Robert W Cherny. American Communist History. Volume 9, Issue 1. June 2010.
The California Communist Party (CP) was one of the most successful Party units during the 1930s, accounting in the late 1930s for about 10% of the total CPUSA membership. The history of the Party in California reveals a good deal about the relationships between local activists, on the one hand, and the PolBuro and the Comintern on the other. In a previous essay, I explored some of the California CP’s activities during 1931-1935, when it showed considerable local autonomy in implementing some directives and developing tactics; that study also demonstrated the significant limits on local autonomy imposed by the national leadership on local leaders and by the Comintern on national leaders. During the years from 1935 to 1939, the Party in California sought to move from the margins of local and state politics to the mainstream and scored some significant successes in that effort, only to propel themselves back towards the margins in late 1939 and 1940. Where the California CP in the early 1930s sometimes showed or sought autonomy in responding to directives from the Comintern or the national PolBuro, much less autonomy was apparent after 1935.
To understand some of the behavior of the California CP, it is necessary to recall briefly the three distinct phases of the Comintern’s analysis of world affairs during the 1930s. In 1928, delegates to the Sixth Comintern Congress were introduced to Joseph Stalin’s analysis of a “Third Period” in the development of capitalism, characterized by the imminent collapse of capitalism and the likelihood of war by capitalist nations against the Soviet Union. The leading slogan, “class against class,” stressed refusal to compromise across class lines. Non-CP groups on the left, especially socialists and “reformist” trade union leaders, were seen as the major props of the bourgeoisie and hence the major enemies of the CP—”social fascists” if not “fascists.” For the CPUSA, the “United Front” meant the “united front from below,” that is, recruiting members of other left and labor organizations, deposing their “reformist” leaders, bringing those organizations to the CPUSA, and thereby making the CP the sole leader of a unified proletariat. In 1929, the CPUSA formed the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) as a separate Red union confederation and set about organizing Red unions.
By 1934, the Third-period line began to come under intense discussion within the highest levels of the Comintern. Third-period rhetoric had proven a major obstacle to organizing workers in most places. Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933 was soon followed by the destruction of the German Communist Party, the largest outside the Soviet Union. In April, Stalin named Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian, as general secretary of the Comintern. Dimitrov and Dimitri Manuilsky, a Russian and member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI), seem to have taken the lead within the Comintern leadership in advocating a new approach. Upon prompting from Moscow, the French CP forged a unity pact—a united front from above—with the French Socialists. By August, Manuilsky and others were suggesting extending this united front to petit-bourgeois and peasant parties, and, in late October, the French CP appealed to the Radical Socialists (who were neither radical nor socialist) for a “Front populaire.” Where the United Front had brought together Marxist parties and unions, the Front populaire, or People’s Front, included non-socialist, center parties. Thus, though Dimitrov formally initiated the People’s Front at the Seventh Comintern Congress in August 1935, it had been developing earlier.
From mid-1935 to mid-1939, the Comintern stressed forming coalitions, both United Fronts and People’s Fronts. In the United States, the CP softened its criticism of Roosevelt and the New Deal and tried to join with other left groups. By 1938, in a few places, notably California and Washington, this led the CP further into the political mainstream than ever before, or ever again. Then, in 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the CPUSA line changed from forming coalitions to keeping out of “the imperialist war.” This cost the party credibility, and it lost many of the gains from the previous few years.
My earlier essay indicates how, during the early 1930s, the California CP was at the forefront of challenging the Third-period line, as Sam Darcy, the District Organizer, undertook several efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. Darcy’s greatest successes came with the 1934 Pacific Coast longshore and maritime strikes and San Francisco general strikes, in which Party members or people with close ties to the Party took significant roles. This happened in part because Darcy and other party activists largely ignored the Marine Workers Industrial Union, the TUUL affiliate, which he found to be inept and sectarian, and instead encouraged party activists to work within AFL unions. Late in 1934, Darcy dissolved the MWIU on the Pacific Coast and directed its members to join the appropriate AFL union. Eventually, after conferring with the Executive Committee of the Comintern, the CPUSA dissolved not just the MWIU but also the entire TUUL.
At the same time, Darcy sought to broaden the party’s electoral appeal by supporting candidates for governor and US senate, who were not Party members. Beginning in 1933, Darcy sought approval from the PolBuro for the California CP to run Lincoln Steffens, the Progressive-era muckraker, as the party’s candidate for the US Senate in 1934. Darcy failed to persuade the PolBuro regarding Steffens and similarly failed to secure permission for the California party to support Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor in 1934. Instead, Darcy was instructed to run for governor. He drew fewer than 6000 votes, about 0.2% of the total. Anita Whitney, the Party’s candidate for controller and the only opponent of the Republican incumbent, received more than 100,000 votes, nearly 5% of the total, at a time when District 13 (California plus a few members in Arizona and Nevada) claimed around 2000 members and 1822 registered voters in California. Table 1 and 2 (p.7) summarize registration and voting for CP candidates in state-level elections in the 1930s.
Table 1. Communist Voter Registration, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1940.
|Year||Election||Number of communist voter registrations||CP Voters as a percentage of total registration|
|Sources: Frank C. Jordan, Secretary of State, comp., Statement of Vote at Primary Election Held on August 28, 1934 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1934), p. 4; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 6, 1934 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1934), p. 4; Statement of Vote at Presidential Primary Election Held on May 5, 1936 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1936), pp. 2-3; Statement of Vote at Primary Election Held on August 25, 1936 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1936), p. 3; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on November 3, 1936 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1936), p. 3; Statement of Vote at Primary Election Held on August 30, 1938 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1938), pp. 3-4; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 8, 1938 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1938), pp. 2-3, 6-7; Statement of Vote at Presidential Primary Election Held on May 7, 1940 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1940), pp. 2-3; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 5, 1940 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1940), pp. 2-4, 7.|
Table 2. Statewide Vote Received by Communist Candidates, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1940.
|Year||Office||CP candidate||Number of votes||CP candidate’s votes as a percentage of the total cast for that office|
|Lieutenant Governor||Pettis Perry||10,528||0.5|
|Secretary of State||Harold J. Ashe||47,585||2.3|
|U.S. Senator||Pat Chambers (write-in)||1026||<0.1|
|1938||Secretary of State||Leo Gallagher||150,760||6.4|
|U.S. Senator||Anita Whitney||97,478||3.6|
|Sources: Frank C. Jordan, Secretary of State, comp., Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 6, 1934 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1934), pp. 5-11; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 3, 1936 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1936), pp. 3, 21; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 8, 1938 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1938), pp. 2-3, 6-7; Statement of Vote at General Election Held on Nov. 5, 1940 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1940), pp. 2-4, 7.|
Throughout 1935, The Western Worker, the official CP organ for Districts 12 and 13, was harshly critical of Roosevelt and the New Deal:
The President is a clever representative of the interests of the capitalist class. He is far too subtle to label his starvation program as such. … But even his experienced and adept demagogy is not enough to hide the bony knuckles of Hunger, Fascism and War which burst through the velvet glove of ‘humanitarianism’.
