The Communist Party USA is celebrating its 90th anniversary. During the past nine decades it has been in the vanguard of the movement for progressive social change. Beginning in the 1920s, Communists have played central roles in the labor, civil rights and immigrant rights movements.
This history will be celebrated over the next few months through a series of online articles and interviews designed to connect the past to the present, so that the current generation of activists can build upon the experiences of their parents and grandparents.
These articles and interviews will draw on resources of the archives of the Communist Party and the library of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies that the party donated to New York University’s Tamiment Library in 2006.
The CPUSA’s archive clearly shows that from the very beginning capitalist governments and media saw the Communist parties as a tremendous threat to their wealth and power, finding it expedient to portray Communists as foreign agents of “Soviet Russia.” In the U.S., Communists faced extensive state repression and were initially driven underground by the Woodrow Wilson administration, whose Justice Department arrested thousands of suspected revolutionaries without warrants, held them in “preventive detention,” and sought to deport many.
Forced underground by this post World War I red scare, the Communist Party emerged from the underground in 1923 to organize the Trade Union Education League and later the more radical Trade Union Unity League that helped lay the foundation for the industrial union movement of the late 1930s and 1940s.
During the early years of the Great Depression when as much as 38 percent of the American people were unemployed, Communists played a leading role organizing mass demonstrations for unemployment insurance, public works programs, and social security. With the rise of the CIO, the Communists played a leading role in the victories won by industrial workers in establishing unions and expanding workers’ rights in the automobile, steel, electrical appliance, packinghouse, mining, longshore and other basic industries.
Communists established community-based mass organizations to unite working class communities with the labor movement, and developed grassroots campaigns around issues like rent control, slum clearance, public housing, public power, education and other issues. Unlike any labor-based group since the abolitionist movement in the period before the Civil War, Communists focused their activities in anti-racist campaigns, defining the struggle against racism in the U.S. (specifically the racist oppression of the African American people) as a linchpin of capitalist rule.
Communists played a leading role in the national movement to free the Scottsboro Nine, establish a federal anti-lynching law, abolish the poll tax, end de facto segregation in public accommodations in Northern cities, and publicize and condemn a wide variety of racist abuses ranging from police brutality to systematic discrimination in employment and housing.
Communist cultural groups and publications also nurtured African American artists and writers like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others. CPUSA members brought their work to a large multi-racial working class audience.
Just as the CPUSA was born at the time of one world war with revolutionary consequences, a second world war with revolutionary consequences would affect the party profoundly.
During the Cold War the CPUSA was thrown on the defensive. During these years of unprecedented repression, Communist leaders were jailed and trade union activists were purged from both the AFL and CIO, while hundreds of thousands of party members and former members were placed under government surveillance and lost their jobs.
Under these circumstances the survival of the CPUSA was itself a remarkable achievement. But the CPUSA did more than survive. It campaigned against the post-war repression, focusing on Joe McCarthy and using the concept of “McCarthyism” to rally resistance. The party opposed the war in Korea, fought for nuclear disarmament and, after the worst of the McCarthy era repression was lifted, played a leading role in the movement to end the war in Vietnam.
The CPUSA saw the danger of the Reagan policies and focused its campaigns on the defeat of Reagan and “Reaganism.” It continued to play the role of a responsible left, mobilizing support in trade unions and community organizations against Reagan’s union-busting policies, undermining of civil rights legislation, military intervention in Central America, nuclear buildup, and “Star Wars” scheme which were a sort of B movie serious revival of “Dr. Strangelove.”
Just as the CPUSA had gone through ideological internal conflicts which had led members to resign in the late 1930s, at the end of World War II and in the late 1950s, the fall of the Soviet Union and its alliance system in Eastern Europe triggered new doubts and divisions at the beginning of the 1990s. But the CPUSA weathered these storms continuing to organize against the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class, the military industrial complex, large oil companies, employers of non-union labor and investors in foreign cheap labor in poor countries, whose power increased in a world where the Soviets no longer were a deterrent to imperialism and capitalist media everywhere proclaimed smugly that “Communism is dead.”
Today, the Communist Party USA, which has weathered 15 years of struggle against the ultra-right Gingrich Congresses and two George W. Bush administrations, remains optimistic about and confident in the ability of the working class to both regain what was lost in recent decades and make advances of a kind not seen since the New Deal era.
In that sense, the celebration of the CPUSA’s 90th anniversary is not only an affirmation of the past, but a commitment to continue today to advance a future where the Party’s long-term vision of socialism, democracy, and peace will become a reality.
Photo from the CPUSA archives, courtesy Tamiment Library: December 17, 1951 – Paul Robeson and the Civil Rights Congress present WE CHARGE GENOCIDE with William Patterson, a petition charging the United States with genocide against Black Americans, to UN Secretariat in New York.