The Roller Coaster: The Communist Party in the 1940s


As the swastika flew over most of Europe and millions of German fascist troops drove toward Moscow in early 1941, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, “we have put an end to 1776, 1789 and 1917,” referring to the American, French and Soviet revolutions. The events of the 1940s nearly made Goebbels claim a reality.

After American and Soviet troops had greeted each other at the Elbe River four years later, Goebbels and Hitler took their own lives rather than be captured by fast-approaching Soviet forces. Four years after that friendly meeting at the Elbe River, the major capitalist powers transformed the victory over fascism into a “Cold War.” Germany was divided into two rival states, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed against the communist movements and the Soviet Union in Europe, provoking a nuclear arms race. In the US, right-wingers organized purges and blacklisting of communists and progressive activists, most dramatically the arrest and political show trial of the national leadership of the CPUSA for “conspiring to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the government.”

The decade of the 1940s, one of the most tumultuous in world history, saw ups and downs for communists in the US and in the world. We will try in broad outline to make sense of it.

War and shifting alliances

First, the beginning of World War II in Europe in September 1939 created a crisis for communist parties in the advanced non-fascist countries. In the face of a failure to build a collective security arrangement with Britain and France, and believing the British appeasement agreement with Hitler served as little more than an encouragement to Germany to attack the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders negotiated a non-aggression pact with the German government. Such pacts were not new in European diplomacy and Nazi Germany had established such a pact with the right-wing regime in Poland in 1934, now in 1939 the new target of Nazi aggression and conquest.

For the Soviets, the treaty was an acknowledgement of their military weakness in a hostile world, where no state stood as their ally and both Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire openly maneuvered for war against them. As they had done before, the Soviets in these most desperate circumstances played for time in order to strengthen themselves with the support of their only friends in the world, the communist and left activists fighting capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression.

Initially, communist parties throughout the world portrayed the war as a conflict among imperialist alliance systems and called for a policy of opposing the war, fascism and imperialism. In the colonial regions of the world, communist-led anti-colonial agitation intensified. In China, where the Chinese Communist Party had led a major faction of the armed struggle against the Japanese invaders, the Soviet treaty with Germany did not affect their tactics. Nor did it materially influence the anti-fascist resistance in Germany and Italy, in which communists played a leading role. Still, throughout Europe the political implications of the treaty had a demoralizing effect on the broad left.

In France, the government revived anti-communist laws outlawing the powerful Communist Party of France (PCF). In Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was also subject to attack for supposedly being a pawn of the Soviets. Those on the center-right who had supported the Munich Agreement and had taken the position that it was better to do business with Hitler and the fascists than with Stalin and the Soviets, found it useful to forget the entire history of the 1930s and focus completely on the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

Even with major Nazi victories all over Europe in the spring of 1940, communists led anti-occupation, underground resistance movements, while many of their right-wing political opponents, corporate leaders, military and police officials became willing collaborators with or outright puppets of Hitler’s New Order.

War, red scare and the CPUSA

In the US there were similar developments, but much of this was driven by peculiarly American conditions such as US neutrality until the Pearl Harbor attack and, fortunately, the lack of any Axis invasion of or aerial bombardment against the continental United States.

In the US, as in other non-fascist capitalist states, the Communist Party (CPUSA) initially held that the war aimed not to destroy fascism and colonialism, but to simply re-divide the world between rival capitalist-imperialist blocs. Between the July 1941 German invasion of the USSR and the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, however, US communists would turn to supporting the war effort.

The communists weren't alone in their early opposition to the war. Norman Thomas's Socialist Party combined pacifism and socialist views in its stand against the war. Some of the Trotskyist groupings applied Lenin's views on the imperialist foundations of World War I to the new conflict to justify their refusal to support the war. Most Trotskyists, however, continued to oppose involvement in the war even after the invasion of the USSR and the attack on Pearl Harbor. They would claim that the inter-imperialist conflict now simply had three sides: the German-Japanese Axis, the Anglo-American allies, and the “Stalinist” Soviet Union and its Communist Party supporters. Early on in the American labor movement, CIO leader John L. Lewis opposed US intervention on the side of the Anglo-French allies.

All of this shifting political complexity caused the CPUSA to lose a significant number of members, mainly because of the demoralizing effects of the Soviet-German treaty. In addition, the intensification of repression against the communists, caused by a divided progressive New Deal coalition and revived Red Scare tactics against communists, helped reduce the size of the communist movement.

