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The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

Communist party (in the United States)

Communist party, in the United States, political party that espoused the Marxist-Leninist principles of communism.


The first Communist parties in the United States were founded in 1919 by dissident factions of the Socialist party. The larger, which called itself the Communist party of America, consisted of many of the former foreign language federations of the Socialist party, in particular the Russian Federation, and the former Michigan Socialist party. The other, named the Communist Labor party, was led by Benjamin Gitlow and John Reed. The parties immediately became subject to raids by agents of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and local authorities. These raids resulted in a sharp drop in party membership and, in Jan., 1920, forced the Communists to go underground.

Early Years

In May, 1921, under strong pressure from the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern, the Communist groups in the United States were united as the Communist Party of America. The Comintern also forced a change away from revolutionary militancy to working through established labor organizations and developing a mass following. Accordingly, in Dec., 1921, the Communists organized the Workers party of America, as a legal, acknowledged organization, and by 1923 the underground party had ceased to function. Attempts were made to work through the growing farmer-labor movement of the early 1920s, but they failed, opposed by most farmer-labor leaders and Progressive leader, Senator Robert La Follette. Unsuccessful Communist-led strikes among textile workers in Passaic, N.J. (1926), in New Bedford, Mass. (1928), and among New York City garment workers (1926) also lessened Communist influence in trade unions.

During this period two factions developed within the party. One, led by Jay Lovestone, was generally socialist in background and concerned with political theory. The other, led by William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, was more syndicalist in background and interested in union activity. These two groups alternated in party leadership until 1929, when the Comintern ordered that Foster's group gain control to carry out the Comintern policy line established at its Sixth World Congress (1928). The party was renamed the Communist party of the United States of America.

This era, called the Third Period, saw the development of the theory of "social fascism," by which labor and socialist leaders were denounced as more dangerous enemies of the workers than the fascists. American Communists also made a major appeal for African-American support, calling for the creation of a black republic in the South, on the grounds that African Americans were a national, not a racial, minority. The adoption of the new party line coincided with the beginning of the depression of 1929, and as the economic crisis grew, Communist membership increased. However, its policies isolated the Communists both in politics and in the unions, so that despite increased membership and some success in organizing the unemployed, the party's influence remained small.

Popular Front and World War II

In 1935 the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern announced another change of direction. It now stressed the need for a "popular front," a movement to create political coalitions of all antifascist groups. In the United States, the Communists abandoned opposition to the New Deal; they reentered the mainstream of the trade union movement and played an important part in organizing new unions for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), for the first time gaining important positions of power in the union movement. As antifascist activists they attracted the support of many non-Communists during this period.

The party's attacks on Nazi Germany ended abruptly with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in Aug., 1939, and World War II, which immediately followed, was denounced as an "imperialist" war caused by Great Britain and France. American defense preparations and aid to the Western democracies were vigorously opposed as "war-mongering," and Communist-dominated unions were quick to go out on strike. However, when Germany attacked Russia in June, 1941, the Communist position on the war changed overnight from "imperialist" to "democratic." The party, under the leadership of Earl Browder, now went all out in its support of the war. Strikes were opposed as a hindrance to the war effort, and in 1944 the U.S. Communist party "disbanded" as a political party to become the Communist Political Association.

The Cold War

In 1945, Browder's policy was attacked as being one of the "right deviationism," and he was replaced by William Foster. This change in line and the beginning of the cold war brought the party, which had achieved relative respectability during the war, under renewed attack. In 1948 the Communists supported the presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive party ticket, but he obtained only slightly more than a million votes.

Communist influence in labor unions came under increasing attack. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 denied the facilities of the National Labor Relations Board to unions that failed to file affidavits avowing that their officers were not Communists, and in 1949–50 the CIO expelled unions that were still Communist-dominated. In Mar., 1947, President Truman barred Communists or Communist sympathizers from employment in the executive branch of the federal government. The sensational confessions of former Communists, such as Whittaker Chambers, and increasing evidence of Communist espionage led to highly publicized investigations by Congress (especially by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Government Operations), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and federal grand juries.

