Lessons of the Early CPUSA

In January of 1917, a meeting was held in New York City to begin organizing the left-wing of the Socialist Party of America. They wanted to publish a regular Marxist paper, which would be a tool to win over the rank and file of the SP to a Marxist program. There were approximately 20 people at this meeting, one of whom was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was new to New York and the USA. Soon after the meeting, he would leave the U.S. and go back to Russia and play the role of co-leader of the first successful workers’ revolution, while the SP left-wing would go forward and eventually become the Communist Party.

In previous Socialist Appeal articles looking at the Socialist Party of America, we looked at some of its strengths and weaknesses, as lessons for revolutionaries today who are trying to build the subjective factor – the revolutionary leadership – for the future American revolution. There are many rich lessons in the Communist Party’s history as well.

The Second International (Socialist) was a mass International founded by Frederick Engels and others. When the First World War began, the Second International split apart. The majority of the Socialist International capitulated to their own bourgeoisie. Wars almost always create situations where, at least after the early period of enthusiasm and euphoria, there is much discontent and suffering. However, instead of preparing to use the situation as a way to develop the strength and confidence of the working class to fight for the socialist transformation of society, the majority of the sections of the Second International supported the war effort of “their” country’s ruling class. This was one of the greatest betrayals in the history of the world working class. The genuine Marxists in the Second International were isolated and reduced to a tiny force internationally. When the Marxists met as the Left Zimmerwaldists in Switzerland in 1916, Lenin said that all the internationalist revolutionaries in the world could fit in just two coaches!

All parties under capitalism, including the mass organizations of the working class, face constant pressure to conform to the system. “We must be realistic and practical,” is one of the most used phrases of the leaders of the labor movement. These words are used to prepare the working class to accept some “give-backs” or other harsh measures demanded by the bosses. The only way to combat the pressure of the capitalist class is by having a firm grasp of Marxist theory and the dialectical method. The capitulation of the majority of the Second International reflected the fact that from its founding in 1889, to 1914, capitalism developed the productive forces through massive investment and exploitation around the world. Most of the countries where the International had sections were imperialist or semi-imperialist countries. As a by-product of the struggle of the masses during this period, more reforms were gained and higher standards of living were attained by sections of the working class. In that context, and increasingly divorced from the workers they were supposed to represent, many of the leaders started to believe that the reforms would continue indefinitely, and things would naturally progress to Socialism in a gradual, linear manner. This was especially true for those leaders who had been elected to government or trade union positions.

The Socialist Party was affected by the split in the International and became polarized by the US participation in the First World War. There had been tensions and outright battles between the SP right-wing and the left-wing prior to this. Once the US entered the war in 1917, the SP right supported the war effort and the left faced savage repression from the US government, as it opposed the war. Eugene Debs was locked up in prison for the crime of speaking out publicly against the war. So much for free speech!

In November of 1917, news that the working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks), had taken power in Russia, reached the US. The SP’s left-wing and many members and supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were elated. Contrary to the views of the cynics of the world, the USA is not exempt or disconnected from world events. The First and Second Internationals both inspired supporters here, and the Bolshevik Revolution also received an American echo. Soon, thousands of workers and youth wanted to establish a workers’ government in the US. They wanted to create a party, like the Bolsheviks, so that they could achieve similar results.

This itself was both an opportunity and a great problem. How do you bring together all these different people who had many different ideas and methods of operating into one united party? The Socialist Party’s left-wing was not a unified group; it had many different factions, groups and leaders. Many people from the IWW were self-sacrificing militants, but had ideas that were anarcho-syndicalist in nature. As a result, there were many serious political mistakes made that delayed the building of an American Communist Party.

Split from the Socialist Party

It would seem that in founding the Communist Party, the comrades should have tried to win a majority of the Socialist Party. If this could have been achieved, the SP right-wing would have almost certainly split off, and to the many SP members or supporters, would have looked like people who were trying to sabotage the party.

The idea that the Marxists could win over a majority of the party was not a far-fetched idea. Eugene Debs was a solid supporter of the Bolsheviks. Even the right-wing of the party publicly supported the Bolshevik Revolution. In a party of 100,000 members, the SP Left likely had a solid majority, people who wanted the SP to leave the Second and join the Third (Communist) International. Various branches voted in favor of a left-wing leadership for the national party. However, the right-wing controlled National Executive Committee began to expel state and local party organizations controlled by the left. Their attitude was to bureaucratically seize power since they could not win the elections in a democratic fashion. By August, the SP membership was down to less than 40,000, since many branches and state organizations were simply kicked out!

