Daniel Rosenberg. American Communist History. Volume 18, Issue 1/2. March-June 2019.
The Communist Party USA split in 1991. As a vital force on the Left, playing historically documented roles in labor, peace, civil rights, education, housing, and other progressive movements the Party weathered the storms of Soviet and socialist crises poorly. Its contributions to such movements were thus weakened.
The Party erupted along ancestral streams: democracy, race, and “real, existing” socialism, which met in the socket of the Party. The interactive flow of argument was continuous, with exacerbating milestone moments driving a two-year process finished by the 25th convention in December 1991. There was a history to these issues. The “back story” informing the course of events is extensive. Antecedent factors, especially McCarthyism, were essential to Party mores, style, and policies in the 1960 s and 1970 s. But an extended analysis of the experience of 1989-1991 comprises the core of the present study.
The following article first traces the Party’s perspectives in the mid-80s, and shortly before. In this light, it discusses methods of action, leadership, and basic conceptions prior to changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It likewise pinpoints areas of incipient disagreement. The next part takes the narrative through 1990, demonstrating how problems in socialist countries impacted debates in the Party about all manner of subjects, including internal democracy and African-American oppression. Landmark conferences accentuated the bitter arguments. Finally, the article analyzes the stages culminating in the 25th National Convention in December 1991. The aforementioned ancestral streams overflowed their banks, summoning a large opposition into existence.
Historians have long commented on the close relationship between the CPUSA and the USSR. To a New England member, the “huge bearing of the Soviet Union on the Party” was unmistakable: whatever problems it experienced “would be resolved in the context of socialism,” she believed. That it would end was “unimaginable.” Soviet ties embraced ideological affinity and fraternal feeling, but also extended to fiscal transfers to leader Gus Hall.
With sister parties, the CPUSA believed that socialism’s time had come. “It is,” as general secretary Gus Hall said in 1969, “both a historic process and a current event.” Its triumph proved “capitalism has…lost its ability as a class to basically influence or intervene in world affairs,” while “the forces of socialism…determine the course of world developments.” Socialist countries, independence movements, and the working class were “the decisive force in determining the direction of human events.” Providing the fullest extension of rights in history, “existing real socialism and the advanced stage of its construction has become…the standard against which all progress is measured.” With the Soviet Union’s demise, the sun apparently set. This factor acted as accelerant to the split.
“Fresh winds are sweeping through the ranks of labor,” announced the Communist Party in 1985: “Ferment and revitalization are beginning to replace the stagnation and decline that set in with the Cold War days of the 1950s.” In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection, the Party saw changes coming. Organized labor in particular, and workers in general, manifested signs of political independence, shaking off the Right’s grip. The gusts seemed likely to endure, for two years later Hall declared, “The new fresh winds…continue to blow.” They signified “changing thought patterns…by which to adjust the workingclass compass.” The Party looked upon the first Jesse Jackson presidential run, which many members supported (but the Party ran General Secretary Gus Hall and activist Angela Davis in the general election), as a hopeful sign. For an organization stressing the key role of the working class in social change, awareness of organized labor’s new progressive direction was pivotal.
Hall consequently called upon members to assert themselves in more leftward formats, thus “Communist-Left” or “Left-progressive-Communist electoral fronts.” A labor-led third Party was nigh, he felt, thus the work in electoral campaigns should shift accordingly. A member called particularly inspiring “the grassroots members who were engaged in struggle, …principled on issues of the struggle against racism and international solidarity, …deeply involved with the labor movement.” Another regarded the “industrial workers involved in shop floor struggles” as the hallmark of the organization. In Michigan, the CPUSA maintained ties with autoworkers and their union. Yet within five years of “fresh winds,” the Michigan Party had only six autoworkers in a state membership of 69. An industrial Ohio club had four union officers, five steelworkers, one autoworker, one machinist, and a teamster. Nevertheless, the Party’s working class involvement differentiated it from other Left groups. However, it was also prone to exaggeration. Editors of the Party’s Daily World were occasionally called upon to write letters to the editor, purporting to come from miners or steelworkers.
But rank and file members could be found in many areas of activity from the 1960 s to the 1990 s. They were trade unionists and community organizers, buttressed parents’ associations and housing organizations, protested discriminatory businesses and practices, and engaged with others against the war in Vietnam. They led the effort for the freedom of Angela Davis. They were instrumental in democratizing hospital and health care workers’ Local 1199. Communists could be found in block associations, progressive Jewish groups and NAACP chapters, building peace coalitions, and combating hospital closures. The left-liberal magazine The Nation, would estimate the Party as “again a significant force” in 1980.
The Party emphasized “industrial concentration,” focusing on workplace struggles, and solidarity. The latter embraced support for organizing drives and strikes, the distribution of the Daily World and its successor publications at factory gates, bus depots, hospitals, train platforms. But to one Ohio leader, “simply passing out papers at the factory gate was not” industrial concentration, but rather indicated a “lack of vision.” Another activist thought the Party’s union relationships focused on “white, male staffers,” although this varied across the country. Notwithstanding a militant record, the Party’s perceived distance from service or “second-tier” workers would raise major questions.
New “thought patterns” augured changes across the nation, according to the Party. Workers were intrinsic to all forward-looking perspectives, because their exploitation was crucial to capitalism. For the CPUSA, the leading place of mass production workers was fundamental. A number of members worked in these fields, although by the mid-80s certain basic industries were beginning to decline, close plants, or reduce shifts. Despite workforce transformations, witnessing new types of industries, unions, conditions, and workers, the Party prioritized the “point of production.” Chair Henry Winston, Hall’s leadership partner, wrote “the production workers alone give stability to those who drop into the class. The production workers will proletarianize all old and newcomers.” Workforce change, said an activist, “does not alter the fact that workers in mass production industry hold the keys to progress.” The priority of the mass production arena hinged on “the centrality of that industry to the national economy,” and thus “the extent of the disruption a strike in that industry would have on the ability of other industries—and thus the economy—to continue to function.” Gus Hall reiterated, “workers in basic and mass production industries carry on the class struggle at the point of production daily.”
The Party expected that the growth of more progressive “thought patterns” of workers would translate into militant movements across the board. To be sure, the Party had long projected a progressive third party. In the 1980s, the CPUSA anticipated a breakaway from the Democrats. Hall contended, “The African-American community and the trade union movement are not in the Democratic Party’s pocket.” The 1984 Communist campaign proved “that organized labor and the people’s movements cannot rely on the Democratic Party.” However, some members working in the Democratic Party frustrated CPUSA leaders because they allegedly fed myths of its progressive potential at a moment when political independence was nigh.
Out of mid-80s expectations of radical breakthrough grew the notion that whites were overcoming racism. Historically, the Party posited the centrality of African-American equality to democratic movements and the class struggle, linking it to movements of Mexican-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Henry Winston wrote, African-Americans “are the Achilles heel of U.S. imperialism” because economically “the Black people, as distinct from all other groupings in the United States, occupy a unique position, apart from their role in southern agriculture.” Racism, insisted Gus Hall, “is the most formidable ideological roadblock to social progress in general, and to the transition to socialism.” He called for vigilance against the “seepage” of racism in the Party. Before the late 1980 s, Party theorist Lorenzo Torrez comprehensively analyzed the conditions of Mexican-Americans comprising “a large section of the working force in the Southwest, including in such basic industries as aerospace, steel, mining, and auto.” From the 60 s, Puerto Rican Communists likewise connected the theory of “discrimination as a national minority” with the fact that “their homeland is a direct colony of U.S. monopoly.”
But with “fresh winds” blowing and millions apparently poised to adopt radical positions, the leadership concluded that whites were accordingly rejecting racism. “There is,” said the main statement of the 24th convention (1987), “a slow, continuing rejection of, and a decline in, racist attitudes among broad sections of the American people.” The increasing “inability of racist activists to mobilize mass actions around racist provocations” showed the widening support of united movements: “Most white people reject racism, as they understand it. They reject the basic premise of white supremacy.” There was an anti-racist majority, which Gus Hall emphasized with rising frequency. Since much of the fight against racism—the greatest barrier to united action—was approaching success, this was a precipitous landmark. Reagan-fed racism could not erase the truth that “the majority of white Americans are against inequality.” Hall clarified that African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and other oppressed peoples also belonged to this majority.
Historian Gerald Horne sees rigidity as a significant problem in the CPUSA. Famed Communist Benjamin Davis, frequently accused of it, nevertheless declared in the late 1950 s, “I believe that the biggest single overall challenge to the American party is the fight against left sectarianism.” Sectarianism suffused a narrow view of other organizations and overestimation of the CPUSA’s strength and correctness. It exaggerated popular acceptance of radical social change and the proximity of capitalism’s collapse. It tended to “assume that the historical goals are much nearer, and that men’s will, desires and intentions, towering over the objective facts, can accomplish anything.” The Party leadership treated “Fresh winds” and “anti-racist majority” as decisive turning points. Only a cynic would doubt them. Intrinsic to sectarianism, observes former leader Jay Schaffner, was “a political position that counter-posed the building of the mass movement, with the building of the Communist Party.” While raising key issues, Party electoral campaigns diverted thousands of members from community work built up over years.
Incidents at the Daily World in 1969 illustrate sectarianism. Phillip Bonosky, the paper’s cultural editor, asked the renowned Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah to review a book for the paper. Living in Guinea, Nkrumah eagerly accepted. But his completed review contained arguments with which the CPUSA did not agree, namely “opinions about Black Power here, and the absolute reliance on force to effect a revolution.” Bonosky took the review to coeditor Carl Winter, an experienced leader formerly imprisoned in the McCarthy era. Winter promptly crossed out the objectionable passages. Before going to press, Bonosky showed Nkrumah’s original to coeditor John Pittman, who objected to Winter’s cuts and said of Nkrumah: “We want to make a friend of him, not an enemy.” Needless to say, the review never appeared. Later that year, Angela Davis spoke at a Daily World fundraising dinner, thanking philosopher Herbert Marcuse for turning her to Marxism. Since Marcuse’s writings doubted working class revolutionary potential, Winter deleted Davis’ quote from Bonosky’s article. Bonosky grumbled, “This is corruptive, and chickens will come home to roost as sure as God made little green apples.”
The Party found the Equal Rights Amendment reactionary, because it would eliminate child leave, safety precautions, benefits and other protections for female workers, and subject women to military service. This “two-edged character of equal rights legislation” would deepen inequality. It is “a dangerous weapon of the capitalist class.” But the organization isolated itself from progressive and feminist trends backing the ERA but advocating other serious reforms. The Party’s suspicions of feminism were exemplified by refusing to publish member Bettina Aptheker’s Woman’s Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History due both to content and her sexual orientation. The view of the women’s movement and organizations remained essentially negative.
Prominent women leaders could be found nonetheless in the Communist Party at all levels. While men may have held dominant posts, the role of women, especially workers, in club, district, and national activity distinguished the Party. As on other matters, however, the Party exaggerated its influence and egalitarianism. “One would think that the present leadership of the CPUSA has solved the problems of achieving full equality for women,” Party veteran John Pittman commented sardonically in 1991. In fact, contended an activist, “the struggle for women’s equality gets such short shrift at Party meetings.” Though not fully amplified until 1991, substantial sentiment sensed that the organization reduced equality within it to lip service. Blaming capitalism for sexism posed an inadequate and shallow explanation for biased behavior by male Communists, a New Yorker perceived. While the organization was no den of iniquity, “women spoke of verbal and physical abuse that they had experienced from Party members,” which went unexamined by disciplinary process. Patronizing of women in the Party covered up “disrespectful actions” for which redress proved nearly impossible according to a unionist from Washington State: “We are not able to get past the first few words.” Some tied neglect of “issues that primarily affect women” to the organization’s lack of “a proper estimation of the female half of the working class.” To one observer the tacit assumption that the “‘real’ working class is all white and male” bonded with the Party’s “drift” into the “anti-racist majority” concept, which obscured special forms of oppression and discrimination.
The Party kept its distance from other social movements, some associated with the New Left. One member who joined in the early 1970 s first explored a variety of leftwing groups. Gil Green averred “the correct line should have been to try to turn this upheaval amongst young people into a permanent kind of movement while letting its dynamics work itself out with our participation.” He attempted to engage them with the Party’s message. Still, the CPUSA decisively opposed movements like gay and lesbian rights. It stated unequivocally, “Homosexuality is an abnormality, an aberration,” “unhealthy and unnatural,” “contrary to the reproduction of the human species.” A “non-working class tendency,” “homosexuality is incompatible with Party membership.” The Party excluded behavior “which encourages or promotes homosexual relationships as an alternative to sound, healthy, male-female relationships or distracts from the family as the basic unity of society and the fundamental component of the future we see to bring into being.” Party leaders knew, however, that Mexican Communists vigorously opposed homophobia.
The Party opposed the 60s “culture of self-gratification,” particularly marijuana and other drug use, but also other modes of a “decadent lifestyle.” It repudiated “as false any attempt to depict the so-called gay lifestyle as part of advanced and even revolutionary movements, or to promote it in the guise of a progressive ideology. We similarly reject such claims for ‘bohemianism’ in general.” Consequently, a branch that refused to force a lesbian to leave was dropped from the Party. Confused by the organization’s stance on gays and lesbians, Minnesota Communists received a visit from a top leader for instruction. During the 1984 Party presidential campaign, a member of the National Board was angered to discover that “an avowed homo” had been working for it.
In contrast, the CPUSA claimed to exemplify the working class viewpoint. Communists nevertheless might be brought up short by new trends. Most active in defense of the Black Panther Party, the CPUSA regarded it somewhat dimly. Communists like John Abt, William L. Patterson, Bettina Aptheker, Charlene Mitchell, and others viewed the Panthers with critical sympathy, but others “saw them as anarchists, engaging in individual violence.” Aptheker, one of the leaders of the campaign to free member Angela Davis, writes that some called for Davis’ expulsion “on the grounds that she was a terrorist,” despite her noninvolvement in the act that led to her conspiracy trial. However, the Party led the battle to free her and recruited many young people in the process. Some had studied at Ohio University under scholar Robert Rhodes. Says one recruit: “I joined the Party that defended an African-American woman. I was impressed with the national and international mobilization in defense of Angela.” CPUSA mainstay Jarvis Tyner comments, “The Party grew dramatically.” But many of the recruits were attracted to Davis, Charlene Mitchell, and others with an appeal beyond the organization.
Disagreements Before the Split
Party leader Joe Sims maintains, “The factional fight had a pre-history” and says, “There were different trends in the Party.” Longtime organizer Jarvis Tyner agrees: “The Party was always a kind of a coalition of different views.” Consequently, “there had always been a division on the question of the working class.” Tyner says, “The West Coast took contrary positions—including both Northern and Southern California.” Tyner criticizes Dorothy Healey, the popular Southern California leader who often challenged national decisions. She was “way to the Right” and “anti-Soviet,” but Tyner suspects she drew people like Charlene Mitchell to her. It appears that California Communists made alliances with groups and trends that the national Party avoided. Northern California Communists might take Hall’s statements with a grain of salt, once denouncing his “tendency to skip stages” when assessing the political climate. A former Party official echoes Tyner’s take: “At times it seemed as though California were an independent Party.”
