problems and crises, 1939–1956
In the early summer of 1939, a Communist militant could look back with satisfaction on the previous four years of the Popular Front and anticipate a future of continuing growth. Certainly the dark war clouds of fascism were overhead and the New Deal reforms had been stalled by the 1938 congressional election setbacks, but the construction of an international coalition against fascism abroad and Hooverism at home seemed promising. Sorrow at the collapse of the Republican forces in Spain was tempered by pride in the valor of the international brigades and the support provided by the Soviet Union. Neither Orwell’s reports of repression in Catalonia nor the Dewey Commission’s assaults on Stalin’s massive purge campaigns and trials could shake the loyalty of most of the Party faithful.
News that the Soviets had signed an agreement with the mortal Nazi enemy began a testing of Party commitments that was to last until the Party’s effective demise in the mid-fifties. Many, particularly intellectuals, abandoned the Party, flailing at “the god that failed.” Fortunes and hopes sometimes revived, as they did during and immediately after World War II, when the Popular Front seemed restored. But the restoration was more apparent than real: it occurred under the auspices of anti-Communist liberals and organizations like the Americans for Democratic Action. The CPUSA was in fact its victim.
Most studies of Communist behavior ignore the social and cultural context within which Party members responded to the flood of crises. Too often, scholars have been content to focus on psychology to explain why some remained loyal members. Others stress the social ostracism that faced prospective dissidents and renegades, without placing such social pressure within the context of everyday Party life, informal Party networks, and the Party subculture. Students too often ask the wrong questions in attempting to figure out how and why an apparently intelligent person remained loyal to a movement that seemed so patently dishonest, ignoble, even evil. To stomach Stalinism and mouth Comintern lies, one had to be a knave or a fool, an authoritarian personality, a true believer.
The fact is that Communists perceived information about purge trials or Soviet anti-Semitism through the prism of small-scale, local, and ongoing experience. They were often as concerned about what was happening in their own milieu, about what the comrades working alongside them did and thought, as they were about as the international issues that dominate most studies.
Just as many Communists were recruited into the Party by “significant others,” many continued to be influenced by those with whom they worked most closely. This is especially true of nonintellectuals, whether cadres or rank and file, petty-bourgeois, or working class. If Communist cadres were working in a shop or as section organizers or working with a mass organization like the American League for Peace and Democracy, with people they respected and with whom they had shared difficulties and sometimes dangers, it is unlikely that they would break with comrades over a single, remote issue. First of all, Communists assumed that the press was biased against the Soviet Union and all working-class peoples; they experienced media deception and hypocrisy almost every day in their own work; lies about strikers, sensationalism about outside agitators, and selective reporting. It is understandable, therefore, that Communists mistrusted press reports and relied on their own Party media.
The unsettling problem was that of the liberal, “progressive” publications, such as the New Republic and the Nation, which often sided with the Left but which, on particular issues, criticized Party positions and behavior. Communists resolved any uneasiness caused by this criticism by falling back on old Bolshevik suspicions about intellectuals. And who read such journals but intellectuals anyway? Most Party members adopted or simply maintained an “us and them” attitude. As is true of most people, the majority of Party members chose a politics of loyalty over one of conscience; they opted for their own, “right or wrong.”1 Group loyalty allowed them to evade the issue.
In 1939 most Party members were too busy doing the demanding work that the Nazi-Soviet Pact made necessary to spend much time agonizing over it. They were busy; they felt contempt for the soft and fuzzy intellectuals wasting their time in morbid introspection. Radicals were used to attacks from other quarters. Ike Samuels proudly recalls Edith’s reaction to an attack by Marines wielding Sam Browne belt buckles during an American Peace Mobilization march with the theme “The Yanks Are Not Coming.”2 She kicked them “where I knew it was going to hurt.” Later they both participated in an antiwar demonstration in front of the Supreme Court in which police billy-clubbed demonstrators, setting off a panic and a frightening stampede for safety. In such circumstances, the loyalties of those who stayed solidified. The Bolshevik code, which visualized all struggles through military metaphors, argued that there are times when the revolutionary cadre has to simply maintain discipline and have faith that information will eventually be revealed to clarify seemingly compromising situations. Such moments were tests that comrades had to pass. After all, only bohemians, intellectuals, petty-bourgeois faddists, and lumpen elements expected class struggle to be easy. Most Communists—that is, those who remained within the Party through these crises—had such a perspective.
