Monday, August 31, 2015

Talking About the C Word—The Origins of the Communist Party in the U.S.

Anglo members of the Socialist Party Left Wing and dissident state parties found the CLP on August 31, 1919
On August 31, 1919 at a rump meeting in Chicago of Left Wing members of the fractured Socialist Party, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), a predecessor to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), was founded.  The year was one of great turmoil.  Long time Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was in the Federal prison at Atlanta for giving a speech opposing World War I.  Many socialists and unionists were aflame with passion for the apparently successful Russian Revolution.  Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with the enthusiastic assistance of the young leader of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had launched his raids against aliens and radicals.  An unheard of era of government repression was sweeping the land. 

Earlier in the year the SP’s well established network of  language federations, each of which had its own publications and leadership, in cooperation with Left Wing state parties had captured a majority on the Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).  Alarmed, the regulars of the outgoing NEC declared the election invalid charging the language federations with irregularities.  They expelled the leaders of several federations and suspended recognition of the Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Lettish (Latvian), South Slavic, and Ukrainian federations and the entire state parties of Michigan, Massachusetts, and Ohio. The New York State Executive Committee suspended and reorganized Left Wing locals and branches representing nearly half the state's membership.  Needless to say, such high handed tactics led to an uproar in the Party.

Journalist Jack Reed was a key figure in the the founding of the Communist Labor Party.

The language federations joined by the Michigan state party responded with a call to a founding convention of the Communist Party of America (CPA) to be held in Chicago on September 1.  Many leading English speaking left wingers, including NEC members Alfred Wagenknecht and L.E. Katterfeld and the dashing journalist JohnJack Reed, lionized by the Party rank and file for his eye witness account of the Russian October Revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World, decided to stay in the SP and try to win control back from the regulars.  The Party called an Emergency National Convention in Chicago scheduled for Aug. 30.  But the regulars controlled the majority of State parties, suspended parties and federations were banned, and a credentials committee ruled against seating many other Left Wing delegates. 

John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow planned to crash the convention anyway, but officials were tipped off and called the police, who obligingly expelled the leftists from the hall. The remaining leftist delegates walked out. Meeting in a rented room directly below the official convention the expelled delegates formed the Communist Labor Party with Wagenknecht at its head. 

....A day later on September 1st Foreign Lannguage section of the Socialist Party founded another Communist Partmey.  Both claimed membership and support of Moscow and the Comintern.

Meanwhile the founding convention of the Communist Party of America went ahead as planned the next day.  Suddenly there were two competing Communist Parties, both claiming allegiance to the Russian Revolution and to the Communist International (Comintern), a situation that displeased V. I. Lenin. 
Both infant parties were soon victims of the expanding Palmer Raids and leaders of both were arrested or in hiding.  Both were forced to essentially go underground by December.
In January 1920 the Comintern ordered the two parties to merge as the United Communist Party, and to follow the party line established in Moscow.  .A faction of the CPA held out for a while but was forced into line by 1921. Many English language leftists, however, soon left the Party and it is estimated that less than 5% of the membership were native English speakers.  Through the decade the Party was beset with internal dissent and was frequently reined in by the Comintern.
Although the Communists were allowed to resume operations as a legal organization, the experience in the underground and the formation of cells and the like as well as stringent control from Moscow were stamped on the Party.  The Red Scare of 1919-1920 prevented the Communists from ever becoming a mass or popular party and helped create the secretive culture and fealty to the Soviets that made it the nightmare of post-World War II of conservatives.

Former IWW organizer William Z. Foster spent most of the '20's marginalized in the United Communist Party, the forced merger of the CLP and CPA.  But the Comintern put him at the head of re-incarnated Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and endorsed his bore from within strategy of working inside the conservative business unions of the AFL instead of joining the IWW or organizing explicitly Marxist labor unions.

Initially many rank and file members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were enthusiastic for the new party and some leaders, like William Z. Foster jumped to the new organization.  But the defection of William D. “Big Bill” Haywood to Moscow after the conviction of 101 IWW leaders for sedition in 1919 left a bitter taste in many mouths.  When reports by Emma Goldman and others exiled to Russia exposed the authoritarian underside of the Lenin regime, support dwindled further.  The Party began to demand that the IWW submit itself to Party leadership—a demand that was rudely rejected by the union. When party members meddled in important IWW strikes of the ‘20’s the rift became pronounced.  By the end of the decade the IWW was firmly anti-Communist.
In 1929 the Party was renamed the CPUSA.  Foster, after being frozen out at the demand of Kremlin leaders through most of the ‘20’s emerged as the new Party leader and instituted the directed policy of boring from within the conservative labor movement and shunning the independent IWW.  CP militants helped form and establish the Congress of Industrial Organization in heavy industry during the ‘30’s.
Many well-meaning idealists entered the Party in the Depression years and did heroic work in the labor movement and elsewhere.  But the fickle dictates of Moscow took a toll.  A joke around IWW circles years later was that you could tell just how naïve a leftist was by when they finally got disgusted and abandoned the CP—the 1936-38 Stalinist Purge Trials in Russia, the Hitler/Stalin Pact, the roughshod imposition of Soviet style government over Eastern Europe in the post war years, or the final straw for many, the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
When the next great upsurge of the left occurred during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, the CPUSA found itself mainly on the sidelines, distrusted by the New Left and ignored as irrelevant.  Self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninists split among a bewildering profusion of new parties and organizations.
With the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union the CPUSA was left a virtual orphan.  It numbers continue to dwindle to a hard core of aging militants, many of them from the decedents from those old ethnic federations and from the needle trades in New York.

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