The Comintern, CPUSA & Activities of Rank-and-File CPers

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Charlie Post

IN THEIR DEFENSE of the popular front as the only realistic politics for radicals in the 1930s and 1940s and today, many of the “new” historians of the CP make two related claims. First, they claim that the politics of the CPUSA did not simply reflect the interests of the Communist International and the ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Instead, they argue that the CPUSA’s policies had “a North American context” ignored by historians like Draper and Klehr. In other words, the shifts in CPUSA policies did not merely reflect the shifting priorities of the Soviet bureaucracy, but the changing realities of the class struggle in the US.

Second, they argue that the activities of rank-and-file Communists cannot be simply derived from the policy statements of the leadership of the CPUSA, no less that of the Comintern. In the words of Michael E. Brown:

“Instead of identifying the history of the party exclusively with the “formal” or official aspects of its organizations — that is, with its centralist and hierarchical forms, the principal means by which leadership rationalized and documented policy decisions, and the factionalization of the leadership — the new emphasis on participation invokes informal and interactive aspects of organizational life…the informal aspects are above all intrinsic features of the everyday experiences of people working in and associated with any organization, including the Communist Party. What follows is that the party, like all organizations, must be seen as intrinsically more changeable than it had been, as subject to internal differentiation and driven by processes neither visible nor comprehensible from a point of view that sees only fixed forms, repeated patterns, and predictable adjustments.”(1)

Put simply, the activities of party members in their union or community organization may have had little to do with the directives and policies laid down by the CP’s national office in New York, and more to do with the activists’ political traditions and their local situation.

Both of these claims are questionable. As I have argued in the main article, the popular front policy did not advance the class struggle in the US. Instead, the strategic alliance with the CIO bureaucracy and the Democratic party facilitated the deradicalization of the labor and social movements and prevented the emergence of an independent mass working-class party in the United States. However, the popular front clearly corresponded to the short-term diplomatic needs of the Soviet bureaucracy — to secure a diplomatic and military alliance with the democratic imperialist powers.

The second claim, that the activities of CP members may have more to do with local circumstances and pre-existing political traditions than the directives of the CPUSA leadership ignores the fact that the CP was, by the early 1930s, a bureaucratic-centralist organization. The suppression of internal democracy in the late 1920s, culminating with the expulsion of both the “left” (Trotskyist-Cannon) and “right” (Bukharanist-Lovestone) oppositions, created a paternalistic and authoritarian culture in the CP. Rank-and-file CPers had no opportunity to critically discuss alternative policies, or to determine the “party line” by a democratic vote.

CP members, including worker and African-American militants capable of leading heroic mass struggles, were unable to develop their own revolutionary socialist viewpoint independent of the leadership. While a certain policy or tactic might run counter to their experience and traditions, the local activists were assured that their leaders alone had the “the big picture.” They alone were expert in the “mysteries” of a “marxism” which took a semi-religious character in the CP because of their “special relationship” to those who had made the only successful workers’ revolution in the world, the leaders of the Soviet CP. It is difficult for activists radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s, and who have seen the implosion of bureaucratic rule in the East, to realize that the Soviet Union enjoyed tremendous prestige among radicalized workers in the US and Europe through the end of World War II. Although rank and filers were not mindless automatons following detailed instructions issued by Browder, Dimitrov or Stalin, their autonomy was strictly limited.

After the fall of 1936, any Communist worker who continued to agitate for a break with Roosevelt, who opposed the “center” CIO leadership in their union or organized a rank-and-file opposition, who advocated continued sit-down strikes, or any other element of the CP’s policy before 1937, faced the near certainty of “party discipline” — censure or expulsion from the party.(2) Julius Jacobson quite aptly describes the internal life of the CP in the 1930s and 1940s:

“…when workers, for the best and most understandable of reasons, joined the CP, they were not joining a democratic, progressive movement which working-class recruits could mold into a dynamic instrument of struggle reflecting their needs and interests.  They were joining a party committed to an anti-working class, totalitarian state which was exalted as a model of socialism, a party which…was, in its hierarchical structure, authoritarian in the extreme…Thus, when working people joined the Party it might well have reflected an expanding awareness and consciousness but retaining membership represented a regressive step since that meant surrendering the freedom to discuss, debate, and decide Party policy and being obligated, as well, to allow themselves to be misused and manipulated for as long as they wanted to remain party members.”(3)

How was such a thoroughly bureaucratic, authoritarian and paternalistic organization, dependent upon the Soviet leadership for ultimate political direction, capable of playing such a positive and crucial role in the organization of the CIO between early 1934 and late 1936? As we have seen, this was an unstable, transitional period in the politics of both the Comintern and the CPUSA. Only the profound confusion of the leadership of the world and US Communist movements that reigned during these allowed CP worker militants to return to the “united front” politics of the TUEL, to enter the AFL federal locals, and to play their indispensable role in establishing the CIO in auto, rubber, electrical appliance, machine making and west coast longshore.

Once the leadership of the Comintern and the CPUSA consolidated their new popular front strategy during the summer of 1936, the room for CP worker militants to pursue the short-lived united front policy was radically reduced. CP unionists who wanted to remain in the party, or who hoped to ascend to union office or a staff job in the new industrial unions, would “toe the line” or face disciplinary action.


  1. “Introduction: The History of the History of U.S. Communism,” in Brown, et al,(eds.) New Studies, 23-24.
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  2. Isserman points out that Communists “tended to live in the same neighbor¬hoods, they spent most of their social life with other Communists, and their children played together. Breaking with the party… would have meant accepting a status as a social pariah, and few were prepared for that step.” Which Side Were You?, 36.
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  3. “The Soviet Union is Dead, the ‘Russian Question’ Remains. Part I: The Communist Past — Myth & Reality,” New Politics 18 (Winter 1995), 152.
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ATC 63, July-August 1996