The Communist Party of the USA and the Committees of Correspondence

John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr. Problems of Post-Communism. Volume 43, Issue 4. July/August 1996.

When Soviet communism faced its terminal crisis, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) was only a marginal entity on the edge of mainstream U.S. politics. In the 1930s and 1940s the CPUSA had been the dominant voice of the American left, a force in the labor movement, and a small but significant factor in mainstream politics in New York, California, and a few other states. In the late 1940s, however, anti-communist liberals drove it from labor and liberal institutions, and Washington’s cold war security policies crippled its activities. A near-fatal blow came in 1956, not from American authorities but from Moscow, when Nikita Khrushchev shattered the mental universe of American communism by announcing that Joseph Stalin had committed enormous crimes. The CPUSA lost three-quarters of its members in the two years following Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. However, the remnant that survived about 3,000—reestablished unqualified confidence in Soviet socialism.

Gus Hall was elected general secretary of the CPUSA in 1959, and under his guidance the party became one of the most loyal pro-Moscow parties in the world. Neither Eurocommunism nor Maoism struck a response in the CPUSA. It played no direct role in the new left of the 1960s and 1970s, although as the new left waned, some of its adherents drifted to the CPUSA. The most prominent of these was Angela Davis, whose image as a black feminist revolutionary helped to update the party’s image.

The lessening of political strictures against cooperation with communism also allowed American communists to edge back into mainstream politics. In the 1980s a few union leaders, city officials, and members of Congress associated themselves with communist-aligned organizations such as the United States Peace Council, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and the Labor Research Association. Party activities on college campuses picked up, and a leader of the Young Communist League won the student-body presidency at the University of Massachusetts. Marxist-Leninists reappeared on college faculties, and communist professors sponsored the Marxist Educational Press, which published quasi-academic studies.

Once again, however, events in the USSR determined the direction of American communism. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms gathered speed in the late 1980s, Gus Hall became increasingly unhappy. In private conversations and even in several public statements, Hall and his closest associates indicated their skepticism of Gorbachev’s reforms and their view that the essential nature of Soviet communism should remain unchanged. In a 1958 CPUSA meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, Hall harshly denounced Gorbachev’s decision to allow the Soviet press increased freedom. He centered his attack on Moscow News, a weekly paper that enthusiastically backed Gorbachev’s reforms. Hall told the CPUSA gathering that he had urged Soviet officials to fire the editor because “he’s publishing a lot of nonsense, and I said if you can’t do that, burn down the goddamn building. I mean get rid of it. But they laughed, and they haven’t done it. Moscow News is the worst of their publications.” In an even more public example, in a 1989 interview in Newsweek, Hall said, “Under glasnost, the editors have gone wild with untruths, especially about history and capitalism.”

Several times in its history Moscow had summarily replaced CPUSA leaders who displeased it. Such direct intervention was not compatible with Gorbachev’s reforms, but he saw no reason for subsidizing criticism. So in 1989 Gorbachev cut off the Soviet Union’s secret subsidy of the CPUSA. This subsidy had averaged $2 million a year in the 1980s, an enormous sum for a party whose membership was probably less than 5,000. (When in 1992 the Yeltsin government made public the documents about the subsidies, Hall denounced them as forgeries.)

The end of Soviet subsidies produced an immediate financial crisis in the CPUSA. In the late 1980s the party’s flagship daily newspaper, People’s Daily World. was printed on good quality paper with color and photographs and was mailed nationally to subscribers at a price that could not have come close to meeting the actual costs of production and postage. After the cut-off of Soviet funds, the People’s Daily World shrank in size and quality and had to change its name to People’s Weekly World because its publication was reduced from five days per week to one. Other party publications suffered similar cutbacks, and the party also reduced its extraordinarily large cadre of paid staff. The tentative signs of acceptance of the CPUSA into mainstream American politics that had appeared earlier in the decade also vanished as Soviet power and prestige crumbled.

With East European communist regimes collapsing and the death knell of the Soviet Union approaching, party morale plummeted even further. Hall reacted by becoming increasingly open in his criticism of any change in the Soviet system. As for Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, Hall dismissed them as “basically nothing more than the old social-democratic thinking class collaboration. Internally, it is expressed by those who are for liquidating socialism, one step at a time.” Hall insisted that there had been no flaws in the Soviet system and that its growing difficulties simply “stem from human error . . . While Gorbachev continues to cover it up, I believe the basic cause is in the massive, irresponsible mistakes made three or four years ago, led by Gorbachev.” Hall also claimed that he had “on several occasions spoken directly to Gorbachev regarding criticisms of current events in the USSR.”

