Communist Party of the United States

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Communist Party of the United States

When the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) was founded in 1921, few people realized the critical role it would play in African-American politics and culture. The product of several splinter groups emerging out of the Socialist Party's left wing in 1919, it was founded by people wholike the Socialists before themviewed the plight of African Americans as inseparable from the class struggle. However, pressure from the newly formed "Third" International (that is, Comintern) and popular support for black nationalist movements within African-American communities compelled the CPUSA to reconsider its approach to the "Negro question." In 1921 V. I. Lenin assailed the American Communist leadership for neglecting the plight of black workers; one year later, Comintern officials insisted that African Americans were a "nationality" oppressed by worldwide imperialist exploitation and called on American Communists to work within Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1928 the Comintern, with input from Harry Haywood and South African Communist James La Guma, passed a resolution asserting that African Americans in the southern Black Belt counties constituted an oppressed nation and therefore possessed an inherent right of self-determination.

An emerging black left, deeply touched by the Bolshevik revolution as well as by postwar workers' uprisings and racial violence, also shaped the Communist position toward African Americans in the 1920s. The members of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), founded in 1918 by Cyril Briggs, eventually joined the CPUSA en masse during the early 1920s. Formed as a secret, underground organization of radical black nationalists, the ABB supported collective working-class action and advocated armed defense against lynching as well as racial equality and self-determination for Africans and peoples of African descent. After being absorbed by the CPUSA, the ABB ceased to exist as an independent entity. In its place the party in 1925 created the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), an organization led chiefly by ex-ABB leaders intent on building interracial unity in, and black support for, the labor movement. When the ANLC disintegrated after failing to gain popular support, it was replaced by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights in 1930. This proved to be somewhat more successful because of the popularity of its newspaper, the Liberator. Under the editorship of Cyril Briggs, it became a journal of black news tailor-made for the African-American community and a forum for radical black creative writers.

The self-determination slogan may have inspired a few black intellectuals already in the CPUSA, but it was not the key to building black working-class support during the 1930s. However, the party's fight for the concrete economic needs of the unemployed and working poor, its role in organizing sharecroppers in Alabama, its militant opposition to racism, and its vigorous courtroom battles in behalf of African Americans through the International Labor Defense (ILD) attracted a considerable section of America's black working class and intelligentsia. In particular, the ILD's defense of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, known as the Scottsboro Case, crystallized black support for the CPUSA in the 1930s.

Black support during this period typified black working-class life and culture, and many rank-and-file Communists were churchgoing Christians who combined the party's politics and ideology with black folk culture. Moreover, in spite of the Communist Party's highly masculine language of class struggle and self-determination, black women played central roles in both the leadership and the rank and file. African-American working women participated in and sometimes led relief demonstrations and marches to free the Scottsboro Boys, resisted evictions, confronted condescending social workers, and fought utilities shutoffs. The American Communist movement produced a significant group of black women leaders during the Great Depression and World War II, including Louise Thompson Patterson, Audley Moore, Bonita Williams, Claudia Jones, Dorothy Burnham, Moranda Smith, and Esther Cooper Jackson.

In 1935, in accordance with the Comintern's Seventh World Congress, the CPUSA called for a Popular Front against fascism, de-emphasized its Marxist ideology, and eventually supported Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. While southern Communists chose to play down race in order to build alliances with southern white liberals, the Popular Front led to more support from African Americans in the urban North. The party gained a larger black following in such places as Harlem and Chicago because of its opposition to Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and when African-American radicals were unable to join Haile Selassie's army because of U.S. government restrictions against the enlistment of U.S. citizens in a foreign army, many closed ranks with the left and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Communists were also the primary force behind the National Negro Congress (19351946) and the Southern Negro Youth Congress (19371949), both of which represented hundreds of black organizations. Finally, during the Popular Front, black Communist labor organizersamong them, Hosea Hudson, Ebb Cox,

James Hart, and Ferdinand C. Smithplayed a critical role in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), particularly in the steel, mining, marine transport, and meatpacking industries.

During this period the party attracted a considerable number of black artists, including Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. Communist cultural critics collected African-American music, began to write jazz criticism, and insisted that black culture was the clearest expression of "American culture." This newfound appreciation of black culture opened up potential space for creative expression within CPUSA circles. Communist papers published poems and short stories by black writers and carried articles and cartoons on black history; CPUSA auxiliaries sponsored plays by black playwrights, art exhibits, benefit jazz concerts, and dances. Nevertheless, many projects were constrained by ideological imperatives or failed because of lack of support. In 1932, for example, the Soviet Union invited a group of twenty-two black artists, including Louise Thompson and Langston Hughes, to make a film about African-American life, but the Soviets soon abandoned the project.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the CPUSA's sudden shift to an extreme antiwar position, the Dies Committee's investigation into "un-American" activities, and the rising anticommunism among CIO leaders weakened the party's base of support on the eve of World War II, but its relationship to black workers and artists remained fairly strong, especially in Harlem. Between 1939 and 1940, for instance, black Communists led a boycott of the film Gone with the Wind, initiated a campaign to "End Jim Crow in Sports," collected ten thousand signatures to demand the integration of blacks in major league baseball, organized numerous plays and jazz concerts, and persuaded blues composer W. C. Handy to lecture at the Workers School.