Most workers realize the importance of unity. Trotsky often made the point that when Marxists must under certain circumstances split from an organization, it must be clearly explained why this is being done, so the workers can understand the political issues involved. The members of the SP Left that were expelled should have fought against this and campaigned to be let back in, in order to fight for their ideas from within the party. This would have helped those on the Left still in the party and rallied those workers who supported the SP around a clear political orientation to the new Third International. However, a large part of the SP Left-wing, mainly grouped around the foreign language federations, wanted to split right away and form a Communist Party in the summer of 1919, prior to the September SP convention.

Foreign Language Federations

The SP of America was not organized along the lines of democratic centralism. The Party even allowed entire nationalities to form their own “party within a party.” Lenin always supported the idea that a Marxist party must produce material in the language of the workers to whom it is trying to speak, and be at the forefront of the battle against discrimination and national oppression. However, Lenin believed that the working class in a given country should be organized into one united party and trade union federation. Lenin fought against the idea that the workers’ organizations should be divided along national lines within a given state. He knew that these divisions would be used by the capitalists as a way of dividing the proletariat.

The Foreign Language Federations in the US SP proved Lenin correct. These bodies argued for a sectarian attitude during the crisis in the SP. They did not want to win over the SP membership; they wanted to form a “pure” party – “like the Bolsheviks!” In particular, the Russian Federation of the SP thought they were more revolutionary than others, because of their national origin. However, these leaders did not know, or chose to ignore the real history of Bolshevism. Despite serious and growing differences with the reformist wing, Lenin had worked in the RSDLP for years until there was a definitive break along clear political lines. At the time of the split with the Mensheviks in 1912, the Bolsheviks constituted a major force with real influence in the Russian working class.

Once all of the Communists were out of the SP, the Communists were then split among themselves into two tendencies. A Marxist party will of course have different opinions on various issues. That is why the Marxists must have thorough democratic debate and discussions, which will in the end, lead to a clearer policy and higher theoretical level for party members. Those “self-satisfied Marxists” who cannot stay in the party and argue patiently for their views, but rather, run away to create their own “pure” organizations, will never be able to seriously intervene in the movement. Fortunately, in the case of the new CP, the Communist International was eventually able to unify the different groups.

1920 Elections

cpusaIn revulsion to the reformism of the Second (Socialist) International, many of the members of the Third (Communist) International developed ultra-left ideas. This included the early American Communists. The fact that most American Communists were not in unions, the only mass organizations of the working class in the US, had an effect as well. The American Communists did not understand how to participate in elections as a way to raise the political horizons of the working class and increase their influence. They did not run a candidate for President in 1920, while the Socialist Party ran Eugene Debs, who was a political prisoner during the campaign. The Communists should have called for a vote and critical support for Debs, but they did not do so. Debs ended up receiving almost 1,000,000 votes even though he was in prison! This abstentionism weakened the Communists’ ability to win over Socialist Party members, including Debs himself, who died in 1926 having never joined the CP.

Trade Unions

Most of the left-wing of the SP had always been against working in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They worked to build industrial unions through the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, the IWW did not have the resources of the AFL. In addition to this, the IWW would go into an area when there was a strike or movement, but then would leave without building a solid organization of the workers. The AFL, though reformist, would at least try to attend to the basic day-to-day needs of the working class. In addition to this, the IWW was subjected to severe repression by the US government, especially during World War I.

The key for Marxists is to intervene in the unions where workers are organized, and connect the daily struggles of the working class with the need to transform society. Marxists needed to fight in the AFL to get it to use its resources to build industrial unions; otherwise, the AFL would lose support. This is because over time, there are proportionately less skilled trade positions and more mass production jobs. The capitalists always use this to their advantage to weaken the working class, to try to drive a wedge between skilled and unskilled workers.

The early CP did not want to work in the AFL. Lenin and the Communist International patiently argued with them to change their position and they eventually convinced them to do so. When industrial unionism finally developed in the US in the 1930s, it was as a result of the CIO, which was a split off of the more militant unions in the AFL.

The Struggle for a Labor Party

Lenin had proposed to the small British CP that it join the British Labour Party and fight for the ideas of Marxism in that mass organization. In the USA, Lenin argued that the American communists should be advocates of building a mass labor party. This would allow the communists to get a hearing from the working class and be able to build more influence in the labor movement.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the recession in the early 1920s, there were parts of the labor movement, especially in the Midwest, that started to move in the direction of setting up Farmer-Labor Parties. Unfortunately, between 1919 and 1921, the CP had an ultra-left attitude and would have nothing to do with these movements. Once Lenin had convinced the CP leadership, they shifted their position and began to advocate the establishment of a labor party during 1922. But time and opportunities had been lost.

