingly, the credit for this rupture and development rests largely with the leadership of the Comintern and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union rather than the leadership of the CPUSA.
From the beginnings of the US Communist movement, Comintern and Soviet leadership had prodded US Communists to develop a stronger analysis of the social position and revolutionary potential of Black people and a stronger practice among the Black masses. Lenin and Stalin made theoretical breakthroughs in communist theory on the “national and colonial question,” clearly identifying the struggle of colonies and oppressed nations against imperialism and oppressor nations as an engine of communist revolution and firmly siding with colonies and oppressed nations in their struggles, including and up to their right to self-determination, while arguing for the goal of communism and the creation of (multinational) socialist states as the best vehicle towards achieving that goal.146 In addition to Lenin and Stalin as individuals, comrades in the Comintern assigned to address the challenges of the US Communist movement sought to apply these theoretical breakthroughs to analyze the position of Black people in the US, whereas CP leaders failed to recognize the great gift that these theoretical breakthroughs were to forging a revolutionary strategy in the US. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union as a multinational socialist state, with robust policies aimed at ending the various forms of national oppression that had been central to the Russian empire, was an inspiration to oppressed people all over the world, including Black people in the US.
Since the Comintern’s efforts to struggle for a revolutionary position on the Black national question continued to fall on deaf ears in CP leadership, it moved to decisively settle the question leading up to, during, and following the Comintern’s 1928 Sixth Congress. Charles Nasanov, a Siberian comrade who had spent time in the US in the mid-1920s, worked with Harry Haywood, a young Black comrade from the US who had come to Moscow for political education and training and wound up at the Lenin School, to draft a thesis on the Black national question that applied Lenin’s and Stalin’s theories on oppressed nations to the conditions of Black people in the US. Their draft thesis was debated in Comintern meetings, in particular in the Anglo-American Secretariat’s Negro Commission under the leadership of Petrovsky (Dr. Max Goldfarb) and the Colonial Commission’s Negro Subcommission under the leadership of Otto Kuusinen.147
US delegates were part of these discussions, and there was substantial debate over whether the oppression of Black people is a national question or a race question. For communists, race is not a particularly useful category of analysis, since it either implies a biological, rather than a social, category, or makes social attitudes (racism) principal over social and production relations.148 Black comrades who were part of these discussions all expressed frustration with the state of the CP’s work among the Black masses and with white chauvinism within the CP. But with the exception of Haywood, they tended to argue that the social position of Black people in the US was a “race question” and rejected the central innovation in the Comintern’s emerging thesis on the Black national question, namely that Black people were an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination in the Black Belt region of the South (explained more fully below). The CP’s lack of intimate knowledge about and organization in the South greatly hindered its ability to unite with this innovation. In addition, the final factional battles that resulted in Lovestone’s expulsion were raging in the CP leadership at this time and entered into debates at the Comintern on the Black national question, resulting in factionalist attempts to outdo one another in support for the Comintern’s line—Pepper argued for a “Black Soviet Republic” in the South, missing the self-determination in right of self-determination.149
Leaving aside for a moment the details of the process, the individuals involved, the contours of the debate, and the factionalist intrigue, which are not particularly important to us, the result was two resolutions “on the Negro question in the United States” (in the language of the day) signed by the Executive Committee of the Comintern in 1928 and 1930, with the second resolution seeking to clarify confusion and correct misinterpretations as well as strengthen the overall line of the first resolution. From here forward, we will refer to these resolutions jointly as the Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question and abbreviate them as the Comintern BNQ Resolutions. With these Resolutions, thanks to the Comintern, the US Communist movement finally had a correct, revolutionary line on the Black national question, with a clear analysis of the social position of Black people in the US and a basic program and strategy for how to end the oppression of Black people.
Returning one last time to individuals and process: While Haywood certainly contributed to the process that resulted in the Comintern’s BNQ Resolutions and played an important role arguing for their line within the CP, he tended to treat the line dogmatically, clinging on to its particular analysis decades later when there were no longer Black sharecroppers in the South. Back in the US and moved up the ladder into CP leadership in the early 1930s, Haywood developed a reputation for dogmatism and for an inability to translate theory into practical leadership of the class struggle.150 The purpose of our summation is not to obsess over which individuals played exactly what role in any given CP endeavor, though we do believe in giving credit where credit is due. Given the widespread careerism within the CP’s leading levels, we must take firsthand accounts of CP history, such as Haywood’s, with some skepticism. The important conclusion we can reach about the development of the Black Belt thesis and the Comintern’s BNQ Resolutions is that the impetus, theoretical tools, and much of the analysis behind them came from Comintern and Soviet leadership, with the CPUSA having failed to develop any leaders capable of arriving at a correct analysis of and strategy in relation to the Black national question, without which communist revolution in the US is impossible.151
So what was the content of the Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question? Central to them was the recognition of two dynamics shaping the social position of the oppressed Black nation in the US: (1) Many Black people were becoming proletarians, and those Black proletarians could play a revolutionary leadership role in the struggle of the Black nation as a whole for its liberation and an important role within the multinational proletariat’s revolutionary struggle to establish socialism. Alongside and intersecting with this proletarianization of large numbers of Black people was the growth of the Black population in the North, where Black people constituted a national minority subjected to discrimination and other forms of national oppression in addition to exploitation in the labor process. (2) In the South, where most of the Black population lived at the time, Black people constituted an oppressed nation, with the majority of them exploited in semi-feudal conditions that resembled slavery, working as sharecroppers or otherwise exploited on white-owned agrarian estates (plantations). Moreover, a social order of white supremacy, using Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching, forced chain gangs, denial of democratic rights, and state violence, was imposed on all Black people in the South.
Flowing from this analysis, the Comintern Resolutions put forward a twofold revolutionary resolution to the Black national question: (1) Complete social and political equality for Black people in the US. (2) The right to self-determination in the Black Belt region of the US South. The latter, and the analysis on which it rests, has come to be called the Black Belt thesis. (The Black Belt region gets its name from the color of its fertile soil, and stretches across multiple Southern states. At the time of the creation of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions, nearly half of the Black population in the US lived in the Black Belt region.152) The Comintern BNQ Resolutions made clear that the struggle of Black people in the North and the South was intrinsically linked, and Black people in the North could not achieve liberation unless Black people in the South also did. While the demand for complete social and political equality addressed the conditions of Black people in the North and applied to Black people in the South, the particular conditions of Black people in the South required the additional need for the right to self-determination.
Why this additional need in the South and why self-determination in the Black Belt? The Comintern BNQ Resolutions argued that to end the oppression of Black people in the South at the time, an agrarian revolution needed to be carried out in which the land of the white-owned agrarian estates (known in US popular consciousness as (cotton) plantations) would be seized and put in the hands of the masses of Black people. Furthermore, the social order of white supremacy needed to be overthrown, and political power in the Black Belt, which had a majority-Black population at the time, needed to be placed in the hands of Black people (hence the right to self-determination). This could mean, but did not necessarily require, forming a separate state that seceded from the political territory of the US. In any event, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions recognized that state boundaries in the US South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, etc.) were drawn in large part to boost the political power of whites over the Black population, and that cohering the Black Belt region into a political territory, whether as a separate state or within a larger political entity but either way exercising the right to self-determination with the masses of Black people in power, was necessary to break the rule of white supremacy. This last point was a rather prescient analysis by the Comintern given that the boundaries of individual states in the US South continue to play the role of weakening Black political power and strengthening the rule of white supremacy, as can be seen in electoral outcomes down to today.
The 1930 Comintern BNQ Resolution clarified that the Black nation in the Black Belt South was not a colony, as its economic and social life was (and is) part of the larger US, not separated like a colony is from an imperialist country. Drawing on Lenin’s and Stalin’s views, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions considered the most favorable resolution to the Black national question in the South not as secession and the creation of a separate state, but as self-determination in the Black Belt South within a larger socialist state. Even with that goal, the Resolutions made clear that the right of Black people to form a separate state entity in the Black Belt South if they so desired must be honored by a future socialist state.
Where there is perhaps some ambiguity in the Comintern BNQ Resolutions concerns the possibility of the right to self-determination for Black people in the South being achieved short of the overthrow of the US bourgeoisie as a whole. The Comintern BNQ Resolutions seem to suggest that possibility based on a deepening crisis that would provoke a national uprising (of the oppressed Black nation) in the Black Belt region. This ambiguity, and the way the Comintern BNQ Resolutions bow to spontaneity by painting a picture of capitalist crisis giving rise to a successful uprising, rather than a consciously organized war for national liberation, gave ground to dogmatic and incorrect interpretations of the Black Belt thesis within the CPUSA. The Party popularized the slogan “the right to self-determination in the Black Belt” without articulating a concrete strategy for how it could be achieved, so the slogan predictably failed to resonate with the masses given the conditions of extreme repression under the social order of white supremacy in the South—conditions which would have made it difficult to imagine how self-determination could be achieved absent a plan for violently overthrowing that social order (in other words, a second civil war to finish what the first one started).153
Nevertheless, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions made clear that the right of self-determination was not just a propaganda slogan, but a slogan of action, and gave some programmatic ideas for making it so. The Resolutions insisted on the importance of taking up any and all struggles against manifestations of the national oppression of Black people, from lynching to discrimination, as these struggles could feed into a national revolutionary movement. The Resolutions demanded that the CP establish robust political work in the South, including setting up a district headquarters there (in other words, develop solid Party organization with a regional leadership structure) and organizing the masses of Black people who were exploited in semi-feudal conditions. The Resolutions also made clear that struggles against the oppression of Black people must not be consigned to a particular sphere of the CP’s work, but must permeate through all its work, and that white proletarians must be struggled with to become resolute fighters against the oppression of Black people. And the Comintern BNQ Resolutions demanded a thorough purge of white chauvinism from the CP’s ranks.
The Comintern BNQ Resolutions viewed the growing number of Black proletarians as the leading force in the struggle for Black liberation, capable of asserting the class interests of the proletariat within the larger national movement of Black people.154 The Resolutions emphasized the importance of organizing Black proletarians into unions, including all-Black unions if white unions refused them, while favoring multinational unions. The idea of all-Black unions when necessary was controversial with some US Communist labor organizers, such as Foster, who had resisted the necessity for all-Black unions in the name of working-class unity (even as Foster and others fought against discrimination within the labor movement). The Comintern BNQ Resolutions also recognized the particular responsibility of Black proletarians, and of the CP, to struggle against petty-bourgeois nationalism and reformism among Black people and fight for the revolutionary class outlook and interests of the proletariat. While emphasizing the importance of Black proletarians, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions did not take an economist position—they articulated the struggle of Black people as a national struggle, and insisted on the revolutionary potential of Black sharecroppers in the South in opposition to CP leadership’s habit of either ignoring or denying that revolutionary potential.
In hindsight, if there is one substantial weakness of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions in addition to the previously mentioned lack of clarity on what it would take to win the right to self-determination, it is the lack of attention to the Great Migration then underway. At the time the Comintern BNQ Resolutions were written, the Black nation was a nation in transition, with increasing portions of the Black population leaving the agrarian South, and the mechanization of agriculture gradually bringing an end to semi-feudal conditions in the South and, in the process, eliminating sharecroppers as a class. That transition, especially the proletarianization of growing numbers of Black people and the demographic shift of Black populations to ghettos in the North, required greater attention and strategic thinking from US Communists. The Comintern BNQ Resolutions certainly recognized crucial aspects of this transition, but perhaps not its full magnitude. Nevertheless, for that particular historical moment and given the prevailing weaknesses within CP leadership, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions were correct to draw attention to and theorize the semi-feudal conditions then prevailing in the agrarian South and the role of agrarian revolution in the struggle for Black liberation.
It cannot be overstated what a great leap forward the Comintern’s 1928 and 1930 Resolutions on the Black National Question were for the US Communist movement. Finally, there was an overwhelmingly correct analysis, from a thoroughly communist perspective, of the oppressed position of Black people in the US and a basic program and strategy outlining a revolutionary resolution to the Black national question. Any weaknesses in the Comintern BNQ Resolutions are quite secondary to their analytical power and potential for guiding revolutionary struggle. They constitute the first great foundation of a communist understanding of the Black national question in the US.
Much has changed since 1928–30, especially in the US South, and we will take up what that means for the Black Belt thesis in our summation of the Sixties. Some of the terminology in the Comintern BNQ Resolutions, which comes from Lenin’s and Stalin’s writings, does not apply so well to conditions in the US. In particular, the idea of Black people constituting an oppressed national minority in the North does not fully and correctly describe the position and oppression of Black people in the North, back then or today. Subsequent generations of communists in the US have adopted the term nation of a new type, which better describes the position of Black people in the North back then, and throughout the US today. As we must always keep in mind when trying to understand any social formation, the question to ask is not whether or how it fits into pre-existing categories, but how to understand its particular features and dynamics (or, in communist parlance, contradictions). After we make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, we can decide what category labels are helpful to understanding a particular social formation, keeping in mind the devil is in the details, not the descriptor. Black people in the US have a history and present-day reality quite different from virtually all other nations, and the particularity of that history and reality are what we communists must strive to understand if we aim to make revolution and end the oppression of Black people. Fortunately, the Comintern provided us with a a solid foundation towards that end to build on.
Rectification and transformation
The Comintern’s 1928 Resolution on the Black National Question was published in the Daily Worker in February 1929, making clear to members and followers of the CP, as well as to the masses broadly, what analysis, line, and program on the Black national question were in command over the CP. The adoption of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions was no mere theoretical matter for the CP; it was the ground on which radical transformations took place within the CP and in its practice as a whole. With a revolutionary line on the Black national question, the CP entered into and played a leadership role in the key struggles of Black people in the early 1930s, from the fight against lynching in the South (including “legal lynching,” as concentrated in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys) to battles against eviction in Black proletarian neighborhoods. It sent cadre to the South to directly contend with the social order of white supremacy and led the violent struggle of Black sharecroppers in Alabama against the white-owned agrarian estates that exploited them. These struggles, and the CP’s organizational growth in Alabama, Harlem, and Chicago’s South Side, will be given their due attention below. Entering into these struggles and rooting the Party among Black proletarians and sharecroppers required a reconfiguration of human resources, with scores of CP cadre reassigned and relocated, something only possible with the democratic centralist organizational structure of a communist party.
The politics of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions permeated through all of the Party’s public work. One telling example is the CP’s presidential ticket in the 1932 election, which put James Ford, a Black comrade in CP leadership, up for vice president alongside William Foster for president. This presidential campaign incorporated the two planks of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions in its platform—complete equality for Black people and self-determination in the Black Belt—and also raised the slogan “death penalty for lynchers” in its campaign material.155 Between that last slogan and putting a Black Communist up for vice president, the CP’s 1932 presidential campaign is surely the best presidential campaign in US history, leaving aside the CP’s own at best confused approach to electoral activity (its 1932 presidential campaign was on the better end in that respect, treated more as a propaganda effort than an electoral bid).
Since the American Negro Labor Congress had never become a strong organizational vehicle in the struggles against the oppression of Black people and was, by 1929, barely functioning as an organization, the CP created a new Party-led organization—the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR)—in 1930. The LSNR never became a substantial organization numerically or politically, with the International Labor Defense and other organizational forms proving to be stronger vehicles for Communist interventions in the struggles for equality and democratic rights for Black people and against lynching.156 Nevertheless, the name of the LSNR articulates a rupture with economism in comparison to the name of the American Negro Labor Congress, which articulated a view of the Black national question as essentially a labor question (how CP leaders tended to view it in the mid-1920s).
In addition to taking up political work and developing organizational vehicles focused on fighting the oppression of Black people, the Black national question got particular attention in most, if not all, spheres of the Party’s work. For example, Communist-led unions developed (in the language of the day) “Negro departments” to address discrimination and the particular struggles of Black workers, and the Party’s central Negro Department played a greater role within the Party.157
Becoming a vanguard in the Black liberation struggle required the CP to make substantial internal changes, carry out a political education campaign among its membership and followers, and undergo serious rectification through ideological struggle and some expulsions. Black comrades were promoted as leaders inside the Party and as mass leaders in the Party’s public work. On the former, four Black comrades—Cyril Briggs, Otto Hall, Otto Huiswoud, and John Henry—joined the CP’s Central Committee at the Party’s 1929 Convention; no Black comrades had been in the Party’s top leadership prior to 1929.158 On the latter, in addition to James Ford as a prominent public Communist and as the Party’s 1932 vice-presidential candidate, William Patterson became the national secretary of the International Labor Defense and Henry Winston served as a national leader of the Young Communist League.159 Cyril Briggs and Richard Moore were brought back into leading positions in the Harlem branch of the Party, and given more prominence as a writer and speaker, respectively.160 Serious efforts were made to recruit more Black members into the CP, including a national tour by Black comrade Otto Hall in 1929 that netted 300 membership applications. The CP went from having at most 200 Black members in 1929 to “around 1,000 at the end of 1931.” Though a significant step forward, the Party’s Black membership remained too small a percentage of its overall membership and varied widely by geographic location; in Chicago, Party membership was 24% Black in 1931, whereas in New York at the time, it was only 3%.161
Recruiting more Black members and elevating Black comrades into leadership positions, however, did not remedy ideological problems on the Black national question among white comrades, whether those problems entailed lack of attention to and understanding of the oppression of Black people or outright white chauvinism. The CP held, at Briggs’s suggestion, a National Negro Week in May 1929 during which time Party members were to discuss the Black national question and carry out actions against white supremacy, such as picketing stores and restaurants that did not allow, or segregated, Black clientele. CP publications began to pay far more attention to the Black national question, popularizing the revolutionary Black tradition, educating readers in Black history, and exposing and analyzing the contemporary oppression of Black people.162
But purging white chauvinism from the Party required more than just political education. CP members who espoused white supremacist ideology and/or who opposed integrating Party social events were expelled from the Party after the adoption of the Comintern’s BNQ Resolutions, with Otto Hall sent around the country to oversee expulsions for white chauvinism. CP members who failed to come to the defense of Black comrades or Black masses in the face of white supremacist violence and the enforcement of segregation were sharply criticized, with the insistence that they demonstrate transformation. The fact that there even were Party members in need of expulsion is a great stain on the CP’s first decade of existence, and is indicative of both the low ideological standards in the Party in general and the Party’s failure to take a strong ideological stand against white supremacy and the oppression of Black people in particular. Besides blatant white chauvinism, the attitude and practice of blunting the struggle against white supremacy in the name of advancing the class struggle or promoting working-class unity also came in for sharp criticism.163
Combating white chauvinism extended to the culture of the CP and its organizing efforts among white workers. On the former, the CP cultivated a culture and social life of integration among its members and followers, with the interracial dance—a radical act in the 1930s US—becoming an important form cultivated by the CP and the YCL. On the latter, one exemplary effort at challenging white chauvinism among white workers took place within the Communist-led National Textile Workers Union in Greenville, South Carolina. When two Black workers wanted to join the union local of 700 whites, only the two Party members in the union were immediately willing to accept them. So the Communist union leader postponed the vote on admitting the two Black workers into the union, visited white union members at their homes and struggled with them on the importance of accepting Black union members, and won enough of them over to hold a union vote accepting the two Black workers as union members.164 Not all struggles against white chauvinism among white workers went this well, and the CP faced challenges in its union organizing efforts, especially in the South, due to its firm stand against white chauvinism, but it was entirely correct to sacrifice gains in union membership in favor of firmly combating white supremacy.
One final note is in order about the campaign to purge white chauvinism from the CP. Under the ideological reign of postmodernism, it has become common, among US Leftists, to place the struggle against white chauvinism as it manifests in individuals over and above the political struggle to end the oppression of Black people. The Comintern’s BNQ Resolutions were crystal clear that white chauvinist attitudes and actions on the part of white individuals flowed from and were generated and perpetuated by the overall system of white supremacy presided over by the US bourgeoisie. The Comintern’s 1928 and 1930 resolutions on the BNQ called for a resolute struggle against white chauvinism within and outside of the Party, but it was the development of a revolutionary line on the Black national question that made it possible to purge white chauvinism from the Party, which in turn put the Party on a solid footing to carry out that revolutionary line. The conclusion we must draw from this experience is that in a communist party, a revolutionary line, when in command, is the dynamic and transformative force from which individual transformation flows and revolutionary practice emerges, and attempts to purify individuals, without a revolutionary line aimed at transforming the world, are doomed to fail, and will misdirect the vanguard’s attention to individual behavior and thinking rather than collective revolutionary practice. While the CP was not purified of all traces of white chauvinism after the Comintern BNQ Resolutions, the work of political education and ideological rectification, the experience of joining practical struggles, and, yes, some expulsions resulted in a considerable leap forward in purging white chauvinism from the Party’s ranks.
The overall picture that emerges of the CP at the dawn of the 1930s is a Party radically transformed by the Comintern’s BNQ Resolutions. The Party was recruiting more Black members and developing Black leaders; purging white chauvinism from its ranks and setting a standard of opposition to segregation and white chauvinism more broadly; intervening in and organizing struggles against the oppression of Black people and redeploying cadre and developing organizational forms towards that end; and finally making serious moves into the struggles of Black people in the South. If there was one single event that signaled the CP’s transformation into a vanguard in the struggle for Black liberation, it was the show trial of August Yokinen.
Some show trials are a good idea
Immigrant “white ethnics” were a large portion of the proletariat in the US in the 1920s and 30s, and though they generally occupied subordinate positions within the white oppressor nation, which at that time was stratified with “Anglo-Saxons” at the top, many of them took up the ideology of white supremacy to varying degrees. Furthermore, within the competition over jobs and neighborhoods among different “ethnicities” and nationalities, white supremacist attitudes and violence against Black people were introduced and buttressed among immigrant “white ethnics.” From its origins until at least the early 1930s, the majority of the CP’s membership and supporters were immigrant proletarian “white ethnics.” Because of the low ideological standards and lack of a consistent firm stand against the oppression of Black people in the CP during the 1920s, white supremacist ideology and oppressive practices towards Black people were present in some of its “white ethnic” members and in the various immigrant workers clubs in which they carried out political work and found their social and cultural homes. And that is the backdrop behind the incident that led to the show trial of Finnish immigrant and CP member August Yokinen for white chauvinism.165
One evening at the Finnish Workers’ Club in Harlem in December 1930, a small group of Black people who showed up to a social event there were told by the janitor of the club, Yokinen, that their place was in Black Harlem, not the Finnish Workers’ Club. Subsequently, Yokinen explained to a Party comrade that he could not let the Black guests in because then they might use the sauna together with whites. After the Comintern BNQ Resolutions, Yokinen’s actions and white supremacist attitude would not be tolerated in the Party. When the Finnish Workers Club incident and what to do with Yokinen was discussed by a few comrades in national leadership, Party leader Clarence Hathaway got the brilliant idea to hold a public show trial.
On March 1, 1931, 2,000 people packed into the Harlem Casino to observe Yokinen’s trial for white chauvinism. Clarence Hathaway, a white comrade, acted as prosecutor; Richard Moore, a Black comrade, acted as defense attorney; and a fourteen-person workers’ jury evenly split between Black and white members was given the responsibility of determining a verdict. Moore’s defense did not justify Yokinen’s actions, but put the larger blame on the capitalist-imperialist system and asked that Yokinen be given a chance to repudiate white chauvinism and transform, as being expelled from the Communist Party would be the worst fate imaginable. The jury ruled to expel Yokinen from the Party, but held out the possibility that he “could be readmitted if he fought racism in the Finnish Workers’ Club, joined the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, sold the Liberator on Harlem street corners, and led a demonstration against a local Jim Crow restaurant.”166 To Yokinen’s credit, he went along with the show trial in the communist spirit of criticism / self-criticism and ideological transformation, and tried to carry out the conditions imposed on him by the jury. Unfortunately, the show trial brought Yokinen to the attention of immigration authorities, and Yokinen was arrested two days after it and eventually deported (in January 1933). A National Solidarity Day was organized March 28, 1931 to bring Black and immigrant proletarians together against lynching and deportation.
The Yokinen show trial garnered substantial media attention, making the front page of the New York Times and being widely covered in the Black-owned press—not surprising considering how utterly against the grain it was in 1931 for a white person to be publicly punished for white chauvinism. More importantly, it was a way for the CP to take its internal rectification campaign against white chauvinism to the masses, and make a public statement about the standards the Party would hold its members to and the Party’s commitment to fighting the oppression of Black people. The masses, Black and white, had never seen anything like this before, and it dramatically increased respect for the CP among Black people. Putting Yokinen on trial put the Party in a position to step into the most important Black political struggles of the day, which it did shortly thereafter. It also made clear to the immigrant “white ethnics” in and around the CP that their workers’ clubs could not remain isolated from, or worse yet become reactionary bastions in opposition to, struggles against the oppression of Black people.
Before moving on to those struggles, a brief word is in order about the trend of public trials for white chauvinism in the CP that followed the Yokinen show trial. These trials were overdone, losing the dramatic effect that made the Yokinen trial a success, and sometimes degenerating into caricature. Moreover, public trials could be, and were, treated as shortcuts and substitutes for the deeper work of ongoing ideological struggle and political education that was necessary for real transformation, and fostered a focus on internal purity rather than the larger political struggle in society against the oppression of Black people. And given the internal culture of the CP, it would be no surprise if factionalist and careerist motives entered into the trend of public trials.167 Some show trials are a good idea, but only because they act as nodal points in advancing the larger struggle (in this case against white supremacy and the oppression of Black people). To borrow from Mao, the immediate goal of the Yokinen trial was to punish and transform Yokinen, but the larger objective was to transform world outlook in order to advance the struggle against white supremacy and the oppression of Black people.
Free the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon!
Whereas in the North and in urban ghettos, police brutality has been and remains the frontline repressive mechanism for keeping Black proletarians “in their place” on the lowest wrung of the class structure, in the South of the 1930s that role was played by lynching in particular and white-supremacist violence in general, enacted by white mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, and local agents of the repressive state apparatus. Throughout the century that followed the Civil War, at least thousands (and likely more) Black people were set on by white mobs, violently attacked, killed, and often hung from trees, with their mutilated bodies serving as warnings to the masses of Black people to “stay in their place.” Sometimes these lynchings were “justified” with false allegations that the lynched had raped a white woman or otherwise violated the sanctity of “white womanhood”; sometimes the targets of lynching were Black people who defied the social order of white supremacy; and at other times the victims of white supremacist terror were simply Black people chosen at random. While lynching did occur in the North to a lesser extent, it was deeply embedded in the fabric of the social order of the South, so much so that the white mobs carrying out lynchings took photos of themselves—smiling like it was a festive occasion—gathered around the mutilated corpses of their Black victims, and even used those photos as postcards.
As the CP put the Black national question at the center of its work and began to redeploy cadre to the South, the lynching of Black people become a central concern in its political work, exposed in Party-led publications and made the target of mass mobilizations. The International Labor Defense (ILD) became the principal organizational vehicle for Party-led anti-lynching efforts, holding an anti-lynching conference in December 1929, waging an anti-lynching propaganda campaign, and organizing a Sacco and Vanzetti Anti-Lynch Day on August 22, 1930, in which, according to the ILD, 150,000 people participated nationwide. As the ILD paid closer attention to lynching, it identified a growing shift in the South towards “legal lynching,” where instead of (or in addition to) the usual mob terror, Black people were brought up on false legal charges (often rape or murder), put through a trial in which prosecutors and judges unleashed a white supremacist mob mentality in the courtroom, and then sentenced to death (or life in prison, working on a chain gang, or some other punishment that resembled slavery). The perpetrators of legal lynching showed little concern for meeting legal standards of proof or allowing the accused to mount a proper legal defense.168 Legal lynching, which continues today in the frame-up and imprisonment of countless Black and other oppressed people, was, in the 1930s South, the murderous oppression of Black people fully sanctified and enacted by the repressive state apparatus. It avoided the messiness of mob violence while achieving the same result.
The ILD’s response to mob lynching was mass protest and demands that lynchers be punished, with the CP slogan “death to lynchers” powerfully concentrating the righteous anger of Black people and all those who stood with them. When it came to resisting legal lynching, the ILD emphasized mass mobilization to defend the accused politically and in the court of public opinion while also organizing lawyers to vigorously defend the accused in court against “Southern justice.” Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that (tepidly) fought against lynching in court, and for the political rights of Black people more generally, but from a thoroughly petty-bourgeois class perspective and with entirely reformist aims, the ILD brought the spirit of militant class struggle into the streets and the courtroom and insisted on relying on the conscious activism of the masses rather than the law to win victories. In the early 1930s, the ILD took up individual cases of legal lynching, sometimes winning victories but other times unable to prevail over the social order of white supremacy, as in the case of Euel Lee, a Black agricultural worker in Maryland who dared to demand his “rightful pay” from a white farm owner. Lee was framed for the 1931 murder of a white farmer and his two daughters, defended by ILD lawyers after the NAACP abandoned him, sentenced to death, and executed after the US Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. Even in the face of unfavorable odds, the ILD mounted a combative legal defense—in Lee’s case, ILD lawyer Bernard Ames was “suspended from practicing law” in Maryland for daring to challenge the functioning of white supremacy in the legal system—and mobilized mass resistance, with ILD organizers and members often taking arrests for their defiant acts of protest.169
When it came to legal lynching, the case of the Scottsboro Boys became the cause that concentrated the whole battle against the social order of white supremacy in the South and the Black struggle more generally in the 1930s. It ignited a nationwide mass movement that drew public attention, not only in the US but also internationally, to the oppression of Black people, and prevented the execution of nine Black boys and young men in the process. And it was the CP and the ILD that deserve the lion’s share of credit for initiating and leading the movement to stop the legal lynching of the Scottsboro Boys.
Less than a month after the CP’s show trial of August Yokinen had made clear before the masses that Communists must firmly stand with the masses of Black people or be expelled from the Party, a very different trial serving opposite ends took place within the bourgeois legal system. Beginning March 25, 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine Black teenagers, two of them only thirteen, were put on trial for supposedly raping two white women while riding a train through Alabama. Eight of the nine teenagers were convicted and sentenced to death, while a mistrial was declared for thirteen-year-old Roy Wright. The sham trials, with no physical evidence and a shoddy legal defense, were over over by April 9. The Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be called, had been “hoboing”—riding the trains in search of work, a common practice during the Great Depression—when they were arrested. The two white women they were convicted of raping, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, had not even been in the same train car as the boys, and Bates later recanted her story (in a letter published in the Daily Worker), said the police had pressured her, and joined the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys.170
The NAACP initially refused to take up the case of the Scottsboro Boys out of fear over the potential backlash that defending Black teenagers convicted of raping white women could provoke. Fortunately, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions and the CP’s internal rectification campaign, with the Yokinen show trial as a recent punctuation, had ideologically and politically prepared the CP to jump to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Furthermore, recent redeployments of CP cadre to take up political work in the South left it organizationally prepared as well. James Allen had just established the Southern Worker, the CP’s periodical for the South, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the ILD had sent Lowell Wakefield to Chattanooga to serve as its Southern organizer. When Allen and Wakefield heard about the Scottsboro trial, they immediately headed for Scottsboro and quickly assessed what was going on in the courtroom as a legal lynching. They published articles in the Daily Worker about the Scottsboro Boys beginning April 2, 1931, alerting CP followers to the plight of the nine Black teenagers before they had all been convicted.171
CP leadership quickly recognized the stakes of the legal lynching in Scottsboro, with the lives of nine teenagers hanging in the balance. The ILD organized timely protests against the convictions and death sentences, with 13,000 on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio on April 12 and 20,000 on the streets of New York the next day. A month later, at the initiative of Communists, conferences attempting to unite various political forces and the broad masses in a movement to defend the Scottsboro Boys took place in over forty cities.172 An important lesson to draw from this rapid response is that to mount a successful intervention, communists must move quickly and decisively, wielding the weapon of exposure so that the bourgeoisie cannot easily get away with its crimes against the masses. In this instance, rapid response was made possible by ideologically preparing the CP’s membership to take a firm stand against all instances of the oppression of Black people.
The urgency with which the CP acted was matched by methodical work to unite with the families of the Scottsboro Boys, mount strong legal appeals aimed at overturning the convictions, and further develop the mass movement. ILD organizers sought out and met with the families of the Scottsboro Boys, explaining how they saw the teenagers’ plight as part of the larger workings of white supremacy and the oppression of Black people and offering their ideas for how to defend them legally and politically. The Black proletarian women whose sons were facing execution were deeply impressed that a few white comrades were not only committed to standing up for their children, but also treated them with respect. By contrast, NAACP leaders treated the Scottsboro mothers with condescension bordering on contempt; the petty-bourgeois class outlook guiding the NAACP caused them to view the Black proletarian mothers of the Scottsboro Boys as ignorant dupes being misled by the Communists. Mamie Williams Wilcox, mother of Scottsboro Boy Eugene Williams, responded to the NAACP’s condescension by making clear that “We are not too ignorant to know a bunch of liars and fakers when we meet up with them”—needless to say, the liars and fakers she saw were the NAACP opportunists.173
The proletarian class standpoint guiding the ILD made it view the Scottsboro mothers as potential mass leaders who understood not only that their sons’ lives were at stake, but also that the fight for their sons’ lives was a concentration of the broader struggle against the oppression of Black people. Only a month after the trials started, Janice Patterson, mother of Scottsboro Boy Haywood Patterson, was speaking at a rally in Harlem on April 25. The mother of Scottsboro Boys Andrew and Roy Wright, Ada Wright, went on a speaking tour throughout Europe in 1932 to generate international support. “Free the Scottsboro Boys!” became an international rallying cry: a militant protest in Germany resulted in the death of one protester, and two famous German intellectuals, physicist Albert Einstein and novelist Thomas Mann, proclaimed their support for the Scottsboro Boys.174 In addition to speaking before mass audiences, Scottsboro mothers also quickly developed the ability to distinguish between the different political lines in the mass movement. At an NAACP event on June 28, 1931 in Harlem attended by over 3,000 people, NAACP leaders criticized the CP’s role in the movement for the Scottsboro Boys and refused to let ILD organizers speak. When Communists demanded they let Scottsboro mother Ada Wright speak, NAACP leaders brought the event to a quick conclusion and went to shake Wright’s hand. Not only did Wright shun the handshake in front of reporters, but she then went to a nearby ILD event and gave a speech polemicizing against the NAACP’s misleadership.175
Why, within the mass movement that erupted to defend the Scottaboro Boys, did a fierce battle develop so quickly between the NAACP and other liberal petty-bourgeois political forces, on the one hand, and the CP and the ILD, on the other? In the immediate sense, it was because the CP one-upped liberal petty-bourgeois forces, Black and white, by relying on the masses. The Party took the Scottsboro case to the masses with street corner agitation and published exposure; it organized mass protest rallies and brought forward Scottsboro mothers as political leaders. NAACP leaders were embarrassed—they were supposed to be the ones fighting against lynching, but here was a majority-white organization, the Communist Party, leading the most important battle against legal lynching of the decade. And they were threatened by the fact that Communists dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, not just a few legal reforms, were gaining a following among the Black masses. For this reason, the NAACP and other liberal petty-bourgeois forces felt compelled to step into the mass movement for the Scottsboro Boys, even as their initial (lack of) action would have left the Scottsboro Boys to die. What followed from NAACP opportunism was a back and forth over whose lawyers would represent the Scottsboro Boys, with the teenagers sitting in jail sometimes swayed by the NAACP but their mothers then convincing them to return to the ILD’s lawyers.176
A fuller account of the jockeying over legal defense is not our purpose here. Of more importance to us is how, on a deeper level, there was a profound difference between the ILD’s and the NAACP’s strategies to fight legal lynching. The NAACP believed in a respectable legal proceeding without the interference of a mass movement, staking the fate of the Scottsboro Boys on the beneficence of bourgeois law and bourgeois courts. The ILD, by contrast, insisted that a mass political movement was the principal means to free the Scottsboro Boys. Far from ignoring the battle in court, however, the ILD used every legal avenue available, and even turned to a constitutional lawyer who did not share the ILD’s politics when it came time to argue the case before the Supreme Court. Furthermore, ILD lawyers used court cases such as that of the Scottsboro Boys to raise deeper issues about the functioning of the legal system, such as the exclusion of Black people from juries, thereby challenging the legitimacy of bourgeois courts in ways that others, the NAACP included, would not.