Mitchell is a major figure in CPUSA history, as both organizational leader and mass organizer, especially of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which arose in the defense of the Panthers, Angela Davis, and others. Mitchell was the CPUSA candidate for president in 1968. Tyner submits that Communists in the Alliance clustered around Mitchell. They held similar views, “pushing away from the working class.” The Alliance attracted a following well beyond the CPUSA. Washington D.C. organizer Maurice Jackson suspects that, “The Party was “bothered that it couldn’t run the Alliance.” Communists in it were loyal to the Alliance. Similarly, Jackson believes the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists was “not susceptible to Party control.” Freedomways magazine was also “independent” and had its own networks. Initiated by Communists and other black leftists but encompassing civil rights activists, Caribbean and African independence leaders, it generally threw a longer beam than most Party-inspired organizations. “The beauty of it,” says Jackson, was that editor Esther Cooper Jackson “wouldn’t let the Party stick its hand in it.”
Tyner comments on “other divisive issues in the Party,” like “the Panthers and the gun.” In 1969, West Coast members proposed “to arm African Americans, and even the Party.” At the 1969 convention, Charlene Mitchell opposed gun control: “But in the face of increased genocide against black people in this country, would anybody dare say that Communists do not advocate—not just say that there is a right—that black people prepare to defend themselves against such brutality and against genocide upon the black people?” She drew a distinction: “Such armed self-defense is different from the use of arms for insurrectionary and guerilla warfare purposes.” Such proposals did not get very far, but suffice to show early differences. Gil Green, who analyzed self-defense in critical depth, entertained similar resolutions when he headed the New York Party at the time.
Green and other Party representatives in peace, civil rights, and grassroots organizations swam in bigger oceans. Their experience contrasted with sectarianism. But the Party’s internal regimen proscribed full addressing of policies and decisions. Horne writes: “The command-administrative procedure…was reflected in the U.S. party and was heightened during the Red Scare: the exigencies of clandestine political work and repression often did not allow for full and expansive discussion before decisions were adopted.” Member Louis Shipman recalls that a rigid structure grated harshly on him and other young Communists in the 1970s. He suggests: “Many in leadership hated the 1960s. And were unable to deal with young people coming in who reflected those experiences.” Despite years in the Party, Gil Green held “pariah status”: a Michigan veteran remembered she was “not keen on associating with him.” The Daily World’s criticism of the “New Left” caused consternation among the younger writers, especially California’s Carl Bloice.
None of the foregoing independent trends represented a rival center of leadership, but different streams of thought. Yet they intended to be heard, even as the CPUSA maintained an overall unity. But one could cross the line. Green (a Party member since the 20s) caught hell from a critic for giving all his time to “peace, civil rights, political action and youth,” as if the labor movement were unimportant. Ostracized in the Party, particularly for his dissent from the Warsaw Pact’s military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Green spoke frankly to general secretary Gus Hall. “There is too much absorption with inner-Party work, with meetings with each other, and little time is left to meet with nonparty people and also learn from them.” And “too much smug self-satisfaction, that many of our cadres produce nothing except rhetoric, and that we do not judge them by results attained.” He insisted, “The main problem we still face in our ranks is that of sectarianism….The struggle against sectarianism also requires the conscious seeking out and nurturing of allies.” “A sectarian indifference to the outcome of elections” troubled him. He opined, “Our Party apparatuses are too cumbersome, too tied with explicitly ‘inner’ affairs, leaders are too ‘exhausted’ by meetings with other Party leaders, and too many have no time to meet with nonparty people, never speak at nonparty gatherings, and answer most questions in general clichés.”
The CPUSA generally bypassed the more serious divisions experienced by other Communist parties when the Warsaw Pact intervened in 1968. The CPUSA officially supported the intervention as defense of socialism, isolating internal doubters. Green feared that the intervention imperiled socialism because it would inspire future tensions. Ferment surfaced below when Illinois leaders Claude Lightfoot and Jack Kling surprisingly permitted an anti-intervention report to a state meeting. While Green, Dorothy Healey and Californian Bettina Aptheker were among the most outspoken and the West Coast People’s World newspaper made its dissent clear, discord surfaced at the Daily World, where once again younger staffers criticized the military action. A DW editor branded Green a Democratic Party agent inside the CPUSA. Green, Healey and others shared their feelings to the mass media, earning Gus Hall’s rebuke for “their total disregard for Party discipline,” adding “a small number have developed some factional methods of fighting against adopted Party decisions.” The FBI discussed, then abandoned, approaching Green to make him an informer at the time, part and parcel of the massive Bureau infiltration of the CPUSA and others.
Leadership in the Party
The 20 years leading into the split of 1991 bore little evidence of factionalism, despite minor concerns. Party members or leaders might speak of a loose entourage associated with chair Henry Winston or general secretary Gus Hall: “Winnie’s people” or “Gus’ people,” as Joe Sims remembers. Maintenance of African-American and white joint leadership at the very top of the Party was fundamental. Prior to the mid-60s, when Hall and Winston came together, Harlem’s Ben Davis had served briefly as chair, alongside Hall. Party presidential tickets featured white-black tandems: Hall-Davis, Hall-Tyner, Charlene Mitchell-Michael Zagarell, Earl Browder-James Ford, William Z. Foster-James Ford. The tradition of chair and general secretary sharing leading responsibilities operated in the CPUSA since the 30s. Moreover, the permeation of racism in U.S. society mandated a diverse duo: “[A] situation in which the ‘great leader’ is white and wrong, and his or her critics are nonwhite and right could be disastrous.”
The command-administer process outlined by Gerald Horne predominated nevertheless. Despite a team of two at the helm, one might play a more dominant role. Winston supervised Party work in the fields of civil liberties, anti-apartheid, civil rights, and the areas of Mexican-American, women’s, and African-American equality. First Winston, then Hall, oversaw the tourist agency Anniversary Tours (run for years by activist Jay Schaffner). Hall regulated the newspaper, trade union policy, relations with other Communist parties, and electoral action. A convention elected the National Committee, which chose chair, general secretary, and National Board. Until it proved politically problematic, the Board included Committee members from outside New York, like Kendra Alexander from Northern California and Maurice Jackson from D.C.-Virginia. These bodies changed titles: formerly there was a Central Committee and a Political Bureau. Prominent leader Jarvis Tyner now acknowledges, “There was a style that was too rigid.” In hindsight, says Hall-ally Joe Sims, “people around Gus didn’t help the situation.” Given the small size of the CPUSA, the latter left a larger footprint. Idolization of a leader belonged to the “model.” In the 1940s for instance, the Party bestowed hero status upon then-chief Earl Browder His speeches became books before they were heard and approved by Party bodies. This style “conferred omniscience and omnipotence upon general secretaries and political bureaus.”
William Z. Foster, longtime chair, supported Hall for general secretary at the outset, 1959. Foster said, Hall “had the stuff from which a Party leader could be made.” Hall’s appearance struck some as the quintessential Communist look. He was “a strapping six-footer,” who in youth “showed an eagerness to test his ability to do a man’s job.” Here he comes, observed a friend, “wearing a Kelly green shirt underneath his coat.” “Big, affable, soft-spoken,” “the very model of a working class leader.” With “the healthy outlook of a proletarian,” he was a worker, “bone and sinew,” “a man of the masses.” He struck Washington D.C.’s Maurice Jackson as down to earth and plain spoken, though “not a great public speaker.” “Undiluted by intellectualism in the worst sense,” Hall was “a worker who rises from class consciousness to theoretical powers, but never loses the feeling of being just a worker.” Hall came off as unpretentious, even playing spontaneously with little children; he was “corny,” an endearing trait.
Hall frequently drew political parallels with the natural environment. An avid gardener, he bestowed upon Party workers watermelons to which he bore robust resemblance. Hall distinguished between perennial and annual political challenges, and the threats of ideological pests. Political reactionaries swam in “turbulent waters.” Resisting mistaken ideas in the Party “is not like cutting a tree down. It is more like pulling weeds. It must be done continually. If you let weeds go they will take over.” Diseased reasoning demanded vigilance, because “ideological immunity wears off. The level of resistance diminishes and the seepage increases… Ideological immunity continuously needs booster shots.” “[T]he revolutionary process is not filled with smooth currents. There are countercurrents and crosscurrents. And there are rocky shores and swamps. But…in spite of these diversions the flow of the revolutionary process goes on.” But Hall believed that a strong tree like Salvador Allende (a year before his 1973 CIA-inspired overthrow) failed to understand that “imperialism is a system.” Hall found the antidote in William Z. Foster: “Stick to the basic class approach; you will make mistakes, but you will not make the big mistakes.”
Ohioans remembered Hall from the 1930 s “as the leader of the Little Steel Strike…a vicious and violent struggle by workers seeking to organize. They also saw him as the person that facilitated the Party’s survival. He led them through all of the anti-communist period.” He was married to Youngstown’s Elizabeth Hall, who maintained local ties. Numerous factors contributed to Hall’s image as the living incarnation of the class, the ideology, and the organization. Not all shared these precepts. Benjamin Davis had told James Jackson, “Don’t trust Gus.” Several found his everyman persona an act. Simon Gerson, the Party’s electoral specialist, called him a “demagogue,” but not to his face. A member recalls, “I viewed Hall, and others around him, as too insular, too rigid, and too closed to criticism.” Interestingly, the only National Committee member to vote against Hall’s rise to leadership in 1959 represented Ohio. After conviction under the Smith Act, Hall went to Mexico rather than report to prison. Though Hall said this was a Party decision, he violated an agreed-upon policy to keep “underground” leaders in the U.S. (The decision to send members “underground,” thus removed from the threat of arrest or prison, came in response to the conviction of Hall, Winston, and nine other leaders under the repressive Smith Act). When attorney John Abt brought credible evidence of FBI agents within the highest circles of Hall’s associates, the general secretary did nothing.
Others have commented on Hall’s access to money, kept in a large safe. They maintain that Hall gave cash envelopes to selected leaders. When a member of the Party secretariat found Hall’s fund handling inappropriate, he was demoted. A leading activist commented: “Packets of money in envelopes are given on the q.t. to the…inner circle in times of need.” Gil Green maintained, “envelopes go all over.” This struck some as buying support, and may well have influenced what side they took in the struggles ahead. Soviet subscribers accounted for a hefty portion of the Daily World’s circulation. Chair Henry Winston was surprised to learn the paper’s circulation demographics. Hall admitted, “When it comes to circulation figures I become very vague and forgetful, and don’t even sometimes know the facts.”
Henry Winston was also strapping, affable, and a “bone and sinew” worker, but was not usually described in the same terms as Hall. The Party-backed groups in the anti-apartheid and other movements overseen by Winston seemed to have a larger nonparty constituency. But there were no ideological discrepancies between Winston and Hall. Like Hall, Winston went to prison. Unlike Hall, Winston had followed Party instructions in going underground within the U.S. Hall’s views on racism apparently changed after Winston’s death. But the organization considered the black-white joint leadership essential. Winston made as strong an impression on people as Hall. In Minnesota, he is remembered as “a gentle, wise man.” When it occurred in 1986, Winston’s passing was to many “a monumental death.” A Washingtonian pronounces Winston “a good listener,” with “the soul of a giant.” Long-time Communist Herbert Aptheker felt the same way.
Though teammates, Hall withheld certain matters from Winston. Telling a Review Commission (responsible for upholding membership standards) member to keep him apprized of who or what they were investigating, Hall instructed him “not to discuss this with Winnie.” Hall appeared reluctant to see Winston represent the CPUSA on foreign trips. Winston was not informed about Soviet financial relations with Hall, facilitated by Morris Childs (an FBI mole). Some were later jarred by reports of the latter, asking “Is it true?” and were criticized for it.
Maurice Jackson estimates that “Winnie at times could be as doctrinaire as Gus. We all were at one time. But where Gus was close-minded, Winnie listened to others and their reasoning.” James Steele, who established good relations with black political and trade union activists, regarded Winston as “my mentor.” He would “draw my thinking out.” Winston also oversaw Party participation in the anti-Vietnam war movement, working with Gil Green, delegate to the largest peace coalition. Unlike Hall, Winston enjoyed a good relationship with the notoriously independent Green. He encouraged younger leaders to talk to Green, who was often ostracized at the national level. Green, said Winston, was “strategically weak but tactically strong and always has interesting things to say.” The Winston-Green ties continued when Green represented the Party in the seniors’ movement. Green reported to Winston. Winston consistently acclaimed Green’s work, thus lauding “the splendid report of Gil Green” on peace demonstrations.
The Winston-Green bond went back to the 1930s when both worked for the Young Communist League. When underground, they collaborated. Until he died, Winston solicited Green’s opinion. Their correspondence includes frank discussion of the Party’s status, U.S. racism, and even disabilities. (Winston lost his sight when prison authorities withheld treatment for a tumor. Green suffered progressive hearing loss since childhood). Meanwhile, Green confided to Winston, “The Party is structured like an inverse pyramid: top heavy and bottom weak….All thinking is supposed to go from the top, down, and never the other way around.” In contrast to Hall’s eventual anti-racist majority notion, Green felt racism was getting worse in social conditions and ideology. Thus, he felt the Jackson campaign deserved the Party’s sympathetic attention.
Winston and Hall had different styles, not opposing views. Still, Jarvis Tyner reflects that “differences were minimized” while Winston was alive. Winston’s death in 1986 deprived the CPUSA of his experience as it descended into serious difficulties. To the surprise of many, Winston was not replaced. Ostensibly waiving “general secretary” as a “foreign term”, the Party abolished this position and made Hall chair. Both the dual leadership and equal black-white team traditions thus expired. A Chicagoan reports “people speaking passionately about replacing Winnie,” to no avail. Afterwards, “the differences we had” came out in the open. Louis Shipman “thought Winston would and should be replaced by Charlene Mitchell as did many of us.” But key Party leaders looked askance upon Mitchell, perhaps for her ties to the Panthers. A Midwesterner suspects “Gus wanted to consolidate all the power.” More than a few consider Winston’s death a turning point because it was “not well-handled” by the organization.
Fault-Lines and Pat Answers
One cannot speak at this point of splitting potential. The command and administer style concealed differences. But contributory factors opened up deep divisions. Among them were the problems of socialist societies.
The mounting crisis in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries fed and compounded tensions in the CPUSA. A Chicago member feels that growing internal disagreement preceded developments abroad. The events in the Soviet Union “were on top of that.” Says another, “The collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the socialist states in 1991 brought these internal issues out in the open.” One who worked for the “sister city” link between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Yerevan in Soviet Armenia, sees Soviet collapse as the Party’s downfall. Visiting Yerevan gave her fair warning of Soviet ferment. Circumstances in socialist lands had affected the CPUSA before. An early-1956 debate about Party weaknesses included new criticisms of sectarianism, but revelations about Stalinism soon added a different tone. “Into such cerebrations burst the Khrushchev thunderbolt,” which injected “a convulsive jolt” into debate. Hence, the situations in the socialist countries and the circumstances of the CPUSA became “intertwined in the untrammeled debate that now shook the Party.”
