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International Socialist Review, July-August 1969


Milton Alvin

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Communist Party


From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.4, July-August 1969, pp.70-76.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The year 1969 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of a Communist party in the United States.

At its birth the new communist movement gave promise of becoming the center of radical and revolutionary activity in this country. It attracted the best of the then existing radical elements from the Socialist Party left wing, the Industrial Workers of the World and others. These came together to form the Communist Party. Over the next nine or ten years the party did indeed win virtually all the revolutionaries to its banner. At the same time its rivals, primarily the Socialist Party and the IWW, stagnated and became weaker.

Whatever shortcomings there were in this first period, which ended in 1928, were due primarily to the lack of experience of its leaders. None of its errors were decisive; they could be and were corrected without injury to the movement.

But in 1928 there was a change, not induced so much from American political factors, but from developments in the Soviet Union.

During the time of Lenin’s last illness there were definite signs of a new bureaucracy forming in the Soviet CP and the state apparatus. This formation, representing the elements that were worn out by seven years of the first world war and the civil war which followed it, discouraged by the failure of the revolution in Western Europe and the consequent isolation of the new workers state, found in Stalin its foremost spokesman and leader.

Both Lenin and Trotsky saw the danger resulting from the Stalin clique that had already spread all over the party and planned a struggle against it. But death prevented Lenin from carrying out his part and it fell to Trotsky’s lot to lead the subsequent fight against the degeneration of the party and state.

The Stalin faction elaborated a theory that socialism could be built in Russia alone in contrast to Marxist internationalism. This fitted in neatly with the needs and aims of the new bureaucracy, which more and more carried out policies tailored to enhance its own economic privileges. The theory of socialism in one country led logically to the conversion of all the Communist parties Ln other countries into border guards and diplomatic pressure groups for the Stalin bureaucracy.

The Communist International, to which the American CP belonged, fell under the control of the Stalin faction in the USSR and was converted into a tool of its policies. The Trotskyist leaders of the Left Opposition were expelled from the Soviet Communist Party in 1927 and from the American party in 1928, followed by the right-wing Lovestonites about a year later. The CPs then entered their so-called Third Period of ultraleftist adventures and phrase-mongering. This period lasted for approximately five to six years. Typical was the ultraleft sectarianism of the German CP, which viewed the Social Democrats and not the Nazis as the main enemy. In the United States the Communist Party labeled Norman Thomas a “social fascist” and Roosevelt a fascist.

These policies led to victory in Hitler’s Germany while here in the US the CP managed to isolate itself from many radicals affected by the great depression beginning in 1929. The CP policy with regard to the unions, at that time largely in the AFL, cut them off completely from any influence among the organized workers. The Communist Party refused to join the existing unions and organized its own “revolutionary” unions, which few workers joined and which, of course, had little or no influence on events.

It was during the last stages of this Third Period insanity that George Charney joined the Communist Party. Not a proletarian, he was influenced by conditions around him and had an idealist turn of mind. He has now favored us with his political autobiography, stretching out over the next twenty-five years. [1]

One reads his story with a certain wonderment mixed with incredulity. How could a seemingly intelligent man, with a formal college education, become so mesmerized as to accept and support the twists and turns of party policy over such a long period of time before realizing that something serious and fundamental was wrong with the Communist Party?

But it is futile to ask the question. As a matter of fact Charney was hardly alone. Thousands did exactly the same things for the same reasons. In their minds they had planted a rationale: first came the alleged interests of the Soviet Union, which they confused with the Stalin faction; second, the interests of the world revolution, which they confused with the various Communist parties; third, their own party, which they confused with its leadership.

So long as they held to this “logical” structure, they could accept all the changes directed from Moscow, sometimes with misgivings, but in the end rationalized into support of whatever came from that fountain-head.

They never learned how the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country led to socialism in no country, how this theory, imposed upon all the Communist parties, signalled the beginning of the degeneration of the Communist movement and the rise of an economically privileged bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.

Some months before Charney became a member and had begun his climb to the top circles of the party, Hitler conquered power in Germany. This turned out to be another turning point in history and in the Communist International.

But the CP did not discuss how this had come to pass, did not probe this catastrophe to the bottom in order to learn from the experience how to fight fascism, how to defeat it elsewhere. Instead, the leaders of the party swept the defeat under the rug, in effect, by foisting upon the organization the American version of the Peoples Front. This followed the general line laid down in Moscow that demanded that all Communist parties ally themselves with “progressive” bourgeois elements in order to fight fascism.

The Peoples Front line of the 1930s finds its modern counterpart in the peaceful coexistence policy of today. Both are based not on working class independent politics but on a form of class collaboration. Some of the more horrible results of this policy, which compels the Communist parties to support the less reactionary capitalists instead of a socialist program, can be seen in the slaughter of half a million Communists in Indonesia a few years ago, the betrayal of a revolutionary upsurge in France in the spring of 1968 and countless other examples.

