This is an edited version of my remarks at the Opening of the CPUSA papers at the Tamiment Library of New York University on March 23, 2007. I will write on this really important and joyful event more in the near future. But I thought that I would present here an edited version of the remarks that I made at it. Actually, because of some sound problems and other factors, I didn’t really complete my prepared remarks, and this is a significantly larger version of what was said.
Let me say that I am happy and proud to speak today at the opening of the Communist Party, USA’s papers at the Tamiment Library of NYU. I hope I do well because this really important collection deserves it. Given the value of this collection, this is the most important talk I have ever given.
I have titled my talk “party of hope.” That is a term that an historian whose work I first read when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan used for the reformers the before the Civil War, who challenged the “democracy” of Andrew Jackson, which excluded slaves and Indians, flattered the Common Man, supported slavery. The party of hope wasn’t a party, but its partisans fought for free schools, prison reform, asylums for the mentally ill, and most of all the abolition of slavery, the principal contradiction between “exclusionary democracy,” what another historian later called Herren Volk (Master Race) democracy and real democracy in that period. Although they were repressed and persecuted in the name of protecting American Liberty, the contributed to the eventual destruction of slavery and the advance of real democracy in the United States
The Communist Party USA was born in the struggles that followed the Russian Empire Socialist Revolution of 1917, the invasion of Soviet Russia by 500,000 foreign troops of both the victorious and defeated World War I states in 1918-1919, and the revolutionary upsurge and Red Scares that followed globally from these events.
The Marxist Socialist parties of the Second International had been the parties of Democracy in many European countries. After the Democrats in the United States, the first parties to use the term democracy in their names where the Marxist Social Democratic parties of Europe, who led the campaigns to gain voting rights and civil rights and civil liberties for the working classes and the whole people in many countries. The Socialist Parties of the Second International had become large mass parties in a number of important European countries. But they had no clear strategy for advancing socialism, for understanding the role of the existing state, or for understanding and resisting the development of imperialism. And they were divided, faction ridden, and unable to prevent their own ruling classes from manipulating them.
Those from their ranks who became Communists took first and foremost the theoretical breakthrough of Vladimir Lenin the theory of the revolutionary vanguard party to coordinate and advance the struggles of the working class and develop party and class unity, his theory of the state and its relationship to revolutionary socialist transition, and his theory of contemporary imperialism and its role in the world. They applied this theory to connect the struggles of those in the advanced capitalist countries to the struggles of the colonize masses of the world, to make socialism a movement of Chinese, Indians, Africans, Latin Americans, the most comprehensive global mass movement in human history. It addressed the central contradiction in U.S. society between an exclusionary democracy, and a real democracy, the contradiction between capital and labor.
In response to the this new revolutionary left, both in Soviet Russia and globally, the victorious capitalist states at the Versailles Conference of 1919 (the conference whose ostensible purpose was to write the WWI peace treaty) had embarked upon a policy of quarantine, or cordon sanitaire, the French word for quarantine, setting up a ring of frontline states, dictatorships of the right in Eastern Europe to quarantine or contain the Soviet Revolution and the Communist movement and defend also the colonial empires that anti-colonial movements in India and China and other countries, inspired by the example of and support from Soviet Russia, were challenging
In the U.S. the brutal Red Scare of 1919-1920 was accompanied by a “Red Summer” of racist terror against African Americans. In the U.S. those who initially or eventually became Communists, including the labor Syndicalist William Z. Foster, the anti-war Left Socialist Earl Browder, the IWW activist and heroine Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the radical socialist African American William Patterson, and many others took up the challenge and in the process of the decades of struggle that was to follow, both changed themselves and with all of their defeats changed the United States and the world for the better and developed themselves, even with the repression that they experienced as far greater human beings.
This rich and essential story is known by a great many throughout the world and taken far more seriously than the stereotypical comic book history of evil Jesuitical spy rings, serving as the agents of a transnational power in the Kremlin, beholden to a Red Pope named Joseph Stalin. That comic book history has its backers and its fans, and continues to be used against those who this collection amply shows, dedicated their lives and with all the repression lived and live full lives to making the U.S. an actual democracy
Most of us have been bombarded all of our lives with exaggerated and distorted views of the failures and defeats of the Communist movement and the CPUSA. I am here today to speak about the victories.
