What Went Wrong? The Communist Party, the US, and the Comintern

James R Barrett. American Communist History. Volume 17, Issue 2. June 2018.

The Bolshevik Revolution marked an enormous expansion of possibilities welcomed not only by revolutionaries in the United States and around the world, but also by millions of common people who saw it as a chance to create a better world. Given what happened in the years since the Revolution, however, and particularly the effects of Soviet influence on the prospects for radicalism in the United States, it is vital to consider what went wrong in the relationship between the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) and the international movement. For all of the problems caused by the particular nature of the relationship between the American and the Soviet parties, being part of an international socialist movement was not necessarily a liability. I note some cases where directions from the Communist International (Comintern) actually worked to the advantage of the CPUSA. More importantly, with the increasingly transnational character of capitalism and the spread of fascism from the 1920s through the period of World War II, some form of international organizing was essential. The problem had to do with the particular model followed by the Comintern and the decisive influence of the Soviet party in that organization.

Often considered a historical basket case, the CPUSA had considerable potential at various points in its history. Its failure was not inevitable and so it is important for both political and scholarly reasons to understand its ultimate failure. To fully explain this, we would need to consider far more factors than I can develop here. Whether one considers the Communist Party a vast conspiracy or a legitimate movement, there is no doubt that government and employer repression greatly weakened the organization in the post-World War I and post-World War II Red Scares. By the end of the 1920s, for example, 38,000 immigrants, including many radicals, had been deported. The significance of this loss was vital in a movement populated largely by immigrants. Offices were raided, newspapers seized, activists imprisoned, thousands of union members expelled. Again, in the period from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, close surveillance, a series of political trials, and numerous deportations of immigrant members hobbled the party’s efforts. Likewise, very broad characteristics of the United States as a society—its fairly open and democratic politics, the strength of its two-party system, and its relatively high standard of living, even for many working-class people, created a context in which political radicals were swimming against the current.

I concentrate here on one part of the answer that suggests the negative role of Soviet influence as exercised through the Communist International, which Soviet leaders dominated from its inception. Events in the party’s early period, the1920s, allow us to control for the impact of Stalinism and to test the idea that it was Soviet influence more generally that hobbled the party and limited its growth—before Stalin’s consolidation of power and the emergence of a Left Opposition. However, I also consider other moments, especially the period of the Popular Front, when the direction of the Comintern actually facilitated the work of the American party.

The central problem in communist history—the implications of Stalinism—is related to a deeper reality: Many of the disastrous decisions and policies that lead to repeated failures predated Stalin’s rise to power and cannot be explained by one man’s influence. They lay in the particular Leninist model as it was implemented internationally and especially in the subservience of the US party to the Soviets. The history of the American party cannot be explained entirely by Comintern actions, as some anti-communist interpreters claim, but it is certainly the case that these interventions repeatedly undercut the efforts of American communists.

Jacob Zumoff has argued that Comintern intervention often saved the American party from itself and was a constructive influence even in the twenties. Sometimes this was true, as in the Comintern’s efforts to “Americanize” a party based almost entirely on foreign language groups; its 1921 demand that the dueling American parties merge and operate above ground; and its special emphasis on the oppression of African American workers (though the Comintern’s particular direction, the so-called “Black Belt” thesis failed to fit the reality of most black workers). However, Zumoff dutifully documents several instances where Comintern interventions were disastrous. I will deal with only a few of these.

A major turning point came in 1923. For the previous two years, communist militants in several major centers had been increasingly successful in both the industrial and political spheres through the Trade Union Educational League and the emerging Labor Party movement. This was especially true in Chicago where John Fitzpatrick (1871-1946) and the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) represented a genuine and promising path to a mass movement that might have transformed the AFL at a critical moment in its history and laid the basis for independent labor politics. The Chicago movement was part of a broader tendency represented by the more militant city federations—Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Detroit—and by militant rank and file movements in cities and industrial towns throughout the United States. This was demonstrated by the early success of the Trade Union Educational League, especially its amalgamation initiative designed to move the old craft unions toward militant industrial unionism.