The same occurred between 1989 and 1991. The leadership’s first response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” was enthusiastic. These policies would improve and renew socialism. “One gets the impression that socialism will ride the waves of the revolutionary discoveries in microelectronics, computer technology, fusion energy, laser beams, robotics and biotechnology to the next and higher stage of socialism.” Gus Hall approved new Soviet modes, “In the past, the Party made most of the decisions and was the main force in carrying them out.” But now, “the Party will have to carry out its work on the basis of convincing people, including government personnel.” But why were such issues surfacing in the Soviet Union after seven decades?: “Because in 70 years you do not make a new society.” “Why after 70 years? Because it takes time to undo the deep damage to the human character left by capitalism.”
Yet, there had been and were problems in Soviet democracy. Some here, like others abroad, believed that their parties had lied to them, and thus turned a more critical eye to developments abroad. The Party leadership responded with a warning. Hall regretted that Communist “academics and intellectuals” in particular were dismissing “the nature of the class enemy, or what the problems were in building socialism in a backward country—while surrounded by aggressive capitalist nations, while blockaded and boycotted and invaded. It is a distortion to write about Soviet history, including the history of collectivization, and not to say anything about the class nature of the kulaks who killed, terrorized, and burned crops.” Party leaders in the economic and international fields spoke along the same lines.
The Party maintained that larger criticisms of real existing socialism rested upon fabrications. When Anniversary Tours director Jay Schaffner reported profound ideological and infrastructure problems in socialist countries, impeding tours by U.S. labor and community activists, “Gus’ response was that I was a liar, that I was making things up. In 1989, we ended up screaming at each other.” Hall insisted that the Soviet Union and its allies were resolving errors induced by contextual exigencies imposed from without. They were now on the right course: “A Communist who does not understand the direction of history, which is precisely what makes socialism inevitable, does not base thought on science … The forward direction is from slavery, to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism. That is the inevitable direction of history.” But while this answer previously sufficed, a New York club retorted, “Our leadership can no longer give us pat answers…complete understanding and analysis must come as the result of membership discussion.” Tradition nevertheless held “that differences were fundamentally conditioned by class, that just as the party’s true adherents came of proletarian stock, the revisionists were misled by their petit-bourgeois origins.” As Hall wrote a friend, his opponents lacked “living attachments to the working class.”
Such remarks stung. Concerns about real existing socialism arose naturally. Yet the lack of attention to new factors, like changes in socialism or in the U.S. work force irked many. Emerging differences manifested in precursor size, but without a single unifying theme. But out of them, “people came independently to the conclusion that Gus was not who we thought he was.” The organization, remembered a perplexed L.A. member, always “heralded organizing. There was a lot of talk about the Party’s past record that we had to draw from. But, it was all words. And that’s when I left the Party—not physically, but spiritually and emotionally.” National Committee members opposing Hall increased from a handful in 1988 to several score by 1990.
Without quitting the Party, a trickle of full-timers began to look for other jobs. Filling their slots was no mean task. Younger state leaders were transferred to New York, stripping some districts of their futures: retired full-timers resumed old posts. The departures were financially understandable although family members or a spouse might supplement generally low earnings. Increasingly, political factors induced resignations. Hall sensed it: “Why, in the past year or two, have more full-time cadre than in the past asked to be released so they can get jobs in the private sector?” He surmised that they had lost confidence in “whether the working class is and will be the advanced contingent” to socialism. And in fact, Party wages were “not the lowest.” “Private sector” notwithstanding, a number of Party functionaries went on to finish their college educations, and then into social work, education, and health care, joining unions in these fields.
Higher education belonged to societal aspirations, but not necessarily in the CPUSA: some leaders depicted it as disorientating. A social worker remembers that people tried to talk her out of finishing her degree, that her “college education was over-rated.” She considered this discouragement an “unrealistic, unfair set-up” in fact “anti-working class.” In fact, people best able to do fulltime work were those who could “afford” it: retirees or members with property or family inheritance. “On balance,” said African-American Equality Commission chair Robert Lindsay, “white full-time staffers seem to have more resources than Black full-timers.” Missing a few weeks’ pay was not unheard of for functionaries, accentuating the hardship of low salaries. Higher officials tried to dissuade Maurice Jackson from getting his degree and finding another job, even though several of the former held doctorates. Local district leaders were not above the same dissuasion. Gus Hall cast aspersion upon a Midwesterner’s academic aspirations. In several cases, the National Board examined the financial histories of members seeking new jobs. Members’ attempts to obtain Party assistance for organizational travel expenses were often in vain. A National Committee member asked, “Is class standing going to determine who can and cannot attend the NC and other national meetings?”
Precipitating new tensions, differences over the Party’s attitude to working with Democrats worsened in the late 1980 s. Many considered Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign historically significant. Said James Steele: “It is absolutely essential that our Party not play into the hands of anti-Jackson elements.” Maurice Jackson in Washington D.C. felt the organization put itself in “a rigid…and dogmatic trap” by disparaging Jackson and his role. A piece maintaining “…the Democratic Party remains the main medium through which the people’s movement will defeat the ultra-Right” veered from Party policy. By keeping distance from Jackson, says Pat Fry, “we had separated ourselves from the mass movement.” Interestingly, the Soviet government rejected Jackson’s application for a visa to visit the country after he issued a statement supporting Soviet Jews. Though the CPUSA offered no ameliorating effort in this regard, Maurice Jackson knew the Soviet ambassador and persuaded him to facilitate the visa. In all, said a Daily World editor, “The Party underestimated the Jackson movement.”
Officially the Party expected labor and minority voters to leave the Democrats: Jesse Jackson was fool’s gold. One cooperated with Democrats when necessary, but could never forget its big business orientation. But many Communists feared the implied distancing from Democratic voters. Said Steele: “Some say that strengthening independent forces in the Democratic Party breeds illusions and reduces independence to ‘lesser of two evil’ politics. Rather than principle, what this reveals is tactical helplessness.” To growing numbers, the move to “the left” felt like a lurch. The Democratic Party stood for capitalism, yet “the illusion would be thinking or projections which suggest that labor, the Black community, and other basic people’s forces, are near or on the verge of bolting the Democratic Party.”
Strangely though, once Jesse Jackson was eliminated from nomination in 1988, the Party portrayed primary winner Michael Dukakis as the beneficiary of a “populist groundswell” despite contrary polls. The stance thus ranged from sectarian to pacifying. True, Hall had condemned a district for endorsing a third party over a Democrat for governor only five years before. Yet the Party’s lukewarm approach to the Jackson campaign, said a Northern California club, coexisted with inflated expectations of the far more mainstream Dukakis. The Party seemed to ignore what so many others had concluded in 1988: “that the Democrats would rather lose the election than yield to even a semblance of Jesse Jackson’s program.” In fact, Carl Winter expressed dismay that the Daily World he used to edit, kept silent when Dukakis denied Jackson a leading place in his campaign, which “has undercut confidence in much of the African-American community about future coalition possibilities.”
The Ideological Conference
Accumulating dilemmas over direction, race, and Soviet developments pressed the need to set things straight in an Ideological Conference in the summer of 1989. It heralded reinvigoration of the working class outlook and the prioritization of industrial workers, apparently lost or discarded by so many. A conference organizer wrote confidently, “I see no reason to back off from previous and present estimates of the role of industrial workers.” To provide sufficient time for basic ideology, a Women’s Equality Commission presentation was canceled, apparently less crucial.
The Party scheduled a pre-conference debate beforehand. Adherence to this routine alternated with limitations upon it throughout the period. Some questioned the reasons behind the conference. “The main topics on our agenda are ideological fine points targeted to purifying our Party. They will not help us reach a greater level of unity.” A Minnesota club asserted that the Party leadership had failed to disclose differences between the Party leaders. A Northern Californian wanted to address the Party’s sectarianism: “We do not have a franchise on the Left, nor all the answers and should not act like we do.” The Napa Club hoped to confront key organizational problems: “First of all, our Party has failed to build sufficient younger cadre throughout the years. It has allowed older leadership to remain at the head of our Party for too long a time.” The leadership erred in silencing members who had questions on socialist countries, said another. It inhibited proper discussion on other issues, like the division of the California organization into Southern and Northern districts. The relationship of Northern to Southern California was an age-old problem, due to unwieldy distances and logistics. Yet the more recent move “to restructure California” struck some as arbitrary.
Many participants felt the leadership provided little opportunity to review unforeseen developments in the socialist world. Not that the latter escaped the agendas of the regular meetings of the national leadership. But Iowa and Nebraska Communists wrote to the National Board to demand “It is time that we assume our role as vanguard and confront these situations head on with our clear analysis of how Communist Parties in the role of government administrators can allow or even take part in corrupt activities.”
Members of New York City’s Chelsea I club likewise opined “that the leadership has failed to lay the basis for understanding the turmoil within the socialist countries and the apparent leading role of the Communist Parties in those countries.” Second thoughts on the issue transcended the Party’s internal critics. New York chair Jarvis Tyner proposed that Communist parties in socialist countries “must win hearts and minds” through popular support, not through “control of government and institutions.” A bit later, a Hall stalwart from Ohio called for “more easily open discussions” on new questions. For “there has been an atmosphere that some issues are ‘out-of-bounds.’ Some Party leaders do have attitudes that…tend to downgrade opinions of others & cut off discussion.” His club for instance favored a change in the Party’s traditional opposition to homosexuals, one of the most “backward biased positions held for decades in our party. Wrong/bad positions that did hold us back in some ways.”
To the Hall team, such questions revealed ideological weakness. The leadership concluded that those who criticized Soviet socialism simultaneously favored milquetoast tactics in the struggle for socialism and basic rights in the United States. A series of reminders purportedly guarded against this “one-sided approach.” Indiana’s district organizer believed that critics suffered from historical memory loss: “There is a tendency to forget that there were many steps the Soviet Union was blocked from taking because of the unrelenting opposition of world capitalism.”
Distinctive among pre-conference critics were the observations of Gil Green. Since “decisions are still handed down from top to bottom,” he asserted that, minus deep exchange, “there can be no…vibrant and creative political-ideological life.” Beware of the arrogance “that we alone constitute the true Left” while most others are “phonies.” The Party should stop keeping a person “in a position of leadership just because he/she is there now.” This bred “the notion of indispensability, self-adulation, and on the part of some subordinates, toadyism.” But equally hard-hitting was the reply of National Board member Sam Webb, who became chair after Hall. He indicted Green for secretly circulating his criticisms to a private mailing list. Webb tasked him for his “totally negative” characterizations, repudiating the “top-down” impression. Green’s statement was “damaging to Party unity at all levels.” Indeed, this exchange was a harbinger of the split in the Party. Indicative was the refusal of a number of Ideological Conference delegates to ovate when Gus Hall rose to speak.
The Anti-Racist Majority
Two years had elapsed since Hall’s anti-racist majority thesis. While generally unquestioned, the notion had raised some eyebrows from the inception. It did not jibe with Carl Winter’s characterization of the racism of the “oppressive majority.” Robert Lindsay found loopholes too. For while “most white people reject the idea of racism and consider it an insult to be called a racist,” “there are different levels of understanding and different levels of racist influence among white working people.” He elaborated: “In some cases white workers respond on a purely spontaneous level. In other cases, the fightback is based on a rising level of class consciousness. Many are for equality as long as they don’t ‘pay for it,'” referring to affirmative action. Similarly, a Daily World editor had wondered, “Is racism a thing of the past? With the gap in working and living conditions widening, such a claim becomes hard indeed to defend.” Lindsay declared that the organization ignored workforce areas where blacks were laboring or turning for work. Granting that whites disbelieved that “skin color measures capability,” Lindsay still felt “masses of whites…accept many concepts that justify the present increase in inequality,” including “the belief that racism no longer exists.” Insensitivity was inducing African-American Communists to consider leaving the Party, a most serious eventuality. A related study of workforce sectors showed greater concentrations in service areas: education, government, health care, and others, than in heavy industry.
A supporter advised Hall in early 1990 that “we created a problem when we did not continue a Black-white team after Winnie died … I think we underestimated how negatively many Comrades, especially Black Comrades, would react.” This fueled the feeling that the Party had subordinated the struggle for black equality. Maurice Jackson explains that the Party was the first place where “I met decent white people,” but “differences around the black-white question” worried him. Hall and others would “cite examples and anecdotes” about white anti-racism but “overlooked the hostility to affirmative action.” In some cases “people were treated badly in districts headed by whites.” But Jackson affirms that African-American Communists were not all of one mind in how they estimated the Party’s battle against racism.
It appeared that the more Hall spoke of the anti-racist majority in the country, the greater became the racial insensitivities within the Party. Though other African-American members may have disagreed, James Steele maintained that black Communists were “profoundly disaffected and alienated” not least by “negative or defensive reactions to criticisms of racist influences of sectarianism and dogmatism in estimates of African American developments.” Further, “How and why have Black-White relationships in the leadership deteriorated so far? … Why are so many comrades, both Black and white, disgruntled about the Party’s apparent inability or unwillingness to tackle its grossly inadequate racial composition?” He cited the overwhelming defeat by the National Board of a motion to grant Charlene Mitchell extra time to speak at the August 1990 National Committee. “This is the ratio of the vote on most questions.”
But Charlene Mitchell earned that extra time after all, but not before Gus Hall told the National Committee that overblown assertions of racism in the nation and Party were factional. A Party splinter was shaping up “in whispers and gossip.” Factionalism subverted, Hall continued, “the Party’s optimism,” “grounded-in-reality.” It ignored “some important shifts in the thinking of U.S. working people … [T]here is a growing anti-racism.” Hall clarified: “The substance of the concept is not that racism is eliminated, but that the great majority of Americans, including 60 million African-Americans, Hispanic and all nationally-oppressed peoples, consider themselves non-or-anti-racist.”
Mitchell replied: “We act as if our leadership is completely united, as if all positions taken by the Board, and all assessments, whether by update tape [recordings of Hall’s take on current policies, sent to the clubs and members], radio speeches, or newspaper interviews, enjoy complete unanimity.” In fact, the very speech given by Hall minutes before lacked collective input: “Where was the give and take on what should or should not be included?” All sorts of issues needed full airing: the Jesse Jackson campaign, new militant trends in organized labor and the revolutionary impacts of “new thinking” in the Soviet Union.
The Debate Widens
Mitchell asked why the leadership virtually banned a booklet by legendary South African Communist Joe Slovo, which analyzed “the mounting chronicle of crimes and distortions in the history of existing socialism.” She was incredulous that such a respected writer “raises eyebrows in our leadership.” But in spite of the ban, Slovo’s piece had been subtly passed around in the Party. A Minnesota’s club proposal to publish Slovo received immediate reprimand by the National Board. Reading Slovo strengthened Party veteran Si Gerson’s “long view, a dislike of dogma, a confidence in Marxism—and a hatred of sycophancy.”
The August 1990 National Committee meeting then launched into an extraordinary exchange. Labor specialists George Meyers and Sam Webb defended the Party’s positions against racism. Other members of the National Board took Mitchell to task. The organization’s leading economist Victor Perlo lampooned, “Charlene is a good speaker, but makes no sense.” Webb alleged that critics talked a good game but were relatively inactive in Party work. Elena Mora doubted that Mitchell and others could “recognize the leading role of the working class in our country” or resist “anti-working class concepts.” Connecticut’s Joelle Fishman warned against “invalidating the past.” Illinois’s Scott Marshall deplored charges that the Party had succumbed to racist influences: no finer white person could be found in the country than Gus Hall. “If you can show me one, show it to me in writings and in deeds.” This, Marshall volunteered, “has nothing to do with deification.” The New York chair, Jarvis Tyner, twice vice-presidential candidate with Hall, stated that the high number of white voters for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primaries showed that “anti-racism is on the rise, even though we have not reached the mountain top.” Yet “we have to recognize that there’s been a change, to the better.”