For example, Young Communist League offices in colleges were ransacked and university administrations banned the organization. State government officials pushed anti-communist “loyalty oaths” on public employees, and those who refused to take them were fired. Communist Party leader Earl Browder was arrested and imprisoned for “passport violations” stemming from trips he made to the Soviet Union some 20 years earlier. Interestingly, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie defended Browder on civil liberties grounds. (Later, Willkie would successfully defend William Schneiderman, a California CPUSA activist, persecuted by the Justice Department for his “lying” about his CPUSA membership when he applied for citizenship in 1927. The government concluded that Schneiderman had violated a section in the 1906 naturalization legislation that contended applicants for citizenship “must believe in the principles of the Constitution.”)

In the 1940 election, still opposing US involvement in the war, the CPUSA endorsed neither Willkie nor Roosevelt and ran Browder from prison. CIO leader John L. Lewis endorsed Willkie, whom the Republican right came to hate almost as much as Roosevelt in the aftermath of the campaign. But the major industrial unions, and more importantly the workers themselves, overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Communists intensified their commitment to fight for trade union rights and against racism and anti-Semitism. Even with the attempts by right-wing factions to insert anti-communist clauses into the by-laws of labor unions and other mass organizations, party activists largely held their own because of their practical work and accomplishments in democratic struggles. Nevertheless, the losses in membership were significant, as was the use of the party's view of the war by its enemies to contend that it was an agent of Soviet intrigue. When other parties or groups changed their positions, they were viewed as “flexible” or “politically pragmatic.” When communists appeared to change their position and, unlike their enemies, related those changes to their overall theory, it was “flip-flopping.”

Party activists continued to involve themselves in grassroots peoples' campaigns and avoided any organizational involvements with the well funded rightist “isolationist” America First Committee and other reactionary and openly pro-fascist groups.

The ground shifts again

By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis were fighting against resistance movements throughout Europe in which communists played leading roles. By 1941 in China, the Japanese military, allied with Vichy French colonial officials, fought similar communist-led resistance movements in Indochina. Even before the invasion, the Comintern’s 1939 position against the war was becoming untenable in both theory and practice as underground movements abandoned the policy and gravitated towards armed national liberation fronts. Meanwhile, communists in grassroots peoples’ organizations in the US and Britain began to work with non-communists to find ways to fight the fascist Axis short of war.

The invasion of the Soviet Union changed the character of the war. By the time of the invasion, the war had largely become a war between the fascist Axis and anti-fascist left resistance movements in Europe and Asia. While the British Royal Navy and Air Force resisted an invasion, and the British people withstood the Nazi blitz, British and French colonialism were very negative forces, enabling German and Italian Fascists and Japanese imperialists to try to use various anti-colonial groups in Egypt, India, Iraq, Palestine, and other regions to help them win the war.

From June 1941 to May 1945, the overwhelming amount of Axis troops and war supplies would be used against the Soviet Union and against left-led resistance forces in China, Yugoslavia, Greece and other countries. The destruction of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Axis control of Europe and Asia, communists reasoned, would set back the peoples' movements for generations, perhaps centuries. It would establish a brutal fascist or state capitalist dictatorship, using advanced technologies, over much of the world, a real expression of the sort of nightmare scenario that American socialist novelist Jack London had predicted in The Iron Heel.

The second popular front

Historians are now beginning to rewrite the labor history of World War II. Increasingly they are revising the conventional historical wisdom of the Cold War period, much of it ironically derived from sectarians on the left, who insisted that communists had abandoned all peoples' and labor struggles as part of the war effort, forging an uncritical alliance with the New Deal.

Communists did adopt an 'everything for victory' position. But this meant fighting against racism and segregation in the military through family support groups on military bases, fighting to implement Roosevelt’s anti-discrimination order in the war production industries through the war, and fighting to expand labor movement influence and unity at a time when the maintenance of membership clauses by the War Labor Board compelled employers to accept union representation in order to keep profitable war industry contracts. Communists in unions and other mass organizations worked on committees with capitalist managers, finding practical solutions and compromises to deal with issues of production and workers’ rights. This was difficult, but necessary. Given the achievements of the US in fulfilling Roosevelt’s promise to make the nation the “arsenal of democracy,” out-producing all Axis enemies and allies combined in the last years of the war, these efforts were enormously effective in achieving the final victory.

But there were political costs. In the American Labor Party in New York, where the influence of communist activists and their allies grew, anti-communists, led by David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, split to form an anti-communist Liberal Party after they were defeated in a primary. In Minnesota and the Dakotas, communists acquiesced in the mergers of the Farmer-Labor Party and the Nonpartisan League, respectively, with the Democratic Party, mergers which would end the independence of these important left-oriented state parties. CPUSA membership revived significantly, but never regained the numbers it had at the end of the 1930s. Notably, membership numbers during the war period are difficult to calculate because thousands of CPUSA members and supporters served in the armed forces, many with great distinction. Their role in the military was significant enough to cause concern among military officials who wanted to segregate communists at the beginning of the war into “special units” of untrustworthy soldiers and keep them out of officer training schools.