The CP condemned the WPA as “a wage-cutting, anti-strike club held over the heads of every worker, employed or unemployed in the United States.” New Deal labor policy received similar treatment. In July, the Western Worker condemned “the strike-breaking activities of Roosevelt’s Labor Relation Boards, and the strike-breaking, company union Wagner Labor Disputes Bill, which had Roosevelt’s sanction.” In October 1935, the Western Worker even criticized Roosevelt for being politically motivated in urging companies to employ the disabled and in encouraging contributions for research against infantile paralysis.
The Party also kept up a steady drumbeat against “social fascists” and fascists, especially Upton Sinclair and EPIC. In April, the Western Worker took pleasure in the defeat of EPIC candidates in local elections in Los Angeles, using the occasion to denounce “the fallacy of its program of ‘reformism’ and ‘liberalism’.” Throughout the year, the paper repeated the refrain of the previous year by referring to Sinclair’s “Social-Fascism” and accused him of aiding fascism.
At the same time, however, the party followed the lead of a resolution adopted by the CPUSA Central Committee in mid-January 1935, on creating the United Front. This was done, in part, by organizing United Front activities around particular issues. In mid-March, the party claimed an attendance of 6000 at a United Front rally against the state criminal syndicalism law. Speakers included not only party stalwarts but also Assemblyman Paul Richie—a liberal Democrat from Southern California, Redfern Mason of the San Francisco Newspaper Guild, and Ben Legere of the Democratic Council—a San Francisco Democratic party club. Similar United Front rallies were held to demand freedom for Tom Mooney. (The Mooney case, and that of Warren Billings, stemmed from a bomb that exploded at a San Francisco parade in 1916, killing 9 people. Mooney and Billings were convicted, but the chief witness was later proven to be a perjurer. Still, succeeding Republican governors refused to release Mooney and Billings. For long periods of time in the 1920s and 1930s, it was the largely the CP that kept alive the issue of freedom for the two).
Midway through 1935, just as the local Party began to gear up for the fall election campaign, Darcy left California just ahead of an indictment that alleged he had committed perjury because he had not used his real name and place of birth when he had filed to run for governor in 1934. Earlier, in July 1934, seventeen Party activists from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers International Union were arrested under the state’s criminal syndicalism law. In March 1935, eight were sentenced to prison. In February 1935, eight Party activists were indicted for perjury in connection with their efforts to register voters to get the CP on the state ballot in 1934, and two were eventually sentenced to prison. When Darcy was indicted, he had reason to get out of the state.
In the meantime, the CPUSA had named Darcy as a delegate to the 7th World Congress of the Comintern, and he was in Moscow by July. He recalled Dimitrov’s meeting with the US delegation:
When we got to Moscow, Dimitrov, whom I had never met before, took me aside and … showed me a piece of paper on which it said ‘Franklin Roosevelt represents the fascist trends in our country.’ He said, ‘Now I’m not asking you whether that’s true or not, I’m asking you is it true that that’s the position of the party?’ Well, it was the position of the party. Browder kept attacking Roosevelt, so I told Dimitrov, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’ Okay, now the custom was that if your country was mentioned [in a speech], Dimitrov had to meet with the delegation of the country. … So we came to the meeting and Dimitrov outlined his report. … as part of his report it says—essentially ‘Only a confirmed idiot could fail to see that the forces of reaction are uniting are behind Landon and the forces of progress are uniting behind Franklin Roosevelt.’ … [Dimitrov spoke in German, and Darcy was the translator.] Dimitrov said, ‘Now you ask Comrade Browder whether he wants to speak.’ … [Browder] was like a dried up herring, I mean, he shrunk into his clothing and looked so wretched. I said ‘Earl, Comrade Dimitrov wants to know if you want to speak.’ He shook his head. … Dimitrov then said, ‘Well, since there seems to be agreement, I will change the wording to say, not ‘a confirmed idiot’ but ‘only an addict of phrase mongering could make a mistake like that.’
Chastened, and perhaps with some new respect for Darcy, the US party leaders decided that he should remain in Moscow as the CPUSA’s representative on the Anglo-American Secretariat of the Comintern. Given his legal jeopardy in California, the Moscow assignment also served to keep Darcy out of court. District 13, however, was left with no district leader. In early August, Elmer Hanoff wrote to the Central Committee to request a new District Organizer. By early September, Jack Johnstone had been dispatched to fill in until more permanent arrangements could be made.
Local party activists apparently took the lead in July in inviting all San Francisco unions to send delegates to form a United Labor campaign in the fall municipal elections. Thirty-six organizations sent representatives, and many were not CP members or supporters. The chairman was Eugene Dietrich, a longshoreman who was by no means radical in his politics. A United Labor party was organized, and a tentative ticket nominated. The Western Worker spoke glowingly of the prospects that “a united front can be built up which will be the only guarantee against the further growth of fascism in the present reactionary city political machine.”
By August, word began to reach the California comrades about the 7th World Congress of the Comintern and the People’s Front approach. In early August, the Western Worker reported that the Party’s “major task” was now “the establishment of the proletarian united front and the people’s front of all toilers against Fascism and War.” Those lessons continued to be developed over succeeding weeks. The Western Worker of September 23, for example, carried a full page entitled “Main Task Is Creating People’s Front.”
In late August, the District Buro (the highest decision-making body in the district) met to select the United Labor party’s candidate for mayor. Three possibilities were discussed: Redfern Mason, president of the San Francisco Newspaper Guild; George Anderson, a lawyer close to the CP if not a member; and Ben Legere, a leading EPIC Democrat. The next week, the United Labor Party named Mason as its candidate for mayor. The remainder of the ticket included Anderson for municipal judge, Legere for sheriff, and William Riesener, a Democrat and Utopian Society member, for Assessor. The six candidates for supervisor included one announced Communist, a leader of the longshoremen’s union, a member of the Iron Workers Union, a member of the Carpenter’s Union, a Utopian Society activist, and a leader of the unemployed. In the end, the party claimed the endorsement of 35 local unions, including most of the waterfront unions, and support from a section of the EPIC Democrats. However, the minutes of District Buro meetings in October 1934 make clear that nearly all direction for the United Labor party came from the District Buro. The party’s dominant role was also obvious to others: in 1936, when the CP approached the California Socialist party to form a Farmer‐Labor party, the socialists responded, in part, that such a party would be only “a false front for … the Communist Party and its affiliates,” would therefore be “both futile and undesirable,” and pointed to “the poor showing made in the recent election in San Franciso” as proof.
The final United Labor rally of the campaign, on October 30, at Dreamland Auditorium, featured Mason, Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen, Lincoln Steffens, and John Pelletier, a Democratic Assemblyman from Los Angeles. On election day, the United Labor slate lost badly. As the Western Worker reported, “the undoubted mass support which was developed for the program of the United Labor candidates was not sufficiently reflected in the final votes counted.” A more detailed analysis appears in the minutes of the District Buro. After acknowledging that the CP was “the driving force behind the united front,” the report both criticized party fractions in key unions as derelict in mobilizing those unions for greater political activity and emphasized “the failure of the Central Labor Council fraction to function.” Other minutes also noted the existence of party fractions within the Democratic Council and the Labor party.