Disparate opponents seconded the sentiments of Charlene Mitchell. The “days of the all-knowing leader are gone forever,” said Kendra Alexander. Daily World editor Mike Zagarell echoed what pariah Gil Green had long said: “Our Party is not immune from [a] personality cult, comrades: and as in other places it saddles us with unrealistic estimates and incorrect tactics that isolate us from masses.”
Illinois veteran Ishmael Flory thought the Party could use “some perestroika in the operation and personalities.” “Maybe we need a little restructuring,” he added. Maurice Jackson reported that the Review Commission had investigated him for privately mailing materials to members around the country, along with excerpts from Slovo. “Because we dare state what we think is true about the problems of the Party, I have been subject to the most vicious ridicule.” This possessed “a racist edge.” Essentially, “no matter what you say, if you fundamentally differ with certain points around the working class, all of a sudden you’re anti-working class, those of us who are more of the class than many others who speak about it.”: “the Central Thought Control Committee.” An economist asked, “Who determines what is anti-Party? Anti-working class? Anti-Party cannot be equated with having differences with the Chairman’s political or ideological estimates.” An Oregon spokesperson indicated that his membership had also come under Commission scrutiny. A member from New York joined Jackson’s call to get rid of the Review Commission, branding it a divisive agency.
“Stop characterizing opinions different from your own as heretical,” Chicago’s Ted Pearson told the Hall team. Pearson soon lost his job as Midwest circulation manager for the Daily World, drawing support from other staffers in 1990. Said one: “No party leadership which is frozen, in Brezhnev style bureaucracy and dogmatism gladly suffers dissent, whether in the GDR, Czechoslovakia, or the U.S.” On this score, another staffer alleged that neither the recent merger of the Daily World and the West Coast People’s World nor the changeover to a weekly paper had been thoroughly discussed. Undebated, Hall’s personal goal to merge the papers was at least ten years old. In any case, Pearson enjoyed significant support in the Party.
Reemergence of the Review Commission
Questions mounted: a Southern Californian had “read Gus Hall’s reports on the crisis of capitalism so many times” that she began to doubt “what does it mean for us in the everyday?” Mystified by glowing recruitment reports, a Chicagoan suspected “an inflated presentation of both the size and the resources of the organization” and “an overestimation of the number of members and how far the reach.” But Illinois’ Scott Marshall lamented that “so much internal debate” would deaden Party work: inner-Party squabbles inhibited practical action, no matter how devoted the members. But to continue the Party without radically changing it however necessitated an unusual juxtaposition of weights and measures.
First, the National Review Commission launched new investigations of factionalism. Elected by each national convention, the NRC tracked anti-Party behavior, including racism at certain points. Composed of experienced members, it included at one juncture the FBI’s highest-ranking agent in the CPUSA, Morris Childs. Ironically, the NRC was supposed to keep the FBI out of the Party. Headed in the 1970 s by Carl Winter, later by James West, the Commission functioned “like a private committee of one,” according to long-time NRC-er Richard Hoyen. In gathering information on suspect individuals, Hoyen recalls pressure to get “some dirt on them” tying them to the FBI. Despite queries from Commission members, the NRC did not consider the possibility that Morris Childs was an FBI asset.
As political divisions expanded, James West warned of “psychological warfare” against U.S. Communists. The “pressures penetrate our ranks and begin to influence some comrades.” If not resisted, West predicted “disruption of meetings, diversion of agreed club agendas, diversion of the work agreed upon in the club, setting comrades against one another, racist divisiveness, attempting to set the club against the district.” In 1989, the National Board indicted Gil Green for secretly mailing copies of his article for the Ideological Conference. Though Green contended that all National Committee members had rightful access to names and addresses, he was censured for factionalism. The NRC further charged him with slander for radio remarks, where he appealed for “cross-fertilization” of ideas in the Party and removing “all vestiges of Stalinism.”
Green had fought for the posthumous exoneration of a Communist falsely expelled as an FBI agent in the 60s: Bill Albertson, who suffered total ostracism as a result. Ironically, Morris Childs remained in good Party standing. Jailed under McCarthyism, Albertson had raised support funds for other persecuted members after his release, even for one who quit the Party while in prison: to Gus Hall’s chagrin. Relying on newly released FBI documents in the 80 s, Green and others demonstrated that the FBI set up Albertson to look like an agent. Lawyer John Abt and others exposed the FBI frameup of Albertson, but the National Board upheld the expulsion as irreversible. Green’s dogged appeal was given one minute at a National Committee session, then cut off. James West warned Green that the fuss made his loyalty suspect.
Another member under suspicion was Louis Weinstock (a pivotal figure in the fight for unemployment insurance in the 30 s and longtime leader in the Painters’ union), more recently collaborating with Charlene Mitchell in civil liberties cases. He was long a stalwart of the Party administration. Called “Mr. May Day” in the Party, Weinstock now frequently criticized the top leadership, which faulted him for unapproved conversations with Soviet officials, among other infractions. When Weinstock refused to support Southern California chief and Hall-ally Evelina Alarcon, James West informed the 60-year Party veteran, “If you find this is not possible, it will be necessary to take another look and draw the necessary conclusions.” Weinstock asked if West were threatening him, informing him, “I do not need a lecture on Party unity.”
Jay Schaffner, Michael Myerson, Maurice Jackson, and Kendra Alexander were also accused of disseminating criticisms of the leadership. In a bitter exchange, Jackson blasted James West: “You were mean and nasty. You almost foamed at the mouth.” For the first time “in my 20 years of Party membership, a white comrade reminded me of the foam-at-the-mouth racists I grew up with in Alabama.” Jackson, the D.C. organizer, compared West to the “cheap-shot artist” Jack Tatum (of professional football’s Oakland Raiders who left New England wide-receiver Daryl Stingley a quadriplegic after spearing him with his helmet). He complained that Labor Commission chief George Meyers especially fomented Commission bias against him. He told Meyers, “If you keep coming to D.C., doing your own thing and spreading slander, I see absolutely no reason to meet with you. Your method and style are not in the best interest of the Party. And that you must live and die with.”
Michael Myerson sent out his “On the Crisis in the Party,” delineating the leadership’s methodology of “toadyism, loyalty to the top,” replete with “mediocraties.” This was “systemic and institutional” in “virtually every Communist Party in the world.” Myerson endured condemnation from the Commission and economist Victor Perlo, who nevertheless conceded Gus Hall’s prior tendency “to arbitrariness in laying down a line, and some other leading comrades would automatically echo it, without serious study or thought on their own.” At a large conference of Left organizations, Kendra Alexander decried CPUSA hostility to homosexuals and remoteness from the women’s movement, which “left us marginalized, with a few notable exceptions: Angela Davis is the most well-known.” Sectarianism remained the key shackle: “Over the last five to seven years, we have increasingly restricted our view of class and social forces only through the prism of the Communist Party. We began to see struggle as only that which we initiated.” But the issues “will continue to be debated in our leadership and in our ranks.”
But paradoxically, the Party simultaneously opened up a discussion about improving “democratic centralism.” Jay Schaffner notes that the concept ideally assured “the fullest discussion… by the membership,” followed by decisions on that foundation, “including full debate of positions and alternatives, which would then be binding on all members.” Under pressure from those who felt democracy too constrained in practice, the National Board invited members to send in their opinions over a two-month period. This would “afford all clubs and members the opportunity to express their views.” The Board set up a committee to collect inputs, chaired by Review Commission head James West. Not surprisingly many submissions proposed to ditch the Review Commission altogether. More than 125 missives made their way to the committee in 1990, most from individual members: 46 from New York, 33 from Northern California, eight from Illinois, seven from Oregon, and six from Massachusetts.
The Lorain, Ohio club thought “the biggest problem is on the centralism side.” There was too little democracy. Similarly, a New Yorker faulted “the traditional “military” model of organization, which called itself democratic centralism but in fact emphasized the centralism.” A Chicagoan believed democratic centralism actually bred acquiescence: “I used to behave as though being responsible means to go along with what is presented because the top leadership usually knows best. I’ve learned that the top leadership is extremely rich in experience and knowledgeable, but not all-knowing on every issue.” A member of the Paul Robeson Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered that democratic centralism had been used to “stifle honest education and critical discussion in the Party.” He helpfully suggested that the leadership “demonstrate its full commitment to democratic centralism by rapidly securing the resignation of Comrade National Chairman Gus Hall.” The Campus Club of Northern California listed national decisions taken without discussion or membership consultation: the running of Party candidates for national office; the merger of the People’s World with the Daily World; the newspaper’s changeover from daily to weekly; and the adoption of hostile views toward other Left organizations, “which made left unity impossible.” Thus, says Schaffner, “the membership did not have access to information, knowledge of events in other places, knowledge of what resources might be available to carry out policies and decisions, and therefore could not really fully participate in the discussion of policy and program.”
Another club of university workers stated that the leadership “has reduced democratic centralism to a ritualistic exercise, empty of any true content.” A Texas Communist suggested inviting nonparty leftists into the CPUSA conversation. Many letters said democratic centralism was misapplied. Minnesota’s Flynn club maintained: “Censorship of opinions defeats its intended goal of providing a central point of leadership.” A member branded the Party’s “awe of leadership” as “non-communist.” Charlene Mitchell proposed that the “membership be the well from which the Party line flows,” instead of “flowing from the leadership, often from one person, to the membership.” Top-heavy process had produced the colossal “anti-racist majority” error. Another urged, “The Party’s responsibility for determining policy has to be given to the membership for direct decision-making.” Only thus would it “become profoundly relevant and advanced in its mass influence to change this rotten system of increased racism and imperialism.”
Just as the Ideological Conference sought to reassert traditional fundamentals over new questions, but witnessed an intense debate beforehand, the survey of Party democracy served the same cross-purposes: while the Review Commission revved its engines. Radical ideas flowed: Allow the membership to vote for the national leadership, posited a Southern Californian. Abolish predetermined slates of candidates. Make the elections of leadership bodies competitive, by secret ballot and affirmative action guidelines: choose the Review Commission by this format too. Establish limits on holding office, proposed the Brooklyn Heights Club: “after 4 consecutive years in the same office reelection shall require a 2/3 majority vote, and after 8 consecutive years…reelection shall require a ¾ majority vote.” Let all views be represented in the National Committee, making decision-making all embracing: “With regard to democratic centralism, we need a fresh look at everything.”
A number of contributors however felt the critics were making a mountain out of a molehill: democratic centralism was working fine. The critics had failed “to state political complaints in a comprehensive, logical matter.” Had they “experienced instances which they perceived as undemocratic?” Did they even bother to lodge a formal complaint? Another correspondent alleged that demoralization about developments in socialist countries, even among “healthy Comrades,” made them susceptible to insulting the Party. The rising “tendency to look inward” gave license to “those whose only reason for being is to criticize the leadership.”
Organizational secretary Judith LeBlanc reiterated: “A lot of comrades are setting up a sand castle and trying to blow it over.” They based “polemics against the weaknesses of our Party…on gossip, innuendo, and falsehoods…creating an atmosphere of crisis,” a misrepresentation of the input process envisioned by democratic centralism. Gus Hall amplified the point. Of course, democratic centralism could stand improvement. The Party would create new outlets for wider participation, including regional party structures. True, bureaucracy lingered. Nevertheless, “all important questions,” including draft reports, “are submitted to and voted on in the National Board”: nothing was imposed. So long as we “do not move in the direction of liquidating the Party,” all matters might be raised, said Hall. There were no “closed doors…about how to make the political process of leadership more democratic.” But anti-working class ideas loitered behind secret mailings and calls to replace the leadership, maintained Hall. Only the FBI, whose agents “specialize in slander,” would gain. Besides, the Party would not “become an organization that talks endlessly with no end-result in action.”
The criticisms of the leadership emanated from neither single source nor body. Nor were they identical in character and content. An activist recalls “a convergence of different critics and opponents” on a whole range of issues: “what united them was the question of Party democracy” and “the inadequacy of Gus’ leadership.” Hall’s opponents faced scorn as FBI dupes, foes of the working class outlook, and deniers of principles. On the other hand, much of the membership and most of the leadership saw the rising criticisms as a threat to unity.
Monitored by the Review Commission and denounced as subversive, dissenters increasingly communicated with each other through back channels. The leadership understandably branded this out-of-bounds. Yet the authorized meetings where leaders serially rebuked dissenters seemed orchestrated. Why did Hall acolytes regularly chair national meetings, a correspondent wondered: “Comrades who really have no mass base, no ties to anyone”?
As time went on, the most outspoken opponents of the leadership concluded that Hall and his team had combined to act in concert, if not unison. Dissidents called them “the loop,” operating behind the scenes. But many oppositional members and leaders considered themselves “the Party” at its best. Southern Californians in revolt against their district leadership were among the first to meet together. Groups of concerned New Yorkers were not far behind: there were several by 1990.
Increasingly anxious local conversations about the organization’s future mirrored national ones. A National Committee-person from Minnesota recalled that she attended “meetings in New York City comrades’ homes, after the official sessions were adjourned, to discuss the lack of internal democracy and open discussion in the Party.” People with similar views eventually sat together at national meetings. Hall critic Leo Fichtenbaum, of St. Louis, was clearly in a section of sympathizers when he commented sotto voce upon the tumultuous applause welcoming Hall to a podium: “He hasn’t even said anything yet, why does he get an ovation?” At national meetings, there were “certain things you could always count on” including where people sat, who put their names on the speakers list first: “The National Committee had a script—practically role-playing.” Further, “you could predict who was going to say what.” Experience showed that “you could count on people to praise the main report, usually those who spoke early.” Plainly, it was “like a rote thing.” But “there were always people who wouldn’t do this, several you could count on not to do this.” Gil Green boycotted the praise cycle. “You could see who had more independence from how they conducted themselves at National Committee meetings.” However, it took time for more than a handful to break from what a Midwesterner termed “a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of genuflecting.”
“For years,” reflected Angela Davis, “much of the discussion that unfolded in these meetings was quite restricted, restrained, so that many of us forgot how to engage in critical dialog within this space. It sometimes tended to be formulaic, self-association with the contents of any given report.” April Knutson concluded, “Gus required absolute loyalty, including praise from everyone after giving the main report.” Although he was close to Green, Maurice Jackson long adhered to the custom of lauding Hall’s main reports. “We all praised the report at one time or another. If anyone says they didn’t, they’re lying.” But one day, “I just stopped quoting Gus.” Others followed suit, though Hall was wont to ask why. Jackson avers that such people arrived at their conclusions independently. At national meetings, “people would talk.” Jackson “was especially close to Kendra Alexander. Kendra was independent of everybody.” He would sit with her in the back of the hall. Likeminded people would go out to eat after meetings, or “have a little taste,” adds Jackson.