Fundamentally, the ILD’s and the NAACP’s different strategic views flow from different understandings of the nature of (bourgeois) state power and the role and potential power of the masses, as opposed to erudite attorneys, in shaping history. For that reason, there was an irreconcilable antagonism between the CP’s leadership of the mass movement and the leadership of liberal petty-bourgeois forces such as the NAACP. As the 1930s wore on, the main mistake of the CP was conceding too much to these other political forces within the mass movement, which led to legal and political setbacks for the Scottsboro Boys. However, given that the mass movement quickly grew far beyond what the CP organized, it was necessary to apply a united front approach and even to tactically work with some opportunists. A lesson to take from this experience is that when a movement initiated by Communists (or other radicals) mushrooms into something involving the broad masses and becomes a national political question, a variety of political forces, including opportunists, will jump into that mass movement, attempt to wrench leadership of the mass movement away from Communists, and divert the masses back within the confines of bourgeois-democracy in order to preserve their position within the bourgeois order (and, by extension, preserve the bourgeois order itself). Us communists must develop great finesse at preventing reformist political forces, especially the most opportunist among them, from succeeding in their interventions into the mass movements we launch and lead.
What did the CP achieve by initiating and leading (in collaboration and competition with other political forces) the mass movement to defend the Scottsboro Boys? For starters, the mass movement saved the lives of the nine Black people subjected to a legal lynching in Scottsboro in 1931 when they were just teenagers. After years of back and forth between appeals to the Alabama and US Supreme Courts and retrials that resulted in new convictions, the death penalty was lifted from all the Scottsboro Boys by 1938, and four of them had their charges dropped. The others still faced lengthy prison sentences, having to wait for pardons to get out of prison, with the last of them, Clarence Norris, finally released from prison in 1976.177
Second, the CP was decisively and practically transformed into an organization committed to, and playing a vanguard role in, the struggle for Black liberation through its role defending the Scottsboro Boys. That transformation required organizational commitment, and in 1931 each “Party unit was directed to assign two to four members to the ILD and the LSNR, which were given the task of spearheading ‘mass defense’” of the Scottsboro Boys.178 The ILD became a large mass organization, with tens of thousands of members and thousands of members in individual cities, organizing an impressive range of activity in defense of Black people targeted by the repressive state apparatus. The CP earned widespread respect from the masses of Black people for its role in the Scottsboro movement, and many Black comrades were inspired to join the Party in part through witnessing, and getting involved in, its work to defend the Scottsboro Boys.
The Party’s growth in respect and membership hinged on inserting the demand to free the Scottsboro Boys into all of its work, not walling the Black national question off from other political questions and struggles and not taking the economist view of only appealing to and mobilizing the masses based on their own immediate, narrow concerns. One humorous example points to how, with Communist leadership, impoverished proletarian masses considered the demand to free the Scottsboro Boys to be just as important as their pressing housing needs:
Herbert Benjamin, head of the Unemployed Councils, recalled the legendary confrontation between a tenants’ group and a balky landlord in the Bronx. “All right, all right,” the landlord exclaimed. “I’ll fix the plumbing and paint the halls—but I can’t free the Scottsboro boys!”179
Third, the mass movement also opened up opportunities for the CP among the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie and with other political forces, especially but not only among Black people. While trying to start and lead broader coalitions was always a challenge, the CP-initiated National Scottsboro Action Committee included a breadth of political figures, such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and AJ Muste, and held a march on Washington, DC in May 1933 of over 3,000 people, from which a delegation met with the Vice President and the House Speaker.180 The CP’s relationships with artists and intellectuals also deepened through the Scottsboro movement; for example, Langston Hughes wrote a play titled Scottsboro, Limited in 1931 after meeting with the Scottsboro Boys in their jail cells, and numerous radical artists traveled down South and created art inspired by the struggles against the oppression of Black people being led by the CP.181 In Harlem, a 1932 benefit concert sponsored by the CP-organized Scottsboro Unity Defense Committee featured jazz greats Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, stride pianist Fats Waller, blues musician WC Handy, and the versatile and spectacular singer Ethel Waters; jazz musicians, including some of the most famous artists of the Swing Era, continued to play benefit concerts in defense of the Scottsboro Boys throughout the mid-1930s.182 While there were substantial difficulties in developing the united front under the leadership of the proletariat through the course of the Scottsboro movement, from opportunists in the mix to the assertion of petty-bourgeois class outlooks within the movement to tactical mistakes by Communists of either tailing or being sectarian towards petty-bourgeois forces, the mass movement at least put the CP in dialogue and contention with a far greater breadth of class and political forces than any of its other work in the early 1930s.
And finally, the Scottsboro movement achieved a level of mass mobilization, protest, and politicization in opposition to the oppression of Black people that, prior to it, had not been seen since the Civil War and Reconstruction, and was not subsequently rekindled until the 1960s. The masses of Black people took up the cry to free the Scottsboro Boys as their own, and connected this particular case to their more general oppression, pushing back against the scourge of lynching in the process. And large numbers of white people took a principled stand and practical action in support of nine Black youth facing legal lynching—no small feat in the 1930s US.
* * *
In the struggle against legal lynching during the 1930s, “Free Angelo Herndon!” was the second most important and popular rallying cry, and that slogan combined protest against legal lynching with the defense of a Black proletarian being singled out for persecution because of his role as a Communist leader among the masses. Angelo Herndon was a coal miner in Birmingham, Alabama when he attended a Communist-led mass meeting on May 22, 1931 and was moved enough by what he heard, which resonated with his experience as a bitterly exploited Black proletarian in the South, to join the CP at the age of eighteen. Herndon quickly became a formidable mass leader who did not shy away from militant protest, and caught the attention of the repressive state apparatus as a result, facing police beatings and arrests. Becoming a target of repression in Birmingham made it difficult for Herndon to continue organizing there, so he moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, he was part of organizing an unemployed march on the Fulton Country Courthouse on June 29, 1932, which brought 1,000 Black and white masses out to demand government relief. Militant protest that broke segregation was not tolerated by the Southern bourgeoisie, and Herndon was arrested soon after the protest, held without bond, and charged with inciting insurrection, including by distributing political literature, under a law that predated the Civil War and had previously been used against the “Atlanta Six”—Communists arrested in 1930 for similar organizing efforts.183
With Herndon facing the death penalty, Benjamin Davis, an attorney from an elite Black family who had recently graduated from Harvard Law School, volunteered to defend him. Davis united with the ILD’s style of defense, waging a combative struggle in court that insisted on Herndon’s innocence, challenged the constitutionality of the law he was charged with violating, protested the exclusion of Black people from juries, and raised the issue of violations of Herndon’s First Amendment rights. That legal defense was amplified by an ILD-led mass defense that could draw on the mass energy of the Scottsboro movement, and Herndon became widely known and deeply respected for his bold stand against the system in the Jim Crow South. Nevertheless, he was convicted by an all-white jury on January 18, 1933. Spared the death penalty, Herndon was sentenced to 18–20 years in prison, with chain-gang labor as part of his punishment.184
While anti-communism often got in the way of generating widespread support for Communists facing legal charges, in Herndon’s case, the draconian law being used against him and the fact that distributing literature was part of the reason for his imprisonment compelled a wide variety of political forces to come to his defense. If a Communist in the South could be convicted of what was supposed to be Constitutionally-protected free speech, then other political organizers and dissidents could potentially become victims. Even the AFL was concerned that Herndon’s conviction could be used as a precedent to jail their own organizers, and supported the movement to free Herndon, along with the NAACP and a breadth of liberals. Exposure of the decrepit conditions of Georgia prisons, which put Herndon’s health at risk, also generated outrage. Legal appeals and the growing protest movement resulted in Herndon being let out on bail in June 1934, but only after the ILD raised the exorbitant sum of $15,000 to make bail. Herndon immediately got on a train to New York and was greeted by rallies of hundreds at stops along the way; 6,000 people greeted him at New York’s Penn Station, and the crowd marched to Union Square for a mass meeting. Mass protest continued on Herndon’s behalf, and while out on bail, Herndon “toured the country with a replica of the standard cage used to house chain gang prisoners,” giving his audiences a window into the brutal rule of white supremacy in the South. Herndon’s legal battles continued until 1937, when the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a five to four vote, making Herndon one of the few US Communists to be exonerated by the bourgeoisie’s highest court.185
The defense of Angelo Herndon achieved several important things for the Communist movement. Herndon’s initial defense attorney, Benjamin Davis, was inspired by his work on the case to study Communist literature and then join the CP. For daring to defend Herndon and challenge the overt white supremacy reigning in Southern courtrooms, Davis’s life was increasingly in danger in Atlanta, and the CP relocated him to New York, where he became an important Party leader in Harlem, and eventually joined the CP’s top leadership.186 Herndon set an inspiring example as a young Black proletarian comrade who quickly demonstrated facility as a mass leader and no shortage of courage, never backing down even when facing a potential death sentence. He continued to play a prominent role throughout the 1930s, even meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of a delegation from the American Youth Congress in 1937.187
More than anything else, the defense of Herndon represented a hard-fought, real victory, based on the ILD’s legal and political strategy, against the repressive state apparatus in the South. In addition to fighting the legal lynching of Black people and the repression of labor organizers and striking workers, the ILD had an important practical role to play in the Communist movement: to prevent Communists from being sent to prison. All revolutionary movements have to advance in the face of repression, through a dynamic of revolution – counterrevolution – more revolution. The ILD regularly took up the cases of Communists facing legal charges for their political organizing, in the North and the South. Communists in the South faced particularly vicious repression, with the social order of white supremacy drawing out mob violence against, and local governments blatantly violating the Constitutional rights of, Communists and the masses who rose in struggle under their leadership. Herndon’s persecution combined the legal lynching facing Black people in general with the targeted political repression facing Communists in particular. The successful mass and legal defense of Angelo Herndon freed a young Communist from prison so he could continue to play his exemplary role as a leader among the masses, and it struck a blow against legal lynching in the South.188
Alabama: realizing the revolutionary potential of the oppressed Black nation in the South
Taking up cases of legal lynchings in the South and turning the fight against them into nationwide political movements was one thing; organizing the masses of Black sharecroppers and proletarians in the South in revolutionary struggle was another, with a higher level of danger. A few Southern cities, such as Chattanooga and Atlanta, had some degree of liberal politics that allowed the CP a bit of room to function more openly (hence Chattanooga was where the Southern Worker was published and where the Party organized public conferences for the Scottsboro movement in the South and against lynching more generally).189 But in the semi-feudal conditions of the rural areas and in many Southern cities, open and rather terroristic repression was the rule, aimed at keeping Black sharecroppers and proletarians under the jackboot of white supremacy. And that is what the CP confronted when it moved to make Birmingham, Alabama the center of its organizing efforts in the South.
In late 1929, the CP sent Tom Johnson and Harry Jackson, two white comrades with experience as union organizers up North, to Birmingham, where their initial contact was James Giglio, an Italian immigrant proletarian who had gotten in touch with the TUUL. Their early efforts demonstrated considerable interest in Communist politics among Black proletarians in Birmingham, with 200 people, most of them Black, showing up to a mass meeting under the auspices of the TUUL on March 23, 1930. The success of a few white Communists gathering mostly Black proletarians to discuss labor organizing also garnered the interest of class enemies, and Giglio’s home was firebombed a few days after the meeting. Not to be deterred, the CP sent in reinforcements, held more mass meetings, and in May 1930 organized its first unemployed protest in Birmingham demanding relief, which was attended by 700 Black and 100 white proletarians, already breaking the rules of Southern segregation. More unemployed protests followed, and virtually every mass mobilization by Communists was met with or followed by repression. Yet the repression did not deter the masses, and by the end of August 1930, Communist organization had swelled from the initial three organizers to ninety Party members and around 500 in Party-led organizations, the majority of them Black proletarians.190
Clearly the Comintern’s prodding to organize in the South was proving correct. In Birmingham, the CP stepped into a vacuum—there were no other forces seeking to lead the masses in militant struggle, even as conditions for the masses, especially Black proletarians, had deteriorated. The fact that white CPers could agitate compellingly about the oppression of Black people and promoted the defense of the Scottsboro Boys was a powerful point of attraction for Black recruits in the South, as they had never seen anyone or anything like that before. However, the nature of the CP’s initial successes did not fit its intended plan. The Party had chosen Birmingham as a focal point because it was a concentration of heavy industry in the South, and had intended to focus its efforts on organizing proletarians working in basic industries into unions led by the TUUL. Getting unions off the ground proved difficult, but the demand for government relief for the unemployed caught on quickly, causing the Party to shift its efforts towards building chapters of the Unemployed Councils.191
Between the Scottsboro movement and the work of the Unemployed Councils, the CP attracted Black proletarian recruits who had personal histories of refusing to acquiesce to the social order of white supremacy, such as Al Murphy and Hosea Hudson. The Unemployed Councils sunk roots in Black proletarian neighborhoods, with Black women playing a central role in them and becoming mass leaders. A spirit of militancy and defiance fused the CP and Black proletarians together, with the Unemployed Councils protesting against the Red Cross, the main organization providing relief in Birmingham during the early years of the Great Depression, for its condescending attitude towards the masses. On November 7, 1932, the largest Communist-led protest in Birmingham mobilized a crowd of 5–7,000 to demand the government provide relief for the unemployed and impoverished; protesters were undeterred by arrests and police violence. The spirit of militancy continued into a May Day rally the following Spring, with 3,000 people in the streets and some of them fighting the police and the Klan. A group of Black women asked the next day when the next event was “because they wanted to whip them a cop.” By the end of 1933, there were nearly 500 Party members in Birmingham. The CP’s efforts overwhelmingly involved Black proletarians, with segregation and white chauvinism keeping many, but not all, white proletarians away from it and with the petty-bourgeoisie, Black and white, mostly hostile to Communist politics.192
Beyond Birmingham, the rural areas of Alabama were the one place the CP succeeded in organizing and leading Black sharecroppers in struggle against the semi-feudal conditions they were subjected to, taking small but significant steps towards the agrarian revolution in the South that the Comintern BNQ Resolutions called for. When a spontaneous revolt erupted among hundreds of sharecroppers in Arkansas, CP cadre in Alabama put out a call titled “Farmers of South Fight Starvation!” urging Alabama sharecroppers to follow the example of their class kin in Arkansas. That call elicited strong responses, with letters pouring into the Southern Worker. In this case, a strong agitational call that popularized an advanced experience of resistance proved effective, and the CP followed up that call with concrete organizing efforts. The Party sent Mack Coad, a Black steelworker, to organize a local of the Croppers and Farm Workers Union (CFWU) in Alabama’s Tallapoosa County in Spring 1931, after receiving, via a letter to the Southern Worker, a request to build a union from two brothers, Tommy and Ralph Gray, who had a personal and family history of fighting white supremacy (their grandfather was among the wave the Black state legislators elected during Reconstruction).193
By July 1931, the CFWU in Tallapoosa County had 800 members and was exerting demands on landlords, even winning a few small concessions from them concerning food advances. But in the context of the semi-feudal, white-supremacist agrarian South, the revolution – counterrevolution – more revolution dynamic proved especially explosive. On July 15, 1931 in Camp Hill, Alabama, the county sheriff, acting on a tip from someone among the masses, led a posse on a raid of a CFWU mass meeting, and then on Tommy Gray’s house, beating those they found at both locations. The next night, 150 gathered for a CFWU mass meeting in a vacant house; in light of the sheriff’s raids, the CFWU stationed armed guards around the location to defend the meeting. When the sheriff and his posse showed up, shooting ensued that left the sheriff and Ralph Gray seriously injured. Those gathered for the meeting had to fend off the posse and flee. Ralph Gray stayed behind, too injured to travel, and was murdered by the posse, with his body dumped in front of a local courthouse as a warning to the masses. A reign of terror followed, with dozens of Black men arrested and charged with serious crimes. The social order of white supremacy also enlisted the support of the Black petty-bourgeoisie. Representatives of the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP warned the masses about the dangerous Communists, and a Black minister turned a Black woman over to the police for supposedly possessing ammunition; the police beat her, giving her a fractured vertebra.194
The enemy’s suppression campaign left the CFWU shattered but not completely destroyed, with small chapters functioning as best they could and without much centralized leadership. After Max Coad was forced to flee to Atlanta, Ralph Gray martyred, and Tommy Gray unable to function openly with a target on his back, Tommy’s daughter, Eula Gray, just nineteen years old at the time, took the organizational reigns—revolution ran in the family. The CFWU was renamed the Share Croppers Union (SCU), and, with Eula Gray’s leadership, was slowly but surely rebuilt from the Fall of 1931 to the Spring of 1932, reaching 591 members in 28 locals, along with ten youth groups and twelve women’s auxiliaries. In May 1932, 25-year-old Communist Al Murphy, the son of Black sharecroppers who had worked a variety of proletarian jobs, took over as head of the SCU. Murphy recognized the need to develop the SCU as an underground organization that could thwart the enemy’s repressive tactics, with meetings masked as bible studies or women’s sewing circles, a combination of centralized and decentralized leadership so that the SCU could continue to function when chains of communication were temporarily cut off, and care taken not to engage the enemy in public protests or armed confrontations except when necessary for defense or to advance the struggle. Guns were a necessary part of the culture of the SCU and many Black sharecroppers were not afraid to do battle, but Murphy argued for only engaging in armed self-defense when forced to. Murphy worked to spread the SCU from Tallapoosa to neighboring and nearby counties so as to thwart the enemy’s encirclement and suppression tactics. Communist literature circulated within the SCU and played a pivotal role in training CP recruits, but it had to be hidden from the authorities since possessing it was grounds for immediate arrest. The Communist press played an important role as a collective organizer among the agrarian masses under the Party’s leadership, passed around carefully via hiding spots, with updates on the sharecroppers’ struggle sent to the Party press via letters from rural Alabama.195
From 1932 through the mid-1930s, the SCU in rural Alabama made impressive organizational advances punctuated by several outbreaks of fierce class struggle. On December 19, 1932, a shootout erupted in Reeltown, just fifteen miles from Camp Hill, when armed SCU members refused to allow the sheriff to seize the livestock of Clifford James as forced payment for a debt owed to his landlord. SCU member John McMullen was killed in the shootout. James, a Communist and an SCU leader, was wounded in the shootout and was subsequently turned over to the authorities by the Tuskegee Institute, where he had went seeking medical help. He died in jail, as did Milo Bentley, another SCU member wounded in the Reeltown shootout. A reign of terror followed the December 19 shootout, with white mobs attacking Black sharecroppers and taking their property—especially their guns—and over twenty SCU members arrested, with nineteen of them facing legal charges. The SCU martyrs were given a proper communist funeral with red flags over their coffins; 3,000 people came out to honor their heroism. The ILD sprung into action, launching an investigation, conducted by the masses, of the Reeltown incident and the reign of terror that followed it, holding mass protest meetings, and organizing a legal and political defense of those put on trial. Black people packed the court despite roadblocks set up to prevent them from attending the trial; nevertheless, five SCU members were convicted and imprisoned.196
Sheriff’s posses, white-supremacist mobs, and “Southern justice” did not stop the SCU; it grew to 2,000 members in June 1933 and 8,000 in October 1934, with several CP units, each containing around three dozen members, also established in rural Alabama. The SCU led a substantial cotton pickers’ strike in late Summer and early Fall of 1934 in Lee and Tallapoosa Counties, contending with arrests and vigilante kidnappings but managing to win some victories in the prices paid for cotton picked.197 The SCU-led cotton pickers’ strike that began on May 1, 1935 was even more powerful, involving 1,500 laborers on 35 plantations. A subsequent wave of strikes by seasonal cotton pickers that broke out in August 1935 was characterized by fierce battle with the enemy: strike leaders were targeted for assassination and some strikers were beaten or murdered, but sometimes organized armed masses managed to turn away white-supremacist posses. Where the SCU was strong in Lee and Tallapoosa Counties, the strike wave won a substantial wage increase; but where union organization was weak in Lowndes County, it suffered defeat. Through all the victories and setbacks, the militant struggles of the Alabama sharecroppers were publicized in the Daily Worker and began to inspire Black sharecroppers in neighboring and nearby states, with the SCU spreading to Louisiana by the mid-1930s.198
In the second half of the 1930s, Clyde Johnson, who had replaced Al Murphy as head of the SCU, tried to turn the SCU into a legal, aboveground union and broker a merger with the Alabama Farmers’ Union. Much of the SCU wound up being absorbed into the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, but the specific needs and struggles of sharecroppers and cotton pickers were not adequately addressed in that context, and the new union never proved able to contend with repression like the SCU had. The arc of SCU development in 1930s Alabama was contingent on subjective and objective factors. On the former, the CP cadre sent to rural Alabama found a section of the masses—Black sharecroppers—with a great reservoir of revolutionary energy who jumped into the heat of class struggle and developed their political consciousness, organizational ingenuity, and fighting capacity in the process. Admittedly, while Communists in Alabama took creative initiative, CP central leadership did not approach the Party’s initial forays into the South thinking that the struggle of Black sharecroppers held great potential, and CP leadership never seems to have devoted significant attention to summing up developments in the Party’s work in rural Alabama and using the experience to come up with a higher level of strategic thinking that could have pushed, and spread, the struggle even further. In the Popular Front policies of the second half of the 1930s, sharecropper militancy was more or less abandoned in favor of uniting with other forces in the field, and dropping the slogan for self-determination in the Black Belt (explained below) inevitably meant de-emphasizing the agrarian struggles of Black masses in the South.199
In terms of objective contradictions, the class antagonism between Black sharecroppers and the white owners of the agrarian estates that exploited them was intensified with the onset of the Great Depression. The cotton economy was in crisis in the early 1930s, and the agrarian estates were squeezing even more out of those they exploited, and bringing back mechanisms of control over sharecroppers, such as the commissary system that forced sharecroppers to purchase what they needed from their landlords. That made Black sharecroppers, facing deeper poverty just like other sections of masses during the Great Depression but under semi-feudal conditions, more amenable to revolutionary leadership, especially since no one other than the CP was trying to organize them to stand up to their oppressors. New Deal reforms enacted under President Roosevelt, particularly the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, tended to bolster the power of landlords and harm sharecroppers, including by encouraging the mechanization of agriculture. The latter meant an increase in wage workers in agriculture, an overall trend during the 1930s that spelled the decline of sharecroppers proper as a class. Furthermore, government relief was used to benefit the white-owned plantations, with Black people selectively thrown off government relief rolls in order to force them to pick cotton when the landlords needed their labor. In addition to the mechanization of agriculture and transformation of sharecroppers into wage workers was rapid out-migration. Alabama eclipsed neighboring states in population loss, with 147,340 residents leaving between 1935 and 1940. The objective basis for the Share Croppers Union was strong in the first half of the 1930s, but was diminished in the latter half of the decade.200
What are the key lessons to sum up from the CP’s work in Alabama? First and foremost, the Comintern BNQ Resolutions were entirely correct to insist the CP develop strong organization among Black people in the South and take up the question of agrarian revolution against the semi-feudal conditions that Black people in the rural South were up against. In fact, the rapid development of the CP and SCU in rural Alabama, the degree of militancy displayed by the rural Black masses, and the eruptions of armed violence, initiated by the enemy and answered by the masses in kind, point to far greater potential than CP leadership recognized or tried to seize on. Black sharecroppers definitely understood the need for arms, there were World War I veterans among the masses, and the SCU developed some capacity for armed self-defense.
The question worth considering, granted from a place of considerable distance in time and with the benefit of hindsight, is whether the CP could and should have led the masses in higher forms of armed struggle: militias organized broadly among the masses for defensive purposes and trained revolutionary military guerrilla units to answer the enemy’s violence and carry out selective assassinations against landlords, agents of repression, violent white supremacists, and snitches among the masses. The latter were a problem for both the rural sharecroppers’ struggle and the unemployed struggles in Birmingham. Carrying out the communist principle, practiced in all revolutionary people’s wars, that snitches wind up in ditches could have firmly established revolutionary authority among the masses and denied the enemy sources of intelligence that led to raids on Communist-organized mass meetings and the murders and arrests of revolutionary masses. Selective assassinations, higher levels of mass armed defense against enemy raids, and waging guerrilla warfare when the enemy sought to unleash a reign of terror against the masses would have undoubtedly drawn out the wrath of the social order of white supremacy even more viciously on Communists and the Black masses. The only way for Communists and the masses to contend in this situation would have been to vastly expand the struggle beyond a few counties in Alabama in order to defeat the enemy’s encirclement and suppression campaigns, and it is unlikely that the CP could have done so with the quality and quantity of its membership at the time. There certainly was potential among the masses for this expansion: a Black comrade going by the name of “C Clark” who traveled around the Black Belt at this time reported great enthusiasm among the Black masses for the Unemployed Councils and the sharecroppers’ struggles, but lamented the lack of organizers to seize on this enthusiasm.201
In the conditions of the rural South of the 1930s, it is questionable whether (and probably unlikely that) the combination of mass organizations among the rural Black masses waging fierce class struggle and armed actions—defensive and offensive—by militias and guerrilla units could have led to territory seized, beyond perhaps the occasional temporary taking of an agrarian estate, and built up into rural revolutionary base areas. The local Southern bourgeoisie could rely on the social order of white supremacy, including white mob violence, to defend its power, and the South was not an isolated rural domain, but contained a number of industrial cities and was connected to the larger US by a physical infrastructure of roads and trains and a stable political infrastructure, namely the federal government. However, had the organized struggle of the rural Black masses spread and intensified throughout the Black Belt, including by armed guerrilla actions as a supplementary form of struggle, it would have provoked a response from the bourgeoisie as a whole through the federal government and inspired the Black masses, and anyone who stood with them, in the North, who in turn could have been mobilized to support agrarian revolution in the South. And that is how self-determination for the oppressed Black nation in the Black Belt region could have gone from being a slogan to a cornerstone of concrete revolutionary strategy.
While it is exciting to imagine what could have been in the 1930s, we should be clear that the development of Communist-led military struggle in the rural South would have necessitated a variety of other, non-military, forms of struggle in order to advance. With that in mind, let us return to the reality of what did actually happen to appreciate the importance of what the CP did do in Alabama. The Unemployed Councils in Birmingham and the Share Croppers Union rallied the two key social bases for communist revolution in the South—Black proletarians and Black sharecroppers, respectively—under Communist leadership to do political battle with the bourgeoisie and the social order of white supremacy. The CP became embedded in the lives of the masses, reviving a spirit of defiance that had laid dormant in the face of daily dealings with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and lynch terror, waiting to be unleashed by revolutionary leadership.
The fierce class struggle cultivated among Black proletarians and sharecroppers in Alabama could not have continued without a plan to contend with the repression inevitably unleashed against the masses. To that end, the Party-led International Labor Defense was an indispensable weapon, and the CP’s work in Alabama would have been brought to end by the enemy without it. With each act of repression and each rural reign of terror, the ILD came to the defense of the masses, exposing the enemy’s moves, bringing lawyers into the fray, and mobilizing the masses to defend those who stepped out ahead. The ILD could not keep every fighter on the people’s side out of jail, but it did succeed at doing so on more than one occasion. The ILD managed to get all of the dozens of Black men arrested during the 1931 Camp Hill reign of terror freed from jail, most of them soon after arrest, through a combination of mass pressure on the state governor and local sheriff and sending Irving Schwab, a lawyer for the Scottsboro Boys, to town. With the movement to defend the Scottsboro Boys gaining nationwide traction in 1931 and exposing “Southern justice” in Alabama, the local bourgeoisie thought twice about carrying out another legal lynching and made a tactical retreat. In 1934 in Selma, Alabama, the ILD took up the case of Ed Johnson, a Black city employee accused of raping a white woman. When said white woman was inspired by the example of Ruby Bates to tell the truth and testified in court that the police forced her to make up the story, the case was dismissed. However, the threat of lynching moved from the legal arena to outside the court, where a white mob was waiting for Johnson. Johnson’s life was saved because the ILD had organized a group of ex-soldiers to escort him to safety.202
The work of the ILD to combat repression, free Communists and militant masses from legal charges and prison terms, and defend Black people from legal lynching gave the CP and the masses breathing room that was crucial to advancing the class struggle. In light of the prevailing repressive conditions in which Communists carried out political work in Alabama, the ILD was a practically necessary, politically farsighted, and strategically and tactically brilliant invention of the CP. It also served as one of the most effective mass organizations the Party led, growing to 3,000 members in Birmingham in 1934, with the Scottsboro movement and local campaigns causing Black proletarians to make the organization their own.203
Finally, as the CP developed a program for revolutionary struggle, albeit with some questions unanswered, it proved that Communist politics and militancy could draw forward the best of the Black masses in substantial numbers. Party membership in Alabama numbered in the hundreds, perhaps reaching near a thousand at times, by the mid-1930s, and was majority-Black—the Party had trouble recruiting whites in the South because of its firm stand for equality and refusal to follow the rules of segregation. Black proletarians and sharecroppers brought their culture into the life of the Party and their creative capacities into its strategy and tactics, and in turn broadened their worldview by becoming a part of an international communist movement with comrades around the world, including those building socialism in the Soviet Union, with the Communist press and communist literature linking them to revolutionary struggle beyond Alabama (some did travel to New York for political training, and Al Murphy visited the Soviet Union). If there was one significant weakness, it was that CP leadership did not do enough to ideologically challenge those it recruited, with religious outlooks persisting among many Party members in Alabama. But the lack of high ideological standards was a pervasive problem in the CP as a whole, and it was likely somewhat offset in Alabama by the nature of the struggle with the enemy that CP members found themselves in and by the social base of CP membership in Alabama.204
The greatest shortcoming was that Alabama was the exception rather than the rule in the CP’s work in the South. Beyond Alabama, the Party remained small in the South, never acquiring the critical mass needed to turn another Southern city or rural area into a center of class struggle. While the CP in Alabama grew by leaps and bounds in the early 1930s, that success should have been generalized across the South to truly make good on the Comintern BNQ Resolutions. The CP would have been hard-pressed to fulfill that task given its numerical state and Northern-centric first decade, but it should have recognized the revolutionary potential and tried to find a way to realize it. Heroic defeat may well have been the result, but that is always a better outcome than failure to really try.
Chicago’s South Side and the Unemployed Councils
The flip side of Black life in the South in the 1930s was the Great Migration North, which transformed Black Southern migrants into proletarians living in the urban slums of the industrial cities. Chicago’s South Side was a particular concentration point of this dynamic, becoming one of the most populous Black proletarian neighborhoods of the twentieth century. Leading into the 1930s, Chicago was likely the city where the CP had the strongest ties among Black people. With the onset of the Great Depression, unemployment and evictions hit Black South Siders hard, and the CP was poised to seize on this sharpening class antagonism in explosive ways.
The Unemployed Councils developed into real and combative mass organizations on Chicago’s South Side by 1931. Several times a day, they were moving furniture from the sidewalks back into apartments that people had been evicted from, breaking locks if necessary, with Black comrade Brown Squire developing a reputation for being able to pull together a furniture-moving crew for these purposes with lightning speed. These defiant actions of Communists and the masses became so routine in the summer of 1931 that for “three weeks prior to August 3, Unemployed Council Branch No. 4 was intervening in three to five evictions a day.” The local bourgeoisie became increasingly concerned at the way revolutionary authority was gaining mass support and solving the masses’ immediate problems in defiance of bourgeois legality, and a group of landlords met with the state’s attorney to request state intervention.205 And so the stage was set for an explosive incident that brought the class struggle of Chicago’s Black proletarian population on the South Side to a boiling point.
On August 3, 1931, after a large crowd led by Unemployed Council Branch No. 4 had moved the furniture of Diana Gross, a 72-year-old Black woman who had just been evicted, back into her apartment, police showed up and opened fire on the crowd, killing three Black men: Frank Armstrong, John O’Neal, and CP member Abe Grey. The cold-blooded nature of these killings, with the victims unarmed and not even fighting with the police before they were shot, sparked mass outrage. Even as the South Side was flooded with 1,500 police, mass protest meetings of thousands took place out on the streets. Tens of thousands of CP leaflets proclaiming “They died for us!” found their way into the masses’ hands, and tens of thousands of people took part in the funeral procession for the three martyrs. Chicago’s Black elites warned city government officials that if they wanted to curb the growing following Communists were gaining, they needed to provide the masses with some relief.206
With the police murders of Armstrong, O’Neal, and Grey, the Chicago bourgeoisie picked up a rock only to drop it on its feet (to borrow a phrase from Mao). Mayor Cermak was forced to temporarily suspend evictions in the face of mass outrage. In the days after the killings, 5,000 Black Chicagoans joined the Unemployed Councils, 500 applied to join the Party, and hundreds joined the ILD. The ILD led a legal and political struggle to hold the police and city government accountable for the killings; it did not win this struggle, but it did expose the illegitimacy of bourgeois rule to the masses. Like elsewhere, the CP in Chicago struggled to consolidate the wave of masses that came to it during the high tide of class struggle, with a high turnover rate in Party membership. In any event, the bold mass street actions against eviction embedded the Party in the lives of the Black masses on the South Side, and CP organization there became deeply infused with the culture of Black proletarian migrants from the South.207
Harlem and contending with other forces in the field
Harlem was the recipient of Comintern Third Period politics a little earlier than other places, with Communist-led militant struggle of proletarian tenants against landlords arriving in Spring 1929. That April, the Daily Worker ran a series of articles by a white comrade, Sol Auerbach (pen name James Allen), exposing the exploitation of Black tenants by Black landlords in Harlem. These articles pierced the veil that covered Black wealth in altruism and community improvement, revealing the decrepit housing conditions that Black wealth subjected Black proletarians to. A telling example was the slum housing on 135th Street owned by the well-respected St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, which Auerbach presented as a microcosm of the larger relationship between the church and the masses. The Daily Worker series coincided with and backed up a campaign by the Party-led Harlem Tenants League for legal protection from rising rents. Led by expert agitator Richard Moore, the Tenants League was started in 1929 and grew to over 500 members, making it something of a precursor to the Unemployed Councils. Its militant protest tactics demanding lower rents from landlords and laws to protect tenants from increasing exploitation resonated with Black proletarians, whose economic conditions were already worsening before the “official” start of the Great Depression, and challenged the Black bourgeoisie in the process.208
As an opening salvo of the CP’s burgeoning focus on Harlem, struggles led by the Tenants League against Black landlords pointed to the distinctive challenges the Party faced in the Black Mecca. The Black population in Harlem was far more heterogeneous than in Alabama, with a fairly developed Black bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie that could blunt class antagonisms among Black people by appealing to (or concocting) the notion that the success of the Black elite represented success for Black people as a whole. Coinciding with and in addition to the “community leadership” of the Black bourgeoisie, there was a variety of political forces and institutions in Harlem that were distinct from the white bourgeois power structure of New York. There were Black politicians, Black churches with an influential role in local political matters and the doling out of charity, the Black press (namely the Amsterdam News), and Garveyites and other Black nationalists. Most Garveyites ultimately advocated a narrow brand of Black capitalism as the path to liberation for the Black masses. Added to this mix was the cultlike religious movement led by Father Divine, which had a following of thousands among the masses in Harlem.209 Unlike in Alabama, the CP did not step into a vacuum, but had to contend not so much with blatant class enemies but with other, sometimes hostile, political forces from the get-go if it wanted to gain a following.