On the domestic front, Roosevelt defined the war as a race to win the battle of production. But it was also a race between an increasingly influential labor movement and its left allies on the one hand and the capitalist class, on the other, which saw huge guaranteed profits from the war economy and big opportunities to regain the economic and political power it had lost as a result of the Depression. While the former sought to advance democracy in the name of defeating the fascist powers, the latter generally dreamed of financial gain and the emergence of a postwar “American Century.” They set about constructing a super-empire in which US capital would come to control the assets of both its defeated capitalist enemies and its battered allies. To achieve this, of course, it would have to defeat the labor and left leadership of the democratic movement, and somehow isolate and encircle the Soviet Union.

The turn inward

In the heat of the moment, CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder seemed largely oblivious to these developments. He had been released from prison in 1942, and he and the CPUSA leadership pushed the “everything for victory” policy to extremes. It seemed to work. The party leadership accentuated the most positive positions of the New Deal government, such as Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” address, and downplayed direct criticism of administration policy. These and other war-era CPUSA policies seemed practical and necessary – with the particular exception of the party’s indefensible acceptance of the Roosevelt administration's incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans and its own shameful collaboration in expelling its Japanese American members.

Another ultimately disastrous policy was Browder’s conclusion that the US communist movement would be more effective if it ceased to advocate socialism as a political party and became a political association of activists, working largely within and influencing the Democratic Party. Browder's position won in the 1944 party convention, and for a brief period, the CPUSA became the Communist Political Association.

Although the official story is that “orders from Moscow” led to Browder’s removal from office and the restoration of the CPUSA as a party in 1945, there is also evidence that news of Browder’s removal, as it spread through liberated Europe, produced great resentment among communists in many countries. First of all, communists who had played major roles in resistance movements and were in most places much stronger than they had been before the war, were themselves participating in national reconstruction coalition governments. The US in the pre-Cold War era was seen very positively – after Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most revered president internationally in US history. So the rejection of Browder’s conception of the Party seemed unnecessary and backward.

US and international communists who did oppose Browder's strategy of postwar unity regarded that program as an ideological and policy threat regardless of what the Soviet Union advocated. In fact, the Soviets generally supported a policy of reconciliation and reconstruction over revolution and confrontation, in order to begin to rebuild their devastated country with reparations from their defeated enemies and aid from their allies.

In the end, Browder's opponents won out. In April 1945, Jacques Duclos, a veteran leader of the French Communist Party, wrote a trenchant critique of Browder’s policy in Cahiers du Communisme, the theoretical journal of the French Communist Party. Browder's supporters in the CPUSA tried but failed to block its translation and publication in the US. In July 1945, Browder’s opponents, led by his long-time ideological rival on the left, William Z. Foster, now organized against him. His policies were dubbed “Browderism,” and an extraordinary conference was organized to debate them. Although participants in the conference attempted compromise, Browder refused to change his position and was defeated. The CPUSA was then reconstituted, and Foster became party chair. There were no major political purges and expulsions, but those who had won the internal struggle were on Browder's left – not a sectarian left supporting confrontationist tactics, but one willing to level criticisms of US foreign and domestic policy which had been set aside by Browder during the period of wartime national unity. Browder’s continued criticisms of the party leadership and its policies, however, led to his expulsion in 1946 when Eugene Dennis was elected as the party’s General Secretary.

From alliance to Cold War

By this time, Roosevelt had died and Harry Truman had taken office. His administration abandoned the “big three” cooperation policy with the Soviet Union in favor of restoring the prewar quarantine against the Soviets and the communist movement, in an attempt to force the Soviets out of Eastern Europe. In China, the Truman administration intervened directly with extensive military aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s government, which led him to pursue a civil war against the Chinese communist movement rather than elections and a coalition government. In Indochina, Ho Chi Minh’s pleas to the US for support for Vietnam’s independence went unheeded as France bombed Hanoi in 1946 and sent an army to reclaim its colony. The United Nations, in its infancy in the late 1940s before its permanent headquarters in New York opened, saw its growth and development severely impacted by the Cold War. Attempts to control nuclear weapons were lost as the Truman administration fought to maintain its nuclear monopoly. Partitions of British colonial India and Palestine, which many considered a basis for future wars and unsustainable in the long run, were established. Planned re-unifications of both occupied Germany, the major instigator of the war, and Korea, a victim of Japanese colonialism, were never instituted as rival capitalist and socialist states were established in these countries.

In the US, the Communist Party fought back against these international trends, which it saw as an expression of a new and virulent American imperialism. It did so in a political atmosphere in which Truman administration policies in leading the Cold War enabled all of its enemies, the anti-New Deal right, the rightwing business-unionist-led AFL, and the anti-communist factions of the CIO to all turn on it. In retrospect, the CPUSA fought the good fight against racism, imperialism and war. During this period, the criticisms of US government policies internationally and the failures of the Truman administration to carry forward New Deal policies at home, which one can find in the pages of the Daily Worker, the Peoples World, and the CPUSA’s new theoretical journal, Political Affairs, still ring true, as even non-Marxist progressives who go back to these sources can see.