With the increase of division in the Party, Charlene Mitchell began to invite dissident members of the National Committee to her Harlem residence, after meetings or at other times when they were in New York City. Mitchell advised invitees that she was “having a few people over.” The initial get-together, in 1989, heard a report from Carl Bloice, Moscow reporter of the Party newspaper. Attendees included people who had been outspoken in diverse areas: Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, Minnesota, Northern California, and eventually Michigan. Among them were activists like Kendra and Franklin Alexander, Sandra Patrinos, Maurice Jackson, Robert Lindsay, April Knutson, and Jay Schaffner. James E. Jackson eventually came, but “took a long time to come around.” Neither the invitation nor those present surprised Schaffner or Maurice Jackson.
Schaffner remembers, “Gil Green was not at the first meeting, because I think that Charlene and Kendra felt that might put others off. Gil was at all subsequent meetings and actively participated….Gil was isolated by Gus within the Party. Those who knew and worked with him over the years had either left or died.” But “many who were now critical of Gus now began to seek out and talk with Gil. Gil was very uneasy with anything that might be perceived as splitting.” Minus Green, the initial meeting considered “how to turn the Party around” and draw those who theretofore had grumbled privately: Daniel Rubin, Si Gerson, treasurer Sid Taylor, Carl and Helen Winter, Lou Diskin, and others. Eventually, Gil Green hosted similar meetings.
But dissidents in local districts and clubs believed in the Party. Many were stung at being called splitters, hurt by it, and afraid of it. This slowed and diluted a “center” of opposition. Attendance at meetings like Mitchell’s grew as antagonisms alienated and emboldened more people. The timing, views, and concerns were too disparate to form a whole. And the participants, even those related to one another, disagreed on certain points.
The Conference on African-American Equality
In these circumstances, the African-American Equality Commission held a well-attended national conference in the fall of 1990. The South African Communist leader Joe Slovo was a surprise guest, despite CPUSA leaders who disapproved his critical analysis of socialist countries. After all, his denunciation of the command-administer ethos of East European Communist leaders referenced behaviors in all Communist parties. Just as the Ideological confab targeted Hall’s opponents, the Equality meeting put the Hall leadership on the defensive. While all opinions were represented since the Party remained in tact, such gatherings leaned in one direction or another, depending on who supplied impetus.
Chairing, Robert Lindsay brought up troubling problems: “Why the aloofness of the Party from the Black community? Why the deep sectarianism?” The Party made “a gross underestimation of the importance of the fight for equality,” said Lindsay. Events “led by African-Americans….are not considered that important because they are not ‘labor-led.'” “Such thinking,” “pits the class against the national.” Lindsay continued: “more and more the working class is seen as white.” “Our estimation was off as to what stage of the struggle we are in,” presuming the “context that socialism was not too distant a reality, or at least an anti-monopoly coalition government was not far off.”
“I think we were very generous in our assessment of white people’s anti-racist sentiments,” said a speaker. A Chicago member contended that the anti-racist majority concept “minimizes the struggle for the advance of democracy, places it beneath or secondary to the class struggle … Add another dose of sectarian methods of struggle, and the isolation of the significant movements is assured.” In characterizing unity across the color line, the “anti-racist majority” gave “a false impression that such activity is automatic, even natural, and the need for organization by conscious forces gets minimized.” The Party had neglected Freedomways and the Commission’s Black Liberation Journal. Stated a Clevelander, we are “out of touch with Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, and yes, we are out of touch with white workers.” Since black members in anti-apartheid and anti-political repression movements constituted “a critical mass locally that worked in these areas,” another Midwesterner harangued the leadership for assuming they were factionalists. Both movements “were broad coalitions and influential.”
“Slippage” induced insensitivity, a Southern Californian testified. Anger surfaced at a Southern California Equality conference prior to the national one. Only 20 African-Americans remained in the district, according to a presenter. For disagreeing with local leadership “Honest comrades…were literally driven out” of the Party: “Comrades are slandered and labeled if for any reason they are slightly critical” of the District chair. Participants reported tensions between Mexican-American district leaders and African-American members, but stressed, “The split is not based on race.” Rather at stake were the “difference of opinion on what the Party must do to grow and thrive” and the desire “to bring more democracy to the inner life of the Party.” At bottom, “There is a crisis in our Party and until we face up to that fact (and stop blaming it on the work of the enemy or claiming there is a Black-Brown split),” the organization would fail to make its best contribution.
However, the difficulties in Southern California continued. District organizer Evelina Alarcon, an advocate of Hall’s leadership, reported “pervasive chauvinism towards Mexican Americans which exists in our district.” White and black members shouted her down, said Alarcon: insensitivity was rife. She complained that Charlene Mitchell and Kendra Alexander showed up in Los Angeles unannounced and uninvited, at least by the district. In fact, Alexander’s Northern California organization had withheld support from Alarcon’s statewide Peace and Freedom Party candidacy. But most opposition to Alarcon was homegrown.
Gus Hall, Sam Webb, Anthony Monteiro, and other speakers replied to critics at the Equality Conference. While Hall no longer felt the “anti-racist majority is a scientific phrase,” “if we consider all those who are not racist in the broadest sense, then I believe it is a valid concept.” Numerically, he included “the 60 million who are victims of racial and national oppression.” However, he asked the critics to respect the Party’s anti-racist history. A St. Louisan echoed him: “We must not malign the Party.” Monteiro arraigned Lindsay for implying that whites benefitted from discrimination: “There is no place in our Party and in our deliberations for any version of the concept that white workers have a material interest in racism.” Hall and Monteiro agreed upon a more suitable phrase: the “anti-racist consensus” (actually larger than a majority). Behold, said Sam Webb, real class solidarity across the color line was already influencing “new thought patterns of millions of workers.”
But the attendees preponderantly disagreed. Lindsay was blunt: “Take the question of the anti-racist majority. We debated that for three years … Gus has said there is no scientific basis for it. That’s true. Everything shows the contrary. It’s ludicrous to come up with such a formulation. But here we go again, we’re going to raise the ‘anti-racist consensus.’ Now, what does that mean, when we put out a formulation like that? We should not be detoured by such unsubstantiated and incorrect concepts.”
Two developments worsened the CPUSA dynamic in 1991: armed conflict in the Soviet republic of Lithuania and Party hearings on racial insensitivity, a follow-up to critical interventions the year before. The Party had meanwhile announced the forthcoming 25th National Convention, ushering in traditional preparatory work: resolutions, arrangements, finances, choosing delegates. Pertinent committees would be appointed. National and local Party organizations customarily engaged the process: clubs held conferences to review and project activity, and elected convention delegates. But these were unusual times.
Given the loosening of the command and administer format in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, Lithuania witnessed the emergence of national feelings and nationalism, which pulled the republic increasingly out of the Soviet orbit. While the unfolding tendency toward independence of Lithuania included fascistic currents, it also represented profound frustration about how the republic had experienced socialism, initially a product of Soviet wartime policy. Prior to Gorbachev, a republic’s secession or renunciation of socialism might have been addressed through some form of compulsion. Gorbachev however, hesitated at first. But as demonstrations mounted in mid-January, troops intervened, killing 14, wounding hundreds.
Gus Hall treated the action as a timely measure keeping socialism solvent and whole, a long-awaited turning point. Two weeks later, Hall told the National Committee:
One of the questions raised is whether the use of force is justified … Let me give you my approach. In my opinion, the defense of socialism is not the defense of another country or social system. It is much more. It is the defense of human progress. It is a defense of universal human interests. There are many possible levels of democratic methods. There are many methods short of the use of force. But if these democratic methods are deemed to be exhausted, then by any means necessary, is necessary. The struggle for socialism is not a question of choice. Socialism is so fundamental for human progress that it expands the question of how to defend it.
As a sympathizer put it, Hall really “threw down the gantlet on the ideological debate.”
An uproar ensued. James E. Jackson attacked Hall: “It is not our doctrine, humanistically or politically, ‘by any means necessary’. It was a Panthers’ rah-rah slogan at one time. We pursue certain moral codes which are in league with the objectives of communism and the goals of human progress.” “Any means necessary” smacked of rigid control from Stalin’s time. Yet “actually it was not the Panthers slogan at all,” observed Kendra Alexander: it came from Malcolm X, and had been exaggerated to harden civil rights positions. “So on one hand violence by any means necessary and on the other hand nonviolence. What will be the perception of this slogan out there among the masses? … [W]e can’t begin to project that out there among the masses, that’s suicidal.” James Steele suggested that Soviet military action was “unlikely to make the Lithuanians any more pro-Soviet” and queried: “[I]s this the vision of socialism, of Communists wielding government power that we want to project in this country?” Hall’s views revealed “a longing for the simplicity of the Cold War, socialism versus capitalism, proletariat versus bourgeoisie, and that’s it. Each category is homogeneous, nothing else is relevant, no other factors, forces, or dynamics need to be taken into account. Just bring back the good old days, when the leader has the word…”
“By any means necessary” struck James Jackson as “siege socialism, bunker socialism.” Considering Stalin’s repressive legacy, his perceptions sustained Lou Diskin’s earlier questions: “You had such a breakdown. How come the working class left the Czechoslovak Party? How come the working class left the Hungarian Party? How come the working class left the German Party?” Plainly, any means necessary “translates to ‘no matter what,'” said another member, “and stands as a confession of pessimism about…politically solidifying and rejuvenating socialism through work with masses of people.”
However, others rose to Hall’s support. The defense of socialism was a class question, Sam Webb stated: “sometimes the class enemy dictates what’s done and what’s not done.” Another spokesperson thanked Hall for restoring “a basic concept” of class partisanship. Washington’s B.J. Mangoang asked: “What is socialism going to do? Lie down and roll over, when the threat comes to socialism, when physical attacks are made?” Accordingly, whoever shrank from “any means necessary” would likely minimize other battles with the ruling class. Concession, said Hall, was the essence of “right opportunism,” the Party’s biggest problem. Thus, there were “some comrades who were basically losing faith in … having a revolution in the United States.” They exhibited the wishy-washiness of middle-class types. According to Illinois organizer Scott Marshall, dissenters downplayed the Party’s importance, denigrated industrial workers, and glossed socialism as a “gradualist evolution of democracy.”
But a union activist replied: “I’m worried that when we raise questions that we’re viewed as if we’re not fighting for the Party. I resent that … This is my Party. I believe in this Party.” In turn, Marshall called her loyalty “full of shit,” adding “No one can stand above the fray, everyone must take sides.” Jarvis Tyner of New York found it ironic that dissidents labeled Hall “Stalinist” but couldn’t handle being called “right opportunists”: it was a case of goose and gander. Yet another member cut to the chase: “[I]f we continue in this direction … we will have a divided Party and at some point we will probably have a split or a walkout.”
The situations in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries acted as spur to the rupture of the CPUSA, inducing spiraling of all disputes, including ones unrelated to socialism abroad. The issues in question had existed for years, moldered by discipline, loyalty, and unity. Debate collapsed, gloves came off.
The “Committee to Investigate Problems of Insensitivity in the Leadership” deliberated amidst the turmoil of “any means necessary.” Specifically mandated to examine “By-Passing of Black Leadership & Related Questions,” the Committee comprised thirteen members, eight of whom generally identified with Hall’s leadership. The committee distributed a survey with eight questions, political and personal. A Chicagoan vowed “he would not be forced out of the Party by the racism he has encountered.” Carl Winter exclaimed, “In 69 years of membership in the CPUSA,” he had “never seen Black-White relationships so deteriorated or such a low level of understanding of the need to struggle against racism.” However, Gus Hall warned, “some comrades” “with “political axes to grind” were “not honest in raising questions of racism in the Party.”
People’s Weekly World editor Barry Cohen reported that African-American journalist-scholar Timothy Johnson had been denied a long-promised appointment to a promised Southern PWW “bureau” in Birmingham. Charlene Mitchell testified that her office was isolated from the other National Board members: “In and of itself this was insensitive, but when I raised it several times and nothing was done, it became an act of racism.” In turn, Jarvis Tyner suspected Mitchell and others of Black nationalism, urging “we must not shy away from a discussion of nationalism either, as it is a result of chauvinism or a reflection of a wrong political outlook.” Evelina Alarcon described repeated acts of “insensitivity toward me as a Mexican-American woman,” which created an intolerable situation in Southern California. Alarcon identified behind-the-scenes culprit Kendra Alexander, tying her in with “a factional group of comrades operating in our District. It meets and organizes outside the district structure. It spreads rumors. It’s anti-leadership.”
Like Alarcon, Gus Hall linked the insensitivity with disrupters hell-bent on division. Indeed, “Factionalism has affected how we have dealt with the question of racism.” Through extravagant allegations, accusers sought to remove the leadership. Denying complicity in bias, he cited his anti-racist record: public speeches, TV and radio shows, and “in most, if not all, the hundred or so update tapes that go to over 500, including opinion-makers.”
The Insensitivity panel ironically assigned James E. Jackson to give a final report. Opposing Jackson then would have been unseemly (though his microphone was silenced months later at the 25th convention). His disdain for Hall palpable, Jackson presented a picture of “un-comradely attitudes toward leading Black comrades.” This was “not a tempest in a teapot,” but posed “the danger of a real hemorrhage of Blacks from the Party.” The top leadership was the faction. (Privately he said: “Gus has a racist clique behind him.”) He noted: “There is a loop in the leadership circle which is not called for and admission to the inner circle is difficult.” It operated by “excessive flattery and extravagant put-downs to those not in the loop, which include the leading Black comrades.” Hall nevertheless responded, “I am very proud of my record” against racism, which included the battle against it in the Steelworkers union. Colleague Elena Mora emphasized Hall’s “very special quality…as a white worker who has given his life to the struggle for the emancipation of our multiracial working class.” Youth leader John Bachtell praised Hall’s “lifelong devotion” to the cause. An additional ally praised Hall’s anti-racism as exemplary to all white Communists.
Salutes to Hall’s bias-fighting prowess, especially from whites, proved irritating. Detroit’s John Henry was fed up with the insinuation that complainants invoked “insensitivity” for factional aims: Hall left white Communists off the hook. Henry advised a friend: “Any act or lack of action based on concern about ‘factionalism’ bolsters racism and Stalinism, at this concrete moment.” To tone down the argument in favor of “pleasantness, quiet, calm, un-agitated process is objectively more and more equal to outright, rabid support for the backward top leadership group.” On the contrary, “the key controversial issues must be fought out onto the agendas but also outside of meetings, because the time is so short.”
The perception that the leadership was stigmatizing the airing of problems produced formats to share dissent outside conventional channels, which limited it. The best example of these were the distribution trees for mailings that began appearing around the country by the end of 1990. The lists to whom communications were sent grew and generated new ones. Distributors were overwhelmed by the response. Pooling many opposition standpoints, the mailings generated offshoots as intended. Disseminators relied on known sympathizers to add names to the tree. What the Review Commission had earlier reprimanded individuals for, assembling their own mailing lists, became custom in the work of distributors throughout 1991. However, speculations on worthy or interested recipients were sometimes mistaken. Thus, someone dispatched material to a Floridian friendly with James West, head of the Review Commission: in fact, she would soon be nominated to that body. She told West the newsletter of the Northern California district with its “Gus-bashing” articles was sent her, unsolicited. Suspecting a locus in Northern California, the National Board called in Northern Californian Kendra Alexander to discuss the burgeoning trees. Alexander considered the mailings helpful in bringing out ideas. Still, James Jackson told those present that district organizers associated with Hall had committed acts more factional than the trees. Jackson may have heard an anti-Hall lampoon by long-standing comrade John Pittman: “The old adage about ignoring the beam in one’s own eyes while deploring the mote in the eyes of another is applicable to the case in point.” Needless to say, Alexander refused to act against local distributors.