Hall’s refusal to reconsider the party’s stance produced internal disquiet that boiled over at an August 1990 meeting of the CPUSA’s National Committee (formerly the Central Committee). Charlene Mitchell, a member of the National Board (formerly the Political Committee), launched an unprecedented public attack on Hall’s leadership, accusing him of stifling debate about the party’s problems. Mitchell, one of the most prominent black members of the party’s leadership and head of its National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, also accused Hall of refusing to deal with the “influence of racism in our party.” Mitchell’s attack received the support of nine of the twenty-three National Board members, including five of its six blacks.

The failed hard-line communist coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991 set off a factional explosion within the CPUSA. At a CPUSA meeting the day after the coup began, Hall offered justifications for the action and warned that the CPUSA should not support any attempt to bring back Gorbachev. The National Board then voted to “neither condemn nor condone” the insurrection. The coup failed quickly and only the absence of a daily CPUSA newspaper spared Hall the embarrassment of the party press printing his supportive statements about the coup. When the National Committee met on September 8, after Gorbachev had returned to power, Hall backtracked and condemned the “illegal, unconstitutional takeover of power,” but added a denunciation of Gorbachev for abandoning Marxism-Leninism and for supporting Yeltsin’s “anti-communist witch hunt.”

Hall’s action infuriated Mitchell and her supporters, who included Barry Cohen, the editor of the People’s Weekly World. Cohen published an article by Mitchell and two other veteran party leaders, James Jackson and Danny Rubin, denouncing the National Board’s first action. “The coup merited a clear-cut condenmation,” they stated. That the party newspaper would publish such an attack was a sign that dissension had reached crisis levels. In October 1991, Mitchell’s faction released a platform, the “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party.” Eventually, about 900 American communists signed the initiative. As membership then stood below 2,500, this put more than one-third of the party openly in the anti-Hall camp.

The initiative was in no way a repudiation of the CPUSA’s history or even of Soviet communism. The document supported Marxism-Leninism, condemned past criticism of communism, vindicated the CPUSA’s past defense of the USSR, and, although speaking of internal democracy for the party, expressed no support for multiparty democracy. However, it spoke of “a fresh look and making necessary adjustments” and allowed that “the crisis of the socialist societies in Europe over the last few years makes it evident that there were deep-going flaws in the model of socialism being constructed there.”

As mild as this was, the initiative was too much for Hall. He settled accounts with its backers at the American Communist Party’s Twenty-fifth Convention, held in December 1991, in Cleveland, Ohio. Hall closed the convention not only to the press and public, but even to party members who lacked leadership-approved passes; party officials and hired Cleveland police kept all others out. Party leaders refused to seat scores of delegates from communist clubs in New York, Northern California, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Alabama, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—all areas that supported the initiative. Nor were delegates allowed into the convention given much leeway. James Jackson, a veteran black communist, had first become associated with the party in the 1930s. Imprisoned under the Smith Act in the 1950s, he had served as editor of the party newspaper and international affairs secretary. However, he supported the initiative, and when Jackson got up to speak, his microphone was cut off. When speakers who did get the floor criticized Hall, delegates broke into chants of “Gus, Gus, Gus.” When it was over, the convention ratified Hall’s continued leadership by a vote of two-to-one. The party’s new National Committee excluded every initiative signer, such as Angela Davis, Gilbert Green, James Jackson, Charlene Mitchell, and Herbert Aptheker.

After the convention, Cohen tried to publish an article by Carl Bloice, the People’s Weekly World Moscow correspondent, describing the convention. Bloice was a prominent black party leader, an initiative supporter, and had written a number of articles supporting Gorbachev’s reforms. After the People’s Weekly World had been sent to the printer, CPUSA officials had the printer remove Bloice’s article and inserted an anonymous article praising the convention’s rebuff to “factionalism.” Hall’s lieutenants also changed the locks on the newspaper’s offices, named Hall-loyalist Tim Wheeler as its new editor, and brought in other Hall supporters to continue publishing.

“The truth is,” the victorious Hall assured his loyalists, “that there are NO systemic flaws in the basic tenets of socialism, no flaws in the basic concept of public ownership of the means of production, no flaws in the concept of a planned economy or production for common good. There is no basic flaw in the theories of Marxism—Leninism or dialectical materialism.” Hall asserted that socialism was in trouble in the Soviet Union because under Gorbachev “no one defended socialism, its history and achievements. The slander and vilification of the socialist system went mainly unanswered. This led to mass confusion.” He dismissed dissidents in the CPUSA as guilty of “right opportunism,” and rejected proportional representation and recognition of minority/majority positions, reforms that the dissidents had demanded.

