Communist Party USA Madison Square Garden, New York City 1936

What We Can Learn from the Last Time America Had 100,000 Communists

The last great radicalization of American workers gives us an idea of what’s in store for today’s communist movement. The largest communist recruitment campaign since World War II is just getting started.

As communism sees a revival in this country, tremendous opportunities are opening up. We can’t afford to ignore the history and lessons of the last time large numbers of communists got organized.

Although political mistakes ultimately led to the withering of the communist formations of that era—along with state repression and sellouts by the labor bureaucracy—the tens of thousands who swelled their ranks during the 1930s and 40s left an inspiring record of activity, offering a glimpse into our own future.

Communist Party USA Madison Square Garden, New York City 1936
In the decade of labor upsurge leading up to WWII, the CP grew exponentially, and by 1947, had over 75,000 party members—100,000 including its youth wing. / Image: public domain

What would become the Communist Party USA emerged from a sizable left-wing split in the Socialist Party, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Despite dramatic membership fluctuations in the 1920s, it had built a base of around 6,800 members by 1930, the first year of the Great Depression. In the decade of labor upsurge leading up to WWII, it grew exponentially, and by 1947, had over 75,000 party members—100,000 including its youth wing. However, after this numerical high point, the party lost half its membership over the next three years, and never recovered.

So why did the CPUSA collapse? In a word: class collaboration. Instead of maintaining class independence, they began to support the so-called “lesser evil” of the Democratic Party and even imposed a “no-strike” clause on their trade union members during World War II. However, the party’s decline was connected to a broader process of political degeneration throughout the Communist International.

The ‘30s and ‘40s were a period of extreme Stalinist bureaucratization, resulting in the snuffing out of workers’ democracy in the USSR, and of top-down commandism throughout the Comintern. What began as an instrument for world revolution under Lenin and Trotsky, became a tool in the hands of a bureaucracy that had turned its back on world revolution in favor of striking deals with the imperialist powers. Stalin unceremoniously dissolved the Third International during WWII as a token of goodwill to the American and British imperialists.

Tens of thousands of honest communists turned away in disgust as they realized their revolutionary aspirations were not reflected in the national and international leadership of the movement. Despite this fate, we draw inspiration from the dedication and example set by the ranks of communist fighters that came before us. Learning from our movement’s successes and failures is the only way we can prepare a victorious outcome in the future.

Birth of the Communist Party

The Communist Party was born in 1919, in a period of storm and stress. This was also the year of a significant strike wave, including America’s first general strike, in Seattle.

Initially sparked over the port workers’ wage demands, the strike was also an act of international solidarity: the workers were refusing to load arms shipments bound for the counterrevolution in Russia. By linking up concrete demands over wages with anti-imperialist sentiment, the workers effectively disrupted the ruling class’s war machine. This provides an instructive example for the Palestine solidarity movement today.

Communist Recruitment
When news broke that the Soviets had taken power, the left wing of the SP, along with the Wobblies, were gripped by the inspiring example of the Bolsheviks. / Image: public domain

The Russian Revolution was the most galvanizing event imaginable. In one epic blow, the Bolshevik-led masses threw down the gauntlet to world capitalism, inspiring the most impassioned feelings of admiration and hatred—depending on your class perspective.

It was a bombshell for all working-class organizations, including the Socialist Party of America, which was at its numerical height of around 100,000 members. When news broke that the Soviets had taken power, the left wing of the SP, along with the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were gripped by the inspiring example of the Bolsheviks and the idea of establishing a workers’ government in the US.

This was both an opportunity and a problem. How do you bring together so many different people, ideas, and methods of operating into one united party? The Socialist Party’s left wing was not a unified group; it had many different factions, groups and leaders. Many from the IWW were self-sacrificing militants, but had ideas that were anarcho-syndicalist in nature. As a result, the building of a serious American Communist Party was delayed by a number of major political mistakes.

The first was a tactical error committed out of impatience and inexperience, the hallmarks of what Lenin called “infantile ultraleftism.”

The most effective step toward founding the Communist Party as a mass force would have been an all-out campaign to win a majority of the Socialist Party. This was entirely possible. The party’s left leader, Eugene Debs, was a solid supporter of the Bolsheviks. Even the right wing publicly supported the Bolshevik Revolution in those days.

The SP convention was scheduled for September 1919. The left could easily have achieved a majority, and this would have almost certainly provoked the right-wing minority to split away, exposing themselves as saboteurs in the eyes of the party ranks. The correct approach would have been to gather the communists among the SP ranks into a tendency organized for the purpose of making a political case to the party as a whole.

Instead, most of the left split prematurely, missing the opportunity to fight for the majority. The right-wing leadership, despite being in a minority, seized the initiative to expel state and local party organizations controlled by the left. Their attitude was to bureaucratically seize power since they could not win the elections democratically. By August, the SP membership was down to less than 40,000, with many branches and state organizations simply kicked out.

