1950s Repression & The Decline of the Communist Party USA

The following is an excerpt (Chapter 10) from J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. This chapter analyses and discusses the McCarthyite “repression” of the settler Communist Party USA during the period of the 1950s. I am posting it, both because I recently finished reading Settlers and this chapter (like the rest of the book) struck me, but also because some comrades south of artificial settler border are drawing on the memories and imagery of the 1950s experience of the CPUSA to describe the current U.S. government crackdown on anti-war and international solidarity activists.

Because this period is being invoked in such a manner now, I find Sakai’s analysis to be timely, and as such I am reproducing that chapter here. I am not saying that the Freedom Road Socialist Organization [Marxist-Leninist] and other targeted organizations are analogous to the CPUSA that Sakai skewers (that is a discussion for another time), but I think we should critically re-examine this period and the way that many of us have, to be frank, come to romanticize it.

1. The End of the Euro-Amerikan “Left”

The post-World War II collapse of the Communist Party U.S.A., the main organization of the Euro-Amerikan “left,” was an important indicator of disappearing working class consciousness in the oppressor nation. It is not true that the Euro-Amerikan “left” was destroyed by the McCarthyite repression of the 1950s. What was true that the anti-Communist repression effortlessly shattered the decaying, hollow shell of the ’30s “old left” – hollow because the white workers who once gave it at least a limited vitality had left. The class struggle within the oppressor nation had once again effectively ended. Mass settler unity in service of the U.S. Empire was heightened.

Looking back we can see the Communist Party U.S.A. in that period as a mass party for reformism that penetrated every sector of Euro-American life. At its numerical peak in 1944-1945 the CPUSA had close to 100,000 members. Approximately one-quarter of the entire CIO union membership was within those industrial unions that it directly led. Thousands of Communist Party trade union activists and officials were present throughout the union movement, from shop stewards up to the CIO Executive Council.

The Party’s influence among the liberal intelligentsia in the ’30s was just as large. Nathan Witt, chief executive officer of the Federal National Labor Relations Board during 1937-1940, was a CPUSA member. Tens of thousands of administrators, school teachers, scientists, social workers, writers and officials belonged to the CPUSA. That was a period in which writers as prominent as Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Rockwell Kent and Ben Shahn contributed to CPUSA publications. Prominent modern dancers gave benefit performances in Greenwich Village for the Daily Worker. Maxim Lieber, one of the most exclusive Madison Avenue literary agents (with clients like John Cheever, Carson McCullers, John O’Hara and Langston Hughes), was not only a CPUSA member, but was using his business as a cover to send clandestine communications between New York and Eastern Europe. The CPUSA, then, was a common presence in Euro-American life, from the textile mills to Hollywood.

This seeming success story only concealed the growing alienation from the CPUSA by the white workers who had once started it. In the early 1920’s the infant Communist Party was overwhelmingly European immigrant proletarian. In its first year half of its members spoke no English – for that matter, two-thirds of the total Party then were Finnish immigrants who had left the Social-Democracy and the I.W.W. to embrace Bolshevism. Virtually all the rest were Russian, Polish, Jewish, Latvian and other East European immigrants. The CPUSA was once a white proletarian party not just in words but in material fact.

The rapid expansion of the Party influence and size during the late ’30s and the World War II years was an illusion. Euro-Amerikans were not fighting for Revolution but for settleristic reforms, and those years the CPUSA was just the radical wing of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. As soon as Euro-Amerikan industrial workers had won the settler equality and better life they sought, they had no more use for the CPUSA.

The facts about the changing class base of the CPUSA are very clear. Between 1939 and 1942 the number of CPUSA members in the steel mills fell from over 2,000 to 852; the number of CPUSA miners fell from 1,300 to 289. Similar losses took place among the Party’s ranks in construction, garment, auto and textile. And while more and more workers drifted away from the Euro-Amerikan “left,” the CPUSA was swelling up with a junk food diet of rapid recruitment from the petit-bourgeoisie. Middle class members composed only 5% of the Party in 1932, but an astonishing 41% in 1938 (a proportion soon to go even higher). By World War II 50% of the CPUSA’s membership was in New York, and the typical member a New York City professional or minor trade union official.