Fitzpatrick supported all the important organizing of the World War I years, aided the organization of Black and women workers, actively supported the Mexican, Irish, and Russian Revolutions, and was at the center of the labor party movement. He confronted Samuel Gompers’ (1850-1924) conservatism, jeopardizing his own and occasionally his federation’s welfare, and he worked with a diverse collection of radicals, including William Z. Foster (1881-1961), Earl Browder (1891-1973), and other early communists. The prospects for radical unionism and for any communist influence in such a movement lay through people like Fitzpatrick.

Into this promising situation stepped the Comintern in the person of John Pepper (a.k.a. József Pogány, 1886-1938), a Hungarian sophisticate of questionable political background who was remarkably ill-informed regarding the realities of American politics but who nevertheless presumed to dictate the party’s policies. Pepper publicized Foster’s membership in the party, embarrassing Fitzpatrick and making it more difficult for Foster to work with noncommunist labor progressives. Along with Foster and other experienced labor organizers in the communist leadership, Fitzpatrick urged caution in the summer of 1923 because there was clearly insufficient union support for a move at this delicate moment in the evolution of the labor party.

However, Pepper demanded that the party’s militants denounce Fitzpatrick and call for the immediate formation of a national farmer-labor party, which he predicted, preposterously, would be the beginning of an American revolution. Foster, and virtually everyone else with union experience opposed Pepper; indeed, this became one basis for the damaging factionalism of the 1920s. However, with the help of the party’s more cerebral wing (a group with precious little experience or contact with the labor movement), Pepper carried the day, largely on the strength of his claim to represent the Comintern. The Comintern backed Pepper and the moves against Fitzpatrick, believing without evidence that a functional farmer-labor party was imminent. The resulting convention was a debacle. The communists lined the hall with delegates largely from party-related organizations and forced through the plan to establish the new Federated Farmer-Labor Party. Fitzpatrick walked out, denouncing the communist manipulation of the new party, which went exactly nowhere. Foster later noted that the new organization “amounted to a united front with ourselves.” The Communists’ promising union base was lost.

Over the next two years, union bureaucrats took the opportunity of the communists’ break with the labor progressives to cleanse their unions of radicals, expelling thousands of their members and sometimes entire locals. The rank and file movements that hundreds of TUEL organizers had built over the previous three years were largely wiped out in the course of the mid-1920s.

In the wake of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party fiasco, some party leaders favored backing Robert M. La Follette’s (1855-1925) Progressive Party bid in the 1924 presidential campaign. For Pepper, this represented yet another American revolution, for Foster, the prospect of reconnecting with the unions supporting La Follette and rebuilding the party’s labor base. Foster also asked the Comintern to recall Pepper to avoid further damage to the party’s work. Both Pepper and Foster traveled to Moscow to consult with Soviet leaders where the decision became entangled with the emerging power struggle in the wake of Lenin’s death. Trotsky denounced any cooperation with La Follette unless he agreed to endorse the Communist program. When La Follette refused, Soviet leaders backed the idea of a Communist ticket which, not surprisingly, attracted little support. Foster did succeed in having Pepper recalled to Moscow.

The problem here was not that the concept of a Farmer-Labor Party was itself unworkable. The idea was clearly gathering steam in the early 1920s and state-based labor and farmer-labor parties garnered significant support in California, New York, and Minnesota in the following decade when communist activists played significant roles in some of these movements. Rather, the particular demands on the American party at this critical juncture doomed the movement to failure.

A particularly egregious case of Soviet interference occurred in 1925 when Comintern rep and early Stalin supporter Sergei Gusev publicly read a Comintern cable at the party convention. This arbitrarily stripped leadership from Foster’s faction, which represented a large majority of party membership, including most of its union elements, and handed control over to the Charles Ruthenberg faction managed by Jay Lovestone (1897-1990). “Those who refuse to submit,” the cable concluded, “will be expelled.” When Foster traveled to Moscow once again to appeal the decision, he was personally reprimanded by Stalin for unprincipled factionalism and consorting with Trotskyists. Ruthenberg and Lovestone purged local party and TUEL leaderships.