In Oct., 1949, 11 top Communist leaders were convicted on charges of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. In June, 1951, the Supreme Court found the Smith Act of 1940, under which the convictions had been obtained, constitutional, and the government proceeded to bring many lesser Communist officials to trial. In 1950 the McCarran Internal Security Act required that all Communist and Communist-dominated organizations register with the federal government the names of all members and contributors, and the Communist Control Act of 1954 further strengthened the provisions of the McCarran Act by providing severe penalties for Communists who failed to register, denying collective bargaining power to Communist-dominated unions, and taking away the "rights, privileges and immunities" of the Communist party as a legal organization. At the same time many states passed "little Smith Acts," with such provisions as the requirement of loyalty oaths from state employees and the denial of a place on the ballot to Communist parties. This was also the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's hysterical search for Communists in all branches of government.

In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's excesses, along with the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolt in that same year, created new schisms in the U.S. Communist party, which lost thousands of members. The Supreme Court has upheld many of the provisions of the Smith and McCarran acts as they apply to the leadership of the Communist party, but several decisions of the 1960s substantially voided sanctions against the rank and file except where some active conspiracy against U.S. security is proved. As a result the party resumed open activities in 1966 and ran candidates in presidential elections, but the contemporary party is a very minor political force. In the late 1980s, party leader Gus Hall criticized the Gorbachev reforms in the USSR, but as Communism collapsed in the USSR, it was claimed that Hall had received $2 million from the Soviet party. Subsequent declassification (1995–96) of intercepted Soviet cables confirmed that party members had indeed spied for the Soviet Union before and during the cold war, although some scholars questioned the extent to which the cables could trusted.


See the following bibliographies: Fund for the Republic, Inc., Bibliography on the Communist Problem in the United States (1955); R. F. Delaney, The Literature of Communism in America (1962); J. Seidman, ed., Communism in the United States (1969); and J. Brandt and S. O. Brandt, ed., Gus Hall Bibliography (1981). For works registering official views of the American Communist party in different periods, see E. R. Browder, What Is Communism? (1936); W. Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States (1952, repr. 1968). See also J. Oneal and G. A. Werner, American Communism (1947, rev. ed. 1972); I. Howe and L. Coser, The American Communist Party (1958, repr. 1962); T. Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960); J. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (1972); F. M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States from the Depression to World War II (1991); J. E. Haynes and H. Klehr, The American Communist Movement (1992) and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999).


Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

Communist party (in Russia and the Soviet Union)

Communist party, in Russia and the Soviet Union, political party that until 1991 exercised all effective power within the Soviet Union, and, as the oldest and for a long time the only ruling Communist party in the world, carried heavy or controlling influence over the Communist parties of other countries (see communism).


Marxist socialism (see Marxism) took root in Russia in the 1880s. Led by Georgi Plekhanov, a small group of Marxists formed (1883) the League for the Emancipation of Labor, stressing the revolutionary capabilities of the growing industrial proletariat. Other groups were soon founded, the largest of which was the Jewish Bund, and in 1898 they united to form the Russian Social Democratic Labor party. The second party congress (1903) in Brussels and London split into factions of Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, demanded a highly disciplined, centralized, and dedicated revolutionary elite rather than a mass party. These principles guided the Bolsheviks before the 1917 revolution and remained the basis for the party during its years in power.

Seizure of Power

When the Russian Revolution began in Mar., 1917, the Bolsheviks were unprepared, and under the provisional government they played a minor role. When Lenin returned from exile in April, he called for seizure of power, despite opposition within the party. The Bolsheviks gained strength in key areas, capitalizing on mass discontent, and in November they were able to seize control.

