Communist Party USA: 90 years of activism for socialism, democracy and peace



The Communist Party USA is celebrating its 90th anniversary. During the past nine decades it has been in the vanguard of the movement for progressive social change. Beginning in the 1920s, Communists have played central roles in the labor, civil rights and immigrant rights movements.

This history will be celebrated over the next few months through a series of online articles and interviews designed to connect the past to the present, so that the current generation of activists can build upon the experiences of their parents and grandparents.

These articles and interviews will draw on resources of the archives of the Communist Party and the library of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies that the party donated to New York University's Tamiment Library in 2006.

The CPUSA's archive clearly shows that from the very beginning capitalist governments and media saw the Communist parties as a tremendous threat to their wealth and power, finding it expedient to portray Communists as foreign agents of "Soviet Russia." In the U.S., Communists faced extensive state repression and were initially driven underground by the Woodrow Wilson administration, whose Justice Department arrested thousands of suspected revolutionaries without warrants, held them in "preventive detention," and sought to deport many.

Forced underground by this post World War I red scare, the Communist Party emerged from the underground in 1923 to organize the Trade Union Education League and later the more radical Trade Union Unity League that helped lay the foundation for the industrial union movement of the late 1930s and 1940s.

During the early years of the Great Depression when as much as 38 percent of the American people were unemployed, Communists played a leading role organizing mass demonstrations for unemployment insurance, public works programs, and social security. With the rise of the CIO, the Communists played a leading role in the victories won by industrial workers in establishing unions and expanding workers' rights in the automobile, steel, electrical appliance, packinghouse, mining, longshore and other basic industries.

Communists established community-based mass organizations to unite working class communities with the labor movement, and developed grassroots campaigns around issues like rent control, slum clearance, public housing, public power, education and other issues. Unlike any labor-based group since the abolitionist movement in the period before the Civil War, Communists focused their activities in anti-racist campaigns, defining the struggle against racism in the U.S. (specifically the racist oppression of the African American people) as a linchpin of capitalist rule.

Communists played a leading role in the national movement to free the Scottsboro Nine, establish a federal anti-lynching law, abolish the poll tax, end de facto segregation in public accommodations in Northern cities, and publicize and condemn a wide variety of racist abuses ranging from police brutality to systematic discrimination in employment and housing.

Communist cultural groups and publications also nurtured African American artists and writers like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others. CPUSA members brought their work to a large multi-racial working class audience.

Just as the CPUSA was born at the time of one world war with revolutionary consequences, a second world war with revolutionary consequences would affect the party profoundly.

During the Cold War the CPUSA was thrown on the defensive. During these years of unprecedented repression, Communist leaders were jailed and trade union activists were purged from both the AFL and CIO, while hundreds of thousands of party members and former members were placed under government surveillance and lost their jobs.

Under these circumstances the survival of the CPUSA was itself a remarkable achievement. But the CPUSA did more than survive. It campaigned against the post-war repression, focusing on Joe McCarthy and using the concept of "McCarthyism" to rally resistance. The party opposed the war in Korea, fought for nuclear disarmament and, after the worst of the McCarthy era repression was lifted, played a leading role in the movement to end the war in Vietnam.

The CPUSA saw the danger of the Reagan policies and focused its campaigns on the defeat of Reagan and "Reaganism." It continued to play the role of a responsible left, mobilizing support in trade unions and community organizations against Reagan's union-busting policies, undermining of civil rights legislation, military intervention in Central America, nuclear buildup, and "Star Wars" scheme which were a sort of B movie  serious revival of "Dr. Strangelove."

Just as the CPUSA had gone through ideological internal conflicts which had led members to resign in the late 1930s, at the end of World War II and in the late 1950s, the fall of the Soviet Union and its alliance system in Eastern Europe triggered new doubts and divisions at the beginning of the 1990s. But the CPUSA weathered these storms continuing to organize against the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class, the military industrial complex, large oil companies, employers of non-union labor and investors in foreign cheap labor in poor countries, whose power increased in a world where the Soviets no longer were a deterrent to imperialism and capitalist media everywhere proclaimed smugly that "Communism is dead."

Today, the Communist Party USA, which has weathered 15 years of struggle against the ultra-right Gingrich Congresses and two George W. Bush administrations, remains optimistic about and confident in the ability of the working class to both regain what was lost in recent decades and make advances of a kind not seen since the New Deal era.

In that sense, the celebration of the CPUSA's 90th anniversary is not only an affirmation of the past, but a commitment to continue today to advance a future where the Party's long-term vision of socialism, democracy, and peace will become a reality.


Photo from the CPUSA archives, courtesy Tamiment Library: December 17, 1951 - Paul Robeson and the Civil Rights Congress present WE CHARGE GENOCIDE with William Patterson, a petition charging the United States with genocide against Black Americans, to UN Secretariat in New York.


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Associating with the article and the comments of brother Frank Chapman,it is in this context that current struggles to create sustainable and secure jobs, end war,racism,hunger,homelessness and incarceration of youth,especially African American and Latino youth,is taking shape and targeted by the valiant CPUSA.
    Also,as outlined by brother Joe Sims,the recent racist mortgage scams in the U.S. combined with the destruction of public education,health,social services resources and threat of a ultra-right counter-revolution to new positive intergenerational,anti-racist,anti-war,all gender,inter-community struggles the Obama electorate ushered in,signal how important the continuation of the partisan working-class struggles the CPUSA mandates are.
    The CPUSA in this pre-convention period,has characteristically poised itself to be at the service of the working-class in the U.S. and as the photo accompanying this article documents,the service of the international working-class,pointing to its potential in a world free of war,racism,repression and exploitation of centuries(for instance in Haiti) fighting for its end,as the monumental historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote prophetically almost 50 yrs ago:
    "The path of the American Communist Party is clear: It will provide the United States with a real Third Party and thus restore democracy to this land."
    This will only happen with the nuts and bolts unity,organization and struggle the CPUSA has been wont to do,as its real history here shows and promises.
    Thank you for this truthful article.

    Posted by E.E.W.Clay, 01/25/2010 1:14pm (5 years ago)

  • This is a great article and it is a reminder of the need for a comprehensive and in depth history of the Communist Party. This would be good for both Communists and the progressive and working class movements. I think we should also put a little bit more emphasis on the fact that the Party played a key role in building mass organizations like the Civil Rights Congress which was a pioneer in bringing labor into the fight for civil rights and African American equality.
    Also during the late sixties and early seventies our Party played a major role in the Campaign to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. In fact one could argue that it was probably the most massive left led movement in the African American community and the country as a whole. After this mass movement freed Angela Davis its leaders put out a call for a mass defense organization for democracy and workers rights to organize, and that organization was the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression which went on to win the freedom of numerous other political
    prisoners and to work with ACTWU in winning the J.P. Stevens boycott. This organization, following the example of the Civil Rights Congress, also put sent a petition to U.N. addressing the issues of political prisoners and human rights violations.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 01/25/2010 8:36am (5 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments