Wednesday, July 15, 2009

History of the Communist Party of the United States

The Communist Party USA becomes 90 years old later this year. Over the decades, the capitalist class (via their intelligentsia, mass media, and government) has heaped countless slanders upon the CPUSA. As a result, only a tiny percentage of the population knows any of the party’s true history. Communists knew that the US bourgeoisie would always view the party as the top domestic threat to their class-rule and consequently would ceaselessly try to slander, repress, and destroy it. William Z. Foster, in 1952, when the bourgeoisie were trying their hardest to destroy the party, wrote History of the Communist Party of the United States as a definitive history to set the record straight. The party’s true history bares no resemblance to the slanders of the bourgeoisie and their minions.

Foster explains that the party’s earliest origins were long before the actual date of its foundation in 1919. The first Marxists in the US were mostly German immigrants who came here after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. Some, like Joseph Weydemeyer, (a comrade of Marx and Engels) would go on to play important roles in the struggle to abolish slavery. Marxists organized support for Abraham Lincoln and the newly established Republican Party in the critical 1860 election. Many, like Weydemeyer (a former artillery officer in the Prussian military), went on to fight in the Civil War. Marx also corresponded with Lincoln and called for the emancipation of slavery and the creation of African-American regiments to help defeat the Southern slaveocracy. The Union victory in the Civil War constituted a bourgeois democratic revolution and was lauded as a progressive war by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

After the Civil War the US Marxists participated in a number of notable political organizations, including the First International (i.e. the International Workingmen’s Association) and the Socialist Labor Party. They also actively participated in building labor unions and helped organize major strikes, both of which the bourgeois regime tried to repress (often ruthlessly). The foundation of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1900-1901 and later the Industrial Workers of the World (which was originally Marxist-led before being taken over by anarchists), solidified a political tendency (the left of the SPA) that would ultimately produce the Communist Party.

The struggle between the left and the right of the SPA led to the creation of the Communist Party by the left. The dispute took various forms over a number of issues. The right and “centrist” SPA leadership had failed to put into practice resolutions passed by the party condemning World War I. The right-wing leadership also wanted class collaboration rather than class struggle, supported bourgeois democracy rather than proletarian dictatorship, and wanted to affiliate with the right-opportunist Second International rather than the newly created Communist International. The SPA’s left-wing membership supported the October Revolution and Marxism-Leninism. SPA’s national internal elections of 1919 were easily won by the left, but the right-wing leadership of Hillquit and Berger refused to recognize the results and then expelled a majority of the SPA’s members in order to hang on to power.

Despite their expulsions, some of the left (like John Reed) did not want to give up on the SPA and tried to take their seats at the SPA convention on August 30, 1919 in Chicago. The right-wing leadership called in the police to expel them. The left walked out and on August 31, 1919 they formed the Communist Labor Party of America. On September 1, 1919 another left-wing ex-SPA group of Michigan language federations established the Communist Party of America. These two communist parties would ultimately merge into a single party.

The new parties immediately faced bourgeois repression and terror, the first significant event of which were the Palmer Raids in October of 1919. The US bourgeois government, which claimed to be “making the world safe for democracy” in World War I, resorted to using terroristic repression against US workers. An estimated 10,000 were arrested, many taken from their homes in the middle of the night, including most of the leaders of the two new Communist parties. Despite this bourgeois terror, the two parties were finally united in May of 1921 (a previous unity attempt in May of 1920 had proved unsuccessful). Providing the numerous different language federations, of mostly immigrants, an official sanctioned role was critical in achieving party unity.

The party, called the Workers Party of America (WPA) until 1925, sought to expand its work amongst the masses’ daily struggles. The WPA’s language federations helped in organizing immigrants, because the federations were composed of mostly immigrants who spoke their native languages and had publications written in them. The WPA was heavily involved in trade union organizing, despite bourgeois terror directed at organizers and striking workers. The WPA also participated in the Trade Union Educational League, which helped to build a left-progressive coalition within the trade unions.

In 1923-1924 there was a serious attempt at building a broad party of workers and farmers, which revolved around progressive US Senator Robert LaFollette and his independent candidacy for president in 1924. The Workers Party participated in this movement, which was ultimately destroyed by right-wing trade-union leaders that were married to the two-capitalist party system. The Workers Party also ran William Z. Foster for president in 1924, the first Communist US presidential candidate, who was on the ballot in 13 states and got 33,316 votes.

