The Party’s Over

For so small a movement the Communist Party of the United States has been the subject of an extraordinarily large number of historical studies. Accounts of the Party’s activities and reminiscences of its members and former members have been appearing at a steadily increasing rate. This interest can hardly be attributed to the revitalization of the Party; it remains today, as it has been for the last quarter-century, a tiny sect with a steadfast and overriding loyalty to the Soviet Union. Oddly, the collapse of the New Left and the impotence of recent American radicalism have helped to renew fascination with the CPUSA. Historians and activists rummaging in the radical past for lessons about the failures of the American left have found abundant material in the Communist Party. In little more than sixty years it has gone through enough phases to test almost every conceivable hypothesis.

Founded in 1919, the Communist movement was a divided and underground one until the Comintern, in the early 1920s, unified it and made it legal. For the rest of the decade it tried unsuccessfully to gain influence in a variety of reformist organizations or to build alliances with such “progressive forces” as the socialist-minded unions. Beginning in 1928 with the Comintern’s proclamation of a “Third Period” of growing radicalization, the Party embarked on ultrarevolutionary policies. It characterized socialists such as Norman Thomas and A.J. Muste as “social-fascists,” and considered them greater enemies of the working class than the fascists themselves.

The Communists set up their own labor unions to compete with the AF of L, which they scorned, but they were unable to grow as rapidly during the Depression as their theories suggested they should. Under the guidance of the Comintern, in 1934 a subtle shift from the worst excesses of the Third Period was begun. One year later the Seventh World Congress proclaimed the need for a Popular Front against fascism, and American Communists dutifully junked their old tactics. Saying little about socialism, emphasizing antifascism and alliances with liberal and progressive groups, their membership and influence grew rapidly.

The Popular Front years from 1935 to 1939 were the high point of American Communism. Communists had significant influence in the newly formed CIO, and became a force in such powerful political organizations as the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, and New York’s American Labor Party. Party fronts ranging from the American Writers Congress to the Workers Alliance became respectable. Yet in 1939 the Communists threw away everything they had achieved, cut their ties to the New Deal and the non-Communist left, and endorsed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The subsequent period of isolation was broken just as suddenly by the Nazi attack on Russia. While the Party never managed to regain its former status, it enjoyed a resurgence during the war, benefiting from the popularity of the American-Russian alliance.

American Communists’ decisions were never made independently. For many years they openly acknowledged Comintern interference. The Daily Worker printed directives from …

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Letters

The Communist Party: An Exchange April 14, 1983