It would take almost two decades for such deeply loyal, committed activists to make the momentous decision to abandon not their values and visions, but the institution that they had for so long believed to be their embodiment.3
The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939 ended the Communists’ fusion of patriotic and internationalist beliefs and generated the first major trauma within the Party. The purge trials within the Soviet Union had generated some doubts, but most Communists were so convinced of “Trotskyite” venality and of the reality of imperialist sabotage that they fairly easily accepted Vyshinsky’s fabrications.4 But the Pact, with the accompanying handshakes between Molotov and Ribbentrop, shocked and upset many partisans of the Popular Front against fascism.
Most Communists supported the Soviet tactic.5 One member argues that “the capitalist world was out to get the Soviet Union” and so “a pact with the Devil” was justifiable in the name of self-defense. He adds, “I had no doubts, then or now.” Most Philadelphia Communists believe that the Soviet Union was a bastion against fascism in the thirties and was allowed to remain isolated by the West, an obvious target for fascist attack. Another argues that “Stalin was a very great man who had to do terrible things” to maintain the Revolution. Mark Greenly best explains the visceral quality of responses: “We were apologists for the Soviet Union.” He says that the 1939 decision “still makes sense to me. I had to decide whose side I’m on, on the side of the working people, or with the other bastards.” Deep loyalties rather than personality quirks determined the choice for most. And, of course, Party training and self-discipline made it easier for “people who internalized the line,” as Meyer Weiner puts it.
Weiner remembers only a few organizers who quit over the Pact. He spoke about the Pact with a Party veteran, a major influence on him, and discussed it at length with his wife: “We worked it through to our own satisfaction.” Tessie Kramer says that she was “able to rationalize the decision after endless hours” of discussion and debate.
While some members affirmed the Party shift immediately, others needed an ideological and organizational boost. As Sally Turpin recalls, “The YCL did some smooth talking then.” Another veteran was persuaded of the Pact’s value by some well-known Communist artists at a Party summer camp. Eight of those interviewed recall “small qualms” but saw the move as fundamentally sound. As Sam Katz observes, “My mind triumphed over my heart.” Otto Kramer, like several others, justified the Pact on defensive grounds but believes that the Soviet Union and the Communist movement went well beyond a defense of necessity to a proclamation of virtue. As so often happened, the Party felt the need to wrap all decisions in a banner of historical necessity and, paradoxically, absolutist morality.6
Stan Wax says that the Pact made him “disenchanted with the way in which the CP handled that thing,” meaning the collapse of Popular Front groups he and others worked with. He could not discuss the matter with Party friends, “close friends, decent people,” and survived by having “confidence that the Soviet Union was probably doing something right.” Yet he was uncomfortable, exclaiming, “A Burton K. Wheeler on our side!”7 The pact generated “the first defeatist feeling I had.” Yet he stuck with the Party, convinced that this was a test of his moral fiber as a Communist. The fair-weather friends deserted the cause, he reflected, but the true of heart remained. All of one’s friends seemed to stick. In any case, how could one admit doubt in the face of the taunts of the enemies, the Trotskyites, the social democrats, and the turncoat liberals? Better to continue with one’s work, which was still in the interests of working people. So reasoned most Philadelphia Communists.
There was work to be done, grievances to pursue, meetings to attend, comrades to meet, adversaries to attack. Most comrades passed this first major test, but not without some jolt to their previously confident assumption of the historical inevitability of socialism, and not without feeling some twinge of pain as their Popular Front patriotism rubbed against their commitment to Soviet hegemony.
world war two
The period of the Pact ended with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. American Communists rejoiced in the realization that they could now re-fuse their American patriotism with their international loyalties. The Popular Front revived, despite significant attrition, the virtual end of all New Deal efforts, and deeply rooted bitterness on the part of anti-Communist Popular Fronters disenchanted with Party shifts and apparent deceptions. As FDR put it, Dr. New Deal became Dr. Win-the-War. Meanwhile, American Communists worried about the reports of German successes in the fall of 1941, hoping that the Red Army could stem the tide of fascism. Previous studies suggest that the war period allowed American Communists to break away from Party discipline and Party ideology; there is some evidence that many who served in the armed forces never rejoined the Party after they returned to civilian life.8 The Philadelphia experience indicates a different pattern. In most cases the war reinforced rather than undermined Party loyalties. Members returned from the war energized to rebuild their lives and rejoin their movement.9
When the Soviet Union was invaded, many Communists became, in the words of one cadre, “Soviet patriots,” listening to war bulletins, feeling “moments of despair,” awaiting news of counterattack. Several Old Leftists recall awaiting Winston Churchill’s speech following the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, actually fearing that he might opt for an anti-Communist alliance with the Axis. They expressed great relief and new confidence when Churchill chose to ally with his old enemy against a common foe.