The Workers Party struggled against the intense racism and reactionary terror of the Jim Crow regime in the South. After studying the works of Lenin and Stalin on the national question, the WPA also recognized that the African-American people constitute an oppressed nationality (and should therefore have the right to self-determination), which was something that previous left-wing parties had not realized. Communists also sought to increase African-American memberships in trade unions and the WPA.

The party changed its name, in 1925, to the Workers (Communist) Party. In the mid-to-late-1920s a serious right-opportunist threat came in the form of Jay Lovestone. The essence of Lovestone’s right-opportunism was typical bourgeois “American exceptionalism.” Specifically, he argued that US capitalism was not heading towards a crisis. Ultimately, he unsuccessfully tried to split the party. The coming of the Great Depression in 1929 soon discredited his viewpoints. He also tried forming an alliance with Soviet right-opportunist and traitor, Nikolai Bukharin.

The real driving force of the 1930s decade began in late 1929, the Great Depression, the most significant capitalist economic crisis. Communists had seen the crisis coming, and had repudiated Lovestone’s bourgeois prosperity theories. The party was greatly involved in mass organizing efforts of workers (employed and unemployed) and in farmers’ struggles. A number of other struggles and organizing campaigns occurred as well, including of women, youth, and African-Americans. In 1930, the party changed its name to the Communist Party of the United States.

William Z. Foster ran as the Communist presidential candidate in the 1932 election. James W. Ford, an African-American and former Alabama steelworker, was the vice presidential candidate. The Communist presidential ticket appeared on the ballot in 40 states and won 102,991 votes (the party’s best presidential election result so far). The Democratic Party’s Franklin D. Roosevelt was also elected president in that election.

In the 1936 election, reactionaries rallied to defeat President Roosevelt with their Alfred Landon ticket. Landon had the overwhelming support of the bourgeois media and was a darling of the reactionary newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. The Communist Party’s policy was of active support for Roosevelt’s fight against the most reactionary sections of big business. It also combated bourgeois democratic illusions amongst the workers, while trying to get the maximum possible benefit out of the New Deal reforms for the working class. The party could not give Roosevelt a full endorsement though, and ran Earl Browder for president and James W. Ford for vice president. The Communist presidential ticket was on the ballot in 34 states and won 80,181 votes.

The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), formed in 1935, was the greatest stride forward made by the US labor movement. The Communist Party played a key role in organizing that movement to establish industrial unions in the basic, unorganized industries. The strength of the left in the CIO during its first decade was the result of successful organizing work and militant fighting on the picket lines by Communists.

Despite these successes, the world’s growing fascist menace dramatically impacted the political situation. At the Communist International’s Seventh World Congress in 1935, a policy was instituted calling for a united front of all democratic elements (workers, peasants, intellectuals, small business people, Communists, and others) that were willing to make a common fight against fascism. Anti-fascist people’s front governments were elected to power in France and Spain.

The legally elected people’s front government of the Spanish Republic soon came under attack from Hilter and Mussolini. Beginning on July 17, 1936, their stooge, General Franco, led a revolt in Morocco. The US, Great Britain, and France took a fake “neutral” position, refusing to sell war supplies to the Spanish Republic. Meanwhile, Hitler and Mussolini were giving Franco vast amounts of troops, guns, tanks, and planes. In order to attempt to prevent Franco’s fascists from winning, the world’s Communist parties gave all possible assistance to the Spanish Republic, including troops.

The International Brigades were made up of Communists and other anti-fascist fighters from all over Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. The CPUSA and the YCL organized the sending of around 3,000 soldiers, many of them non-party people, to fight for the republic. On January 6, 1937 the Abraham Lincoln Battalion was formed and shortly after that the George Washington Battalion was also formed. Later they were merged.

African-Americans, who made up several hundred of the US troops, were fully integrated into the fighting force (many became officers). This was in stark contrast to the Jim Crow era US Army of the time. The US brigade fought heroically in the Brunete offensive, at Jarama, Quinto, Belchite, Fuentes de Ebro, Tervel, Aragon, the Ebro offensive, and in many other battles. Of the 3,000 US volunteers, around 1,500 died. Other International battalions suffered equally heavy casualties. Despite this brave resistance, the fascists won (thanks to the Western arms embargo) and butchered countless people. Foster points out that US Communists should be proud of the active role that their party took in defense of the Spanish Republic and that it constituted the most glorious event in the entire life of the party.