This forced-reorganization of the leadership greatly increased factionalism, lead to a decline in party and TUEL membership, and also set the stage for the 1928 purge of James Cannon (1890-1974) and the Left Opposition. In the meantime, however, Cannon accepted the Comintern’s formulation and supported Lovestone. “I had faith in the wisdom and also in the fairness of the Russian leaders,” Cannon later recalled. “… I did not suspect that this monstrous violation of the democratic rights of our party [the 1925 elevation of Lovestone against the party majority] was one of the moves in the Moscow chess game, in which our party, like all the other parties in the Comintern, was to be a mere pawn.” Foster continued to oppose it. Steeped in the realities of union organizing and culture, Foster initially rejected Comintern directives that threatened the party’s industrial work, though he developed a strong penchant for falling in line from the late twenties on. As a result of his opposition to this and later Comintern dictates, Foster’s loyalty remained suspect in Moscow. First Cannon, then Foster and other leaders caved in over time, and the party relied even more than ever on Comintern direction.

Of this debacle Zumoff concludes, “The factionalism that wracked the party cannot be blamed on the Comintern,” but he concedes that “the Comintern encouraged factional power and not political program to be at the center of the dispute, made factional power dependent on Comintern support, and doled out support on the basis of Moscow realpolitik, not Communist program.”

The 1923 and 1925 disasters were only two of several where Comintern intervention sent the American party off the tracks. Another breach with labor progressives opened during the mid-twenties in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) where William Z. Foster and communist miners supported non-communist militants first in the Progressive International Committee, then in the Save the Union Movement, a strong rank-and-file movement that supported the progressive John Brophy (1883-1963) for UMWA president. Party activists earned a good reputation during a desperate 1927 strike, but their efforts were hobbled by factional demands for open communist agitation and, internationally, by the emerging conflict in the party between supporters of Trotsky and Stalin as well as by hunger and violence. John L. Lewis (1880-1969) viciously attacked the opposition whether they were communists or not, and the party’s sectarian approach, backed and in some cases demanded by the Comintern, ended the chance for an effective rank and file miners’ movement. In 1928 the Comintern established the Red International of Labor Unions, a federation of new revolutionary unions in coal and elsewhere. Foster and other communists with union experience opposed the line in New York and Moscow and alienated the Comintern and RILU leadership in the process.

Although he vigorously opposed Pepper’s influence and deeply suspected Lovestone, Cannon, a brilliant organizer and strategist who knew better, tended to support Comintern decisions. He was, in his own words, “a convinced ‘Cominternist.’” Throughout the early 1920s, Cannon had supported Foster and other “industrial communists” in much of the damaging factionalism, but once the American Commission, or some new Comintern spokesman pronounced judgment, Cannon fell into line. As late as 1928, the year of his expulsion, he supported the move for separate communist unions, a move opposed by Foster and other union veterans. This strategy further undermined communist influence and exposed their union activists to retribution for the cardinal sin of dual unionism. Faced with expulsion, Foster finally capitulated.

Before Stalin’s rise to power, then, an enormous amount of American communists’ energy was invested in following the Comintern’s own internal politics and courting the organization’s support for one faction or another; in trying to decipher its instructions and make some sense of them in the U.S. context; and in trying to repair the damage so often caused by these instructions. Throughout the 1920s the Comintern supported Lovestone and some of the worst influences in the U.S. party.

In 1928, as Stalin consolidated his hold on the Soviet Party and by extension, the Comintern, his efforts to purge the movement of all rivals led the American party to expel Cannon and hundreds of other militants, including some of the party’s most talented organizers, as Trotskyists. The Comintern did not create Stalin; his rise was a complex, sordid process. However, the Comintern’s structure and function, along with political murders, facilitated his rise and the criminal character of his regime.