When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the draft brought thirteen interviewed Old Leftists directly into the war. Only one agrees that Communists found relief in the service from tedious meetings and rigid ideology. Milt Goldberg says that “at first I was kind of happy in the Army”; it was “like a vacation” from Party chores. A Depression-era youth like Moe Levy, however, could describe the Army as “an adventure,” but “not much different from South Philly.” Most served willingly, seeing the war as a continuation of the antifascist struggle. Like George Charney, many felt relief: “Once again, I felt like an American, with different ideas perhaps than the others, but basically in harmony with them.”10 The Popular Front lived again.
All of those who served faced surveillance and a variety of restrictions and barriers because of their Party associations. Johnny Tisa, who had served in Spain for two years and had combat experience, was told by a sympathetic officer that he would never see combat or be sent overseas. He spent the war stationed with an infantry group in the South, bored and discouraged. Harry Freedman, sent from school to school while others were shipped out, says he was “the best-schooled and least-used person the Army ever had.” Milt Goldberg remembers being questioned about the Soviet Union, Stalin, and the Daily Worker by Army intelligence.
Most of the thirteen eventually were shipped out to combat zones. They served in the D-Day invasion, across the Rhine, in the South Pacific, in Burma. Several became officers, others rose to sergeant, and a few received battle stars. Almost half (six) were made information or orientation leaders, indoctrinating troops about Nazism, teaching geography and history, even generating interest in Spanish Civil War songs. Because they were well prepared and knowledgeable about the history and nature of fascism, superior officers, often unaware of their Party membership, assigned them to such educational tasks. Party G.I.s upheld Bolshevik work habits while in the service, doing a thorough and conscientious job in all such efforts. Even when military intelligence finally caught up with them and expressed horror at finding Communists teaching soldiers about current events, superior officers often protected them as long as possible. In this sense, Communists were able to maintain continuity with their Party ties, using organizing skills and sustaining their self-esteem as competent and valuable people. As one ex-G.I. notes, “I’m an organizer, so I organized.”
Several Communists experienced some shock over the political attitudes of many of the G.I.s, especially Southerners. Eastern, mostly Jewish, urban radicals had rarely encountered “rednecks” before and “were appalled by the backwardness of the Army” and upset by its anti-Semitism, racism, and authoritarianism. Fred Garst “saw how America really was.” Sammy Cohen, on the other hand, experienced persecution from some Southerners but feels that as a Communist he was more prepared than most Jews to cope with it. He cut through much antagonism by reading letters from home to semiliterate and illiterate Southerners. Most eventually came to respect and trust him, viewing him as different but “a good egg.” Sam Katz encountered some organized hostility, “a little guerrilla warfare,” from G.I. anti-Semites, but, he adds, “I was very aggressive about it” and met it head on when attacked.
Bigotry did not disillusion Communist G.I.s. Milt Goldberg, involved in European combat and occupation, emphasizes that his experiences left him amazed “at how strong human beings actually are” under stress. Moe Levy speaks of his reinforced hatred of authoritarianism; he refused to salute and was “busted” for insubordination. Several Jewish Communist G.I.s believe that the war made them more aware of their Jewishness. One found that he began to read about the Holocaust after returning home, asking, “Why the Jews?” He now expresses some shame about his youthful obliviousness to his own ethnic identity.
Bonds with the Party were tightened by the experiences several had with other Communists in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Henry Blum, knowing that in France “every fifth person is a Communist,” visited Party offices in Paris and “found a second home there.” Mike Caldwell, who got to know the Humanité staff during his stay in France and met with Communist transport workers in England, recalls, “it gave me insight into how a mass Communist movement comes about and how it operates.” Sammy Cohen made contact with Party members in Australia, while Mark Greenly discussed aiding Burmese guerrillas with Party comrades in Calcutta. Several developed friendships that remain in existence today. The idea of an international revolutionary movement was much strengthened by such experiences and by the very existence of the worldwide antifascist effort. Their relatively small party was part of an international movement that played a decisive role in defeating fascism.
