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Communist Party, USA - Retrospect

The Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) is one of the most influential organizations on the American Left in the past century. Since its founding in 1919, the CPUSA has championed the struggles for democracy, labor rights, womens equality, racial justice and peace. During the mid-Twentieth Century the CPUSA became the largest organization on the Left, and a decisive aspect of American political and social life.

The CPUSA was the main target of the unconstitutional McCarthy hearings. It went on to be an early champion of peace in Vietnam and opponent to Apartheid in South Africa. With a membership largely comprised of working-class Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, Communist Party today remains an active though greatly diminished political organization across the country.

The previous paucity of the archival record has been a major obstacle to scholarship on the history of the American Communist movement. Accounts of the history of American communism and the related issue of anticommunism have been highly contentious, with the academic consensus varying widely over the decades in part due to the shallowness and resulting ambiguity of the evidential base.

The CPUSA had always been a secretive organization; while occasional government raids, subpoenas, search warrants and congressional investigations made some documentation part of the public record, the quantity was never large because of the party's practice of hiding or destroying records. Although some party documents have also become available in the papers of various private individuals, the quantity is limited.

The records of the Communist Party, USA provide vivid documentation of the organization’s trajectory from its birth in 1919 to the early 2000s. The collection includes a diverse mix of correspondence, convention and conference materials, essays and manuscripts, internal discussion documents, reports, speech transcripts, research files, printed ephemera, clippings, legal documents, and a wealth of personal papers. Though materials from as early as 1892 can be found in the collection, the bulk of the records were created between 1950 and 1990.

Tens of thousands of books, countless photos, papers and notes, and unique audio, video and film documents are all part of the massive donation made in March 2007 by the Communist Party, USA to the Tamiment Library at New York University (NYU). The collection covers the 88 years of the partys history, as well as earlier radical movements. It also includes records from the labor, community, student and peace movements the communists participated in and in many cases helped lead.

The donation encompass the entire collection of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies in New York City, which had been accessible to researchers, writers and the public for more than 20 years, as well as the archives of the party itself, the Young Communist League, and the Peoples Weekly World newspaper and its predecessor the Daily Worker. Some items are extremely rare or unique, and some have never before been available to the public.

The papers of many communist leaders present and past are already housed at Tamiment, including those of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Joe Hills rebel girl, and Peter Cacchione (the communist city councilman from Brooklyn, New York).

In retrospect, the central question is this: was the Party a legitimate form of dissent in the tradition of, say, American populism or the civil rights movement, or was it nothing more than the agent of a totalitarian power? Historians and journalists on today's left, the intellectual descendants of the Progressives, argue the former. They acknowledge that many American Communists served as spies for Moscow, but play down the damage that they did and point out that they were motivated, as were the vast majority of CPUSA members who were not spies, by a desire to achieve social justice and fight Fascism. For the left, in particular, vindication of the role of Communism in American life would almost automatically make respectable a host of organizations and movements now in disrepute.

Until the mid-1960s, the standard view of the CPUSA was that it was a servant of Moscow and its members were, at best, dupes of a foreign dictatorship. Since then, new generations of academic researchers, using a wealth of new materials and also applying social history techniques and influenced, in some cases, by their experiences in the New Left, have rewritten the CPUSA's story, in their view, the Party and its memhers were inheritors of the American radical tradition and shaped the Party to meet their goals, not Moscow's.

Moderate liberals and conservative historians claim this is nonsense. Instead, they argue, Party leaders willingly placed the CPUSA in Stalin's hands and, therefore, the Party, its members, and all its acts were hopelessly tainted.

The discovery in the mid-1990s of documentation of Soviet control of the Party and use of it for espionage reinvigorated the orthodox view, however, and the two camps now carry on an angry, inconclusive feud. Two books, The Secret World of American Communism (1995) and The Soviet World of American Communism (1998), they used material from newly-opened Soviet archives not only to document how Moscow controlled the party, but also how the leadership of the CPUSA willingly allowed the USSR to use it as an espionage apparatus. Today, the historiography of American communism and anticommunism is unsettled. The revisionist domination, achieved in the 1970s and 1980s, has been shaken, but not shattered.

The new debate regarding the CPUSA is generating a rapidly growing literature. For an overview, see Weisberg, "Cold War Without End." For the benign view of the Party, see Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998); for the other side, see Sam Tanenhaus, "The Red Scare," The New York Review of Books , 14 January 1999.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:11 ZULU