Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America

By John George; Laird Wilcox | Go to book overview

5 Communist Party USA

The Communist Party USA, commonly referred to as the CP, is the best known as well as the largest and best-funded of all left extremist groups in the United States. Founded in 1919 as one of two rival Communist parties, the Workers Party, as it was then known, came upon the American scene in the years following the Russian revolution and managed to pull several thousand members together in competition with other socialist and Marxist organizations.

According to its own publication, Communist ( September 1939), the party reached a claimed membership of 100,000 that year. This figure seems a bit high. At any rate, party membership remained above the 50,000 mark until the 1950s, when it plummeted dramatically, not rebounding until the mid-1960s and then only modestly so.

Figures on membership vary enormously. David A. Shannon in The Decline of American Communism estimates CP membership in the summer of 1957 at 10,000. Richard Gid Powers in Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover puts December 1957 membership at 3,474, which would be a remarkable decline over so few months. Richard Starr in the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs, 1969-1987 estimates CP membership in 1968 at 13,000 and in 1971 at 15,000. The CP's Daily World of October 10, 1972, stated that membership was 16,500. Harvey Klehr in The Heyday of American Communism estimates 1988 CP membership at 15,000. That same year Gus Hall claimed a membership of 20,000. On the other hand, Stephen Schwartz of the Institute for Contemporary Studies estimated the 1988 figure between 5,000 and 6,000. 1

Few things in extremist politics are more controversial, more "secret," and more lied about than membership figures. Part of this comes from organizations wanting to inflate their image and give the impression of a large following. Paradoxically, some antiextremist groups tend to exaggerate their opponents' "threat," and inflating membership figures is one way to do it. Generally, we have found membership claims to be exaggerated. Our estimate of current Communist Party USA membership is in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 5,000 or one Communist for every 50,000 to 60,000 Americans. 2

Several factors led to the decline of the CPUSA. Among these were the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, both of which brought numerous defections from the party. Perhaps most important, however, was the government's steady campaign of surveillance and harassment. The McCarthy period took a heavy toll on party members, as did the House Un- American Activities Committee hearings of the 1950s and 1960s. The Rosenberg

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