Charney erroneously refers to this policy many times as the United Front and thereby seeks sanction for it from Lenin. But the latter never entered into any alliances with political representatives of the capitalist class. In fact, Lenin struggled with might and main against leaders in his own party during the revolutionary year 1917, Stalin among them, who wanted to give support to the provisional government led by the capitalists that succeeded the Czar.

The real history of the Communist movement was concealed from the CP members. Only rare individuals here and there dug it up and saw the light. Charney was not among them.

The turn to the Peoples Front was welcomed by Charney and, he reports, by most of the party. They were all converted into respectable looking people, with neckties and jackets for the men and high-heeled shoes for the women. The leather jackets of the Third Period were taken off never to be worn again. The party, and Charney with it, felt comfortable in its new stance. It sought and made alliances with liberals and soon ended up in the Roosevelt New Deal camp.

A certain justification for this policy existed hi the minds of CP members in those days primarily because the party grew in membership and influence. The separate unions organized during the Third Period were junked and the field of operations became the new CIO movement. The CP was able to take advantage of the growth of the CIO and won important influence and even control in several of the new unions. Where it could, it imposed bureaucratic rule upon union organizations which was not any better than the old line unions. Where it did not have enough power to do this, it led the witch-hunt against its rivals, particularly during the war period.

These abominations seem to have escaped the notice of our author. But here too he is not unique. The whole party, riding high on the wave of the New Deal, had no time to stop anc think where its course was leading it, how its decisions were arrived at and, most important, what had happened to its original goal. The process of mesmerization had already gone too far; the membership had accepted Browder’s winged slogan, “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” This, for them, bridged the two worlds.

But did it? Right in the middle of its heyday of growth Stalin turned from collective security, that is, an alliance with the “democratic” imperialist countries, to a pact with Hitler. Although this hit the party like a sheet of icy water, it was soon rationalized and accepted. The Communist Party raised the slogan, “The Yanks are not Coming.” Browder was clapped into jail for a passport violation.

For almost two years the CP was isolated from its Rooseveltian allies. Then Hitler turned on the Soviet Union and the slogan was quickly altered to, “The Yanks are not Coming too Late.” Just two words were added and the CPwasoffon the most frenzied chauvinistic peoples frontism in its history.

The party that had learned nothing, that had accepted the Moscow Trials without criticism or even question, that had swallowed the official Stalinist explanations for the defeats of the workers in many countries since 1917, was conditioned to support Roosevelt in the second world war.

Roosevelt opened the jail gates long enough for Browder to get out so he could organize CP support for the war. This sometimes verged upon hysteria, but in any event, was more than welcomed by the CP ranks. Charney tells how John Gates, a prominent CP leader, enlisted in the Army, saluting the flag as he came in. Charney reports how good it felt to be back in what he often refers to as “the mainstream,” how, “We, too, felt the flush of patriotism ...”

The war period saw the CP advocating the most reactionary policies. Some of these were support of speed-up and piece work, the wage and job freeze decreed by Roosevelt, the no-strike pledge hurriedly adopted by the union bureaucrats without asking the ranks. Harry Bridges, head of the West Coast longshoremen, who often championed policies identical to those of the CP, said that strikers were scabs while strikebreakers who crossed picket lines were good union men. Thus everything was turned upside down.

It never occurred to these people that the wartime alliance of Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin was not designed to defend democracy and the much advertised Four Freedoms, but to defeat the imperialist ambitions of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese. Browder thought the alliance could be made a perpetual thing and he offered to shake hands with J.P. Morgan to show his good faith.

But the reality was that the American imperialists allied themselves with Stalin strictly in accord with their own self-interests. It came as a surprise, if not a shock, to the CP when the American colossus, victorious over its imperialist rivals, sought to bestride the earth, tearing up its alliance with Stalin, discarding the Four Freedoms rhetoric and everything else that was no longer useful.

None of the wartime record of the CP, of its thinking, came through to the membership. They spent the years finking in the unions and among the black people and hollering for a second front. Charney scarcely noticed this, enamored as he was with being in the “mainstream.” His colleagues did no better.

The war had hardly ended when the new period of cold war ushered in, with the US holding a monopoly on the atom bomb.

During the war, as a gesture of friendship to his capitalist allies, Stalin had liquidated the Third International without even consulting its members. He did not expect them to reason why and, in fact, they didn’t Browder took that as a signal to liquidate the Communist Party, which he did, replacing it with the Communist Political Association. With the coming break-up of the wartime alliance and the advent of the cold war, Moscow decided to dump Browder, who was a likely scapegoat, and the signal was given by Duclos, the French CP leader.