When Communists shifted to a prowar position after Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the African-American leadership, for the most part, adopted an uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the war effort, insisting on a "double victory" against racism at home and fascism abroad. While the CPUSA essentially opposed the "Double V" campaign, arguing that too much black militancy could undermine the war effort, rank-and-file Communists continued to fight on the civil rights front throughout the war, demanding, among other things, the full integration of the armed forces and implementation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. In spite of these measures, the party's opposition to the Double V slogan left many African Americans feeling that it had abandoned them for the sake of the war.

After the war Communists shifted to the "ultra left." The party again advocated class struggle and it sought to rebuild ties to black working-class communities, a strategy that included resurrecting the self-determination thesis. The Civil Rights Congress, led by Communist William L. Patterson, gained notoriety for its militant defense of African Americans falsely accused of crimes and Communists accused of "un-American" activities, and for its historic petition to the United Nations charging the U.S. government with genocide against African Americans in 1951.

The late 1940s and the early 1950s were an exciting time for black feminist theorizing and activism in the American Communist movement. For example, in 1949 the CPUSA's theoretical journal Political Affairs published Claudia Jones' seminal essay, "An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!" The article strongly criticized "white chauvinism" within the party in particular and black women's marginal place within the left in general. The article also popularized the term "triple oppression"race, class, and gender oppressionwithin the party. In 1951 Louise Thompson Patterson, with poet, actor, and progressive activist Beah Richardson, founded the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. This short-lived, all-black women's, progressive civil rights organization sought to give black women an independent voice in the left and in the emerging, postwar black freedom movement.

The left also served as an important cultural and political site where a small but vibrant community of black women artists and writers came together. For example, articles by playwright and journalist Lorraine Hansberry, playwright and novelist Alice Childress, and labor organizer Vicki Garvin appeared in Paul Robeson's Freedom, a black progressive newspaper published between 1950 and 1955. Novelist Rosa Guy took part in the progressive Harlem Writers Guild during the McCarthy period. And visual artists Margaret Burroughs and Elizabeth Catlett forged ties with progressives in Chicago, Mexico, and beyond during the 1940s and 1950s.

However, McCarthyite repression and the party's leftward turn in the wake of Secretary Earl Browder's expulsion and William Z. Foster's rise to power weakened the CPUSA considerably. The state arrested Communists for violating the Smith Actincluding black leaders such as Henry Winston, Ben J. Davis Jr., Claudia Jones, William L. Patterson, James Jackson Jr., and Pettis Perry. This stifling cold war political climate isolated the CPUSA from politically mainstream African-American protest groups. McCarthyism also contributed to the demise of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. As the state targeted the left, the party experienced its own factional disputes and expulsions. As the country moved right, the party under Foster moved farther left and further into isolation. By 1956 the CPUSA had become a shadow of its former self, never to achieve the status it had enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s.

During the next three decades, black Communists and ex-Communists such as Jack O'Dell, Mae Mallory, Abner Berry, Audley "Queen Mother" Moore, and Hosea Hudson participated in various civil rights organizations, antiwar movements, labor unions, and black nationalist struggles. As an organization, however, the CPUSA maintained a significant black constituency only in New York City, Detroit, and Californiawith the latter regarded as a renegade state by the CPUSA Central Committee. While the national leadership attacked black nationalism during the height of the Black Power movement, the California cadre, under the guidance of leaders such as Charlene Mitchell and Dorothy Healey, not only gave support to various nationalist movements but established an all-black youth unit called the Che-Lumumba Club, in defiance of Central Committee directives. The movement to free Angela Davis, the last nationally renowned black Communist of the twentieth century, further strengthened the CPUSA's black support in California.

"The Communist Party not only declares its support for social, economic, and political equalityfor complete unconditional equalityfor the Negroes, but the Communist Party fights for equality for the Negroes."

clarence hathaway from speech on black self determination, reprinted in william l. van deburg. modern black nationalism. new york university press, 1997, p. 61.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CPUSA practically fell apart. Virtually every leading African-American cadre member, including Angela Davis, James Jackson, and Charlene Mitchell, quit the party altogether with the hope of reconstituting a new democratic left-wing movement. The late 1990s, however, saw a resurgence of activity in the Young Communist League (YCL). YCL members took part in graduate student labor, anti-sweat shop, and trade union organizing and in antiglobalization demonstrations. Despite these activities, the American Communist Party remains a marginal force in the U.S. left.

See also African Blood Brotherhood; Briggs, Cyril; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; National Negro Congress; Politics in the United States


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robin d. g. kelley (1996)

erik s. mcduffie (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Communist Party of the United States