Much of that contention, especially in the early stages of the CP’s focus on Harlem, took place on street corners on and around 125th Street, where the Party dispatched agitators and held mass meetings to proselytize its politics. On those street corners, Communists got arrested by cops and argued with, and were sometimes assaulted by, Garveyites, who did their own forms of street agitation. On June 29, 1930, Black CP member Alfred Levy was badly beaten in a brawl with Garveyites who viewed Harlem as their turf and subsequently died from his injuries. The police had intervened but probably helped the Garveyites attack the Communists (police generally instinctively understand, and in any event are trained to distinguish, who poses the more fundamental threat to bourgeois order).210
Since the CP in New York had few Black members in the early 1930s, its initial efforts relied largely on white cadre, many of whom were students at, or recent graduates from, the City College of New York or Columbia University (the campuses of both bordered on Harlem). Diving into street agitation and mass organizing in a largely Black proletarian neighborhood proved to be an excellent testing ground for these young comrades, with some quickly developing the ability to connect with the masses and others never rising to the task. As the CP’s agitation and organizing efforts began to resonate with the masses, it started to recruit effective agitators and mass leaders from among Black proletarian Harlemites, including by way of flipping some Garveyites. Those Garveyites-turned-Communists proved to be some of the best Communist agitators in Harlem, and could physically defend the Party’s efforts from the attacks of their erstwhile compatriots when necessary.211
Why did CP agitation resonate in Harlem? While Garveyites avoided direct confrontations with bourgeois power and the forces of white supremacy, viewing Black liberation instead as a process internal to the Black nation, and Black petty-bourgeois forces such as church leaders and politicians for the most part only offered relatively tame criticism of and opposition to injustice, Communist agitators spit hot fire and Communist organizers brought the ruckus. The CP turned Harlem into a bastion of support for the struggle of the oppressed Black nation in the South. Communists organized forty street meetings during the National Anti-Lynching Week the Party called for in Fall 1930. The Spring and Summer of 1931 were filled with street meetings, protests, and benefit concerts in support of the Scottsboro Boys. The first large protests for the Scottsboro Boys in Harlem were attended by mainly white members and supporters of the CP, but over time and after watching the unusual spectacle of white people in the US opposing the (legal) lynching of Black teenagers and even fighting the police during protests to do so, Black Harlemites joined the Scottsboro movement. In April 1933, in response to a retrial for one of the Scottsboro Boys that resulted in conviction and a death sentence, the streets of Harlem were flooded with tens of thousands of people out protesting “Southern justice.”212
As the leading force in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, the ILD caught on in Harlem, becoming a majority-Black, truly mass organization. In June 1933, the ILD in Harlem “claimed 1,700 members in nineteen different chapters and had opened a series of lectures and leadership classes to supplement its political and social activities” (rest assured, it kept the militant protests going).213 The Party’s efforts to build a mass movement in support of the Scottsboro Boys initially encountered hostility from Black reformist forces, but Communists with a public profile in Harlem tempered some of the more vituperative Third Period rhetoric against reformists and worked to cultivate ties and alliances with Black petty-bourgeois leaders. As the NAACP’s opportunism became more apparent in contrast to the ILD’s exemplary determination to lead mass resistance and use the courtroom to vigorously fight lynching and white supremacy, some Black leaders in Harlem began to warm up to the CP and even criticized the NAACP. The Amsterdam News, which had been fairly hostile to Communist efforts, began to express respect for the ILD’s legal defense after it showed some real successes. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. invited ILD leader William Patterson to speak at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in March 1933. Powell, Jr. and other young Black petty-bourgeois leaders in Harlem started to align with the ILD’s leadership of the Scottsboro movement in opposition to the more conservative forces grouped around the NAACP, attorney Samuel Leibowitz, and clergy entrenched in the Harlem elite.214 These initial realignments among the Black petty-bourgeoisie in Harlem were small but initial steps in developing the united front under the leadership of the proletariat.
“Free the Scottsboro Boys!” was a rallying cry that united Harlem and became a part of its social and cultural life, but Communist work in the Black Mecca was not limited to building support for the Black struggle in the South. Out of the ashes of the Harlem Tenants League, the Unemployed Councils became a formidable force in Harlem, illegally moving evicted people and their furniture back into their apartments and organizing militant protests at government offices to demand relief for individuals hit hard by poverty. As the masses began to see these tactics succeeding, the Unemployed Councils and their protests grew in size to sometimes hundreds of people. Numerical growth hinged on the commitment of the dozens of Communist organizers at the core of the Unemployed Councils, with their willingness to get arrested and face police beatings on exemplary display in many incidents in the Summer of 1932. Even more meaningful to Harlemites was that white Unemployed Council organizers stood shoulder to shoulder with and defended their Black comrades. In Fall 1932, when Black organizer Sam Brown was sentenced to six months in prison while his white comrade, Eleanor Henderson, received only ten days jail time for the exact same protest action, Communists led a strong defense, protesting inside the courtroom and outside the home of the judge who decreed Brown’s punishment, with white comrades arrested in the process.215
In addition to militant protests demanding relief, the Harlem Unemployed Councils became integrated into the lives and culture of the masses by incorporating the tradition of taking up collections for families in need from among their neighbors on their street block. As the CP became a part of the fabric of daily life in Harlem, it began to expand the scope of its efforts addressing the pressing needs and concerns of the masses. It began to mobilize mass struggle over health conditions and inadequate hospital services, later developing substantial organization among Harlem hospital staff.216 It is worth noting that the Party focused first on all-around political agitation before moving to practically address—through organizing mass struggle—the range of needs and immediate social problems among the masses in Harlem.
The developing mass following of the CP in Harlem was predicated not only on subjective strengths, but also on the sharpening of underlying objective contradictions. As historian Fraser Ottanelli points out, “The length and magnitude of the depression undermined the self-help activities sponsored by churches or [B]lack nationalist groups,” and the slogan “support Black businesses” lost its appeal as it became clear that uplifting Black proprietors would not uplift the masses of Black proletarians. In that context, the Communist approach of taking “mass action” outside of established political channels, including to forcibly resist evictions and demand government agencies provide relief, gained traction among the Black proletarian population in Harlem.217 In short, the material basis for reformist programs, church charity, and narrow Black nationalism was diminished and the basis for Communist-led class struggle was augmented.
The biggest weakness in the Party’s work in Harlem in the early 1930s was that recruitment into the Party itself remained inadequate, especially considering the level of mass struggle it led and the number of people joining the ILD and the Unemployed Councils. The Party had strong street agitators, militant fighters in the struggle of the unemployed, and several sophisticated mass leaders and revolutionary intellectuals, such as Richard Moore, Louise Thompson, Cyril Briggs, and William Patterson, active in Harlem. The latter group proved effective at bringing petty-bourgeois political leaders, clergy, intellectuals, and artists into dialogue and alliance with, and sometimes recruitment into, the Party, and at navigating through the process of leading a mass movement for the Scottsboro Boys with various other forces in the field.
Unlike in Alabama, where the CP’s work had a more cut-and-dry “the masses against the enemy” dynamic, in Harlem the CP’s work involved more contention and negotiation with forces in between the masses and the bourgeoisie than direct confrontation with clear-cut and obvious class enemies. Polemical agitation and sophisticated, dynamic leadership of the mass movements and tactile interaction with a broad array of political forces and people of different class strata were necessary for the Party to advance in that context. Recruitment, internal leadership, organizational development, and political training of Party members unfortunately took a back seat, without the kind of dynamic cadre assigned to those tasks as were assigned to other tasks.218 An important lesson to draw from this problem is that we should never get so carried away with or focused on advances in the mass movement, organized ties among the petty-bourgeoisie, and developing the united front under the leadership of the proletariat that we lose sight of building the vanguard party—the organization and ideological and political glue at the center of everything else upon which all other advances ultimately hinge.
What was, and wasn’t, achieved at the dawn of the red decade
With a solid theoretical and political foundation on key strategic questions provided by the Comintern, the CPUSA took a great stride forward in leading militant struggles of the working proletariat, the unemployed, and Black people, steeling its cadre in the art of class struggle in the process and attracting growing mass support. A palpable indication of the latter was the 600,000 people in attendance at CP-led May Day rallies in 1933,219 an example that helps explain why it is appropriate to call the early 1930s the dawn of the red decade. It was during the 1930s that the CP became a significant force in US society, impacting, though not determining, the course of history. While the CP made plenty of tactical mistakes in the early 1930s, its biggest problem was that, even with a stronger footing in militant class struggle, the Party still had no strategy for revolution in the US. It hinged hopes of revolutionary advance on the deepening of what the Comintern called the “general crisis” of capitalism. CP leadership essentially adopted a strategic orientation of bowing to spontaneity, imagining that sharpening class struggle would lead to sharpening class antagonism, the combination of which would lead to capitalist collapse and revolutionary uprising, a chain of events that never transpired.
With that over-reliance on spontaneity guiding the CP, not surprisingly, even as it entered into and led outbreaks of fierce class struggle, it failed to recruit and consolidate Party members commensurate with its bold practice. That is not to say the CP did not grow substantially during this period; Party membership nearly doubled from 7,545 in 1930 to 14,474 in 1932. It even reached over 18,000 after the 1932 presidential campaign of Foster and Ford, suggesting a (more correct than in other years) treatment of bourgeois elections by the CP in 1932 as an opportunity for propaganda campaigns with wide reach and for channeling the disaffection of the masses with bourgeois electoral options into the vanguard for revolution. However, while a substantial number of proletarians joined the Party in the early 1930s, less than a majority of them stuck around; “it took seven recruits to get two additional members.”220
A retention problem that serious was no doubt the result of weak ideological work in the Party and among the masses and low ideological standards for Party membership. Imagining a revolution around the corner due to sharpening crisis has all too often been used by us communists as a justification for not doing the hard work of ideological struggle and transformation—among and of ourselves and the masses we must take responsibility to lead—that is necessary to put us in the position to seize on crises for the purpose of making revolutionary advances. In addition, the Party’s emphasis on, and devotion of personnel to, moments of fierce but fleeting class struggle correctly brought it into political battle with the enemy, but these interventions were not adequately buttressed with ongoing, patient, and consistent work to fortify partisanship and consolidate a following among key sections of the proletariat. Furthermore, the various tasks of mass organizing, leading practical struggles, broad propagation of communist ideology and politics, and mobilizing the masses around internationalist and anti-imperialist tasks were not always correctly separated (without being severed from one another), given their due attention, and brought together into a conscious plan consisting of distinct but mutually reinforcing components.
Recruitment and consolidation difficulties were compounded by the fact that the CP’s notion of who its primary social base should be—the proletariat working in basic industries—was quite different than who its primary social base turned out to be in practice—the most exploited sections of the proletariat inside and outside of basic industries, Black sharecroppers in the rural South, and, most especially, unemployed proletarians. Indeed, 40% of Party members were unemployed in 1932, with that percentage even higher among new recruits;221 the March 6, 1930 “International Unemployment Day” of protests was the largest single mass mobilization in CP history; and the Unemployed Councils were perhaps the greatest quantitative and qualitative success among Party-led mass organizations (with the ILD as the only other contender for that award). The question this raises is whether the CP was making mistakes that were preventing it from recruiting and building an organized mass base among proletarians working in basic industries, or whether its insistence that those proletarians were its greatest strategic priority was based on an incorrect class analysis. The answer is probably a bit of both, with an economist conception that equated the labor struggle with the fundamental contradiction of capitalism (between socialized production and private appropriation), as well as the vestiges of syndicalist politics, diminishing CP leadership’s creative capacity for developing a theoretical understanding of who the primary social base for revolution was in the prevailing conditions of the early-1930s US (the growing ranks of the reserve army of labor) and shifting its emphasis accordingly.
The CP’s turn to the struggles of the unemployed was more a spontaneous recognition of the spontaneous struggles of the masses than a properly conscious subjective intervention based on communist strategic thinking. That is not to say the CP did not develop a plan for leading the struggles of the unemployed and recruiting cadre out of that struggle, but that its approach was still stuck in responding to spontaneity. To flip one of Mao’s great formulations on its head, in the early 1930s, the CP needed to practically and strategically prioritize the reserve army of labor while not neglecting heavy industry. To seize power and for purposes of socialist construction, the Party needed organization among workers in basic industry. However, under the influence of economism and syndicalism, it overemphasized unions and spectacular but unsustainable strikes as the means to achieve that goal and did not adequately prioritize ideological work and developing conscious partisanship towards the Communist Party among industrial workers.
Furthermore, it is notable that working in heavy industry in and of itself did not necessarily foster a revolutionary spirit and proletarian class-consciousness, with the national oppression faced by Black industrial workers and the experience of being thrown out of work by the anarchy of capital or for stepping out in militant class struggle being crucial ingredients in the creation of a revolutionary people among industrial workers. Many of the firmest partisans of the CP among the proletariat were blacklisted for their advanced role in strikes and labor struggles, cutting them off from employment in basic industry. In addition, plenty of unemployed proletarians more generally had experience working in heavy industry, and the CP should have concluded from that fact that what makes the proletariat a potentially revolutionary class is not stable conditions of work in highly socialized industrial conditions, but the mix of experiences and broadness of mind that comes from working in a large factory one year, being unemployed and hoboing the next, finding agricultural work the next, etc., that brings proletarians face to face with the disastrous effects of the anarchy of capitalist production.
A final issue in need of attention when summing up the CP’s work from 1928–33 is the fact that, under the direction of Comintern Third Period politics, the Party’s agitation and propaganda tended to put all opportunist, petty-bourgeois, and reformist forces directly into the enemy camp. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in the pages of CP publications, virtually every political force and figure advocating reforms under capitalism was lambasted with the label “social-fascist.” That label articulated an analysis of capitalist crisis compelling the bourgeoisie towards fascist rule in opposition to the sharpening class struggles waged by the proletariat, with reformist forces in effect masking or supporting the move towards fascism by attempting to convince the masses that there was some resolution to the crisis short of revolution. That analysis fails to take reformist programs seriously as a species of liberal bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politics that can become governing programs when the bourgeoisie as a whole recognizes, or acquiesces to, the need to ameliorate the suffering of the masses to blunt class struggle and find a (temporary) way out of crisis—which is exactly what happened in the later 1930s under President Roosevelt. By insisting on taking reformist programs seriously, we are not arguing for tailing, or worse yet being swayed by, reformist programs, but analyzing them concretely and explaining to the masses—maybe without a shrill tone all the time—why those reformist programs cannot solve the masses’ fundamental problems even if they can offer some limited improvement in their conditions of life. The CP’s obsessive use of the “social-fascist” label ignored, and tried to shortcut, the need for that kind of patient work among the masses.
Furthermore, the CP needed to distinguish opportunists and enemies it needed to expose and push out of the way (the AFL leadership, for example) from vacillating middle forces it may have been able to tactically work with or even transform through a process of unity – struggle – unity. Instead, within an overall correct orientation towards militant class struggle in contrast and opposition to the forces of reformism and opportunism, a pernicious sectarian orientation pervaded the CP that limited its ability to build the united front under the leadership of the proletariat and isolate the worst opportunists instead of isolating itself. For the rest of the 1930s, CP leadership tried to correct this error—or, more accurately, used this error as a justification for sinking into reformism and revisionism—throwing the baby out with the bathwater by the end of the 1930s and carving out the revolutionary heart that had beat a militant red in the early 1930s. For this reason, we must firmly uphold the revolutionary spirit of the CP of the early 1930s while secondarily criticizing its sectarian tendencies and obsession with “social-fascists.”
The Communist Party stepped into a vacuum in the early years of the Great Depression, often being the only force willing and determined to take the mounting discontent of the masses and lead it towards militant struggle. Its leadership in labor, unemployed, and Black struggles started to attract a greater breadth of support among the proletariat and among some within the petty-bourgeoisie. In the early 1930s, some artists, intellectuals, teachers, and office workers began to warm up to the CP and in a few cases joined it, while a radical student movement centered at the City College of New York brought many first-generation students into the Communist movement. With that growing breadth of support, the CP was able to expand the scope of its work, especially in the realm of culture, from young proletarians in the John Reed Clubs writing poems and agitprop to avant-garde composers deciding to devote themselves to creating accessible “mass songs” to serve the class struggle.
Lenin once said that “communism springs from all pores of society,” and an essential feature of a vanguard party capable of having a wide and deep impact on society is broadening out the scope of its work so as to tap into the many flowerings of discontent and rebellion and the dreams of liberation among the popular classes. By 1933, the CP began to show signs of becoming such a vanguard. Below, we will delve into a few specific examples that indicate the increasing breadth of its practice; for now, an anecdote and a proletarian life insurance company of sorts will provide us with some initial insight. In the early 1930s, “Fifteen-year-old Harry Eisman of the Bronx, arrested for striking a police horse with a club during an anti-Boy Scout rally, was shipped off to a reformatory for his crime.”222 It is probably safe to assume that young Eisman was aiming for the cop, not the horse, but the larger point of this anecdote is that the CP was leading a violent protest against the Boy Scouts of America, and had started an alternative to it called the Young Pioneers, which remained small in the 1920s but had 12,000 children affiliated with it in 1934.223 Serving the other end of the age spectrum was the International Workers Order, a broad-based fraternal organization with a large membership drawn mostly from “white ethnic” immigrants who joined it in part because it provided its proletarian members with cheap life insurance premiums that were otherwise unavailable. The International Workers Order was a cultural and social network, not a fighting organization, but it was openly aligned with the CP and provided the Party with access to its broad membership base of immigrant proletarians—with 62,153 members in 1934 and reaching nearly 150,000 members by the late 1930s—who were especially helpful as initial contacts in locations where the CP did not have organization.224
The words “broadening out” not only describe the CP’s scope of work and base of support as the mid-1930s approached, but also the mass movements rocking society and the political forces vying for leadership within them. The capitalist crisis that was the Great Depression brought economic hardship and ruin to wide sections of the people, from farmers in the Midwest to petty-bourgeois professionals on the coasts to workers in all branches of industry. As the crisis deepened, it compelled the popular classes to move against the motions of capital that were instigating their immiseration. While the CP was first to step into the fray and seek to lead that movement, by 1933 many other forces were in the field. The dynamic we described in the Scottsboro movement—with reformists and opportunists seeking to undercut the CP’s leadership and the CP having to tactically maneuver with alliances and antagonistic battles with those forces—played out in labor, unemployed, and other mass struggles. The CP had difficulty maintaining the initiative that it had seized at the dawn of the decade. Its own tactical blunders and shrill dogmatic howling about “social-fascists” did not help matters. But even if the CP had done everything right, opportunism and reformism had (and have) a strong material basis in the imperialist US, with mainstream unions like the AFL able to appeal to patriotism and anti-communism and sometimes able to deliver on promises of practical victories in exchange for its loyal role in fostering class peace with the bourgeoisie. No longer in a vacuum, Communists were often but not always outmaneuvered by opportunists and reformists from 1933–35.
An even bigger challenge came not from opportunists and reformists within the mass movements, but from the split emerging within the bourgeoisie. When crisis rocks the capitalist system owing to its underlying objective contradictions, the bourgeoisie must mount a subjective response—as a class, it must decide on a course of action to resolve the crisis. But contrary to conspiracy theories, the bourgeoisie does not automatically and unanimously unite behind a course of action owing to shared experience at Skull and Bones rituals while attending Yale University (even if a decent portion of them did attend such rituals together). Instead, different sections of the bourgeoisie assert slightly different class interests, and individuals and groups within the bourgeoisie develop subjective viewpoints on how best to advance their class interests. The role of government, including elections, in bourgeois society is in part to put those subjective viewpoints into political programs and contend over which of those political programs best answers the needs of, and seizes on the opportunities before, the bourgeoisie.
As a split in the bourgeoisie was emerging, CP propaganda persisted in presenting a picture of a more or less inevitable march towards fascism as the bourgeoisie’s only means to resolve the crisis of the early 1930s. Some members of the bourgeoisie chose a different path, and put their faith in Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and were so pleased with him that he remained president from 1933 until his death in 1945 (FDR was elected to an unprecedented four presidential terms). FDR offered a program of national recovery from the Great Depression through government intervention that restructured the economic functioning of the US in agriculture and industry. The “New Deal,” as FDR’s domestic policies were called, also sought to blunt class struggle, constructing government employment programs and new forms of social welfare that ameliorated some of the suffering of the masses and attempted to win back the allegiance of the petty-bourgeoisie by giving them jobs in government agencies.
Offering some relief to the worst effects of the Great Depression did sway sections of the proletariat to at least look upon FDR’s presidency as a better option within the context of bourgeois electoral politics, and there was a groundswell of votes against FDR’s opponents—mainly Republican politicians—in the 1934 elections. The CP was rightly concerned about the way FDR and the New Deal policies could move sections of the proletariat towards reformist programs; its response was to denounce FDR and the New Deal as paving the way for fascism. The grain of truth behind this response is that policies such as the Industrial Recovery Act did put the federal government into a more direct working relationship with monopoly capital, and some government employment programs put the masses in rather authoritarian-run work camps. And there were real fascist forces gaining traction in society at this time, both of the populist variety (for example, Father Coughlin and his loyal radio listeners) and of the monopoly-capitalist variety (the Hearst-owned newspapers that dominated print media). But as events prevailed, FDR and the New Deal represented a real reformist bourgeois program, and the fascistic sections of the bourgeoisie organized themselves in opposition to that program, forming the American Liberty League in August 1934, with Hearst-owned newspapers serving as their unofficial propagandists.225
In this context of a widening split within the bourgeoisie, growing mass movements among the popular classes, and a field full of various political forces within those mass movements, the CP needed to make bold moves with a visionary program that could address the immediate concerns of the popular classes at that particular conjuncture while pointing ahead to the necessary revolutionary resolution to the objective contradictions of capitalism. And it needed to bring forward the subjective and numerical force to make those bold moves. Weaknesses in consolidation and recruitment out of the class struggles of the early 1930s hampered the CP’s ability to do this, but its biggest problem was lack of strategy and vision.
In response to the challenges of the moment, the CP held an Extraordinary National Conference in NYC in July 1933 and put out an “Open Letter to All Members of the Communist Party,” which in turn became the subject for internal discussion in all organizational units of the Party and the political line guiding many articles published in the CP’s press and theoretical journal.226 The Open Letter doubled down, without justification, on the idea that industrial workers in the “big factories” were the strategic priority, and chastised the Party for failing to make greater advances in building organization among them. It treated the united front as an organizing tactic for outmaneuvering opportunists and reformists and stealing their followings among the masses—a necessary tactic, but missing the strategic conception of the united front as an alliance of class forces under the leadership of the proletariat. And the horizon it consigned Communists to was proving themselves to the masses as good strike leaders, not revolutionary strategic commanders.
As for the emerging split in the bourgeoisie, the Open Letter mechanically and dogmatically advanced the analysis of FDR and reformist forces paving the way for fascism. The CP was correct to assert that FDR’s New Deal programs served the purpose of rescuing finance capital from the crisis, but it needed a revolutionary approach to exposing reformism, not the economism with which it denied that reforms would provide any material benefits to the masses. And it needed a dynamic understanding of how crisis unfolds under capitalism and how splits within the bourgeoisie give rise to contending bourgeois programs and to bourgeois subjective interventions, not the mechanical thinking behind “general crisis” and the inevitable march towards fascism. As historian Fraser Ottanelli puts it, “The leadership of the CPUSA, which continued to see these differences [within the bourgeoisie] as simply a further sign of the general crisis of the capitalist system, totally missed the essence of the clash between two very different ways of dealing with the depression.”227
We communists would do well to admit that the bourgeoisie has agency in how it responds to crisis, which means there is not one inevitable outcome of capitalist crisis, and that reformist programs, when the bourgeoisie can and wants to carry them out, have real, material—not just propaganda—effects on the masses. As long as we understand, through the prism of materialist dialectics, that the fundamental contradictions of capitalism-imperialism, and the misery, exploitation, and oppression they perpetuate among the masses, cannot be fundamentally resolved short of revolution, we should be able to develop sophisticated, honest but not alarmist analysis of the workings of capitalist crisis and the actions of the bourgeoisie and, on that basis, lead the masses away from bourgeois-democratic illusions, reformist programs, and populist fascism.
Missing from the CP’s thinking at this particular juncture of capitalist crisis was (1) a strategy for revolution (forgive us if we are starting to sound like a broken record on this point, but it cannot be overstated) and (2) programmatic demands to address the immediate situation and move the masses towards a revolutionary situation. The early 1930s, with mass discontent breaking out into mass struggle in all corners of society and with fierce debate in the bourgeoisie over how to handle the crisis on hand, was exactly the kind of situation where communists can and must develop “small-p programs” (as distinguished from the Programme of a communist party for the complete revolutionary transformation of society) that can lead wide sections of the popular classes in struggle and exert demands on the bourgeoisie, in effect proposing concrete solutions to the immediate problems of the masses that bolster revolutionary authority among those masses. The CP had elements of this here and there, such as its proposed Workers Unemployed Insurance Bill. But it did not develop a decisive popular program, instead trying to merge, or, more accurately, mush, the necessity to address the immediate needs and demands of the masses with the revolutionary vision that must guide a communist party—in the words of the Open Letter, “Developing the Party into a Mass Proletarian Party.” This “two-into-one” eclectics only served to downgrade the ideological level and political purpose of the vanguard while failing to cohere an immediate program for the moment.
Furthermore, in the midst of all the howling about social-fascists and FDR paving the way to fascism, the CP seems not to have considered how it might take advantage of and exacerbate splits within the bourgeoisie to push society towards a revolutionary crisis. A hypothetical question to consider here is whether some selective acts of revolutionary violence could have sharpened conflict within the ruling class while receiving the support of the masses and pushing the masses towards revolutionary solutions. What might a Hearst kidnapping have accomplished in the 1930s? In May 1935, when the Supreme Court struck down FDR’s National Recovery Act against the popular will of the masses who materially benefited from some if its provisions, what if one or a few of those reactionary Supreme Court Justices had been “removed from the bench” by the actions of revolutionaries? Would that have rallied the masses to the side of those who performed the act of removal? And would it have provoked even greater conflict in the bourgeoisie by forcing FDR to decide what to do about filling court vacancies “opened up” by the actions of revolutionaries, with the fascistic section of the bourgeoisie undoubtedly opposed to FDR taking advantage of the situation but the impoverished masses in favor of a Supreme Court that would not deny them government relief? Not only acts of revolutionary violence, but also mass mobilizations could have been directed against those sections of the bourgeoisie that drew the greatest hatred from the masses while forcing the forces around FDR to deal with a revolutionary movement out of their control and out of the bounds of bourgeois legality. We can only speculate in hindsight about what the possibilities were, but the lessons of fascism’s then recent rise to power in Italy, Germany, and (in 1934) Austria should have compelled CP leadership to come up with bold but smart acts of revolutionary intervention in the face of a split in the US bourgeoisie between reformists and fascists. Instead, CP leadership was mired in wishful thinking about crisis spontaneously creating a revolutionary situation, making shrill and obsessive denunciations that painted all reformist programs as leading to fascism, and then flipping to reformism and tailing bourgeois-democracy in the face of rising fascism.
While CP leadership failed to act in a daring, visionary way to push against the objective contradictions to the greatest degree possible, it did make some important adjustments from 1933–35, for better and for worse. Some of its efforts demonstrate considerable sophistication in developing the united front under the leadership of the proletariat, even if from a tactical rather than strategic perspective, and contending with other forces. Whatever the quality of its burgeoning cultural work and growing ties among the petty-bourgeoisie, it certainly tapped into some important changes and conflicts in society that can offer us lessons for today. Given the contradiction between the growing breadth of scope and social base in the CP’s work at this time and the Party’s increasing tendencies towards reformism that became full-blown in the later 1930s, it is crucial that we take care in sorting out the positive from the negative.
Harlem and the united front under the leadership of the proletariat
The CP’s July 1933 Extraordinary National Conference designated Harlem as a “national concentration point” in the Party’s work, so its practice there constitutes a helpful example on the better end of some of the strategic and tactical changes it made from 1933–35. Those changes rested on reassignments in leadership, with James Ford put in charge of the Party’s work in Harlem and other comrades moved there to play leadership roles. Cyril Briggs was reassigned to the Daily Worker and Richard Moore was sent around the country for speaking engagements.228
The reconfiguration of cadre put the CP in Harlem in a better position to reach more broadly among the popular classes and develop alliances with various middle (petty-bourgeois) forces. Louise Thompson had joined the CP in the early 1930s; an impressive intellectual in her own right, she served as a lever for the Party into Harlem’s Black intellectual and artistic circles, gathering them for discussions in her apartment and winning some partisanship among them towards the CP.229 Benjamin Davis, the Atlanta attorney who represented Angelo Herndon at the beginning of his legal battle and joined the CP, was moved up to New York and assigned to focus his efforts on Harlem in 1934. Thompson, Davis, and Ford, along with other Black comrades assigned to Harlem, could work effectively among Harlem’s Black petty-bourgeoisie, as they had the educational and social credentials and political sophistication to be perceived as peers rather than outsiders within the Black petty-bourgeois milieu. The CP winning a few important Black cultural figures over—most notably playwright Langston Hughes, who served as the president of the Party-led League of Struggle for Negro Rights and whose artistic output often drew on Party-led mass struggles for inspiration—likewise increased respect for the Party among the Black petty-bourgeoisie. As a result, the number of “fellow travelers” (petty-bourgeois supporters of the Party who did not to join it) dramatically increased in Harlem and found organizational expression in forms such as the Friends of Harlem, a united front cultural organization out of which the Negro People’s Theatre was formed.230
In addition to broader and deeper ties among the Black petty-bourgeoisie, Ford also advocated and led the Party in Harlem to integrate more fully into the social and cultural life of the masses, avoiding the Third Period sectarianism that treated reformist institutions and organizations with large numbers of masses as entities to avoid and polemicize against. Over time, this led to Party fractions operating from within Harlem churches, like shop units in a factory.231 In the more immediate sense, Ford’s leadership cultivated alliances with churches and other Black middle forces with substantial mass reach. For example, three large Harlem churches joined a May 1934 regional conference of the American League Against War and Fascism, a Party-led united front organization. Another united-front formation initiated by the Party, this one in response to struggles with opportunists in the Scottsboro movement and attempts by them to impugn the reputation of the ILD, was the Scottsboro-Herndon Action Committee. This united front committee was headed by “William N Jones of the Baltimore Afro-American [a significant Black newspaper], Samuel Patterson of the Caribbean Union, and attorney John Newton Griggs.”232 Through these alliances, the CP was able to avoid the most opportunist forces among the Black petty-bourgeoisie while developing a real breadth of support in the mass movements. A more peculiar example of an alliance was the one the CP in Harlem made in 1934 with the cult-like religious movement led by Father Divine, which manifested in joint street protests to the surprise of many onlookers.
The move towards integrating the Party more deeply into the cultural and social life of the Black masses in Harlem and to cultivate stronger ties, and alliances with leaders, among the Black petty-bourgeoisie was a necessary step in broadening the political work and support base of the CP. However, errors in the direction of tailing the petty-bourgeoisie and failing to ideologically challenge the masses (around religious outlooks, for example) were certainly present within this shift in the Party’s work, and became full-blown in the later 1930s when the CP in Harlem began to emphasize respectability among the Black petty-bourgeoisie rather than cultivating militant class struggle among the masses. From 1933–35, the latter still defined the Party’s presence in Harlem, offsetting tendencies in the other direction. The Scottsboro and unemployed movements continued to provoke violent confrontations with the enemy, with the Unemployed Councils in Harlem reaching 3,000 members by January 1935, and a March 1934 ILD protest in honor of Scottsboro mother Ada Wright attacked by the police and provoking a riot, with thousands out in the streets and crowds engaging in battles with the police. The culture of street agitation on and around 125th Street continued, and Communists mobilized the masses in struggles over issues of daily survival needs. For example, in June 1935, Communists, with Bonita Williams at the helm, organized hundreds of people, mostly Black women, in a roving protest against a rise in the price of meat, stopping in front of butcher shops throughout Harlem.233
In the struggle against job discrimination, the CP in Harlem faced perhaps the greatest contention with other forces. In 1934, a movement to boycott stores in order to force them to hire Black people gained traction. The CP had waged some struggles over discrimination in hiring in Harlem, and its position was to insist that existing white workers not be fired and replaced with Black workers, but that companies hire Black workers in addition to the existing white workforce. The Party sought to unite the white workers with the demand for an end to hiring discrimination against Black people. The 1934 boycott movement, however, was led by Black nationalists and reformists who did not share the CP’s policy, and antisemitic sentiment made its way into the movement. Initially edged out of the movement, the CP was able to step in and play a leadership role in the struggle against job discrimination when the forces leading the boycott movement came into conflict with one another. In the course of that conflict, it came to light that Sufi Abdul Hamid as well as Ira Kemp and Arthur Reid, all narrow nationalists, were recruiting dues-paying members into their organizations with promises of jobs won through the boycott movement, and insisted that the stores they boycotted hire not Black people in general but members of their organizations in particular. In other words, they, like many narrow nationalists since them, were grifters. The fracturing of forces in the boycott movement exposed the limitations of reformism and narrow nationalism, and enabled the CP, with its higher level of internal discipline, to prevail with its policy of unity between Black and white proletarians, a policy that proved successful in the 1934 protests against the discriminatory hiring practices of Empire Cafeteria on 125th St. and Lenox Ave.234
The CP in Harlem’s broader ties among the popular classes and greater sophistication in applying the united front under the leadership of the proletariat are best exemplified by two crowning achievements in 1935: its response to a riot and its involvement in the movement in support of Ethiopia against Italian imperialist aggression.
On March 19, 1935, at the WH Kress store on 125th Street, a Black teenager was accosted by a security guard, accused of stealing, taken down to the basement of the store, and then let out the back door. Between the security guard’s actions and the presence of police, people justifiably assumed the Black teenager was being beaten. The Young Liberators, a CP-led organization, led a street protest meeting, which was broken up by police, with organizers arrested. A riot ensued, with 3,000 people out in the streets smashing windows, looting stores, and fighting with the police. Hundreds of police were mobilized, four Black people were killed by the police that night, and seven people, including members of the Young Liberators, were indicted on charges stemming from the riot. The police subsequently raided the headquarters of the CP’s Harlem organization. While there was $350,000 in property damage the night of March 19, the riot took on a notably class-conscious character. As historian Mark Naison explains, “Almost no whites were physically assaulted in the course of the evening’s rioting, and even property attacks lacked a strictly racial character, as some larger [B]lack-owned stores were looted by the crowd, and some white-owned stores which hired [B]lacks were left untouched.” At the beginning of the night’s protests, CP organizers had quickly put out a leaflet calling for unity between Black and white proletarians, and the CP’s overall work in Harlem had cultivated exactly that kind of unity over the preceding years.235
Not only did the CP’s actions affect the course of the protest and riot on March 19, 1935, but its actions afterward powerfully exposed how capitalist rule created the conditions that led to the riot, taking advantage of an opportunity to address a wider audience and force government reforms. While the Manhattan district attorney and the Hearst-owned newspapers tried to blame the CP for the riot, then-Mayor LaGuardia felt compelled to establish a Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, which held public hearings. The CP recognized these hearings as a great opportunity for carrying out the work of exposure in an official forum they were usually denied access to. They mobilized the masses to attend the hearings; 600 showed up at the first one on March 31, 1935. James Ford, Louise Thompson, and Abner Berry—Black comrades who were strong speakers adept at addressing audiences that included the petty-bourgeoisie—gave impressive testimony exposing the root causes of the riot. The Party took full advantage of the fact that the audience was allowed to cross-examine witnesses at the hearing, with Party leader Robert Minor and two ILD lawyers grilling police and government officials.
CP representatives at the Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem hearings came prepared with documentation of and concrete data on the oppression and inequalities faced by the Black masses in Harlem, and articulated their exposure with a firm but not shrill tone. This gave the CP’s intervention in Commission hearings strong legitimacy while resonating with proletarian masses and the Black petty-bourgeoisie, forging stronger relations with important reformist Black leaders in the process, including Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., William Imes, and A Philip Randolph. But the CP did not allow the Mayor’s Commission to be the only forum; it worked with other forces to hold a “’Mass trial of employers and city officials’ at St. James Presbyterian Church” in June 1935. The actions spearheaded by the CP led to government officials speaking out against job discrimination and to expanded government relief efforts to address poverty in Harlem. A round of mass struggle putting the CP in alliance with various middle forces followed through the Summer and Fall. The CP in Harlem’s actions within and around the Mayor’s Commission are an impressive model of using openings created by mass struggle to further expose the system, bolster proletarian authority, make advances in building the united front under the leadership of the proletariat, and wrench victories from the oppressors.236
Around the same time as CP activities concerning the March 19, 1935 Harlem riot and the subsequent Mayor’s Commission, a mass movement to defend Ethiopia from imperialist aggression developed broad support among Black people in the US, especially in Harlem. In the context of growing inter-imperialist rivalry, Italy, a second-rate imperialist power then under fascist rule, started making moves infringing on Ethiopian territory in late 1934, deployed an increasing military presence at Ethiopia’s border throughout 1935, and mounted a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia in Fall 1935 aimed at turning the independent African kingdom into its colony. Especially but not only among those ideologically reared by the Garveyite movement and UNIA, defending Ethiopia was viewed as a concentration of the struggle against white supremacy and colonialism and for Black self-determination.
