Upon its inception in 1919, the CPUSA was inextricably linked to the Soviet Communist International (Comintern), which was controlled by Moscow leadership and possessed “uncontested authority” over all international parties. When it was founded, the Party had approximately 50,000 members.
By the 1920s, the CPUSA’s membership had dwindled to approximately 15,000 because the Comintern forced it to adopt an ultra-revolutionary stance and give up attempts at “coalition building.” The Great Depression presented the Party with an opportunity to recruit and build its membership. Thus the CPUSA used hard times as a propaganda tool to assail the failure of capitalism, targeting particularly the liberal policies of the early FDR administration while successfully infiltrating government agencies, notably the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.
In 1935, with the rise of Nazism, the Comintern changed its policy and adopted the Popular Front tactic, which allowed the CPUSA to pose as the anti-fascist defenders of American liberalism. As Earl Bowder, the leader of the CPUSA from 1935 to 1945, declared, “Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism.” This new tactic increased the Party’s membership to nearly 100,000 people — its high point — , and it simultaneously allowed the Party to infiltrate a whole host of liberal institutions and use them as front groups. The CPUSA worked especially on becoming a presence within the powerful labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (which would later merge with the American Federation of Labor, to become the AFL-CIO).
In 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact brought an end to the CPUSA’s anti-fascist pose. Soon after, the Party returned to its prior aggressive denunciations of mainstream American politics — a move that eventually brought about a collapse in membership, especially when the Party reversed course once again with Hitler’s invasion of the USSR.
After World War II ended, Soviet hostility to the West surfaced once more. In 1944, U.S. Army cryptanalysts broke the code to the KGB’s communications, and by 1948 the Venona project had identified hundreds of espionage operatives in the United States. Although the Roosevelt administration had dismissed Republican assertions that Communists had infiltrated the New Deal, by the late 1940s the Truman administration began to treat the internal Communist threat as a very serious matter.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, both former Communists, testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that Communists had operated in the Roosevelt administration — especially Alger Hiss, who had served as a top official in the State Department. In January 1950, Hiss was convicted. A year later, on March 6, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, members of the CPUSA and militant Stalinists, were put on trial for espionage and were executed two years later in 1953. Generations of radicals perceived them as martyrs for the cause and, to this day, many still protest their guilt, even though evidence continues to prove that they engaged in a conspiracy to steal the atomic secrets of the United Stated and deliver them to the USSR.
Joseph McCarthy, United States Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, became the most famous and aggressive politician to take up the anti-Communism banner. In 1950, although the purge of the CPUSA from American politics was well underway, McCarthy used anti-Communist sentiment to gain power. Claiming that he was in possession of a list of Communists in the State Department and later in the Truman administration and the U.S. Army, McCarthy propelled himself into the national limelight. His influence was to be short-lived, however; in 1954 he was censured by the Senate for abusing his legislative power. Rather than weeding out Communists in government, McCarthy’s methods became a boon to the radical Left. By evoking the specter of open-ended witch-hunts, he gave the Communist Left a banner around which to regroup.
As the Cold War developed and Congressional legislation targeted its revolutionary activities, the CPUSA had to retreat underground. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” — denouncing the crimes of Josef Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary — further depleted the CPUSA’s membership, which fell to 3,000. In 1959, Gus Hall became the leader of a marginalized CPUSA that was a diminished shell of what it had been a generation earlier.
Although the CPUSA’s support of the Soviet invasions of Prague and Afghanistan continued to brand the Party as part of the Old Left, it began to see some increased membership in the 1970s. Some previous Party members now felt it safe to rejoin the organization, and a small number of 1960s radicals also joined the Party.
From its inception, the CPUSA had put resources into recruiting African Americans into ranks. While this effort never yielded many members and collapsed with the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s, Herbert Aptheker, a long-time member and founder of the American Institute for Marxist Studies, and Angela Davis now attempted to incorporate racial radicalism into the Party.
While its goal has always been the development of a national Communist Party, in 1984 the CPUSA began to give indirect support to the Democrat Party as the only alternative to the conservatism of the Reagan era. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev introduced Perestroika to the Soviet Union, leading eventually to the near disintegration of the CPUSA. In 1992 Herbert Apthetker and Angela Davis split away from the Party to found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
In 2008 the CPUSA built what it termed “a labor and people’s alliance” to support Barack Obama’s presidential bid. On January 31, 2009, Sam Webb, the current leader of the CPUSA, gave a speech celebrating that “a friend of labor and its allies sits in the White House.” He described President Obama’s inauguration as a sign that “an era of progressive change is within reach, no longer an idle dream.” According to Webb, the new administration was already considering “a new model of governance” that “would challenge corporate power, profits and prerogatives.”
On November 3, 2010 — the day after mid-term elections in which Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, more than 60 House seats, and 7 governorships — CPUSA Labor Commission chairman Scott Marshall emphasized that his organization had worked collaboratively on political campaigns with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. SaidMarshall:
“The continuing independence of the labor movement was heightened tremendously by the election, and in very specific ways, not just in general. Not only did the campaigning take place from union hall[s],… but this time, as Trumka told us when he was in Chicago, they began the nuts and bolts [of] building independent labor campaign organizations in five key cities around the country.”
- complained that prior to the previous day’s elections, a “corporate-Republican alliance depended on lies, fear, and hatred to spread its message”;
- praised labor unions for having worked to raise “class consciousness”; and
- asserted that a key CPUSA priority for the immediate future would be “to deepen and expand class-consciousness.”
Late in 2010, CPUSA member C.J. Atkins called for his comrades to drop their “communist” label, so that they could work more effectively inside the Democratic Party. Soon thereafter, Joe Sims, co-editor of the CPUSA publication Peoples World, acknowledged not only that collaboration with the the Democrats “will be an area of engagement for those wanting to make a difference,” but also that communists might someday be able to “capture” the Democratic Party entirely. Sims warned, however, against dissolving the CPUSA entirely into the Democratic Party. Rather, he advised his organization to remain a separate entity, working both inside and outside the Democratic Party as circumstances required.
CPUSA’s modus operandi is to delegitimize and smear American society by depicting it as deeply and irremediably infested with racism, sexism, homophobia, and all manner of injustice. Click here, for instance, for an explanation of how the organization in 2014 used its flagship publication, People’s World, to foment racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of a white police officer’s fatal shooting of a black suspect.
In January 2015, CPUSA National Committee chairman John Bachtell published an essay in People’s World stating that American Communists were eager to work with the Democratic Party in order to advance communist goals. He wrote, for instance:
“[L]abor and other key social forces are not about to leave the Democratic Party anytime soon. They still see Democrats as the most realistic electoral vehicle to advance their agenda, especially in the national battle against the extreme right. Their main goal at this time is changing DP policies and approaches away from influences of the Wall Street wing and the more conservative elements…. First, we are part of building the broadest anti-ultra right alliance possible…. This necessarily means working with the Democratic Party. Second, our objective is not to build the Democratic Party. At this stage we are about building the broad people’s movement led by labor that utilizes the vehicle of the Democratic Party to advance its agenda. We are about building the movements around the issues roiling wide sections of people that can help shape election contours and debates…. [W]e are for building movements in the electoral arena and see engagement in the electoral arena and democratic governance as a vital means to further build movements.”