Joseph Starobin, CPUSA leader, later admitted: “In retrospect, the war had been for thousands of Communists a great turning point. Many from the cities came for the first time to grasp America’s magnitude, the immense political space between the labor-democratic-progressive milieu in which the left had been sheltered and the real level of consciousness of the millions who were recruited to fight for flag and country. A good part of the Party’s cadre never returned to its life and orbit. The war was a caesura, a break. Many migrated to other parts of the country, many began to build families and change their lives. Communism became a warm memory for some; for others it was a mistake.”

So we can be certain that there was no repression involved in ending the radical current within the masses of Euro-Amerikan workers. Long before McCarthyism was spawned, during the very years of the 1930s when the CPUSA reached its greatest organizational power, Euro-Amerikan workers started voluntarily walking out. By 1945 it was definite. Nor did they leave for other radical parties or more revolutionary activity. This is one of the reasons why the crudely revisionist policies of CPUSA leaders like Earl Browder and William Z. Foster were never effectively opposed – the working class supporters of the Party had lost interest in reformism and were leaving to occupy themselves with the fruits of settlerism.

2. McCarthyism & Repression

The false view that the CPUSA (and the rest of the Euro-Amerikan “left”) were crushed by “McCarthyite repression” not only serves to conceal the mass shift away from class consciousness on the part of the settler masses, but also helped U.S. imperialism to conceal the violent colonial struggles of that period. The post-war years were the Golden Age of the U.S. Empire, when it tried to enforce its “Pax Americana” on a devastated world.

We are really discussing three related but different phenomena – 1. Cold War political repression aimed at limiting pro-Russian sympathies among liberal and radical “New Deal” Euro-Amerikans, 2. the McCarthyite purges of the U.S. Government itself in a intra-imperialist policy struggle, and 3. the violent, terroristic counterinsurgency campaigns to crush revolutionary struggles throughout the expanded U.S. Empire. It is a particular trait of Euro-Amerikan “left” revisionism to blur these three phenomena together, while picturing itself as the main victim of U.S. Imperialism. This is an outrageous lie.

When we actually analyze the repression of the CPUSA, it is striking how mild it was – more like a warning from the Great White Father than repression. In contrast, the Euro-Amerikan “left” pictures its role as one of steadfast and heroic sacrifice against the unleashed imperialist juggernaut. Len DeCaux, a former CPUSA activist who was Publicity Director of the national CIO, recalls in self-congratulation:

“…The United States was now officially launched on a bipartisan Cold War course with the appearance of a popular mandate. Every vote against it was a protest, a promise of resistence. Without this effort, few American progressives could have held up their heads…Like those Germans who resisted the advent of Hitlerism, the Americans who opposed Cold War imperialism were overwhelmed, almost obliterated. Perhaps they were not ‘smart’ to throw their weak bodies, their strong minds, their breakable spirits, against the trampling onrush of reaction. But they did.”

This is easy to check out. DeCaux says that he and his CPUSA compatriots were “almost obliterated” just “like those Germans who resisted the advent of Hitlerism.” Just to throw some light on his comparison, we should note that the casualty rate of the German Communist underground against Nazism was almost 100%. Hundreds of thousands of German Communists and Communists from other European nations died in actual battle against the Nazis and in the Nazi death camps. In Italy alone the Communists lost 60,000 comrades in the 1943-45 armed partisan struggle against Fascism. Were DeCaux and his CPUSA compatriots “almost obliterated” like other Communists who fought imperialism?

In 1947 DeCaux was forced out of his comfortable job as Publicity Director of the CIO (and editor of the union newspaper “CIO News”). For many years thereafter he worked as a paid journalist for the CPUSA in California. He was never beaten or tortured, never faced assassination from the death squads, never had to outwit the police, never had to spend long years of his life in prison, never knew hunger and misery, never saw his family destroyed, never was prevented from exercising his rights as a settler. Throughout, he went to public demonstrations and worked in bourgeois elections. DeCaux was arrested and had to face trial (he won on appeal while out on bail), had to give up his prestigious job and salary, and was threatened by U.S. Government disapproval. Truly, we could say that the average welfare family in “Bed-Stuy” faces more repression than DeCaux went through.

The U.S. Government repression that “almost obliterated” the CPUSA (in DeCaux’s words) was a series of warnings, of mild cuffs, to push Euro-Amerikans back into line with imperialist policy against the USSR. There were no death squads, no shoot-outs, no long prison sentences – the CPUSA wasn’t even outlawed, and published its newspaper and held activities throughout this period.

The CPUSA at the time usually called this repression a “witch hunt,” because it was a Government campaign to promote mass political conformity by singling out “Communists” for public abuse and scorn. It was not repression of the usual type, in which the Empire tries to wipe out, to eliminate through legal and extra-legal force an entire revolutionary movement. In 1949 some 160 CPUSAers were arrested and tried under the Smith Act for advocating “the overthrow of the U.S. Government through force and violence.” Of these 114 were convicted, with 29 CPUSA leaders serving Federal prison sentences of 2-5 years. Two obscure CPUSA members, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed amidst world-wide publicity in an “atomic espionage” hysteria. Some 400 non-citizen radicals, most of  them Third-World members or allies of the CPUSA, were arrested for deportation under the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952. Many of these radicals later won in court.

This warning harassment by Washington totally broke the back of a supposedly “Communist” Party that counted 70,000 members in its ranks in 1947. In contrast, the American Indian Movement just at Pine Ridge sustained casualties between 1972-1976 that were quantitatively greater than that of the CPUSA coast-to-coast during the entire 1950’s. At Pine Ridge alone AIM has lost over ninety members killed and over 200 imprisoned. The Nationalist Partyof Puerto Rico in 1950-1957 alone suffered many times the losses in dead, injured and imprisoned than those borne by the CPUSA during the entire McCarthyite period. For that matter, both SNCC and the BPP alone also sustained far greater casualties from struggle in the 1960’s than the whole CPUSA did during the 1950’s. What was so great, so large, so historic about the slap that the CPUSA suffered was the loud panic it caused among the pampered Euro-Amerikan “left.” “An empty drum makes the loudest noise.”

This mild repression knocked the CPUSA clear off its tracks. In a panic, their leadership concocted the delusional “one minute to midnight” perspective, which held that world nuclear war and total fascism were about to happen. Peggy Dennis, wife of party leader Gene Dennis, recalls the shambles of their focus on survivalism:

“The FBI knew, the news media knew, the remnants of the Peoples’ movements knew. Our Party had taken a severe beating under the assaults of McCarthyism, the Smith Act arrests and imprisonments, the continuing anti-Communist hysteria. It was reeling on the defensive. But the almost fatal blow was self-inflicted when the Party leadership took the whole organization underground, placing control of daily operative financial and political decision-making into the hands of this subterranean structure.

“Thousands of militants – in the labor movement, former anti-fascists, New Dealers, Progressive Party activists, former Communist members – went into personal ‘underground,’ dropping out of all activity, rebuilding lives in enclaves of suburban and urban obscurity. “

What was most telling is that for 4 years the CPUSA structure went underground not to wage renewed and heightened struggle, but to passively hide until full bourgeois democracy returned. Their whole movement surrendered and fell apart under the first pressure from Washington. They never even faced any real repression.

When Russian Prime Minister Khruschev made his disillusioning revelations about Stalin’s rule at the 1956 20th Party Congress of the C.P.S.U., it was just “the icing on the cake.” Once a white workers vanguard and later a mass party for reform within the oppressor nation, the CPUSA had finally been reduced by U.S. imperialism to a thoroughly house-broken and frightened remnant. From 70,000 members in 1947 the CPUSA evaporated down to 7,000 in 1957. Working class radicalism had effectively ceased within the settler society, and its former main organization had politically collapsed.

The capitalist newspaper headlines of that day paid little attention to that phenomenon, however. The media of the late 1940s and early 1950s was preoccupied with the larger aspects of this same imperialist campaign to whip up Euro-Amerikan society for the global confrontation with communism. The bourgeoisie then demanded only the most rigid, reactionary and monolithic outlook from its settler followers. All had to fall in line. This McCarthyism was aimed not so much at the bottom of settler society but at the middle – at purging the ranks of generals, educators, congressmen, diplomats, and so on. All government employees had to sign new loyalty oaths. We must remember that the infamous U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy never harassed revolutionaries. His targets were all U.S. government employees and officials, from Army officers to clerks. In a telling statement, the well-known liberal journalist George Seldes wrote at the time:

“There is fear in Washington, not only among Government employees but among the few remaining liberals and democrats who hoped to salvage something in the New Deal. There is fear in Hollywood…There is fear among writers, scientists, school teachers, among all who are not part of the reactionary movement.”

So that McCarthyism reflected a power struggle within the imperialist ranks between liberal and conservative forces, as well as being part of the general move of the Empire to tighten-up and prepare for world domination. In no sense was this 1950s repressive campaign directed at crushing some non-existent revolutionary upsurge within settler society. At the same time – on fronts of battle outside of Euro-Amerikan society – U.S. imperialism was conducting the most bloody counter-insurgency campaigns against the colonial peoples. This had little to do with the CPUSA and the rest of the oppressor nation “left.”

