|Description||It has survived Red Scares, McCarthyism, internal purges, lack of funds and lack of interest. The CPUSA -- Communist Party, U.S.A. -- was founded just two years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. And while it is nowhere near as influential as it once was, it still lives on -- with its decades-long chorus that socialism in America is "inevitable." |
The CPUSA was founded in 1919. It quickly became targeted by the U.S. Justice Department -- which attempted to arrest and deport thousands of so-called "alien communists." The party's influence rose during the Depression -- as Americans looked for an alternative to the capitalist system that had ruined millions of lives. In the years before World War II, the CPUSA had an estimated membership of between 80,000 and 100,000.
Congress passed the Smith Act in 1940 -- making it unlawful to advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. That statute was used against leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and fascist organizations before World War II -- and against the CPUSA during the postwar years.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required trade union officers to file non-communist affidavits, and in 1950, as the Cold War deepened, the United States imposed the Internal Security Act. Also known as the McCarran Act, it placed new restrictions on communists -- banning them from working in the U.S. national defense industry and allowing the internment of communists during times of national emergency. The act also set up a Subversive Activities Control Board -- which was authorized to compel communist or communist-dominated groups to register their members.
Eventually, most of those legal barriers against American communists were dropped, and the CPUSA was allowed to operate like other political parties.
The CPUSA had to cope with widespread anti-communist sentiment in the 1950s, along with shocking news from Moscow. The so-called "secret speech" by Khrushchev, denouncing Stalin and his policies, radically thinned CPUSA ranks.
"The American (communist) party had for so long tied its fortunes to the Soviet Union," says Harvey Klehr, professor of history and politics at Emory University and author of "The Soviet World of American Communism."
"So when the head of the Soviet Union admitted that Stalin had committed massive crimes, it was terribly disillusioning. Up until the Khrushchev speech, the party would never admit the Soviet Union had made any mistakes," Klehr says.
The 1960s posed a new set of challenges for the CPUSA. The nation was enjoying unprecedented prosperity, minimizing the communists' call for change. Actions by the Kremlin to quell dissent within the Soviet bloc -- such as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- forced many American communists to question the CPUSA's alliances with Moscow.
Even when the United States was convulsed by riots and demonstrations in the late 1960s in connection with the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, it appeared to many young American "revolutionaries" that the CPUSA was out of step with the times.
Throughout all the turmoil, the CPUSA remained a part of the nation's political landscape -- if only on the fringe. Gus Hall, the party's general secretary from 1959 until his death in October 2000, received nearly 59,000 votes during the 1976 presidential election.
But the past decade, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have brought a new crisis to the ranks of American communists. The opening of Soviet records in Moscow have revealed that the CPUSA received several million dollars annually from the Kremlin for operating costs. And it turns out that one of Washington's most valuable intelligence operations in the U.S.S.R. involved Morris Childs and his younger brother, Jack Childs, both high-ranking members of the CPUSA who had access to the top levels of the Soviet government for decades.
In 1991, at the CPUSA's 25th national convention in Cleveland, several hundred party members signed an initiative calling for reform. Those dissidents quickly found themselves expelled from the party, or at least excluded from nomination for party leadership. Over the next several months, hundreds more quit the CPUSA to join an alternative socialist group.
For decades, the CPUSA has estimated its membership at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. But its critics say the real number of members is a tenth of that figure. Party faithful still operate the CPUSA's national offices and bookstore out of a building on Manhattan's West Side.
And there are signs that the America mainstream may be willing to accept some communism in the post-Cold War years -- if only as a curiosity.
Rick Nagin, former chairman of the Ohio Communist Party, is now a councilman's assistant in Cleveland. In November 1997, communist Denise Winebrenner Edwards was elected to the city council of Wilkensburg, Pennsylvania. The AFL-CIO, one of the most powerful union organizations in the United States, removed an anti-communist clause from its constitution in September 1997.
But for many Americans, communism is now more a fashion statement than a viable political system. Soviet-style art can be found in advertisements for a variety of U.S. products. One ad for a fast-food chain even features a pseudo-communist rally, complete with red flags and chanting masses.
And The Communist Manifesto, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, has been released in a new edition -- meant more for the coffee table than the public meeting. To quote a creative director at Barney's, the trendy and expensive New York department store, "People are forgetting the Gulag and the negative imagery. So it could be time for Marxism to come back as pure style."