Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995 Copyright © International Socialism
When the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) marked its 75th anniversary last October the event was hardly noticed.
But it was not always so easy to dismiss the CPUSA. The history of the CPUSA exposes the lie that American workers will never fight for socialist politics and organisation. After a difficult beginning in 1919 that saw two rival Communist Parties (CPs) form too late to influence a massive strike wave, the party managed to build in key sectors of US labour. But the in-fighting of the early years persisted, and soon became caught up in the faction fight waged by Stalin for control of the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International (Comintern).
By the time of the stockmarket crash of October 1929, a thoroughly Stalinised CPUSA had expelled the Left (Trotskyist) and Right (Bukharinist) Oppositions and embarked on Stalin's ultra-left 'Third Period' policy. According to this line, the revolution was imminent; reformist political leaders and trade union officials were 'social fascists', the equivalent of Nazis. Membership stood at 7,000--smaller than either of the two parties that had formed in 1919.
Yet despite the excesses of the 'Third Period' the CP connected with, and helped to lead, an upturn in working class struggle that began in 1934. A split in the American Federation of Labour in 1935 formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organise unskilled mass production workers. This coincided with the new Popular Front line from Moscow, which aimed to convince Western governments to ally with Russia against Nazi Germany. Yesterday's 'social fascists'--not just labour leaders, but bourgeois politicians like Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt--were now allies. By the late 1930s membership reached 75,000.
The CP was relatively isolated during the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939-1941, but a renewed patriotic Popular Front policy during the Second World War saw membership rise to 100,000. The class composition of the party had changed.1 Industrial workers were a declining percentage of membership, overwhelmed by an influx of professionals, labour bureaucrats and, most famously, Hollywood film scriptwriters and actors.
In the Cold War of the 1950s the party was repressed as the domestic agent of the US's rival, the USSR. But repression did not destroy the party--despite the jailing of several key party leaders and the execution of two CP members, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg. Rather the party, still numbering 25,000, virtually collapsed following the ideological crisis of Stalinism after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.2 Its hegemony on the US left had ended not because of the McCarthyite witch hunts, but because of its own politics.
Decades after it was effectively marginalised, the CP's legacy remains hotly disputed on the academic left. This is a debate which goes to the heart of the question of building for socialism in the USA today.
On one side are the 'orthodox' Cold War liberal historians, led by ex-CP journalist Theodore Draper, who argue that the CP was from the outset an alien force on the US left.3 On the other side of the debate are New Left academics with social and cultural histories of CP work in the mass movements of the 1930s. Their aim is not only to provide a corrective to Draper's supposedly distorting focus on CP leadership, but to find inspiration and strategies for a revival of the US left. While acknowledging the twists and turns of Stalin's dictates, they stress continuities in CP activities as the organisation developed roots in mass movements.4
Whatever the considerable merits of the new historians' work, most have stumbled over what the CP's Popular Front 'success' meant in class terms. The CP's Popular Front and Second World War policy were retreats from--and even betrayals of--the earlier struggles which initially won the party its following in the labour movement and anti-racist struggles. Maurice Isserman denies this in his work on the CP during the Second World War, when he claims that the CP's enthusiastic strikebreaking did not 'lead to any general flight of working class members out of the party' and that the opposition to the wartime black struggle for jobs did not impede recruitment among blacks.5 Indeed, Isserman has gone on to argue that the 'success' of the Popular Front makes the case for the left to support President Bill Clinton today.6 Thus the debate on the legacy of the CP is, unavoidably, a debate on the potential for building a socialist alternative in the US in the 1990s.
The editors of the anthology New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism want to further the debate precisely because of its currency: 'Think of the gross inequalities of class, race and gender in this country... These are among the issues which the CPUSA has placed at the top of its agenda for the past seventy years.'7
This collection of new CP historians and others is a strong challenge to the liberal anti-Communist historians of the CP. But the usefulness of the book is that it highlights a much more important debate within the US left over the CP. This can be summed up in three areas: Was the Popular Front proof of socialism's potential mass appeal or an exercise in class collaboration? Was the CP principled in fighting the oppression of blacks and women? Did the CP fight for the interests of rank and file workers in the labour movement?