Those who remained stateside engaged in the same support efforts—calling for a Second Front, promoting war bond sales, collecting needed war material—as many non-Communist Americans. Women with husbands overseas, like Sally Turpin, took jobs in heavy industry and helped to organize new workers, often women. Several Communist men and women working in plants succeeded in becoming rank-and-file union leaders, despite the Party’s no-strike war pledge and its often hysterical attacks on “slackers,” “wreckers,” and “fifth columnists.”11 Many workers responded to the calls for national self-sacrifice emanating from virtually all trade unionists. Ike Samuels feels that some Party unionists developed dangerously close relations with employers under the wartime negotiations structures, but that many of them also found ways to “cheat” on the no-strike pledge, struggling for better conditions through other means of pressure, such as slowdowns and trade-offs.
The most explosive issue in Philadelphia during the war was the wildcat strike against the Philadelphia Transit Company, a response by Irish Catholic workers, led by the company union, to a ruling by the Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission that blacks should be hired as drivers and not simply be given janitorial jobs.12 The Transport Workers Local 234 (CIO), led by progressives, won a representation election over the company union and fully supported the FEPC order. Left-wing and liberal groups in the city demanded government intervention to end the wildcat strike, arguing that the strikers were committing treason by holding up workers from reaching their war-related jobs and therefore causing G.I. deaths. Roosevelt finally sent in troops to operate the buses and trolleys; they left after a week when wildcatters, threatened with formal charges, backed off. It was a great victory for the kind of Popular Front alliance the Party would seek in the postwar period.13
The Party rebounded from its difficult and defensive position in the period of the Pact to again become a part of a Left-Center alliance in labor and party politics. There were less harmonious moments too—for example, when the Democrats nominated William C. Bullitt for mayor in 1943 despite Communist Party opposition. Sam Darcy, then D.O., strongly opposed Bullitt, at first trying to get other Democrats to run against him in the primary and then mounting an independent campaign against him. Although Bullitt was defeated by Republican Barney Samuel, there is little evidence that the Communists played a significant role in this result.14
Darcy himself became a source of contention within the district because of his opposition to Earl Browder’s transformation of the Party into the Communist Political Association (CPA) in early 1944. Darcy argues that Browder had already sold out the Party’s Southern organizing campaign in exchange for the administration’s acceptance of his winning a congressional seat in New York. Whether this allegation is true or not, Darcy, along with William Z. Foster, dissented from Browder’s move. Foster remained silent. Darcy, however, after being refused access to Party media, publicly criticized Browder and was expelled from the Party.15
Darcy was a dynamic and impressive leader, according to virtually all local Communists. He was a compelling and popular public speaker. Yet many, at least in retrospect, find him to have been arrogant and self-serving. Ideologically and strategically, Darcy was a Popular Front advocate. What he opposed and felt contempt for was Browder’s distortion of the Popular Front through the elimination of a clear Party position and identity within all alliances. Darcy was also critical of Browder’s overestimation of the long-range stability of American capitalism and of the possibilities of a protracted U.S.-Soviet postwar alliance.16
Many local Communists were confused and upset by the expulsion of Darcy and the rise and then fall of Browder. But the ones in the service were too remote from the local scene to make sense of Browder’s fall. A few recall that the Duclos letter’s publication and Browder’s expulsion occurred during either their last days in the service or their first days of readjustment to civilian life. Sally Turpin remembers challenging a local leader about Browder’s “errors”: “How could you not have told us these things?” But she soon reminded herself that rank-and-filers could ask the same of her. Harry Freedman says, “We all had trouble with it, don’t let anyone tell you different.” A few remember always being afraid that criticism would be met by an ambitious leader’s counterattack. One speaks of feeling “very close to Browder”—“the Euro-Communist of his day”—and argues that he was “right in what he was trying to do.” Most, however, say that they simply went along, rationalizing their decision by remembering the touches of dissatisfaction they had felt at Browder’s radical revisions.17 For the most part they were elevated by the Party’s postwar hopes and expectations, unwilling to be disturbed over what seemed to be a single sore spot, and immediately engaged in new political and labor struggles.