In late October 1935, towards the very end of the fall political campaign, District 13 welcomed a new District Organizer: William Schneiderman, who had been the CPUSA representative to the Comintern preceding Darcy, and who must surely have been present when Dimitrov humiliated Browder. Less prone to challenge the Party’s authority than Darcy, Schneiderman soon elaborated on the lessons that the CPUSA leadership had learned in Moscow, closely paraphrasing some of Dimitrov’s language (as recalled by Darcy). “We would make … [a] mistake,” he warned, “if we branded Roosevelt and his policies as fascist. The real fascist threat comes from the reactionary circles of the Republican Party old guard, the American Liberty League, the Hearsts and Coughlins.” He went on, however, to present the PolBuro’s gloss on Dimitrov’s message: “This does not mean that Roosevelt and the New Deal is an obstacle to fascism; on the contrary, the New Deal served the purposes of finance-capital and helped encourage the process toward fascism.”
Schneiderman was delivering the new line of the CPUSA, its version of the People’s Front. Roosevelt may not have been a fascist, but he was still not to be trusted. Given this, Schneiderman explained, the party needed to ally with trade unions, socialists, the EPIC movement, and with “the poor and middle farmers and the city middle class, the professionals, intellectuals, etc.” and to “become a broad People’s Front.” And, he continued, reflecting the position of the CPUSA leadership, the “most important political expression of the united front in the United States is the movement for the building of a Farmer-Labor Party.” Such a party, explained M. J. Olgin, a leading CPUSA publicist, in the Western Worker in early December, would not introduce socialism but would instead be “a means to strengthen the working calss [sic] so that it may become capable in due time to seize power and establish itself [as] the master of life in a Soviet America.” Schneiderman, like Darcy, agreed that “we must change our sectarian methods of work which are an obstacle to winning the masses.”
The next major opportunity for the California CP to demonstrate its ability to “win the masses” came in the 1936 elections for president, Congress, the state legislature, and a few local offices. Throughout that year, the Party continued to stress the need for a Farmer-Labor party as the most reliable bulwark against fascism, and to criticize Roosevelt and the New Deal as inadequate for that task. If there were no Farmer-Labor party, then, the CP claimed, it needed to run CP candidates as a way of demonstrating the need for, and appeal of, a Farmer-Labor party and of simultaneously defeating the right. “Communist candidates are pledged to fight for a Farmer-Labor Party in America,” the Western Worker explained, “just as the French Communists led the fight for the Popular Front.”
All of this closely reflected the line of the CPUSA, as explained by CPUSA Secretary Earl Browder to the 9th National Convention in early July:
A large Communist vote will strengthen the movement for the Farmer-Labor Party and will exert a powerful influence upon the trade unions and the Socialist Party to join actively in the building of the Farmer-Labor Party—the only effective barrier to reaction and fascism in this country.
Thus, the “People’s Front” message of the World Congress did not initially change the highly critical way that the CPUSA and the CP in District 13 viewed Roosevelt and the New Deal. However, other changes did appear. At the national level, some United Front activities began to be broader than before, e.g. a “new United Front Committee for Defense of the Scottsboro Boys” included not only the CP‐controlled International Labor Defense but also the Methodist Federation for Social Service, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the League for Industrial Democracy. Locally, the Western Worker now began to carry notices for meetings of groups such as the ACLU. In San Francisco, United Front rallies against the criminal syndicalism law continued to include prominent liberal Democrats and union leaders who were not close to the CP.
This opening toward the center did not extend to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Early in 1936, when EPIC held a state convention, the Western Worker bemoaned that State Senator Culbert Olson, chairman of the Democratic State Committee, had “lined up with reactionaries with the statement that a ‘delegation should be sent to the national convention unconditionally pledged to President Roosevelt’s nomination.'” In May, the Western Worker proclaimed, “The Democratic and Republican Parties are but two faces to the same coin,” and “Roosevelt, Farley, McAdoo and Company … mislead the toilers into the camp of capitalism.” Because both major parties were the captives of big business, the CP argued, “the Communist ticket in the coming elections is the only one to contain the vital demands of the workers and other oppressed people, the only one to stand solidly in support of the organized labor movement of the city.”
Earl Browder, the national CP secretary and the party’s candidate for president, spoke in San Francisco on August 13. The Western Worker claimed that 9000 people attended to hear Browder proclaim that “Landon and Knox are the main enemy, who must be defeated at all costs.” But, the Western Worker continued, “the Communist candidate warned, however, against placing any trust in President Roosevelt to defeat Fascism, to turn back the forces who would place America under a bloody dictatorship as have Hitler and Mussolini in Europe.” The CP in District 13 faithfully followed Browder’s political lead, frequently repeating his slogan that “Communism is the Americanism of the Twentieth Century.” “Class Against Class”—a primary slogan of the Third-Period analysis—vanished from the paper.
Clarence Hathaway, a member of the CPUSA PolBuro, explained the Party’s line on the presidential election when he reported to the Anglo-American Secretariat in Moscow in mid-September 1936:
an effort has been made to rally the whole Party for that policy and to give an understanding of the policy to our comrades, namely, that of joining hands with all forces which were ready to fight determinedly for the defeat of Landon and the Liberty League-Hearst crowd, etc., and, in the course of this fight, to do everything possible to further the development of the Farmer-Labor Party movement. … by our concentrating the fight against the Landon-Liberty League-Hearst crowd, we … are strengthening our position in the trade union movement everywhere and are gaining a broader influence amongst the workers and an ability to cooperate with all progressive elements of the labor movement. The Communists are winning a place for themselves that they have not occupied at any time in the history of the Party. … so far as the presidential elections are concerned and the very nature of our campaign, for every one vote we draw to ourselves, we pile up many tens of votes for Roosevelt.
Though CP leaders repeatedly claimed they were working to defeat Landon and the right, in fact they were constantly faced with the charge that their campaign would inevitably draw votes away from Roosevelt and might potentially cause the election of Landon.