The answers to these questions are not just quibbles over the historical record. They have everything to do with the prospects for socialists in the 1990s and the potential of the US working class to emancipate itself.
Editor Michael Brown begins New Studies by challenging Draper's claim that the CP was from birth an alien force in US politics. Brown cannot deny that after 1928 the CP leadership faithfully executed every twist and turn of the Moscow line but he does not look at the CP's pre-Stalinist years to challenge Draper. Instead he looks to grassroots CP members for evidence of the organic relationship to the US working class.8 By failing to challenge Draper's argument that the CP was born with an original sin of being pro-Moscow, Brown (and other new historians) fail to come to grips with the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. The CPUSA was from the outset more dependent on Moscow than most Western CPs. It took Moscow's intervention to unify the two original CPs, and party leaders often relied on the Comintern to settle internal debates. But there is a qualitative difference between the weak and factionalised--but still revolutionary--CP of the 1920s and the rigid, authoritarian CP of the 1930s and beyond.Mark Naison's essay on the Popular Front makes this clear. Arguing that the CP grew massively in the early and mid-1930s because of its involvement in a revived working class struggle, Naison shows how the Popular Front from 1936 served to undermine those struggles as the CP pursued an accommodation with top labour leaders and pushed for support for the Democratic Party. In 1936 the CP was key in preventing the labour and farmer-labour parties in various states from coalescing in a national labour party. Although CP leader Earl Browder ran for president, the party worked to ensure Roosevelt's re-election, 'thereby becoming the first party in US history to use a presidential campaign largely to assure the victory of one of its opponents!'9
When Roosevelt moved right to adapt to a more conservative Congress after 1938, Naison shows that the CP moved to the right with him, dropping socialist propaganda for the sake of 'unity of progressive forces.' What had began as a directive from Moscow to support the 'democratic bourgeoisie' took on a dynamic of its own as the party liquidated its shopfloor newspapers, recruited middle class liberals and took on an 'atmosphere of pragmatism'.
In other words, it was not the 'alien' character of the CP that undercut its effectiveness, but the changes in the party's class basis during the Popular Front period. Naison sums up:
Was there a genuine socialist alternative to the Popular Front debacle? John Gerassi's article on 'The Comintern, the Fronts and the CPUSA' serves as the anthology's left wing critique of the party. Unfortunately Gerassi rejects not only the cross-class Popular Front alliance, but also the policy of the working class United Front developed by the Comintern in Lenin's time. He argues that the United Front of workers' organisations advocated by Trotsky as the way to stop Hitler's rise in Germany would have inevitably failed. Instead, Gerassi favours the sectarian Third Period line and dismisses Trotsky's efforts to win ordinary CP members to a principled revolutionary policy.