With a total party membership of about 200,000, they faced the problem of governing alone or sharing power. Lenin and Leon Trotsky demanded party dictatorship and destroyed all opposition from Mensheviks and other socialist groups. During the civil war (1918–20) the Bolshevik party—from 1918 the All-Russian Communist party—was at the height of its revolutionary ardor. Despite seemingly impossible odds, the party apparatus was strengthened at all levels.

Under Stalin

After the death of Lenin (1924) dissident elements in the party were silenced as Joseph Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor. While party debates in the party congresses of the 1920s were stormy and intraparty democracy was still evident, by the 16th party congress (1929) Stalin established virtual supremacy. The party (from 1925 the All-Union Communist party), was strongly urban. One purpose of the massive agricultural collectivization launched in 1929 was to strengthen the party's rural base. By 1933 there were more than 3,500,000 party members and candidates, many recruited from rural areas.

A series of purges in the 1930s decimated the party. Former leaders—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and others—were accused of treason, convicted in spectacular show trials, and executed or exiled. As the purges drew to a close by 1938, party membership had declined to 1,920,000. There was an immediate upturn in membership with the approach of World War II; in the period after the war membership grew more slowly.

The whole Stalinist period (1930–53), was dominated by a repressive and omnipotent dictatorship over all Soviet citizens, including party members. In 1952 the party was renamed the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

Post-Stalin Years

At the 20th party congress (1956, three years after Stalin's death) Premier Nikita Khrushchev testified about Stalin's crimes. The subsequent campaign of de-Stalinization reached a climax at the 22d party congress in 1961, and Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in a mausoleum in Red Square. After the death of Stalin, Georgi Malenkov at first appeared to hold power, but ultimately Khrushchev emerged as the successor, holding by 1958 the highest posts in both the party and government—first secretary of the party and chairman of the council of ministers. In the 1960s the tendency was once more to broaden the base of membership, but the party as an organization lost influence, while its leaders gained power. Party congresses were infrequent.

Khrushchev, however, was suddenly removed in 1964, replaced by a collective leadership whose leading members were Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. By the 1970s, Brezhnev, general secretary of the party, was the dominant figure. The party gained a legal monopoly in the Soviet constitution of 1977 (other parties had been banned since 1921), but otherwise the period was one of stagnation after the failure of Khrushchev's reforms.

Dissolution and Revival

After Brezhnev's death (1982) and those of two short-lived successors, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary (1985) ushering in a period of reform characterized by glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring. The reforms increasingly destabilized the governing system, however, eliciting demands for ever more far-reaching reforms.

In 1991 hardline party and military leaders attempted a coup (see August Coup) to halt the process. Until then the CPSU had been organized to parallel the territorial hierarchy of government administration and all significant institutions, including the press and armed forces, thereby effectively controlling all policy. It was for this reason that all political activity in public institutions was banned in 1991, preparatory to dissolving the party, which was incriminated in the coup attempt. The party was banned by Russian President Boris Yeltsin late in 1991, and all its property seized. Subsequently, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated.

By 1992, however, the new Communist Party of Russia had been legally established, and several other descendent parties remain politically important in Russia and some of the other nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union. The Communist Party of Russia, the largest and most well-financed of the new parties, won the largest bloc of seats in the 1995 parliamentary elections, and in the first round of the 1996 Russian presidential election, Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov received almost as many votes as Yeltsin. Although the party again won the largest percentage of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the combined vote of the progovernment parties was greater. In what was seen as a pragmatic alliance, the parties supporting with President Putin joined in coalition with the Communists in the Duma, but in Apr., 2002, that alliance collapsed, and most Communist party members were stripped of their leadership positions in the Duma. Meanwhile, in 2000, Putin won the presidency in the first round, while Zyuganov was a distant second.

