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Guide to the Communist Party of the United States of America Records TAM.132

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Jillian Cuellar, Peter Filardo, Stephanie Bennett, Margaret Fraser, Nancy Ng Tam, Hester Goodwin Stanley, Maggie Schreiner, Daniel Reisner, Michelle Dean, and Hanan Ohayon (March 2012). Edited to include accessioned materials, May 2014

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on July 24, 2019
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Heather Mulliner to include Jim West files from 2014 accession Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect incorporation of audio/visual and photographic materials Edited by Heather Mulliner to include 2018 accertion Edited by Rachel Searcy to reflect 2018 accretion  , February 2017 , October 2017 , May 2018 , April 2019

Historical Note

The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), a Marxist-Leninist party aligned with the Soviet Union, was founded in 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution by the left wing members of the Socialist Party USA. These split into two groups, with each holding founding conventions in Chicago in September 1919: one which established the Communist Labor Party, and a second which established the Communist Party of America. In a 1920 Joint Unity Convention, a minority faction of the Communist Party of America merged with the Communist Labor Party to become the United Communist Party. Under the strong recommendation of the Communist International (Comintern), the UCP ultimately joined the remaining members of the Communist Party of America in May 1921. At this point, the Party existed largely in an underground, clandestine manner. In December 1921, it formed the Workers Party of America to serve as its legal arm with the purpose of securing its right to a legal and open existence; the WPA in 1922 became the Workers (Communist) Party of America, the recognized U.S. affiliate of the Comintern. The Party established its newspaper, the Daily Worker, in 1924 as a means to communicate with membership and a larger left wing audience about the Party's policies and positions on a wide range of current events, with an emphasis on labor issues and social justice. By 1927, the Party had moved its headquarters to New York City. In 1929, it officially declared its name as the Communist Party of the United States of America, and had an affiliated youth group, the Young Communist League.

The CPUSA's highest governing body is its National Convention, which meets every few years to decide basic policy questions. The day to day leadership of the party is directed by about a dozen members of the Political Bureau or Political Committee and members from various national commissions. Between conventions, policy is set by a National Committee that consists of full time cadre, leading activists, public notables, and party officers. Between National Committee meetings, policy is set by the Central Committee. Due to a decline in Party membership, the Central and National Committees and their functions were merged into one body during the late 1980s; this body is now called the National Committee. At the regional level, the Party is divided into districts, which may be comprised of several states. Each district is made up of local clubs which form the most basic unit of the Party; in the early days of the Party, clubs were referred to as cells. Clubs are based on place of work (shop club) or on residence (neighborhood club).

As the prospect of imminent revolution in the United States faded, the Party focused on working within existing labor organizations, a tactic known as "boring from within", under the leadership of labor organizer William Z. Foster. It also began the process of "Bolshevization," in which the Party's language-based federations were reorganized into shop and neighborhood-based Party units. During the 1920s, much of the Party's energy was consumed by factional struggles between various left and right groups; these struggles mirrored events occurring in the international Communist movement, like the 1928 expulsion of Leon Trotsky's sympathizers. A political left turn in that year initiated the so-called Third Period (1928-1934) of Communism, in which the Party sharply attacked moderate socialist groups as "social fascists," and sought to form its own revolutionary trade unions rather than work within existing labor unions. This tactic, known as dual unionism, was not successful on its own terms, but it helped build a cadre of organizers who went on to play important roles in the development of the CIO. This was also the period during which the CPUSA developed a new stance on the status of black Americans, recognizing their oppression based on their nationality in addition to their class. This decision drew significant support among African and Caribbean American leftists. Beginning in 1928, the CPUSA ran candidates for president and vice president, including an African American vice presidential candidate, James W. Ford, in 1932. In 1930, the Party established the International Workers Order, a fraternal organization organized around ethnicity, which eventually grew to approximately a quarter million members. The largest single section was the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order, a reflection of the fact that Jews were the largest ethnic group within the CPUSA.

The onset of the Great Depression led to an upsurge in Party activity, as members increased efforts to organize labor and rallied as advocates for the unemployed. The Party was also instrumental in the defense of political prisoners. Through the International Labor Defense, a legal defense organization affiliated with the CPUSA, Communist attorneys contributed to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men accused of rape. This period also saw the rise to leadership of Earl Browder, who was General Secretary of the Party from 1930-1945.

By 1935, the triumph of fascism in Germany led the Communist movement to embrace Popular Front politics. Communists began collaborating not only with socialists, but with liberals on anti-fascist and reformist goals. The CPUSA endorsed the New Deal, though it voiced many criticisms of the program. It also coined the slogan "Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism," in an attempt to emphasize that the organization reflected the best traditions of progressive American history. With the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935, hundreds of veteran Communist labor organizers helped organize millions of workers, and emerged as the leadership of the United Electrical Workers, the National Maritime Union, and several smaller unions. They were also an integral part of a progressive coalition heading the United Automobile Workers. In the South, the Party was committed to ending legal segregation and ensuring equal voting rights for minorities; through the Southern Negro Youth Congress in the 1930s and 1940s, the CPUSA worked to mobilize students, farmers, and industrial workers to overturn segregation laws and to build support for anti-lynching legislation. The Party was also a leading force in the American Student Union. By the summer of 1939, the Party had nearly 60,000 members and many more sympathizers, garnering a certain degree of respectability as a part of the left wing of the New Deal.