In the beginning stages of the mass movement in Harlem, UNIA and other Black nationalist forces were not keen to involve whites, including members of the multinational CP. Nevertheless, the Party entered into the mass movement, based on what historian Mark Solomon describes as its “long record of involvement in anti-colonial activity. Throughout the early 1930s the Party and its allies demonstrated often against continuing US occupation of Haiti, protested US colonialism in the Philippines, and excoriated Firestone’s influence in semicolonial Liberia.”237 CP members got involved in the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, a united front organization that involved a considerable breadth of political forces in Harlem, from church leaders to Garveyites. 3,000 people attended the Committee’s first open meeting on March 7, 1935 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.238
Within the movement to defend Ethiopia, the CP fought for an anti-imperialist rather than a Black nationalist position, analyzing Italian aggression as part of the overall system of imperialism and the rise of fascism rather than as a “racial” conflict. (The rise of fascism part of the CP’s analysis could lend itself to bourgeois-democratic illusions, as though there are good imperialists and bad imperialists, and did exactly that in the later 1930s, but it was not wrong to draw attention to fascist nature of the Italian government at the time of its invasion of Ethiopia.) The Party gave concrete expression to proletarian internationalism by mobilizing Italian immigrant proletarians to go against the tide of national chauvinism and oppose the Italian bourgeoisie’s acts of aggression. In the process, they managed to win some Black nationalists away from narrow nationalist positions on the movement to defend Ethiopia. For example, Communist Abner Berry brought an UNIA representative to speak to the Italian Workers Club, and the UNIA representative was impressed with the enthusiastic response he received from the Italian immigrant proletarians there. With 150,000 Italians living in East Harlem, organizing even a small fraction of them to carry out their proletarian internationalist duty to stand with Ethiopia was an important contribution of the CP. Among the 25,000 people, from Garveyites to Communists to followers of Father Divine, who attended an August 3, 1935 protest in Harlem in defense of Ethiopia, there were hundreds of Italian proletarians. Their concrete expression of proletarian internationalism, with chants of “Down with Mussolini,” “Death to Fascism,” and “Hands off Ethiopia,” elicited “wave after wave of spontaneous cheering” from crowds in Harlem (according to reporting in the Baltimore Afro-American).239
The CP’s efforts directed the mass movement to aim the spearhead of the struggle against imperialism and the fascist government in Italy, not Italian immigrants in New York. There was a boycott of imported Italian goods, but not Italian-immigrant-owned stores. And the most narrow nationalists, namely Arthur Reid and Ira Kemp, were politically isolated and organizationally expelled from the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia.240 The mass movement in defense of Ethiopia continued with considerable CP involvement, with the Party working with others to create United Aid for Ethiopia in December 1935, which worked to send medical supplies and funds to Ethiopia and became the “official representative” of the Ethiopian government in Harlem.241 United Aid for Ethiopia and a number of protest activities continued to rally large numbers of Black people and put the CP in productive alliances with a variety of Black political forces.242
The CP in Harlem achieved considerable growth from 1933–35, with around 1,000 members—300 of them Black comrades—by January 1935. That was nearly double the number of Party members from when Ford assumed leadership in Summer 1933, and far more than triple the number of Black comrades. The CP’s interventions in the mass movement to defend Ethiopia and in the Spring 1935 riot and subsequent Mayor’s Commission garnered even more rapid growth: “Between January and August, 1935, the number of [B]lack Party members in Harlem rose from 300 to 700 and included recruits from Harlem churches, lodges, professional associations, and nationalist groups.”243 Within this quantitative expansion and greater breadth in the CP’s membership and alliances, there was undoubtedly some lowering of ideological standards and tailing the Black petty-bourgeoisie—problems which would come to increasingly define the CP’s work in Harlem in the later 1930s. But there was also, from 1933–35, some impressive application of the united front under the leadership of the proletariat and positive success at broadening of the Party’s work and ties.
In the context of US society, the CP in Harlem was probably the most integrated (across nationality lines) entity in the country at the time, and an organization in which Black culture was given due respect and fused with revolutionary politics. None of that was achieved without struggle, and as the CP in Harlem grew, the question of “interracial marriages” was debated out within the Party. Some Black women comrades expressed frustrations when Black men comrades married white women comrades, especially since few white men comrades were marrying Black women comrades. This marriage question was not treated, by the CP, as simply a personal matter, even as the Party did not try to dictate who could or should marry who, but was debated out politically, with concrete steps taken to achieve a resolution based on real equality. One humorous anecdote provides insight into some of those concrete steps taken, in this case to facilitate romantic relationships between white men and Black women comrades: “Party organizers made a concerted effort to teach white male Communists in Harlem to dance, so that they would not be ashamed to ask [B]lack women to dance at Party social affairs.”244 On the more serious side, deep social bonds, including marriage, between Black and white comrades and the overall respect for Black culture cultivated by the CP were recognized by the authorities as signs of being a Communist. As the 1930s wore on, the FBI “routinely instructed its agents and informants that they could spot reds by the presence of Negro friends and Paul Robeson recordings in their home.”245
Communist reach into the (new) petty-bourgeoisie and the culture industry
The CP’s work in Harlem was a concentrated expression of a more overarching dynamic in which segments of the petty-bourgeoisie became sympathetic to the CP, with some joining it. An early example of this development can be seen in the 1932 elections, during which a group of intellectuals formed the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford (the Communist candidates for president and vice president, respectively). According to historian Harvey Klehr, the League of Professional Groups was never under firm Party leadership and faded away after the election cycle.246 But it did suggest that some intellectuals and progressive elements in the petty-bourgeoisie were warming up to the Party, to the point of very publicly lending their names in support of some of its efforts. Why did this begin to happen a couple years into the Great Depression?
An obvious but inadequate answer is that in addition to the proletariat, the petty-bourgeoisie was also negatively affected by the capitalist crisis known as the Great Depression. Some lost their jobs, some struggled to secure money for daily survival needs, and the professional occupations in which they worked were hit with pay decreases and precarity. This objective contradiction, however, does not explain why they would gravitate to the CP in particular, as there were other, reformist programs out there more palatable to the petty-bourgeoisie as a class. The weaknesses and paralysis of reformist forces at the beginning of the 1930s likely made the CP more attractive to the downwardly mobile and disaffected petty-bourgeoisie, as Communists proved themselves to be the force most willing to fight for the masses.
In addition to economic ruin faced by some within the petty-bourgeoisie, the class structure of the US was shifting preceding, during, and after the 1930s in order to meet the needs of imperialism. The tasks of managing a complex process of industrial production alongside the ongoing reproduction of workers and culture within the US, in addition to managing a large portion of the global economy over which imperialist powers presided, required an army of office workers, from accountants to secretaries to logistics coordinators, not to mention the need for advertisers and salespeople to ensure the flow of profit at the end of the production process. The growing ranks of office workers encompassed all rungs of the class ladder, from proletarian mailroom clerks to lower-petty-bourgeois secretaries to middle- and upper-petty-bourgeois highly trained professionals, especially with responsibilities in relation to financial operations, to upper-petty-bourgeois and even bourgeois managers.
One of the most astute theorists of this change in class structure at the time was none other than Louis Fraina, the Italian immigrant who had played a crucial role in the formation of the US Communist movement but was pushed out of the CP by factionalism and a bizarre scandal over Comintern finances (in which it seems Fraina did nothing wrong). In the 1930s, Fraina wrote under the pen name Lewis Corey, and was the main author of a 1932 pamphlet titled Culture and the Crisis: An Open Letter to the Writers, Artists, Teachers, Physicians, Engineers, Scientists, and Other Professional Workers of America. This pamphlet drew attention to the “unprecedented unemployment among salaried employees” and concentrated the political thinking of the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford; 40,000 copies of it were distributed. Fraina/Corey went on to elaborate the analysis, articulated in Culture and the Crisis, of the changing class configurations in the US in two books: The Decline of American Capitalism (1934) and The Crisis of the Middle Class (1935).247 Historian Michael Denning offers the following encapsulation of the latter book’s class analysis (words in quotation marks are from the book itself):
If the old middle class was built on the ownership of independent small property, the “new” middle class has no such identity: its upper layer of corporate managers and supervisors are “institutional capitalists”; its large lower-salaried layers are “economically and functionally” a part of the working class: a “new proletariat.”248
At the same time as the rise of new classes of office workers, the US bourgeoisie was also creating a vast culture industry. The establishment of capitalism involves the destruction of the social bonds and culture of agrarian and small-town lifestyles and the creation of large urban populations of proletarians and other classes, who forge new forms of social life and culture in their new urban environments amid the social relations generated by capitalism. The bourgeoisie must enter into the creation and maintenance of these new forms of social life and culture for three main reasons: (1) to provide the popular classes with forms of social life and culture, (2) to ensure that those forms of social life and culture reproduce the social relations of capitalism and inculcate the masses in bourgeois ideology, and (3) to commodify and profit from the production of culture. Reason #2 proves to be the most contentious, as the bourgeoisie must rely on subaltern classes (segments of the petty-bourgeoisie) to produce culture and cannot fully control how the broad masses consume that culture.
As Maoist philosopher Louis Althusser emphasized, in contrast to repressive state apparatuses (police, prisons, courts, the military, etc.), which use coercion to enforce bourgeois class dictatorship, ideological state apparatuses must use methods of persuasion and, consequently, must allow for some degree of debate and contestation.249 The development of mass culture—with radio, films, television, recorded music, print media, and popular literature as its mediums—via the culture industry in the early twentieth century made innovative use of new forms of technology capable of reaching large numbers of people to accomplish the task of persuasion. But it also opened up space for contestation, as it had to involve the popular classes in cultural creation; similar to the expansion of office workers, the culture industry employed people of all class strata, from the bourgeoisie that owned and managed the culture industry to the creative professionals responsible for cultural content (directors, actors, musicians, writers, etc.) to the trained technical personnel to the proletarians who carried out the “menial” tasks that ensured the culture industry could function. Furthermore, by its very nature, the culture industry had to involve the broad masses as consumers, as an audience to which culture was transmitted, but an engaged audience who could potentially interpret the cultural commodities they consumed in ways the bourgeoisie did not intend. Especially since many of the forms of mass culture were quite new in the 1930s, still being “tested out” by the bourgeoisie and requiring innovative creative work by those employed within the culture industry, they were arenas of class struggle in the ideological and cultural realms in addition to forms of exercising class dictatorship by the bourgeoisie. And so it was that Communists could enter into the culture industries and sometimes impact the content that was created by them.
In order to develop and reproduce office and culture industry workers, reproduce and attend to the survival needs of the growing (urban) population, and develop the new technologies required to maintain imperialist dominance (especially military technologies), the bourgeoisie also had to generate larger segments of the professional petty-bourgeoisie dedicated to those tasks, such as teachers, university professors, doctors, and scientists. Like their counterparts in office jobs and the culture industry, these segments of the petty-bourgeoisie are defined, in the production process, principally by the skilled labor they are trained in through the bourgeois education system rather than their ownership of small capital put to use in the production process. They might own substantial personal property (expensive homes and cars, for example), and some may operate private businesses (a doctor’s private practice, for example), but their main relationship to the bourgeoisie in the production and reproduction process is as employees. They do not sell commodities; they sell their skilled labor as a commodity.
Consequently, as the petty-bourgeoisie increased in size in the US owing to the spoils of imperialism, it became more variegated in function and in its relationship to the means of production. Complex as it is, a basic bifurcation of the petty-bourgeoisie can be made between petty proprietors, who own and operate small businesses in which they invest small amounts of capital and usually directly exploit labor to some small degree, and those whose relationship to the means of production and class position is defined by their intellectual and/or cultural training, which makes their labor skilled labor. (There are, of course, also forms of skilled labor that are more bound up with physical rather than intellectual or cultural work.) Communist class analysis must take account of this basic bifurcation and the variation that flows from it in order to understand how different segments of the petty-bourgeoisie will likely respond to objective contradictions, and communists must develop policies aimed at winning over the greatest proportion of them possible before, during, and after the revolutionary seizure of power.
The shifting class configuration of the petty-bourgeoisie and the development of the culture industry was left largely untheorized by the CP in the 1930s, and communists over the last century have mostly failed to adequately theorize these developments, with a few notable exceptions. Understandably, the Comintern’s main attention at the time was on the proletariat and the oppressed nations/colonies, but growing economism and mechanical thinking within the Comintern hindered its ability to develop a more robust class analysis. In the breach, “Western Marxism” and the “Frankfurt School” of petty-bourgeois intellectuals in particular stepped in to provide an analysis of mass culture and the new petty-bourgeoisie that, while offering some useful insights, was thick with anti-communism and did not look at the contradictions from the perspective of how to make revolution. (And do not get us started on Adorno’s fundamentally anti-masses outlook that led him to be artistically and intellectually dismissive of all mass culture and condescending towards its audience while articulating a rather conservative view of the supposed superiority of European “high culture.”) In the 1930s US, Fraina/Corey was probably the most important theorist of the new petty-bourgeoisie, and while CP leadership briefly warmed up to their erstwhile comrade as a united front ally, it is doubtful they ever seriously engaged his ideas intellectually, and they soon dismissed and severed ties with him because, in their view, he had betrayed the Communist movement.
Despite weaknesses in theorization on the part of the Comintern and the CP, US Communists did find ways to carry out political work among the new and expanded petty-bourgeoisie and in the culture industry. Objectively, the situation was considerably favorable for such work in the 1930s, because the new petty-bourgeoisie and the culture industry were in development at the time and thus more up for grabs (consolidation and institutionalization in the culture industry has a way of forging greater allegiance to the bourgeoisie among its employees), and because the economic immiseration caused by capitalist crisis as well as the looming threat of fascism and war compelled the petty-bourgeoisie to look for more radical solutions. The CP gave significant attention to developing, and working within, unions and other forms of organization among office and culture industry workers. Especially in New York, a significant number of Communists occupied positions as “white collar workers” in offices, and were involved in union efforts and labor struggles at their places of employment. In 1937, this coalesced in the Communist-led United Office and Professional Workers of America, a CIO union. School teachers in New York in particular included a significant portion of Communists, often beloved by their students for encouraging critical thinking, teaching the realities of US history, and giving respect to the cultures and struggles of oppressed people. Some New York Communist teachers were local leaders in the American Federation of Teachers union; many were purged from schools and union leadership in the course of the anti-Communist efforts of the New York state legislature’s 1939 Rapp-Courdert Committee.250
Addressing the specific juncture of economic immiseration was the Unemployed Writers Group and the Unemployed Artists Group, started in 1933 with the involvement of Communists. Communists were also involved in unions of employees within the culture industry; an early example was the Newspaper Guild founded in 1933–34.251 While questions of salary and survival among the new petty-bourgeoisie were certainly worth addressing in order to build ties and mass organization among culture industry workers, especially as they sparked labor struggles in the 1930s, what we find most important is how Communists managed to ideologically contend within, and politically impact, the production of culture itself, which we will begin to address shortly. For now, it is worth noting that Communists had an influence in three important professional associations in Hollywood, started around 1933, whose members were central to shaping the creative content produced by the film industry: the Screen Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Screen Writers Guild. The latter was essentially led by Communists in the late 1930s.252 Professional associations in the culture industry emerged as part of the widespread unionization drive in the mid-1930s in the context of the deepening immiseration of the working class; for Communists, they provided an avenue for political work among those creating mass culture.
Beyond forms of organization based on specific professions, the CP also began to develop united front efforts that resonated with and involved the progressive petty-bourgeoisie based on larger political questions concerning the overall direction of society. An early success in this respect was the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, which mobilized prominent intellectuals, including the writers Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos and the anthropologist Franz Boas, to take public stands in support of the targets of repression during the fierce class struggles of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The support of these prominent intellectuals played a crucial role in drawing national attention to the bourgeoisie’s acts of repression and in preventing Communists and militant proletarians from being isolated and defeated by such acts of repression.253
The most successful CP-led united front initiative of this period was the American League Against War and Fascism (ALAWF). Formed in September 1933 and originally called the US Congress Against War, it was an outgrowth of the Comintern-organized World Congress Against Imperialist War of August 1932. In light of the ALAWF’s purpose of preventing the rise of fascism and a second world war, the CP encouraged the involvement of political forces it usually acerbically polemicized against, including the Socialist Party. However, the brief detente with the Socialist Party deteriorated when 5,000 Communists entered a Socialist Party rally in Madison Square Garden in February 1934 and got into a brawl. (The rally was part of protests against the consolidation of fascist power in Austria and violent repression of the numerically large Austrian Socialist Party; US Communists first held joint protest rallies with the US Socialist Party in response to events in Austria, but then blamed the Austrian Socialist Party for paving the way for fascism in typical Third Period rhetoric.) In any event, the ALAWF generated millions of supporters, as it resonated broadly with the popular classes concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe and the sharpening imperialist rivalries that were headed towards a second world war. With the ALAWF, the CP had an organizational vehicle for addressing what, in addition to the economic crisis, were the principal concerns of the progressive petty-bourgeoisie. Especially as the Socialist Party diminished in membership and fractured due to factional splits within its ranks, the CP was the only force capable of leading a united front initiative among the popular classes against the rise of fascism and the threat of imperialist world war.254
Another important vehicle for reaching the progressive petty-bourgeoisie and for carrying out cultural work was the journal New Masses. Started in May 1926, it was initially sympathetic to the CP but not under its direct leadership. That changed when Mike Gold, one of the few petty-bourgeois intellectuals to join the CP in the 1920s, became the editor of New Masses in 1928. Gold’s initial conception of New Masses was a proletarian literary journal with worker correspondents contributing content focused largely on the class struggles of the day. While New Masses published a greater breadth of viewpoints than other CP-led publications, Gold sought to purge it of literary work he considered florid petty-bourgeois nonsense. In 1933, Gold’s initial conception gave way to a more united-front-under-the-leadership-of-the-proletariat approach, undoubtedly inspired by moves in the Soviet Union to dissolve so-called “proletarian” artists and writers associations—which had pursued a petty-bourgeois sectarian line towards petty-bourgeois professionals and not produced much impressive art and literature in the process—and replace them with creative unions with a greater breadth of participation and higher professional standards. As a result, the breadth of content in New Masses increased during the mid-1930s, and the range of contributors included many progressive petty-bourgeois writers. New Masses became a widely respected literary and cultural journal, with its circulation reaching 24,000 in 1935, outselling the New Republic, a comparable publication led by petty-bourgeois reformist politics. Through its leadership of New Masses, the CP had an avenue to reach more broadly into the progressive petty-bourgeoisie and impact art and culture.255
As the new petty-bourgeoisie came into increasing conflict with the motions of capital during the Great Depression and grew increasingly concerned with the immiseration of the masses, the rise of fascism, and the potential for a second world war, the CP was able to draw progressive elements within it into organizations under its leadership, sympathy for its politics, and even into its membership. None of those accomplishments were without struggle, and some intellectuals began to adopt and even organize themselves around anti-communist politics in the 1930s, especially by way of Trotskyism, as exemplified by the journal Partisan Review. CP leadership clearly had some spontaneous recognition of the rise of the new petty-bourgeoisie, their role in the class structure of the US, and their potential contradictions and conflicts with bourgeois rule, but never adequately moved from spontaneous recognition to deeper theorization and the development of conscious revolutionary strategic doctrine. Consequently, Communists likely could have taken greater advantage of openings for revolutionary political work among the new petty-bourgeoisie, within the culture industry, and within the bourgeoisie’s education system. Moreover, lacking strategic firmness, CP leadership easily flipped from a sectarian attitude towards intellectuals, petty-bourgeois professionals, and petty-bourgeois artists towards tailing the bourgeois-democratic illusions of them in the later 1930s. Nevertheless, the unique possibilities created by the objective contradictions of the 1930s and the CP’s development as a serious political force leading militant class struggles are well worth further study so that we can develop revolutionary strategy for today, considering the continued and expanded numerical weight of (what in the 1930s was the “new”) petty-bourgeoisie today and the profound importance of the culture industry in US society, both by way of the influence its output has on the broad masses and as a large employer of people of all class strata.
Cultural work: the proletarian agitprop art avant-garde and the progressive petty-bourgeois professional artists
Prior to 1935, the CP had yet to establish substantial footholds in the mainstream culture industry, and the FDR administration had yet to establish and fund government programs employing large numbers of culture workers within which Communists would gain influence. Thus the CP’s cultural work expanded from 1933–35 through other means. Aside from involvement in unionization and labor struggles among culture industry workers, the CP attracted a small but significant number of petty-bourgeois professional artists, whose output articulated Communist politics and who were organized into collective forms concerned with the creation of revolutionary culture. Outside of petty-bourgeois professional artistic circles, a growing number of young proletarians in the early 1930s sought out involvement in intellectual life and artistic and cultural creation, with some among them gravitating towards the CP. The development of mass culture and the expansion of education opened up (new forms of) intellectual life and artistic creation to these young proletarians to a far greater extent than their parents, and the growing culture industry required an increasing number of content creators, some of whom were drawn from the (upwardly mobile) proletariat. Widespread unemployment also gave many young proletarians the opportunity, in the form of free time, to develop their intellectual, artistic, and literary abilities even without the prospect of professional employment in those spheres. Though it does not appear that the CP adequately understood, on a theoretical and strategic level, the objective contradictions turning a significant number of young proletarians into intellectuals, writers, and artists, it did develop and lead forms that tapped into those objective contradictions.
The most successful of these forms with the most lasting impact was the John Reed Clubs (JRCs). The first JRC was established in New York in 1929, but as the CP’s following and impact increased in the early 1930s and as the desire for intellectual life and artistic expression among young proletarians grew, JRCs sprung up all over the country. In September 1934, there were 30 JRCs with a total of 1,200 members, and the JRCs existed in a wider sea of proletarian literature creation, with many magazines, most short-lived, cropping up to publish the work of young proletarian writers. The foremost historical expert of the 1930s proletarian literature movement, Michael Denning, characterizes the JRCs as “informal and self-organized clubs of young writers, supported by the Party but at some distance.” While Denning tends to downplay the role of the CP throughout his book The Cultural Front, it is fair to say that Party leadership did not pay a lot of attention to the practice of the JRCs.256
Denning characterizes the JRCs as an avant-garde movement in multiple senses: they had a bohemian, iconoclastic, youthful rebellion quality to them that was somewhat different than the CP’s more workerist image; they were firmly engaged in the sharpest political struggles of the day; and their membership was drawn not from aspiring or established professional petty-bourgeois writers, but from proletarian amateurs, thus representing a challenge to the literary establishment. JRC members were generally more interested in writing about politics than producing fiction, and JRCs held classes in writing and put on politically-themed cultural events. For example, the Los Angeles JRC put on “an exhibition of works by [B]lack painters to benefit the Scottsboro defendants; it was broken up by the police, who also prevented their production of Langston Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited.”257
Denning sums up the lasting impact of the proletarian literary avant-garde that the JRCs were a key part of: “the renaissance ignited by the proletarian avant-garde was responsible for two key developments in American literary history: the emergence of a generation of plebian ethnic writers who represented—in several senses of the word—the new working-class cultures of America and who were to transform American letters in the decades to follow; and the creation of a genre—the ghetto or tenement pastoral—that is still at the heart of the American novel.” In addition to the ghetto pastoral, the migrant narrative novel also emerged from the proletarian literary avant-garde. While few members of the JRCs went on to become professional writers, the clubs did produce the great novelist Richard Wright, who was a member of the CP for several years.258 Moreover, the JRCs harnessed the intellectual energy and literary creativity of a generation of proletarian aspiring writers, connected them with the Communist Party, and gave them concrete ways to contribute to the class struggle through artistic means.
In addition to the John Reed Clubs, CP-led cultural organizations developed in music (the Workers Music League, which had a chapter called the Pierre Degeyter Club), the visual arts (the Workers Film and Photo League), and theater. Like the JRCs, these endeavors gave young proletarians an artistic outlet that contributed to the class struggle and created a vibrant, participatory culture around the Communist movement. Their reach could be substantial—the League of Workers’ Theatres claimed that over 300 theaters were affiliated with it in 1934. The artistic output of these cultural organizations was largely of the agitprop variety, and they were subsequently criticized by CP leadership for creating art that tended to be sloganeering and dogmatic—an understandable weakness given the youthful composition of their memberships, and a problem that CP leadership should have moved to solve by developing better, less dogmatic models and producing constructive aesthetic criticism. Agitprop art certainly had a positive role to play; for example, the brief agitprop plays performed on New York subways by troupes of the Workers Laboratory Theatre sound like a form of activity that could still be relevant today (if done right).259
In addition to Party-led cultural organizations, the CP’s Workers’ Schools provided an intellectual home to many young proletarians in the 1930s. Historian Richard Flacks considers these schools to have been “the functional equivalent of a university for working-class young people,” providing “opportunity for intellectual development, for the acquisition of skills, and the establishment of a vocation… In the twenties and thirties, thousands of young men and women, drawn from steel towns and ghettos, from auto plants and sweat shops, from mines and docks, were schooled in this way.”260 The explosion of participation by young proletarians in CP-led educational, cultural, and artistic activities in 1933–35 is a great illustration of Lenin’s observation that “communism springs from all pores of society.” A narrow, economist conception of class struggle as the only avenue for communist political work and recruitment into a communist party will always miss the myriad potential ways for the masses to come to, get trained by and recruited into, and contribute to the work of the communist vanguard party. Moreover, the world we are striving for is not a gray monolith, but one full of creative participation, and so the communist movement must give expression to many forms of cultural creation and artistic expression to the maximum degree possible at every given stage of the revolutionary struggle (without, of course, turning that into some hippy shit) if a communist world is ever to be achieved.
While young proletarians got involved in Communist-led cultural organizations, some petty-bourgeois professional artists began to align with, and sometimes joined, the CP. Probably the most palpable example of that trend in 1933–35 was the Composers Collective. The Collective’s membership—which included avant-garde pianist and composer Henry Cowell (infamous for playing the piano with his fists and elbows and plucking the strings of the piano with his fingers), prominent music scholar and teacher Charles Seeger, and Aaron Copland, who went on to become a defining figure in American orchestral composition—indicated that the CP was bringing significant artists into its midst. The Composers Collective produced a two-volume Workers’ Songbook in 1934–5, with relatively simple, declamatory vocal compositions with piano accompaniment, all with lyrics intended to serve the class struggle. Two standouts are Copland’s “Into the Streets May 1st!” and Elie Siegmeister’s “The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die!” These songs are indicative of the way that Composers Collective members took seriously the task of making their music serve the masses rather than an artistic elite, drawing inspiration from the “mass songs” popularized in the Soviet Union, but still maintaining artistic quality. Nevertheless, their agitprop quality made the Workers’ Songbook repertoire unlikely to stand the test of time, and did not facilitate artistic or emotional depth. While the Composers Collective aesthetically united for the Workers Songbook, according to Denning, they debated but could not agree on a unified aesthetic that would serve the class struggle, and the organization broke apart, with its members going in different aesthetic directions.261
Copland’s flirtation with Communist politics moved his music away from a more complex avant-garde approach, as exemplified by his 1930 Piano Variations, towards a more accessible style, put to use for the anti-fascist ethos of World War II in his 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man and developed into an orchestral sound, exemplified in his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring, which went on to have tremendous impact on subsequent US composers and symphonic works. Earl Robinson and other members of the Composers Collective turned to the rural folk music traditions of the US and considered those traditions the music of the masses, and composed original songs with Communist politics guiding the lyrics in a modernized style of those traditions. Robinson’s politicized folk song aesthetic has had obvious and deep impact on the US protest song tradition, from Pete Seeger to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to Tracy Chapman and Ani DiFranco. Another aesthetic stream coming out of the Composers Collective was represented by Marc Blitzstein’s infamous 1937 class-struggle musical The Cradle Will Rock, which we will return to later. The point here is that the US Communist movement of the 1930s, despite all its economism and workerism, played an aesthetically productive role in the work of several renowned US composers—a role that was subsequently purged from most narratives of US history, in part because musicians like Copland distanced themselves from their past collaboration with Communists during the post-WWII Red Scare.
The greatest problem in all the cultural work around the CP in 1933–35 was the seeming lack of strategic direction and guidance from Party leadership. The Party-led proletarian cultural organizations and Communist-aligned professional petty-bourgeois artists seem to have been mostly left to their own devices to figure out how their artistic endeavors could serve the class struggle and be part of a larger revolutionary strategy. Not surprisingly given the youthful character of the proletarian cultural groups and the “just converted from petty-bourgeois liberal to communist sympathizer” character of the petty-bourgeois professional artists, they generally moved in dogmatic directions artistically and politically, potentially alienating progressive petty-bourgeois artists in the process. When CP leadership did start to think more about the role of artists in its overall political work, it did so from a tactical rather than strategic perspective, in particular focusing on how to enlist prominent artists, intellectuals, and producers of culture in its efforts to build a broader united front in the face of the rise of fascism and the threat of imperialist world war. Fundamentally, this was a narrow, utilitarian approach to art and culture and artists and intellectuals.
The first major achievement of CP leadership’s new narrowly tactical approach to artists and intellectuals was the creation of the League of American Writers (LAW) in April 1935 at a founding congress in New York attended by 4,000 people. The LAW succeeded in bringing together a breadth of professional writers, mostly drawn from the petty-bourgeoisie, including Granville Hicks, who wrote the call for the LAW’s first congress, Ralph Ellison, and (after its founding) Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Mumford, William Carlos Williams, Dale Carnegie, Nelson Algren, and John Steinbeck. Through the LAW, the CP enlisted the public support of these and other prominent writers in its anti-fascist and anti-war efforts, as well as other united front initiatives. At the LAW’s founding congress, CP top leader Earl Browder promised attendees that the CP would not interfere in aesthetic questions, leaving professional writers to decide on literary matters and, in essence, asking them to lend their names to CP united front political initiatives in return.262
Here, we must divide one into two. It is correct and necessary for communists to recognize that, as Mao emphasized, Marxism embraces but does not replace all spheres of human activity. Artistic creation cannot be judged solely on the basis of its political content, and artists need room to explore creative possibilities without a narrow emphasis on how those possibilities serve the class struggle, especially in the immediate, utilitarian sense. However, that does not mean that art that directly serves the class struggle is not necessary, nor does it mean that communists should not take part in, and provide overall leadership to, debate and discussion over questions of aesthetics. Indeed, communists should develop sophisticated artistic and literary criticism, which will require communists who are experts in specific artistic fields as well as drawing the masses into the process of learning from, enjoying, being challenged by, and evaluating works of art, politically and aesthetically. Browder’s “non-interference” policy in relation to the League of American Writers reneged on the responsibility of communists to give all-around revolutionary leadership in all spheres of human activity, and it set up a relationship with professional writers based on opportunism—we will not criticize your literary output if you dutifully lend your fame in support of our political efforts, and the latter from a tactical rather than strategic perspective.263
Flowing from this tactical rather than strategic perspective towards professional writers was an approach to cultural work based on jettisoning whatever was not perceived as the right tactic for the moment. As CP leadership moved away from Third Period tactics, they emphasized winning the allegiance of petty-bourgeois professionals working in the artistic, intellectual, and cultural realms and denounced the agitprop art of young proletarians as dogmatic, sectarian, and disruptive to its efforts to cultivate the allegiance of the petty-bourgeois professionals. While, strategically and tactically, it was necessary and important to begin to win over wider sections of petty-bourgeois professionals and enlist prominent artists and intellectuals in public support of Communist political efforts, that did not need to be an either/or proposition in relation to the proletarian cultural movements. Party leadership could have criticized and sought to correct dogmatic and sectarian tendencies in the proletarian cultural organizations and worked to raise their artistic level so that the proletarian cultural movement could have continued to flourish and contribute to revolutionary strategic objectives. Instead, they disbanded the John Reed Clubs when they started the League of American Writers, only bringing a few members of the former, such as Richard Wright, into the latter.
In the CP’s cultural work, the replacement of the John Reed Clubs with the League of American Writers represented a flip from “proletarian” sectarian tendencies to tailing the petty-bourgeoisie by putting professional artists and intellectuals on a pedestal, immunizing them from aesthetic criticism, and failing to challenge their bourgeois-democratic illusions. In that respect, it fits in with a developing theme in our summation of the CP by the mid-1930s: letting tactics eat up strategy and losing sight of revolutionary objectives in the process. On a deeper level, CP leadership’s approach to the creation of the LAW embraced the division between mental and manual labor in bourgeois society, consigning proletarians to the political work of labor struggles and leaving it to the petty-bourgeoisie to create great works of art and engage in cultural and intellectual life at a high level (yes, there is a bit of sarcasm in that last statement). While there was a real flowering of proletarian cultural and intellectual life around the CP in 1933–35, and some significant artists and intellectuals began to align themselves with the CP and tried to serve the masses, CP leadership failed to cultivate and lead those initial shoots, instead opting for tactical gains in developing ties with petty-bourgeois professionals. The breadth of ties and influence the CP gained among artists and within the culture industry did result in an impressive array of Communist-influenced cultural creation in the later 1930s, but genuinely communist ideology and politics were not really at the center of much of that cultural creation.
Communists on campus and the battle for the class allegiance of the (new) petty-bourgeoisie-in-training
In addition to cultural creation and the new petty-bourgeoisie, the CP’s reach began to extend into the petty-bourgeois-in-training at college campuses in the early-mid-1930s, with the City College of New York (CCNY) becoming a hotbed of Communist activity. CCNY was (and still is) a largely working-class school, then filled with the children of immigrants, especially Jews. The promise of immigrant upward mobility in the US has always been predicated on the pact that the upwardly mobile receive education, training, and petty-bourgeois professional positions and, in return, serve the bourgeoisie as members of the subaltern classes. But CCNY became a battleground for class allegiance in the 1930s, with acts of repression against radicals sparking large student protests that were in turn met with more repression. Academic freedom and the supposedly sacred Constitutional right to free speech evidently were not sanctified by CCNY’s president, Frederick Robinson.264
Beginning in the late 1920s, Communist activity at CCNY found fertile ground in the widespread sentiment among students against the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps; a form through which students are indoctrinated by the US military at their schools). The brutality of World War I was still in historical memory, and that generation of college students did not wish to fight in another imperialist war. ROTC classes were mandatory for CCNY students at the time, and a Communist student, Si Green, was suspended for speaking out against the ROTC as early as 1928. The mere act of distributing Communist anti-ROTC literature got several students suspended in the following years. To tap into the growing radicalism of students in the 1930s, the CP started the New York Student League in 1931, later renaming it the National Student League (NSL).265
The NSL sought to link students with class struggles, such as sending a bus to Harlan County, Kentucky during the miners’ strike there (the bus got turned back by local authorities), and brought Third Period militancy to college campuses. In Spring 1932, Columbia University erupted in protest after Reed Harris, the editor of the student newspaper, was expelled for publishing an anti-ROTC editorial. 4,000 students participated in the NSL-led protests, and fights broke out with patriotic jocks. A student strike followed, with 75% of students participating, and secured the reinstatement of Harris. The following year, when Donald Henderson, an NSL leader and grad student and teacher at Columbia, was fired because of his political activities, students showed great clarity on who was their friend and who was their enemy. 2,000 students protested on campus and destroyed an effigy of Columbia University’s President Butler, and 500 marched on his house.266 In the battle for class allegiance, it is no small feat of accomplishment that Communists led a militant student movement at one of the most elite universities in the US in the early 1930s.
A little further uptown, students and faculty at CCNY faced even harsher repression owing to the more proletarian student body. In Fall 1932, Oakley Johnson, a Communist sympathizer who taught at CCNY and was supporting student protests against fee increases, was fired from his position. Following a mass meeting of 1,000 students on October 26, 1932, students marched through CCNY buildings and disrupted classes to protest Johnson’s ouster. Four were arrested, and the crowd followed them to the courthouse, where sixteen more were arrested. CCNY President Robinson used minor convictions for protesting as a pretext to suspend student radicals from the college. Students refused to back down in the face of potentially losing their shot at upward mobility, and went tit for tat with the college administration. Enacting proletarian authority, they held a mock trial in which they found President Robinson and his right-hand man in repression, Dean Lineham, guilty and insisted they be thrown out of office. President Robinson responded in kind with state power at his back, suspending twenty students for their participation in the mock trial. Answering repression with more militancy, a student strike, started on February 25, 1933, succeeded in getting the suspensions of student radicals lifted.267
In addition to the repression of free speech, the presence of the ROTC on campus continued to galvanize students in protests, with a 500-student anti-ROTC protest in May 1933 physically assaulted by President Robinson himself (students had to disarm him of his umbrella). Not only were students suspended and expelled for the protest, but the student newspaper and several student organizations were dissolved by administrative decree. Having the ROTC on campus proved not reactionary enough for Robinson, however, and in Fall 1934 he brought sixteen Italian fascist students, who were on a tour of the US, to CCNY. Hundreds of students came out in protest, the usual suspensions followed, but this time the elected student council itself was suspended for encouraging the protest.268
While CCNY was a particular hotbed of student radicalism, the prospect of another world war and the presence of the ROTC on campuses galvanized a broader student movement that spread to colleges across the country. The “Oxford Pledge,” started in February 1933 in England as a pledge to refuse to support another war by the crown, spread to the US with a modified language that took out the monarchy but kept the firm anti-war stand. Recognizing the potential for student anti-war protest, the NSL entered into an alliance with the Socialist Party-led Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), organizing a student strike against war in April 1934 in which 25,000 participated, half in New York. The following year, 175,000 participated in the strike, with wider geographic spread and considerable breadth, involving religious groups, fraternities, and even some college presidents. The NSL and SLID organizationally united to form the American Student Union in late 1935.269 While it seems correct to have made tactical alliances to facilitate larger and broader student protests against imperialist war and militarism, it is questionable what the merger of the NSL and SLID achieved from the perspective of revolutionary objectives.
