CPUSA - 1929 - Depression
The CPUSA reached the peak of its strength and limited influence in American life in the late 1930s, when the Great Depression and Stalin's opposition to Hitler and Mussolini convinced thousands of native-born Americans that capitalism was doomed and that the socialist experiment in Russia represented the world's only reliable bulwark against fascism.
Prior to 1928 the Communist Party had little success recruiting from the Black community. After the Communist Party’s much publicized defense of the Scottsboro boys, the CP was increasingly perceived by Blacks as the defender of minority rights. The Party’s contribution to the struggle for racial equality in the US is part of the historical record, although it rarely gets the attention it deserves in historical accounts.
A series of events in the early 1930s, as the Great Depression was taking hold, saw the CPUSA, gain wide influence and considerable prestige. The case of the Scottsboro Nine was not the only case of Jim Crow “justice” that got the Party’s attention during this time, but it was the case that “catapulted” the Party into the national and indeed the international spotlight.
Pamphlets chronicle the early development of the Party; the factional disputes of the 1920s between the Fosterites and the Lovestoneites; the Stalinization of the Party; the Popular Front; the united front against fascism; and the government investigation of the Communist Party in the post-World War Two period. Many of the pamphlets relate to the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of CP leaders Earl Browder and William Z. Foster. Earl Browder, party leader be—tween 1929—46, ran for President in 1936, 1940 and 1944; William Z. Foster, party leader between 1923—29, ran for President in 1928 and 1932.
Pamphlets written by Browder and Foster in the l930s exemplify the Party’s desire to recruit the unemployed during the Great Depression by emphasizing social welfare programs and an isolationist foreign policy. Browder’s The Fight for Bread (1932) and Unemlovment Insurance (1935) and Foster’s Roosevelt Heads for War (1940) were critical of both New Deal domestic programs and foreign policy.
On November 16, 1933, in the document pertaining to the establishment of relations between the two countries Commissar Litvinoff gave a specific pledge that there would be no interference by organizations in the Soviet Union in the internal affairs of the United States. The next day in a press interview Litvinoff specifically stated that the pledge did not relate to the Communist Party of the United States as “The Communist Party of Russia does not concern America and the Communist Party of the United States does not concern Russia”.
On August 25, 1935, as a result of inflammatory speeches made in Moscow by American Communists at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International the US government made sharp protest to the Soviet Government charging violation of the Litvinoff pledge. In declining to receive the protest Acting People’s Commissar Krestinsky wrote: “It is certainly not new to the Government of the United States that the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics can not take upon itself and has not taken upon itself obligations of any kind with regard to the Communist International.”
Communists helped organize the great industrial unions including steel, meatpacking and auto. Communists were pioneers in the 1930s in the fight for Social Security, unemployment compensation, the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week. They took a lead in the fight against lynching and to save the Scottsboro Nine. Communists were among those who developed militant direct action tactics – such as the sit-down strikes that helped win unionization of the auto industry. At the height of the Great Depression communist neighborhood clubs organized mass unemployed councils that put back the furniture of evicted neighbors. In rural areas, communists organized to block bank auction of foreclosed farms.
Communism and radical leftism were, in 1930s America, prominent and respectable to an extent that latter appeared incomprehensible. The Depression, many politically active intellectuals believed, showed that capitalism was collapsing. In contrast, the Soviet Union's apparently successful revolution and industrialization demonstrated the vigor of socialism. Moscow's prestige among liberals and intellectuals increased further when, unlike the Western democracies, it seemed to take a firm stand against the spread of Fascism.
Communism was seen as progressive by many liberal-minded people. In the United States, the Communist Party took a strong stand against racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, class bias, and the exploitation of the powerless. It also promoted many of the ideals that the Roosevelt Administration would soon adopt—including Social Security and unemployment insurance. The Communist Party advocated the formation of trade unions and the regulation of industry to provide shorter working hours, worker safety, health insurance, and paid vacations.
Organized labor in the form of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), under the leadership of John L. Lewis and his seeming tolerance of Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) members and activities, committed resources to organizing migrant farmworkers. The Popular Front strategy of the CPUSA called for collaboration with trade unions rather than revolution.
The CPUSA was the most dynamic organization within the American left during the 1930s and 1940s, and was also a Stalinist sect tied to a vicious and murderous regime. Communists were expected to comply with party directives - to maintain party discipline. Even during its more reformist phases, where there was little difference between the aims and actions of the "big C" and "small c" Communists, the American Communist party never abandoned its demand for conformity.
Being a Communist in the 1930s and 1940s was not just being a liberal in a hurry. To be a Communist or even to be a consistent ally or defender of Communists, was to link yourself to Stalinism. The CPUSA played a significant role in the US labor movement from the 1920s through the 1940s, having had a major role in founding most of the country’s first industrial unions. The passage of the Alien Registration act, also known as the Smith Act in 1940 resulted in communists being expelled from the unions.
The CP through the Young Communist League and its campus arm, the National Student League, was a major force in the pacifist and isolationist movements on college campuses in the pre—World War Two era. CPUSA's moral credibility was seriously impaired by the signing of the non-aggression pact between the Soviets and the Nazis.
As fascism became more threatening. they sought them with an ever widening circle — first of Liberals, then of 'democratic' Tories. The logical culmination of the whole process — the ultimate Popular Front — was the wartime Coalition. During World War II, it advocated militant, if sometimes bureaucratic, trade unionism while opposing strike actions at all costs. The leadership of the CPUSA was among the most vocal pro-war voices in the United States, advocating unity against fascism, supporting the prosecution of leaders of the Socialist Workers Party under the newly enacted Smith Act.
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