Though the Party leaders in District 13 and The Western Worker faithfully followed the Party line and urged support for Browder as the best means of defeating Landon, they experienced difficulty in persuading some CP members of that logic. There are fewer materials in the RGASPI files for 1936 than for earlier years, but one incident reported there demonstrates the reaction of some important Party members to this line. The California Federation of Labor state convention met in late September. Some forty of the 400 delegates were Party members, and other delegates were close to the party. Roy Hudson, a member of the PolBuro, reported on the failure of Party members to protest against the endorsement of Roosevelt or to fight for a resolution endorsing a Farmer-Labor party: “in this Convention, where the left wing influence was strong, not a single voice was raised to point out that giving a blank check to Roosevelt was not the way to defeat and hold in restraint the reactionary forces united around the Landon-Knox ticket.” And, Hudson continued, this failure to attack Roosevelt “certainly tended to weaken the fight for the Farmer‐Labor Party resolution.” Hudson also noted that the failure to attack Roosevelt “undoubtedly created confusion in the minds of some.” In fact, it would seem the CP members and sympathizers who had won election as delegates understood better than Hudson and the CPUSA leadership how bizarre it was to insist, on the one hand, that Landon should be defeated at all costs, and to maintain, on the other hand, that this should be accomplished by voting for the CP candidate. In fact, it would seem that those CP union leaders were far less confused than Hudson, and were undoubtedly more closely in touch with the political views of their members.
Some union leaders who were close to the CP openly supported Roosevelt. Harry Bridges urged, in early October, that his local, ILA Local 38-79, “take independent political action; that is to organize and build the sentiment among unions to support such groups as the Labor’s Non-Partisan League, which has endorsed President Roosevelt for reelection.” At a membership meeting in late October, the members of Local 38-79 voted not only to endorse Roosevelt for reelection but also to donate $750 (equivalent to about $11,487 in 2009) to his campaign. John Schomaker, the CP activist who wrote the account of this meeting for the Pacific Coast District newspaper, put it dramatically:
The San Francisco Local of Longshoremen boldly threw overboard the policy of non-political action by concurring in a letter from the ROOSEVELT-GARNER Campaign Committee. The Membership not only answered the request for funds by donating $750 from the treasury, but authorized the Stewards to sell the ‘I.L.A. ENDORSES ROOSEVELT’ Buttons. … This election is, indeed, a choice between Democracy and Fascism.
The results of the 1936 CP campaign were unimpressive. The Western Worker had constantly urged its readers to register Communist and take part in the primaries as Communists, but the total number of registered Communists in the 1936 presidential primary was only 677—a drop of nearly two-thirds from the party’s registered voters in 1934. By the August primary, this had increased to 1095 and to 1177 by the general election—still far below the totals for 1934. Party membership was growing—during the presidential campaign, the party signed up 2600 new members. Before the recruiting drive, the party had counted about 2300 members. Six months after the drive, about 3300 paid dues each month, suggesting that it was necessary to sign up two members to register a gain of one.
The RGASPI files become thinner and thinner toward the end of the 1930s, so there is sometimes little there to illuminate some of the important changes in the Party’s approach to politics in the late 1930s. However, Darcy provided a recollection of events during his tenure as the CPUSA representative to the Comintern that may help us to understand the next development in the Party’s position:
I start getting the papers from the United States, the Daily Worker and so on and it keeps advocating a Farmer-Labor party and a Farmer-Labor ticket. Well, the farmer-labor party was another name for the Communist party—it wasn’t much different. And a ticket was ridiculous. At that time , the impression was that Roosevelt was having a tough time getting re-elected. … Well, obviously that would be a disaster. So, if that’s true, every vote would count and a farmer-labor party which would take away at least 100,000 votes, maybe more, would be a disaster. So, I spoke to [Andre] Marty [head of the Anglo-American Secretariat] about it and the two of us went to Manuilsky, and Manuilsky said, ‘I’ll try to make you an appointment with Comrade Stalin.’ Stalin then said—I’m trying to tell you how careful they were not to show that Moscow was manipulating the election—Stalin then said (this is Manuilsky’s report to me later), ‘Bring Foster and Browder to Moscow and we’ll talk to them.’ And that’s what happened. We wired Browder and Foster and they came in a few months later. When he came, Browder knew he was in for a drubbing … I met them at the airport and we drove in together. I said to them, ‘Listen, Bill and Earl, I have to tell you this: your advocacy of a labor-farmer party is sabotaging the whole idea of Stalin to make friends with Roosevelt. He doesn’t want anything like that. … the Germans are getting ready for war. Uniting the United States and Soviet Union is a very important key to this whole thing.’ They agreed. Dimitrov invited us to dinner, not Stalin. … Dimitrov presided and he tried to calm everything down. … They agreed to change the policy of the party and support Roosevelt.
Darcy did not date his recollection of Browder’s trip to Moscow, and a reading of the Western Worker through the end of 1936 shows no significant shift that year or early the following year. In January 1937, for example, the Western Worker was still promoting a labor party and criticizing Roosevelt, and a Farmer‐Labor party still appeared in the CP’s “Tasks in California” in early February and as the goal of the party in an editorial as late as May. By March, however, a different strategy began to appear. Early in March 1937, the Western Worker noted the creation of local branches of Labor’s Non-Partisan League, a CIO organization that endorsed candidates and sought to mobilize union and community resources in support of its candidates. In mid-March, the paper announced that the Hollywood section of the CP was withdrawing its candidate for the Los Angeles city council because the County Labor Council and “the progressive and liberal forces” had endorsed Henry Alberti of Musicians Union Local 147; the CP would now support Alberti. Soon after, another CP candidate in Los Angeles also withdrew in favor of the choice of the Conference for United Political Action.
This new role for the CP posed potential dangers for the liberal candidates that the Party now supported. In early May, for example, the party urged that Los Angeles voters should defeat the incumbent mayor, Frank Shaw, but stressed, as well, that
John Anson Ford is NOT the candidate of the Communist Party. … Ford is not a Communist, far from it. The truth is that the Communist Party has repeatedly and publicly criticized Ford’s serious mistakes and his failure to come out with a clearer program and stronger fight for the interests of labor and the people.
The CP similarly endorsed Al Sessions, editor of the Kern County Labor Journal, as a write-in candidate in a special election in the 10th Congressional District. “Al Sessions is not a Communist,” the party stressed in its endorsement. “His program is not a Communist program. We do not agree with Sessions on many questions.”
San Francisco municipal elections were in November. In August, the Party announced that it would field candidates for three seats on the Board of Supervisors and for two spots on the Board of Education but also that their candidates would withdraw “in the event of a labor and progressive slate being formed.” In August, the Party announced its slate of five candidates, three for the Board of Supervisors and two for the Board of Education, on a good government platform—”a thorough cleanup of corruption … an honest municipal government.” At the same time, Schneiderman called upon “progressive unions” to create a slate of candidates and a platform. Eventually, an Honest Government Committee was formed by the city’s CIO Industrial Union Council and a few AFL unions. In the end, the CP ran only one candidate for supervisor, Charlotte Anita Whitney, and endorsed four others: James McSheehy, an incumbent supervisor; George Anderson, a labor attorney close to the CP; and two who had been active in front organizations. All four (not including Whitney) had also been endorsed by the Honest Government Committee. Only McSheehy won.