What would the world be without the Communist movement, and what would the United States be without the CPUSA? Let me summarize very quickly. Communists became the leading force in the development of an inclusive and powerful labor movement in the United States, taking the policy of building industrial unions which Socialists and others had advocated and implementing it. After many defeats in the 1920s and early 1930s, Communists joined with non-Communists to found the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Of the original 200 CI0 organizers more than a fourth were Communists with a big C, and that group was made up of the most experienced and successful. In 1937, Communist literally planned and led what is still the greatest victory that American workers have won, the Flint General Motors Strike, which in turn had something of a domino effect in American Labor, leading to huge advances for industrial workers, including by 1938, the establishment of industrial unions at GM and U.S. Steel, the two largest corporations in the world at that time.
Between 1933 and 1945, the number of workers in unions grew from under three million to nearly 15 million, an increase of five times. Nor was it merely numbers. The industrial unions of the CI0, while numerically weaker than the AFL, not only organized on an industrial union basis but created a new “social unionism, inclusive in its approach, actively political on issues as against the AFL’s narrow business unionist approach and most of all militant.
On the question of the rights of the African American people and the struggle to unite the working class by eradicating racism in all of its forms, the Communists brought something new to the movement for socialism, both applying the insights of the world Communist movement and its struggle against the racist policies of imperialism and connecting African American liberation with the struggles for socialism and the liberation of the working class in the United States as a whole. As this collection will show, the CPUSA abandoned the “color blind” approach of the old Socialist Party and others on the left and committed itself to work for the organization of African American workers, specifically the struggles against formal and informal, segregation, formal and informal discrimination in employment and housing, lynching that was often celebrated rather than punished in the South, and the crude racist ideology which permeated the popular media.
Without the CPUSA and the world Communist movement, the Scottsboro Nine would have been dead men. With the CPUSA and the world Communist movement, the Scottsboro Case reached a world audience and after a long struggle whose negative effects I won’t minimize, the Scottsboro political prisoners were released. In this collection scholars will discover the insights and sensitivities of African American Communists like Henry Winston, James Jackson, John Pittman, and their comrades, William Patterson, and many others, as the built the first real integrated political party in American history, as they developed mass organizations like the National Negro Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the Civil Rights Congress, which, in spite of defeats and subsequent political persecutions, nevertheless made a central contribution to the placing of civil rights on the political agenda.
One could go on. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, whose papers will also be at Tamiment, and whose history was interlocked with the CPUSA: that group of premature fighting anti-fascists, who were the fully integrated non-governmental military group in U.S. history, the opposite of the private security forces fighting in Iraq today. The Communist-led United Electrical Workers Union, which negotiated the first wage agreement during WWII providing for a greater increase for women workers than male workers, because of the long history of past discrimination, and the CPUSA’s commitment to integrate leadership in the unions and all other peoples organizations along with membership, prefiguring what two decades later would be called affirmative action.
And then there was World War II, the war one might say to make the world safe for different definitions of democracy, capitalist and socialist.
It was 27 million Soviet people more than any other people on earth who defeated Hitler fascism. It was a global center-left coalition, an international peoples front of the conservative British Empire on the right, the New Deal liberal U.S. in the center, and the Communist Soviet Union on the left that defeated the fascist Axis. It was French and Italian and Yugoslav and Vietnamese and Chinese Communists who led underground forces, partisan armies against the forces of the Axis and their legions of nationalist rightwing corporate collaborators in Europe and Asia.
“We have two enemies,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted in 1946 in a famous pamphlet, “Labor at Home and Communism abroad.” For the capitalist class of the United States that was true. The international cold war abroad, which would produce “hot wars” in Korea and Vietnam that would claim millions of lives and many “little wars” that would claim millions more, was the first part of their response. The domestic cold war at home, called McCarthyism after the alcoholic border-line crazy junior Senator from Wisconsin and his very sleazy associates, was the second part. These two cold wars were aimed at labor and communism by the ruling class of the U.S.
