Lessons of the Early CPUSA (Part 2)

See Socialist Appeal issue 56 or visit our website for part one of this article, which covers the party’s early days, the Foreign Language Federations, and the split with the Socialist Party.

1920 Elections

In revulsion to the reformism of the Second (Socialist) International, many of the members of the Third (Communist) International developed ultra-left ideas. This included the early American Communists. The fact that most American Communists were not in unions, the only mass organizations of the working class in the US, had an effect as well. The American Communists did not understand how to participate in elections as a way to raise the political horizons of the working class and increase their influence. They did not run a candidate for President in 1920, while the Socialist Party ran Eugene Debs, who was a political prisoner during the campaign. The Communists should have called for a vote and critical support for Debs, but they did not do so. Debs ended up receiving almost 1,000,000 votes even though he was in prison! This abstentionism weakened the Communists’ ability to win over Socialist Party members, including Debs himself, who died in 1926 having never joined the CP.

Trade Unions

Most of the left-wing of the SP had always been against working in the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  They worked to build industrial unions through the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  However, the IWW did not have the resources of the AFL.  In addition to this, the IWW would go into an area when there was a strike or movement, but then would leave without building a solid organization of the workers.  The AFL, though reformist, would at least try to attend to the basic day-to-day needs of the working class.  In addition to this, the IWW was subjected to severe repression by the US government, especially during World War I.

The key for Marxists is to intervene in the unions where workers are organized, and connect the daily struggles of the working class with the need to transform society. Marxists needed to fight in the AFL to get it to use its resources to build industrial unions; otherwise, the AFL would lose support.  This is because over time, there are proportionately less skilled trade positions and more mass production jobs.  The capitalists always use this to their advantage to weaken the working class, to try to drive a wedge between skilled and unskilled workers.

The early CP did not want to work in the AFL. Lenin and the Communist International patiently  argued with them to change their position and they eventually convinced them to do so. When industrial unionism finally developed in the US in the 1930s, it was as a result of the CIO, which was a split  off of the more militant unions in the AFL.

The Struggle for a Labor Party

Lenin had proposed to the small British CP that it join the British Labour Party and fight for the ideas of Marxism in that mass organization. In the USA, Lenin argued that the American communists should be advocates of building a mass labor party. This would allow the communists to get a hearing from the working class and be able to build more influence in the labor movement.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the recession in the early 1920s, there were parts of the labor movement, especially in the Midwest, that started to move in the direction of setting up Farmer-Labor Parties. Unfortunately, between 1919 and 1921, the CP had an ultra-left attitude and would have nothing to do with these movements.  Once Lenin had convinced the CP leadership, they shifted their position and began to advocate the establishment of a labor party during 1922. But time and opportunities had been lost.

What the comrades should have done is argue in all their union work that the unions should not support the capitalist parties, but should instead be politically active in this movement, putting forward their perspective in a patient and friendly way.  The CP should work to gain influence in the movement, but given its small size (the party probably had 14,000 members at most), it could not really seek to control this movement.  At the same time, they should explain that the movement could not achieve the status of mass party unless more of the labor movement supported it and the labor movement itself needed to grow in size by the organization of mass industry.

The CP eventually went into the Farmer-Labor movement and actually grabbed control of it.  In July, 1923, there was to be a convention, held in Chicago, establishing a Farmer-Labor party.  The delegates that came to the convention claimed to represent 600,000 farmers and workers, but this was still relatively small, as the AFL had about 3,000,000 members at the time and the organized labor portion of the 600,000 is not clear.  Theodore Draper, in his book, American Communism and Soviet Russia, claims that four national trade unions, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and various trade union locals sent delegates.  The CP got many of its members elected as delegates from various groups, but not necessarily from the unions, and ended up gaining more than a third of the conventions delegates!  With that, the CP moved forward to win the convention to its positions.

This led the Chicago Federation of Labor and other forces to split from this party, and within a few weeks, it was clear that the CP had been left mainly with itself. It should be noted that although the CP made mistakes in trying to dominate something that was small and really just beginning, the union leaders also left this movement as part of a swing to the right brought about by the temporary stabilization of capitalism and the defeat of the revolutions in Europe (Germany, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Italy). This was the beginning of what later became known as the “Roaring Twenties.”  The CP needed to learn how to have a sense of proportion and understand that it could not substitute itself for the larger sections of the labor movement. Marxists must always have patience; the movement of the working class will take place at its own pace, not at the pace that we want.

The Rise of Stalinism

In 1923, Lenin was ill and was unable to be politically active.  He died in January 1924. It was left to Trotsky to fight the incorrect political formulations and policies of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. The defeat of the revolutions in Europe left the Soviet Union poor and isolated. The growing bureaucracy, resulting from this isolation and backwardness, began to gain influence in the party among Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev.

Zinoviev was the leader of the Communist International and although he had worked as an aide to Lenin for many years, he had many serious weaknesses as a revolutionary.  Zinoviev and Kamenev had opposed the Bolsheviks taking power in October 1917. If their position had won the majority in the party, the October revolution would not have happened and the right-wing reaction would have raised its ugly head and drowned the movement in blood. Nonetheless, Zinoviev was the chairman of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, and it would be incorrect to say that he had no strong points. Someone like him could play a positive role as long as he was guided by Lenin and Trotsky politically. However, Zinoviev had a tendency to try to solve political problems using organizational methods. When political differences arise, it is necessary for the party to open a full discussion and use this to educate the membership in Marxist theory. This will sharpen the party and make it stronger. This was the method of Lenin and Trotsky.

Zinoviev preferred behind-the-scenes organizational maneuvers and similar antics. He would tend to help those whom he agreed with to positions of leadership, and he tried to isolate those who did not agree with him. Zinoviev would tend to choose power over principle and this always leads down a bad road.

From 1923 and after, the Communist International became less a school to train Marxists from around the world in how to build the revolutionary leadership and bring about the world revolution, and more a political club-house for the Russian bureaucracy. Thus, what had been a huge potential for building the forces of Marxism internationally, became transformed into a huge obstacle to the working class and its struggle for socialism.

The tragedy is that just at the point when the American CP could really be trained in Marxist theory and build a good foundation for the future, the Communist International began to degenerate. Eventually, the Communist International became a supplement to Stalin and the bureaucracy in his foreign affairs, until the International was unceremoniously disbanded by Stalin himself during World War II. In the US, the CP adopted the popular front policy of supporting the Democrats, which in practice means subordinating the class interests and independence of the workers to a capitalist party.

If there is one thing we can learn from this experience, it is that each new member of the Workers International League must be trained in Marxist theory and learn the lessons of the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes. The members must be involved in work in the mass organizations of the working class, as this is part of the process of Marxist education. We must acknowledge that each member that is politically trained today becomes vitally important when future opportunities lead to large waves of new members. Quick growth is great but it brings many problems as well.  However, if we can learn from the mistakes of the comrades of the past, we will have a much better chance to succeed in the future.

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