Hall also eagerly sought a new revolutionary patron to replace the USSR. For a while the CPUSA hoped that communists would come to power in post-apartheid South Africa and fund a new center for world revolution with South African gold. Hall also visited North Korea, where, he said, “socialism is alive and well and efficient.” He told his comrades, “If you want to take a nice vacation, take it in North Korea.” In 1991 the communist-aligned Marxist Education Press, having abandoned its program of arranging tours for American faculty to visit East European communist states, sponsored a “Korean—U.S. Scholars Interdisciplinary Colloquium” in Pyongyang. In addition to continued links to foreign communist parties, usually those least changed from pro-1991 days, other foreign movements with which the CPUSA has established friendly relations include Syria’s Baath party and the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Not surprisingly, the CPUSA makes no secret that it yearns for and expects the reestablishment of communist rule in Russia and the recreation of the Soviet Union.

Hall has stressed his long-favored policy of “industrial concentration,” targeting the recruitment of blue-collar workers in heavy industry. Basing his position on a traditional interpretation of Marxism, Hall has said, “Surplus value is generated at the point of production … Workers in basic and mass production industries carry on the class struggle at the point of production.” In Political Affairs, the party’s theoretical journal, a Hall associate stated that the strategy was one of concentrating “our small working-class party’s resources on moving the strongest, most advanced, most compact, strategically placed section of our class in order to most effectively move the entire class in an anti-monopoly, revolutionary direction.” As one Hall critic noted, the policy has produced virtually no useful results in the last twenty years. In 1991 the party possessed only a single shop club in the entire steel industry; in the Illinois district, the CPUSA’s third largest, there were only two industrial workers among the party’s 190 members. There are a handful of communists holding local union offices or employed on union staffs, but their numbers are so few and they are so scattered that they do not constitute a force within the American labor movement.

The picture presented in the party’s publications and by its leaders, however, is not only optimistic but claims huge successes for the CPUSA since 1991. In December 1994, Hall told the New York Times, “There is no question we are now the fastest-growing political organization in America.” He declined, however, to give specific figures-about-membership. Other party-leaders-spoke of thousands of new recruits and suggested to the New York Times that the party’s membership was in the 15,000 to 20,000 range. According to CPUSA publications, the party has also raised more than a million dollars from this rapidly growing membership. These claims, however, lack credibility. Indeed, at times CPUSA leaders appear to be living in a world of fantasy. John Bachtell, head of the party’s New York district, announced to its New York state convention that the party was “in the midst of the process of transition to a communist party of millions.”

As 1996 began, the CPUSA continued under Hall’s leadership with no significant revisions of its ideology or its views that classic Soviet communism is still the model for which socialists should strive. Hall himself is 85 years old and has been CPUSA leader since 1959; he is the longest-tenured communist party leader in the world today. In addition to Hall, leading CPUSA officials include Political Action Commission chair Jarvis Tyner, Labor Commission chair Sam Webb, New York party chair John Bachtell, and People’s Weekly World editor Tim Wheeler. The CPUSA’s membership is probably less than 2,000 and may be less than 1,000. The bulk of its membership is over the age of 60 and a majority may be over 65. Although its financial status had been drastically reduced by the end of Soviet subsidies, the party retains substantial capital assets from its more prosperous days, such as its eight-story headquarters building on West Twenty-third Street in New York; those driven out of the party by Hall claim that he controls party property and assets worth $7 million. The CPUSA, however, is believed to be draining these to maintain its current operations. While the bulk of its elderly membership has only limited income, the CPUSA benefits from a long-established program whereby members bequeath their estates to the CPUSA.

While its ability to draw on capital assets allows it to maintain several publications and a paid staff of a size many times that of larger left-wing organizations, those assets are finite and will be exhausted at some point. Hall adamantly refuses to reconsider the party’s traditional ideology or its focus on workers in heavy industry. Unless Hall is replaced by a very different leader, the CPUSA appears likely to remain a living fossil from a bygone era.

The Committees of Correspondence

In ridding the American communist party of dissidents, Hall threw out most of the party’s non-elderly leadership. These anti-Hall communists have since formed an organization called the Committees of Correspondence (CoC). On February 9, 1992, a convention of the Northern California District of the CPUSA, one of the party’s largest and most active districts, voted to disaffiliate from the party and join the CoC. On March 5, 1992, the party’s New York district, its largest, also cut its ties to the CPUSA.

