Communism in America

Communist party (in the United States)

Communist party, in the United States, political party that espoused the Marxist-Leninist principles of communism.


The first Communist parties in the United States were founded in 1919 by dissident factions of the Socialist party. The larger, which called itself the Communist party of America, consisted of many of the former foreign language federations of the Socialist party, in particular the Russian Federation, and the former Michigan Socialist party. The other, named the Communist Labor party, was led by Benjamin Gitlow and John Reed. The parties immediately became subject to raids by agents of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and local authorities. These raids resulted in a sharp drop in party membership and, in Jan., 1920, forced the Communists to go underground.

Early Years

In May, 1921, under strong pressure from the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern, the Communist groups in the United States were united as the Communist Party of America. The Comintern also forced a change away from revolutionary militancy to working through established labor organizations and developing a mass following. Accordingly, in Dec., 1921, the Communists organized the Workers party of America, as a legal, acknowledged organization, and by 1923 the underground party had ceased to function. Attempts were made to work through the growing farmer-labor movement of the early 1920s, but they failed, opposed by most farmer-labor leaders and Progressive leader, Senator Robert La Follette. Unsuccessful Communist-led strikes among textile workers in Passaic, N.J. (1926), in New Bedford, Mass. (1928), and among New York City garment workers (1926) also lessened Communist influence in trade unions.

During this period two factions developed within the party. One, led by Jay Lovestone, was generally socialist in background and concerned with political theory. The other, led by William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, was more syndicalist in background and interested in union activity. These two groups alternated in party leadership until 1929, when the Comintern ordered that Foster's group gain control to carry out the Comintern policy line established at its Sixth World Congress (1928). The party was renamed the Communist party of the United States of America.

This era, called the Third Period, saw the development of the theory of "social fascism," by which labor and socialist leaders were denounced as more dangerous enemies of the workers than the fascists. American Communists also made a major appeal for African-American support, calling for the creation of a black republic in the South, on the grounds that African Americans were a national, not a racial, minority. The adoption of the new party line coincided with the beginning of the depression of 1929, and as the economic crisis grew, Communist membership increased. However, its policies isolated the Communists both in politics and in the unions, so that despite increased membership and some success in organizing the unemployed, the party's influence remained small.

Popular Front and World War II

In 1935 the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern announced another change of direction. It now stressed the need for a "popular front," a movement to create political coalitions of all antifascist groups. In the United States, the Communists abandoned opposition to the New Deal; they reentered the mainstream of the trade union movement and played an important part in organizing new unions for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), for the first time gaining important positions of power in the union movement. As antifascist activists they attracted the support of many non-Communists during this period.

The party's attacks on Nazi Germany ended abruptly with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in Aug., 1939, and World War II, which immediately followed, was denounced as an "imperialist" war caused by Great Britain and France. American defense preparations and aid to the Western democracies were vigorously opposed as "war-mongering," and Communist-dominated unions were quick to go out on strike. However, when Germany attacked Russia in June, 1941, the Communist position on the war changed overnight from "imperialist" to "democratic." The party, under the leadership of Earl Browder, now went all out in its support of the war. Strikes were opposed as a hindrance to the war effort, and in 1944 the U.S. Communist party "disbanded" as a political party to become the Communist Political Association.

The Cold War

In 1945, Browder's policy was attacked as being one of the "right deviationism," and he was replaced by William Foster. This change in line and the beginning of the cold war brought the party, which had achieved relative respectability during the war, under renewed attack. In 1948 the Communists supported the presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive party ticket, but he obtained only slightly more than a million votes.

Communist influence in labor unions came under increasing attack. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 denied the facilities of the National Labor Relations Board to unions that failed to file affidavits avowing that their officers were not Communists, and in 1949–50 the CIO expelled unions that were still Communist-dominated. In Mar., 1947, President Truman barred Communists or Communist sympathizers from employment in the executive branch of the federal government. The sensational confessions of former Communists, such as Whittaker Chambers, and increasing evidence of Communist espionage led to highly publicized investigations by Congress (especially by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Government Operations), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and federal grand juries.

In Oct., 1949, 11 top Communist leaders were convicted on charges of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. In June, 1951, the Supreme Court found the Smith Act of 1940, under which the convictions had been obtained, constitutional, and the government proceeded to bring many lesser Communist officials to trial. In 1950 the McCarran Internal Security Act required that all Communist and Communist-dominated organizations register with the federal government the names of all members and contributors, and the Communist Control Act of 1954 further strengthened the provisions of the McCarran Act by providing severe penalties for Communists who failed to register, denying collective bargaining power to Communist-dominated unions, and taking away the "rights, privileges and immunities" of the Communist party as a legal organization. At the same time many states passed "little Smith Acts," with such provisions as the requirement of loyalty oaths from state employees and the denial of a place on the ballot to Communist parties. This was also the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's hysterical search for Communists in all branches of government.

In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's excesses, along with the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolt in that same year, created new schisms in the U.S. Communist party, which lost thousands of members. The Supreme Court has upheld many of the provisions of the Smith and McCarran acts as they apply to the leadership of the Communist party, but several decisions of the 1960s substantially voided sanctions against the rank and file except where some active conspiracy against U.S. security is proved. As a result the party resumed open activities in 1966 and ran candidates in presidential elections, but the contemporary party is a very minor political force. In the late 1980s, party leader Gus Hall criticized the Gorbachev reforms in the USSR, but as Communism collapsed in the USSR, it was claimed that Hall had received $2 million from the Soviet party. Subsequent declassification (1995–96) of intercepted Soviet cables confirmed that party members had indeed spied for the Soviet Union before and during the cold war, although some scholars questioned the extent to which the cables could trusted.


See the following bibliographies: Fund for the Republic, Inc., Bibliography on the Communist Problem in the United States (1955); R. F. Delaney, The Literature of Communism in America (1962); J. Seidman, ed., Communism in the United States (1969); and J. Brandt and S. O. Brandt, ed., Gus Hall Bibliography (1981). For works registering official views of the American Communist party in different periods, see E. R. Browder, What Is Communism? (1936); W. Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States (1952, repr. 1968). See also J. Oneal and G. A. Werner, American Communism (1947, rev. ed. 1972); I. Howe and L. Coser, The American Communist Party (1958, repr. 1962); T. Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960); J. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (1972); F. M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States from the Depression to World War II (1991); J. E. Haynes and H. Klehr, The American Communist Movement (1992) and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Communism in America: Selected full-text books and articles

In Calmer Times: The Supreme Court and Red Monday By Arthur J. Sabin University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999
A Documentary History of the Communist Party of the United States By Bernard K. Johnpoll Greenwood Press, vol.2, 1994
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
A Documentary History of the Communist Party of the United States By Bernard K. Johnpoll Greenwood Press, vol.3, 1994
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
American Communism and Black Americans: A Documentary History, 1919-1929 By Philip S. Foner; James S. Allen Temple University Press, 1987
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990 By Earl Ofari Hutchinson Michigan State University Press, 1995
The Roots of American Communism By Theodore Draper Viking Press, 1957
The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36 By Mark Solomon University Press of Mississippi, 1998
Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism By James G. Ryan University of Alabama Press, 1997
Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression By Robin D. G. Kelley University of North Carolina Press, 1990
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