Trotsky rejected such ultra-left posturing. Even after the Stalinists' first attempt at assassinating him, he argued that, whatever the crimes of the Kremlin and the betrayals of Western CP leaderships, rank and file Communists were sincere revolutionaries who could be won to genuine socialist politics.11
These ordinary CP members, ignored by the orthodox liberal historians, are the subject of the anthology's writings on the CP's impact on culture in the US during the 1930s. Annette Rubenstein, a former CP member, recalls how working class party activists were involved in a wide range of cultural activities, especially theatre. Newly politicised workers were an eager audience and were often actors and stagehands in plays in union halls and ethnic clubs. The concentration of CP members in the theatre centre of New York meant the workers' theatre influenced Broadway via the government funded Federal Theatre, which had 200 production units in 12 states, including at least 12 black companies. With a weekly audience of 400,000, Rubenstein estimates that an incredible one third of the population attended these productions from 1935 to 1939, when anti-Communists in Congress killed its funding.12
The theatre had to compete for its audience with Hollywood. Rubenstein argues that theatre's success in the 1930s was because the essential element of conflict in any play resonated with millions of workers who became conscious that their own daily struggles determined their fate:
In other words, ordinary CP members' activity in struggle shaped the party's impact on culture far more than the stultifying Moscow line of 'socialist realism'. Alan Wald develops this argument in his essay on Communist Party writers: 'The meaning of the Communist experience is less a matter of literary form or content than of commitment to racial equality, anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, national independence of colonies, and similar values'--although these views were greatly distorted by Stalinism.14 He shows that the CP's influence on writers did not end with the departure of 'big names' such as Granville Hicks over the Hitler-Stalin pact; fully seven eighths of the membership of the CP sponsored League of American Writers remained in the party.
While we know a great deal about the CP associations of black writers like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Wald points out that dozens of writers who have received favourable critical attention like J O Killens and Chester Himes were also influenced by the CP. Many writers themselves denied past CP links because of changed political views or repression, and the literary establishment ignored them in order to keep ordinary people from a 'genuine history of their own cultural activities' and deny access to authors who wrote about workers' collective struggles and personal experiences.15
Wald shows that CP authors and poets were not just socialist realist propagandists. They turned out everything from epic poetry to pulp fiction during and after their years in the party. Women writers who were well known in the 1930s have since been ignored, including Christina Stead, Ruth McKenney, Grace Lumpkin and Dorothy Myra Page. Where the 1960s black movement was able to open up a mass audience for novelists such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, the 1950s witch hunts cut off literally hundreds of deserving CP writers from any critical attention whatsoever. Wald concludes that the literature of the 1930s will get the attention it deserves when a revived working class movement discovers its own history in order to fight for its future.16
Marvin Gettleman's essay on the CP's New York Workers School goes so far as to argue that the CPUSA leaders were unconscious Gramscians, trading in armed revolutionary struggle for 'contests for cultural hegemony'.17 In fact his essay shows that what began as an important vehicle for educating trade union and socialist militants degenerated into a pro-war propaganda vehicle. Whatever Gramsci meant by cultural hegemony, studying wartime Stalinist tracts on the need for unity not only with Democrats but also with Republicans was clearly not it.18
The CP's record in fighting the oppression of blacks and women has long been a focus for debate on the US left. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s rejected socialism precisely because of the status of women in the so called 'socialist' countries and the CP's conservative pro-family line. Rosalynn Baxandall's article makes some concessions to feminism, but she does show that, despite the CP's awful position on women's oppression, the party went much further than any previous feminist organisation on the US left in politicising working class women and drawing them into struggles to fight for their own interests. Baxandall quotes writer Tillie Olsen: 'The CP took me out of a life of drudgery and into a life of action.' Women's membership in the party soared from 10 percent in 1930 to 50 percent in 1943 as the CP moved beyond the workplace to intervene in struggles against mortgage foreclosures, evictions, welfare, emergency food relief and more. Yet the CP newspaper Working Woman usually resembled publications aimed at middle class housewives. And the CP did nothing to protest when hundreds of thousands of women were forced from their wartime jobs and day care centres were closed at the end of the Second World War. The class collaborationist politics of the Popular Front required the abandoning of the struggle against women's oppression. One effort by a woman comrade in 1935 to open a debate on women's liberation led to her vilification and expulsion.19
