The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) dominated the Left during the 1930s and was in the forefront of struggles for social change. From the beginning of the Great Depression to the onset of World War II, the party enjoyed unprecedented influence and attained its highest membership totals. With added contingents of fellow travelers and numerous sympathizers, the Communist Party had considerable impact on reform and protest movements of the time.
Central to the Communist Party's growth and stature was its quick and ready response to the immediate needs and concerns of the masses of people to conditions stemming from the country's economic crisis. During the period, the party either initiated or substantially contributed to several highly visible grassroots struggles, among them the agitation on behalf of the unemployed, the fight for black rights, the antifascist campaign, and the unionization of workers.
A number of factors coalesced to place the party in a favorable position to assume a leading role in Depression-era struggles. Internally, the factional fighting that had occupied the party for much of the 1920s was settled with the expulsion of party leader Jay Lovestone and the ascension of a three-man secretariat consisting of William Z. Foster, William Weinstone, and Earl Browder. The leadership was further stabilized in 1934 with the election of Browder as general secretary; Browder led the party for the remainder of the 1930s and through the war years, directing policies and activities with a minimum of dissension. Moreover, the party had a functional base from which to launch its campaigns, and a skilled and disciplined cadre of experienced workers. Through the Trade Union Educational League and its successor, the Trade Union Unity League, party members had worked diligently to organize workers and gained credibility as determined and forthright fighters. The party had other established wings with solid reputations, including the International Labor Defense (ILD) and the Young Communist League, and quickly formed others to appeal to specific groups.
Additionally, the party's critique of capitalism meant that it was ideologically armed to deal with the economic cataclysm. "Third period" analysis (first articulated at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International [Comintern] anticipated a crisis in Western capitalism and predicted economic collapse followed by a revolutionary upswing. Accordingly, Communists expected to seize the time, aggressively assume leadership, and lead the disgruntled masses in a radical working-class movement. By virtue of its political stance, the party offered explanations and alternatives and was poised for its anticipated vanguard role.
Despite the opportune circumstances, the party's sectarianism hindered its effectiveness. In accordance with third period analysis, the Communist Party saw itself as the leading light of the movement and thus disdained alliances and coalitions with groups with similar interests and concerns. Party rhetoric was vociferous in attacks on reformists and other radicals, whom it wildly labeled as enemies of the working class and "social fascists." Hence, Communist stridency precluded any cooperation with likeminded progressives and for the first half of the decade kept the party isolated from the mainstream of American liberalism.
Despite its sectarian stance, the party's accomplishments were substantial. In March of 1930, Communists launched an unemployment campaign with nationwide demonstrations. Nearly half a million people in over thirty cities answered the call, with an estimated 100,000 participating in New York alone. The party followed up with the organization of unemployed councils and the staging of local and national demonstrations. The party's program included demands for emergency relief, unemployment insurance, no evictions, and a seven-hour workday and five-day workweek. Through the councils, communist organizers called attention to the plight of the unemployed, obtained some concrete benefits for them, and gave political voice to suffering masses.
In addition to its activities with the unemployed the party expanded its outreach to African Americans. In keeping with the mandates of the Sixth World Congress, which defined blacks as an oppressed nation within a nation requiring special attention, the CPUSA was intent on representing itself as the party of black Americans. In 1932 (and again in 1936 and 1940) an African American, James W. Ford, was the vice-presidential nominee on the Communist Party ticket. Beyond symbolic gestures, Communists aggressively recruited blacks and courageously entered the hostile South, where they attempted to organize blacks and whites together in defiance of law and etiquette. Facing considerable peril, in 1931 they helped form a sharecroppers union in Alabama that sought better conditions and fairer treatment for agricultural workers.
The party probably made its greatest inroads with blacks through the ILD's vigorous defense of black prisoners. The group's long-running campaign surrounding the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black youths convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, attracted worldwide attention and contributed greatly to the party's image as a militant opponent of racism and discrimination.
By the end of 1934, the party had began moderating its tone and moving closer to cooperation with other groups. The Seventh World Congress of the Comintern affirmed the shift in mid-1935 with its call for a united front of democratic forces to combat the growing threat of fascism. Attacks on liberals and socialists ceased as the CPUSA sought alliances with groups that it had formerly assailed. This new policy, the People's or Popular Front (later rechristened the Democratic Front), was reflected in support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal policies, the abandonment of dual unionism, and generally a less doctrinaire and sectarian posture. In the wake of this changed attitude, the CPUSA took the lead in uniting its National Student League with the Socialist Student League for Industrial Democracy in 1935 to form the American Student Union (ASU). The ASU combined activism on college campuses with involvement in labor, antifascist, and civil rights issues. In the South, the ASU had its close counterpart in the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a federation of black youth groups brought together by young African-American Communists in 1937. With a base originally in Richmond, Virginia, the SNYC spread to several southern states, where it spearheaded labor and civil rights initiatives.
The Popular Front's most enduring success was in the area of labor. John L. Lewis, head of the Committee for (later Congress of) Industrial Organizations (CIO), relied heavily on experienced and skilled Communist organizers when he undertook the task of unionizing the mass productions industries. Communists and others strongly linked to the party could be found at nearly every level of the early CIO and came to dominate a number of CIO unions.
The CPUSA's successful foray into mainstream progressive movements came to an abrupt halt with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression treaty. Although membership was largely unaffected, Democratic Front alliances dissolved because the party's shift from collective security to neutrality seemed a betrayal of its previously principled stand against fascism. The party sought to resurrect its former alliances during the 1940s, but its credibility had been undermined and its image badly tarnished.
See Also: ALABAMA SHARECROPPER'S UNION; AMERICAN STUDENT UNION; BROWDER, EARL; FOSTER, WILLIAM Z.; INTERNATIONAL LABOR DEFENSE (ILD); POPULAR FRONT; SCOTTSBORO CASE; SOUTHERN NEGRO YOUTH CONGRESS (SNYC).
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Klehr, Harvey, and John Earl Haynes. The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself. 1992.
Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: TheDepression Decade. 1984.
Ottanelli, Fraser M. The Communist Party of the UnitedStates: From the Depression to World War II. 1991.