Fighting for Change: The Great Depression, the New Deal and the CPUSA

“CPUSA, SOCIALISM IN OUR DAY!,” chanted young Communists during demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s, long after the worst of the McCarthyite political purges and persecutions had ended. By then a generation had grown up that knew only the Cold War, and the US had established, through military alliance systems, bases and US-centered transnational corporations throughout the world, the most extensive global empire in human history, selling this empire to the people in the name of anti-Communism.

Ten years after the birth of the Communist Party in Chicago in 1919, the belief among Communists that they would see socialism in their day also loomed large in 1929, which was the year that saw the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression. Over the next fours years, the depression in the US destroyed a third of the world’s industrial capacity, saw unemployment peak at 38 percent, and spread mass homelessness and hunger. Families broke up as parents and teenage children wandered the country in search of work.

Communists were not the only ones calling for socialism or fighting for practical reforms to alleviate the crisis, but Communists were by far the most important and successful in their efforts. They created a new, more cohesive left, both more militant and more flexible in strategy and tactics.

Communists started with a new theory of organization and concentration. Between 1929-1939 the Communist Party organized Unemployed Councils to fight throughout the country for “work relief” (public jobs) and “home relief” (public assistance to those who could not work). They also organized hunger marches to publicize the suffering that the depression brought and to expose the big lie that was the official story, repeated endlessly in the press and on radio, that “nobody was starving.” They also organized and sought to coordinate inclusive industrial unions, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, and organizations to defend the rights of the foreign-born.

Most of all, they brought their commitment to make theory work in practice by building militant organizations representing labor and the people to oppose the vested interests of the capitalist power structure.

The Communist wing of the global socialist movement, the “new left” in the world of that period, had been born out of the First World War which ended a decade earlier, a war which Communists attributed to the development of imperialism in its colonial and non-colonial forms.

Racial equality and unity

From the early 1920s, the Communist Party stood also as the only racially-integrated socialist group that concentrated on the special oppression of the African American people, stressing anti-racism and complete integration in all areas of life. Communists fought for this policy of integration within the Communist Party itself, the labor movement, and in all areas of employment, housing and education in communities and in the larger society.

In this period, the effort took the form of general struggles to organize African American sharecroppers and other agricultural laborers in the South. In addition, Communist labor activists fought for inclusive industrial unions and opposed the segregationist policies of many AFL craft unions. Communists joined with other civil rights organizations in the fight for a national anti-lynching law and other legislation that would either restore or establish for the first time the constitutional rights of African Americans.

In the 1930s, in addition to the organization of racially integrated unemployed councils and hunger marches in many cities across the country, Communist-led organizations played an important role in civil rights issues. The Communist-led International Labor Defense (ILD), for example, helped free the Scottsboro Nine and made their case a global civil liberties issue. In 1935, African American activists and leaders affiliated with the Communist Party joined with other African American civil rights and labor advocates to form the National Negro Congress, which joined the struggle for equality with the fight for workers' rights.

Communist Party-founded cultural organizations, such as the John Reed Clubs and publications like the New Masses, helped provided a social and community space for African American writers and artists like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Sterling Brown, Charles White, Frank Marshall Davis, and others too numerous to mention (some CPUSA members, others not). This immense body of creative work became part of a larger people’s movement that connected the struggles of African Americans for freedom with labor’s struggles for concrete economic and social rights.

Labor-left alliance in economic crisis

The Communist belief in both working-class power and the establishment of a socialist society, when combined with their theory and practice of organizing, helps us to understand their achievements. This belief led them to “keep on coming back,” to learn from past errors and advance the struggle, when others either turned defeats into defeatism or their frustrations into sectarianism, which became self-isolating.

After the savage repression of the Communist-led Gastonia, North Carolina textile strike in 1929, Communists in the Trade Union Unity League struggled to build new unions in areas which the craft unions had largely abandoned. Even with many defeats, these campaigns interacted with the developing depression to build mass support for a later great expansion of the labor movement and concrete social reforms.