In July 1992 the CoC held a national conference in Berkeley, California, with an attendance of about 1,200. In addition to those who had left the CPUSA, the convention attracted a variety of radicals, leftists, and left-liberals. The conference adopted a statement of principles declaring that the CoC sought “a humane alternative to the anti-human system of capitalism” and that supporters of the CoC “are predominately people with a socialist vision and a Marxist view of history.” The CoC statement said the “science” of Marxism was “still evolving” and adherence to Marxism was not a requirement for membership: “We are convinced that we can and must build an organization that is pluralist, embracing members who have theoretical frameworks other than Marxist. . . . The continuing distinct contributions of liberation theology, environmentalism, feminism, theories of non-violent resistance and multiculturalism, non-Marxist socialism, and others cultivate the common ground for struggle. . . . People with diverse views are necessary and welcome in this organization on an equal basis: Therefore we are both Marxist and pluralist.”

Like the initiative statement, the CoC statement expressed no serious regrets about the past, no view that the Soviet Union or the CPUSA (prior to the 1991 split) had ever been in error. The closest the statement came to recognizing that Soviet communism had flaws was an oblique reference: “We will continue to assess the experience, including both achievements and failures, of the first sustained attempts to build socialist societies in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

By August 1992, the CoC claimed a membership of about 1,400, probably exceeding that of the CPUSA. About half of those had been either expelled or resigned from the CPUSA because of their anti-Hall stance. The remainder of the CoC membership was a mix of people who had been close allies of the CPUSA but had found it inexpedient to formally join, as well as a variety of leftists attracted to the idea of a new radical organization with a hard-left but nevertheless broad agenda. California state legislator Barbara Lee (Democrat, Thirteenth Assembly District) became a member of the CoC National Coordinating Committee. Although the bulk of its membership was white, the CoC boasted that its five co-chairs were “people of color”—four African Americans (Charlene Mitchell, Kendra Alexander, Carl Bloice, Manning Marable) and one Puerto Rican (Rafael Pizarro). Mitchell, Alexander, and Bloice had all held high posts in the CPUSA. Marable was a professor of political science and history at the University of Colorado. Pizarro was an organizer for the Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union of New York City and a former leader of the Castroist Venceremos Brigade.

Throughout this period CoC members engaged in considerable internal debate over exactly what type of organization it was and what ideology it supported. Without the unity that had once been provided by Moscow, the CoC’s membership began to reflect the multitude of agendas of the American left. Many of the CoC’s black members had quit the CPUSA and wanted a movement that would insist on the “centrality of the struggle for African American equality.” Others wanted to become part of a broad movement of the socialist left; still others looked back to the model of a small disciplined Leninist party. Some spoke of a “green Marxism” focusing on environmental concerns, and a number drifted toward a sort of eclectic leftist activism.

The Minnesota CoC affiliate, led by University of Minnesota physicist Erwin Marquit, called for continued explicit adherence to a Marxist-Leninist theoretical perspective. Marquit commented that many “good” communists still remained in the CPUSA and suggested reconciliation with these communists after Hall left the scene. In June 1993, Marquit and about several dozen of his followers formed the Independent Communists of Minnesota. While not leaving the CoC, they formed the organization to promote a purified Marxism—Leninism, freed of what Marquit regarded as ideological deformations brought on by Stalin and later Soviet rulers.

Hall, meanwhile, has made it clear that, while he is around, there would be no reconciliation with those who split in 1991. Hall denounced the CoC as “a thoroughly petit-bourgeois phenomenon” and accused its members of “ideological collapse, political dishonesty, and simple greed.” The People’s Weekly World has also featured lengthy articles by CPUSA spokesmen repudiating suggestions that the party leave open the possibility of reconciliation with the CoC.

The Committees of Correspondence negotiated with several left-wing organizations about a merger, the most likely partners being the Democratic Socialists of America, the Socialist Party, or Solidarity. A formal merger, however, was not achieved. The CoC’s prospects took a blow in 1993 when Kendra Alexander, one of its most dynamic leaders and the mainstay of its California organization, died in an accident. Also, some of the elderly anti-Hall communists who joined the CoC have found it too painful to exist outside the party to which they had devoted their lives: since 1992 a trickle of older CoC members has submitted to Hall and returned to the CPUSA.