The international communist movement was virtually alone in condemning the Munich sellout, where the leaders of Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and France (including the notorious British Conservative, Neville Chamberlain) got together and agreed that Germany should take over the Sudetenland, which ultimately meant all of Czechoslovakia. Just earlier that year Hitler’s Wehrmacht had taken over Austria. After Britain and France’s betrayal at Munich and their refusal to create a strong defensive alliance, the USSR and Germany in 1939 signed a non-aggression pact. British imperialism clearly had wanted Germany to attack the USSR. The pact ended up providing the USSR with 22 extra months to arm itself, which ultimately proved decisive in winning the war.

Meanwhile, the CPUSA organized against the so-called “isolationists” (made up of Republicans, right-wing Democrats, and smaller fascist groups) that opposed Roosevelt’s pro-British policy. These reactionaries were essentially pro-Hitler, and wanted a stalemate in Europe and a Nazi war against the USSR. The CPUSA simultaneously opposed Roosevelt’s pro-British position, while instead calling for international collective security as proposed by the USSR.

The party grew a lot during the pre-war years. Foster stated that, “Particularly helpful to the Party during these years were the books, Foundations of Leninism and History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, by Joseph Stalin and also the writings of Georgi Dimitrov.” The party had learned how to unite and lead the masses in their everyday struggles, a key part of expanding influence and ultimately, membership.

There were also attacks on the party by the reactionary Dies Committee in the pre-war years. One reactionary law was the 1940 Voorhis Act, which deprived the Communist Party of its right of international affiliation (a right enjoyed by many other organizations before then). The CPUSA dissolved affiliation with the Communist International to avoid prosecution by that law.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US officially entered World War II. The CPUSA had already been supporting a world people’s war against fascism since the Nazi attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941. The party’s position was for full support for both the Soviet and British war efforts against Hitler. The party, in its December 7, 1941 statement declared, “The Communist Party pledges its loyalty, its devoted labor and the last drop of its blood in support of our country in this greatest of all crises that ever threatened its existence.” And also called for, “Everything for National Unity!” “Everything for victory over world-wide fascist slavery!” 15,000 Communists joined the armed services. Many became officers and many others were decorated for personal bravery, such as Robert Thompson, Alexander Suer, and Herman Boettcher who received Distinguished Service Crosses. Many never returned.

On the home front Communists were in the forefront of all work calculated to strengthen the national war effort. They were second to none in rallying the workers for all-out production. They were militant participants in all phases of civilian defense work. They also carried on a ceaseless battle against all “isolationists” and other reactionary compromisers and saboteurs of the war effort. There was also a long struggle for the US and Britain to open a second, Western front in France.

With so many men at the front, many women came forward to become leaders of the party, like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a National Committee member. Party membership grew slowly during the war, but reached an all time high of around 80,000 in 1944 (including the 15,000 in the military). During this period the party also elected Peter Cacchione and Benjamin Davis to the New York City Council. However, Browder’s opportunist policies prevented the party from growing greater than it could have.

In the 1930s, Browder began to slowly drift away from Marxism-Leninism. He developed an abstract (class-neutral) conception of and support for “American democratic and revolutionary traditions,” which developed into support for bourgeois democracy. In addition, he promoted the concept of it having constant, evolutionary growth. One of his slogans was, “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” He had deviated into reformist, social-democratic ideology.

During World War II Browder would deviate even further to the right. He mistakenly interpreted the Tehran agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin (which was a military agreement, setting the June 6, 1944 date for the opening of the Western front in France). He fancied that the post-war unity that the “Big Three” expressed wishes for at Tehran was an actual agreement and that post-war peace and co-operation were therefore guaranteed. He mistakenly assumed that US monopoly capitalism wanted peaceful coexistence and friendly competition with the USSR. He also imagined that US imperialism would tolerate people’s revolutions in Europe and collaborate with independence movements of colonial peoples. It goes without saying that all of post-World War II history dramatically proved him wrong.