While Communists initially criticized the New Deal government from the left, their campaigns played a central role in building a broad unity of working-class and democratic forces that created a political atmosphere in which laws and federal institutions allowed the working class to make major advances.

In the last months of 1934 these developments reached their critical mass. In San Francisco, longshore and warehouse workers, led by Harry Bridges and a cadre of Communist and left-allied labor activists, led a strike which became a general strike of the whole city, the most militant and successful strike in US history up to that time.

Even with improvements in the economy by the mid-1930s, which led capital to demand that the New Deal government retreat, years of Communist-led unemployed council campaigns and union activism put huge grassroots pressure on the New Deal government to enact far-reaching labor and social legislation.

Faced with increasingly strident and threatening attacks from big capital and decisions from a reactionary Supreme Court that put its entire program at risk, the New Deal government in 1935 enacted the National Labor Relations Act, which established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB's main function was to supervise democratic elections allowing workers to form unions, and compelling employers to bargain with the unions in good faith. In the debates over the legislation, its supporters used the argument that if it were not passed, Communists and other radicals who had been leading strikes and making important recent gains might in effect lead workers to a violent revolution.

One important feature of this new labor law gave workers the right to choose their workplace representatives in a process today known as 'card check.' Workers held the right to vote for their union by signing membership cards without interference from employers.

The New Deal government also enacted unemployment insurance to provide financial assistance to laid-off workers. In addition, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began to provide a significant number of public works jobs. The National Youth Administration (NYA) provided both employment and educational subsidies for unemployed youth. Most importantly, a new government program called Social Security provided a system of retirement assistance.

Communists stood in the forefront of the working-class struggle for much of this legislation, from labor law reform to Social Security and assistance for the unemployed. Given the structures of political power in the US – especially the power of reactionary Southern Democrats in Congress and the progressive but hardly radical position of the New Deal – much of this legislation remained inadequate. But without the CPUSA, the mass organizations it created and led, the campaigns it initiated, and its defeats and victories, these national achievements would not have been possible.

Shortly after this legislation was enacted, a split emerged between old guard and reformist trade unionists at the AFL’s 1935 Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Most of the craft unions, unions that exclusively organized workers in specific occupations, resisted the push for organizing whole industries into industrial unions. Armed with petitions to form industrial unions by workers through the country (much of it initiated by CPUSA-affiliated groups), John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and others walked out to form a Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) when their industrial union resolutions were beaten down.

Although Lewis was an anti-Communist who had used Red Scare tactics against the left in his own union in the 1920s, he realized that building industrial unions without a united front with the CPUSA was impossible. So he worked out a private agreement with the CPUSA leadership to accept CPUSA organizers on a non-discriminatory basis, with the stipulation that they would not “proselytize” i.e., use their position to recruit members to the CPUSA or turn their unions into CPUSA affiliates.

Of the first 200 CIO organizers, 50 were CPUSA members. And this was only a small part of it. Communists went on to develop and apply the sit-down strike in the period 1937-1938, after the general strike the most radical strike technique in US history. Communists helped organize and direct the Flint, Michigan General Motors sit-down strike of 1937 against what was then the largest industrial corporation in the world. The UAW victory against GM was the most important victory won by workers in US history. It led directly to union recognition, which in turn produced a wave of victories (including US Steel, the second largest industrial corporation in the world at the time, which accepted union recognition rather than face a sit-down strike).

The work of labor historians in recent years has added much more to our knowledge of the strike wave in that period and of the leading role played by a small but significant number of Communist labor activists and local CPUSA districts in winning victories for workers. (see, for example, Rosemary Feuer's study of the labor movement in St. Louis). Of equal importance, Communists played a leading role in fighting the massive corporate backlash against the workers' movement.

This helps to explain why the Communist Party USA grew significantly in membership during this period. In response, the bipartisan enemies of labor and the New Deal coalition established in 1938 the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC (a temporary Committee chaired by the reactionary Texas Democrat, Martin Dies, until 1945) to attempt to establish a permanent Red Scare. Anti-Communism now became an institutionalized political weapon to frighten workers into believing that those who were fighting for them were their enemies.

