Communist Party, United States of America

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COMMUNIST PARTY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, was formed in 1919 when the left wing of the Socialist Party became convinced that the Bolsheviks in Russia had discovered a swift road to socialism. One left faction attended the Socialist Party's convention in Chicago in hopes of seizing control. When that failed, they walked out and on 31 August founded the Communist Labor Party (CLP), led by John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow. The CLP thundered that it had "only one demand: the establishment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat," and sent Reed to Russia to win support from the Communist International (Comintern). Another faction met on 1 September, also in Chicago, and founded the Communist Party of America (CPA), announcing that "Communism does not propose to 'capture' the bourgeoisie parliamentary state, but to conquer and destroy it." Led by Charles Ruthenberg, the CPA sent Louis Fraina to Russia to seek Comintern endorsement. The CPA's membership was about 24,000, organized largely in immigrant federations whose members spoke little English. The CLP's membership was about 10,000 and also largely immigrant. Meanwhile, U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer launched a series of raids to round up alien radicals. His chief targets were syndicalist and anarchist groups, but the Palmer raids netted many communists and about a thousand were deported, with more leaving voluntarily. State governments also prosecuted citizens who were communists, and New York jailed the CLP's Gitlow and the CPA's Ruthenberg. Both parties

went underground, losing more than half of their members in the process.

Unity, Stalinization, and a Revolutionary Program

The Comintern ordered a merger, but the two parties were unable to agree on terms. In May 1920, a minority CPA faction merged with the CLP to form the United Communist Party. Comintern representatives forced the remaining part of the CPA into a merger in May 1921 that created a single Communist Party of America. The Comintern also provided this new, united CPA with secret subsidies that allowed it to establish a daily newspaper, numerous foreign-language newspapers, and a large staff of organizers. Sections of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World shifted to the Communist Party, and the movement gained a labor arm when William Foster brought his Trade Union Educational League into the movement. After government attacks ceased, the Comintern ordered formation of an aboveground arm, which was done in December 1921 with the creation of the Workers Party of America. The CPA remained underground until dissolved in 1923. In 1925, the Workers Party became the Workers (Communist) Party of America, which in 1929 was renamed the Communist Party, United States of America (CPUSA).

Throughout the 1920s the party remained small, inconsequential, and beset by internal factionalism, with Comintern representatives stepping in to pick leaders, guide policy, and impose unity. In early 1929, the CPUSA expelled James Cannon and his supporters when Cannon became an adherent of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik leader who had lost out to Joseph Stalin. Later that year, the Comintern expelled Jay Lovestone and Benjamin Gitlow—then the party's chief figures—along with scores of veteran CPUSA militants for being followers of Nikolai Bukharin, another rival to Stalin.

By the early 1930s, the CPUSA had become thoroughly Stalinized, internal factionalism had ended, and Earl Browder had become the party's leader. In response to the Great Depression, the CPUSA offered the abolition of capitalism and Soviet rule. William Foster, its presidential candidate in 1932, promised in Toward Soviet America (1932) that when communists came to power "all the capitalist parties—Republican, Democratic, Progressive, Socialist, etc.—will be liquidated.…The press, the motion picture, the radio, the theatre, will be taken over by the government" (pp. 275, 317). Foster received 102,991 votes, less than 1 percent of the vote. After the election, communists denounced Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as "social fascist." The party's agitation for unemployment relief and its leading role in several dramatic strikes brought attention to it, but by 1934 membership was still only 26,000.

The Popular Front

In 1935 the Comintern proclaimed a Popular Front policy that downplayed revolution and emphasized alliances with reformers and other leftists against the common menace of fascism. Embracing this stance with the slogan "Communism is twentieth-century Americanism," the CPUSA shifted to support of Roosevelt and sought a cooperative role on the left of the broad New Deal coalition. Communists achieved a limited but nonetheless significant presence in main stream politics through their participation in New York's American Labor Party, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, the End Poverty in California movement, the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation, and the Washington [state] Commonwealth Federation. Two members of Congress, Representatives John Bernard (1937–1938) of Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party and Hugh De Lacy (1945–1946), a Washington State Democrat, became secret members. Two open communists won election to the New York City Council.