Sectarianism and insularity

Impatient to form a “pure” party—“like the Bolsheviks!”—the left wing split in the summer of 1919, months ahead of the SP convention. But creating a new party wasn’t so simple.

Once all of the Communists were out of the SP, they split among themselves into two tendencies. The Communist Party was born not as one party, but as two: the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party.

Both of them supported the Bolshevik Revolution. Both of them wanted to attach themselves to the Comintern. Both of them supposedly followed in the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. But right from the start, sectarianism and mechanical thinking resulted in two separate parties being formed. Yet another split from the SP brought more members to the CP in 1921.

The result was not only a fractured variety of groupings and organizations, but also a political hodgepodge of ideas ranging from revolutionary socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists.

Eugene V Debs
Without a candidate in the 1920 elections, the CP should have called for critical support for Debs, who was running on the SP ticket from prison as a result of his outspoken opposition to WWI. / Image: public domain

It’s only natural that a party will have differences of opinion on various issues. This is why Marxists must have thorough democratic debates and discussions, which will lead to a clear policy and higher level of understanding for party members.

Those “self-satisfied Marxists” who cannot stay in the party and argue patiently for their views, but rather, run away to create their own “pure” organizations, will never be able to seriously intervene in the movement.

Fortunately, in the case of the new CP, the Communist International was eventually able to unify the different groups into a single party. But their sectarian troubles were far from over.

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.

In the 1920 elections, in which the CP was not putting forward a candidate, they should have called for critical support for Eugene Debs, who was running on the SP ticket from prison as a result of his outspoken opposition to WWI.

Debs eventually received nearly one million votes. The CP’s abstentionism further weakened the party’s ability to dialogue with and win over SP members, including Debs himself who died in 1926 having never joined the CP, even though he was a fervent supporter of the October Revolution until his last day. The mistaken approach to the 1920 election forfeited the chance to recruit a leader who would have been a giant addition to the communist movement in the US.

The party also had a sectarian attitude toward the unions organized in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This view was carried over from the SP, most of which had also turned against the AFL in favor of the more radical but much smaller IWW.

True, the AFL was more conservative and reformist. But, as Lenin explained, Marxists are duty bound to sink roots among the workers’ organizations, regardless of political confusions, in order to connect the daily struggles of the working class with the need to transform society.

International Workers of the World (IWW), 1914
The party also had a sectarian attitude toward the unions organized in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). / Image: public domain

Their role should have been to fight in the AFL to get it to use its resources to build industrial unions. They could have explained in the AFL that the unions faced the choice of losing support or turning toward industrial unionism, because mass production jobs were edging out skilled trade positions, and the bosses always use these divisions to their advantage.

Eventually, the Comintern succeeded in correcting this error as well. 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.

In its early years, the Comintern was a school to educate the young leadership of all the Communist Parties around the world. Lenin and Trotsky were excellent and patient teachers, and the resolutions, speeches, and debates of the first four Congresses of the Communist International remain an indispensable resource for Marxists today.

Despite its weaknesses, the CP was able to build a foundation for itself in the 1920s, and it became the premier organization on the American left. It established a daily paper in English, the Daily Worker, along with other publications, and it had newspapers in other languages as well.

In particular, its work in the labor movement, including the Trade Union Education League and the International Labor Defense, allowed it to build a network of support in and around the trade unions. The TUEL operated as a class-struggle tendency within the labor movement, grouping the most militant workers around the communists to put forward fighting demands. The ILD provided legal support and solidarity actions to defend class-war victims against state repression.

Stalinization and the mixed record of the 1930s

Grigory Zinoviev was the chairman of the Communist International’s Executive Committee. When his work was guided by Lenin, he could play a good role. But he lacked a solid theoretical level, and was inclined to solve political problems using behind-the-scenes organizational maneuvers. He would help those who agreed with him, and isolate those who didn’t. Choosing power over principle always leads down a bad road. Once Lenin passed away, these negative tendencies came to the fore.

The subsequent bureaucratic degeneration in the USSR shaped the policies and tactics of the world communist movement for generations. The tragedy is that just at the point when the American CP had assembled a solid cadre base that could really be trained in Marxist theory and build a good foundation for the future, the Communist International began to degenerate.

Nonetheless, the CP still had many honest and devoted communists in its ranks, and given the world situation, it continued to grow and fill the vacuum as the most visible fighters on the left.

Under the earlier guidance of the Comintern, the party understood the importance of the struggle against Jim Crow racism, integral to any effort to unite the American working class. Although this policy was distorted in the Stalinist period—a mechanical shift away from the aim of integration in favor of a separatist scheme of “self-determination for the Black Belt”—the party still earned a reputation as the boldest fighters against racism.