The ingredients boiled together inseparably, each acting upon the other, yet somehow remaining in the same pot, inevitably affecting the morale and focus of the clubs. Argument raged over which side represented working class values and was the true embodiment of the Communist Party. Thus Hall’s team condemned the other side’s “tendency to avoid struggle.” It argued that anti-leadership forces were so divorced from workers that they utilized an alienating lexicon: “those workers,” “that class,” “it,” or “they,” but never “us” or “we.” Internal critics thus epitomized the “large number of middle class members” in the organization, of whom “emotional scenes” and “dramatic outbursts” were characteristic. Bound to the “unstable, inconsistent role of middle-strata in this struggle,” the opposition especially slowed its clock to the tempo of African-American middle-class elected officials, wrote Illinois’ Mark Almberg. Dissenters lacked proletarian foundations for criticism. But longtime Communist Joe Sims insists, “You needed a working class standard to judge the Party,” whatever its weaknesses.
The Hall leadership pictured the petit-bourgeois status of its opponents. Think about the damage “intellectuals” had done to the Soviet Union, asserted Indiana’s organizer. Clearly, contended Sam Webb, “the current divisions and crisis in the Party have class as well as ideological roots.” Plainly, “Some of our intellectuals and middle class comrades have wavered in the face of monopoly’s assault directed at the U.S. working class and the countries of socialism.” Remedy lay in recruiting more workers, who should “predominate in numbers and influence in leading bodies” and be “less prone to extreme swings in policy and panic during moments when monopoly is on the offensive.”
At the National Committee gathering in May 1991, 11 members distributed a joint statement, “The Message,” challenging the draft resolution for the 25th convention. Asserting that the draft lacked “a wide range of views right from the beginning,” the signers expressed “major disagreements with the main document,” especially the singling out of “right opportunism” as the “main danger.” In a contentious moment, the National Committee majority reacted indignantly to “The Message,” voting 44 to 26 to demand its withdrawal. It “represented a factional coming together of Comrades outside an official Party collective.” But the eleven disavowed a split: “this is not our intention at all,” said Kendra Alexander.
A consensus document exemplifying the national convention was now out of the question. Positions would be voted up or down. The Party leadership would programmatically exclude what it deemed anti-working class views, or any subterfuge to “slip something over on us, to radically recast the Party,” according to Hall ally Rick Nagin. The Message submitters had perpetrated the most egregious violation imaginable, said Sam Webb: defying “Party procedure, Party channels, Party structures.” But an autoworker ridiculed the orchestrated denunciation of “The Message” at the National Committee. It reminded him of a UAW convention: not a compliment.
With the warning of a dissenter ringing in its ears: “We have a deep problem in this Party, and it is indeed…whether this Party is going to stay united or not,” the National Committee agenda turned awkwardly to preparations for the 25th National Convention. One discussant was “so tense that my back went out,” due to the great stress and “emotionally wrought” discussions. As far as she could see, “it was falling apart.” But in ostensibly normal fashion, the National Committee designated committees (where Hall supporters predominated) on arrangements, rules, budget, resolutions, program, and constitution, populating them somewhat disproportionately with members at loggerheads. Several dissenters refused to serve. Routine process was illusory: “Stop agitating, Kendra. Stop agitating,” a chair warned the Northern California organizer.
Factions and Class
Soon after this disturbing meeting, the Party held a national Conference on the Working Class. Hall deemed it “the turning point in the preconvention discussion.” Planned by a small circle, it aimed to address new stages “in the role and place of the class struggle.” Around 200 delegates were to gather in Chicago. Few Chicago Communists knew of it in advance. “I don’t recall hearing any explanation of the working class movement conference,” one of that city’s leading cadre explained. A union organizer from Boston, belatedly privy to the event, believed “the NC is being circumvented.”
Gus Hall was the keynote speaker. He connected the CPUSA opposition with Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he attacked at great length. Against these diseased representatives stood the CPUSA, the working class, and true Communists worldwide. Fundamentally, “workers in basic and mass production industries carry on the class struggle at the point of production daily;” their numbers notwithstanding, they held “pivotal importance.” “Opportunism is a tranquilizer” in the class struggle, deployed “to neutralize, to tone down” the bitter truth about capitalism. Its calling card is “to bypass, ignore, or retreat from the objective truth that the class struggle is the inner nature, the essence of capitalism.”
The gathering acclaimed the Hall leadership’s working class DNA. The Conference examined labor trends, but attracted half the projected number of delegates, chiefly from several Midwest districts. The two largest districts, New York and Northern California, had only ten delegates apiece. The meeting nonetheless painted a graphic portrait of a middle-class opposition threatening to capture the Party. Its traits were deadly: fear of capitalism, retreat from struggle, no confidence in industrial workers, preference for non-working class movements. Reinforcing core principles, Hall stressed, “If you want a tree to grow, you must be careful not to destroy or cut its roots.” For “that which is new must never be viewed as a replacement of the old, of the roots.”
Such declarations elicited fresh testimonials for Hall’s assumedly deeper working-class understanding. Thus, observed one, the dissenters marked “a definite step in the descent of a certain strata away from the Party and the working class.” The internal critics incarnated “the arm chair reformist, the social democrat, the disheartened and tired middle class activist…” They had, asserted the Ohio leadership, abandoned “the entire concept of class struggle.” What determined their “petit-bourgeois thought patterns,” offered Hall, was “the individualistic nature of their jobs,” in contrast to the collective labor of workers. The tendency mounted to associate the opposition with intellectuals. Some went further: “In fact most of them were born with ‘silver spoons in their mouths,’ spoons which are still lodged firmly in place.” Having never “experienced exploitation first hand,” they enjoyed “elite high schools” and parental support “full time through 4 years of college and eight to ten years of postgraduate work…” To be sure, “many of them are the children of the bourgeoisie,” hardly “fertile ground for recruiting Communists,” according to a New Yorker.
But a substantial minority of the Party refused to drape Hall and others in a working class mantle. Unless the organization recognized the workforce’s “altered race and sex composition” and the emergence of new production fields “which create significant…surplus value,” its labor policy was wishful thinking, said a Midwest organizer. A West Coaster faulted the leadership for taking workers for granted: “I still think we are framed into the old way of seeing workers, especially male workers, that just by the fact he [sic] stands at the point of production it follows that he has an automatic built-in advanced consciousness.” Another commented: “The suggestion that Communists who are ‘industrial workers’ are somehow endowed with special ideological powers simply by virtue of their site of employment is insulting. It reduces every Communist who suffers exploitation at some other site in the capitalist process to a second class Marxist-Leninist.”
The middle class stereotype was plain anti-intellectualism, declared an Ohio industrial worker. Going to college does not make one bourgeois, needless to say a capitalist. “The only way to know a comrade’s dedication to the working class is by his work and deeds,” by “whether one serves the interests of the working class or the capitalist system.” For all the “fresh winds,” said a transit worker, the leadership ignored that “they blow from below,” favoring cooperation with union officers as an end in itself while resting content with jobsite distributions of newspapers to workers. Why, asked a factory worker, wasn’t the Party trying to build a broader leftwing in the labor movement? Angered by the AFL-CIO’s anti-Cuba, anti-affirmative action attitudes, which the CPUSA rarely mentioned, a retired autoworker blasted the ostracizing of labor firebrand Ernie De Maio for his pertinent criticisms: De Maio attracted Review Commission scrutiny.
In view of the rapidly approaching December 1991 Convention, the Review Commission’s James West urged the dissenters to get out of the Party. “We are told in essence to shut the fuck up,” said a Washington longshoreman. West called for an end to all private communications, which some read as censorship. How can we “get our directional bearings” without “interaction, conflict of opinion, and democratic decision-making?” inquired the Flynn club of Minnesota. Naturally, with the Convention nigh and the stakes higher, the Commission was more vigilant. National Committee-member Maurice Jackson (a historian of the 18th century Atlantic world and jazz) was accused of inducing Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval to defect, a dubious charge. In response, a dissenting member of the Commission attacked West for violating his investigatory mandate.
Despite Hall’s continuing strength, the counter-current remained viable. At a time when Soviet Communists were disassociating themselves “from the policies of Stalin and those who learned at his knee,” it was high time for CPUSA leaders to cease “their claims of innocence,” which only “make us look foolish,” contended an industrial club. To many Party dissidents, the apparent clampdown on criticism evoked the Stalinist tradition. That the CPUSA viewed itself as the Left’s main or only constituent, reflected the legacy of acrimony between Communists and nonparty leftists, and the rigidity with which Communists viewed the latter worldwide. The “we-have-the-only truth” attitude both stigmatized others and isolated the Party.
The organization, asserted a West Coaster, must explain its denial of “errors and crimes” in socialist countries. Asking, “Why did we want so desperately to believe our rosy picture of the socialist countries?” He submitted clues: “One is the desire to be able to point to a successful real world example of the system we are struggling for, so that we can say on solid grounds, ‘Yes it works.'” And it made U.S. Communists “feel ourselves as an integral part of a powerful world movement working for the goals we seek.” Another added: “We thought we had seen the future, and that it worked. The goal we were fighting for was not just an idea; it was actually being achieved in many countries,” whose occasional problems “we laid exclusively at the door of capitalism…” In short, “the crisis in our Party can’t be separated from the fact that many of our ideas were based on falsehoods and deceptions.” Though many shared these insights, the main resolution section on socialist countries excluded them, instead finding Mikhail Gorbachev basically responsible for Soviet crisis.
The August Coup
The attempted coup d’etat against Gorbachev in August 1991 thus tore through the Party like a bomb. Carried out by several leading Soviet Communists without popular mandate, the coup purportedly served to buttress Soviet socialism by the “any means necessary” endorsed by Gus Hall earlier that year. In the aftermath, the Soviet Communist Party itself was banned and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Opening with Gorbachev’s removal on August 19th, the coup mixed a show of force with unclear direction. Devoid of grassroots support, it collapsed in three days. Nevertheless, Gus Hall addressed the National Board on August 20th: his taped remarks went out to the clubs. Joking that he was not complicit in the coup, he called Gorbachev’s backsliding on socialism “a basis for removing the leader of the party.” Whether Gorbachev’s “poor health” [the coup-makers’ cited pretext] rebounded, the CPUSA must oppose his return, which anti-Communists were seeking: “Well the question of course emerges what specifically should we as the Party do? Well I think obviously what we should not do is to join in the bring back Gorbachev campaign because that is the basis of the Cold War, that we would line up with them and I don’t think that’s necessary…”
The resulting tumult led many silent members to speak out. Even steadfast Hall associate Phillip Bonosky wondered if Hall had lost his senses. Bonosky fully believed in force to establish and maintain socialism, to “clean out the entire class from which the opposition spontaneously rises: the petty bourgeoisie.” But if Hall really supported the August coup, wrote Bonosky, “this certainly marks the end of him as Party leader.” Bonosky wondered if “Gus’ role has ended because he came out…in favor of the coup,” and asked again, “How much has Gus Hall’s position been compromised?” One National Committee member, who had hesitated to dissent, wrote a protest to the National Board. Gil Green, Maurice Jackson, and James Steele upbraided Hall to USA Today and National Public Radio. Jackson commented, “Two years ago I said, ‘Gus you will end up like Brezhnev. You are considered great now, but when you die they will take your medals.'” The Review Commission thereupon prohibited press interviews: there seemed so many fires to stamp out.
From Moscow, Carl Bloice reported the unpopular coup attempt. The Party newspaper’s associate editor, he had been more contextual in analyzing Soviet problems than the prevailing blame on Gorbachev would envision. Clubs invited him to visit, and he began a national speaking tour after returning home at the end of the summer. Eagerness to hear Bloice was not universal, however. The Southern California leadership protested his engagements there. Even earlier, the Illinois district had chastised clubs that hosted him. When he spoke, he argued that the Soviet collapse resulted from the historic “manner in which the leadership is chosen and the degree to which it is accountable to the led.” This deepened “the inefficiency of the party-state structure molded by Joseph Stalin and the absence—indeed the repression of—the forms of independent self-organization of the people fostered by Lenin.”
Hall’s coup statement turned off many Party clubs, whose statements momentarily flooded the Party leadership. The consensus of communicated comments proved the persistent opposition. The Northern California district censured him. Albany, New York members met to hear the “update tape” together: “We convened an informal emergency club meeting and, as a group, listened to Gus Hall’s rambling remarks to the national leadership, in which he essentially expressed support for the coup attempt. I was furious. Although it was not surprising to hear Hall’s antagonism to Gorbachev, this was truly beyond the pale. Most of the other club members agreed.”
Maurice Jackson and the D.C.-Virginia district called upon “Gus Hall and those others of you who agree with these policies and who supported the coup [to] either resign or be relieved of your duties.” Minnesota Communists announced: “We members of the CPUSA call upon the National Committee to replace Comrade Hall as national chairman of the Party.” The Tom Paine club in Southern California accused the leadership of “astonishing lapses in knowledge and even good sense.” Oregon’s Mid-Valley branch was grateful “that we didn’t have to read Gus Hall’s defense of the coup.” Wisconsin’s Cookson-Hansberry unit issued a grievance against the Party’s post-coup rebuke of James Steele, Gil Green, and Maurice Jackson, “men of integrity because they are willing to tell the truth about the real problems we have to face.” And down the line: the San Francisco West, Chelsea II, Austin, Cambridge, Haywood, California and many other clubs, all centering on a chief objection: “No Party can stand before the people and claim any commitment to democracy and the fundamental principle that the people are the makers of history, and tolerate such statements from its highest officer.”
On the eve of an emergency National Committee session, Charlene Mitchell, James E. Jackson, and Daniel Rubin drove home the point: “How could the seizure of power by armed might from an elected government and the imposition of martial law not torpedo progress toward a democratic, law-governed socialist state?” Thus “it merited a clear-cut condemnation as a matter of principle.” Yet while a seeming crescendo rose against Hall’s tacit support for the putsch, many clubs, districts, and members still had his back. Hall himself emphasized that Gorbachev had conceded imperialism’s 75-year onslaught against the Soviet Union, to which the coup players responded, if ineptly. Nonetheless, a resolution denouncing the coup and Hall’s “neither condemn nor condone” stance, won 33 National Committee votes in favor, opposed by 30 others. Still, the Party paper published the embarrassing vote totals. The vote marked the first setback for the Party leadership and represented the oppositional spread.