Communists also took leading although usually secret roles in numerous liberal-left advocacy groups such as the American League for Peace and Democracy, National Negro Congress, American Writers Union, and American Youth Congress. Communists had no role in founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but in 1936, after secret negotiations, CIO leaders hired more than fifty communist organizers and brought into the CIO several small communist-led unions. Working from this base, by the end of World War II, communists led eighteen CIO affiliates that represented 1,370,000 workers, a quarter of the CIO's total. CPUSA member-ship also grew, reaching 66,000 members in 1939. At the party's origins, most members had been impoverished working-class immigrants, predominately of Russian origin. In the mid-1920s, Finnish immigrants were briefly the largest group in the party. By the mid-1930s, the majority of communists were native-born, while college-educated professionals were a growing proportion of the party's membership and Jews were the largest single ethnic group. Communists championed black rights and devoted significant resources to organizing African Americans, but black membership remained small. Throughout all of its history a large share of the party's members lived in the New York City area.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact, World War II, and a Postwar Reversal

The CPUSA supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 without reservations, and shifted from avid support for Roosevelt's foreign policies to savage rejection. Communists opposed Roosevelt's reelection in 1940 and organized the American Peace Mobilization to agitate against President Roosevelt's policy of providing American military and economic aid to nations fighting Nazi Germany. CPUSA abandonment of the antifascist cause prompted most liberals to turn against cooperation with communists. In reaction to CPUSA support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Roosevelt administration imprisoned communist chief Earl Browder for passport fraud. To avoid threatened U.S. government regulation, the CPUSA dropped formal affiliation with the Communist International in 1940.

The Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941 prompted the CPUSA to resurrect its Popular Front tactics, embrace Roosevelt's policies, and reach out for liberal allies. As a gesture to the Soviet alliance, President Roosevelt in 1942 released Browder from prison. Believing that the Soviet-American wartime alliance would continue after the war, Browder decided that the Popular Front stance was a permanent strategy. In mid-1944, the CPUSA dissolved and reconstituted itself as the Communist Political Association. Revolution and socialism were consigned to the distant future and communists presented themselves as the militant left of the New Deal and the Democratic Party. In April 1945, however, Moscow signaled that Browder's views were unacceptable. In July, the Communist Political Association called an emergency convention, dissolved itself, and reestablished the CPUSA. Browder was expelled and two Moscow loyalists, William Foster and Eugene Dennis, became the party's leaders. The reconstituted CPUSA shifted from cooperation with mainstream liberals to demanding support for a foreign policy congenial with Stalin's postwar goals.

Cold War Anticommunism

The development of the Cold War put the communists in opposition to President Harry Truman's anti-Soviet policies. Evidence of communist cooperation with Soviet espionage led Truman to create a loyalty program that excluded communists from government employment and to imprison CPUSA leaders under sedition sections of the Smith Act. In 1948, communists committed their cadre to the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace and the new Progressive Party. Truman's reelection and Wallace's poor showing destroyed the CPUSA's influence among liberals and led to the expulsion of communists from the CIO. During the Korean War, in which U.S. troops fought communist soldiers, anticommunism became a highly popular cause among both Republicans and Democrats, and Congress passed a number of anticommunist laws. Although the CPUSA was never outlawed and continued to function openly, these factors combined to reduce the party's membership to twelve thousand by the mid-1950s, as well as bring about its political isolation.

Another blow came in 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev confirmed that Joseph Stalin had committed monstrous crimes during the purges of the 1930s. This was quickly followed by evidence that Stalin's purges of the early 1950s also included an anti-Semitic element, and then by Soviet crushing of the popular revolution against communist rule in Hungary. These events devastated communist morale and the party fell into turmoil as reformers called for independence from Soviet control. Moscow loyalists had carried the day by 1958, but by that time the party's membership had plummeted to three thousand.

The Vietnam War, Gorbachev, and the Post–Cold War Era

Gus Hall became party chief in 1959 and insisted on rigid loyalty to Moscow and ideologically orthodox Marxism-Leninism. The CPUSA slowly regained members, aided by the Vietnam War backlash against anticommunism and by those veterans of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s who were seeking a new vehicle for radicalism. It was also aided by continued secret Soviet subsidies that reached $3 million a year in 1988. Although it regained a minor role in liberal-left politics in California and New York, membership by the late 1980s did not exceed ten thousand. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's democratizing of Soviet communism appalled Hall, and he supported the abortive 1991 coup by Soviet hard-liners. This sparked revolt against Hall by CPUSA reformers, but at a late 1991 convention Hall retained control and the reformers left the party. Loss of Soviet subsidies also caused a severe cutback in the party's activities: its daily newspaper became a weekly, several of its specialized journals ceased publication entirely, and its staff was drastically reduced in size. By the time of Hall's retirement in 2000, membership had dropped below two thousand.


Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. New York: Octagon Books, 1977.

———. American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Foster, William Z. Toward Soviet America. New York: International Publishers, 1932.

Isserman, Maurice. Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982.

Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Klehr, Harvey, and John Earl Haynes. The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Klehr, Harvey, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson. The Soviet World of American Communism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Klehr, Harvey, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov. The Secret World of American Communism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Starobin, Joseph R. American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.

John EarlHaynes

See alsoAbraham Lincoln Brigade ; Anticommunism ; Hiss Case ; McCarthyism ; Palmer Raids ; Radicals and Radicalism ; Russia, Relations with ; Socialist Party of America .

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