What the comrades should have done is argue in all their union work that the unions should not support the capitalist parties, but should instead be politically active in this movement, putting forward their perspective in a patient and friendly way. The CP should work to gain influence in the movement, but given its small size (the party probably had 14,000 members at most), it could not really seek to control this movement. At the same time, they should explain that the movement could not achieve the status of mass party unless more of the labor movement supported it and the labor movement itself needed to grow in size by the organization of mass industry.

The CP eventually went into the Farmer-Labor movement and actually grabbed control of it. In July, 1923, there was to be a convention, held in Chicago, establishing a Farmer-Labor party. The delegates that came to the convention claimed to represent 600,000 farmers and workers, but this was still relatively small, as the AFL had about 3,000,000 members at the time and the organized labor portion of the 600,000 is not clear. Theodore Draper, in his book, American Communism and Soviet Russia, claims that four national trade unions, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and various trade union locals sent delegates. The CP got many of its members elected as delegates from various groups, but not necessarily from the unions, and ended up gaining more than a third of the conventions delegates! With that, the CP moved forward to win the convention to its positions.

This led the Chicago Federation of Labor and other forces to split from this party, and within a few weeks, it was clear that the CP had been left mainly with itself. It should be noted that although the CP made mistakes in trying to dominate something that was small and really just beginning, the union leaders also left this movement as part of a swing to the right brought about by the temporary stabilization of capitalism and the defeat of the revolutions in Europe (Germany, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Italy). This was the beginning of what later became known as the “Roaring Twenties.” The CP needed to learn how to have a sense of proportion and understand that it could not substitute itself for the larger sections of the labor movement. Marxists must always have patience; the movement of the working class will take place at its own pace, not at the pace that we want.

The Rise of Stalinism

In 1923, Lenin was ill and was unable to be politically active. He died in January 1924. It was left to Trotsky to fight the incorrect political formulations and policies of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. The defeat of the revolutions in Europe left the Soviet Union poor and isolated. The growing bureaucracy, resulting from this isolation and backwardness, began to gain influence in the party among Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev.

Zinoviev was the leader of the Communist International and although he had worked as an aide to Lenin for many years, he had many serious weaknesses as a revolutionary. Zinoviev and Kamenev had opposed the Bolsheviks taking power in October 1917. If their position had won the majority in the party, the October revolution would not have happened and the right-wing reaction would have raised its ugly head and drowned the movement in blood. Nonetheless, Zinoviev was the chairman of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, and it would be incorrect to say that he had no strong points. Someone like him could play a positive role as long as he was guided by Lenin and Trotsky politically. However, Zinoviev had a tendency to try to solve political problems using organizational methods. When political differences arise, it is necessary for the party to open a full discussion and use this to educate the membership in Marxist theory. This will sharpen the party and make it stronger. This was the method of Lenin and Trotsky.

Zinoviev preferred behind-the-scenes organizational maneuvers and similar antics. He would tend to help those whom he agreed with to positions of leadership, and he tried to isolate those who did not agree with him. Zinoviev would tend to choose power over principle and this always leads down a bad road.

From 1923 and after, the Communist International became less a school to train Marxists from around the world in how to build the revolutionary leadership and bring about the world revolution, and more a political club-house for the Russian bureaucracy. Thus, what had been a huge potential for building the forces of Marxism internationally, became transformed into a huge obstacle to the working class and its struggle for socialism.

The tragedy is that just at the point when the American CP could really be trained in Marxist theory and build a good foundation for the future, the Communist International began to degenerate. Eventually, the Communist International became a supplement to Stalin and the bureaucracy in his foreign affairs, until the International was unceremoniously disbanded by Stalin himself during World War II. In the US, the CP adopted the popular front policy of supporting the Democrats, which in practice means subordinating the class interests and independence of the workers to a capitalist party.

If there is one thing we can learn from this experience, it is that each new member of the Workers International League must be trained in Marxist theory and learn the lessons of the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes. The members must be involved in work in the mass organizations of the working class, as this is part of the process of Marxist education. We must acknowledge that each member that is politically trained today becomes vitally important when future opportunities lead to large waves of new members. Quick growth is great but it brings many problems as well. However, if we can learn from the mistakes of the comrades of the past, we will have a much better chance to succeed in the future.

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