Even greater breadth of reach among youth and students was achieved through Communist participation in the American Youth Congress, which was initiated in 1934 by a likely Nazi sympathizer and went on to involve millions of youth by the end of the 1930s, with participants ranging from YMCA and YWCA chapters to church youth groups to Boy Scouts. Communists and other radicals convinced the American Youth Congress to take stands against fascism and for unemployment insurance. This was a significant success at united front tactics in the organizational domain, but we can be reasonably certain that Communists did little to seize on opportunities to promote their full revolutionary politics to the breadth of the American Youth Congress. This fits Communist participation in the American Youth Congress into a growing theme in our summation of the CP: letting united front tactics, even correct ones, swallow up revolutionary strategic objectives.270
Losing the monopoly on militancy in the labor movement
Whereas the CP’s scope of activity and ties among the petty-bourgeoisie broadened out in the mid-1930s, the CP was, to some degree, broadened out of the labor movement during this time period. An early example of this dynamic can be seen in the auto industry. As Communists in Detroit saw wage cuts coming down the auto assembly line, they prepared workers at the Briggs plant to respond, and a strike broke out in January 1933 against a wage cut. Subsequently, a strike wave hit the auto industry involving 50,000 workers, though only 18,000 of them were part of the TUUL’s Auto Workers Union (AWU). While the AWU had started the strike wave, other forces in the labor movement soon gained leadership and reaped the benefits in union membership. A similar dynamic occurred in Cleveland, where Communists decided to disband their Auto Workers Union local and subsume their efforts among auto factory workers into the AFL after the latter waged an anti-communist campaign among auto workers asking if they preferred FDR or Stalin. In this instance, Communists should have went down fighting by boldly answering the question that the AFL posed, using substantive propaganda to show why Stalin was far more preferable, for the proletariat, than FDR.271
By 1933, the militant strikes, many Communist-led, of the preceding years, declining wages during the Great Depression, and FDR’s reformist program created more favorable conditions and greater opportunities for the labor movement. As historian Fraser Ottanelli sums up, “Although through the early years of the depression the TUUL had singlehandedly led the campaign for the organization of the unorganized and the amalgamation of trade unions, when conditions improved and the process of mass unionization began, workers turned to the more traditional labor unions.” The TUUL unions led some small strikes and claimed to gain 100,000 members in 1933, but those achievements fell short of the successes of other forces. Some 2.6 million workers were in unions in 1934, and strikes from 1933–34 involved a total of one million workers. A number of independent unions were formed during this time, and the AFL experienced considerable growth.272
While, in many ways, Communists had done the “leg work” in the early 1930s, the main beneficiaries of the 1934 strike wave were the AFL and other reformist and opportunist forces who, owing to their politics, had friendlier relations with the bourgeoisie and were better able to negotiate strike settlements, even if that often meant selling out the proletariat. Opportunism has a strong material base in the US, and shortcomings in consolidation of union members and Party cadre in the factories put the CP in a difficult position to outmaneuver and overcome the opportunists. For example, the 1934 textile strike centered in the South and involving half a million workers, making it the largest strike in a single industry up until that point, was led by the AFL’s United Textile Workers, with minimal involvement by Communists despite their great history of militancy in the struggles of textile workers (in Passaic and Gastonia, for example). The 1934 textile strike faced considerable repression, with martial law declared in the state of Georgia, a 40,000-person militia mobilized to put down the strike, and over a dozen workers killed. The AFL negotiated a deal with the FDR government to end the strike and ordered its United Textile Workers members back to work, but the government did not keep up its side of the deal, leaving the workers in the same miserable conditions. Clearly the challenge was not a lack of militancy on the part of proletarians, but opportunist leadership by other forces that the CP was unable to overcome.273
A further problem was that Communists no longer had the monopoly on militancy in the labor movement, with other forces demonstrating some willingness to push strikes in more radical directions in 1934. In that year, three cities—Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—were engulfed in (more or less) general strikes and violent battles between proletarians and the repressive state apparatus. In Toledo, the seven-week strike started by auto workers led to battles with the National Guard, with two strikers killed, but the class struggle was led by the AFL with little Communist involvement. In Minneapolis, truck drivers organized by the Teamsters, with Trotskyites in leadership positions, similarly went up against a National Guard deployment during a massive militant strike and were fired on by the police, with two killed; Communists were not present within the Teamsters union.274 The willingness of opportunist forces to lead militant strikes in pitched battles with the repressive state apparatus was undoubtedly in part provoked by concern that if they did not do so, Communists could and would step to the fore. In fact, when AFL leaders argued, in testimony before Congress, for the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, they explained that the legislation would help prevent Communists from gaining ground in unions (yes, Communist-led militant labor struggles are partially responsible for the passage of laws that gave labor unions more power).275
It was only in San Francisco that Communists played a strong role in one of the three greatest urban strikes of 1934. There, the waterfront was shut down beginning in May 1934, disrupting port commerce, especially as a wave of sympathy strikes followed. The governor of California called out the National Guard in an attempt to get the flow of commodities on Bay Area docks back on track, and in a pitched battle in early July, two workers, one of them a Communist, were killed and 64 were injured. A four-day general strike by 100,000 workers in San Francisco followed beginning on July 16, indicating the spirit of class solidarity at the time, and the strike on the waterfront was settled on July 29. The TUUL’s efforts among maritime workers had been some of its most successful, and in San Francisco, Communists had a foothold in the AFL’s International Longshoremen’s Association, with Communist longshoreman Harry Bridges playing a leading role in the strike. Bridges, probably the best Australian to ever emigrate to the US, became the target of a major government campaign to deport him, with the House of Representatives voting 330 to 42 to order Bridges’ deportation even though they had no legal right to do so. Since the government could not definitively prove that Bridges was a member of the CP, he was spared deportation.276
Communists playing a leadership role in the 1934 San Francisco strike was an exception to the general rule of losing ground, numerically and in the monopoly on militancy, to other forces. That is not to say there were not some other important strong points of the CP in labor struggles at this time. As historian Mark Solomon sums up, “During the strike wave of 1934 Communists targeted wage differentials based on race, fought segregation, and insisted that every vestige of union discrimination be addressed and eliminated,” distinguishing themselves from other forces within the labor movement by their firm, principled stand against white supremacy.277 Unity between different nationalities was a particular strength of Communist organizing among agricultural workers in the San Joaquin Valley, where white, Black, Mexican, and Asian immigrant workers were viciously exploited by capitalist agriculture in the “factories in the fields.” After many of its efforts had been drowned in repression in the earlier 1930s, in 1933 the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union led the “largest strikes in the history of American agriculture[,] and the great majority succeeded in winning wage increases,” as historian Michael Denning describes. The revolution – counterrevolution – more revolution dynamic continued at a higher level, with agricultural, railroad, and cannery capitalists forming the Associated Farmers organization and unleashing a new level of repression, using “vigilante violence, deportation, and anti-picketing laws to imprison the union’s leaders and crush the union.” Even if practical victories were difficult to hold on to, the CP’s efforts to integrate with immigrant and US-born agricultural workers in California, overcoming language barriers and contending with fierce repression in the more isolated conditions of agricultural labor, were overall exemplary from the Maoist perspective of integrating with the masses. Furthermore, they set a precedent for subsequent labor struggles in California’s “factories in the fields” in the later 1930s, especially as migrants from Oklahoma and the Southwest flocked to the sunshine state in the face of economic ruin and natural disaster and became agricultural proletarians (which in turn inspired John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath).278
It was during the early-mid-1930s that the CP began to make strides in recruiting Party members from the industrial proletariat, and by “1935, the party had over 600 shop nuclei and published some 300 newspapers.”279 Party cadre deployed as TUUL organizers developed considerable skills and experience as militant union leaders with intimate knowledge of several branches of industrial production and the challenges involved in carrying out political work within them.280 Those strengths, and the strikes that Communists did lead, were nevertheless outstripped quantitatively by unions and labor struggles led by other forces. By December 1934, Comintern leadership increasingly called on the CP to shift its focus to working within other, larger unions rather than initiating and leading its own, and Earl Browder, by this point the undisputed top leader in the CP, called for shifting “the main emphasis” in the Party’s labor efforts to working within the AFL. In March 1935, the TUUL was officially disbanded; many of the unions it had created were dissolved, with their members absorbed into AFL unions. Only in a few cases where TUUL unions had considerable strength, such as among machinists and fur workers, were they in a position to insist that TUUL organizers remain in leadership positions within AFL unions.281
The question we must ask is whether disbanding the TUUL and moving its organizers and union members into the AFL was a correct decision in light of the fact that the balance of forces within the labor movement was stacked against the CP. The Comintern was increasingly concerned with the rise of fascism, and worried that dual-unionism and Third Period tactics could result in the isolation of Communists from the masses, and thus leave Communists unable to mobilize broad opposition to rising fascism. That understandable concern, especially when refracted through the prism of CP leaders, such as Browder, who jumped at any justification for pursuing a more reformist path, ultimately bolstered a move towards liquidation of Communist leadership in labor struggles by denying the CP independence and initiative. The CP faced objective difficulties when, between FDR’s reforms and the desire of the masses for strong unions that could win real victories that would give them the material gains they needed for survival, AFL leadership could get to the head of a growing mass of unionized workers and militant strikes and Trotskyites and other opportunists could enter the fray as well. In that scenario, Communists certainly needed to move away from a tactical emphasis on dual unionism and find ways to work within the institutions (AFL unions) that attracted large numbers of proletarians. However, they needed to find ways to assert Communist politics and build up the strength to vie for leadership within those unions. And they probably should have maintained an independent organizational vehicle like the TUUL to organize unions and enter into labor struggles under its independent banner so as not to concede leadership to the AFL and other opportunists by default. In sum, while a tactical retreat and reTUULing were necessary, including the development of more consistent, persistent, and patient communist work within reformist unions on the basis of the orientation in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, the liquidation of the TUUL and subsumption of Communists (and, most egregiously, communist politics) within AFL unions set in motion a more overall liquidation of the independent, communist role of the CP within labor struggles.
Where the Party at?
Steady growth through the first half of the 1930s brought the membership rolls of the CP from 7,000 in 1930 to 30,000 by the end of 1935. The Young Communist League reached 8,000 members in mid-1935; while it served as an important recruitment and training ground for Party members, its membership numbers lagged behind what should have been possible given the favorable objective situation for bringing young people to communist politics at that time. In addition to the broader reach the CP achieved among the popular classes described above, direct support for the CP can be gauged quantitatively in the tens of thousands of supporters working under its leadership without joining it, the hundreds of thousands who were part of Party-led organizations, and the 50,000 circulation of the Daily Worker reached in Fall 1934, alongside the 131,000 circulation of Party-led foreign-language newspapers.282
Party membership remained majority-foreign-born, with an increasing percentage of Jews, mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants, joining the Party. A third of the CP’s Central Committee at this time was Jewish; antisemitism, including of the conspiracy theory variety, in the US back then was bound up with anti-communism, for Jews played an important role within the Communist movement and were, in the 1930s, some of the most militant fighters against the oppression of Black people. The percentage of women in the CP increased in the early 1930s, but remained below 25%. The CP developed little theory, analysis, or political work specifically focused on the oppression of women, but Communist integration into proletarian neighborhoods and leadership of mass struggles in those neighborhoods, especially in New York and Chicago, did generate more women members, some of whom quickly became strong mass leaders. One substantial gain was in the proportion of Party members who worked in factories and/or were members of unions—in 1934–35, a third of Communists belonged to unions—giving the CP deeper roots in the working proletariat. The Party remained concentrated in New York, Chicago, and a few other industrial cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, with San Francisco home to its most substantial presence on the West Coast.283
Retention rates improved somewhat by the mid-1930s, but the CP still struggled to develop an internal political life and culture that was fulfilling and intellectually productive. CP leadership admitted that “there is a tendency to confine Party meetings to routine and organizational details, divorced from the living problems of the class struggle.” Party unit meetings featured little discussion and debate of deeper questions of political line, and often assigned their members too many tasks—being TUUL organizers one day, ILD the next, then selling the Daily Worker, etc.—rather than developing focused spheres of political work. Many urgent tasks always cry out to be done, but the lack of substantive political engagement with the challenges of making revolution within the internal life of the Party was detrimental and corrosive. Shortages of cadre capable of leading that kind of internal life was one source of the problem. But the root cause was likely CP leadership’s conception of a vanguard as the top leadership declaring policy and line and the rank and file membership carrying out that line. Of course, a communist vanguard requires a farsighted leadership that can apply communist principles to develop revolutionary strategy and tactics and a division of labor to implement strategy and tactics. But that leadership needs to engage the membership of the party as a whole in the process of figuring out how to make revolution to the maximum degree possible and avoid creating a brick-wall separation between thinkers and doers. Unfortunately, the 1935 publication The Communist Party: A Manual on Organization, authored by J Peters, the pseudonym for a Hungarian immigrant in charge of the CP’s underground organization, tends to consign basic Party units to the task of discussing how to implement the line of the Party rather than discussing and debating the correctness of line to begin with, thus enshrining the division between thinkers and doers. The internal political life and culture of the CP set the Party membership up for being ill-equipped to recognize, struggle against, and reject incorrect lines coming from Party leadership that took the Party in a reformist and revisionist direction.284
And the CP needed a membership capable of that responsibility, for its leadership, by the mid-1930s was moving in the direction of tailing the progressive petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeois-democracy. We have identified numerous tendencies in that direction above. CP leadership faced difficult objective challenges in the period 1933–35: the beginnings of a reformist program being implemented by the FDR administration; the rise of competing, opportunist and reformist, forces in the labor movement and others mass movements; and the real need to broaden out the scope of its work and the class forces under its leadership or aligned with it. How it responded to those challenges was its choice to make, and CP leadership increasingly responded to those challenges pragmatically, trying to make tactical gains at the expense of revolutionary strategic objectives.
While there is plenty of blame to go around, a key figure making those pragmatic decisions was Earl Browder, who was the undisputed political authority in the Party by the mid-1930s and in its top organizational position, General Secretary, beginning in 1934. Browder had worked for the Comintern for several years in the late 1920s, and was adept at appearing to be in line with Comintern leadership, doing exactly what Stalin had forcefully argued against in 1929: treating the Comintern like a stock market and jumping on board with whatever political lines appeared on the rise, rather than as the “holy of holies of the working class.” As the Comintern pulled back a bit on the most zealous expressions of Third Period tactics and advocated developing broader ties with sections of the petty-bourgeoisie and entering into alliances with other (reformist) forces, Browder was all too eager to use Comintern guidance to justify tailing the progressive petty-bourgeoisie and reformist politics, revealing his true ideological outlook and ultimately betraying the revolutionary aims of a genuine communist party. As broad sections of the popular classes joined unions, took part in labor struggles, and sought ways to oppose rising fascism and the threat of imperialist world war, the prospect of a broader mass following for the CP beckoned. The question we now turn to is how CP leadership responded to that siren call, and what principles it sacrificed in the process.
The Popular Front
The Comintern’s Seventh Congress, held from July 25 to August 20 of 1935, united around a political line and policies that were a radical departure from the “Third Period” politics and tactics defined at the Comintern’s previous (Sixth) Congress of 1928. Those Third Period politics had put the CPUSA on a much more revolutionary footing and generated its most impressive practical efforts, while secondarily encouraging dogmatism and sectarianism. In 1933, the Comintern and the CP began to move away from Third Period politics in the direction of what is most commonly called the Popular Front, which defined the direction of the CPUSA and Comintern parties in Europe beginning in 1935.
The impetus for this radical change in political line was the coming to power of fascism in several European countries, especially Germany, as well as in Japan, and the growing strength of fascist movements across Europe and North America. The Popular Front strategy was articulated by the new top leader of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov, in his opening and closing speeches to the Comintern’s Seventh Congress, titled “The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class Against Fascism” and “The Unity of the Working Class Against Fascism,” respectively. Dimitrov, originally from Bulgaria but stationed in Germany as a Comintern representative in the early 1930s, was famous for his courageous and successful defense in court during a 1933 trial in which the Nazis, who had just come to power, falsely accused him of starting the Reichstag fire.
Dimitrov and Comintern leadership summed up serious errors in the ways that Communists in Germany and other countries had dealt with the rise of fascism. They criticized the tendency, during the Third Period, to direct the “main blow” of the class struggle, especially in agitation and propaganda, against the social-democrats of the Second International parties, which had large followings in many European countries, while failing to recognize the growing power and threat posed by the fascist movement. The overblown rhetoric about “social-fascists” had downplayed the actual fascist movement and promoted sectarian policies that opposed tactical alliances with social-democrats in order to defeat fascist movements. The overall dogmatic tone of the spoken and written agitation and propaganda of many Comintern parties was sharply rebuked in Dimitrov’s speeches at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress.
The move from the Third Period to the Popular Front responded to real objective contradictions— namely the need to defeat fascism in order to defend the Soviet Union from invasion by Nazi Germany and advance the class struggle in the interests of the proletariat in Europe and North America—and subjective weaknesses and errors by Comintern parties, especially in Europe and North America. The Popular Front, as articulated in Dimitrov’s speeches, meant making alliances with social-democratic parties and reformist unions in order to unite the organized proletariat in a struggle against fascism. It also meant alliances with sections of the petty-bourgeoisie and even some sections of the bourgeoisie in order to defeat fascism. Consequently, sometimes Popular Front policies are referred to as the united front against fascism.
Overall, Dimitrov’s theorization of fascism as an openly dictatorial, terroristic form of bourgeois dictatorship not standing above class rule, criticisms of the errors of Comintern parties in Europe and North America, and tactical policy of the Popular Front in Europe were correct. Secondarily, they opened the door to making peace with bourgeois-democracy in the name of defeating fascism, liquidating the independent role of Communists in alliances with other forces, tailing the “non-fascist” bourgeoisie and the progressive petty-bourgeoisie, and tailing the masses in the name of overcoming dogmatism and uniting the broadest number of masses possible in the fight against fascism. From 1935 on, most Communists in Europe and North America took hold of the secondary weaknesses in the political line and strategic doctrine of the Comintern’s Seventh Congress and took them in the direction of all-out reformism. Tactics became strategy, and by the outbreak of World War II, revolution had vanished as a strategic horizon from the thinking and practice of those “communist” parties.
There are two aspects of Dimitrov’s speeches that not only opened the door to reneging on revolution, but outright encouraged it. The first is the way in which, in Dimitrov’s analysis, political conflicts within Europe are made the universal question within the Comintern rather than an acutely important question at that time, but not one that defined the nature of the class struggle outside Europe. In North America, while there was a fascist movement in different forms—from support for European fascism to more US-born populist fascist movements to sections of the bourgeoisie lining up against any reforms that used government intervention to alleviate some of the suffering of the masses—it was not the same dire threat faced in some European countries. Furthermore, the political terrain in the US did not include a large social-democratic party with a lot of proletarians under its leadership, as was the case in many European countries. In fact, the US Socialist Party’s following among the masses was substantially diminishing and the SP was fracturing along factionalist lines from the mid to late 1930s.
In the colonies and oppressed nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the class and national struggle was against the imperialist bourgeoisie as a whole, not just against the fascist sections of it. The rise to power of fascism certainly had important implications on national liberation struggles. Much of the impetus for fascism was that the bourgeoisie in Germany and Japan accurately perceived a growing contradiction between their expanding economic power and their lack of colonies relative to other imperialist powers, especially England and France, and turned to a form of government based on extreme national chauvinism to resolve the contradiction. For that reason, fascist Germany, Japan, and Italy all made moves to conquer colonies, whether through attacking independent countries (Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia), invading semi-colonies under the subjugation of rival imperialists (Japan’s invasion of China), or trying to take over the colonies of other imperialist powers (much of Germany’s moves in Africa and the Middle East/West Asia, for example). In those instances, while the people of the colonies and oppressed nations were objectively fighting fascist powers, the principal character of their struggle, strategically and tactically, was anti-imperialist, not anti-fascist. This becomes clear when considering the cases of colonies and oppressed nations under the imperialist domination of “non-fascist” imperialist powers, such as in South Asia, which were not invaded by fascist powers. In South Asia, the British bourgeoisie exercised their imperialist rule in no less cruel and brutal ways than Nazi Germany, and the principal immediate goal of the masses’ struggle was to overthrow British imperialism. In the colonies and oppressed nations, the tactical question was not anti-fascism, but using inter-imperialist conflict to advance the national liberation struggle (in China, that meant tactically focusing the struggle against Japanese imperialism, whereas in South Asia it meant focusing the struggle against British imperialism).
The Comintern’s Seventh Congress failed to develop a coherent and correct guiding strategy for the colonies and oppressed nations at that time, in effect subordinating communist parties and the immediate task of national liberation there to the struggle against fascism. Dimitrov’s speeches do contain lots of praise for the heroic revolutionary struggle of the Chinese people led by the Communist Party of China, but Mao’s pathbreaking strategic innovations were not then (or ever, by the Comintern) recognized for their universal significance to revolution in the colonies and oppressed nations.285 In the absence of a clear revolutionary strategy that addressed the specific contradictions of the colonies and oppressed nations, and by in effect universalizing the struggle against fascism in Europe for the whole international communist movement, the Comintern’s Seventh Congress weakened Communist leadership of anti-imperialist struggles.
Compounding that error was the second outright erroneous political line in Dimitrov’s speeches. Dimitrov proclaimed that Communists were “the only true fighters for national freedom and the independence of the people,” with this statement applying to the imperialist countries. While this statement correctly predicts the way that the bourgeoisie of France, for example, mostly rolled over for the Nazis in the face of German invasion, it fails to address the imperialist content of national freedom in imperialist countries. Indeed, Germany’s invasion of France was always more about weakening France in order to snatch up its colonies than it was about depriving France of its “national freedom” within the borders of France.286
Furthermore, while Dimitrov correctly drew attention to the way fascists appropriated national culture, including revolutionary traditions, in order to appeal to the masses, his proposed solution to this problem was for Communists to take ownership of those revolutionary traditions and (progressive aspects of) the national culture; as he put it, “link up the present struggle with the people’s revolutionary traditions and past.” Dimitrov argued that while Communists must oppose bourgeois nationalism, they should not embrace national nihilism, even going so far as to suggest that socialist revolution (including in the imperialist countries) was the “salvation of the nation.”
This is at best a slippery slope for communists in imperialist countries, and at worst becomes an outright embrace of imperialist chauvinism. Certainly there are revolutionary and progressive traditions in imperialist countries that communists should draw on, and the culture developed in imperialist countries is a part of the life of the masses that must be critically engaged, rather than dogmatically condemned wholesale, by communists.287 And in the course of World War II, cheering the Nazi invasion of imperialist France because it weakened the French bourgeoisie would have been absurdly foolish. However, the correct approach was not for Communists to become defenders of the nation in imperialist countries, but to fight fascism, including invasion by a foreign fascist power, without losing an overall revolutionary defeatist orientation that sought to use defeats suffered by one’s “own” bourgeoisie to overthrow the rule of capitalism-imperialism. Instead, the politics of the Comintern’s Seventh Congress led to Communists in “non-fascist” imperialist countries subordinating their actions, including military resistance to invasion by fascist powers, to the “national” (imperialist) bourgeoisie of their own countries. Consequently, no proletarian dictatorships were established in Western Europe in the wake of WWII.
Through the door and into the abyss
Where the Comintern’s Seventh Congress opened the door to tailing bourgeois-democracy and discarding revolutionary objectives, the CPUSA, under Browder’s leadership, ran through that door and never looked back. Perhaps the grossest example of this fact is in how Browder and the CP interpreted Dimitrov’s rejoinder to “link up the present struggle with the people’s revolutionary traditions and past.” At the CP’s 1936 Convention, a banner read “Communism is Americanism of the twentieth century,” and the hall was decked out with portraits of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; two years later, delegates sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” at a Party Convention decorated with American flags. The CP did include the genuinely revolutionary traditions of Frederick Douglass and John Brown in its “Americanism,” but alongside the reactionary traditions of slave-owning “founding fathers.” Its embrace of Jeffersonian democracy was a replacement of communist principles with bourgeois-democracy. And the CP’s overall attempts to look like “good Americans” fighting for the national interest against fascism amounted to capitulating to US imperialism.288
Promoting American patriotism was simply the ugliest expression of the overall interpretation that the CP made of the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy, which can be summarized as:
- Lowering the ideological standards of the CP and broadening its membership and support base on that basis.
- Sinking the CP’s work within unions and labor struggles into and under the leadership of large reformist unions, especially the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but also the AFL.
- Liquidating Party-led organizations through mergers with organizations led by reformist forces—for example, the Unemployed Councils were merged with Socialist-led efforts into the Workers’ Alliance—or politically by subordinating the Party’s leading role to the class interests and outlook of non-Communist forces.
- Becoming a tail on the Democratic Party and acquiring positions within FDR’s New Deal programs, in effect making class peace with the liberal bourgeoisie in the name of anti-fascism and addressing the immediate economic needs of the masses.
- Broad alliances with the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie, without the revolutionary proletariat at the center of and playing the leading role within those alliances.
- The Cultural Front: artistic creation and a mass culture centered around anti-fascist politics.
While Comintern leadership bears significant blame for the CP’s erroneous—indeed, capitulationist—strategic direction from 1935 on, CP leadership took the Popular Front strategy far further in the direction of reformism than Dimitrov had advocated. For example, the slogan “Communism is Americanism for the twentieth century” proved too much for Comintern leadership and was dropped by the late 1930s, but without any self-criticism by the CP, let alone excavation of the ideological and political bankruptcy behind it. Undoubtedly, careerism on the part of Browder and others was a motivating factor in their interpretation of the Popular Front—they saw an opportunity to take the CP “mainstream” and reap the benefits.
However, our principal concern lies not with personalities, but with political line. Towards that end, we will elucidate the above analysis to demonstrate how the rotten political line at the core of the CP in the second half of the 1930s took outer expression in its practice and public face and rotted out the revolutionary flesh of the CP in the process. Since there is little positive to learn from the CP’s political work of 1935–39, we will, for the most part, forgo the more in-depth storytelling we have indulged in up to this point, providing a relatively brief account which does not seek to capture the full scope of the CP’s practice in this period. The interested reader can consult one of many books that covers the Popular Front period of CP history to fill in the details—there is simply too much CP activity from 1935–39 for us to address it all here.
The anti-fascist, but not communist, vanguard
The CP’s late-1930s growth in membership and broad support was based on its leading position in the struggle against fascism, not its supposedly communist politics. CP propaganda and Browder’s speeches increasingly dropped revolutionary objectives, including key phrases like the dictatorship of the proletariat, replacing them with defense of democracy against fascism. The year 1935 marked a transition away from dogmatic howlings about social-fascists and painting FDR as paving the way for fascism, but not towards a sophisticated yet revolutionary position. Instead, the CP came to embrace FDR and herald opportunists and reformists they had previously denounced. We will address the electoral dimensions of this transformation shortly; for now, let us examine the content of the CP’s anti-fascism.
A number of Party-led organizations whose main focus was anti-fascism attracted considerable support in the late 1930s. Aside from the League of American Writers, whose breadth continued to grow, the American League Against War and Fascism proved perhaps the most successful Party-led organization in this period. Its political platform increasingly dropped the connection between capitalism-imperialism and war and fascism, losing the anti-imperialist content that had previously defined it in the process. The CP traded principles for greater breadth, even allowing Lovestone into the League’s official leadership while Communists played more of a backseat role. Backsliding on principles was formalized in a name change in November 1937 to the American League for Peace and Democracy. The League never had a huge membership, with mass mobilization taking a backseat to reaching elected officials and including Congressmen, prominent clergy, and union leaders as delegates to its 1939 Congress and on its national board. The League achieved considerable mainstream legitimacy, with members of FDR’s cabinet speaking at its events and liberal journalists promoting its activities, but it failed to become a real fighting organization against fascism.289
By contrast, the CP’s best contribution to the anti-fascist struggle was a literal fighting organization: the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. When the Republican government in Spain, deemed a progressive force in the fight against fascism by the Comintern, was besieged by fascist-led elements in the Spanish military, who were sanctified by the Catholic Church and buttressed with Nazi and Italian military support, the Comintern led a major intervention to defend it. The Communist Party of Spain led the military defense of the Spanish Republic in alliance with bourgeois-democratic forces, and Comintern parties signed up volunteers to fight on the Republican side in the International Brigades. Trostskyites and anarchists refused to join with Communists in defending the Republic, instead fighting against fascists—and sometimes Communists as well—with a seemingly more radical but in fact more narrow and strategically infantile approach; they did, however, have a (secondary) point in criticizing Communists for tailing after the Republican government. Britain, France, Canada, and the US refused to support Republican Spain, fearing that doing so could draw them into war with Germany and would strengthen the Communist movement, and even blocked international support for the Republican government; US volunteers for the International Brigades had to sneak across the French border into Spain.
One hundred volunteers for the International Brigades left from the US on Christmas of 1936. Ultimately, approximately 3,000 from the US fought heroically in the International Brigades, taking heavy losses—50% never returned home. Many were CP members and proletarians, and the US contingent of the International Brigades was the first racially integrated US military regiment (obviously not an official US government military regiment, which were segregated at the time). The bravery and sacrifice of the US volunteers for the International Brigades garnered broad support, including numerous benefit concerts in the US, especially by Swing jazz bands, and US support for the anti-fascist struggle in Spain found organizational expression in the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. Fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War was a rallying cry that attracted many, in the proletariat and the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, to the CP.290
The Comintern was right to make Spain a concentration point in the struggle against fascism, and doing so allowed Communists, including in the US, to demonstrate their commitment to fighting fascism in contrast to the liberal bourgeoisie. However, subordinating the fight against fascism to the defense of the Spanish Republic, and to the “bourgeois-democratic” bourgeoisie, meant that Communists did not adequately use their leadership role and the sacrifice of their comrades to advance revolutionary strategic objectives and move the broad support for fighting fascism in Spain to greater sympathy for communist politics. The CPUSA’s contribution to the Spanish Civil War, including mobilizing literal fighters, was its most positive attribute in the late 1930s, but nevertheless reinforced tailing bourgeois-democracy. The defeat of the Spanish Republic and consolidation of fascist power under Franco in April 1939 was a heroically fought but serious defeat for the international communist movement, and posed grave challenges for the defense of the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany having a freer hand to move against it.291
The consolidation of fascist power in much of Europe, and concern about fascist reaction against the FDR government, drew wide sections of the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie into contact with and organizing efforts under the leadership of the CP. In the context of the late 1930s, many in the petty-bourgeoisie were willing to look past their political disagreements with the CP and divergent class interests to make common cause with it against fascism, especially as the CP proved the most consistent and ardent fighters against fascism. Organizations such as the National People’s Committee Against Hearst (the media mogul whose newspapers publicly supported European fascists and opposed unions and FDR’s reformist program) and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League flourished and gave the CP entry points into the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie.292 Even petty-bourgeois trepidation with the 1936–38 “show trials” in the Soviet Union, in which Bolsheviks whom Stalin deemed unreliable in light of the coming war with Nazi Germany were publicly purged and executed, did not ruin the CP’s growing ties with the progressive petty-bourgeoisie due to the latter’s commitment to anti-fascism, including the defense of the Soviet Union as a bulwark against Nazi Germany. Over “150 well-known novelists, performers, and literary critics” “signed a [public] statement in support of the trials.” The trials and executions did, however, provoke some backlash against the CP and strengthen the hand of Trotskyites among some intellectuals.293
As impressive as the CP’s growing influence among the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie may have been quantitatively, qualitatively it was another story, for it was based on a lowest-common-denominator politics of anti-fascism and support for industrial unions. There was no process of unity-struggle-unity with the progressive petty-bourgeoisie to move them from anti-fascist sentiments—a fine starting point for unity—towards a deeper unity with communist principles and revolutionary objectives. CP leadership correctly saw an opportunity to move sections of the petty-bourgeoisie to its side in the anti-fascist struggle, but stopped short of turning that opportunity into a dynamic, transformative process, except in the sense of transforming the CP into a tail on the progressive petty-bourgeoisie.
Becoming a tail on the Democratic Party
At the Comintern’s Seventh Congress, Dimitrov had suggested that the creation of a Workers and Farmers Party might be an appropriate form for developing a Popular Front electoral vehicle in the US. For a brief period thereafter, Browder and CP leadership promoted this idea, but found little interest in taking it up among other political forces, or even among CP membership. The labor movement and progressive and liberal bourgeois-democratic forces largely lined up behind FDR for the 1936 elections, and the CP wound up following suit. The CP put Browder forward as its presidential candidate, but more or less encouraged its following to vote for FDR unless their votes were guaranteed not to negatively affect FDR’s chances. Browder used the 1936 elections to cultivate more mainstream appeal, proving adept at projecting a “respectable” image to the bourgeois press and while speaking at mainstream liberal institutions. For the CP, its primary objective in the 1936 elections was to defeat the Republican candidate, Alfred Landon, and thereby stave off the fascist threat. The Party stopped arguing that FDR was paving the way for fascism and began to see him as an important, if imperfect, line of defense against fascism. Soviet foreign policy was shifting at this time in response to Germany and Japan’s November 1936 anti-Comintern pact. As the Soviet Union sought diplomatic alliances against fascist powers, it tended to put its own defense over advancing revolution in other countries, and bolstered the CP’s embrace of FDR in the process.294
In 1937, the CP moved from a defensive embrace of FDR toward becoming FDR’s most ardent supporters. Two policy shifts by the FDR administration provided CP leadership with its justification for this change. In 1935, FDR’s New Deal went from regulatory measures on “big business” whose real aim was to stabilize capitalism to reforms that provided some economic relief and employment for the masses—capitalism with welfare state characteristics—whose aim was also, in the larger sense, to stabilize capitalism. In that year alone, the Wagner Act enshrined the right to form unions and collectively bargain with employers, the Social Security Act provided social welfare to retirees and others who needed it, and the creation of the Works Progress Administration initiated federally-funded projects that employed substantial numbers of people as a way of diminishing unemployment. In 1937, FDR made increasing rhetorical gestures opposing fascism, such as in his October 5, 1937 so-called “quarantine fascism” speech and his mounting opposition to American “isolationist” politics that sought to stay out of inter-imperialist conflicts among European powers. For CP leadership, these domestic and foreign policy shifts were taken as license to openly and enthusiastically support FDR. Party publications in the late 1930s were full of praise for the president, and Browder went so far as to call him “the most outstanding anti-fascist spokesman within the capitalist democracies” (note the implied distinction with capitalist fascism). The CP even celebrated FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy towards Latin America rather than exposing it as liberal imperialism.295
Alongside the praise for FDR, the CP sought to ingratiate itself within the Democratic Party, cultivating ties with Congressmen, Senators, and FDR administration officials and using the CP’s organizational apparatus and following to support the election of “progressive” Democrats. The CP itself was reorganized along the lines of electoral districts in 1936, reversing the “Bolshevization” of the Party structure that took place in the late 1920s. The Party began to show the signs of becoming a lobbying group, deploying important cadre to Washington, DC to wheel and deal with government officials. Whereas the Unemployed Councils had been a militant mass organization in the early 1930s, the Workers’ Alliance that replaced it attempted to win concessions from Congress through lobbying efforts. CP publications directed the attention of Party members and supporters towards the machinations of bourgeois politics, with the Daily Worker starting a “Washington Front” column in 1938 authored by Clarence Hathaway. The Party began publishing a magazine in January 1939 called National Issues devoted entirely to Congressional proposals. To say that it became a “loyal opposition” does not adequately capture the CP’s capitulation to bourgeois politics, since the Party lambasted any political force that opposed FDR as betraying America—yes, the CP’s patriotism and defense of the “national interest” ran that deep and was that disgusting. The Party’s polemic fire was aimed at progressive third party candidates, such as LaFollette, who challenged Democratic Party hegemony, replacing an earlier Communist dogmatism denouncing “social-fascists” with a new dogmatism defending the rule of the liberal bourgeoisie.296
On the state government level, the CP developed close ties with liberal Democrats in California, offering their support to Governor Culbert Olson in his election campaign. California’s Lieutenant Governor, Ellis Patterson, may have even been a CP member, not that CP membership meant any allegiance to communist principles in the late 1930s. In other states, the CP worked closely within, but behind the scenes of, progressive third parties that supported the FDR administration. In Minnesota, the CP’s ties with the governing Farmer-Labor Association ran deep, with CP leaders having cordial meetings with Governor Floyd Olson and his successor, Governor Benson. In exchange for warm relations and influence on reformist policy, the CP contributed cadre to campaigning efforts for Farmer-Labor Association candidates—the skills that Communist organizers developed were put to electoral, not revolutionary, use.297
A similar relationship developed between the CP and the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF) in the Northwest. After Communists helped the WCF gain Congressional seats and become the dominant force in the Washington state Democratic Party, the WCF enacted significant reforms, including a number of economic reforms that benefited the masses and the repeal of a criminal syndicalism law that had been used against union organizing. Communists remained hidden behind the scenes within the WCF, with several secret Communists becoming Washington state legislators. The CP in Washington had a fourfold increase in membership from 1936 to 1938, and won real reforms through its electoral efforts, but in the process sacrificed class struggle, revolutionary objectives, and communist ideological standards for its recruits. In New York, Communists joined the American Labor Party, formed in 1936 by other political forces, and constituted perhaps its most solid voting bloc; here also, electoral success only buried Communist politics and the Party itself within reformism and under the leadership of non-Communist forces.298
It was not entirely wrong for the CP to develop ties and tactical alliances with elected officials during the late 1930s, but the question was on what basis and serving what ends. On the better end of the Party’s electoral work was its close relationship with Vito Marcantonio, a Congressional representative for East Harlem whose 1938 election owed much to the campaigning efforts of Communists. Marcantonio argued for the CP’s political positions within Congress and put forward Bills that were usually too radical to pass Congress.299 But the CP never acted like Bolsheviks in its electoral work; it never used bourgeois parliamentary bodies to expose the crimes of the capitalist system before the masses. Instead, it became a tail on the Democratic Party, working to pressure elected officials to legislate better reforms and more staunchly oppose fascism. Using the time and energy of Communist cadre to campaign for “progressive” candidates took the Party’s attention away from organizing the masses in militant class struggle. And by operating largely from behind the scenes within progressive electoral efforts and not disclosing the Party membership or Communist politics of its cadre working as or among government officials, the CP set itself up to get purged from any influence over or positions within government when the liberal bourgeoisie decided that having Communists around was a liability, as they did beginning in 1939. Entrenching itself within the Democratic Party and progressive third parties at the state level may have given the CP more legitimacy and gains in membership, but it had the decisively negative effect of degrading the politics of the CP, as the Party had to make compromises of principle to support candidates and electoral platforms. The firm stand that the CP took against the oppression of Black people in the 1930s was one casualty of its electoral work.
