New collection of biographies recounts post-1956 U.S. Communist history
From right: Charlene Mitchell, the Communist Party's 1968 presidential nominee; CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall; and Mike Zagarell, the party's 1968 vice presidential candidate. Mitchell and Hall are among those profiled in Pecinovsky's new book. | People's World Archive

Since the beginning of time and creation of language, historical knowledge has been passed down generation to generation. It’s an integral part of our lived experience. And we continue to learn much from the great written epochs of history, and the historic lives influencing our modern-day social characteristics.

What is also well known is that history, the history we study, is often, if not exclusively, written by the victors of conflict, or the established ruling class. Keeping that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the vivid history of American radicalism—a history which has helped create much of the social and economic progress we take for granted today—is notably absent from textbooks and classroom study from grade school all the way into college.

Sticking with this vein of thought, let’s take it a step further.

Not only is the history of American radicalism written by the invisible hand of capitalism, it is also written by two distinct groups of historians. The “Orthodox” study American radicalism, notably the Communist Party USA, through a rigid lens focused solely on the internal structures and mechanizations of the party. The “Revisionists” study radicalism and the CPUSA from the ground up, focused on the lives and impact of American Communists, placing historical perspective on human beings and their personal experiences.

Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA, by Tony Pecinovsky, a compact and brilliant biographical project, is first, an excellent view into the lives of six extraordinary American Communists—Arnold Johnson, Charlene Mitchell, Gus Hall, Henry Winston, Judith LeBlanc, and W. Alphaeus Hunton—their trials, triumphs, and tribulations. Second, it’s a critically honest assessment and evaluation of the Communist Party USA, not focused exclusively on its missteps, as found in the Orthodox camp of historians, but rather an honest “campaign debrief” (to use an organizers’ term) about what went well, what went wrong, and what can be done better next time.

Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA, by Tony Pecinovsky, is available from International Publishers.

Pecinovsky, a hybrid organizer and historian, has taken quite a fresh approach. Acting as narrator, delicately setting the scene—time, place, feel—he brings the reader up close, close enough to where you are tempted to reach out and touch the historical figure sitting across from you, or at least that’s what you’ll be thinking. It’s a conversational read. It separates itself from other written histories by using primary sources, interviews, and first-hand written accounts. Each biography has its own personal feel, allowing the subjects to tell their own stories.

Like most conversations about history, it flows naturally and breaks free from the constraints of space and time. You may start in the year 1966 before being swept up and transported to the early 1990s, until finally settling down in 1902.

More important, though, Pecinovsky has taken a step, if not the first step, into an area of CPUSA history largely ignored—let’s call it the party’s wilderness years: post-World War II, the second (McCarthy era) Red Scare, and the birth of the civil rights and student peace movements.

While many books of history place the CPUSA as in decline, losing all influence within organized labor and the communities in which it was strong during its 1930s heyday, Pecinovsky corrects the record by showing the massive impact Communists had during this period, and how instrumental the lives he tells about were in shaping the period’s narratives around social and economic justice, racial justice, the fight against sexism, and the push for global peace.

Another crucial aspect of this work is its ability to link historical struggle to those of today. CPUSA leader Arnold Johnson, who spent his entire professional life fighting to uphold the Bill of Rights—as a Communist—and who would see the dingy, soul-crushing walls of a jail cell, will assuredly leave readers with a bit of wisdom and hope, as we face dark and uncertain political fates moving into Election Day 2020:

“This fight for democracy is one which will always go forward even at such times that it appears as though the focus in power would like to destroy democracy,” said Johnson. “This period in history will probably go down in books as one period in history most devoid of—not justice, no, but reason and logic.”

Yet, as Pecinovsky notes, Johnson never lost faith in the American people and the rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. It’s a faith we find ourselves questioning now and again today, but one, as mentioned, that can’t truly be lost.

And, speaking of elections, Charlene Mitchell, CPUSA leader and the party’s 1968 presidential nominee—the first African American woman to run for the White House—argued something then that still rings true now: “It is time that workers run for pubic office and begin to build a political party of their own.”

Of course, as we’ve seen before, it is possible to create a mechanism within the established two-party system, and a valuable lesson can be found in the CPUSA’s electoral strategy then: “work within the two parties, building independent political formations, and the participation of the Communist Party [and workers] through its own candidates.”

By connecting these radical lives to several overarching themes, narratives, and moments in time, Pecinovsky has shown the fluid and constant impact of American Communists over several generations, and the valuable lessons learned throughout the generational shifts in all radical American protest movements.

If you’re a fan of history—and even if you’re not—I highly recommend giving this book a read.

Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA

By Tony Pecinovsky

International Publishers, 2019


See author Tony Pecinovsky discuss his new book on C-SPAN.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.