Everyone understood the source of the Duclos letter, which criticized CP policy, and Browder and some of his associates were expelled. This caused something of a flurry in the ranks but not more than that.

Charney describes the new leaders, with whom he sided, as considerably to the left of Browder, but this is a misunderstanding on his part. The new regime did not turn the party to the left, towards revolutionary politics. On the contrary, it followed the same class-collaborationist line as its predecessors. This apparently fooled Charney and the ranks of the party since the new policies were carried out within the framework of the cold war and the McCarthyite witch-hunt. Room for maneuvering with political representatives of the American capitalists was now somewhat restricted. Roosevelt was dead and so was his New Deal. The latter had expired in the 1930s but the CP had not noticed.

The congenital peoples frontism of the CP remained very much alive An alliance was made with Henry Wallace and others who opposed the cold war and the threat of war against the Soviet Union. Wallace represented a wing of American capitalism that preferred trying to avoid a new world war at that time. By no stretch of the imagination could the Wallace people be called socialists or even militant liberals. Wallace later showed his true colors when he supported Truman’s invasion of Korea and the intervention in the civil war there.

The Progressive Party was formed in 1948 to run Wallace for president with the active backing of the CP. This turned out to be a dud, Wallace receiving only about a million votes.

The CP and its allies, not including Wallace who withdrew after his defeat, kept the Progressive Party alive and ran a presidential ticket in 1952 but this was an even greater failure. A discussion of these questions only brought out another wrong answer: They should have stayed in the Democratic Party. Independent working class political action, such as advocating a labor party, was vigorously opposed by the CP, especially whenever this idea won considerable support in the new CIO unions. Peoples frontism was preferred over independent politics. Charney throws no light on this aspect of CP policy.

The Communist Party suffered heavily from the witch-hunt of the 1950s of which they were the principal victims. Many of their leaders were convicted on trumped-up charges and jailed and many members were fired from jobs. The presence of spies and stoolpigeons in their ranks, revealed at the trials, inspired a witch-hunt within the party that led to large-scale purges of anyone suspected. This had the effect of further reducing the party’s numerical strength which had already been lowered because of its reactionary policies during the war. By the time of the mid-1950s, when the witch-hunt had abated, the party was vastly reduced in numbers and influence. The unions where they had built an imposing strength in the 1930s were either expelled from the CIO or, in some cases, union leaders who had been identified with CP policies, simply turned their backs upon them and joined the witch-hunters.

The greatly weakened party now received the hardest blow of all, the Khrushchev revelations of some of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. This descended on the American CP like a bolt from the blue.

As a result a turmoil of discussion and debate tore the party to pieces. The party lost its most precious asset, one without which it is impossible to build an organization: its moral authority. Members left in droves, convinced that they had been lied to for years, that they had been misled, that they had given their efforts to a cause in which they could no longer believe.

Charney was one of those who eventually left the party, along with many others, most of whom moved to the right, towards social democracy and liberalism. But these results, which were almost universal, should not surprise anyone. These people had been taken into a movement, most of them with the best of intentions, had been mis-educated, duped into believing anything their leaders told them, had never been instructed in independent thinking and judgment, in principled politics, in Marxism.

Charney’s journey was indeed a long one; it might better have been titled a long nightmare because that is what it really was, despite his rather soft judgment on his twenty-five year experience. Unfortunately, many like Charney of his generation of Communist Party members, never learned from Lenin that when there are differences of opinion in the party, everyone’s views must be carefully studied and those who do not do so are idiots who can be dismissed out of hand. This is harsh but true. Stalinism conquered the world Communist movement, among other reasons, because the members of the party did not bestir themselves to learn what Trotsky and others had to say. Thus many thousands of potential revolutionaries, like Charney, were lost to the movement which now will be built by others out of the new, young generation.

The present organization that goes by the name of the Communist Party has no reason to celebrate this anniverary occasion. It retains only the name; the great ideas that inspired its formation a half century ago are long gone. The party is at its lowest ebb since its birth. It has been reduced in numbers from approximately one hundred thousand at its high point to a small fraction of that amount. It has no influence in any major unions, minority organizations or among the rising radical youth.

However, there is reason to mark the anniversary from a positive side. The heritage of the workers’ revolution has not been lost; it has been taken up by others, by the Socialist Workers Party in this country. Beginning in 1928, when they were summarily expelled from the CP for espousing the ideas of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union, the American Trotskyists have been engaged in building the revolutionary party. To them belongs the militant tradition of the first years of American Communism and to them belongs the duty to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of a Communist movement on American soil.


1. A Long Journey by George Charney. Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1968. 340 pp. $7.50.

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