Browder then developed a concept of a lasting post-war “national unity” in the US. He fantasized that there would be “very little discontent in labor’s ranks and very little strained relations between labor, government, and management.” He wanted World War II war production incentive wages and no-strike pledges carried over to the post-war era. His national unity concept also expected workers’ indefinite acceptance of the two-party electoral system.

After ideologically surrendering to the bourgeoisie, Browder no longer saw a need for the Communist Party. He proposed its dissolution and the reorganization of Communists into a non-partisan, educational institution, something that in the 21st century would probably be called a “think tank.” It would carry on “Marxist” work among the masses. Leninism, the Marxism of our present time, was entirely rejected by Browder. The heart of Browder’s opportunist ideas was American exceptionalism, the illusion that the US capitalist system is not subject to the laws of growth and decay that govern capitalism in other countries. His Teheran thesis virtually showed the US monopolists running the entire world, conceding Wall Street imperialist world hegemony. Another major element in Browder’s utopia was Keynesism. Browder’s utopia was the Keynesian illusion of a “progressive capitalism,” moving ahead in an evolutionary advance. This meant a complete rejection of workers’ revolutionary struggle for socialism.

Shortly after Browder had made his report on Tehran in early 1944, William Z. Foster, then national chairman of the party, came out totally against Browder’s opportunism in a letter to the National Committee. In order to avoid a split of the party, he confined his opposition to the National Committee at that time. The CPUSA was then dissolved in May 1944 and reconstituted into the Communist Political Association (CPA). Several months later Browder even tried to have the word “Communist” dropped from the name, but that proposal was defeated by one vote in the Political Committee. Earlier, in October 1943, the Young Communist League was also liquidated and turned into the “American Youth for Democracy”, an attempt to wipe out Marxist-Leninist work amongst youth. Browder’s revisionism seriously weakened the party in all areas of mass work (trade-unions, African-Americans, women, and youth). In 1944 he even publicly proposed that the Democrats and Republicans make a joint presidential ticket, but the CPA’s Political Committee rejected that foolish idea.

Uncertainty about Browder’s Tehran policy soon turned into opposition. Internationally, Jacques Duclos, secretary of the Communist Party of France, published an article that solidly denounced Browderism. The article played an important role in mobilizing already existing opposition to and critics of Browder. The CPA received a copy of Duclos’ article on May 20, 1945, which was immediately discussed in the Political Committee. Shortly after, Browder’s line was rejected by a two-thirds majority of the Committee, which soon became unanimous except for Browder. Browder refused to reject his ideologically bankrupt position and had to be suspended as general secretary. A secretariat of three (William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, and John Williamson) was created. A special convention was held in July 26-28, 1945. The convention thoroughly cleansed the party of Browderism and restored it to a solid Marxist-Leninist basis. The CPA was liquidated and the Communist Party was reconstituted. Foster was restored as national chairman. The new constitution clearly stated that the party based itself upon the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The reconstituted Communist Party rejected Browder’s post-war no-strike line, incentive wage, subservience to the two-party system, and “organized capitalism.” Browder then tried to build a revisionist factional grouping. However, he failed to split the party and in early 1946 he was expelled. Only a mere handful – his wife, his brother, his financial “angel”, and a few others – departed with him. He then attacked the party from the outside, but failed to gain a support for his absurd Tehran thesis.

After the end of the war the US bourgeoisie, with the reactionary Harry Truman as their leader, sought global domination. To achieve this, they tried their hardest to overthrow the world’s newly established people’s democracies in Europe and Asia. They rigged elections in France and Italy to prevent Communist parties from peacefully winning power. They supported reactionary terror in Greece (and ultimately countless other countries) to combat any opposition to US imperialism. They used the “Marshall Plan” to take control of Europe’s capitalist countries’ economies. They established puppet regimes in West Germany and South Korea. They constructed NATO, a hostile military bloc, to dominate Europe. They attacked Korea. They planned to use nuclear weapons against the USSR and the PRC. They set up a pro-imperialist, strikebreaking, anti-communist “International Confederation of Free Trade Unions” to split the international labor movement. They passed the fascist Taft-Hartley Act to weaken US unions. The Communist Party stood in firm opposition to the US bourgeoisie’s entire reactionary agenda for global domination.