the progressive party movement
When the war ended, the Communist Party, locally and nationally, seemed to be ready to continue its uneven climb from the obscurity and schisms of the twenties to an even more expansive and influential Popular Front position.18 Even with the instability created by the purge of Browder and the beginnings of the Cold War, the Party seemed well situated. Peggy Dennis and others see the mid-forties as the apex of the Party’s influence and growth. Joseph Starobin suggests that at least until early 1948, the Party was “not swimming against the tide,” although there were obvious difficulties given the rising Cold War environment. The national membership, including youth in the YCL, may have reached 100,000, and the greater Philadelphia rolls, according to some sources, may have approached 4,000 in 1947.19
Truman seemed to have lost his New Deal mandate, alienating labor with his “get tough” policies, facing progressive and liberal charges of tolerating corruption and of general ineffectiveness, and upsetting many with his belligerent attitude toward the Soviet Union.20 Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech deeply divided the American liberal and radical community. Factions struggled over the legacy of Roosevelt and the New Deal, with Henry A. Wallace emerging to challenge Truman for leadership. Two versions of the Popular Front—the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) and the new Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)—faced off against each other. The PCA version, a continuation and a broadening of the thirties Popular Front, tied New Deal goals to friendship with the Soviets and pushed for improved labor and civil rights legislation. As the historian Norman Markowitz suggests, they needed and lacked “a surrogate Hitler” as a focus for attack. Instead they directed a few blows at Franco and Peron and then turned their weaponry upon the anti-Communist coalition developing in Washington.21
ADA represented the liberal challenge. No longer envisioning a world divided between “democracy” and “fascism,” they instead fashioned a new demonology, in which the “Free World democracies” challenged “totalitarianism,” left and right, Fascist and Communist (or “Red Fascist,” as some preferred). ADA liberals excluded Communists from participation in activities, calling for a recognition that Communists could not be part of any possible progressive movement by virtue of their allegiance to a foreign power and their contempt for democratic and libertarian processes. The ADA supported Truman’s foreign policy, especially after the promulgation of the Marshall Plan.22
The critical moment in this postwar period was the decision to challenge Truman with a third-party movement, the Progressive Party, led by Henry A. Wallace and staffed, ultimately, by Communists and other radicals. Most of the subjects within my sample participated in the Progressive Party campaign, entering “Gideon’s Army” with great hopes. Yet the movement was scattered to the winds, crushed by the Cold War atmosphere and Truman’s ability to abscond with much of the Progressive Party’s program and, consequently, most of its constituents.23 From this point the Communist movement, nationally and locally, faced defeat, repression, erosion, and finally collapse. How did participants experience the Progressive debacle and the subsequent downhill slide?
Most Philadelphia Communists found the Progressive Party crusade exhilarating and invested great hopes in it: “We were gonna win,” Angie Repice recalls. And even if they did not, the Progressives were involved in a long-term venture, the creation of an independent, labor-oriented party. Several veterans, however, remember noting signs of a coming defeat. Sally Turpin went to a Shibe Park rally for Wallace and noticed that most of those in attendance seemed to be from New York. She worried about the failure to bring out Philadelphia people and the need to bus in loyalists. Mark Greenly went from door to door in working-class Kensington and found that workers, while liking Wallace, would not tolerate a Dewey victory and therefore planned to vote for Truman. Those involved in fundraising quickly realized that old Popular Front sources had generally dried up. Most participants simply hoped for an impressive vote, understanding that expecting victory was unrealistic. Their stated commitment was to build a party of working people that would reject Henry Luce’s vision of an American Century and a Pax Americana.24
Left-wing trade unionists found the Progressive experience very difficult. By supporting Wallace, many Communist-oriented labor leaders risked alienating their constituents. Some, like Mike Quill, broke with the Party on this issue. Others waffled. But as one local source put it: “Most [Communists] trade unionists didn’t have the time to question” the Party’s mandate. The left-wing unions were facing severe challenges from the emerging Reuther forces in any case, but several union veterans feel that the Wallace campaign sped up the process by which the Left-Center CIO coalition was destroyed and the Left purged from the labor movement.25
Many Philadelphia Communists express deep disappointment with the results of the 1948 election. Wallace and the Progressive Party did very poorly, well below even the most modest estimates.26 A few participants continue to affirm the value of the campaign; one views it as “a profound contribution to independent political action.” Even its staunchest supporters, however, admit that the Party erred in taking such a dominant role, though many others point out that given the narrow base of the Wallace movement, there was no one else to do the work. Harry Freedman charges that the Communists simply did not do their homework, failing to match the Democrats in providing money for election-day volunteers, getting out to vote, and doing all of the little chores that make for a successful electoral campaign on the local level. Even in Party strongholds in West and North Philadelphia, the Progressives showed disappointing results. Most participants feel that the movement was welcomed or at least tolerated in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods where most Party members lived but faced harrassment in other areas.