Premature Red Scare

As the 1930s ended, the combined membership of the CPUSA and the Young Communist League (YCL) was about 100,000. The number of workers in trade unions had tripled over the decade, and a Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing minimum wages, the 40-hour week, and outlawing child labor, had been enacted in 1938. Mass struggles and victories had also produced a division within the Supreme Court, leading two moderate conservatives, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Owen Roberts, to break ranks with four of their brethren and permit the labor and social legislation, which the court had previously declared unconstitutional, to stand.

In terms of change in the interests of the people, these were the most important advances that had been seen since the Civil War. Just as the abolitionists did not by themselves, regardless of the demagoguery of the slaveholders and their defenders, bring about the Civil War or see their principles fully realized in the war’s outcome, Communists neither created the labor and social welfare advances of the 1930s on their own, regardless of the Red Scare demagoguery of the capitalists and their defenders, nor did they see their goals fully realized by 1939. But a time traveler from 1929 would have seen a very different political culture, one in which tens of millions of people were in motion. Millions of workers had been organized into trade unions, social legislation deemed both impossible and socialist had been enacted, and the pious platitudes of President Herbert Hoover, hailed by capital as the “Great Engineer” in 1929, had been replaced by the socially-conscious rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt, condemned by capital as a “traitor to his class” in 1939. And the Communists were a key catalyst in helping to make that change possible.

A global view

Communists in the 1930s also began to campaign against fascism at home and abroad. They established groups like the American League Against War and Fascism (later the American League for Peace and Democracy) and organized campaigns against Italian fascism’s colonial invasion of Ethiopia (1935) Japan's war against China (1937), and Nazi Germany’s remilitarization and annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia (1938), along with the savage racist persecution of Germany’s Jewish minority.

Communists also led in the US, as in many other nations, the campaign to organize volunteers to fight for the Spanish Republic against the Fascist putsch (1936) led by General Francisco Franco with the help of funds, weapons, planes and troops from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The US contingent of the International Brigades, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, which included both Communists and non-Communists, fought with distinction in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. They incurred large losses in a conflict in which only the Soviet Union provided significant aid to a democratically-elected government fighting the fascist insurgency. Without the leading role of Communists, the International Brigades, including the US Abraham Lincoln Battalion, would not have been possible.

While the Communist and left-led campaigns for sanctions against Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and the Japanese empire all failed to achieve their immediate goals, they did help to introduce a focused anti-fascist consciousness among working people, which challenged both the “isolationist” fortress America ideology of much of the right and the often inflexible pacifism of some on the left.

Eventually, the anti-fascist alliance that Communists had fought for most extensively in the late 1930s came into existence during World War II and literally saved humanity from fascist rule. If subsequent generations have either ignored or failed to understand this, it should be noted that the fascist states at that time were fully aware of it and called their first formal alliance, the predecessor to their wartime Axis alliance, the anti-Comintern Pact (1936), whose purpose was to fight against the “subversion” of the Communist International.

Communist participation in this global anti-fascist movement greatly strengthened Communist parties and encouraged individual Communists, even though it allowed their enemies at home to portray them as “foreign agents” of that movement generally, and the Soviet Union specifically.

At the end of the 1930s, Communists in the US had adapted their internationalist ideology and theory of organization to US realities. They had not built a mass party, but given the structure of US politics, with its “two-party system” and winner-take-all elections, that was hardly possible. Communists had, however, challenged the vested interests of capital on a wide variety of issues. Through the labor movement especially, they had influenced the development of working-class consciousness and power that can be seen as a foundation for future gains.

Myths and facts

Let us now look at a few of the common myths that were propagated against Communists, myths which became frozen in place during the Cold War era.