For this reason, the bourgeoisie set out to ban and destroy the party. The US bourgeoisie learned from fascist dictators that the Communist Party is the greatest defender of democratic rights, so if the party’s democratic rights can be abolished, then the whole structure of the people’s liberties is undermined. The reactionary Truman government used J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the McCarran Committee in the Senate, and the notorious “House Committee on Un-American Activities” to attack progressive forces. Many were arrested, including the leaders of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, for refusing to give the reactionary Un-American Committee the names of contributors and Spanish Republican refugees. The bogus charge was “contempt of Congress,” punished by six months to one year in prison, for simply refusing to state personal opinions or private partisan affiliations. In 1947 Eugene Dennis, general secretary of the Communist Party, refused to appear before the Un-American Committee on the grounds that it was illegal because it included the reactionary Rankin from Mississippi, who was “elected” in an election where African-Americans were not allowed to vote. Dennis was sent to serve one year in jail.

On July 20, 1948, twelve members of the National Board of the Communist Party were arrested for “violating” the “Alien Registration” law of 1946 and the “Smith Act.” Included were William Z. Foster, national chairman; Eugene Dennis, general secretary; Benjamin Davis, NYC councilman; and Gus Hall, chairman of the Ohio district. The so-called “trial” was not a trial in a civil or criminal sense, but a political attack by the government on the Communist Party. The “Smith Act,” under which the defendants were tried, clearly violates the US Constitution by abolishing the rights of free speech, free press, and free assembly. It is fascist thought-control legislation. It is also unconstitutional for being a bill of attainder, which is legislation directed against a specific group of persons. Making it akin to the hated Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The jury was a hand picked group of middle and upper-class citizens. The judge, Harold R. Medina, was a millionaire landlord and corporate lawyer, red-baiter, and an organic part of the government’s trial offensive against the Communist Party. The accused were charged with “conspiracy to teach and advocate” the violent overthrow of the government, making this clearly a free speech/government thought-control case. The government’s “witnesses” were a predictable collection of stool pigeons, spies, and renegades. Eugene Dennis, in his summary speech to the jury clearly explained that, “We did not advocate the forcible overthrow of the United States government headed by President Truman. We did advocate its defeat at the polls in 1948.” The reactionary judge also bullied the defense attorneys and ultimately ended up sentencing them to jail for one to six months each for “contempt,” and also tried to disbar them from practicing their profession. Eleven of the defendants were sentenced (on October 14, 1949) to five years in prison and $10,000 fines. The twelfth defendant, Robert Thompson, a holder of the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in the Pacific in World War II, was sentenced to three years.

On June 4, 1951 the US Supreme Court upheld this reactionary attack on the Bill of Rights, with dissenting votes from Justices Black and Douglas. Justice Black declared that the decision had so watered down the First Amendment, “the keystone of our government,” “that it amounts to little more than admonition to Congress.” Justice Douglas pointed out that the decision crippled free speech. Numerous others were arrested as a result later in 1951. The FBI stated that 43,000 Communists were being spied on and half a million “party supporters” would be thrown into concentration camps in case of war. Another part of this US march towards fascism was the McCarran Act, which claimed that “Communism” is an “international conspiracy” and that Communists are “foreign agents.” It also established the reactionary principle of guilt by association. The intent was to make certain political beliefs illegal. Pro-war liberals and Social Democrats supported these fascist laws. For example, Norman Thomas (a “Socialist”) publicly supported the proposal of concentration camps for Communists. The intent of those laws was more than just banning the Communist Party but also to smash any domestic opposition to US imperialism (i.e. to end dissent).

After reading this summary of Foster’s history of the CPUSA, it should be clear that studying critical periods of the party’s past not only reveals the absurdity of bourgeois anti-CPUSA propaganda, but also can be a guide on how to avoid or remedy certain types of ideological errors. The history of the crucial defeat of Browderism and the restoration of the party are more relevant now than ever. The CPUSA is currently controlled by another group of right-opportunists who also seek to liquidate the party much like Browder tried to do. Only the CPUSA’s membership and supporters can save it at this key moment. Strengthening of the CPUSA as a Marxist-Leninist party will allow for new, bright chapters of its history to be written.

1 comment:

Communist Party Discussion said...

Communist Party Discussion offers a great thanks to the excellent Estoutras blog for translating this entire post! Thanks!