The Movements of American Communism

Far too often, scholars have mystified the history of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Historians influenced by Cold War anticommunism saw the CPUSA as a totalitarian import that was alien to American political life. In other words, it was the connection to the Soviet Union, not any social struggles that defined the CPUSA. Revisionist historians inspired by the New Left resisted this interpretation and highlighted the role of CPUSA militants in struggles fighting racism, unemployment, and for social justice. The revisionists told the history of the CPUSA as one of indigenous radicalism where the connection to the Soviet Union and communist ideology was downgraded. While there is a great deal to learn about the Communist Party from these two schools, in practice they act as mirror images of each other, producing a distorted and one-sided portrait of history.

To understand the history of the CPUSA, it is necessary to take seriously the commitment by militants to the ideals of communism, labor activism, and antiracism which is situated in a complex national and international context. Among the works that truly undertake this endeavor is Joshua Morris’ Many Worlds of American Communism. His account is written with a balance of objectivity and sympathy, telling the story of the CPUSA from its origins in 1919 through its early growing pains, and the height of its influence in the 1930s and 40s through its decline after 1956. Many Worlds manages to guide the reader through labor struggles, factional fighting, civil rights activism, and political repression. At times, both serious and funny, Morris’ work is an impressive work of scholarship that synthesizes party documents, memoirs, and a vast array of secondary sources to give a big picture history of the Communist Party.

At the center of Morris’ approach is examining the role of communists as involved in multiple worlds of engagement as political activists, labor organizers, community organizers, etc. The CPUSA’s different worlds show that it was a multifaceted movement and its militants came from many backgrounds with their own objectives. For example, political leaders were more focused on theory and international questions than labor organizers who had to deal with local workers and the legal strategy around collective bargaining. The experiences of a black sharecropper in Alabama fighting the Klan, a Jewish textile worker in New York City, or a theoretician in Chicago were different worlds even if they fell under the same overall umbrella of communism. According to Morris, the existence of different worlds show that the party was not a monolith: “I assert that American communist history is not a history of one political entity, nor is it a history of how certain ideologies had effects on the actions of certain influential individuals. It is a history of certain Leftists at the grassroots who chose to balance their lives between the practical realities of American society and the ideals of Marxian socialism.” (viii)

This approach of multiple worlds is a valuable methodological tool for explaining the roles and intersection between various areas of communist party life and work. For instance, the “political world” of the CPUSA – especially in its first decade – was characterized by a high degree of factionalism. Despite their initial optimism, party leaders found that their efforts to implant revolutionary doctrines in the United States were met with extreme hostility and repression, causing them to turn inward as opposed to directing their efforts outward into strikes and organizing. At the same time, the labor world – centered around dedicated trade unionists – found that their answers of how to organize unions and build the party differed from the political world. As Morris notes: “By the start of the Communist Second Period in 1924, the American communist movement possessed neither theoretical nor tactical factions but rather different worlds of experience—one deeply engrained in political solutions to societal woes, and another dug into the day-to-day struggles of the American labor movement.” (50)

By the time of the Great Depression, the Communist Party had entered its Third Period where members believed that socialist revolution was just around the corner. While the Third Period is associated with ultra-leftism, Morris observed it enabled the Communist Party to become a sizeable force on the American left. While activists were inspired by a revolutionary vision, its application varied among the different communist worlds. The political world ran William Z. Foster for president in 1932 to spread a communist message across the country while advancing a series of practical demands to combat the crisis. In addition, members of the labor world “were encouraged to involve themselves in extra-party organizations, even if such organizations were amassed by nonparty members.” (209)

During the Third Period, the CPUSA saw capitalism as embroiled in such a deep crisis that it was incapable of granting any fundamental reforms. This meant that the party viewed every economic struggle as potentially revolutionary. To win over the masses, the CPUSA adopted a “left” economist strategy by acting as the most resolute defenders of the economic needs of the working class. By the end of the Third Period, communists proved to be among the most effective labor organizers who mobilized the masses far beyond their ranks.

While Morris does not deny that changes in political strategy were dictated in Moscow, he tends to emphasize the local experience of communists behind these shifts over decisions made by Stalin and the Comintern. For instance, the adoption of the Popular Front in 1935 originated in the USSR, but he notes its strategy had support from domestic rank-and-file communists. The activists in the labor and community worlds saw the Popular Front as a logical development of the mass initiatives that began during the Third Period: “Like the Political World, communists active in labor organizing found little difficulty adapting to the Popular Front line after 1934. In fact, many who had helped in key strikes throughout the early 1930s developed the understanding of cooperative organizing strategies long before it was brought up by party leaders.” (282)