Hall’s supporters rendered a somber estimate: “It’s too bad that a number of comrades were taken in…and voted for [t]his basically anti-socialist resolution.” Hall called out those who had chastised him in the “bourgeois press”: “That’s what factionalism does. It goes to the extent of using the mass media to split the Party, distort our pubic image, and divert the people from what is really important.” The coup controversy, he continued, revealed “a factional center and factional network of individuals….working to destroy our Party from within.” He considered the Jackson-Rubin-Mitchell statement “factional treachery”: they had used the coup as camouflage to attack the Party.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries accentuating the long-running problems of the CPUSA, the organization doggedly held its fall district conventions, preceded by club conferences. The Party leadership sent some of its foremost members to help shape delegate selection from each district to the national convention. Prominent visitors included Labor Commission secretary Sam Webb who, recalled Missouri-Kansas delegate Carl Fichtenbaum, “came to town …to shore up enough votes. I believe there were some meetings in private with voting members to ensure that there were sufficient votes.” Consequently, delegates ousted the district organizer, dissenter Leo Fichtenbaum. Webb also landed in Minnesota a week before that convention, held meetings, and endeavored to influence delegate choice. But when Northern Californians invited members from other districts to their convention, the National Board called it “a blatant factional attempt to interfere in the affairs of other districts and influence the outcomes of their state conventions and the national convention.”
The Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party
Since club and state conferences would determine the outcome of the National Convention, their coincidence induced the different sources of opposition into a single stream. Even so, the “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party,” the fall 1991 statement of 1200 members, proposed neither a separate structure nor a breakaway. But by implication, the Party would lose them. Though there had been earlier calls to reorient the Party, the solicitation and collection of signatures from a third of the membership necessitated unprecedented coordination. An original signer explained: “Unorthodox methods, such as…the ‘Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party’, are dictated by the fact that many of us have been systematically denied access to or have been excluded completely from the de facto decision-making processes…” The dissenters in the Party were forced to take this step: “We…have had to contend with a runaway leadership—unaccountable, unresponsive, uninformed, isolated, increasingly lacking in political legitimacy and moral authority.” Hall’s adherents however viewed the Initiative through the last straw. Hall was indignant that the Initiative drafters “refused to say who wrote it, who is circulating it, who is collecting the names and what will be done with the statement and where it will be printed.”
The Initiative urged a “thorough, balanced review of the Party’s theory, policies, and practice.” Moreover, it held that the organization suffered “stagnation in theoretical concepts” (low-lighted by the anti-racist majority) and “self-imposed isolation” from the environmental and other progressive movements. Significantly, “while the ultra-right has furiously attacked women’s rights precisely to divide the people, a kind of simplistic interpretation of a class approach has led us to pay scant attention to the very dynamic women’s movement.” The document reviewed key problems: an inadequate electoral policy; backward steps in combating racism; silence in the face of serious shortcomings in socialist nations: “But our desire not to give any real comfort to the enemies of socialism led us to close our eyes to the real problems within these societies.” The Initiative endorsed greater inner-Party democracy, more open elections of Party leaders.
Circulation entailed discrete distributors in the districts, particularly at the local conventions. Initiators kept records of signatures by state and club. Not surprisingly, New York and Northern California accounted for over half the signatures. Southern California and Illinois came next. The percentage of signers per district membership tells a slightly different story. Thus, somewhat less than half the district membership signed in New York, though pro-Initiative sentiment was greater than the number of signatures. While some New York-area clubs were disunited, numerous community and several key labor units stood solidly behind the Initiative: the teachers in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the health care workers, for example. With the coming of the state convention, however, New Yorkers who supported Hall’s team would be more vocal. Most Communists in Northern California, Washington D.C./Virginia, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin signed the Initiative. By the eve of the National Convention, one-third of the total Party membership had signed on, along with 40 percent of the National Committee.
One Hall backer was unsurprised to find among the signers the usual “Judas goats: like Herbert Aptheker, …Gil Green, perhaps Angela Davis.” But the appearance of a thousand rank-and-filers indicates the breadth of dissent. Despite the working class identity assumed by the Party leadership, labor leaders Louis Weinstock (“Mr. May Day”), Ann Burlak Timpson (the “Red Flame” of textile unionism), and the Party’s staid perennial labor reporter George Morris signed the Initiative. None was a maverick, though Timpson had spoken against sectarianism and enjoyed a youthful following in New England; Weinstock despised Hall. That the document included such longtime loyalists demonstrates the scope of dissent.
Many signers had energized the work for generations: the Massachusetts stalwart Ed Teixeira; Helen Lima, a front-rank Californian; most of the Alabama district committee; Molly Gold of the Review Commission; civil rights pioneer Dorothy Burnham; lifetime members Susan Kling, Ishmael Flory, and Sig Eisenscher, along with Joyce Lightfoot, widow of Chicago’s Claude Lightfoot; John and Margrit Pittman, leading journalists for decades; Mary Kaufman, a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials and Smith Act defense attorney; the chief anti-apartheid and anti-repression organizers in Illinois; the key district personnel in Wisconsin and state veterans Fred and Mary Blair; and Bernice Linton, the longest-serving office functionary. Present among the signers were Communists who had supported excluding gays and lesbians, or backed the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. Prior foes of the feminist movement were among the Initiators.
For some, the irony of the Party’s attack upon Gorbachev after decades of rationalizing erroneous Soviet policies marked the point of no return: “That’s one area that made me leave the Party….That’s when I tried to think it through.” People contemplated diverse exits. Many imagined a future in the Party under different conditions. But two months before the December Convention, others had concluded it was a lost cause. Once the districts chose national convention delegates, the result was guaranteed. “I think,” said one, “I knew that the CPUSA was no longer the organization for me a few months before the Cleveland convention after repeated attempts to encourage discussion of the Joe Slovo report failed and the Party would not allow open, pre-convention discussions.”
The election of the new national committee became a nearly final bone of contention. It involved “the problem of succession in the highest leadership of the Party,” said an Ohioan. The Initiative-backers proposed to abolish the traditional pre-chosen “slate.” Signers instead advocated representation of differing viewpoints, allowing extensive floor nominations. Said one: “It is not the faces that must be changed….It is the Process.” A Northern Manhattan club called for a rotating chair, term limits and a National Committee reduced by half. A Los Angeles club decried the slate method, which often produced leaders with “astonishing lapses in knowledge and even good sense,” while a local member rued the absence of rules “for the regular rotation of leadership.” Approximating the Michael Myerson-Gil Green disdain for “toadies,” even a Hall supporter once advised Hall to ditch sycophantic coworkers, A Detroiter wrote that a slate-based “elite” would wield “unfair advantage and bias in the discussions and presentations of differences…” A teachers club urged. “that pre-determined positions of the top leadership not be imposed on the Party.”
But Party leaders believed intentional representation of diverse opinions in the national leadership would legalize factions and impair majority rule. A Hall-ally spoke against the Initiators’ proposal: “I was appalled. This is just the kind of thing that breeds division in the Party…. Its purpose is to disrupt constructive discussion on the program and plan of work for our Party in the coming period.”
A Guaranteed Convention
The national convention would decide the national leadership, and thus the future of the Party. Clubs chose representatives to district conventions, which in turn elected delegates to the national gathering. While club-elected Communists held diverse opinions, the district meetings filtered out delegates for the main event. Several actions helped bring this about. Convention rules determined dues deadlines to establish delegate eligibility. But monitoring committees found a number of delinquent districts, coincidentally where many members had signed the Initiative. Perceived dues discrepancies immediately reduced or nullified national convention delegations from Northern California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C., for example.
Having collected but mistakenly not submitted the required sums, Northern Californians requested an extension, to no avail. According to the National Board, the late submission was irreparable: therefore only half the district’s members were in good standing. Its delegation to the national convention was cut accordingly. Veteran Helen Lima was indignant: “The motion to extend the deadline was the comradely action in this situation, since an error was obvious. Any other organization—unions, churches, seniors—(except ours)—would have taken that action.” The D.C.-Virginia organization also tendered dues a bit late: the Board disqualified all the district’s elected delegates to the national convention. The capital’s members replied: “There is no question in any of our minds that this is a political attack on Comrade Maurice Jackson for his outspoken views.” Perhaps they had seen Board member Victor Perlo’s memo calling Jackson anti-working class. The Board declared the Wisconsin district ineligible for the convention because of perceived violations of procedures. The Board barred three members from Santa Cruz from national delegacy. Their club responded: “We strongly believe that the National Board’s exclusion of our elected delegates from the National Convention will be tantamount to saying ‘We don’t want you in the Communist Party.'” The Michigan district expressed surprise that the national leadership used lower membership averages to calculate the state’s national delegation.
The dispatching of leadership emissaries to local conventions (to forestall Initiative signers as national delegates) also enjoyed success. It helped lead to a national convention overwhelmingly opposed to the Initiative and the long-germinating opposition, thus insuring greater identity of views in leadership elections. Against this, the Sonoma club warned: “Your increasingly shrill cries for ‘unity’ ring hollow. What you seek is unanimity, a cowed acceptance of anything the Board proposes. It is you who make unity impossible by your disrespectful, undemocratic maneuverings.” In store was “the deliberate dismemberment of the Party,” said an experienced Hall opponent: the incumbents would go on, “facing no challenge to their thinking, methods, or tenure.” For they had uttered “”not one word of self-criticism” and would surely get away with it, another stated.
Alabamans sympathetic to the Initiative were insulted that their delegation was cut back: “No one down here in the South thought that such obscure and anti-democratic technicalities would be used to disenfranchize good and worthy comrades from participation in the Convention.” The Washington State convention refused to seat several Initiative signers because of reputedly late dues. Minnesotans in good standing “were denied our credentials.” Illinois members contended that their district’s compiled slate of national delegates “excluded all those nominated by clubs who had signed the Initiative” and thus “any comrade suspected of harboring views critical of the leadership.” Recalled one, “We were dis-elected.” Outspoken Louis Weinstock was denied the floor at the Southern California convention. Members of that district’s 8th and Vermont club protested that the district leadership seated fraudulent delegates from five non-existent clubs, while disqualifying legitimate ones. Several area clubs demanded decertification of the resulting delegation to the national convention. Protestors maintained that leading African-American members were denied credentials. In fact, “every club in So. California which elected delegates opposed to the undemocratic, Stalinist, command-style of leadership had their delegates removed as well.” The district’s Martin club concluded: “We believe, based upon what has taken place in the past two to three years that the CPUSA cannot be reformed.”
The New York convention was exceptional. The state delegates chosen by the district’s clubs were generally sympathetic to the Initiative: the majority of the state committee had signed it. A member of the teachers’ union delivered a report representing this majority; Jarvis Tyner, the chair and member of the National Board, gave a minority report. The majority report faulted the Party for subordinating the women’s movement, while urging an end to “labeling of ideas and comrades as ‘anti-working class,’ ‘right opportunist’ and ‘factional.'” But these characterizations, Tyner responded, were accurate, not epithetical; he also protested that the state committee majority had targeted him for defeat.
Tyner read the signs with some accuracy. The convention decisively rejected a proposal to adopt both reports. By a similar margin, delegates approved the pro-Initiative presentation as the main report; Tyner’s was not adopted. The New Yorkers elected a convincingly pro-Initiative national convention delegation, after a hospital worker passed around a sheet listing all state signers, which he insisted was informational. The shoe was on the other foot indeed. The New York convention replaced Tyner as chair with a coordinating body. It also removed the organizational secretary. Tyner took his exclusion as “factional, bureaucratic, and chauvinistic.” Still professing his post, he rapidly gained support from sympathizers in New York and around the country.
One backer believed Tyner’s would-be ouster was “a real gang up…against Gus.” He added: “I smell FBI work here.” But James West advised him “chin up,” since the “good delegations coming from the working-class areas—Chicago, Cleveland, W. Penna, Detroit” would carry the day at the national convention. They would beat “the slick, ‘advanced,’ professionals, the academics,” who “are making a bid for power.” Several New York clubs denounced the state convention. Its tone, said the Astoria, Queens club majority, “can only be called provocative.” Worse was Tyner’s dismissal “without even a thank you from any member of the new State Committee.”
When an Initiative signer compared the Party to a dysfunctional family with a history of abuse, a member recoiled: “This comrade…took a dump in the family’s living room.” Brooklyn’s shorefront clubs voted confidence in Tyner. Twenty New Yorkers called for reinstatement of “those who have shown through deeds that they are not only willing, but able.” A Westchester club condemned the decision-making sway of members “hostile to the Party leadership;” another club criticized the convention for giving undue weight to the pro-Initiative “Hospital, Teachers, Transit and Washington Heights-Inwood Clubs.” Pro-Hall members in majority anti-Hall clubs also spoke out.
But while New Yorkers may have hoped their convention boded well for Party reform, a new state leader worried: “expulsions will come.” Statements around the country validated her concern. From Ohio came resounding solidarity with both Tyner and Southern California’s Alarcon, of whom “the factional campaign…has made special targets…” Buckeyes saluted the “revolutionary, working class leadership of Comrade Gus Hall.” New Jersey expressed “full confidence in …our National Chair, Comrade Gus Hall,” for “his unyielding loyalty to the working class, to national liberation and to socialism.”
Pre-arranged slates facilitated pro-Hall proclamations. Behind “the national factional network,” declared Evelina Alarcon in Los Angeles, stood the Northern California district, which subverted her in racist fashion and consorted with Trotskyists (toward whom the district was actually unfriendly). Be on “guard against factional splitting,” warned the Eugene, Oregon club. Worst and foremost, Houstonians declared, was the Initiative, the “embryonic factional body within the Party.” A Jersey club congratulated Hall’s team for the “extreme patience and principled manner in which it is handling the factionalists…” The Initiative could obliterate the Party, said the Illinois state board. It was, stated Hall, “conceived and produced in secrecy,” “circulated through an underground network.” But realizing that many members still hesitated to take a side, Ohio’s Rick Nagin wanted “as many of the ‘middlers’ as possible” on board. Hall agreed.
Against this backdrop, James Steele characterized the Hall leadership as the “best-organized faction in the Party”: “I am a member of the Communist Party, not the Gus Hall Party.” The Board damned his “slander against the Party and Comrade Hall.” Yet there was also relief at headquarters over pending exoduses: “I cannot say I will miss them…Their going marks the exit of a type of Communist I’d grown to know only too well, who had managed over the years, not only to ‘better’ themselves financially but, soaked in the anti-Communist, anti-working class atmosphere of New York, absorbed some or much of it through their very pores.”
News that dissident members had arranged a meeting hall across the street from the National Convention site in the Sheraton Cleveland hotel illuminated the last days. To Hall’s supporters, it supplied shocking evidence of war upon the Party. No more “concessions,” announced Gus Hall: “We are not a social organization. We are a political party. We are a Communist Party.” We are “not a “coalition,” declared the Ohio Party organization, thus eschewing “differing or opposing class outlooks.” The National Committee voted that the “factional center and network must disband” and “cancel the rental of the hall.” It urged Initiative signers “who treasure the unity of our Party [to] withdraw their names from the list.” Several complied. One did “because I am loyal to the Party and do not want my name used to help foment a split,” but cautioned “only the fullest involvement of the members and the fullest two-way communication with the members can forestall this sort of thing from happening.”