By mid-November 1937, the Party’s transition from persistent and vitriolic critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal to staunch supporter was complete. In addition, on January 1, 1938, District 13 launched a new newspaper, the People’s World, a daily paper replacing the semi-weekly Western Worker. Like the Party’s new political stance, the new paper moved toward the mainstream, featuring a variety of news stories including some straightforward reporting with little or no political commentary. The final page became a sports page, and new columns dealt with movies, radio programs, and helpful hints to women. As was typical of most daily papers of the time, photos of attractive young women in skimpy outfits now appeared regularly. Saturday’s paper included a magazine with articles by prominent liberals as well as CP members, a woman’s page (including Comrade Kitty’s tips on being fashionable on a budget), a page for children, and a page of comics—though all the comics were definitely political. Stories on the accomplishments of the Soviet Union or Stalin’s speeches still appeared but were fewer in number. Articles by non-Communist liberals—including Upton Sinclair, who was no longer called a fascist or social fascist (indeed, the words “social fascist” disappeared from the paper)—appeared with some frequency. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and, especially, Abraham Lincoln all received positive stories. Along with the new format came a full-blown embrace of FDR and the New Deal. On January 5, an editorial announced, “Mr. President, We’re Behind You!”
The 1938 elections took place in the midst of international crisis. Abroad, Japan continued to war against China, and the republican government of Spain continued to resist the forces of Francisco Franco. Both conflicts had received a good deal of attention from the CP before 1938, and the struggle in Spain had brought an outpouring of both funds and volunteers. In Moscow, trials of accused traitors, all labeled as “Trotzkyites,” continued. But important new elements entered the international mix in 1938—Nazi Germany absorbed Austria in April, and in September Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, agreed to permit Germany to dismember Czechoslovakia. Late in the year, American volunteers began to return from Spain, as the republican government there seemed on the verge of collapse.
At home, both in California and nation-wide, the AFL and CIO continued to spar, with their affiliates sometimes engaging in bruising jurisdictional picketing. This split in organized labor occupied the attention of the PolBuro in March. Browder specified that the Party should work to unify labor through the 1938 elections:
Our aim … should be to keep this split, for which the AFL, as we know, is responsible, from spreading onto the political field. … We must use whatever powers we have to try to induce the CIO to carry on a real unity policy in the political field. … by linking up the AFL and the CIO for some kind of cooperative action in the elections, we will also take what is the most practical step for the eventual establishment of trade union unity generally. … We must fight for maximum labor unity in order to keep progressive unity; must also work with progressive elements in order to exercise pressure and influence to bring these factions together both simultaneously.
In California, Browder’s objective was accomplished more successfully than he or anyone else could possibly have imagined, though not primarily through the efforts of the CP.
Throughout both the 1938 primary and general election campaigns, the People’s World gave extensive coverage to Labor’s Non-Partisan League. In fact, the Party was deeply involved in the work of the LNPL. (Estolv Ward, subsequently an officer of the group, later estimated that the staff of the northern California LNPL, by 1940, “must have consisted of ninety percent Party members.”) The CP stopped short of any actual endorsement, either of LNPL or of specific candidates, but a careful reader would have had few doubts about the position of the paper or of the CP leadership in District 13.
By late June 1938, the party announced that it would run only two Party candidates in the statewide elections that year: Anita Whitney would run for controller, and Leo Gallagher would seek both the Communist and Democratic nominations for secretary of state (possible under California’s cross-filing law). Whitney and Gallagher were arguably the Party’s two strongest candidates. Whitney, in her early 70s, had come to the party by way of Wellesley, teaching school, social work, the woman’s suffrage movement, and the Socialist party. She had received more than 100,000 votes for controller in 1934, running as the sole opponent of the incumbent Republican. The Party was careful to point out that Leo Gallagher was not a Party member, but was only registered to vote as a Communist. A lawyer who represented almost exclusively defendants on the left (including Dimitrov when the Nazis tried him for the Reichstag fire), Gallagher had received 240,000 votes in 1934 for the non-partisan office of supreme court judge.
The party made no recommendations in the August primaries other than for Gallagher and Whitney. Though the People’s World had been running highly complimentary stories about Culbert Olson and other liberals seeking Democratic nominations, the paper stressed that “we have NOT endorsed Olson nor any other candidate in the primaries. We have refrained from any endorsement in the primaries because we did not wish to become a source for any further friction in the progressive camp which suffers from too great a division as it is. We trust the people’s judgment as to who shall be their standard-bearer to defeat the Merriam-Hatfield [Republican] ticket.”
In the Democratic primary for secretary of state, Gallagher placed third among the six candidates for the Democratic nomination with 125,051 votes, equivalent to 12.4% of the Democratic vote and 7.7% of the votes cast for all candidates. He got 755 votes in the Communist primary and won that nomination. Frank Jordan, the incumbent secretary of state and a Republican, also won the Democratic nomination through cross-filing, as he had done previously. In the Communist primary for controller, Whitney drew 751 votes. Liberal Democrats won their party’s nomination for governor, lieutenant governor, the US Senate, and a number of Congressional and legislative seats.
Though the CP had refused to make endorsements in the Democratic primaries, soon after the Los Angeles CP section announced that it would give full support to a movement to recall Mayor Frank Shaw, a move which involved support for Judge Fletcher Bowron, a Republican reformer, to replace Shaw, and they celebrated Bowron’s victory in September.
In the 1938 general election, a coalition of business and conservative groups tried to use the initiative to put stringent limits on the state’s robust union movement. Those who created Proposition 1 included the Industrial Association of San Francisco (which the La Follette Committee called “an example par excellence of … success in denying labor its collective-bargaining rights”), the Associated Farmers (which Carey McWilliams labeled “farm fascism” and which the La Follette Committee accused of “flagrant and violent infringement of civil liberties”), the Merchants and Manufacturers Association of Los Angeles (the state’s oldest and, until the 1930s, most successful advocate of the open shop; the La Follette Committee claimed that it had “arrogated to itself the determination of what constituted law and order”), the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and Southern Californians, Inc. (a arch-conservative group dedicated to “the preservation of industrial freedom”).
Proposition 1 brought together several anti-union measures, including restrictions on picketing, prohibition of secondary boycotts, and union liability for damages caused by members. Business and conservative groups launched the state’s most expensive political campaign for a proposition up to that time—Kevin Starr describes it as “a highly financed propaganda blitzkrieg in newspaper and radio advertisements, billboards, subsidized public meetings, and varieties of brochures, leaflets, and pamphlets all extolling the dangers of unionism and the benefits of Proposition 1.” These efforts were closely tied to the two leading Republican candidates, Frank Merriam, the incumbent governor who had sent the National Guard into San Francisco during the 1934 longshore and maritime strikes and who was seeking a third term, and Philip Bancroft, the candidate for US Senate who had close ties to the Associated Farmers. These efforts by the anti-union right provided the basis for a labor-left unity that the CP advocated but could never have accomplished on their own.