3. The Case of Puerto Rico: Clearing the Ground for Neo-Colonialism

It is generally known that U.S. imperialism chose neo-colonialism as the main form for its expanding Empire in the immediate post-WWII years. In 1946 the U.S. Philippine colony was converted with much fanfare to the supposedly independent “Republic of the Philippines” (to this day occupied by major U.S. military bases). In 1951 the Puerto Rican colony was converted into a “Commonwealth” with limited bourgeois self-government under strict U.S. rule. What is less discussed is that neo-colonialism is no less terroristic than colonialism itself. Neo-colonialism, after all, still requires the military suppression and elimination of the revolutionary and national democratic forces. Without this political sterilization after WWII imperialism’s local agents would not have been able to do their  job. This was true in the Mexicano-Chicano Southwest, in the Philippines, and other occupied territories.

The 1950 U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in Puerto Rico is a clear example of this. It also gives us a comparison to further illuminate the CPUSA by. By 1950 U.S. Imperialism had decided that its hold over Puerto Rico would not be safe until the Nationalist Party was finally wiped out. That year U.S. Secretary of War Louis Johnson spent three days in Puerto Rico planning the counter-insurgency campaign. The puppet Governor, Munoz Marin, was told to arrest or kill the Nationalist leaders. Police pressure on the revolutionaries increased. Nationalist Party leader Don Albizu Campos was openly threatened. U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio complained on October 19, 1949:

“The home of Pedro Albizu Campos is surrounded day and night by police patrols, police cars, and jeeps with mounted machine guns. When Dr. Albizu Campos walks along the streets of San Juan, he is closely followed by four or five plainclothes policemen on foot, and a load of fully armed policemenn in a car a few paces behind.

“Every shop he enters, every person to whom he talks, is subsequently visited by representatives of the police department. A reign of terror descends on the luckless citizens of Puerto Rico who spend a few minutes talking to Dr. Albizu Campos. “

By late October of that year the colonial police had begun a series of “incidents” – of ever more serious arrests and raids against Nationalist Party activists on various charges. Finally in one raid police and Nationalists engaged in a firefight. Faced with certain annihilation piece-meal by mounting police attacks, the Nationalists took to arms in the Grito de Jayuya. On October 30, 1950 Nationalist forces captured the police station and liberated the town of Jayuya. They immediately proclaimed the second Republic of Puerto Rico, as more uprisings broke out all over the island.

The defeat of the Second Republic required not only the police, but the full efforts of the colonial National Guard. It was an uprising drowned in blood. The seriousness of the combat can be seen from the Associated Press dispatch: “National Guard troops smashed today at violently anti-United States Nationalist rebels and drove them out of two of their strongholds with planes and tanks…

“Striking at dawn, troops armed with machine guns, bazookas and tanks recaptured Jayuya, fifty miles southwest of San Juan, and the neighboring town of Utuado. Fighter planes strafed the rebels. They had seized control of the two towns last night after bombing police stations, killing some policemen and setting many fires…Jayuya looked as if an earthquake had struck it, with several blocks destroyed and most of the other buildings in the town of 1,500 charred by fire. Another Guard spearhead was racing towards Arecibo to crush the uprising there. “

Even in defeat the heroic Nationalist struggle had great effect. In the 1951 referendum for “Commonwealth” status Governor Marin could only muster enough votes for passage by falsely promising the people that it was only a temporary stage leading to national independence. The revolution had exposed the lie that colonialism was accepted by the Puerto Rican people. Throughout Latin Arnerika mass solidarity with the Puerto Rican Struggle blossomed. In Cuba the cause of Puerto Rican independence had won such sympathy that even the pro-U.S. Cuban President, Carlos Prio Socarras, sent off a public message interceding for the safety of Don Albizu Campos and the other Nationalists. The Cuban House of Representatives sent a resolution to President Truman asking that the lives of Don Albizu Campos and other captured leaders be guaranteed. In Mexico, in Central Arnerika, throughout Latin Amerika the 1950 Grito de Jayuya stirred up anti-imperialist sentiment.