In the wake of Stalin’s rise, the Comintern’s declaration of a “Third Period” signaling the advent of worldwide revolution brought more failures. The extremism of this period is often derided, yet communists did much important work during the early Depression years. This “Class against Class” approach called for the establishment of separate revolutionary unions, which waged a series of spectacular but unsuccessful strikes in agriculture, textiles, coal mining, and elsewhere in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Communists also organized the largest of the unemployed groups and lead a series of hunger marches and large demonstrations throughout the country. They pursued civil rights through court cases and organizing protests among urban African Americans and even in the deep south through a Sharecroppers Union. These efforts and their defense of the Scottsboro Boys won the party support among some African Americans. Ironically, the CPUSA also served as a kind of Americanization for a generation of immigrant workers, providing a certain type of introduction to American economics, politics, and culture.

The net effect of the new line, however, in addition to the related factionalism, was devastating. The Comintern had hoped that the economic crisis of the late twenties would produce a great revolutionary upsurge in the coming years. “Instead,” writes the British Communist historian Eric J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012), “it produced the most staggering and undeniable debacle…” Like other constituent parties of the Comintern, American communists attacked other progressives and embraced a policy of what Hobsbawm called “almost suicidal sectarianism” in the period 1928 through 1933. The Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) was abandoned in favor of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), a federation of dual revolutionary unions, which led a series of bold but ultimately disastrous strikes in the garment industry, textiles, coal mining, and elsewhere through the late twenties and early thirties.

Of course, Comintern intervention could be positive. The CPUSA had its greatest success in the Popular Front period beginning in 1935, when the party opened its doors to the broadest spectrum of workers and organized a broad range of “front groups.” Revolutionaries might denounce the Popular Front as opportunist, but compared to the epic disasters in the 1920s, the American party was notably successful. An older interpretation envisioned the Popular Front as simply a tool of Moscow; in this view, the phenomenon was strictly tactical, a ploy that represented no fundamental change in the nature or function of the CPUSA: “[T]he Communist-style Popular Front did not and could not develop into an authentic American socialism or radicalism… The peculiar nature of the Popular Front derived from the fact that it was a tactical turn by a Communist party with its chameleon-like faculty for changing the color of its political skin while remaining inwardly the same… it was the Popular Front of the Communist party, not a Popular Front sui generis.”

There is little doubt that the Soviet authorities saw the new line in tactical terms, but this view is at best an oversimplification. As it was actually experienced in the United States, the Popular Front derived from a unique conjuncture in the histories of American capitalism, electoral politics, and the character of working-class communities. The Great Depression sparked a great wave of organizing and strikes beginning in 1933 and resulting by the end of World War II in a greatly reinvigorated labor movement. The economic crisis and this labor upsurge bolstered a turn toward New Deal social democratic politics, a turn the party supported through much of this period.

One effect of the new line was a transformation in the organization’s membership. The party grew from 30,000 in the summer of 1935 to 82,000 by fall 1938 and to a highpoint of perhaps 100,000 in the summer of 1939. This number did not include the many front organizations that proliferated in precisely these years and provided it with much of its influence. The Third Period CPUSA was a tiny organization of aging foreign-born men based in just a few regions of the country, many of them unemployed. The Popular Front party was populated largely by younger, native-born men and women from a wide range of occupations and from cities and industrial towns throughout the nation. Eighty percent of the delegates to the CPUSA’s 1939 convention were native born and perhaps as much 44% of the membership was composed of white-collar workers or professionals. The proportion of women members grew from 10% in 1930 to about 50% by 1943. Few if any women sat on the party’s Central Committee before the Popular Front years; by 1940, they represented about one-fourth of its leadership. More young people and more union workers were also joining.

The cultural dimensions of the Popular Front brought the second generation in ethnic working-class communities into a new mass urban culture. The new line allowed party members to work with nonparty intellectuals and artists in organizations deeply influenced by communist politics. Some of the nation’s leading writers, musicians, artists, actors, and film makers were in or close to the party. The pervasive influence of this new generation of intellectuals shaped what Michael Denning has termed the “laboring” of American culture. American literature, music, art, theatre, and film all reflected a growing concern with social inequality, democratic reform, and the role of common people in the society’s history and culture. The significance of this social and cultural transformation means that the Popular Front was far complex than a political tactic ordered from Moscow.