The parliamentary elections of 2003 were a setback for the party, which polled only 12.6% of the vote, and the party's candidate in the 2004 presidential elections won just 13.7%. Despite the setbacks the party suffered, the 2003 elections left it the only signification opposition party in the State Duma. In Aug., 2004, opponents of Zyuganov within the party attempted unsuccessfuly to oust him, but the following month the dissidents broke with the party and formed the All-Russia Communist party of the Future. Nonetheless, the mainstream Communists remain the second largest national political party in Russia, in both parliamentary and presidential balloting.


See L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (2d ed. 1971); S. F. Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience (1985); M. Geller, Utopia in Power (1986); S. Carter, Russian Nationalism (1990); J. F. Hough, Russia, the West, Gorbachev, and the Politics of Reform (1990).


Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

Communist party (in China)

Communist party, in China, ruling party of the world's most populous nation since 1949 and most important Communist party in the world since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.


Founded in 1921 by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, professors at Beijing Univ., the early party was under strong Comintern influence. The Chinese Communist party became formally allied with the Kuomintang in 1923; by 1925 Communists held many top posts in the Kuomintang organization. Chiang Kai-shek forced a reduction in Communist power in Mar., 1926, but the party maintained the Kuomintang alliance at the insistence of the USSR.

Civil War

In Apr., 1927, Chiang Kai-shek drove the Communists, led by Zhou Enlai, from Shanghai and executed many of their leaders. By July the party went underground, beginning the long conflict between the party and the Kuomintang. In Aug., 1927, Mao Zedong led the peasants of Hunan prov. in the Autumn Crop Uprising, a popular rebellion that was bloodily suppressed.

One branch of the party secretly maintained itself in the cities, even establishing a short-lived Communist commune in Guangzhou (Dec., 1927). In the rural hinterland Mao Zedong and Zhu De established (1927) a precarious soviet in Jiangxi prov. Several other rural soviets were set up in Hunan, Anhui, and Hubei provs. By 1931, Mao was in control of the official soviet government at Ruiqin; radical land-reform was adopted, gaining support of the peasants. A Red Army, under the leadership of Mao and Zhu, was recruited from the peasantry of Jiangxi. Eventually driven from their southern base by Chiang's military campaigns, many thousands of Communists trekked north on the long march and set up headquarters at Yan'an in Shaanxi prov. There the party organization was strengthened, factories were built, and the civil war with Chiang's forces continued.

In Sept., 1937, after a two-year effort to promote Chinese unity in the face of further Japanese aggression (see Sino-Japanese War, Second), the Communists obtained a limited truce from Chiang Kai-shek and accepted his nominal authority, although they retained actual military and political control over large areas in the northwest. The truce with the Kuomintang broke down in 1939, but Communist guerrillas remained the only really effective force against the Japanese in N China. When World War II ended in 1945, the Communists controlled wide rural areas in N and central China and moved quickly to gain control of Manchuria. From 1945 to 1949 party membership swelled as Communist armies took city after city from the Nationalists.

Ruling Party

After the People's Republic of China was set up in 1949, the party became the administrative and policymaking center of the government. It was the party hierarchy that was challenged and nearly destroyed by Mao in the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping (1977) represented reestablishment of party control, which was strengthened further by events at Tiananmen Square (1989). It is currently the largest and most important governing Communist party, but it has essentially abandoned the principle of a collective economy directed by the state, emphasizing economic growth instead. It does continue to exercise exclusive political power, however, and it has actively suppressed real and perceived challenges to its power. Jiang Zemin, who was party leader from 1989 to 2002, essentially rejected the notion of class struggle in 2001 when he promoted the recruitment of business executives and entrepreneurs as party members. Jiang was succeeded as party leader by Hu Jintao, who largely maintained the status quo and was not an active reformer; Xi Jinping succeeded Hu in 2012.

For additional information, see China.


See L. Ladanay, The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921–1985 (1988); S. S. Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung (1988); S. Uhalley, Jr., A History of the Chinese Communist Party (1988); V. Schwartz, The Time for Telling Truth is Running Out (1992); D. Shambaugh, China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (2008); R. McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers (2010).


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