The defeat of the patriotic uprising was followed by an intense reign of terror over all of Puerto Rico. In addition to the many martyrs who fell on the field of battle, some 3,000 Puerto Ricans were arrested by U.S. imperialism. Many were sent to prison under the infamous “Little Smith Act” (the 1948 Law 53), which made it a crime to advocate revolution against the colonial administration. Many were charged with murder, arson and other crimes. One woman, for example, was sentenced to life imprisonment for having cooked some food for her husband and sons before they went to join the uprising. The neo-colonial “Commonwealth” scheme was only possible because of the terroristic violence used by U.S. imperialism to pacify the patriotic movement and the Puerto Rican masses.

It isn’t difficult to see that the level of imperialist repression inflicted upon the Puerto Rican Nationalists was qualitatively far greater than that used on the CPUSA. It is somewhat obscene to even compare the two. It is enough to say that U.S. Imperialism had to use tanks, air attacks, machine guns, mass imprisonment and terror to crush the Puerto Rican Nationalists, for they were genuine revolutionaries.

What did the CPUSA and the U.S. oppressor nation “left” do in solidarity to help their supposed allies in Puerto Rico? Absolutely nothing and less than nothing. The CPUSA’s main response was to concern itself only with saving its own skin. The single Euro-Amerikan imprisoned with the Nationalists after Jayuya – the anti-war activist Ruth Reynolds – did more in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle than did the entire CPUSA with its thousands of members.

For years during the 1930s the CPUSA had won support from Puerto Ricans in the barrios of the continental U.S. by posing as proponents of Puerto Rican independence. In order to win over Puerto Ricans the CPUSA pretended to be allies of the Nationalist Party. One Euro-Amerikan CPUSA organizer in New York’s Spanish Harlem recalls: “The main issues were unemployment and Puerto Rican independence. ‘Viva Puerto Rico Libre’ was the popular slogan. The Nationalist movement in Puerto Rico, headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, dominated the politics of ‘El Barrio.’ ” (12) In 1948 CPUSA leader William Z. Foster made a well-publicized 31 trip to Puerto Rico, in which he met with Don Albizu Campos. Afterwards, Foster wrote a mass pamphlet on poverty in Puerto Rico (The Crime of El Fangito) to show CPUSA solidarity with the Nationalists

But when U.S. Imperialism unleashed its counter-insurgency, when the Revolution joined battle with the mighty U.S. Empire, where was the CPUSA? On its knees proclaiming its loyalty to the U.S. Empire, begging in the most cowardly fashion to be spared by its  masters. On November 1, 1950 – the second day of fighting – two Puerto Rican patriots, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, attacked Blair House in Washington, D.C. (the temporary residence of President Truman). This bold sacrificial action against the U.S. tyranny  occupied the headlines in newspapers around the world. Joining the rest of the oppressor nation media the CPUSA’s Daily Worker also made the heroic attack on Blair House its main, front-page story.

This issue is completely revealing. Tucked away on its inside pages, as a second-rate story, the CPUSA’s Daily Worker routinely reported the revolution in Puerto Rico and gave some very routine, luke-warm words of sympathy. But on its front page it carried an official Party statement on the Blair House attack. That statement was signed by CPUSA leaders William Z. Foster and Gus Hall. It was not only under a major headline, but the full text was printed in extra-large heavy type. And what was the meaning of this obviously very important statement? A cowardly and shameful slander of the heroic patriots Torresola and Collazo, and a cowardly assurance that the CPUSA joined ranks with the rest of their oppressor nation in supporting President Truman. The treacherous statement read:

CP ASSAILS TERRORIST ATTEMPT IN WASHINGTON

“Like all our fellow Americans we Communists were profoundly shocked by this afternoon’s report of an attempt to enter Blair House with the apparent purpose of taking President Truman’s life.

“As is well known, the Communist Party condemns and rejects assassination and all acts of violence and terror. This can only be the act of terrorists, deranged men or agents…”

With war raging in Puerto Rico, was it a shock for the struggle to be brought to the front door of imperialism? What kind of “Communists” reject “all acts of violence”? What kind of “anti-imperialists” would join the imperialists in saying that the martyr Griselio  Torresola, who so willingly gave his life for the oppressed, was either “deranged” or an “agent “? This disgusting statement was transparently begging U.S. imperialism to spare the CPUSA. Far from being thc main victims of the 1950s repression, as they so falsely claim, the Euro-American “left” were still house-broken accomplices to the crimes of U.S. imperialism. They were the U.S. Empire’s loyal opposition.

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Posted on February 4, 2011, in National Liberation, Radical History, Socialism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on 1950s Repression & The Decline of the Communist Party USA.

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