Communist Party USA
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Boasting about 5,000 members (as of 2017), the party has not fielded a presidential candidate since its primary financial backer—the gigantic red teat—cut its funding in 1989 for being too hard-line. Devoid of its ideological mothership, it has morphed into a left-liberal pressure group intervening in the Democratic Party, albeit an insignificant one.
The party was founded in 1919, two years after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, at the order of the Third International (the Comintern), a Soviet outfit set up to organize communist politics worldwide. The Bolshevik Revolution had the effect of splitting the Socialist Party in the U.S. into three factions, two of which were members of the Comintern; the Comintern asked these parties to unite. In 1920, the Communist Labor Party merged with some of the Communist Party of America membership to form the United Communist Party. The Comintern then told them more forcefully to unite, and the remaining Communist Party of America members joined the following year. The resulting organization went through a series of names before settling on "Communist Party USA" in 1929. The Party's General Secretary, William Z. Foster, stood three times as US Presidential candidate in the 1920s and 30s, winning a peak of 103,307 votes (0.26% share) in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression.
Role in the labor movement and civil rights
CPUSA recruited heavily among labor activists as it sought to build a power base within the labor movement. Communists and other leftists came to be respected as dedicated union activists and builders, even among those who disagreed with their politics. They gained popularity among the labor movement as the Great Depression disillusioned and radicalized workers. CPUSA also had a ground-breaking role in race relations within labor unions, which had previously stumbled badly on racial issues. CPUSA's recruitment of black workers and advocacy for their enfranchisement within unions (which had previously viewed them with suspicion as strike-breakers) challenged union leadership to adopt more inclusive approaches towards blacks. The result was more effective union organizing during the 1930s and 40s and a change in the labor movement culture that continued into the postwar era. CPUSA's advocacy for black workers was unprecedented among organizations that were not specifically about blacks and foreshadowed the cross-racial support for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
As a Soviet-funded[note 1] party, the CPUSA supported a Stalinist line for many years.:148 However, Stalin criticized them in several speeches. It followed the policy of about-faces in 1928 and 1935, when liberals and other non-communist left-wing groups were first anathematized as "social fascists" and then welcomed back into a "popular front" against fascism. When Stalin began the Great Purge and railroaded nearly a million dissenters to the gallows, the party leader compared Trotskyists to cholera bacteria.
The political line of CPUSA followed the twists and turns of the Moscow line the best it could. During the Comintern's ultraleft-sectarian turn in its "third stage" period, starting in the late 1920s, the official line was to eschew coalitions with other parties and seek maximum confrontation. CPUSA embraced black nationalism as a revolutionary vanguard, a position they would later vigorously denounce. After the Comintern's decisive loss to the Nazis in Germany, the international line changed to "anti-fascism," which came to mean supporting capitalist governments favorable to the Soviet Union. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was ahead of the curve among western leaders in recognizing the Soviet Union, was officially anointed as a cool dude. While running a nominally independent presidential campaign in 1936, CPUSA mobilized for Roosevelt under the slogan "Defeat Landon at All Costs!" This would echo in CPUSA's later electoral campaigns, with token independent efforts overshadowed by support for "progressive" capitalists, ranging from George McGovern to Hillary Clinton. Clinton embodied the neoliberal imperialist ideology of the American ruling class. He was instrumental in starting the new Cold War, but maybe opposing imperialism isn't that big a deal anymore.
During the early days of World War II, the party staunchly opposed the war and U.S. entry into it due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin, only turning in favor of the war when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Prominent gay rights activist Harry Hay was a member of the party in the 1930s and 40s, although the party officially prohibited homosexuals from membership; he was eventually reluctantly expelled in 1951.
The party remained staunchly Stalinist until 1956 when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalinism's excesses. This, plus the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, sent the party into crisis; according to the new party line, it had to expel both Stalinists and liberal-minded reformers. It did so.
Even before the 1956 crisis, the party declined under steady assaults from Joseph McCarthy and related figures. In the wake of the 1956 crisis, membership crashed over 90%, and many of those who remained were FBI moles. It still advocated the "popular front" line of Soviet-friendly foreign policy under the rubric of fighting imperialism while becoming active in the Civil Rights movement and protests against US intervention in Vietnam. In 1959, Gus Hall, a former steelworker who had spent time in jail for electoral fraud and "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence", became leader; he would hold the position until 2000.
Even after McCarthy's reputation was ruined and the attacks slackened through the 1960s, membership did not fully recover: the radicals of that generation were drawn more to the New Left and countercultural movements than the Soviet party line.
In the 1968 presidential election, the party's candidate was Charlene Mitchell, the first African-American woman to run for President. She got 1,077 votes. This tradition continued in the 1980s, with black activist Angela Davis standing twice as a vice presidential candidate to four-time candidate Gus Hall. Davis had been something of a recruiting bonanza for CPUSA during her incarceration under bogus gun-running and accomplice-to-murder charges during the early 1970s. Still, without that cachet, her prominence did nothing to prevent the party's decline.
The Soviets cut the lifeline
When the CPUSA deviated from the Soviet line by refusing to support Mikhail Gorbachev's programs of glasnost and perestroika, the Soviets stopped providing funding in 1989, after seventy years. This prompted a debate over whether or not the party should continue with its line of Marxism-Leninism; the majority voted to retain it. The social-democratic faction departed. They later returned, took over the party, and moved it away from Marxism-Leninism.
The party today
Today, the CPUSA is nominally Marxist-Leninist, although nothing in its advocacy indicates that. It is still run on old-fashioned "democratic centralist" lines (although that's not usually enforced). The party doesn't usually field candidates, but instead encourages votes for the Democratic Party as the lesser of two evils.[note 2] CPUSA usually gets accused of being made up of washed-up, old, white liberals by other leftists, and so most of the youth now go into the DSA, or one of the smaller, more hardline/culty parties.
In 2014, John Bachtell, a trade unionist and community organizer, took over the leadership from Sam Webb.
Following Karl Marx's policy of supporting "every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things," the CPUSA's program expresses substantial opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and persecution of religious minorities.
Their immediate program is to implement a $15/hour minimum wage, universal health care, instant-runoff voting, reduce the military budget, and oppose NAFTA.
Bill of Rights Socialism
The CPUSA proposes to create a Bill of Rights Socialism, which includes freedom from unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, and oppression.
- We thought this was the Communist, not the Capitalist Party.
- Some would think this weird, as the Democratic Party and Republican Party are not the only parties that field candidates; the CPUSA's reasoning, it must be concluded, is that they are the only parties that ever get very many elected.
- Tony Peckinovsky, Trump sparks communist growth surge. cpusa.org, 21 March 2017.
- See the Wikipedia article on COMINTERN.
- Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism, Yale University Press (1998); ISBN 0-300-07150-7
- Stalin's Speeches on the CPUSA. marxists.org,
- See the Wikipedia article on Gus Hall.