Browder was the most ardent advocate of the CP’s transformation into a tail on the Democratic Party. This was another case of the Comintern’s Seventh Congress opening the door for a reformist approach, only to have Browder and the CP run through it and keep going. Dimitrov’s opening speech at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress had suggested the possibility of a united front (or an anti-fascist Popular Front) government distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat. He carefully defined it as “an instrument of the collaboration of the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat with other anti-fascist parties, in the interests of the entire working population, a government of struggle against fascism and reaction.” He distinguished this approach from a social-democratic-led “workers’ government” that was in reality “an instrument of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie in the interests of the preservation of the capitalist order.” Clearly the CPUSA’s approach to electoral politics in the late 1930s was one of class collaboration that subordinated the interests of the proletariat to the class interests and politics of the liberal bourgeoisie. In the name of meeting the immediate needs of the workers and fighting fascism, Browder threw out the revolutionary objectives of the CP.
There was opposition within CP leadership to Browder’s enthusiasm for supporting FDR and the Democratic Party. Among the discontented were Foster, Alexander Bittelman, Sam Darcy, Bill Dunne, and William Weinstone; the latter three were demoted for their objections.300 No two-line struggle broke out within the CP over Browder’s blatantly reformist turn, likely for the following reasons: (1) Browder and the close supporters of his policies whom he stacked in leadership suppressed internal dissent—funny how the embrace of bourgeois-democracy by communist parties always, without exception, involves the suppression of democracy within the party. (2) While some Party leaders did not like Browder’s increasing reformism, they failed to develop and articulate a strong revolutionary line in opposition to it. (3) The theoretical, ideological, and political level of the CP’s membership increasingly declined in the late 1930s, making it incapable of opposing reformism on the part of its leadership. (4) Egregiously, Comintern leadership appears to have sided with Browder against his opponents within CP leadership, with the need to defend the Soviet Union, including by way of diplomatic alliance with the US, from the looming threat of Nazi invasion incorrectly being used to justify ruining the revolutionary integrity of the CPUSA. The result of no serious line struggle in opposition to reformism was that during the Popular Front period, the CP consolidated a position as a tail on the Democratic Party from which—with the exception of the 1948 elections and their aftermath—it has never really strayed since.
Giving up the Party’s independence and initiative in unions and labor struggles
Communist involvement in unions and labor struggles during the Popular Front period was an exact parallel with its involvement in electoral politics: whereas in the latter the CP subordinated itself to the Democratic Party, in the former the CP subordinated its independent politics, revolutionary objectives, and cadre to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Due to the Wagner Act providing legal protections to unions in 1935 and the FDR administration’s overall more friendly posture toward labor organizing, as well as the wave of class struggle in the early 1930s, there was a widespread mood among the working proletariat to get organized and fight for better economic conditions. Some opportunists within the labor movement who did not align with the labor aristocracy orientation of the AFL, especially John Lewis of the United Mine Workers, recognized an opportunity to advance a program of industrial unionization—organizing the mass of workers across entire industries that had little or no union representation at the time. When his advocacy of industrial unionism was rebuked at the AFL’s October 1935 convention, Lewis united with labor leaders Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky to form the Committee for Industrial Organization, subsequently rechristened the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).301
As an insurgent alternative to the well-established AFL, the incipient CIO needed to find organizers willing to do the hard work of organizing the unorganized and leading militant class struggle to firmly established the CIO among the working class. The natural place to turn was the Communist cadre schooled in class war and union organizing through their years in the TUUL. Lewis, who up to that point had acted as an enemy of the CP and been condemned by it as a “social-fascist,” cozied up to the Party and cut deals to use its cadre as CIO organizers. The massive steel industry was an early target of the CIO’s drive to organize the unorganized, and of the initial 200 paid organizers of its Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), 60 were Communists. In addition to taking jobs as CIO organizers, Communists also brought some unions under their leadership, such as the Auto Workers Union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (led by Communist Harry Bridges on the West Coast), and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers Union (UE, a conglomeration of several previously established unions), into the CIO.302
Communists played a pivotal role in the wave of “sit-down strikes”—where workers occupied the factories and prevented scabs from taking their place—in the auto industry. Starting at Fisher Body No. 1 plant in Detroit on December 30, 1936 and engulfing the auto industry in Detroit, Flint, and other cities, the sit-down strike wave of 1937 ultimately involved 400,000 workers, won numerous victories in union recognition and economic demands, and gave the CIO legitimacy as a national union that meant business. The SWOC also won union recognition, from the US Steel company, in March 1937, and had 125,000 workers under its leadership by the beginning of that year.303 The round of renewed labor militancy culminated in the Summer of 1937, which historian Michael Denning describes as “one of the most violent in the history of American workers: eighteen were killed that summer, beginning with the Memorial Day Massacre, when Chicago police killed ten steelworkers and wounded dozens at Republic Steel.”304 The CIO, with Communists in the mix, was at the heart of it all.
By becoming John Lewis’s junior partners in the burgeoning CIO, the CP achieved its greatest organizational strength among the working proletariat up to that point. The CIO claimed four million members as of its first national conference in October 1937, including several unions consisting of hundreds of thousands of members in several basic industries: mining, steel, textile, and auto. Within the growing union rolls in the late 1930s, Communists claimed a bloc of 650,000 unionized workers under their organizational leadership in 1937 (largely via the CIO). In addition to its footholds within basic industry CIO unions, Communists were strong in white collar worker unions, such as the United Office and Professional Workers of America, and among unions organizing intellectual workers, such as the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians, to which the infamous Julius Rosenberg belonged. For allowing them a place in the mainstream union movement they had long sought but never previously attained, the CP paid Lewis back with praise in the Daily Worker only second to FDR.305
But Communist organizational strength was not matched with political strength, making it a defeat in victory. CIO leadership kept the Communist organizers it hired on a tight leash and did not allow them to rise to positions of national prominence. They moved Communist cadre to other locations when they started to get too popular, and Communist organizers in the SWOC were pushed out, even systematically fired in 1938, after SWOC achieved legitimacy as a union. Lewis and CIO leaders held on to their anti-communism, and were happy to collaborate with government authorities (in the House Committee on Un-American Activities led by Representative Dies) in purges of Communists from labor unions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At the 1940 CIO convention, a resolution denouncing “totalitarianism, dictatorships, and foreign ideologies such as Nazism, Communism, and Fascism” was passed, and many CIO unions took similar positions conflating Communists with fascists and even banning Communists from leadership positions.306
Opportunists gonna opportunize, and we cannot blame them for being consistent anti-communists and betraying their Communist junior partners. We can blame the CP for the devil’s bargain it made with CIO leadership, wherein it provided organizational backbone and in exchange agreed to keep its communist convictions largely hidden from the proletarians in CIO unions. As historian Mark Naison points out, “With the exception of Ben Gold of the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union, not one Communist CIO official made his convictions publicly known and participated openly in the affairs of the party.”307 Not admitting Party membership is entirely understandable for tactical reasons, but failing to project Communist politics when the opportunity presented itself is nothing short of capitulation. Even organizationally, Communists in the CIO largely resigned themselves to a backseat role. In the United Auto Workers, where CP members gained great respect for their leading role in the strikes of 1937, they refused to take the chance to run for presidency of the union, allowing an opportunist to occupy that position whom they likely could have defeated.308
With the rise of the CIO, the Communist strategy for labor organizing became to gain positions as union bureaucrats rather than to act as militant fighters mobilizing the masses in class struggle, and certainly not as tribunes of the people in the Leninist sense. This shift took organizational expression in CP leadership’s decision to liquidate Party fractions in unions and Party-led shop newspapers, the key vehicles for projecting Communist politics to the masses within unions.309 As historian Robin DG Kelley sums up,
The [CP] Central Committee’s decision to dismantle its rank-and-file committees and subordinate the Party’s broader goals to the needs of industrial unionism undeniably opened doors for individual Communists… But in the long run, such a policy cost the Party dearly, both in numerical and political strength… By assuming primary roles as New Deal labor bureaucrats and dutiful organizers, most Communists became indistinguishable from other labor leaders.310
Some Communist CIO organizers decided to leave the Party, as they could have stable careers with less risk of repression as union leaders without Communist baggage. Others stayed in the Party but became increasingly divorced from the masses, functioning as free agents in positions of power removed from the collectivity and discipline of Party fractions. With its embrace of the position of union bureaucrats, the CP became willing to suppress class struggle, in stark contrast to its practice in the early 1930s. During the strike wave of 1937, when wildcat strikes swept the auto industry, the CP followed the CIO’s lead in seeking to smooth things over with capitalists and even condemn unauthorized strikes (in CP rationale, they jeopardized the unity of the Popular Front). CP leadership even transferred and demoted William Weinstone, a long-time Party leader assigned to Michigan during the 1937 strike wave, for supporting the wildcat strikes.311
Dizzy with success at finally gaining acceptance in a large mainstream union, US Communists failed to recognize the negative long-term dynamics being set in motion in the late 1930s with the legalization of unions and the corralling of millions of workers into official unions led by a permanent bureaucracy. The early militancy of the CIO would soon diminish, with its leaders becoming, if they were not already, labor lieutenants negotiating class peace with the bourgeoisie in the post-WWII order as many of the workers belonging to the CIO were bourgeoisified with the spoils of imperialism. The insurgent energy of the CIO in the late 1930s evaporated as it became institutionalized within the terrain of bourgeois politics and merged with the AFL in 1955. Before bourgeoisification and institutionalization were consolidated, Communists had a real opportunity to wage class struggle within the CIO and fight for combat, not union-bureaucrat, positions and challenge opportunist hegemony over labor unions. They failed to even try.
Black liberation replaced with Black petty-bourgeois respectability
From a historical perspective, probably the best thing you could say about the CP during its Popular Front phase was that it continued to be the staunchest opponent of the oppression of Black people in the US at the time. The Party’s involvement in the CIO pushed anti-discrimination and equality between Black and white union members into the mainstream labor movement. Communists were largely responsible for forcing Major League baseball to bring in Black players, with Lester Rodney’s sports column in the Daily Worker relentlessly pushing the issue and the Young Communist League carrying out agitation and protests. In education, the CP led a successful protest campaign with broad support to get Max Yergan hired to teach Black history at the City College of New York, forcing the desegregation of the faculty dining hall in the process. The Party also set up the Harlem Committee for Better Schools, which involved a breadth of parents, churches, and teachers and successfully fought for the building of two new schools (Harlem schools were in decrepit conditions), protested mistreatment and physical assault of Black children by white school officials, and improved the quality of education. Far ahead of the curve, Communists heralded the contributions of Black culture, music, literature, and art to US society, a topic we will return to below.312
However, the content of the CP’s opposition to the oppression of Black people changed for the worse at this time. Putting the unity of the Popular Front above all else inevitably meant some degree of compromises with white supremacy within the labor movement and among the liberal petty-bourgeoisie and white proletarians; the lasting effects of the Party’s firm stand against white supremacy in the early 1930s prevented these compromises from going that far. At a deeper level, the CP changed its strategic orientation on the Black national question in a fundamentally flawed direction. At its November 1935 meeting, the Party’s Central Committee dropped the concept of and slogan for self-determination for the oppressed Black nation in the Black Belt South. Their rationale was that the slogan had never really resonated with the Black masses; as we argued previously, the reason the slogan did not become a material force was that the CP failed to develop and implement a strategy that could turn self-determination in the Black Belt into a potential reality. Dropping the slogan for self-determination was not just a rhetorical matter: the militant struggles among Black sharecroppers and proletarians the Party had led in Alabama greatly diminished in the late 1930s, and reformist struggles for the political rights of Black people overtook the revolutionary character of the Party’s early-1930s strategic approach to the Black national question.313
In violation of the Comintern’s 1928 and 1930 Resolutions on the Black National Question, beginning in 1935, the CP began to prioritize gaining respectability and support among the Black petty-bourgeoisie over mobilizing Black proletarians as the leading class force in the Black liberation struggle. This transformation took organizational expression in the Party’s new principal vehicle for opposing the oppression of Black people, the National Negro Congress NNC). Founded at a conference in Chicago in February 1936 attended by over “800 delegates from 551 organizations representing three million people,” the NNC’s greatest strength was its breadth. Leaders from the NAACP and Urban League were involved, along with major Black churches and social and cultural institutions, and A Philip Randolph was elected as its president. The NNC’s secretary, and its main practical leader, was John P Davis, who came from Washington, DC’s Black petty-bourgeoisie and had a law degree from Harvard. Davis spent 1933–35 in the nation’s capital campaigning against discrimination in New Deal policies, making ties with Black reformist forces, intellectuals, and leaders in the process. In the mid-1930s, his political sympathies moved to the CP; he almost certainly joined the Party, but never functioned openly as a Party member in order to facilitate the broad political alliance of the NNC. The Party’s role in the NNC was mostly in the background, consciously crafting it as a united front organization but missing, politically and organizationally, the crucial under the leadership of the proletariat suffix of the united front. The NNC’s relationship to the proletariat was as a support group for CIO unionizing efforts—one reformist-in-orientation united front buttressed another.314
Like the League of American Writers and the American League for Peace and Democracy, with the National Negro Congress, the CP traded proletarian militancy for breadth, mainstream respectability, and reach into bourgeois electoral politics. Even when it did mobilize the masses, it was towards reformist rather the revolutionary ends. For example, an NNC anti-lynching protest in New York in April 1938 brought out 8,000 people to Union Square, but for the purpose of putting pressure on elected representatives to pass an anti-lynching bill. The character of the CP’s presence in Harlem also shifted during this period, with the NNC focused on fighting discrimination in federal Works Progress Administration programs, but in ways that mostly benefited the Black petty-bourgeoisie. Winning federal funding for Black theater programs certainly boosted the CP’s prestige among Black petty-bourgeois intellectuals and artists, but moved the Party away from Black proletarians. By 1938–39, the Party’s use of militant protest tactics and mobilization of the unemployed in Harlem had largely disappeared, and into the breach stepped narrow nationalist forces, including a comeback by Ira Kemp and Arthur Reid, who increased their following among Black proletarians by focusing on their concerns. Some Black comrades in Harlem began to leave the Party as its practice departed from what had inspired them to join it in the first place.315
In the South, the CP’s efforts to cultivate breadth meant compromising its militant stand against white supremacy and doing everything possible to hide its communist convictions. The Party’s attempt to form a coalition with Southern liberals took organizational shape in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which focused on campaigning for civil liberties—“democracy in the South.” Its first meeting in 1938 harnessed impressive breadth, but the “interracial” petty-bourgeois attendees refused to risk arrest for breaking segregation laws when notorious white-supremacist Birmingham city commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor showed up with police to enforce them. (Fun fact: Eleanor Roosevelt responded to this incident by sitting in the aisle that separated Black and white attendees; you have to admire the First Lady’s chutzpah.) Try as the CP did to bury its communist politics to make Southern liberals comfortable, pervasive anti-communism within the Southern Conference for Human Welfare prevented it from developing as an effective united front vehicle. A more successful endeavor in the South was the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), formed out of the NNC in 1937 with significant, but not too open, Communist leadership and participation. After the SNYC moved its headquarters to Birmingham in 1939, it became the central force there protesting police brutality and fighting for social equality and political rights for Black people. A number of college-educated young Black organizers, including many women, cut their teeth through the SNYC and renewed a little of the militancy that had previously characterized the CP’s practice in Alabama.316
It was not wrong, in and of itself, for the CP to strive for greater breadth in its political work on the Black national question and for deeper ties among the Black petty-bourgeoisie. However, the way the Party did this in the Popular Front period involved compromising its political line, putting the weight of its work among Black people on the petty-bourgeoisie rather than proletarians, and giving up its independence and initiative in the name of uniting with other forces. Consequently, the CP liquidated some of its most exemplary interventions on the Black national question, including its organizing efforts among Black sharecroppers and the ILD’s practice of militant mobilization. In Birmingham, the Party outright dismantled the ILD in 1937 and encouraged its cadre and supporters to join the NAACP, breathing new life into a reformist vehicle of the Black petty-bourgeoisie rather than developing the organized strength of the masses under Communist leadership.317 The logic of liquidation in the name of breadth deprived the masses of the organizational vehicles and Communist leadership they needed for decades to come, as evident in the hegemony of petty-bourgeois reformist leadership over the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 60s, which was only challenged when a new generation of revolutionaries, disconnected from the CP, came on the scene.
“Communists,” but not communism, embedded in US culture
Largely purged from popular consciousness and the history books, the magnitude of CP involvement in artistic creation and the production of mass culture in the US during the Popular Front period cannot be understated. Party members and a broader mass of “fellow travelers” and sympathizers were embedded within the culture industry and Works Progress Administration (WPA) federally-funded cultural institutions, including some star performers and influential producers. Objectively, the previously discussed openings within the still-in-formation culture industry combined with a rare moment in US history when, under FDR, the government created and funded massive cultural institutions that employed many and reached many more, creating a strong basis for Communist infiltration. Furthermore, the politics of the Popular Front, with its emphasis on anti-fascism and democracy, appealed to petty-bourgeois artists and cultural workers, and a robust “Cultural Front” supported and fostered labor struggles and unionization, protests against the oppression of Black people, and the anti-fascist causes of the day. Unfortunately the CP never took this opening in a revolutionary direction, but before admonishing its strategic approach, let us give some sense of the magnitude of its cultural reach in the Popular Front period318:
- Communist involvement in the Federal Theatre Project, which had a weekly audience of 400,000, ran so deep that Congress shut it down in 1939, “declaring it to be a ‘hotbed of communism.’”319
- CP members and sympathizers were involved in various film industry professional associations for actors, screenwriters, and directors and mobilized Hollywood personalities in support of anti-fascist causes. To give just one example, the great filmmaker and theater director Orson Welles was deeply involved in the Popular Front and worked with (but never joined) the CP, and his 1941 classic Citizen Kane can be understood as an allegory for the Popular Front political conflicts of the day. The focus on Hollywood during the post-WWII “Red Scare”— during which the “Hollywood Ten” heroically refused to testify before Congressional anti-Communist hearings, some popular Hollywood personalities snitched on their colleagues, and actors, screenwriters, and directors were blacklisted for their Communist associations—was the counterrevolutionary response to real CP influence in the film industry.320
- The CP also gained a foothold in the burgeoning cartoon industry, as indicated by the 1941 Disney cartoonists strike, although given the dictatorial control of the politically reactionary Walt Disney, it was difficult for the Popular Front movement to impact the political content of cartoons.
- Some Popular Front cultural creations were broadcast on the radio, potentially reaching into the homes of tens of millions of people given the dramatic expansion of radio ownership in the first decades of the twentieth century.
- Numerous writers working in virtually all mediums, from fiction to newspapers, were involved in the Popular Front, with a few joining the CP. The League of American Writers and Communist involvement in unions of professional writers provided organizational vehicles for the Party to steer the political commitments and activities of writers, though it did little to shape their artistic output under Browder’s “non-interference” policy.
- Painters and visual artists also flocked to the Popular Front movement, and their output was in turn inspired by the struggles of the masses. For a sense of the beauty of Communist-inspired aesthetics, check out Hale Woodruff’s late 1930s murals depicting episodes in the historic 1839 revolt of slaves who overtook their captors while being transported to the US on the Amistad ship.321
To get a deeper sense of the Cultural Front that accompanied the Popular Front, let us turn to some of its musical creations, since these can perhaps be more easily accessed (via recordings) and understood by audiences today. The rebellious youth culture of the second half of the 1930s was centered around Swing jazz, with the audiences of the Swing big bands crossing the lines of segregation in their cultural tastes and sometimes physically on the dance floor. The Popular Front movement inspired and supported struggles by jazz musicians against discrimination of and unequal pay for Black performers and the segregation and Jim Crow laws they were subjected to. CP fellow-traveler John Hammond, a music producer from an elite bourgeois family, played a pivotal role in fomenting the first integrated jazz bands, such as Benny Goodman’s; bringing great Black jazz musicians, such as the Count Basie big band and Billie Holiday, to the national spotlight; and enlisting jazz musicians to support Popular Front causes. Hammond worked with the CP-led cultural journal New Masses to produce the landmark 1938 concert From Spirituals to Swing, which portrayed and celebrated the historical development of Black music. The Daily Worker began its public embrace of Swing jazz in September 1937; it and other CP publications were among the first in the US to articulate the idea that Black music was at the center of US musical culture.322
The CP in Harlem, with its mix of Black and Jewish comrades, was the first contingent of the Party to recognize Swing’s potential as a youth culture with liberatory energy. CP-sponsored Swing dances became central to the Party’s youth culture; numerous jazz musicians, including virtually all the greats of the era, played at Popular Front benefit concerts; and some important figures in the jazz world became close to or even joined the Party. Featured dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club Howard “Stretch” Johnson became a CP leader; Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie band recorded the anti-lynching and pro-labor song “It’s the Same Old South,” which they had performed at a Popular Front revue; and pianist Teddy Wilson developed a reputation as the “Marxist Mozart” for his role in organizing musicians in support of Popular Front causes and the 1943 city council campaign of Communist Benjamin Davis. Communist involvement in jazz ran so deep that as late as 1952, amid anti-Communist hysteria and the blacklisting of artists with Communist associations, bebop legend Charlie Parker performed at a benefit concert for then-imprisoned Benjamin Davis.323
The best-known product of the Communist impact on jazz is the most iconic protest song in US history and the anti-lynching anthem of the late-1930s: “Strange Fruit.” The largely unknown story behind its creation is illuminating. In December 1938, taking inspiration from Europe’s radical political cabarets, Barney Josephson opened Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village; its moniker was an ironic dig at bourgeois high society. Barney’s brother Leon was an ILD lawyer and had been part of the anti-Nazi underground in Europe, including a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Leon’s anti-fascist zeal was evident in the effigy of Hitler hanging by a noose from Café Society’s ceiling. In addition to featuring Jewish comedians, Barney Josephson worked with John Hammond to recruit radicalized jazz musicians as regular performers in small-ensemble settings fitting for the venue. Among these performers was pianist Teddy Wilson and the singers Lena Horne, Helen Humes, Sarah Vaughn, and Josh White, the latter a Carolina Piedmont blues singer who recorded three spectacular song cycles in the early 1940s laden with Popular Front politics: Harlem Blues, Chain Gang, and Southern Exposure. By far the biggest name to grace Café Society was Billie Holiday, and the riveting emotional center of her performances there was the slow-tempo “Strange Fruit.” With lyrics penned by Jewish Communist teacher Abel Meeropol (he used the pen name Lewis Allen), Holiday’s heart-wrenching vocal delivery of the horrifying metaphors in “Strange Fruit” turned it into one of the most powerful protests against the Southern tradition of lynching of Black people. Café Society was perhaps the most socially integrated cultural venue of its time, encouraging interaction across racial lines, and became a popular nightspot for radicalized intellectuals and artists; Eleanor Roosevelt even decided to hang out there once. Its politics and culture proved too radical for the bourgeoisie to allow after WWII, and it closed its doors in 1947 after attacks from the Hearst press and Leon Josephson being found guilty of contempt for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.324
In addition to their involvement in Swing-era jazz, Communists were at the forefront of politicizing American folk music traditions and making them a part of (urban) mass culture. We have previously drawn attention to Composers Collective member Earl Robinson’s composition of political folk songs in the late 1930s. Another Composers Collective member, Charles Seeger, was part of the drive to record rural folk musicians using federal funds in WPA projects via his administrative position within the WPA’s music programs. Through these efforts, the Delta Blues folk tradition was brought out of obscurity and the Black musicians who were part of it were given their due historical and artistic credit. Some of the musicians recorded through WPA projects were then enlisted to support Popular Front causes and perform at benefit concerts, such as the great Leadbelly. Seeger’s son Pete Seeger went on to become an important composer and performer of protest folk songs and a member of the folk ensemble the Weavers.325
By the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s, two of the most popular but also polar opposite performers of folk songs—Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson—were closely aligned with the CP, and put their fame and music in service of the Popular Front movement. Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads dramatized the plight of the Oklahoma masses, dispossessed by the dust storms of the 1930s on top of the poverty of the Great Depression, who migrated to California, where they were exploited as agricultural proletarians in the “factories in the field.” His rustic anthems documented the lives of the oppressed through the art of story-telling verses and universalizing refrains, while his more agitprop-style songs offered a firm defense of the Soviet Union and uncompromising anti-fascism. The slogan “this machine kills fascists” that Guthrie emblazoned on his guitar has found a rightful place on the guitars of radical musicians down to today.326
Robeson, by contrast, was a multilingual performer with an operatic baritone voice who drew from folk traditions from all over the world, creating, in Denning’s words, “a symbolic federation of national folk musics anchored in the African American spiritual.” In addition to an exceptional singer, Robeson was also known as an outstanding actor and orator, and had innumerable other talents. Becoming a supporter of the international communist movement and African anti-colonial struggles while living in London in the 1930s and traveling around the world as a performer, with his experience in the Soviet Union life-altering, Robeson returned to the US in 1939. He became perhaps the most well-known Black political figure of the 1940s, whose speeches and singing touched the hearts of millions around the world, deeply connecting with the international proletariat and with anyone committed to the struggle against fascism. The post-WWII Red Scare brought Robeson’s performance career to a virtual halt, and his great artistry and tremendous popularity have been purged from popular consciousness.327
The widespread purge of Communist impact on US culture from the history books has been necessary for the bourgeoisie for several reasons: (1) They do not want to admit the breadth of influence the CP had on US culture, including music genres such as folk and jazz that are considered distinctly “American,” and on a number of beloved performers and artists. Dimitrov had a point about the struggle over who national culture belongs to, and today’s communists should certainly assert the hidden history of late 1930s US culture (but, unlike the CP of that time, without a hint of American patriotism). (2) The historical reality flies in the face of the anti-communist narrative on art and culture that associates capitalism with creativity and communism with regimentation and stultification. The CP in the 1930s played an aesthetically productive role that harnessed the creativity of artists in a number of different mediums towards political ends. (3) The CP’s infiltration of the culture industry highlights the potential for using openings within the bourgeoisie’s ideological state apparatuses for creating breaches in the inner walls of bourgeois hegemony.
That last point brings us to our final example of Communist impact on music in the late 1930s: Marc Blitzstein’s infamous musical The Cradle Will Rock. After his experience in the Composers Collective, Blitzstein turned to musical theater, and, for The Cradle Will Rock, took inspiration from the labor struggles of the day to dramatize life in the steel industry. The characters and setting of this musical are rather on the nose: in “Steeltown, USA,” Mr. Mister personifies the bourgeoisie while Larry Foreman leads the workers to victory at the end. The one character with whom Blitzstein opts out of obviousness in favor of metaphor is Moll, a prostitute who proves the most honest of all those onstage, the only character clear on her role within the ruling production and social relations.
Where the plot of The Cradle Will Rock seeks to expose the contradictions of capitalism, the scandal surrounding its premier exposed the contradictions within the bourgeoisie’s ideological state apparatuses at the time. The Cradle Will Rock was funded by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Program, but that funding was pulled, and the theater doors locked, right before its first scheduled performance due to its political content. Blitzstein, cast, and audience made their way to another, politically friendly theater, but union rules forbade the pit orchestra from performing and the actors from taking the stage because their WPA contract had been revoked and they would not be paid. So on June 17, 1937, Blitzstein took the stage solo and performed the musical accompaniment from the piano, without the pit orchestra, while the actors performed their parts and sung their songs from among the audience. The political controversy and the unusual performance garnered substantial press coverage, and it has since become a tradition to perform The Cradle Will Rock with only piano accompaniment.328 The larger point here is that by taking advantage of openings and establishing footholds within federally-funded cultural institutions under the FDR administration, Communists and their supporters provoked class struggle in the cultural sphere, forcing the split in the bourgeoisie out into the open as reactionaries sought to stop WPA programs that were being used by Communists. Before the WPA cultural programs were dismantled, Communist-inspired art was produced that reached a wider audience than would have been possible without the use of federally-funded institutions.
* * *
As a culture of opposition to fascism and the oppression of Black people and in support of unions and labor struggles, the art, literature, music, and theater of the Popular Front should be upheld and celebrated. The problem is that it never rose above that level to become a revolutionary culture. That is not the fault of the artists involved, but of the CP for not leading those artists beyond their spontaneous inclinations and the Popular Front political program which tailed after their spontaneous (democratic) inclinations and (vomit) even promoted American patriotism. Largely missing from the Cultural Front was communist content, which did not need to be a dividing line for participation, but did need to be at the core of a broader movement and move artists from their political starting point towards the class outlook of the revolutionary proletariat. As in everything else we have addressed in the Popular Front, the CP buried its communist politics within the breadth of support it gained among artists and cultural workers in the late 1930s. In so doing, it set itself up to be on the receiving end of counterrevolutionary backlash it could not defend itself from as many of its former petty-bourgeois allies abandoned it when the bourgeoisie moved, after WWII, to purge the CP from its footholds in mass culture and the arts.
Rotting from the core to the skin to the flesh
During the Popular Front period, the CP reached its quantitative height, nearing 100,000 members at the end of the 1930s, and its widest geographical spread. The Party was deeply entrenched in a number of proletarian neighborhoods, at the heart of the CIO’s mass industrial unionism, leading a broad anti-fascist movement involving the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie, working within the culture industry and WPA cultural institutions, and developing ties and influence in bourgeois electoral politics.329 The political line and strategic approach behind that expansion in numbers and breadth, however, was one that reneged on revolution in favor of reformism, bourgeois-democracy, tailing after the bourgeois-democratic illusions of the popular classes, and subordinating the Party to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ideological and political rot at the core of the CP, personified in Browder’s leadership, took outer expression in the politics of the Popular Front movement and in turn corroded the Party’s membership, rotting from the core (leadership) to the skin (the mass movement) to the flesh (Party members).
New recruits were drawn into the CP in the late 1930s not mainly on the basis of communist principles, but on the basis of the politics of the Popular Front, and the Party’s political education became haphazard at best, failing to transform Party members into conscious communists. The Daily Worker hit a 100,000 Sunday circulation in the late 1930s, but took a lowest-common-denominator political approach in order to cultivate mainstream appeal—a far cry from Lenin’s conception of the communist press as a tribune of the people training the masses in proletarian class-consciousness. Consequently, the sights of Party members and followers did not get beyond the horizon of fighting fascism. As historian Harvey Klehr points out, “The specter of revolution that had animated the first generation of Communists was less vivid among this one. They still desired a socialist society, but its urgency was no longer the political issue. Fighting fascism and struggling for reforms took precedence.”330
Party membership itself no longer meant a dedication to revolution, but was more like being a part of a political club that took up anti-fascist causes and supported labor unions. Membership standards were relaxed to the point where Party members were not even required to attend meetings, a seemingly sacrilegious offense to all those of us who know from experience that from the moment you join a communist organization, your life includes lots of long meetings. The basic membership of the Party was reorganized from units of around ten members to larger branches, often of 50–100. This change may have facilitated a larger membership base, but it did not provide a format for the kind of in-depth political discussion, line struggle, and being involved in solving the concrete challenges of the revolution that should be at the heart of Party life. The proportion of women in the CP finally reached near 50%, and some women were promoted into Party leadership; while that may have led to some challenges to patriarchy within the Party, it was not accompanied by putting women’s liberation at the core of what it means to be a Communist.331
There remained dedicated cadre in the CP, including those who persevered through the difficult years of repression, isolation, and factionalism in the 1920s, those who led fierce class struggle and integrated with the masses in the early 1930s, and some new recruits who dedicated themselves to the Popular Front movement. The latter may have had the potential to become revolutionaries, but their political development was stunted by the guiding strategy and ideological rot of the Party. There was no shortage of talent in the CP (and we mean talent here in the proletarian sense of skills acquired through collective work, not in the bourgeois sense of innate abilities or individual genius). There were comrades, veterans and new recruits, who could agitate, write, organize, develop ties among the masses and the progressive petty-bourgeoisie, move through complex political dynamics with sophistication and nuance, and even produce some valuable intellectual work. But the decisive question is what political line, what objectives, was that talent put in service of. Attempts to evaluate the CP based on impressive individuals who joined it in the late 1930s, such as Claudia Jones or Herbert Aptheker, and perhaps produced some interesting writing or were good union organizers or mass movement leaders miss the matter of what their talents were used for: revolution or reform, communism or revisionism.
Stalin and Comintern leadership were correct…until they weren’t
In this section on the Popular Front period, we have rightfully lambasted CP leadership for reneging on communist principles and wasting the mass energy, commitment, and talents of its followers on a program that made peace with the bourgeoisie in the name of fighting fascism, liquidating the vanguard role and independence and initiative of the Party in the process. But our starting point was the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress that opened the door to, and in some ways encouraged, the CP’s capitulation to US imperialism. Let us end our summation of the Popular Front period with a last word on the Comintern’s role in the ideological and political deterioration of the CPUSA.
Understandably, when it comes to the Comintern, Maoists have focused much of their attention on the incorrect guidance that the Comintern gave to and sometimes imposed on the Chinese Communist Party in opposition to Mao’s revolutionary line and correct strategy. But a more complicated picture emerges when directing our attention to the US Communist movement, where Stalin and Comintern leadership played a decisive and overwhelmingly correct role in relation to the CPUSA up until 1935. Nevertheless, that positive role of Comintern leadership could turn into its opposite when Comintern leadership developed incorrect lines, and that prospect was compounded by the over-centralization of the Comintern, with the CPSU playing the role of “father party” within it, and with the CPUSA’s over-reliance on Comintern leadership for developing its own political line and strategy. The problem is still fundamentally a question of political line—whether the political line of Stalin and Comintern leadership was correct or not—but the form through which that line was developed and disseminated also mattered. The over-centralization of the Comintern and the “father party” role of the CPSU to some degree hindered the ability of communists in other parties to think critically and creatively while remaining grounded in communist principles and revolutionary objectives.