As the November 1938 election approached, the party concentrated on the need for unity to defeat Proposition 1 and on the importance of electing Culbert Olson and Ellis Patterson, Democrats who were pro-New Deal, pro-labor, and anti-Proposition 1, as governor and lieutenant governor. (Patterson was apparently close to the CP, and rumors swirled that he was a Party member). On September 20, the People’s World publicized a statement by Lou Goldblatt, secretary of the state Industrial Union Council, CIO. Goldblatt, probably a Party member at the time, called for “cooperation and unity” as “absolutely necessary” to defeat Proposition 1. “This isn’t just labor’s fight,” Goldblatt announced, “All union [sic]—AFL, CIO and Brotherhood—must unite with progressives, small farmers and small merchants, who are equally menaced by Proposition No. 1.” This reflected the Party’s, and the state CIO’s, approach to state politics through the fall campaign. This effort met a small setback when the California Federation of Labor, AFL, voted not to endorse any candidates in the fall elections, but virtually every prominent AFL leader nonetheless backed Olson and Patterson. In some places, as it had in 1937, the local CP withdrew its candidates in favor of candidates endorsed by LNPL but ran their own candidates where it seemed impossible to elect a liberal Democrat.
In mid-October, the People’s World celebrated the success of key leaders of AFL unions, CIO unions, and the railway brotherhoods in creating the Organized Labor Democratic Committee, a joint campaign committee “for the election of Democratic New Deal candidates and the defeat of the anti-labor Proposition 1.” Germain Bulcke, a leader in ILWU local 1-10 (formerly ILA Local 38-79) and close to the CP, served as vice-chairman of the new organization. Soon after, the People’s World reported that AFL national president William Green had endorsed the conservative Republican incumbent governor, Frank Merriam, apparently solely because Olson had the support of the CIO. AFL leaders and members across the state indignantly repudiated Green’s action, and George Kidwell of the San Francisco Bakery Drivers’ Union—once scourged by the CP as a labor faker but now embraced as a labor progressive—called Green’s endorsement “the most disgraceful attempt to betray the welfare of the working people of California.” The People’s World delightedly quoted the president of the California Federation of Labor, AFL, and the head of the Los Angeles county labor council, AFL, who urged Green to withdraw his endorsement of Merriam, and also printed Culbert Olson’s comment that Green was “the chief labor faker in the United States.”
During the final days of the campaign, the People’s World gleefully reported that the La Follette Committee, investigating the Associated Farmers, had delivered a subpoena to Philip Bancroft, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Everything, it seemed, was coming together to promote the unity of labor and the left, including even opposition to Proposition 1 by the California Grange. After all the Party’s ineffective rhetoric about a Farmer-Labor party, it now seemed that a broadly based coalition of nearly all organized labor, some small-scale farmers, EPIC, and liberals was coming to birth inside the Democratic party. Some CP members or union activists close to the CP held leadership positions in a few AFL locals, CIO unions, state and county Industrial Union Councils, LPNL, and other organizations opposing Proposition 1 and backing the liberal Democratic ticket. The campaigns of Whitney and Gallagher disappeared from the People’s World during the final week or so of the campaign, and instead the paper concentrated on boosting liberal Democrats.
The result was a sweep for labor and New Deal Democrats. Proposition 1 failed. Olson, Patterson, and Sheridan Downey, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, all won, and Democrats took a majority in the Assembly. CP leaders distinguished between this victory and their own Party’s goals. When an joyous Party member, on election eve, said to Schneiderman, “We won! We won!” Schneiderman snapped back, “We did not win, comrade. The Democratic party won.” Estolv Ward, the northern California vice-president of LNPL and a Party member, remembered the highlight of the evening as a comment on the radio by a UCLA political scientist that the meaning of the election was “Go Left, young man; go Left!” “What’s in the Cards for California’s New Deal?” asked the People’s World jubilantly, then cheerfully replied, a “Sweeping Discard of Old Abuses.”
The PolBuro soon reviewed the election results and concluded that labor unity in California had been accomplished “thanks to the threat of reaction who overplayed their hands with the anti-labor initiatives, thanks to the statesmanship of the CIO leaders and [Harry] Bridges, who were able to defeat the attacks of the reactionaries.” The right had given organized labor an external threat much greater that the AFL and CIO could pose for each other, and the large majority of labor leaders, including CP members and sympathizers, had worked hard to achieve the broadest possible labor unity and to minimize potential causes of discord.
When the CP National Committee met on December 3-5, Anita Whitney was elected chairman of the first session. Browder singled out the district organizers and organizations in California and Washington for special praise in his treatment of the 1938 elections: “last summer, when Comrade [Jack] Stachel and I made a visit to the Pacific Coast, we came back from there with the feeling that we had learned new things about America. We gave the experiences of the Pacific Coast very prolonged and detailed study. And we are continuing that study and I think that all of us throughout the Party, can very profitably do the same.” Browder continued:
In the labor movement the best elements, both in the AFL and CIO, strove to settle the jurisdictional disputes, at least during the election campaign, and avoid some of the provocations for strikes and lock outs. … in the very heat of the final election campaign, there threatened to develop an open battle between the AFL and CIO pickets, and it was only by the most energetic efforts by the AFL and CIO leaders that forced some of the reactionary and unscrupulous AFL leaders to prevent this battle, and provocation. … the anti-labor initiative really frightened the AFL leaders. … it frightened these anti-unity elements, because many of the most conservative, who had taken the most uncompromising attitude against unity, against the CIO, against having anything to do with the LNPL, the CIO or with leading Democratic candidates—some of them, at the crucial point in the campaign, were forced by pressure of events, to propose and initiate the organization of one of the broadest united fronts in the labor movement of California. Led, that is, initiated by the leaders of the building trades in the organization of what was known as the Organized Labor Democratic Committee, in which practically all the unions were represented. Its president was an AFL leader, its vice-president was a CIO leader [Bulcke], its secretary was a leader of the railroad brotherhoods. … Many AFL leaders did not want to endorse the Democratic ticket and some were even prepared to endorse the Republican ticket. But what prevented them was the fact that the Democratic candidates took an uncompromising stand against Initiative Number One. This not only helped to defeat the initiative, but prevented any defection of the AFL toward the Republican camp and by the time William Green came to endorse the Merriam ticket, it was just a big joke and there was not a single union, trade union leader who followed his stand. Even in the Teamsters unions, where a discredited international official endorsed Green’s stand, there was not a single Teamster Union local which supported him … The threat to the labor movement coming from the offensive of the reactionaries and the campaign for the Initiative No. 1 also made the labor and progressive movement, for the first time, discover the farmers and the middle class elements.
Thus Browder acknowledged that California’s greatest accomplishment for labor unity—to which the CP had contributed—had come about in significant part through the political miscalculations of the state’s conservative business community and in part by the hard work of leaders in both AFL and CIO unions, some of whom had close ties to the CP.