On July 22-24, 1994, the CoC held a national convention in Chicago, which it declared to be a formal founding of the Committees of Correspondence as a permanent organization. Angela Davis gave the keynote address. Organizers reported the attendance of 388 delegates (representing 1,500 dues-paying members) and 132 observers. Elected as CoC co-chairs were Charlene Mitchell, Manning Marable, Leslie Cagan, Rafael Pizarro, and Sushawn Robb. Mitchell served as the organization’s chief organizer and executive.

The CoC leadership presented to the 1994 convention a statement of principles, later adopted by the body, that endorsed left-wing variants of environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, and gay rights along with opposition to colonialism and imperialism. The statement also directly referred to the demise of the Soviet Union, stating that the “collapse makes clear that the socialist ideal cannot be reconciled with authoritarian politics.” But again, there were no regrets over past support for Soviet communism. The statement called for the abolition of capitalism and “the construction of strategic democratic alliances between critical sectors of the most exploited and oppressed groups within American society: the working class; people of color, African Americans, Latinos, Caribbean Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, Arab and Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans; women; lesbians, gays, and bisexuals; youth; seniors; the unemployed, the homeless, and people on fixed incomes; all Americans who need social guarantees of health care, quality shelter, and the basic material elements of a decent life.”

The CoC statement endorsed socialism, but gave it no fixed meaning, stating:

By socialism, we do not mean a social system in which the state dominates everything, or in which authoritarian measures are used to restrict basic human rights for members of society. Socialism without democracy is no socialism at all. Our understanding of socialism is that it is a political, cultural, economic, democratic, and ethical project, a struggle to transform the power relations within a class-divided society, for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the people. Socialism therefore is not a fixed entity, but the social product of the dynamics of class struggle.

This broad and largely rhetorical definition of socialism reflects the CoC’s lack of any unifying vision aside from the goal of complete equality and its hostility toward existing society. The vagueness of its ideological stance also means that while the largest part of its membership is still made up of former CPUSA members, the CoC is losing its ideological distinctiveness as a communist organization. Consequently, the CoC is blending into the far left as just one of the dozens of sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating radical bodies.

Still, because the largest part of its membership and leadership consists of former communists, many of the CoC’s organizational ties are to communist and post-communist organizations. For example, the communist parties of El Salvador, Austria, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, the German Party of Democratic Socialism, the Party of Labor of Russia, the South African Communist Party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, and the Refoundation Communist Party of Italy sent either speakers or fraternal greetings to CoC conventions. The latter two parties are hard-line heirs of post-1991 splits in the Hungarian and Italian communist movements. (See the following article on Italy.) Also, the CoC convention, despite repeated declarations of support for democratic socialism, gave enthusiastic support for Fidel Castro’s very undemocratic socialist regime and had kind words as well for Vietnam’s undemocratic socialist government. The CoC is emphatically not a social-democratic movement, and its contempt for democracy in the traditional Western sense appears to be little different from that held by the CPUSA.

There have been several court fights between the CPUSA and the Committees of Correspondence over some of the movement’s capital assets. While most of the CPUSA’s assets were held by the party directly and remained under Hall’s control, some were held by independent entities. In California for many years, communists sponsored a West Coast newspaper, the People’s Worm published by the Pacific Publishing Foundation, In the 1980s the paper was merged into the CPUSA national newspaper but the property and financial assets of the People’s World remained with the Pacific Publishing FOundation. When the CoC split from the CPUSA, the governing board of the foundation supported the CoC and backed a new monthly publication News for a People’s World. The CPUSA sued, arguing that the Pacific Publishing Foundation’s independence was a fiction and its property belonged to the CPUSA. CPUSA spokesmen claimed that the assets under dispute were worth about $1 million, but the defendants said the value was much less. The party won in San Francisco Superior Court, but in June 1995 a unanimous California State Court of Appeals reversed the decision and handed the property back to the foundation. There has also been a New York case, still in litigation, where a deceased communist left several hundred thousand dollars to executors, who were CPUSA leaders, to use on behalf of radical causes. When some of these executors went with the CoC, the CPUSA sued, arguing that all of the money should be under CPUSA control.

Leaders of the Committees of Correspondence are shaping the organization as a coordinator for the American left, seeking to place its activists in a variety of left campaigns and guide the entire left by providing coherence to the multitude of hard-left agendas and by giving the left disciplined practical direction while avoiding divisive theoretical matters. Given the fractious nature of the American far left and the CoC’s own lack of unified ideology, its small membership (1,710 as of October 31, 1994), and limited financial resources (its 1994 budget, including expenditure for its convention, barely topped $100,000—only a fraction of CPUSA expenditures), this may be a task beyond its capacity.