This collection will provide for scholars and students valuable materials concerning the ongoing struggles of the CPUSA, its efforts to maintain its roots in the working class and peoples movements as its leaders were being imprisoned, its members harassed, and the mass organizations that it had played a leading role in developing destroyed by a relentless state and private campaign to bankrupt those organizations, and terrorize members into leaving in droves.
After WWII, Communists and the broad left in the U.S. were excluded from the rights of other citizens (those on the left who refused to toe the line) and in the new exclusionary democracy “manifest destiny” became a global policy, in defense of the “free world,” which led to the nuclear arms race, literally thousands of U.S. military installations and missions through the world and trillions of dollars in military spending. The analysis of CPUSA activists, living in this cold war colossus is a valuable part of this collection, as are the materials related to the CPUSA’s struggle against laws that were passed to destroy it, laws that violated both the bill of rights and centuries of Anglo-American legal precedent against laws aimed at specific groups (bills of attainder) denying them the rights possessed by other groups in the society.
From the postwar campaigns for the Stockholm Peace petition in the attempt to slow down the right-wing blitzkrieg in the U.S. which threatened during and after the Korean War to turn the cold war into a nuclear war, the CPUSA was and is part of the ongoing struggle for peace in the United States.
In the activities against the brutal racist dictatorship that historians still call segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, doubly oppressed Communists, both black and white provided often in anonymity great assistance to triply oppressed African Americans through a wide variety of activist and support groups, while J. Edgar Hoover, did everything in his power to destroy the Civil Rights movement, and its most important mass leader, Martin Luther King, just as it did the CPUSA. The history of CPUSA activists and allies role in advancing the struggles of the Civil Rights movement during the period of McCarthyism is still largely unwritten and this collection will help both scholars and students understand it
After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the capitalists of the world proclaimed smugly that Communism was dead, which only showed their arrogance and their blindness. Their strategy since the Russian revolution had been to quarantine and eventually destroy the great power of socialism in the world and then divide and conquer the others.
This collection shows that such views are a profound distortion of reality, that the Communist the working class movement itself, here and abroad, the Communist Party lives. The Communist Party is of the working class and its history, its victories and defeats have both influenced mightily and followed the history of the working class in the United States and one might say in all nations.
Joe McCarthy died of the complications of his alcoholism at the age of 47 in 1957. J.Edgar Hoover died in 1972, after heading the FBI for 48 years, which made him by my reckoning the longest lived political police chief in the history of the world, free or otherwise. Richard Nixon and the co-star of Bed Time for Bonzo, aka Ronald Reagan, although Bonzo was a better actor, is also gone.
The Communist Party continues, while others on the left whine and moan and/or seek escapist and utopian solutions to the present crisis, to seek to organize and coordinate progressive movements and labor to move step by step to win back lost ground and make gains, realizing, in the words of Lenin, that the first virtue of a revolutionary is patience and in the words of Mao Tse-tung, that the job of revolutionaries is to Unite the Many and Defeat the Few.
This enormously important collection for scholars, students, and activists will help do that. For those who are pessimistic about the lack of socialized medicine in the U.S., the existence of homeless people on the streets of the richest country on earth, and the $500 billion dollar military budget, who remembering Friedrich Engels statement before he died, that the future will be one of either the triumph of socialism or barbarism, and see barbarism today victorious, let me say that many advocates of public education, moderate anti-slavery people and reformers of all kinds who belonged to the first “party of hope” died before the Civil War as they saw governments representing the interests of slaveholders enact the monstrous Fugitive Slave Act (1850) tear up the Missouri Compromise, try to force a pro-slavery constitution on the people of the Kansas territory, and proclaim in the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that the freedom and “property” of slaveholders could not be interfered with by governments, felt the same way. They helped to forge an anti-slavery national political coalition which through the new Republican Party and its first elected president, Abraham Lincoln, fought back, preserved the Union and abolished slavery. In the 1930s, Communists, the second party of hope helped forge a New Deal Coalition which advanced real democratic rights and made a major contribution to the victory over the Fascist Axis in WWII.
Karl Marx once wrote famously that “Philosophers have hitherto sought to understand the world. The point however is to change it.” This collection, through its illumination of the past and the present, gives us insights into building a humane future, will help scholars, students, and activists both better understand the world and change it for the better.
Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs. Reach him at pa-letters @ politicalaffairs.net
Originally published online at