The defeat of Proposition 1 and the election of Olson, Patterson, Downey, and others marked the beginning of a heady few months for labor and the left in California. Shortly after the election, Fletcher Bowren, the reform mayor of Los Angeles, announced that that he was disbanding the Los Angeles Police Department Red Squad that had made a career of harassing Communists and others on the left, and that he was turning over their records to the La Follette Committee. After agitating for the freedom of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings for nearly two decades, sometimes as the only voice to do so, the Party reported in late November 1938 that “Tom Mooney’s application for pardon will be laid before Governor-elect Culbert L. Olson on … inauguration day,” and that quick action was expected. They were not disappointed—Mooney was freed on January 7 and arrived in San Francisco the next day, to be greeted by a huge parade down Market Street. Furthermore, Olson, Downey, and several legislators felt comfortable in meeting with Schneiderman and other CP leaders to discuss the campaign before election day and legislative initiatives afterward. As Schneiderman later said, “a certain euphoria was prevalent in Party ranks.”
The liberal Democrats now in power in Sacramento acknowledged their debt to organized labor and the left through several appointments. Not only did Olson appoint Carey McWilliams (the outspoken and very left southern California journalist and lawyer) as State Director of Immigration and Housing, he also appointed Kidwell to head the State Department of Industrial Relations and Germain Bulcke as a member of the State Harbor Commission, the state agency that owned and operated the Port of San Francisco. When conservatives in the Senate threatened to defeat the nomination of Bulcke, the governor made a strong plea for his confirmation and tried to sweeten the pot for rural senators by naming the state president of the Grange to the same commission.
Assembly member Sam Yorty of Los Angeles introduced a “Little Wagner” bill, and Olson gave it his full support. Assembly and Senate joined in strong support for a resolution calling for unity between the CIO and AFL. Olson pledged full support to a bill, backed by LNPL, for a compulsory state health insurance program for all workers earning less than $3000 annually (the large majority of the state’s wage-earners), to be financed by the state through taxes on wages and employers. Other bills included the right to picket, restrictions on injunctions, improvements in unemployment compensation, housing for migrant workers, repeal of the criminal syndicalism law, and establishment of state minimum wages and maximum hours. The legislature also considered a raft of other liberal bills—including abolishing cross-filing, prohibiting racial discrimination in public places, reapportioning the senate on the basis of population, and creating tenure for faculty members in the state colleges. Issues that the CP and others on the left had been pushing for years now seemed to have a chance of passage. Some of the proposals—notably health insurance and civil rights—went far beyond anything that had come from the New Deal in Washington.
Amidst the high hopes, however, came ominous portents. In late February, the newly elected Attorney General, Earl Warren, voted against a pardon for Warren Billings. As district attorney in Alameda County, Warren had earned an reputation as conservative and anti-labor, and his opposition to Billings’s pardon continued twenty years of conservative Republican opposition to freeing Mooney and Billings, In early March, the Republican-controlled state senate rejected Olson’s nomination of Bulcke as harbor commissioner. By the end of the legislative session, most labor and liberal bills had met defeat, and the state budget had to be cut because of a deficit incurred by the Merriam administration. The state senate even considered, but defeated, a bill that would have prevented aliens from holding union office in California, a measure understood by all to be aimed at Harry Bridges. Conservatives also called for an investigation into Communist influence in the Olson administration.
Then international events seized attention. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in mid-March. In late March, an Italian army escorted Franco into Madrid. In early April, Italy invaded Albania. By early May, Germany was making demands on Poland. Negotiations between Britain and the Soviet Union, stretching from May through August, failed to reach agreement on a mutual assistance pact. In late August, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow and quickly negotiated a German-Soviet non-aggression pact. In mid-September, Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland between them. Much of Europe and the world was soon at war.
Many CP members and sympathizers were not just surprised but even shaken that the Soviet Union would enter such a bargain with the Nazis. In looking back at that moment, Dorothy Healey recalled Lenin’s phrase, “the train of history makes sharp turns and those who are not skilled riders fall off the train.” Schneiderman called a meeting at Party headquarters, 121 Haight Street in San Francisco, to explain the logic of the pact to Party leaders, nearly all of whom acquiesced. Al Richmond, managing editor of the People’s World, remembered not only that he was personally confused but also that the newspaper staff was “unprepared, knocked off balance by this abrupt turn,” and that “our reflex defense of the treaty had elements of the frenetic.” Within a week, though, the People’s World clearly presented the CP’s analysis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and of the war more generally:
The war that has broken out in Europe is the Second Imperialist War. The ruling capitalist and landlord classes of all the belligerent countries are equally guilty for this war. This war, therefore, cannot be supported by the workers. It is not a war against fascism, not a war to protect small nations from aggressors, not a war with any of the character of a just war, not a war that workers can or should support. It is a war between rival imperialisms for world domination. The workers must be against this war. It is a war that threatens the American people as well as the peoples of the whole world.
A new and great danger threatens the American people. Indications increasingly point to the fact that the warmakers within our country are not only determined to involve the people in a bloody, imperialist war—but in a Fascist imperialist war to destroy the Soviet Union.
Soon variations on Third-period rhetoric returned to the pages of the People’s World, and the Party’s celebration of its role in accomplishing the unity of labor and left soon turned to denunciations of Roosevelt for war-mongering and attacks on New Deal Democrats who supported Roosevelt or favored assistance to the Allies.
As the California CP was retracting its former enthusiasm for Roosevelt and the New Deal, San Francisco was electing a mayor and members of the board of supervisors. Earlier in the year, there had been hopes for a continuation of the labor-left unity that had swept the state elections in 1938. In Oakland in April, for example, AFL and CIO unions and the railway brotherhoods had joined with liberal community groups to endorse a slate for the city council. Also in April, Los Angeles Mayor Bowron announced that he was “for and with” LNPL. San Francisco labor also maintained a unified approach in spring elections on two propositions, through a Union Labor Committee chaired by a leader of the Painters Union and with a secretary from the CIO Office and Professional Workers who was a CP member. Both measures, supported by the united labor group, were defeated by the voters.
In the fall, the incumbent mayor of San Francisco, Angelo Rossi, sought a third term. Strongly opposed by the waterfront unions for what they considered his anti-union stance in the 1934 strike and for other anti-union or conservative actions, Rossi had received considerable support from more traditional AFL unions when he was reelected in 1935 over the weak opposition of the United Labor Party. Now he faced a strong opponent in Franck Havenner, a New Deal congressman who commanded the loyalty of much of organized labor, especially the more conservative AFL unions. Havenner, a strong supporter of public ownership of electrical power who had only recently made the transition from progressive Republican to the Progressive party to the Democrats, had expected to make the campaign based on his differences with Rossi over public power. In the end, however, much of the campaign turned on Havenner’s endorsement by the CIO’s Industrial Union Council and by CIO unions, and especially by Harry Bridges. Bridges had been in the city’s headlines daily during a spectacular INS hearing to determine if he were a CP member and hence subject to deportation. Though the hearing officer found in Bridges’ favor, that did not change the barrage of anti-Havenner advertising that linked Havenner to Bridges and the CP. Calling Bridges a “destructive radical,” Rossi claimed that the election of Havenner would mean red control over the city’s police and other city agencies. Though Havenner had never met Bridges before the election and had never conferred with him regarding the endorsement, he lost. Similar tactics defeated him for reelection to Congress the next year.