Party militants in the labor and community worlds followed Comintern directives not solely due to ideology, but because the USSR’s views aligned with their experiences. In fact, activists in these worlds were more likely to fight American party leaders than the Comintern, believing that they dictated struggle from afar and did not understand local conditions: “Rather than blindly accept the party line, communists at the grassroots showed resistance and hostility toward efforts by party leaders to dictate the needs of local labor struggles. The support seen by communist unionists for Comintern policies reflected less of an ideological commitment to international communism than it did a perception that the Soviet’s understanding of class struggle aligned with their own.” (282)

While the community, labor, and political worlds were distinct, when they acted together it could produce dramatic results. For example, Communists played critical roles in the Flint sit down strike of 1936-1937 and the growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) into a mass industrial union. It was during these years that the labor world was characterized by a “focus on practical needs and demands of the rank-and-file—not party politics.” (323) The focus on “practical politics” was shared by the CPUSA’s political world where the popular front necessitated an alliance with the forces of New Deal liberalism and the CIO’s leadership while dispensing with revolutionary politics. As a result, the Communist Party changed its strategy of “left” economism by dropping left pretensions and simply ending up as economist and reformist in its approach.

The CPUSA’s shift to economism meant that the political world of communism was reduced to following the dictates of the USSR and seeking respectability at home. These two goals were not always compatible and found themselves at odds when Stalin signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939. The party refused to distance itself from the USSR and abandoned antifascist organizing, leading to a decline in membership by 15%. When the line shifted again after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, party militants were glad that the previous moral ambiguity was gone. Now they considered the defense of the Soviet Union as a “just war for the purpose of destroying fascism and defending the socialist motherland.” (268)

As the political world with their goal of respectability gained ascendency during the war, this led to conflict with other communist worlds. In the labor world, the CP’s support for the no-strike pledge “slowly broke down the effectiveness of communist labor activism.” (333) While the community world continued to struggle against racism during the war years (notably in the labor movement), the party’s standing among civil rights activists was harmed by the political world in 1944. Earl Browder’s dissolution of the Communist Party into the Communist Political Association was accompanied by a reversal of the party’s long-standing stance on civil rights activism. Although the CPUSA was reestablished the following year and reaffirmed its support for civil rights, permanent damage had been done: “Unfortunately, the fight to rectify Browder’s policy on civil rights and African American integration took far longer than it took to actually oust Browder and helped sever the Political World’s ties with its community activists.” (409)

As Morris observed, the struggle over Browderism revealed the larger problem of keeping the labor, political, and community worlds of communism bound together. Many civil rights activists associated with communism believed they had to make a choice between fighting in their communities or maintaining party ties. As a result, many were willing to cut their allegiance to the party since they were not primarily motivated by ideology: “The moment the political dimension of the movement forced grassroots activists to decide between their morals and their political ideology, those who had come into the movement because of moral and ethical alignment found little difficulty severing their connections with the Political World.” (409-410)

As a result of Cold War repression, internal strife, and revelations from Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the CPUSA’s membership declined. By the end of the 1950s, the party “was like a snake without a head.” (449) Now lacking a unifying political center, the labor and community worlds of communism went their separate ways. As Morris argues, this did not represent a decline of communism, but a diffusion of its ideas on unions, civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. into new social movements and enduring to the present day:

Though the many worlds of American Communism certainly faced increasing internal and external pressure during the postwar years, the only thing that declined during this era was the palatability of “communism” as a viable identity for activists to rally behind. The ideas that were built during the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s—that Americans deserved fair, equal, and safe workplaces; unemployment protections; the ability to bargain as a union with employers; an end to Jim Crow; recognition of the unique nature of women’s oppression; social unemployment paid for by increases in taxes on the wealthy; and an expansion of the New Deal program—remained not only dominant in the postwar era but also wholly continued to evolve and produce new forms of activism by the 1960s. These concepts once ridiculed as “communist” in 1925 became championed by hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists less than 40 years later. In this way, American Communism continues to linger on today albeit without a strong ideological nucleus to bind the various worlds of experience together. (451)

It would be impossible for any history to be totally comprehensive without becoming overly long. Yet there are some glaring omissions. The reader is left feeling underwhelmed at Morris’ discussion of the cultural world of American communism. What Michael Denning called the “Cultural Front” with its rich array of art, literature, music, and plays produced by those in and around the Communist Party exercised an enduring influence on American culture. Furthermore, another gap involves one of the darker areas of party history. While Morris does not shy away from the negative aspects of Communist Party history, he says very little about the party’s support for Japanese internment during World War II. Unfortunately, we do not learn how the various worlds of American communism dealt with this disgraceful episode.

All these criticisms aside, Morris succeeds in covering the broad historical sweep of American communism. Analyzing the many worlds of American communism not only acknowledges the complexity experienced by party militants but breaks with the constraints of anticommunist and revisionist scholars who obscure a great deal of that history. Any radical who wants to learn about the history of the Communist Party USA owes it to themselves to pick up a copy of The Many Worlds of American Communism.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent Marxist historian and writer living in the greater Boston area.