National Committee member Jay Schaffner hired Room 211 in the Cleveland Convention Center. As his skepticism of the leadership rose, the Review Commission expanded scrutiny, despite a dissenter’s warning that “persecution of Jay” would “do great harm to the reputation of the Party, beginning with the NRC itself.” Gus Hall asked, “Who is Jay Schaffner getting his instructions from?” Hall considered ludicrous the argument that Room 211 would benevolently host “those denied attendance at [the] convention,” especially when the disqualified delegates would be discussing the status of the CPUSA. The Party thus gave short shrift to a dissenter’s final appeal: “The 1000 plus supporters of the Initiative are not the biggest threat to [the] CPUSA”: the real danger lies in “trying to shut us up.” Another rationale was also dismissed:
No room would have to be rented if you had not disfranchised half the California membership and numerous other comrades in districts across the country which are perceived as hotbeds of dissent from the current leadership. No room would be necessary if the NC had not decided to wall off the convention from members of the Party who wanted to observe, and even from delegates whose credentials were subject to appeal while their appeals are still pending.
Meanwhile, local conventions had assured a final delegate make-up mainly aligned against the Initiative. Jay Schaffner reminisced, “The outcome of the convention…was a foregone conclusion.” Some “dis-elected” delegates and cut-down districts would appeal for admission once in Cleveland. Minnesotans “went to Cleveland anyway in a last-ditch effort to speak out.” But “we were denied our credentials.” Unaccredited delegates from Los Angeles already had reached the dire conclusion: “Although some in the organization will remain ‘in’ until they die, we are of the tendency that feels the Party can NOT be reformed from its Stalinist heritage and present levels of corruption, nepotism, and cronyism.” Some determined to fight anyway, others to mingle with and support them: Room 211 would be their meeting place.
Some dissenters brought draft resolutions to the Convention on African-American and women’s equality, and internal democracy. Replete with Initiative signers, the New York delegation worried about being blocked from the Convention, several asking about hotel reimbursement in that event. Ultimately, the New Yorkers took their seats. The delegation planned a protest in sympathy with all “disenfranchised” delegations. A number pondered acts of disobedience at the Convention. But one anticipated that the Convention would forcibly oust malcontents. However, Initiative-backers were hardly of one mind in their view of what to expect.
In the waning hours, an Elders Committee appealed to “the high road to unity.” The Elders proposed a convention presiding committee “balanced to properly represent those holding diverse opinions” and a similarly representative incoming National Committee. It urged cancelation of the rented Room 211. Let “good will and real comradely relations” prevail, the Elders called. “Those holding such different opinions should not be considered a hostile bloc. The long term record of loyal and effective Party activity of many of those with differing opinions should not be forgotten.” The appeal to cooler heads had no chance of success. The predominant leadership held the upcoming split desirable and necessary.
The 25th Convention opened with a resolution from the Cleveland City Council (evidently composed by Ohio Party chair Rick Nagin) showing extensive familiarity with Party history. Given the Party’s evident political connections, Cleveland police were available in the hallways to support the organization’s security volunteers against unauthorized delegates. Despite the accrediting of some dissenting representatives, they were on the whole in short supply in the Convention hall.
Gus Hall’s report pilloried factionalism, and was well received by the majority. Opportunism, he said, masqueraded as a thoughtful response to the “new.” Once underway, it hoodwinked members through demagogy. The organization had bent over backwards to give the factionalists their say, but things had gone from bad to worse, to dishonesty, provocation, and racism. They had spurned all overtures for unity. Some now threatened to deny the organization promised funds from wills. They were deliberately harming the CPUSA. The membership, especially workers, had run out of patience. Quoting communications to that effect, Hall concluded that the opposition was an enemy force within the Party.
Presiding officers stuck to the agenda in timely manner, shutting off the microphone when political patience expired. Charlene Mitchell, Daniel Rubin and others struggled to be heard. With some difficulty, Herbert Aptheker gained the floor. Unable to attend, Angela Davis transmitted her “fidelity to the ideas and ideals of socialism” but doubted the Party’s ability to right itself. The Convention maintained felicitous security against disruption. It censured three delegates, two for apparent physical threats and one for taking illicit notes in a committee meeting. Noteworthy floor confrontations occurred between Mitchell and members of the Hall team. Accordingly, security guards followed Mitchell throughout the proceedings.
Elsewhere, unaccredited delegations appealed before the Credentials Committee. Minnesota, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts made their cases. The Committee turned the appellants down. It raised the alarm of illegal delegates sneaking into the Convention: “We confiscated one set of Mass. credentials.” Northern California mounted a formidable appeal to the Credentials body. Its delegation had been lowered from 63 to 33. Correspondence indicates that Kendra Alexander and her district confreres threw themselves into their final battle in the CPUSA. A Hall monitor recounted the Northern Californians shouting that their delegates be seated. But “we prevailed.” She expressed satisfaction: “This was after a typical screaming session of Kendra and Mary I. grandstanding. I was totally calm which enraged them.”
Both recognized and unauthorized delegates used Room 211 down the block from the Party gathering. The former joined the disqualified after or during regularly scheduled sessions of the Party convention. Several hundred people met throughout the Convention. Most supported Carl Bloice’s sentiment, “The problem was not factionalism, the problem was a purge.” The historian Herbert Aptheker shared with Communists in Room 211 grave misgivings about the organization holding its Convention: “In a historic sense, we’re not leaving a Communist Party.” As Aptheker wrote Si Gerson: “Gus & his cohorts have committed suicide.”
The Convention thus achieved concord through subtraction. Smaller but cleansed, the Party felt it could again dedicate itself to purpose and action without being dragged down by diversion and division. The Convention elected a cohesive National Committee. Gus Hall urged an olive branch to the “honest” leavers. As for Dialog, which had comprehensively documented the multifold debates, “I have kind of decided that we should bury it.” Problem spots endured. New York and Northern California sentiments stood with the Initiative, and there were likeminded pockets elsewhere. Jarvis Tyner remained on a New York state committee that rejected him as chair. Tyner appealed to New Yorkers to close ranks “for the good of the Party” and respect the Convention outcome: “To continue with an ‘us against them’ attitude will destroy us.”
The overture to dissenters yielded little success. Hundreds felt gagged and stomped, finding indigestible the prospect of staying where they were abused. Both the New York and Northern California leaderships announced post-Convention intentions to secede from the Communist Party. They created a headache for the Hall team, which issued yet another reprimand despite the apparent victory over factionalism: “We urge you consider your actions with great care.” Thorny issues festered: the two districts operated offices on Party property and paid the highest percentages of dues. They included functionaries who left the People’s Weekly World, Political Affairs, Jewish Affairs, major commissions, districts and clubs. And indeed, the two districts disaffiliated from the CPUSA two months after the 25th Convention, en route to building a different kind of movement for socialism and democracy.
Joe Sims, who became Political Affairs editor, consents that the Party “barely survived.” He later realized soon afterwards “that mistakes were made, but by then too late, the die had been cast.” Six months after the Convention a Hall visitor discovered the once bustling headquarters nearly empty: “We found ourselves on what seemed like an entirely deserted floor: a huge floor with many rooms. I couldn’t find him and started to yell for him, and when he answered finally and I followed his voice it led me straight into an office where Gus was sitting at a desk.” Preoccupied by recent events, Hall deemed one Party leaver “wild: he’d apparently lost control altogether (politically, I mean.”). However, Party leaders confidently propelled ahead.
The 25th Convention certified a split many years in the offing, occurring in spite of dedicated members in pivotal engagements after the McCarthy period. “I don’t regret my years in the Party,” reminisces Maurice Jackson: “The only thing I regret is that I stayed too long.” The CPUSA belonged to a world Communist movement against exploitation, but also incorporated its harmful behaviors. Strongly united Communist parties had made important contributions to their societies. Likewise, CPUSA members brought a distinct message into vital movements.
When parties worked under repression or war, the pressures truncated the space for disagreements. Generalizing these limits under other conditions became a lifestyle for many parties and the CPUSA, which suffered persecution in the 1950s. Discussion became nominal. Originating in the Soviet Union under Stalin, it “built around an all-knowing general secretary at the top.” The entourage of the chair or general secretary claimed the uncanny ability to distinguish a true Communist from one who veered off the path. When they questioned her commitment, Kendra Alexander exclaimed, “I don’t take a back seat to anybody about my loyalty to the Communist Party, nobody.” And did she really “need to give my working class credentials?” The answer was “yes.”
In the 1940s, the Party devoted “adulation, praise-mongering, and hero worship,” along with “virtual deification” to then-chief Earl Browder. Even when he asserted the benevolence of U.S. capitalism, fellow leaders greeted Browder in “a repetition of acquiescence,” said the well-known Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Members considered Earl Browder “a towering figure.” Tradition made it hard to disagree. Anticipating U.S. fascism and world war in the 50 s, the leadership sent thousands underground, away from families and activity. Persecution scarcely gave members time to breathe, but deference remained in tact. A contemporary Communist remarked, “An individual leader or leadership body above you was infallible.” Chair William Z. Foster wrote: “A third world war would deal the capitalist system a further deadly blow, one that it could not possibly withstand….Socialism would become far and away the predominant world order.” A war would induce “wholesale massacre,” but lead “the world capitalist system to its final obliteration.” It would “devastate humanity,” but on the bright side “destroy what is left of the world capitalist system.” What identity did the unassailable leader stamp upon the Party?
Holding “that all wisdom and knowledge…emerges from a single source” evolved over generations. Jay Schaffner says tersely, “Anyone who became Chair of the Party would have had the same cult and the same cronyism.” Genuine commitment may have motivated tight unity around the chair or general secretary, but bore the risk of deference. Before the split, Maurice Jackson recalled, “We were all gung-ho.” Yet having exalted Hall, some leaders intertwined with him. Absent internal democracy, organizations endeavoring for human progress may produce distinctive hypocrisy. Without leadership turnover, Party elder John Pittman alleged, an entrenched circle attacks others for “alleged breaches of Communist Party principles while they themselves commit the same violations.” The Party, James Steele submits, practiced “leadership by rote: that’s what the style will get you.” He asks: “How else was it possible for Gus Hall to be general secretary for so long?” When such parties ruled, maintained Herbert Aptheker, they succumbed to the same “distortions and vitiation of the essential nature of the Party…into an organization eaten up by bureaucracy, tyranny, authoritarianism, repression, and finally human annihilation.”
But a close observer muses: “I think that the Party was just unwilling to change…part fear by the older comrades. Not only were we unwilling, but I don’t think we were really prepared to take on that conversation,” which would have acknowledged that parties in many socialist lands were unsupported by “a significant section of the class they claimed to represent.” Aptheker remarked: “The nature of the ruling parties” in Hungary, the Soviet Union, Poland, and elsewhere – “authoritarian, domineering, brutal” – was “a systemic source” in their downfall. It was not “socialism” that caused their collapse, but distortions of Party principles, inducing “profound hostility” among people. Discontentedness in the CPUSA, averred Aptheker, arose for similar reasons.
Hall nonetheless found “cheerleaders” to associate the “working class essence” with him, thereby stunting “the emergence of talented leadership as well as new ideas and approaches,” for “the cadres around Gus were as shallow as they come,” according to Steele. Jay Schaffner feels Hall “anointed” district organizers and fostered the “cultivation of a loyal following” as “an extension of the General Secretary.” Psychology was entangled with political habits and organizational traditions. Moreover, cash envelopes passed around by Hall could easily have colored personal and political decisions.
People who stayed in the Party wrestle disparately with those times. While the “major divisions were on political grounds,” Political Affairs editor Joe Sims reasons, “some people around Gus made things worse.” Perhaps things might have turned out differently, if “inner Party democracy” were greater. Reasserting the profound political differences and nefarious “role of the enemy,” Jarvis Tyner nevertheless suggests: “A lot of the problem of division was not so earthshaking.” Some Party leaders “mishandled” events: “every army has some fuckups in it.”
Nevertheless, certain misdeeds reflected deeper, not individual, problems. Thus, naming Hall the sole executive after Winston’s death discarded the shared black-white premise. Winston was a better listener than Hall, say those who worked with him. Given his closeness to Gil Green and others, would he have allowed matters to burn out of control? Considering that “comrades such as Angela Davis, Herbert Aptheker, and others” were “booted off of the Party’s national committee, what kind of CPUSA would not allow these leaders to be in the leadership of the organization?”
While not universal, African-American opposition to the Party leadership, strongly favoring democratic reforms in the organization and socialist democracy overseas, formed an important tributary to the split. One might also wonder if members working in certain mass movements were more likely to question the leadership. That Party members in union drives, political campaigns, school board elections, women’s rights, anti-repression, anti-apartheid, and youth groups had particularly broad reach, may have affected the course of their thinking. They were not beholden to and did not live in the Party alone. Similarly, Communists working at Freedomways collaborated with a striking range of people. But other such activists remained in the CPUSA after 1991. However, working among emerging movements, participating in different types of debates, may have distinguished those who left. Yet individual motives are important in reviewing political conclusions.
The leadership tradition exerted an undertow upon the work of the members. But the Party seemingly took off in the 1990 s after the 25th Convention. Hale and hearty after severing a third of itself, it launched a membership assessment formula: “Therefore we should establish a rule. Comrades should try for the following ratio: 60 percent self-criticism and 40 percent criticism. This should apply to how a collective criticizes its work. As well, this ratio should apply to individuals.” Perhaps inspired by the new guidelines, the Party apparently grew by leaps and bounds. Reports of thousands of recruits vindicated the 25th Convention two years after: “In one weekend 110 new members joined,” announced New York chair John Bachtell (the eventual national chair). In fact, “84 joined in a single afternoon.” The New York organization accomplished its reputed increase through “bold public presence.” To Hall, “the record numbers over the past two months or so” proved that “millions will say yes,” if asked. In short, the Party prospered in the afterglow of the factional struggle.
But in fact, the Party’s 90 s “growth” was illusory. Joining instantly, new members left quickly. Reeling and weakened by the split, what remained of the leadership had opted to make the apparent influx Exhibit A of the organization’s purported vitality. Ironically, the Party moved steadily toward a more general embrace of the Democratic Party than 1989-1991 dissidents had ever proposed, dissipating socialist perspective to an extent never envisioned by those who left the Party. Key by 2008 was the assumption that Obama’s election was the pivotal transformative triumph of a labor-led all peoples’ movement.
The split led to the near-decimation of the Party. It lost 60 percent of its members between 2005 and 2010. In short order it ceased publication of its newspaper and theoretical journal, Political Affairs, replacing them with an all-inclusive website. Though the Party regarded the Young Communist League as “a schoolhouse of struggle,” the YCL soon passed out of existence. With the departures from the split, the Party suffered a severe shortage of organizers and leaders.
The CPUSA rented out most of the floors in its Manhattan headquarters to private companies, drawing valued income. Party clubs assumed increasingly virtual form. Facebook, Twitter, and website outreach seemingly bore fruit, producing online adherents. The Party carefully charted “likes” and “shares.” Nearly half the online joiners paid no dues. Most “likes” came from outside the United States.
Party leaders once united with Gus Hall against the critics of 1989-1991 argued over purpose, structure, and orientation. Several steadfast fighters against the “right opportunism” with which the old dissenters were branded, now concluded that a Communist Party had no future in the infertile soil of the United States (a sentiment absent from the 1991 Initiative) and left.
Damage suffered from the split necessitated a rounded assessment by the Party, and an accounting for the decisions the remaining leaders had made, ideally according to the 60 percent “self-criticism” mandated after the split. However, lacking a tradition of open debate—in fact, having squelched it in the early 90s—this task eluded the survivors of the Party crisis.