The first myth is that Communists were “infiltrators” who hid their true aims as they sought to subvert organizations, institutions and the government. This myth is an example of the Freudian principle of “projection,” since it was the FBI and various local Red Squads who were actually infiltrating Communist and left groups of all kinds, especially labor unions, using police agents as provocateurs and disruptors. Subsequent historical research has made it clear that the FBI particularly used its agents to work to keep the Communist Party underground and to encourage factionalism. They also regarded Communists as the major threat to the status quo, because Communists were less likely than others to be divided, bought off or scared away.

The second myth was that Communists received their orders and funding from Moscow. This was also a projection onto the Communist movement of the way in which the local subsidiaries of national and international corporations and banks take orders from New York, London, etc.

Moscow was the center of the “Third Communist International” which emerged from the schism in the Marxist socialist movement brought about by WWI and the Soviet socialist revolution. Anti-war internationalist socialists and left socialists frustrated with the failures of prewar socialist party leaderships to develop revolutionary strategies were the ones most likely to become Communists. The Soviet Union, as the first and only socialist country on earth, became the center for a new International of revolutionary socialist parties, although for years there were attempts at reconciliation at the international level between the old Second, or Socialist Parties International, and the New Third or Communist Parties International.

Although the Third International was much more highly centralized than the Second, with member parties expected to implement directives for various nations and parties, these directives were developed by committees in which members of those parties played a leading role. The view that Soviet policy makers were pulling puppet strings simply does not conform to reality. Soviet figures were always very important, but sometimes found themselves on different sides of various policy issues and often served as “referees” between rival figures from national parties. They more often counseled moderation in a movement which in its early years tended to attract the most militant, and in some cases adventurist, elements of the socialist movement.

By acting to overcome factionalism and establish national parties, and by advocating the policy of working within existing labor unions rather than setting up separate unions, a good deal of what the Comintern did was similar to, and a continuation of, traditional Second International policies. The Comintern helped to resolve disputes and establish parties in many countries, including China. Its representatives, like Ho Chi Minh from French colonial Indochina and former anti-war socialist Earl Browder from the US, would later become leaders of national parties.

The Comintern's record was very mixed – issuing general policy directives on questions of trade union organization, minority rights, and alliances with other groups that were often rigidly applied in counterproductive, and in some cases, disastrous ways.

However, it also succeeded in making internationalism into a real policy, causing Communist parties throughout the world to focus on anti-imperialist campaigns against their own ruling classes and making anti-racism into a central tenet of the socialist movement. In the US, as in other countries, both the positive and negative effects of general Comintern policies can be seen.

By 1939, the world Communist movement had played a central role in committing CPUSA members to a policy of connecting anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-militarism which continues to this day. At the same time, defenses of the Soviet Union and its policies added fuel to the incendiary arguments of capitalist governments and their media that Communist parties were “puppets” or, as the founder of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Martin Dies, contended, the “Trojan horse” of a Soviet-directed world conspiracy.

In 1939, the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and the CPUSA’s defense of it led to massive attacks against the Party and the mass organizations in which it was a leading force. In this regard, it is important to remember that the same groups and media, which at the end of 1939 were proclaiming Stalin the ally and political twin of Hitler, had ignored Soviet pleas for collective security against fascism and had generally supported the Munich Agreement as a way to maintain peace in Europe, an agreement which made collective security a dead letter and was the real context for the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact.

A new decade

The decade of the 1940s began with the coming of the Second World war, and the CPUSA found itself in a precarious position. As the next decade began, Communists in the US succeeded in implementing policies of building industrial unions and other mass organizations of the people, advancing an anti-racist policy in them, and developed anti-fascist organizations and an anti-fascist consciousness. They would carry these policies into the new decade, one which would see both a world war and the beginning of a global cold war.

Just as it is very hard to imagine the working-class advances of the 1930s without the Communist Party, it is also very difficult to imagine the CPUSA maintaining the cohesion and focus that it did, and the larger vision of a socialist future that energized its militants, without the global Communist movement, whose strengths far outweighed its weaknesses.

Next month we will look at the following decades in the history of the CPUSA.