Even as the political roller coaster turned downward in the US, it was moving upward for revolutionary forces globally. Communists condemned the Truman administration’s policy of aiding Chiang Kai-shek’s regime with billions of dollars against the communists. In another sign of its global intentions, the Truman administration announced the Truman Doctrine by intervening with military and economic aid on behalf of the Greek right-wing regime (composed mainly of Nazi collaborators) in 1947. The new Cold War generated global fears of nuclear destruction and brought about a huge expansion of industrial and finance capital.

Communists fought to save the New Deal coalition in which they had played a major role. But the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 (capitalism’s domestic equivalent of the Truman Doctrine, in that it sought to fight a domestic cold war to contain the labor movement) enabled and encouraged anti-communists to argue convincingly that unless communists and the left were pushed out, all of the gains of the New Deal period, such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Social Security, and unemployment insurance, would be repealed by a Republican administration.

Most people who advocated this point of view tended to ignore that the sweeping Republican victory in the 1946 congressional elections, which set the stage for Taft-Hartley, was largely the result of Truman’s failure to implement progressive policies. It was Truman's attacks on labor during major 1946 strikes, as well as his administration’s failure to maintain effective price controls or to prevent meat processors and other agribusiness groups from causing major food shortages, that led to Republican congressional victories. Instead, many on the right-wing claimed that communists in unions and other peoples' organizations were the main cause of the external and internal problems the country faced.

Beginnings of a new 'Red Scare'

The CPUSA now had enemies in the White House. The Truman administration responded to the more virulent Republican-controlled House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) by establishing its own internal purge, also known as “the loyalty program,” and by having the Attorney General establish a list of subversive organizations to, in effect, compete with HUAC in red-baiting and blacklisting.

In retaliation, communists rallied behind the presidential candidacy of former Vice President and then New Republic editor Henry A. Wallace. Wallace headed the Progressive Party and ran on a program of reviving the New Deal, a far-reaching civil rights agenda of abolishing segregation and discrimination, and ending the Cold War through negotiations with the Soviet Union. To achieve international stability and peace, Wallace argued that the US could and should be a friend to global progressive and revolutionary movements, and should end its support of reactionary ruling regimes.

In the labor movement, Walter Reuther, leader of the anti-communist faction of the UAW, won the leadership of his union. In the CIO, right-wing factions generally made support for Truman and the Democrats a litmus test for leadership, and began to institute local purges of Progressive Party supporters. The Truman campaign undercut the Progressive Party on domestic issues by running to the left, advocating a Social Security-based program of national public health care, federal education and housing programs, and a repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law. At the same time, it responded to HUAC red-baiting by arresting the national leadership of the CPUSA under the 1940 Smith Act.

The Progressive Party had hoped to get as many as 5 million votes, and polls near the end of the campaign showed it getting about 2 million. In the end, however, it received only a little more than 1 million counted votes (there is substantial evidence of massive vote fraud). Truman’s victory signaled an acceleration of the political purges, which were implemented to eliminate independent labor-left political action, a political force which had acted as something of a deterrent to anti-communism up to that point.

For the rest of his life, Earl Browder argued that the party’s abandonment of its center-left policy for a left sectarian one made its leaders responsible for the far-reaching postwar repression. The truth is, however, that communists did not jump precipitously into building the Progressive Party. They sought to sustain center-left coalitions within the labor movement and to carry forward the peoples’ struggles against racism and for peace. Communists refused, however, the Faustian bargain of siding with the Truman administration and its anti-Soviet Cold War policies, as the socialists and new Cold War liberals did. They also felt they could not simply proclaim their neutrality in the Cold War, condemning both “American imperialists” and “Soviet Stalinists” and go about their business. Also, had either of these policies or some variant of them been adopted, it is very hard to see the CPUSA surviving in any form, as even an appendage to the US cold warriors or a tiny sect.

As 1949 ended, the Peoples Republic of China had been founded, the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb years before Cold War policy planners predicted, and the Truman administration was rapidly forgetting its 1948 domestic campaign promises as it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That year also saw the continuation of a massive repression of the Communist Party with the arrest, trial and conviction of CPUSA leaders under the Smith Act for conspiring 'to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the government.' Many people now feared that the long struggle against fascism and war, which had been won in 1945, could soon be lost.

In the next decade, the CPUSA would struggle simultaneously to survive a far-reaching multi-faceted repression which sought to segregate it from all peoples' movements and struggles, and to contribute in a new and hostile environment to the peoples' struggles for civil rights and peace.