With the approach of a presidential election in 1940, many Californians found their attention focused more on events in Europe than those at home. Germany demonstrated its Blitzkrieg in Denmark and Norway on April 9, then invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg on May 10. In May, Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister of Britain. Germany invaded France next, and German troops marched into Paris in mid-June. Italy declared war on both Britain and France, In June, Roosevelt began to send substantial amounts of military supplies to Britain. Also in June, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Battle of Britain—an air war, designed to soften up Britain for an invasion—began in early August and continued through late October. In September, Japan joined Germany and Italy in a military alliance, and Congress approved the first peacetime draft in US history. In October, Germany occupied Rumania, and Italy invaded Greece.
Even before the fast moving events in Europe began to unfold, the labor-left unity of 1938 and early 1939 had begun to collapse. Olson had joined with former US Senator William McAdoo, a leader of the conservative wing of the state Democratic party, to form a slate of delegates pledged to a third term for Roosevelt. The CP and its allies in the CIO assailed this as a compromise with conservatives and with war. Lieutenant Governor Patterson quickly announced that he was withdrawing from the unity slate and would form an unpledged slate of his own. “Keep America Out of War” was the central theme in the Patterson slate’s campaign, and his slate included several who were either CP members or close to the Party, including Phillip “Slim” Connelly of the Los Angeles Industrial Union Council, Herb Sorrell of the Motion Picture Painters Union, and Germain Bulcke of ILWU local 1-10.
As international tensions heightened, the California CP accelerated its campaign against war. The April 6 edition of People’s World was a special edition entitled “The Yanks Are Not Coming,” dedicated entirely to keeping the US out of the “Imperialist War.” On April 11, Estolv Ward announced a special meeting of the LNPL to reconsider their stand on the third term question. By then, both the Alameda and San Francisco Industrial Union Councils, where CP influence was strong, had voted their opposition to a third term for Roosevelt. On April 15, Patterson blasted FDR for permitting the country to drift into war. “We are against him as to war mongering,” Patterson proclaimed, “we are against him as to cutting of WPA, as to his weakness on banking reforms.” The People’s World now proclaimed a new slogan, “Vote for FDR Is Vote for War.”
As the Wehrmacht swept through Denmark and Norway, Browder announced that there was no reason to favor Britain over Germany, because “they are so rapidly approaching one another in practice and in ideology that the former distinctions … are outdated.” In late April, before the presidential primary and shortly before the invasion of the Low Countries, the Party announced that Anita Whitney would run for the US Senate, “to guarantee that there will be an anti-war candidate in the field” against the Republican, and increasingly conservative, Hiram Johnson, as well as any “‘liberal’ pro-war Roosevelt Democrat” who might win nomination. Shortly before the primary, Patterson made the same link that the Party had been making when he attacked Roosevelt as a war-monger and also condemned Olson as a “liberal traitor.”
When the votes were counted, the Patterson slate placed fourth in a field of four, badly trailing the Olson unity slate committed to Roosevelt, a slate of conservative Democrats pledged to Vice-president Jack Garner, and even a slate of “Ham and Eggs” advocates. Though the CP and its allies in the CIO and elsewhere had managed a strong campaign and had enlisted the lieutenant governor and other prominent left-liberals in their cause, the mainstream of organized labor and of liberal Democrats stayed with Roosevelt and the New Deal. In September 1940, after enduring a year of CP attacks, Olson endorsed a bill to remove the CP from the California ballot; the measure passed overwhelmingly, with only two votes against in the Assembly and one against in the Senate, but was overturned by the state supreme court.
From August through November of 1939, ILWU Local 1-10’s Bulletin had advertised red, white, and blue buttons reading “We Want Roosevelt Again,” but by January 1940 it was pushing “The Yanks Are Not Coming” buttons. Once the general election campaign got underway, Bridges followed the lead of both John L. Lewis and the CP and strongly opposed the reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt, condemning “the attempted betrayals and sellouts of the New Deal.” When he spoke that way to his own San Francisco local, he received both applause and boos. In September, he pushed through the membership meeting a motion that no endorsement be given to any presidential candidate unless guarantees and commitments were given on four points of interest to the ILWU. One reporter described his attack on Roosevelt as “away out of line with the overwhelmingly pro-Roosevelt sentiment among his men.” In the last membership meeting of Local 1-10 before the election, after a sequence of motions, amendments, and a substitute, the members voted to endorse Roosevelt. Not even Harry Bridges could persuade San Francisco longshoremen to oppose Roosevelt.
This survey of the California CP from 1935 through 1940 has focused on the Party’s participation in politics. There are many other topics that could be explored for this time period, especially the CP’s efforts to foster a left-wing culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles, replete with Party-sponsored schools, cultural events, and social activities. Other important topics include the role of the CP in mobilizing support for the republican government of Spain and for such causes as the Scottsboro defendants. The Party’s activities also included support for Mooney, Billings, and others whom it considered political prisoners. And, of course, there is the role of the Party in the unions. But, above all, the CP defined itself as a party, so an examination of its activities in the political arena can produce important insights into the nature of the Party and its alternative to the mainstream politics of the day.
A survey of the California CP’s participation in electoral politics in the late 1930s makes clear that the Party’s definition of issues and its support for candidates always took place in a context that stretched from the local sections to the District Buro to the PolBuro in New York to the Anglo-American Secretariat and the Executive Committee of the Comintern in Moscow. Especially after Darcy’s departure in 1935, the Party in California was constantly fashioning itself after the approved image created by the PolBuro in New York. But the PolBuro itself lagged behind decisions in Moscow. News of a new line sometimes traveled slowly, especially when the new line was developed during visits by CPUSA leaders to Moscow and then discussed at length within the PolBuro before it was presented to Party organizers and in Party publications. Only in December 1935 were the lessons of the 7th World Congress of the previous August making their way into the decisions of District 13. And even then, the version that was delivered was that of the PolBuro.
Given those realities, the California CP in late 1937, 1938, and early 1939 moved very close to the political mainstream, partly through circumstances over which the Party had no influence (Proposition 1), partly due to the presence in many CIO unions of Party members or supporters, and partly because of the People’s-Front line of the Comintern. The last of these is important, for the Popular Front approach encouraged cooperation with a variety of non-CP progressives. The closer the CP moved to embrace Roosevelt and the New Deal, the more they shared in the potential to influence local and state politics. Thus, circumstances came together, briefly, to put the CP into a position where CP leaders could meet with Democratic candidates for state and legislative office to discuss campaign tactics and legislative initiatives. Issues that the Party had pressed for years became part of mainstream politics. Then the moment passed, as events in Moscow dictated a shift from advocating the widest possible unity in support of Roosevelt and the New Deal to the CP’s more accustomed position of outsider, able to mobilize only a small percentage of Democratic voters behind a slate of presidential delegates opposed to Roosevelt. With the general election, the party moved further to the margins, as even the San Francisco longshoremen refused to follow the new Party line.