Communist influence also grew in the labor movement where a seasoned cadre of party organizers provided much of the expertise for organizing the new industrial unions launched by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which swept through the steel, electrical manufacturing, farm implement, meat packing, and other industries. The CIO pioneered new strategies like the sit-down strike, advanced the cause of civil and women’s rights, and helped to found progressive local and state labor parties. In the process, communist influence grew and party organizers emerged as local, state, and even national leaders in many of the new unions.

The party’s antifascist activities greatly enhanced its prestige, and many who might not agree with its ideology and aims admired these actions. Between 1936 and 1939, the party played a particularly important role in supporting the democratically elected Spanish Republic against a fascist uprising and civil war with the organization of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and a variety of medical, propaganda, and fund-raising efforts.

Yet all of these breakthroughs were soon jeopardized. The CPUSA had changed little in terms of its structure, hierarchy, or its relationship to the Comintern, despite the new emphasis on greater flexibility in strategy and the acknowledgement of national differences. It remained a highly centralized vanguard party, quickly reacting to Soviet dictates, often to its great disadvantage. Nowhere was this problem more apparent than in its support for the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, a nonaggression agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets, which was seen by many on the left as an act of treachery. Even before this pact, the Popular Front party had supported a series of show trials resulting in the murders of numerous Soviet party leaders. The pact brought an abrupt end to aggressive antifascist activity and produced a turn toward anti-war organizing, bringing charges of duplicity. Communist garment workers in New York were greeted with cries of Sieg Heil! Chicago rabbis denounced the party in synagogues, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League collapsed. Few of the leading cadres or working-class rank and file resigned, but the pact’s effects on its relations with liberal groups and the growing number of intellectuals in or close to the party was more destructive.

With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the declaration of a Democratic Front, a new “win-the-war” line brought the party some public support, but it also inhibited organizing around labor and minority rights. The Comintern itself was dissolved in 1943, and the CPUSA morphed into something called the Communist Political Association. Membership continued to climb throughout the war and the CPUSA emerged from the war in relatively good shape.

This period of growing membership ended with a reassertion of Soviet influence and orthodox Stalinism in the late forties and early fifties, in the midst of the Cold War and McCarthyism. It is difficult to imagine any way the Communist Party might have thrived in the midst of the political reaction of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but its sectarian line facilitated the government repression which all but killed the organization off by the late fifties.

The expansion and transformation of the membership during the Popular Front and war years, however, meant that it sailed into the extreme sectarianism of the postwar years with a sizeable group of “reformers.” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s (1894-1971) revelations of Stalin’s crimes (February 1956) and the Soviet invasion of Hungary (November 1956) led to mass resignations from the CPUSA and other parties, but these events also brought one last chance to turn the American party in the direction of a more independent and less doctrinaire socialist organization. Building on the experience of Popular Front-style movements, many of those members who had been shaped in the mass movements of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, and service in the Second World War argued for a break not only with Stalinism, but also with orthodox Marxism-Leninism, greater independence from the Soviet party, and for what they termed a “mass party of socialism” and an “American road to socialism.” A group around party chairman William Z. Foster held out for the older doctrinaire forms and strategies, denounced any criticism of the Soviet Party, and won the day, but it was a pyrrhic victory. The defeat of the reform elements meant the persistence of Stalinism even after Stalin’s death, more resignations and expulsions, and the eclipse of the CPUSA. This was the last opportunity to salvage the party and transform it into a mass socialist party. The decimation of the party during the fifties was not only a product of political repression, but also of these ideological conflicts.

The international movement need not have followed the Comintern model. It was not essential for the center to dictate specific policies to the various constituent parties. Allowing each national party to find its own way without the sword of discipline hanging over its head might not have created worldwide revolution, but it would have avoided several of the catastrophic mistakes made by the party throughout its history. Wrapped in the tragedy of the Russian Revolution itself is a tragedy of American radicalism shaped by an international organization designed to export the Russian achievement to societies around the world. Instead, the Comintern often made it much more difficult to build an effective radical party in the United States.