Their energetic efforts to recruit Southern Black workers in the late 1920s and early 1930s involved campaigns against lynchings, notably organizing the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, but also organizing sharecroppers, tenants, and unemployed workers.

CP USA Washington, DC Scottsboro Boys Rally
The CP’s energetic efforts to recruit Southern Black workers involved campaigns against lynchings, notably organizing the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, but also organizing sharecroppers, tenants, and unemployed workers. / Image: public domain

The 1929 stock market crash sparked the Great Depression, and industrial production collapsed by nearly half from 1929 to 1933. Unemployment soared and long lines formed at soup kitchens.

Since the AFL leaders, for the most part, continued to oppose organizing industrial unions and accepted the limits of the capitalist system, the CP was labor’s only left-wing alternative. And despite the rise of Stalinism, the USSR was still the world’s only workers’ state, an inspiring beacon of full employment for the masses mired in declining capitalism.

In 1934, the party led the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike, which grew into a general strike in that city. That was also the year of the successful general strike led by the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, who led the Teamsters with militant tactics that essentially brought the city under workers’ control. These victories, along with auto plant occupations in Flint, were the watershed that brought industrial unionism exploding onto the scene. In 1935, a split in the AFL leadership led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As a result, from 1935 to 1940, union membership tripled from 3.6 million to 10 million members, as class-struggle tactics took American industry by storm.

The CP played a big role in the new CIO unions, eventually leading unions with over 800,000 members, including the Transport Workers Union, United Electrical workers, the Distributive Workers union, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the Pacific Coast. They also had important influence in other CIO unions, such as the UAW and the Steelworkers.

In the 1930s, if the CP had maintained correct policies, i.e., Bolshevik methods and class independence, it could have become a mass party. Arguably, at its height, it was more of a factor in the working class and society as a whole than the Socialist Party of America ever was.

Unfortunately this opportunity was squandered. In 1935, for the first time in its history, the CP supported Roosevelt and the Democratic Party—the main party of US imperialism. Crossing this decisive line marked the beginning of the end and had fateful consequences for the party.

From WWII to terminal decline

In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Just a few days earlier, the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been announced. Shortly after this treaty became public, the CP adjusted its policies, toning down its attacks against fascism and German militarism and modifying its support for the Democrats. This was too much for many party members to stomach. Between 1939 and 1940 one out of every seven members left the party.

Earl Browder 1939
Earl Browder took “popular front” policies to their logical conclusion and the CP dissolved itself in 1944. / Image: public domain

But the zigzags were just getting started. When Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Comintern and the CP once again changed their tune, now supporting US imperialism as part of the “popular front against fascism.” Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943, without even calling an international Congress or conducting any internal discussion and debate in the various Communist Parties.

Earl Browder, the head of the American CP at the time, took these policies to their logical conclusion and the Communist Party dissolved itself in 1944. It became the “Communist Political Association”—just another pressure group on the Democrats.

Neither Stalin nor any of his top people took any action until the war in Europe was close to an end, at which point they anticipated that US imperialism would start a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union, especially under Truman. In June and July 1945, Browder was removed from leadership and the CP was reconstituted. Like so many before him, Browder was eventually expelled in 1946.

World War II was an inter-imperialist war, like World War I, with the important difference that the USSR was a workers’ state to be defended unconditionally against imperialism, in spite of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Marxists should have used the contradictions and opportunities of the war to build a leadership and lead the working class to power. A workers’ government in the US with internationalist and socialist policies would defeat not only fascism, but also imperialist militarism and capitalism itself.

During the war, the CP followed the Comintern’s political line. This meant class collaboration with US and British imperialism against the Axis. In practice, this meant using the CP’s heavy influence in the labor movement meant to oppose all strike activity—in effect helping the bosses profit from the war while the working class paid the bill.

In contrast, John L. Lewis, who was not at all a “radical,” led his members in the UMW on illegal strikes during the war. The CP’s policies undermined the way the workers looked at the Communists and the union leaders under their influence. When the new postwar Red Scare began, the CP’s policies during the war made it harder to rally sympathy and solidarity.

John L Lewis
In contrast to the CP, John L. Lewis, who was not at all a “radical,” led UMW  members on illegal strikes during the war. / Image: public domain

Then, in 1956, workers rose up in the Hungarian Revolution seeking, not a return to capitalism, but the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the implementation of workers’ democracy. The Stalinist bureaucracy sent in the tanks and crushed this attempt at political revolution. This, along with Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led to the American CP losing a large part of its membership and periphery.

Since the 1950s, the CPUSA has basically had a policy of working with the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party. On this basis, it became an impotent sect with no influence whatsoever on American politics.

The lesson to be learned is this: without class independence, without the Marxist method of dialectical materialism applied to questions of party building, you will end up in a mess. Those looking for a party that has absorbed these lessons and is committed to reviving the best days of the CPUSA needn’t look any further than the RCA.

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