The Roller Coaster: The Communist Party in the 1940s

Published on political affairs pa, by Norman Markowitz, November 2, 2009.

As the swastika flew over most of Europe and millions of German fascist troops drove toward Moscow in early 1941, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, “we have put an end to 1776, 1789 and 1917,” referring to the American, French and Soviet revolutions. The events of the 1940s nearly made Goebbels claim a reality … //

… Beginnings of a new “Red Scare”

The CPUSA now had enemies in the White House. The Truman administration responded to the more virulent Republican-controlled House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) by establishing its own internal purge, also known as “the loyalty program,” and by having the Attorney General establish a list of subversive organizations to, in effect, compete with HUAC in red-baiting and blacklisting.

In retaliation, communists rallied behind the presidential candidacy of former Vice President and then New Republic editor Henry A. Wallace. Wallace headed the Progressive Party and ran on a program of reviving the New Deal, a far-reaching civil rights agenda of abolishing segregation and discrimination, and ending the Cold War through negotiations with the Soviet Union. To achieve international stability and peace, Wallace argued that the US could and should be a friend to global progressive and revolutionary movements, and should end its support of reactionary ruling regimes.

In the labor movement, Walter Reuther, leader of the anti-communist faction of the UAW, won the leadership of his union. In the CIO, right-wing factions generally made support for Truman and the Democrats a litmus test for leadership, and began to institute local purges of Progressive Party supporters. The Truman campaign undercut the Progressive Party on domestic issues by running to the left, advocating a Social Security-based program of national public health care, federal education and housing programs, and a repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law. At the same time, it responded to HUAC red-baiting by arresting the national leadership of the CPUSA under the 1940 Smith Act.

The Progressive Party had hoped to get as many as 5 million votes, and polls near the end of the campaign showed it getting about 2 million. In the end, however, it received only a little more than 1 million counted votes (there is substantial evidence of massive vote fraud). Truman’s victory signaled an acceleration of the political purges, which were implemented to eliminate independent labor-left political action, a political force which had acted as something of a deterrent to anti-communism up to that point.

For the rest of his life, Earl Browder argued that the party’s abandonment of its center-left policy for a left sectarian one made its leaders responsible for the far-reaching postwar repression. The truth is, however, that communists did not jump precipitously into building the Progressive Party. They sought to sustain center-left coalitions within the labor movement and to carry forward the peoples’ struggles against racism and for peace. Communists refused, however, the Faustian bargain of siding with the Truman administration and its anti-Soviet Cold War policies, as the socialists and new Cold War liberals did. They also felt they could not simply proclaim their neutrality in the Cold War, condemning both “American imperialists” and “Soviet Stalinists” and go about their business. Also, had either of these policies or some variant of them been adopted, it is very hard to see the CPUSA surviving in any form, as even an appendage to the US cold warriors or a tiny sect.

As 1949 ended, the Peoples Republic of China had been founded, the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb years before Cold War policy planners predicted, and the Truman administration was rapidly forgetting its 1948 domestic campaign promises as it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That year also saw the continuation of a massive repression of the Communist Party with the arrest, trial and conviction of CPUSA leaders under the Smith Act for conspiring “to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the government.” Many people now feared that the long struggle against fascism and war, which had been won in 1945, could soon be lost.

In the next decade, the CPUSA would struggle simultaneously to survive a far-reaching multi-faceted repression which sought to segregate it from all peoples’ movements and struggles, and to contribute in a new and hostile environment to the peoples’ struggles for civil rights and peace. (full long text).

(Norman Markowitz teaches history at Rutgers University).

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