When criticizing Stalin and Comintern leadership for their shortcomings when it came to methods of leadership, we should do so with great sympathy for the challenges they faced. The communist parties that developed in the US and Europe (and other places too) after the Russian Revolution were riddled with ideological and political problems, including reformism, syndicalism, dogmatism, and stubborn immaturity. Comintern leadership correctly fought to overcome these problems, and sometimes resorted to imposing correct lines on those communist parties in question. Such impositions kept those parties on track, and the CPUSA went further down the road to reformism exactly when the Comintern relaxed its leadership over it. Because the Soviet Union was seeking diplomatic alliances with “non-fascist” imperialist countries to defend itself against the coming war with Nazi Germany, the Comintern backed off from direct leadership of communist parties around the world after its Seventh Congress. The last official Comintern representative to the CPUSA, Gerhart Eisler, left the US in 1936, giving Browder a freer hand to lead the Party to tail bourgeois-democracy.332
Nevertheless, even with its overwhelmingly positive role in relation to US Communists up until 1935, Comintern leadership, no matter how correct, could not resolve the underlying ideological and political weaknesses of Comintern parties unless leaders emerged within those communist parties that truly internalized and developed those correct lines. The emergence of such leaders would have strengthened the ability of Comintern parties to develop correct lines independent of Comintern imposition and oppose, in a principled way, incorrect lines coming from Comintern leadership. Few such leaders developed within Comintern parties, and certainly not within the CPUSA; Mao and his closest comrades in the Chinese Communist Party were the brilliant exceptions to the rule.333
Soviet diplomatic maneuvers and American dogmatic idiocy
The CP’s Popular Front approach was upended in late Summer 1939 not by a revolutionary challenge from within, but from without by Soviet diplomatic maneuvers. On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for the Soviet and German foreign ministers who negotiated it. The treaty allowed the Soviet Union to annex territory from its Eastern and Northern European neighbors without Nazi interference, and for Germany to invade western Poland and other countries without Soviet interference.
From the beginning of the Nazis’ rise to power, Soviet leadership knew that it would likely face invasion by Germany, for the Nazis despised communism more than anything else, the existence of a large socialist state threatened the capitalist-imperialist order which the Nazis sought greater power over, and other imperialist powers were happy to steer Nazi Germany east into confrontation with the Soviet Union. Stalin’s response was to strengthen the Soviet Union’s ability to defend itself by building up the Red Army and industrial production to support military prowess, purging unreliable elements from the Party and military leadership, and, most egregiously, rehabilitating Russian nationalism to unify the nation against external threat. Many of Stalin’s decisions during this period, while made out of real necessity when facing difficult challenges, bred revisionist tendencies within the Soviet Union and relied on top-down, commandist methods to resolve contradictions within the Party and among the people.
As the only socialist state in the world faced a grave existential threat, the Comintern increasingly placed the defense of the Soviet Union—a real priority—above revolutionary advances outside of Soviet territory, incorrectly equating the defense of the Soviet Union one-to-one with advancing the world revolution and refusing to do anything that would risk the security of the Soviet state. When the Soviet Union understandably sought diplomatic alliances with “non-fascist” imperialist powers, namely Britain, France, and the US, in order to stave off the fascist threat, those tactical diplomatic maneuvers impacted and even defined the strategic approach of Comintern parties in “non-fascist” imperialist countries, a part of the reason why the CPUSA embraced FDR. While some tactical adjustments by Comintern parties to bolster the defense of the Soviet Union may have been acceptable, making peace with the liberal bourgeoisie, taking up American patriotism, and repudiating the need for revolution was capitulation.
Soviet diplomacy, like all tactical maneuvers, was bound to change with the balance of forces in inter-imperialist conflicts and foreign policy shifts by imperialist powers—a good reason why Soviet diplomacy should not have defined strategy for Comintern parties. So when the Soviet Union made a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany, it upended the strategic approach of Comintern parties. There are certainly criticisms to make of the Soviet agreement with Nazi Germany—Soviet leadership did not need to celebrate a diplomatic agreement with fascists with so much glee, and it is hard to fully justify using the Red Army to annex territory in order to create a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany while diplomatically sanctifying Nazi Germany’s own annexation of territory. But since our focus is on the CPUSA, let us turn to how it responded to the agreement, leaving it for another day to more thoroughly excavate the positives and negatives of Soviet diplomacy.
Hearing the news that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the arch-enemy of the Popular Front, had signed a non-aggression treaty came as a great shock to leaders and members of the CP, and they were at first paralyzed by it, waiting to publicly respond. The whole Popular Front strategy had been based on fighting fascism, in part to defend the Soviet Union, but now the Soviet Union was defending itself by cutting a deal with the preeminent fascist power. Browder in particular tried to cling on to the now outdated Popular Front strategy of support for FDR and “capitalist democracies” against fascism as long as he could, even ignoring and suppressing messages from Dimitrov insisting that the CP stop being a tail on FDR.334
Comintern leadership justified Soviet diplomatic maneuvers on the grounds that the conflict between the fascist and Allied powers was an inter-imperialist conflict, and the Soviet Union did not have a stake in either side; most Comintern parties followed suit in their propaganda. This was somewhat of an about-face for the Comintern, which had increasingly drawn a distinction between bourgeois-democracies and fascism and defended the former against the latter, but it was a blatant and embarrassing about-face for the CPUSA. For two months after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, CP propaganda fumbled about trying to publicly justify Soviet diplomacy from the perspective of Popular Front politics. Then government repression intervened: on October 23, 1939, Browder was arrested for having previously traveled on a false passport.335
The bourgeoisie had been growing increasingly concerned about the CP’s cozy relationship with government officials under the FDR administration, and reactionaries within government were already mounting Communist witch hunts and purges, for example in the education system in New York. As the CP fell out of line with US international alliances, government repression increased. Growing numbers of Communists were arrested on trumped up charges and faced serious prison time, and on January 22, 1940, Browder was sentenced to four years in prison. The Smith Act, passed by Congress in 1940, “made it a crime to advocate for the overthrow of the United States government.” The Voorhis Registration Act, passed the same year, called “for the dissolution and arrest of the leaders of any organization with international affiliation considered a threat to national security at the discretion of the Attorney General.” Both had obvious implications for the CP.336
Shortly after Browder’s arrest, CP propaganda came out swinging against FDR for the first time in years, with the October 28, 1939 issue of the Daily Worker criticizing the president for being pro-British imperialism. From Fall 1939 until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the CP opposed US support for the Allied powers or any moves toward involvement in the war. They followed Comintern guidance in labeling war between the Allies and fascist powers an inter-imperialist conflict, and some mild revolutionary rhetoric and talk of socialism returned to CP propaganda.337 The problem was that the CP should have been calling attention to the inter-imperialist nature of the growing global conflict, including and especially the imperialist nature of the US, all along, while also uniting all who could be united against fascism and in defense of the Soviet Union. Had it been doing so, it would not have been so difficult to differentiate between Soviet diplomatic maneuvers and the duty of Communists to condemn fascism and imperialist aggression by bourgeois governments of all stripes.
Even with Comintern encouragement and facing government repression, CP leadership remained reluctant to rupture with Popular Front politics. While the CP did not endorse FDR in the 1940 election, its slogans at the time were “For jobs, security, democracy, and peace” and “Unite the American people around the New Deal and its progressive policies.”338 The Party’s criticism of FDR and, by extension, the liberal bourgeoisie, remained relatively tame, and their timidity was buttressed by the fact that FDR avoided getting the US fully embroiled in WWII until Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The changed international situation in Fall 1939 did not provoke a deeper strategic rethinking from the CP, as evidenced by how quickly the Party returned to the worst of Popular Front politics following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
From the Fall of 1939 to June 1941, the CP tried, and miserably failed, to hold on to the breadth and alliances it had built in the preceding years. The Party was booted out of its influence on bourgeois electoral politics. Most of the allies and supporters it had developed among the progressive and liberal petty-bourgeoisie left the Party’s orbit, with some becoming bitter anti-communists. The Party-led organizations built by tailing the petty-bourgeoisie, such as the National Negro Congress, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the League of American Writers, were substantially weakened or fell apart. In CIO unions, the Party managed to hold onto many of its positions as union bureaucrats by concealing Party membership and not making its views on the World War and defense of Soviet diplomacy an issue. In the Party itself, there was a 15% drop in membership in 1939–40, and the CP had trouble replenishing its ranks when it lost its credibility as staunch anti-fascists.339 Opportunism has its price: since the large following the CP built in the Popular Front period was based on tailing bourgeois-democracy and a lowest-common-denominator anti-fascism (which is essentially liberal anti-fascism), that following had no problem turning its back on the CP when the opportunist pact it had made with them—we will not challenge your bourgeois-democratic prejudices if you join our anti-fascist movement—was no longer valid. (A good question to consider: what was worse, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Browder-FDR Pact?)
When it comes to the CP’s relationship with the Comintern, a number of historical narratives of the CP, especially those by Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr, paint CP leadership as sycophants willing to change their politics on a dime, even to the point of a hypocritical about-face, in order to get in line with the Comintern and Soviet leadership. On a surface level, that characterization appears an accurate description of CP actions in Fall 1939, even though, as we have shown, Browder was hesitant to abandon Popular Front politics and CP propaganda never really did rupture with framing the international conflict as between democracy vs. fascism. However, pulling back the lens from a narrow focus on the brief period of peace between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany before the latter’s all-out invasion of the former, a different picture emerges.
A more accurate description of the general dynamic at work between the CP and Comintern leadership would be that: (1) Having failed to develop into visionary, strategic commanders of communist revolution, the authority and prestige of CP leaders among the membership and mass base of the CP rested almost entirely on their association with and allegiance to the Comintern and the Soviet Union. Given that careerism and the factionalist mentality were pervasive among CP leaders, they were unwilling to jeopardize their authority and prestige by defying Comintern and Soviet leadership. (2) CP leadership did not, in fact, readily go along with whatever politics came down to them from the Comintern and Soviet leadership. They resisted and only begrudgingly accepted anything revolutionary that came from the Comintern and the Soviet Union, and, by contrast, enthusiastically embraced anything that justified, encouraged, or advocated reformism, bourgeois-democracy, revisionism, and capitulation. And the latter is exactly what they did, fundamentally, from 1935 on.
Capitulation and liquidation
The June 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union allowed CP leadership to re-embrace President Roosevelt and return to Popular Front politics, justified with the need to defend the Soviet Union. With the defense of Soviet territory on the agenda and the Soviet Red Army in the field, WWII became a mix of three contradictions: inter-imperialist, imperialism vs. colonies and oppressed nations, and capitalism-imperialism vs. socialism. That presented difficult tactical and strategic questions about how not to allow the Soviet Union to become isolated and defeated, but instead of trying to answer those questions from the standpoint of revolution, the CP did not think twice about adopting American patriotism and joining the war effort under the US bourgeoisie’s leadership immediately following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the US into WWII. In a stark turnaround from the militant protests against the ROTC that Communists on college campuses led the previous decade, 15,000 Communists joined the US military, and thousands more served in the merchant marines, transporting war material and supplies to the Allies.340
Beyond literally joining the military, the CP made its mission to build mass support for the FDR administration during WWII, promote US alliance with the Soviet Union, and ensure that industrial production flowed smoothly to support the war effort. The CP got behind the post-Pearl Harbor no-strike pledge of the AFL and CIO, and Communist union leader Harry Bridges went so far as to pledge no strikes in the war’s aftermath. When labor discontent began to break out in 1943, including among those exploited in the war industries, the CP sought to maintain class peace, having nothing but praise for the Labor-Management Charter that the AFL and CIO developed in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce.341
Not surprisingly, violent white supremacy increased alongside American patriotism, and in 1942–44 there were a number of riots by whites, including men in the military, against Black people and Chicanos (for example, the so-called Zoot Suit Riot of 1943 in Los Angeles, in reality a pogrom against Chicanos by sailors). In Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, white workers engaged in “hate strikes,” where they refused to work alongside Black workers.342 There was also a mounting response from Black people and Black political forces to the indignities Black people continued to suffer amid “national unity” behind the war effort and while serving in the segregated US military and being exploited as proletarians working in the war industries. Harlem exploded in a riot on August 1, 1943 when a white cop shot a Black soldier, demonstrating that serving in the US military was no protection from the violent enforcers of white supremacy. By the war’s end, there was growing support among Black people for a “Double V” campaign—victory against fascism abroad and against legally sanctified white supremacy at home—which the CP was not involved in.
The CP’s response to violent white supremacy and growing resistance among Black people and other oppressed nationalities was relatively muted, especially in comparison to the 1930s. There were exceptions of course; the CP was deeply involved in the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which fought against the legal lynching of seventeen Chicano youth who were falsely charged with and convicted of murder in 1943. The Sleepy Lagoon case was essentially the Scottsboro of California, and conviction of the seventeen Chicanos was overturned in 1944 after widespread protests that involved Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth. However, the Party did not protest when Japanese Americans were rounded up by the US government and put in internment camps. In fact, the CP “even suspended their Japanese American members,” joining in national chauvinism and anti-immigrant patriotism.343
The CP’s patriotism and pursuit of class peace brought it back into the good graces of some bourgeois politicians and decreased the repression directed against it. Browder’s prison sentence was commuted by FDR in May 1942, freeing him up to lead the CP further down the path of capitulation. In addition to reforging ties with elected officials, the CP scored its greatest electoral victories during WWII, with Communists Benjamin Davis and Pete Cacchione elected to the New York City Council in 1943.344
Party membership got back up close to 100,000 in 1943, and the new recruits were more concentrated in the industrial proletariat than ever before. But if recruitment was on an incorrect basis in the late 1930s, during WWII it was on the basis of enthusiastic American patriotism, with little in the way of communist ideology. One indication of the qualitative decline of Party members was that sales figures for Marxist-Leninist classics declined to 19,000 in 1944 from an annual average of 34,000 for 1938–43; as Lenin said, without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement. The one positive thing the CP had going for it during WWII was its alignment with the Soviet Union, and the heroic actions of the Red Army were a deep inspiration to many proletarians and progressive people. However, the enhanced prestige of the Soviet Union was not enough to restore the breadth of ties and influence among the progressive petty-bourgeoisie the CP had developed in the late 1930s and then lost in 1939.345
For Browder, the class peace the CP promoted was not a temporary measure during WWII to make sure the US military inflicted defeats on fascist armies and thus gave the Soviet Union breathing room to push back the Nazi invasion (the only possible, but still wrong, justification for subordinating the Party to the US bourgeoisie’s war effort). Following the December 1943 meeting between Stalin, FDR, and Churchill in Tehran which strengthened the WWII alliance between the Soviet Union, the US, and Britain, Browder heralded the postwar prospects for peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism, presaging Khrushchev’s revisionism by over a decade, and pledged that the CP would work to prevent an outbreak of class struggle in the US after the war (Browder’s “Double Peaceful Coexistence” campaign?). Browder even published a book in 1944, Tehran and America, absurdly trying to explain why postwar peaceful coexistence would be a virtual necessity for US imperialism and how the US could maintain peaceful coexistence by expanding its international markets (i.e., imperialism).346
The logical conclusion of Browder’s dream of class peace and total subordination of the CP to the liberal bourgeoisie via the Democratic Party was the liquidation of the Party as a Leninist vanguard. At its May 1944 Convention, the CP became the Communist Political Association, the organizational expression of the political transformation that had been well underway for years. Browder justified this move with the particularities of the US political system, claiming that an association rather than a party would be better able to work within the system and impact US (bourgeois electoral) politics. And that is what the “Communist” Political Association focused on for the rest of WWII, in an open disavowal of the revolutionary objectives that motivated the founding of the US Communist Party (well, Parties) back in 1919.347
It was correct for the international communist movement to unite with the mass sentiment, among the popular classes, to defeat fascism, even as much of that sentiment came from the standpoint of defending bourgeois-democracy. However, the international communist movement needed to do two, interrelated, things: (1) Practice the principle, advanced by Mao and carried out during the Chinese War of Resistance against Japan, of independence and initiative within the united front, with which the Chinese Communist Party entered into an alliance with a comprador bourgeois force, the Guomindang, to fight Japanese aggression. (2) Find forms through which to to give concrete expression to the mass desire to fight fascism, including militarily, under communist leadership. Whatever their shortcomings, the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War were an example of such a form, and for that reason received widespread support and thousands of volunteers from the popular classes. The spirit of the International Brigades continued throughout WWII and the Chinese War of Resistance in the form of individuals joining the side of communists; Mao’s 1939 essay In Memory of Comrade Norman Bethune was written in commemoration of such an individual, Canadian Communist doctor Norman Bethune, who died while volunteering for the Chinese Communists.
But the international proletariat needed an organized international fighting force against the march of fascism in Europe during WWII and the imperialist onslaught in the oppressed nations that people from around the world, including the United States, could join instead of joining their “own” bourgeoisie’s military. That fighting force could have taken different forms, such as international brigades attached to the Soviet Red Army, the Chinese Red Army, or partisan fighters against fascist occupation in Europe, the latter of which did exist under Communist leadership in several countries.348 Organizing a Communist-led fighting force would have undoubtedly presented real difficulties, though so did organizing the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, and the opposition of the bourgeoisies of the US, Britain, France, and other European powers to such a fighting force would have further exposed their imperialist motivations and class interests. (The tactical question of how that bourgeois opposition could have further isolated the Soviet Union and bolstered Nazi Germany was indeed a real contradiction to consider, but could have only been answered correctly with the Maoist principle of relying on the masses and the RIMist349 principle of subordinating the defense of individual socialist states to the overall advance of the world revolution.)
Instead, the Comintern went in the other direction: it liquidated itself as an organizational form, releasing a statement announcing its dissolution on May 15, 1943. During WWII, exactly when unified action by Communists on an international level was needed the most, the international proletariat was without international organization.
Absent the kind of international fighting force imagined above, the best the CPUSA could have done was carry out agitation and propaganda exposing the imperialist nature of the US’s approach to and interests in WWII and politically defend and organize material support for the Soviet Union, Communists in China, anti-colonial struggles, and partisan anti-fascist fighters in Europe. Without a communist-led, independent, international fighting force in the field, any attempt at mass mobilization and militant resistance against US involvement in WWII would have been doomed to fail, as it would have went against justifiable, widespread mass sentiment against fascist aggression refracted through the lens of American patriotism. Those very real objective contradictions and shortcomings on the part of the international communist movement, however, do not justify the CPUSA’s embrace of the US bourgeoisie during WWII and its subordination of anti-fascist sentiment and its own membership and following to the US bourgeoisie’s war effort.
Stuck in the swamp of revisionism, never to escape
What was the strategy of the parties in the first CI [Communist International] for seizing power in imperialist countries? In fact, the CPs [communist parties] of imperialist countries did not have a strategy.
-(new) Communist Party of Italy350
As with all course corrections of the CPUSA, repudiation of Browder’s capitulationist path and liquidation of the Party came not from within, but from without, by way of an April 1945 article by French Communist Jacques Duclos published in the French Communist journal Cahiers du Communisme. Duclos’s article criticizing Browder’s enthusiasm for the prospects of peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism had enough insider info to make clear that it must have had the approval of Soviet leadership, and it gave US Communists theoretical and political ammunition to take down Browder and reestablish the CP. Debate within CP leadership in May and June of 1945 demonstrated some shock on the part of Foster and others at the depths of Duclos’s criticism, including the significance of changing the name of the Party to the Communist Political Association.351
Browder remained unrepentant and fought for his analysis of the prospects for peaceful coexistence and class peace; he was removed from leadership and subsequently expelled from the Party. Those in leadership who had served as Browder’s loyal followers recovered from their initial confusion to join the chorus condemning Browder, and the Party’s membership mostly got behind the new line, with a relatively small exodus and no split upholding Browder’s line emerging from the Party.352 Given the imprint of careerism among CP leadership and the degraded ideological and theoretical level of CP membership over the previous decade, it is doubtful the repudiation of “Browderism” ever went all that deep, certainly not in the Maoist sense of ideological rupture and transformation.
Those who wish to make the CP something better than it ever was—or, worse yet, imagine that it can still contribute to the overthrow of capitalism—often paint Foster’s return to top CP leadership in 1945 as the return of a revolutionary line in opposition to “Browderism.” Browder’s capitulation to US imperialism, however, was simply the most open, disgusting expression of the revisionism that had come to thoroughly define the CP. From the factionalism of the 1920s to the continued influence of syndicalism to the various shades of reformism constantly cropping up within it, something other than communist principles always easily found its way into the CP’s leadership and line. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but one overarching theme is the failure of the CP to ever develop a viable strategy for revolution in the US. In that absence, it grabbed up whatever pragmatic approach held out the promise of gaining a mass following. Indeed, to the extent the CP had a coherent strategy, it was: capitalism will enter a deep crisis, the class struggle will sharpen, and the workers will flock to the CP if we make the right tactical maneuvers—in other words, spontaneity plus opportunism, which equals revisionism.
But let us take a quick look at the CP from 1945 to 1956 to demonstrate just how stuck the CP was in the swamp of revisionism even after ditching Browder. Since there is little, if anything, positive to learn from the CP’s line and practice after 1945, we will spare you the details, giving only a brief accounting of the essentials.
The opposite end of the same stupidity
Right as Japan’s defeat in August 1945 heralded the end of WWII, a massive strike wave began in the US that lasted through 1946. As historian Michael Denning describes, “by 1 February, 1946 over a quarter of the CIO’s membership was on strike… There were general strikes in a half-dozen US cities.”353 This strike wave certainly shredded Browder’s vision of class peace after the war, and the CP was involved in the strike wave through its positions within the CIO. However, given its promotion of class peace during the war, the CP was in no position to push this strike wave in a revolutionary direction, and certainly made no serious moves to do so, for that would have jeopardized the positions some Communists had gained as CIO union bureaucrats.
The strike wave, economic downturn as the war economy wound down, and brewing antagonism between the US and the Soviet Union did serve to bolster what had long been an article of faith in the CP: prediction of a coming grand crisis in the capitalist system. Foster and his theoretician-in-arms, Bittelman, penned articles predicting an imminent economic crisis on a scale perhaps beyond the one of 1929–33, failing to imagine that US imperialism’s postwar position as top imperialist power may bestow it with enough reserves from the plunder and exploitation of the oppressed nations to afford a degree of economic stability inside the US. On a deeper level, they failed to understand the purgative function of war, which gave the capitalist system room for expansion and stabilization in the wake of war, and the changed nature of cyclic economic crisis under imperialism.354
CP leadership was convinced that a new world war between the US and the Soviet Union was around the corner. They correctly recognized the US bourgeoisie’s animosity towards the Soviet Union but incorrectly presumed this animosity would immediately lead to world war rather than the diversity of tactics which the US employed, including the development of neocolonialism as a response to anti-colonial revolt, amid the weakened state of its imperialist allies in Western Europe. The boogeyman of coming fascism was resurrected, making a mechanical and alarmist conclusion from the evidence of growing repressive measures under President Truman, who had replaced FDR after his April 12, 1945 death.
Alarmist warnings of coming economic depression, world war, and fascism were the opposite end of the same stupidity as Browder’s dreams of postwar class peace and peaceful coexistence, even if they had a bit more factual basis. The CP clung to its apocalyptic projections in part because it had no strategy for revolution, only faith in spontaneity. What tempered the CP’s looming grand crisis analysis were public declarations to the contrary by Stalin and Soviet leadership. When Stalin insisted that world war was not imminent and when Soviet publications did not predict imminent economic collapse in the capitalist world, CP leadership walked back, but never repudiated, its claims of coming crisis, and certainly did not try to excavate the deeper errors behind its incorrect analysis.355 That failure to excavate errors laid the basis for a flip, in later decades, towards posing a “peace movement” against nuclear war as a new form of the same old peaceful coexistence line.
Pinning the tail on a different donkey
Where the CP’s analysis of the objective contradictions was at best a reliance on spontaneity to create a revolutionary crisis, its strategic orientation toward the phantasm/fantasy of coming crisis was not one of seizing on opportunities for revolutionary advances. Instead, it sought to “forge an anti-monopoly people’s coalition” that, in Foster’s words, would unite the “democratic forces” to “pull the teeth of American reaction”—essentially militant-sounding Popular Front rhetoric. Eugene Dennis, who became the CP’s General Secretary in 1946, considered it the mission of the Party to “safeguard the interests of the people from the ravages of the [coming] crisis,” to alleviate the effects of the crisis on the masses.356 Nowhere in the CP’s predictions of postwar grand crisis was there even a hint of, let alone a plan to, seize on crisis to overthrow bourgeois rule and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.
CP leadership envisioned the anti-monopoly coalition as an alliance based on the working class, organized into unions, with poor farmers, Black people, war veterans, and the progressive petty-bourgeoisie against their common enemy, monopoly capital. With Truman in the White House and the Democratic Party turning into a vociferous enemy of the Soviet Union, the CP resurrected the idea of a third party as the vehicle for its anti-monopoly coalition, failing to think outside the bounds of electoral politics despite the supposed repudiation of Browderism. The end result was the CP’s subordination of itself into the 1948 electoral campaign of the Progressive Party with Henry Wallace as its presidential candidate. Wallace had served as FDR’s vice president during WWII, but was replaced by Harry Truman for the presidential term beginning January 20, 1945. Embodying FDR-era reformism, Wallace was kicked out of his post in Truman’s cabinet after publicly criticizing postwar foreign policy moves. Wallace and the Progressive Party may have garnered sympathy from progressive people, but they scored miserably in the election (less than 3%).357
The CP profoundly underestimated the degree to which elections in the US had, by that time, been thoroughly institutionalized to rule out any challenges to bourgeois rule at the ballot box, with the subaltern and exploited classes left to bargain for the best deal they could get with the victor. Unions by and large stuck with the Democratic Party, with the CIO leadership endorsing Truman in August 1948, demonstrating the institutionalized relationship then being cemented between the Democratic Party and labor unions that has continued into the present. Truman routed the Progressive Party’s growing appeal among Black people by making civil rights part of his platform and banning discrimination in the military with a September 1948 executive order.358
Prior to the 1948 election, the CP’s proposed anti-monopoly coalition had failed to manifest, and Wallace’s failed presidential campaign only further alienated the CP from its erstwhile allies in the labor movement and among the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, who mostly lined up behind the Democratic Party. CP involvement in the Progressive Party not only wasted the energy and time of its cadre in a failed electoral effort, but also showed that CP leadership had not broken with the mentality that had led to the liquidation of the Party under Browder. The CP was still subordinating itself to the liberal bourgeoisie and electoral politics in the name of staving off fascism; with Wallace in 1948, it simply picked a different donkey to be a tail on instead of the usual Democratic Party.
The CP’s involvement in the 1948 Progressive Party electoral effort also bolstered the anti-Communist backlash against it that was by then well underway. Decisively emerging as the top imperialist power at the end of WWII, the US bourgeoisie quickly turned its focus to containing the spread of socialist rule, with the Soviet Union becoming its main enemy. As a political program, this took expression in the Truman Doctrine that defined US foreign policy at the onset of the “Cold War” and the Marshall Plan to bankroll economic recovery in Western Europe to shore up Western European allegiance to the US-led imperialist bloc. Domestically, it meant forging an alliance of classes under bourgeois hegemony that included the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, the labor aristocracy, and the growing portion of bourgeoisified workers.
Bourgeoisified workers were brought under bourgeois hegemony through the institutionalized relationship between union bureaucrats and the Democratic Party, and the purge of Communists from unions. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, besides diminishing the political gains of labor unions, forced union officials to declare that they were not members of the CP if they wanted to be involved in negotiations of labor disputes (a crucial part of their job) arbitrated by the National Labor Relations Board. This and other anti-Communist legislation forced Party members who were union bureaucrats—the CP’s most prized gain from the Popular Front era—to either quit the Party or risk potential prosecution for hiding their Party membership. Government repressive action was abetted by opportunists in leadership positions in the CIO, who passed an anti-Communist CIO resolution in November 1946, failed to thoroughly oppose the Taft-Hartley Act, and started their own purge of Communists from CIO unions. The 1948 Wallace presidential campaign debacle became a further excuse to rid the CIO of Communists; in the following two years, Harry Bridges was fired from his post as CIO regional director on the West Coast, and “eleven unions and a million members were driven out of the CIO as a result of the anti-Communist purge.” In the decade that followed WWII, the opportunist pact that the CP had made with opportunist leaders of the CIO in the late 1930s came undone as CIO labor lieutenants turned on their Communist junior partners and the CP lost its coveted positions as union bureaucrats. With the formal merger between the CIO and the AFL in 1955, the role of labor unions as loyal organizations under bourgeois hegemony was fully consummated.359
The liberal petty-bourgeoisie, under the spell of bourgeois-democratic prejudices which the CP had done nothing to challenge from 1935 on, was captivated and convinced by bourgeois propaganda about the threat posed by the Soviet Union to “democratic freedoms.” They came to believe in Communist conspiracies, including as pertaining to the CP’s role in the Progressive Party’s 1948 electoral bid. Liberals who had worked with the CP during the Popular Front era turned on it, even snitching on Party members. As with CIO leadership, an alliance founded on opportunism broke apart.360
Consequently, when the force of the bourgeoisie’s repressive state apparatus was increasingly directed against the CP, the Party had few allies willing to defend it. In a practice popularly known as McCarthyism, both wings of Congress, via the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Senate’s Internal Security Committee, put on a public spectacle of unearthing supposed Communist conspiracies and forcing CP members and sympathizers to reveal their organizational relationship to the Party or risk contempt charges. “Pleading the Fifth” (Amendment right not to incriminate oneself) may have staved off contempt charges but did not help win the battle for public opinion. Meanwhile, the FBI investigated and harassed CP members and supporters, the Attorney General drew up a list of subversive organizations that ruined the ability of many Party-led organizations to function, and judges and prosecutors at the local level joined in the onslaught. Communists were fired from their jobs and ostracized by social institutions and erstwhile friends and allies. One high-profile example was Paul Robeson, who heroically refused to snitch on anyone and eloquently defended the Soviet Union, Communists, and the struggles of the masses. For his defiance, Robeson’s career as a performer came to a virtual halt, his passport was taken away, denying him the connection he had made to audiences around the world, and many of his friends and supporters turned their backs on him.361
The climax of mounting repression against the CP was the indictment and prosecution of eleven top leaders of the Party under the Smith Act, with the legal justification that the 1945 reconstitution of the CP on the basis of Marxism-Leninism automatically implied advocating the overthrow of the US government—apparently the bourgeoisie understood Marxism-Leninism better than the CP did. In the 1949 trial, the defense argued that CP leaders’ political speech was protected under the First Amendment, and presented the CP’s politics as those of the Popular Front era, including the possibility of socialism through electoral means. The CP leaders were convicted, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions in 1951, denying a First Amendment defense and forcing those who had not gone into hiding to go to prison. Smith Act indictments of regional and local CP leaders followed after the initial indictments of Party leadership.362
There are several sad truths about the vicious repression against the CP in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (1) The bourgeoisie’s legal and repressive moves against the CP had less to do with defeating a revolutionary force within the US and more to do with the CP’s allegiance to the Soviet Union. (2) The CP did not truly use its “day in court” to go down swinging, as it did not have genuine revolutionary communist politics to defend. While even a genuine revolutionary organization may not have been able to withstand the level of repression thrown at the CP, a failed but defiant defense of revolutionary politics could have laid the basis for subsequent revolutionaries to pick up the pieces and carry on the tradition. (3) The isolation of the CP revealed not just the power of the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus but also the opportunist basis on which the CP had built support and allies since 1935, which explains why so many were willing to turn on it.
The CP responded to repression by turning inward and sending thousands of cadre underground. On the former, the Party waged an internal campaign against white chauvinism from 1949 to 1953. Unlike two decades prior, this campaign had nothing to do with making the Party capable of leading the struggle for Black liberation. Instead, it fixated on individual morality, obsessing over the use of language (saying the words “whitewash” and “black sheep” was treated as a sin) in a way that parallels today’s postmodernists. Rather than substantive criticism, self-criticism, and ideological transformation, the internal campaign was more about knocking some comrades down and propping others up, with careerism and personal vendettas on the part of both white and Black comrades defining the internal “struggle.” In no way did the CP’s 1949–53 campaign against white chauvinism in its ranks help the Party to lead mass struggles against the oppression of Black people.363
On the latter, while the CP continued to have an aboveground apparatus, albeit a greatly diminished one with little day-to-day mass work, it sent a substantial section of leadership and trusted cadre underground. Foster and a few other leaders not imprisoned or under indictment continued to function as the public face of the Party. Several top leaders under indictment did not show up to court, and instead went into hiding. Other layers of leadership were purposely sent underground to safeguard them from imprisonment, and thousands of cadre functioned out of the public eye, many of them serving as liaisons between underground Party leaders and the aboveground Party apparatus.364
An underground backbone and organizational apparatus that can function during times of repression and illegality is a necessity for all communist vanguards, and the fact that the CP had functioned like a purely legal, even electoral, political organization from 1935 through WWII made it ill-equipped to deal with postwar repression. However, the purpose of that underground backbone should not be fundamentally to hide comrades from the bourgeoisie (even if doing so is a literal necessity), but to facilitate the Party’s ongoing role as a revolutionary vanguard of the masses, especially during times of repression. The CP’s move to underground functioning in the first half of the 1950s was instead rationalized as a way to keep its leadership and organization intact so that it could operate during a coming grand crisis, namely the outbreak of war between the US and the Soviet Union. The CP did not make any serious efforts to figure how to connect its underground apparatus with the masses and carry out political work among the masses under conditions of repression, something which many communists around the world, including the Bolsheviks, have had to do.
An appendage to Soviet social-imperialism and the Democratic Party
When repression was relaxed in the mid-1950s under the Eisenhower administration and CP leaders convicted under the Smith Act started to be released from prison, they were just in time to embrace the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Following Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, capitalist roaders within the CPSU leadership, with Nikita Khrushchev at the helm, consolidated power and transformed the Soviet economy into a state-ownership form of capitalism. The radical social transformations over the previous three and a half decades were reversed over time. At the CPSU’s Twentieth Congress in February 1956, Khrushchev gave a “secret” speech denouncing Stalin, in effect announcing the dramatic reversals of the revolution he was then presiding over.
Mao and the Chinese Communist Party denounced the Soviet leadership’s betrayal of communist principles and transformation into a new bourgeoisie presiding over a “social-imperialist” state (socialist in name, imperialist in actuality). But most former Comintern parties fell in line behind the new Soviet leadership, and the CPUSA was perhaps one of the foremost among them in embracing Soviet revisionism. Indeed, CP General Secretary Eugene Dennis’s article explaining Khrushchev’s ideas was published in Pravda, the CPSU’s press outlet, before much else had been publicly declared within the Soviet Union about the CPSU’s dramatic change in political outlook.365 The CPUSA had long embraced reformism and was ahead of the curve among “communist” parties, and presaged Khrushchev, in proclaiming the possibility of peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism, peaceful coexistence between capitalism and socialism, and class peace between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Embracing Khrushchev’s leadership and Soviet revisionism was not really a rupture with what the CP was, but an open declaration of what it had already become.
CP membership dwindled in the mid-1950s. Repression, isolation, and the move underground had taken a bitter toll on many comrades, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin gave them an excuse to give up on whatever shred of revolutionary principles they had left. While there were attempts by former CP members to build revolutionary organizations in opposition to the CP’s embrace of Soviet revisionism, they all fell apart or soon revealed themselves to be stuck in a different shade of revisionism and reformism than the CP itself. Years of ideological rot left the CP’s leadership and membership unable to get back on the revolutionary road—many of them had never really been on that road to begin with. Besides reneging on revolutionary principles, the CP showed no capacity for applying communist theory to the radically different conditions of the US in the 1950s, from the growing bourgeoisification of sections of the working class, to the changed conditions of the oppressed Black nation due to the Great Migration and the mechanization of Southern agriculture, to the mounting social contradictions in an imperialist power that required the participation of its population in managing and enforcing its vast empire.