During the late 1930s and coinciding with the American-Soviet wartime alliance, the Communist Party had some significant electoral successes. As a result of proportional representation, two Communists were elected in the 1940s to the New York City Council, one on the Communist Party ticket and one on the American Labor Party ticket. Communists also allied with Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party and were sometimes instrumental in the selection and election of progressive Democratic Party candidates.

In August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact committing to cease anti-fascist action. During the years of the non-aggression pact, membership declined sharply, and the Party lost substantial influence among popular front organizations.

However, with the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941, the Party abruptly returned to its Popular Front anti-fascist politics and recovered much of its influence. It reached its peak membership of about 80,000 during WWII. In its eagerness to be seen as part of the patriotic war effort, the Party had even tacitly endorsed the internment of Japanese Americans. Party General Secretary Earl Browder put forth the view that the postwar period could feature a continued U.S.-Soviet alliance, an expansion of the New Deal, and the indefinite postponement of the struggle for socialism. This proposal was reflected in the 1944 name change of the Party to the Communist Political Association. However, the onset of the Cold War undermined such hopes. By the end of 1945, the Party had reverted to its former name, deposing Earl Browder in favor of William Z. Foster, one of Browder's main critics. The postwar economic boom, along with the rising tide of anti-communism, further weakened the appeal of the CPUSA.

In 1947, the Truman administration instituted a loyalty oath program for Federal employees and began background investigations on persons deemed suspect of holding party membership in organizations that advocated violent and anti-democratic programs. That same year, the U.S. Attorney General compiled a list of organizations considered to be subversive. The CPUSA backed independent candidate Henry Wallace during the 1948 Presidential election; it also sought continued good relations with the USSR and opposed Truman's Cold War foreign policies. During this period, anti-communist measures accelerated. In 1949, the CIO expelled eleven unions deemed to be Communist dominated, and the top twelve leaders of the CPUSA were indicted and subsequently convicted under the Smith Act. Smith Act prosecutions of additional leading Communists followed the conviction of the initial group. Based in part on these measures, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held extensive hearings at which witnesses were expected to name political associates or face contempt charges unless they invoked the Fifth Amendment. The entertainment industry compiled its own list of suspected subversives, who were then denied employment. In 1950, the Subversive Activities Control Act was passed over President Harry Truman's veto. It required Communist organizations to register with the United States Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate persons suspected of engaging in subversive activities or otherwise promoting the establishment of a "totalitarian dictatorship." This act decimated the full range of the Party's Popular Front organizations. At the state level, there were analogous laws, prosecutions, and hearings.

Fearing the onset of a fascist dictatorship, the Party sent most of its leadership underground, further weakening the organization. The worst of the anti-communist fervor began to recede after the 1954 censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy and some favorable Supreme Court rulings. However, in 1956 the Communist Party was devastated by Soviet Premier Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" which acknowledged that crimes had been committed under the regime of Stalin. The Party, which had already lost three-quarters of its membership, suffered further losses, and went through a two-year internal crisis. This resulted in the 1958 defeat and resignation of the social democratic reform-minded elements within the Party. By 1959, when Gus Hall became General Secretary, the membership was less than 5,000.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the role of women and African Americans in the leadership of the Party increased notably. Children of Communists or former Communists made up a significant component of the young white civil rights workers who traveled to the South in the early and mid-1960s. Bettina Aptheker, daughter of the well-known Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, was a leading activist in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. Charlene Mitchell, an African American, was the Party's 1968 presidential candidate; Angela Davis, also African American, ran for Vice-President on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. The Party's National Chair was occupied by African American Henry Winston from 1966-1986. After his death, African American Jarvis Tyner, former head of the New York State District, stepped into the position, then renamed Executive Vice-Chair.

The CPUSA experienced some growth during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, despite its sometimes ambivalent relationship to the culture and politics of the New Left. The CPUSA's daily newspaper, the Daily Worker, was revived as the  Daily World in 1967; it reported on the rebirth of the civil rights movement, and later, the anti-Vietnam movement and the growing black nationalist movement. In New York City, the Metropolitan Council on Housing, an old left Popular Front organization, grew to become one of the leading tenants' rights organizations in the city, with its own publication and radio program. Throughout the country, individual Communist activists were elected to local public offices, although none on the Communist Party ballot. The Party also continued its labor activism, establishing Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy, and playing a crucial role in the affairs of Local 1199, which represented hospital workers in the New York City area. It maintained an active opposition caucus within the American Federation of Teachers, opposing the policies of AFT president Albert Shanker.

In the 1980s, the Party continued to promote international peace efforts; working through the U.S. Peace Council, the CPUSA focused on nuclear disarmament and opposed Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," program. They also directed more energy to attracting and recruiting a younger generation of activists with the decision to revive an official youth affiliate. The Party's youth organization had undergone several incarnations throughout the century—from the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs to the Young Workers Liberation League. By the early 1980s, it was reinstated under its original name, the Young Communist League.

Parallel to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Party experienced the growth of a reform tendency in the latter 1980s. Many of these reformists left after their political defeat at the 1991 Party convention; they went on to form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Despite a severe drop in membership, the CPUSA remained active during the 1990s, maintaining its focus on advocating for the working class, working towards equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities and women, and promoting international peace. With the rise of environmentalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the CPUSA joined in global efforts to protect the environment. Still based in New York City, the CPUSA continues to work on behalf of oppressed communities and advocate progressive social change.