Baxandall shows the inconsistencies in the CP's fight against oppression. Gerald Home seeks to defend the record. His account of the election of black CP leader Ben Davis to the New York City Council is a challenge to historians Mark Naison and Robin Kelley, whose respective books on Harlem and Alabama show how the Popular Front alliance with the Democratic Party undermined the fight against racism. Home reports that during the Second World War 'the membership of the Harlem party, and of black Communists generally, dramatically increased' with 500 recruited in the spring of 1943 alone. Davis was elected with a majority of black and nearly half of white first choice votes in a proportional representation election. His other evidence of widespread black backing for the CP was Davis's support from singer Lena Home and boxer Joe Louis.20
The problem with Home's argument is that, while the number of black recruits may have increased in the 1940s, the basis on which they joined had qualitatively changed. In the early and mid-1930s the CP increased party membership in Harlem from a handful to over 2,000 by engaging in fights against police brutality, the campaign against the racist frame up trial of the Scottsboro Boys and job discrimination and unemployment. In Alabama the party won black support by braving intense repression to build unions and fight for civil rights. In both cases the turn to the Popular Front alliance with Democrats compromised the principled fight against racism and led to the resignation of key black cadre. With the Democratic Party dependent on a racist one party state in the segregated South, there was no way the CP could support Democrat President Roosevelt and carry out a principled fight against racism.21
During the Second World War the CP could gloss over this contradiction as Roosevelt's order to desegregate the military seemed to hold out promise for a better post-war life for blacks. In fact, the significance of Davis's victory was seen not so much as a blow against racism, but as a step on the way of the CP's drive to get into the political mainstream. Gil Green, a top CP leader, said of the victory, 'If correctly appraised and followed up it may well mark the turning point of our party to the main forces in American political life--the beginning of full integration of our party into the camp of national unity...'22
Davis's victory was not a continuation of the CP's workplace and civil rights struggles against fighting racism, but a retreat from such militancy into electoralism and support for the Democratic Party. To be sure, the election of a black Communist caused a stir in local and US politics. But in reality the Davis victory consolidated the CP's turn to electoralism and set the stage for CP leader Earl Browder's decision to dissolve the party in 1944 and merge it into the left wing of the Democratic Party to support Roosevelt's re-election in 'the greatest electoral effort in [the CP's] history.'23
Home contends that the Davis victory would have marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement but for anti-Communist repression by the state. But the CP's record on the 'black question' is much more complicated than that. Home is right to argue that the CP's theory of self determination for the 'black belt' in the former slave states was scarcely relevant to the party's actual practice.24 But however wrong the theory, it did raise questions about the centrality of the working class in the struggle for black liberation in the US.25 In shrugging off these issues, Home by default accepts the CP's own Popular Front criteria for success: not 'How can we build black and white unity in labour and civil rights struggles?', but 'How many votes can we get?' By removing the class content from the struggle against racism in the Second World War Popular Front, the CP ensured that it--and the tens of thousands who left the party--would tail the middle class leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.26
No one disputes that the CPUSA was instrumental in the labour struggles that led to the formation of the CIO. The debate is over the CP's relationship to the labour bureaucracy, its role in enforcing the no-strike pledge in the Second World War, and its inability to withstand the purges and witch hunts of the 1950s.