In the 1950s, the CP went from an organization of tens of thousands to an organization of thousands. It puttered on as an appendage to Soviet revisionism up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, loyally echoing Soviet revisionist politics all along the way. After the 1948 failed third party electoral attempt and the wave of repression that followed it, the CP returned to being a tail on the Democratic Party, imagining building a progressive alliance through it and diverting mass movements of opposition back into bourgeois political channels. CP members have continued to look back on the “good old days” when Party cadre had positions as union bureaucrats, promoting a narrow economist and workerist outlook even in the face of dramatically different class configurations and the bourgeois institutionalization of labor unions. Most ignominiously, the CP and its various offshoots and erstwhiles, including its most popular ex-member, Angela Davis, have continued to masquerade as radicals, revolutionaries, and/or communists while promoting reformism and bourgeois-democracy, constituting a minor annoyance or sometimes a not insignificant obstacle to the development of a revolutionary movement and the formation of a new communist party.
* * *
Revisionism is a term in the communist lexicon that can be easily misinterpreted, since revisions, in and of themselves, do not sound inherently negative—indeed, insisting that no revisions can ever be made to Marxism suggests dogmatism and religiosity. Marxism will always be in need of creative development, including “revisions,” in order to meet the challenges of making revolution in the present, but those creative developments must be made on the basis of revolutionary principles and serve revolutionary objectives. That process is how we got Marxism-Leninism and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and, in both cases, creative developments were dialectically linked to the defense of core Marxist principles.
Those who betray the revolutionary principles of communism, including Browder and other CP leaders, always do so in the name of creative development and addressing the particularities of the moment and the specificities of the situation. So let us be clear on what revisionism is: revisionism means revising the revolutionary heart out of Marxism. It makes zombies out of communists and communist parties, zombies who stalk subsequent waves of class struggle so that they may feed on the life-force of new generations of (potential) revolutionaries, converting them into zombies in the process. The CP is such a zombie, getting more decrepit by the decade; we hope our summation can bury it for good and rescue the positive lessons from its past.
1Mao Zedong, Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle! (1949), published in Selected Works vol. IV (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1975), 428.
2Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (Routledge, 2003 ), chapter 1. A number of important future leaders of the Communist movement passed through the SLP, and the debates around union strategy would rage in the movement for years. The greatly diminished SLP existed as a shell well into the 2000s. “So long as one remains a monk, one goes on tolling the bell.”
3Besides being a genocidal force of dispossession against Indigenous people, westward expansion served as a “safety valve” on the class antagonisms in the industrial centers of the US at the time.
4James Gregory and Rebecca Flores, “Socialist Party Votes, Membership, Newspapers, and Elected Officials by States and Counties,” Mapping American Social Movements Project, depts.washington.edu/moves/SP_map-mix.shtml, accessed 11/1/2022; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial, 1990), 322–31.
5William Jones, “Something to Offer,” Jacobin, 8/11/2015, available at jacobin.com.
6Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 322–31.
8Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 2. The pageant itself lost money but brought important sections of artists and intellectuals together in support of the strikers and featured the voices of the strikers themselves.
9To this day, some US radicals continue to live in in the IWW’s general strike fantasy-land but without being engaged in the sort of real class struggle and proletarian organizing that IWW members carried out in the early twentieth century.
10Despite generations of anarchists valiantly trying to rebuild the IWW at college-town food co-ops.
11When communists talk about the Black national question, we mean how to analyze the position of Black people as an oppressed nation within the US and how to end the oppression of Black people through revolution. The Black national question will be an ongoing and important thread through this entire document, so rather than starting with a full explanation of or comprehensive position on it, we think it best to examine it in relation to specific historical junctures and the actions of Communists at those junctures, allowing readers to put the thread together. Overall, we hope to instill in would-be communists an intellectual method that avoids pat answers, simple definitions, or grand proclamations of positions, but digs into the contradictions with concrete analysis—in other words, materialist dialectics.
12On a spiritual note, if we were to go back in time to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, we would much rather hang out with anarchists than SP members. And we have been side-by-side with anarchists fighting the police plenty of times, but never with revisionists or social-democrats (because chickenshit social-democrats, including today’s democratic socialists, and revisionists virtually never fight the police).
13Joseph Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism (Bejing: Foreign Languages Press, 1975 ), 6.
14Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (Basic Books, 1975), 29.
15Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 4. While Draper’s narrative is steeped in Cold War anti-communism, his book on the early years of the US Communist movement remains the only comprehensive account based on thorough archival research. For that reason, it is our main source for factual information on the foundation and early years of the US Communist Party.
16Ibid., chapter 5.
17For a stinging rebuke of the pro-imperialist politics of the Second International, see Lenin’s The Collapse of the Second International (1915). One of the few examples of militant mass protest against WWI in the US was in Boston, where hundreds of protesters were beaten by police. Not coincidentally, Boston had a strong left-wing socialist movement largely owing to the Latvian foreign language section there (Draper, The Roots of American Communism, 95–96).
18For two distinct examples of later summations of the impact of the Russian Revolution, see the Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (1984) and Walter Rodney’s The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (Verso, 2018 ).
19Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 6. Fraina was portrayed by Paul Sorvino in the 1981 film Reds.
20Reed’s life and contributions to the Communist movement have been documented in various places, including Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 7. But to understand his life and times, we strongly suggest watching Warren Beatty’s excellent 1981 film Reds.
21Manifesto and Program of the Left Wing Section Socialist Party, Local Greater New York (1919), available at Marxists.org.
22The German Spartacus League of a hundred years ago is not to be confused with the weird, ultra-dogmatic, and irrelevant US Trotskyite organization that has appropriated their moniker—sorry we even had to mention them. But while we are on the subject, fun fact: in the early 1970s, during a street brawl between members of the Maoist Revolutionary Union and the Trotskyite Spartacus League, a Communist veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (the US volunteer fighters in the International Brigades fighting the forces of fascism during the Spanish Civil War) apparently bit off a chunk of one of the Trotskyite’s ears. Lesson: don’t fuck with a Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
23As Rosa Luxemburg explained in Reform or Revolution (1909; available at Marxists.org): “Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society.” The sausage metaphor obviously makes more sense within German culture.
24Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 9.
25Ibid., 137–38, 159.
26During the period of the split in the SP, Debs was on trial and incarcerated for sedition. He had positive things to say about the Russian Revolution, but he never broke with the SP or involved himself much in their internal politics.
27Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 10.
28Ibid., chapter 11.
29The events above are fairly accurately described in the 1981 film Reds, although the debate about foreign language federations in the movie unfortunately presents Reed as a chauvinist, something that the historical record does not support.
30The best contemporaneous account of the 1919 “race riot” is Carl Sandburg’s The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1919). For an account of Black self-defense organized by WWI veterans, see Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Liberator Press, 1978), 81–84.
31Draper, The Roots of American Communism, 139. It is doubtful that there were many sailors in Butte or that soldiers joined the strike, but we cannot blame these proletarians for “catching the spirit.” It is also worth noting that William Dunne, a future leader within the Communist Party not then connected to it, played a leading role in class struggles in Butte.
34Ibid., chapter 13.
35Ibid., chapter 15. Under indictment for sedition in the US, Reed had been in the Soviet Union since October of 1919 and died shortly after the Second Comintern Congress. Fraina was caught up in a bizarre scandal over money, which was likely exacerbated by factionalism; he left the Communist movement by the early 1920s, going on to publish political writings under the pen name Lewis Corey.
36Lenin, Preliminary Draft of Theses on The National and Colonial Questions (for The Second Congress of the Communist International) (1920);Lenin, Report of the Commission on The National and Colonial Question (1920). Compiled in Lenin on The National and Colonial Questions (Foreign Languages Press, 1975).
37John Reed, America and The Negro Question (1920). From Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International, available at Marxists.org.
38Ibid. The word “Negro” to refer to Black people in the US was in common usage up until the 1960s, including by Black people. We only use the term in this summation when it was used in the names of organizations and titles of texts or when quoting a document or speech from the time; we use the term “Black people,” capitalized, to refer to the oppressed nation of Black people in the US. To readers outside the US: using the term “Negro” today would be considered racist.
39Lenin, Preliminary Draft of Theses on The National and Colonial Questions (for the Second Congress of the Communist International) (1920).
40Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 15.
42Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (Vintage Books, 1986 ), 67–70.
43Draper, The Roots of American Communism, 305–15, 320–22.
44Roger 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.
45Draper’s account of the American participation in this Congress can be found in The Roots of American Communism, 274–81.
46Draper, The Roots of American Communism, chapter 19.
47Ibid., chapter 21.
48Ibid., 361; chapter 22. Valetski escaped the government raid, but some US comrades, including Ruthenberg, stayed behind to destroy documents and were arrested; clearly, the question of developing an underground organizational structure and backbone was posed by the reality of bourgeois dictatorship. Some of the “left opposition” continued to cling to the idea of underground organization as a dogma after the 1922 Convention and refused to be part of the unified Party—their fate was complete irrelevance.
50Rosalyn Baxandall, “The Question Seldom Asked: Women and the CPUSA,” 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), 144–48.
51While Draper concluded that there were no Black comrades at either of the 1919 founding conventions, historian Mark Solomon’s research convincingly proves Huiswoud’s attendance; see The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936 (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 3.
52This brief summary of the ABB and its merging into the Communist Party draws from Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, chapters 1 and 2.
53Ibid., 28. This contradiction, as well as the influence of Garveyite ideas, Black capitalism, and narrow nationalism among Black proletarians, continue to be challenges that communists in the US must address, even if the ways they pose themselves today are substantially different than they were a hundred years ago.
54Draper, The Roots of American Communism, 391–92.
57Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 99, chapter 2.
58Ibid., chapter 2, 75–76, 80.
59Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 36–37.
60Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 83, 102–3, 113–20. The CP’s decision to run its own presidential candidate in 1924 was in part owing to a shift in Comintern policy away from advocating third-party candidates. If we are being honest, this policy shift in effect rescued the CP from its failed efforts within the farmer-labor movement.
62Kerensky was the head of the bourgeois-democratic government in Russia that replaced the Tsar after the February 1917 Revolution, and was in turn overthrown by the Bolshevik-led October 1917 Revolution.
63Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 57–61, 82–84.
66While Draper’s anti-communist outlook makes him a dubious analyst of the inner workings of the Comintern, his description of Zinoviev as “a man of outward grandiosity and inner sleaziness, accustomed to use the Comintern as his personal fief” is probably accurate (American Communism and Soviet Russia, 105).
67Trotskyites erroneously and (no surprise) opportunistically characterize this as Stalin advocating “socialism in one country” and Trotsky advocating “world revolution.” An accurate description would be that Stalin was advocating that the Soviet Union persist on the socialist transition to communism despite the objective difficulties of being the only socialist state, while Trotsky was advocating capitulation.
68Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 184, 206.
69See Mao Zedong’s Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing (1942) for an excellent critique of common problems in communist writing.
70The Communist was titled the Workers Monthly until 1927.
71Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 175–80.
72The remnants of some of these institutions still exist today; for example, if you have a Jewish friend who went, as a youth, to a longstanding summer camp in upstate New York imbued with “progressive values” where they did lots of arts-related activities, there is a decent chance that summer camp had its origins in the Communist movement.
73Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 184–85.
74Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010 ), 239.
75Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the white oppressor nation in the US was more of a stratified hierarchy, with “Anglo-Saxons” on top and “white ethnics” in various positions of subordination. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1994) is one helpful study of this phenomenon. Today’s dominant postmodernist understandings of “race” tend to treat the question in a rather rigid and deterministic, even biology-determined, way, ironically failing to understand how racial formation is actively constructed and changes over time (the irony being that postmodernists tend to view the world as being constructed by “discourse”).
76Denning, The Cultural Front, 239.
77Strategically positive dimensions include the ways that national oppression continues to give rise to sharp mass struggle and the breadth of cultural, social, and political experience of the multinational proletariat; a negative would be the ways that different nationalities among the multinational proletariat are pitted against one another, consciously by the bourgeoisie and unconsciously by the anarchy of capitalist production and the “social war” among the masses it creates.
78Standouts in this respect are Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front and Robin DG Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 2015 ).
79One concentrated example of this trend can be seen in the following passage from p. 9 of the Editors’ Preface to New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism (Monthly Review Press, 1993): “The party’s engagement in grassroots and community efforts to right the inequities of racism, poverty, and exploitation, and the strong presence it has had in the resistance of workers in the factories and fields of the US heartland, are of sufficient importance to warrant the claim that its story should be better integrated into the study and teaching of US history.”
80Well, mainly one of them, and fortunately one of the best ones, but still one whose guiding class outlook remains ultimately within the narrow horizons of (radical) bourgeois-democracy.
81To be clear, that is not to say we are “better historians” than those scholars—we are referring to the class outlook behind historical interpretation here. Being a “good historian” is a skill in its own right, not reducible to class outlook, that requires a specific kind of work and training cultivated over years.
82Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 140–52.
88Ibid., 221, 229–30.
89The principle of going to the “lower and deeper” sections of the proletariat in imperialist countries comes from Lenin. See Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (1916) for one example of Lenin’s articulation of this principle.
90Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 221–22, 232–33.
91Ibid., 224, 225.
92To clarify in case any Gonzalo-worshipping (but not following) morons read this, no, Maoism as such did not exist in the 1920s and the CPUSA did not invent it, but plenty of communists carried out the Maoist imperative to integrate with the masses before Maoism as such existed.
93Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 224, 226, 230–31.
95Just to caution against misinterpreting that possibility from the prism of “Pac-Man politics,” we suggest reading Kenny Lake’s “Revolution Has Vanished” in kites #5/6 (2022).
96We will return to the most important actions of the ILD throughout this summation; a comprehensive history of the ILD, from its inception in 1925 to its dissolution in 1946–47, would be a worthy undertaking and a valuable contribution for a historian up to the task.
97Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 180–82.
99Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 53–54.
100Ibid., 53–58, 61–62, 66.
101Ibid., 56–57, 65, 74.
102Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 243–47, 53–57.
103Ibid., chapter 11.
104Ibid., chapter 12.
105Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 64.
106Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (NYU Press, 2016).
107As Comintern leadership moved to impose on the CPUSA a recognition of the strategic centrality of the Black national question and the revolutionary potential of Black Southern sharecroppers (see below for a thorough explanation), both factions tried to “get on board” for opportunist reasons rather than genuine unity, trying to prove who was more “with” Comintern leadership on the Black national question and often making a mockery of its analysis in the process.
108Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, chapter 14, 386–91.
109Ibid., chapter 17.
111Ibid., chapter 18.
113Ibid., chapter 16, 433–34.
114Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 285–89.
115Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984), 38.
116Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 166–67.
117Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (Rutgers University Press, 1991), 23.
118Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 28–30.
119Denning, The Cultural Front, 262; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 29–31; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 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, but given the culture of factionalism in the CP and the fact that he had challenged CP leadership in the past, it is difficult to assess whether this criticism of Weisbord for not challenging white chauvinism was accurate without further research.
120Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 23.
121Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 44–45; Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Liberator Press, 1978), 371–74.
122Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 164.
123Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 364–74; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 45.
124Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 45–46.
125Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 104–5.
126Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 46–47; Denning, The Cultural Front, 263.
127Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 27.
128Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 41–42.
129Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 107.
130Gornick, The Romance of American Communism, 100. Unfortunately this experience did not inoculate Marian Moran, a pseudonym for Dorothy Healey, from the revisionism and reformism that came to dominate the CP in later years.
131For a fuller discussion of this principle, see Kenny Lake’s “The Proletariat: What It Is, What It Ain’t,” part 1 of the series The Specter That Still Haunts: Locating a Revolutionary Class within Contemporary Capitalism-Imperialism, published in kites #1 (2020).
132Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 28.
133Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 33–34; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 30–31.
134Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 33–34; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 31–32, 37.
135As Ottanelli puts it, “Black and white workers rioting together had, to that point, never been seen before” (The Communist Party of the United States, 37).
136Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 149–50.
137Much gratitude to the (new) Communist Party of Italy for so strongly articulating this last point in its Four Main Issues to Be Debated in the International Communist Movement (2010), available at nuvopci.it > Editions in Foreign Languages.
138Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 33–35.
139Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 33–34; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 28–30; 32–33.
140Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 54, 56, 61–62, 65–68; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 33–35; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 153–55.
141Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 33–34 (quote from Ottanelli).
142Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 36–37.
143Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 35.
144Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 54–55.
146Lenin’s and Stalin’s published output on the national and colonial question continues to be crucial for present-day communists to study; Stalin’s essay Marxism and the National Question (1913) makes for the most accessible starting point.
147Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 69–81.
148A fuller discussion of the concept of nation vs. race is beyond the scope of this summation, and we recommend comrades turn to Lenin’s and Stalin’s writings on the national question to understand why we find the category of nation best for understanding the social position of Black people in the US. What complicates matters is that the nation, as such, is a social formation that developed with the rise of capitalism, and when capitalism was just beginning to emerge in Europe, various European powers, then organized as feudal empires, subjugated, oppressed, and exploited a number of peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Asia who were organized in social formations that were not nations as such. While many of those peoples were transformed into oppressed nations through that process, the antagonism that developed through—particularly early, pre-nineteenth-century—European imperialism was not the subjugation of one nation by another exactly, but the subjugation of peoples in various social formations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia by feudal empires and dawning capitalist nations in Europe. Ideologically, what united European imperialism was religion (Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular against the “heathens”) and race (conceptually, Europeans and/or whites against the various terms Europeans decided to call people in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, whom they considered inferior). Race as a concept undergirding European imperialism cohered after religion, which had been established as a unifying, oppressive force in Europe with the Catholic Church and was fortified through rivalry and war between European feudal empires and the (Muslim) Ottoman empire. Religion gradually receded to the background with the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in Europe and race moved to the foreground as the ideological glue behind European imperialism, the establishment of settler-colonies by European imperialism, and the slave trade of Africans that was central to the functioning of settler-colonies in the Americas and to the accumulation of capital for imperialism. Such was the ground laid by European imperialism when, in the nineteenth century, the nation as a social formation was firmly established in Europe and the Americas and then imposed on the rest of the world by capitalism-imperialism. The concept of race continues to inflect discourse about the division of the world between imperialist and oppressor nations, on the one hand, and oppressed nations and other subjugated social formations, on the other, and race especially inflects how that division is understood in popular consciousness. However, the social formation that is the nation is, at this point in history, at the essence of that division. What complicates matters theoretically is that in the early phases of imperialism especially and among the peoples subjugated by imperialism, the nation as such did not yet exist as a social formation, and communists certainly have work to do in defining and understanding the various social formations in existence at that time and how those social formations have carried over, in different ways, into the present era of nations. (To be clear, by era of nations, we are not trying to construct some new “era” in the communist understanding of history, just addressing the fact that from the nineteenth century to today, nations have been the dominant social formations.)
149Accounts of the process described in this paragraph can be found in Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, chapter 15; Haywood, Black Bolshevik, chapters 8 and 11; and Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, chapter 5.
150For an example of Haywood’s inability to connect with and lead the Black proletarian membership of the Party on Chicago’s South Side, see Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 161. Haywood’s memoir Black Bolshevik is often the only narrative on CP history that today’s Leftists in the US read, and they tend to interpret it through the prism of postmodernist identity politics (the reason the title of the memoir resonates with them in the first place). There are certainly interesting insights in Haywood’s memoir, but there is a striking lack of self-criticism within it—the author always seems to come out looking good.
151Even Haywood’s political development and theoretical prowess was overwhelmingly the product of his time studying in Moscow and his interactions with Soviet and Comintern comrades rather than CPUSA leadership.
152Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 85.
153This weakness on the part of the Comintern BNQ Resolutions and the way that weakness was made worse by the CP has fed into the interpretation, by virtually all historians of the CP, that the Black Belt thesis and the slogan for the right of self-determination was alien to the masses of Black people and out of sync with reality. If Communists could not clearly articulate a strategy for the violent overthrow of the social order of white supremacy in the US South at that time, we cannot expect petty-bourgeois historians—who rarely can imagine a revolution happening and have trouble making sense of revolutions that do happen—to comprehend the validity of the Black Belt thesis. But we need not repeat these historians’ lack of imagination.
154Mao’s concept of the proletariat as the leading force and the peasantry as the main force in revolutions in semi-feudal countries was not yet established in the international communist movement, and though it does not exactly apply to the oppressed Black nation in the US at this time, it certainly offers a strategic conception that could have been creatively modified to apply.
155Gerald Horne, “The Red and the Black: The Communist Party and African-Americans in Historical Perspective,” 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), 205; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 88–89, 324–25. One indication of the fundamental reformism of today’s so-called abolitionists is that they could never embrace, and would likely oppose, the excellent slogan “death penalty for lynchers.”
156Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 66, 190–91.
157Ibid., 97, 142.
158Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 330; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 97. A fifth Black comrade, Edward Welsh, was elected to the Party’s Central Committee, but he stayed loyal to Lovestone and was booted from the Party. The CPUSA’s Central Committee was called the Central Executive Committee at that time.
159Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 38. Gerald Horne wrote a biography of Patterson: Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
160Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 66.
161Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 42.
162Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (University of Illinois Press, 2005 ), 19–20; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 98–99.
163Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 132–36.
164Ibid., 133, 135.
165Our account of the Yokinen show trial draws on Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 351–58; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 328–30; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 47–49; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 38; and Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 137–42 (Solomon’s account is the most detailed of all of the above).
166Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 140. The Liberator was a Party-led publication under the editorship of Cyril Briggs focused on the Black national question.
170Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 78; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 335; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 191–94.
171Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 191.
172Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 78–79; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 191–96.
173Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 193, 198–99.
174Ibid., 195, 197.
175Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 63.
176Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity traces how different political forces fought for control over the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys throughout the 1930s. Studying this history, it becomes clear that Communists had the best legal strategy in addition to the best political strategy.
177Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 300.
180Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 338.
181Denning, The Cultural Front, 262–63.
182Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 72.
183Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 15; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 114, 219.
184Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 219–20.
185Ibid., 248–49. 297–98. See our summation of the RCP to learn about another Communist exonerated by the US Supreme Court.
186For more on Benjamin Davis’s life and involvement in the Communist movement, see Gerald Horne, Black Liberation / Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (International Publishers, 2021).
187A funny anecdote from this meeting comes to us by way of Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 298: when Roosevelt asked American Youth Congress delegates what they thought of his attempts to stack the Supreme Court with more justices in his favor, Herndon replied “I am Angelo Herndon.” Franklin Delano did not understand… (Eleanor probably would have…)
188For a fuller account of the persecution of Angelo Herndon and the movement in his defense, read Charles Martin’s book The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice (Louisiana State University Press, 1976).
189Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 124–26.
190Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 14–15; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 112–17. A note to today’s Leftists and postmodernists: yes, you read that paragraph right—a few white comrades from up North succeeded in linking up with the Black masses in the deep South. Their politics resonated, and the sight of a white comrade taking a firm stand against white supremacy was a point of attraction. Considering what these white comrades were up against—legal segregation and immediate, intense repression—their successes call bullshit on the postmodernist mantra that you can only organize in “your community,” which, let’s be honest, is just a justification for cowardice.
191Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 14; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 114–15. Rightly or wrongly, the CP did turn its attention away from the Unemployed Councils and towards labor struggles and union organizing in Birmingham in 1933, in time for the strike wave of 1934. The best thing the CP did within the labor movement in Birmingham was take a firm stand against white supremacy and against discrimination within unions. See chapter 3 of Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe for a detailed account of Communist labor organizing in Birmingham.
192Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 20–23; 27–33 (quote on 33).
195Ibid., 23–25, 42–47.
199In his book Hammer and Hoe, Robin DG Kelley argues, against conventional wisdom among historians of the CP, that Popular Front policies weakened the CP’s work in Alabama, especially its deep ties among Black proletarians and sharecroppers.
200Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 34–35, 37, 53–55, 174–75.
201Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 125.
202Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 43, 90.
204See Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, chapter 5 for a detailed account of the culture of, and experiences of Black comrades in, the CP in Alabama.
205Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 155–57.
206Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 332; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 157–579.
207Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 159–61.
208Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 19–23.
210Ibid., 39–40. Levy, along with Mexican comrade Gonzalo Gonzales, who was murdered by police in lower Harlem shortly after Levy died, were both given proper Communist funerals with a few thousand people marching to honor their martyrdom.
211Ibid., 35, 40–41.
212Ibid., 42, 59–65, 81–82.
213Ibid., 85, 87.
214Ibid., 72–75, 79, 83–85.
217Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 37.
218Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 69–70.
219Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 102.
222Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 158–59.
225Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 73.
226Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 95–96.
227Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 74.
228Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 95, 103. That is by no means to suggest that Ford was a better Communist than Briggs and Moore, just that his leadership of the Party’s work in Harlem was bound up with changes, for better and worse, in its practice there.
229Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 42–43, 110, 151.
230Ibid., 42–43, 110, 130, 151–54.
231Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 126–28.
232Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 129, 132–33 (quote on 133). Efforts to impugn the ILD were bolstered when, in Fall 1934, two ILD lawyers were arrested under the false pretext of attempting to bribe Victoria Price, one of the two women whom the Scottsboro Boys were falsely convicted of raping, to change her testimony. The story of this supposed bribery is recounted in Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 244–45. From the available evidence, it sounds to us that the bribery arrests were made under false pretenses, with no solid evidence the ILD lawyers were attempting to bribe Price (which would have been out of character for the ILD). In fact, it seems they may have been victims of a set-up. In any event, opportunists within the Scottsboro movement, such as liberal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz and NAACP leaders, seized on news of the bribery arrests to try to discredit the ILD and push them out of the legal defense of, and mass movement for, the Scottsboro Boys.
233Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 116, 134.
234Ibid., chapter 5.
235Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 341–42; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 140–41; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 272–73.
236Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 141–48; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 273–75.
237Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 270. The US-based Firestone corporation made massive profits from exploiting the rubber resources of Liberia.
238Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 138–39; Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 270–72.
239Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 138–39, 157.
242Our evaluation of the CP’s involvement in the mass movement to defend Ethiopia differs considerably from the evaluation given by E Tani and Kaé Sera in chapter 3 of False Nationalism, False Internationalism: Class Contradictions in the Armed Struggle (Kersplebedeb, 2021 ). Tani and Sera dismiss and ridicule the CP’s mobilization of Italian immigrant proletarians because it was numerically smaller than those mobilized in chauvinist rallies at the same time, in effect providing a smug justification to those who renege on the communist responsibility to go up against imperialist patriotism among the masses, a responsibility that will always require going against the tide in imperialist countries. Furthermore, Tani and Sera blame the CP for the fact that the call, among Black people in the US, to volunteer to go to Ethiopia and fight against Italy never became an actual mobilization; Tani and Sera fail to analyze whether there was significant concrete commitment and ability to make good on this call and who the political forces were promoting this call. (From what we can tell from our research, it was mostly narrow nationalists like Reid and Kemp using the call to volunteer to fight in Ethiopia to puff themselves up without any serious intention or attempt to make good on it—blustery rhetoric with no follow-through is a standard tactic of narrow nationalists.) Shortcomings in providing citations for claims within False Nationalism, False Internationalism puts some of the authors’ proclamations on shaky ground, though there is a legitimate question to sort out of whether the Comintern subordinated the anti-imperialist struggle in Ethiopia to the “united front against fascism.”
Objectively, the positions of Tani and Sera on the CP’s involvement in the mass movement to defend Ethiopia wind up supporting narrow nationalism against proletarian internationalism. While their book offers some insightful analysis at times, it never gets beyond the horizon of revolutionary nationalism and opposes the principles of proletarian internationalism and their organizational expression in multinational communist parties and the international organization of communist parties (in the 1930s, the Comintern). In regard to the CP, their analysis presents a false picture in which there would have been other (revolutionary nationalist) forces leading Black people and other oppressed nationalities in revolutionary struggles in the 1930s, such as among sharecroppers in Alabama, if the multinational, majority-white CP had not pre-emptively prevented them from doing so—a claim entirely out of sync with reality, and, frankly, a bit ridiculous in light of the historical facts (again, Tani and Sera are light on citations).
Among today’s Leftists, the ideological and political lines articulated in False Nationalism, False Internationalism have been interpreted through the lens of postmodernist identity politics to justify their own refusal to take up the Maoist imperative to go to the masses or concretely make good on proletarian internationalist duties, in effect taking a book with some genuine revolutionary inclinations but a fundamentally revolutionary nationalist rather than communist ideological orientation and using it to assert worse—postmodernist and, frankly, cowardly—ideological and political positions. We will take revolutionary nationalism over postmodernist identity politics any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
243Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 134, 158.
245Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 282.
246Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 80–84.
247Denning, The Cultural Front, 98–101; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 81.
248Denning, The Cultural Front, 101.
249Althusser’s ideas on this question, which draw on Mao and Gramsci, are concentrated in his 1970 essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.
250Denning, The Cultural Front, 87–90; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 216. Also see Stephen Leberstein, “Purging the Profs: The Rapp Coudert Committee in New York, 1940–1942,” 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).
251Denning, The Cultural Front, 85, 87.
252Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 177–78.
253Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 74–75.
255Denning, The Cultural Front, 223; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 71, 350; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 57.
256Denning, The Cultural Front, 205–6.
258Ibid., 201, 229.
259Denning, The Cultural Front, 64–67; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 349–50.
260As quoted in Denning, The Cultural Front, 69; from Richard Flacks, Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (Columbia University Press, 1988), 130–31.
261Denning, The Cultural Front, 66, 288.
262Denning, The Cultural Front, 224–25; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 351–56; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 63–65.
263To readers with experience in and around the RCP: does Browder’s “non-interference” policy and the CP’s approach, beginning in 1935, to professional artists and intellectuals sound familiar? And does that sting?
264Stephen Leberstein, “Purging the Profs: The Rapp Coudert Committee in New York, 1940–1942,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 107–8.
265Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 309–10.
269Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 316–17; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 60–62.
270Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 319–23; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 62–63.
271Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 121–22; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 53.
272Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 172; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 50–51.
273Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 128–29.
275Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 170–71.
276Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 125–28.
277Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 256.
278Denning, The Cultural Front, 260–61.
279Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 172.
280Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 174; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 134.
281Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 132–33; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 54–55.
282Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 153, 165–66, 307.
285To be clear, Mao’s contributions to communist theory and strategy are also universal to communists everywhere, but here we are talking specifically about his strategic innovations concerning revolutionary strategy in colonial and semi-colonial countries.
286There was a longstanding rivalry between Germany and France, exemplified by the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, that certainly factored into WWII, but unpacking that history is beyond the scope of this summation.
287An excellent example of this contradiction is the interpretation of Beethoven’s music. The Nazis appropriated it for purposes of national chauvinism, as an example of the supposed great superiority of German culture. By contrast, communists have long viewed Beethoven’s music as embodying the best (universal) sentiments of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (just listen to Beethoven’s Leonore no. 3 overture or the second movement “funeral march” of his Third Symphony to understand why). Clearly Dimitrov had a point about not just giving up “national culture” to the fascists. (Just to get in another diss on Adorno while further problematizing Dimitrov’s conception of national culture and revolutionary traditions, it is worth noting that Adorno’s own interpretation of Beethoven’s music dovetails aesthetically—but not politically—with that of the Nazis. Both understood Beethoven’s music in a linear trajectory of German musical development rather than, more accurately, as a synthesis of the German symphonic tradition, the drama of Italian opera, and the revolutionary musical and political innovations of French music in the 1790s.)
288Denning, The Cultural Front, 131; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 191; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 115, 122–24.
289Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 173–75.
290Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 219; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 175–77.
291A fuller summation of the Spanish Civil War and the role of Communists and the Comintern within it is a necessary task for communists today, but beyond the scope of our summation of the CPUSA. One starting point for understanding the complexities and contradictions of the Spanish Civil War is “The Line of the Comintern on the Civil War in Spain,” Revolution #49 (1981). A basic conclusion we can draw is that the Comintern/Communist approach was deeply flawed, but the approach of Trotskyites and anarchists was fundamentally incorrect in understanding the principal contradiction in Spain at the time. While the situation in China was not the same as the one in Spain, the approach of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party to building a united front with the (bourgeois) Guomindang in a war of resistance against Japanese imperialist invasion demonstrates a correct line in contrast to the kind of united front attempted by the Communists in Spain.
292Denning, The Cultural Front, 63, 385.
293Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 166–68.
294Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, chapter 11.
295Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 197–98; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 109–11, 114, 117–18.
296Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 207–11, 221, 294–304; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 120, 121, 181.
297Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 257–64, 271; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 119.
298Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 253–56, 265–69; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 119–20.
299Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 293–94.
300Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 216–17; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 131–33.
301Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 137–38.
302Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 228–38; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 139–43.
303Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 232–33; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 144–46.
304Denning, The Cultural Front, 23.
305Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 235–39; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 140, 146.
306Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 243; Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 182; Mark Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” 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), 67–68; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 251–52.
307Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 54.
308Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 49; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 148–51.
309Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 243; Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 67; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 148.
310Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 147.
311Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 245–47.
312Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 185; Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 60, 63; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 213–17.
313Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 173. For a detailed account of how and why quality and quantity of the CP’s activities in Alabama diminished after 1935, see chapters 6–10 of Robin DG Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe.
314Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 234–37, 301–307.
315Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 202–11, chapter 10.
316Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 184–92; chapter 11.
318The best and most comprehensive account of the cultural component of the Popular Front is Michael Denning’s book The Cultural Front, from which we derive much of the factual information in this summary.
319Annette Rubinstein, “The Cultural World of the Communist Party,” 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), 255.
320For more on the CP’s role in Hollywood, see Gerald Horne’s Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–50 (University of Texas Press, 2013).
321A telling example of the bankruptcy of postmodernism is the San Francisco Board of Education’s recent attempt to “woke-wash” a historically significant Popular-Front-era mural that gives an honest depiction of the founding of the United States.
322Denning, The Cultural Front, chapter 9; Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression, 211.
323Denning, The Cultural Front, chapter 9. See also Lewis Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Howard Eugene Johnson with Wendy Johnson, Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club (Empire State Editions, 2014).
324Denning, The Cultural Front, chapter 9. In light of today’s postmodernist identity politics, it is worth emphasizing the collaborative effort by a white lyricist and a Black singer, as well as the militantly integrated atmosphere of Café Society, that resulted in “Strange Fruit.” Would “Strange Fruit” have been “canceled” if it came out today because the lyrics were written by a white man?
325See Robbie Lieberman’s “My Song Is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930–50 (University of Illinois Press, 1989) for a detailed account of this history.
326Denning, The Cultural Front, 269–72.
327Denning, The Cultural Front, 132; Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (Pluto Press, 2016).
328Denning, The Cultural Front, 285–302.
329See Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, chapter 19 for an overview of the CP’s quantitative achievements at this time. Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism fleshes out the personal stories of what it was like to be part of the CP; the experience of comrade Eric Lanzetti in the Lower East Side branch of the CP in Manhattan during the Popular Front detailed in chapter 3 is well worth reading.
330Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 218; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 127.
331Baxandall, “The Question Seldom Asked: Women and the CPUSA,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 156; Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 369–72; Naison, “Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 46, 48, 51; Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 129–30.
332Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 182–84.
333In addition to Comintern methods of leadership stifling the development of such leaders, we must also add the failures of some communist parties to adequately protect several high-caliber leaders, most notably Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Antonio Gramsci. This failure was rooted in the reformism of the Second International and the fact that the Leninist conception of a vanguard party had yet to become hegemonic in the aftermath of WWI.
334Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 182–85, 190.
335Ibid., 182–89, 191–92.
336Ibid., 192, 204–5.
339Ibid., 198–200, 203.
341Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 206; Joseph Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (Harvard University Press, 1972), 77.
342Denning, The Cultural Front, 33.
343Ibid., 34 (quote), 399.
344Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 206.
345Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 207–8; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 21, 24, 101.
346Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 208; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 55–60, 87–89.
347Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 209–10; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 61.
348At its best possibilities, imagine a communist-led, real-life version of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds.
349By RIMist, we mean the political line established by the 1984 Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and further elaborated in the pages of the journal A World To Win. We view the RIM Declaration as a foundational document for rebuilding the international communist movement.
350(n)PCI, Four Main Issues to Be Debated in the International Communist Movement, Section 1.1.1 (2010), available at nuvopci.it > Editions in Foreign Languages. The (n)PCI refers to the Comintern as the (first) Communist International; the Comintern is usually called the Third International to distinguish it from the First International formed in 1864 and the Second International formed in 1889.
351Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States, 211–12; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, chapter 4.
352Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, chapter 4.
353Denning, The Cultural Front, 24.
354Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 125–27.
355Ibid., 148–49, 160–61.
356Ibid., 111, 122, 128–29.
357Ibid., 123, 142–43,
358Ibid., 180–81, 189.
359Denning, The Cultural Front, 24 (quote); Keeran, “The Communist Influence on American Labor,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 191–92; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 147, 168–69, 172.
360Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 190.
361Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, chapter 6; Ellen Schrecker, “McCarthyism and the Decline of American Communism, 1945–1960,” 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); Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, chapter 8.
362Schrecker, “McCarthyism and the Decline of American Communism, 1945–1960,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism, 127–29; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 196–97, 206–9.
363Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 586–98; Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 198–201.
364Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 220–21.
365Ibid., 224–25, 226–27.