Unfortunately, Roger Keeran's article sidesteps these questions. Keeran does provide a useful summary of the dramatic growth of the CIO--from 2.6 million in 1934 to 7.3 million in 1938--and documents the key role of CP members in building the unions. By the Second World War the party controlled unions with 25 percent of the CIO's membership. But by 1954 this was gone, with 59 unions barring Communists from office, and 40 barring CP members completely. Keeran explains this enormous setback as almost exclusively a result of state repression and red baiting by the labour leaders.27
In fact the CPUSA's own record in the labour movement is one of tragedy and betrayal. A number of labour historians show that, although the CP attracted the best militant rank and filers in unions such as the United Auto Workers, the Popular Front period saw the party becoming an appendage of the trade union bureaucracy. In the Transport Workers Union (TWU) the CP dominated the leadership.28
Instead of maximising rank and file independence from the trade union bureaucracy, the CP actively sought to make workers more dependent on 'allies' among union tops. For example, in 1938 54 percent of the trade union delegates to the 1938 convention were trade union functionaries, and 128 of 776 delegates were full time trade union officials.29 Yet many of these union leaders denied CP membership--and only 27,000 of 75,000 party members were trade unionists.30
The CP's orientation on the union bureaucracy had a political impact, just as the CP's support for Roosevelt reinforced labour leaders' ties to the Democrats, with the exception of the period of the 1939-1941 Hitler-Stalin pact. The results were disastrous for the fight against racism in the working class. The greater the party's orientation to the union leadership, the less likely it was to take up the question of racism by the employers or within union ranks, especially as it supported the no-strike pledge during the Second World War.31 What is more, the CP once again worked to short circuit the movement for a labour party during the war?32
With the Allied victory in 1945, employers, union leaders and the government expected struggle to resume--1946 saw the biggest wave of strikes in US history. But the working class had changed enormously since the sitdown strikes of the 1930s. The war economy had increased the size of the working class and the union membership as millions poured into the cities from rural areas. Even a revolutionary socialist party with roots in the working class would have faced a serious challenge in fighting for the leadership of such a massive strike movement, which the trade union bureaucracy intended to be a 'safety valve'. But the CP, with its middle class orientation, had no intention of doing so. Indeed, CP leaders initially called for the extension of the no-strike pledge. which put CIO bureaucrats considerably to the left of the CP.33
The result was political confusion and disorientation in the working class. Only 30 percent of trade unionists voted in the 1946 mid-term elections. which allowed the Republicans to take both houses of Congress (a feat unequalled until 1994). Anger with Democrat President Truman over his strikebreaking led to a split in the union leadership, with a labour party once again on the agenda. But with the onset of the Cold War, labour leaders went all out to mobilise unions to support Truman in the 1948 elections, while the CP supported a former Roosevelt vice-president in a weak third party bid. The next year the CIO expelled nine unions allegedly led by Communists (two others had already left) whose membership totalled nearly a million--between 17 and 20 percent of the total CIO membership.34
And so, at a time when the Labour Party won a massive victory in Britain and Canadian social democracy became a national force, the idea of a labour party in the US was stillborn because, as historian David Brody put it, the CP had inhibited the growth of the labour left and the anti-Communism of the trade union bureaucracy 'burned out the roots of an independent labour politics'.35 The CP could not withstand the pressure because for the previous decade it had oriented on the union leadership rather than sinking roots in the industrial rank and file. And having loyally supported the Democrats, it had no credibility when it broke with the labour bureaucrats who backed Truman in 1948.
All this led to defeat not just for the CP, but for the entire US workers' movement. The CIO leaders' anti-Communism drove out the anti-racist militants who would have been key to the 'Operation Dixie' Southern organised drive. But union leaders, worried about upsetting allies in the Democrats' 'Solid South', abandoned the drive--and the low unionisation rate in the South has undermined the US labour movement ever since.36
The decline of the Communist Party USA was not due to the supposed conservatism of US workers. Nor was the CP crushed by state repression, although articles by Stephen Leberstein and Ellen Shrecker show that the witch hunts were certainly pervasive and vicious.37 Rather the party collapsed under the weight of its own Stalinist politics. The CP won credibility through the struggles and sacrifices of its membership the best working class fighters of their generation. But all this was thrown away by policies which systematically subordinated the workers' movement to the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party--the party that ran the US state in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally it was the disillusionment with Stalinism that led to the party's collapse?38
None of this was inevitable. The workers' movement internationally had the potential to defeat fascism and avoid the Second World War. But the small Trotskyist groups failed to break the stranglehold of Stalinism over the movement.39
Now the issues that led millions to join the Communist Parties around the world in the 1930s are back--attacks on trade unions, unemployment, hunger, war, and, most ominously, fascism. New Studies in the Politics and Culture of US Communism is a welcome contribution to the history of those struggles to aid a new generation to carry on the fight, finally free from Stalin's dead hand.