The Progressive Party movement brought to the surface questions and problems with roots in earlier experiences. Several members felt uneasy about Party manipulation of the Progressive movement. One section organizer describes how the Party sent delegations of Communist-led community groups to persuade Wallace that he had broad grass-roots support. Meyer Weiner tells of secret Party clubs for those working within the Progressive and other mass movements. He adds that there were regular one-to-one clandestine meetings between Party functionaries and Progressive Party leaders who were secret Communists. In some cases, Progressive leaders formally dropped from Communist Party rolls but maintained de facto ties.
The Wallace campaign was a significant but not decisive step in the collapse of the Communist Party as a force in American politics. Several participants now argue that it might have been wiser for the Party to push for a Wallace primary challenge, accepting defeat in the short run. A small party without deep roots in mass constituencies was unlikely to maintain itself, given the strategic and political needs of a bipartisan Cold War policy, not to speak of the needs of a Soviet-dominated Communist hierarchy more interested in embarrassing the United States than in nurturing an indigenous anticapitalist movement.
Remarkably, most Communists, though upset by the 1948 results, reimmersed themselves in political work, too engaged to mull over the obvious secular trends. Meyer Weiner was not demoralized by defeats, since he was “working with good people,” with “heroic things done every day.” He still feels that it was “a marvelous period to live through,” one in which “very little . . . was routine.” The elan and the perseverance of most subjects are impressive. The work at hand kept many going; there was little time to waste on getting discouraged. But as Stan Wax reflects, “the gaiety changed to real seriousness.” Even more than in the period from 1939 to 1941, hard times were upon the faithful. Arenas for organizing began to shrink in neighborhoods and shops. The Party moved in two directions: outward, toward major peace campaigns like the Stockholm Peace Pledge and the militant defense of indicted Party leaders and minority people like the Trenton Six, the Martinsville Seven, and Willie McGee;27 and inward, toward steeling the Party, purging it of its excess and its faint-hearted and doubtful, preparing for underground existence and the coming repression, expecting fascism, attacking Party revisionism, “Browderism,” “Titoism,” and white chauvinism. Just when the Party most needed allies and sympathizers, it entered a Third Period–like isolation.
the second red scare: mccarthyism
As Michael Harrington notes, 1948 was “the last year of the thirties.”28 Truman’s first loyalty procedures of 1947 started a process that reached its highest and ugliest development in the person of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthyism, or the second red scare,29 resting on Cold War premises and seeking a rollback of progressive, particularly labor, accomplishments associated with the New Deal, focused its wrath on the American Communist Party.30
The official Party response was to assume that fascism was on the American agenda and take drastic measures, including the creation of an elaborate underground network, to prepare for it. Party members were activated to struggle against the threat of atomic war, presumably to be launched by the United States against the Soviets. Many Philadelphians accepted this analysis and expended enormous energy working to defeat militaristic policies through such massive propaganda efforts as the Stockholm Peace Pledge. Others involved in the same efforts felt that the Party was exaggerating the danger of a coming fascism by confusing the suppression of the Party with that of the working class. In all cases, members recognized the period as one “of intense struggle to maintain ourselves.”31
Party membership dropped precipitously, in part because of the falling away of the timid, in part because many loyal members dropped their formal affiliations under the duress of the Taft-Hartley Act and other measures requiring loyalty oaths and anti-Communist statements, and in part because the Party deliberately trimmed its sails, fearful of government infiltrators and suspicious of the loyalties of marginal participants. National membership dropped from 54,174 in early 1950 to 24,796 in early 1953.32
Mario Russo, a cadre with considerable organizing experience, argues that the Party was also threatened by the unexpected affluence of the postwar period. Suburbanization, he believes, had a devastating impact on organizing efforts. By the early fifties, some of the older ethnic neighborhoods were breaking up as middle-class and even working-class people moved to places like Levittown, Cherry Hill, Abington, and the Far Northeast. The link between workplace and residence, a key element in reaching industrial workers, began to erode as workers commuted from their tract homes to distant plants in suburban industrial parks. The highway lobby, in its own way, undermined radical organizing efforts.33 At the same time, some old Party members, beneficiaries of the new affluence, moved from city enclaves to suburban sprawl and simply dropped out. The Party was ill-prepared for this transformation of American and, in particular, working-class life. The traditional adversaries remained—antilabor capitalists, conservative Republicans, Dixiecrats, reactionaries of all stripes; for Communists, however, political events obscured the underlying trends that were transforming the everyday life of large numbers of Americans. These cultural trends were cutting off approaches that had achieved some success in the past: corporate capital would begin to fight unionization with more sophisticated tools, working-class suburbs would strain workplace bonds, highway construction and shopping malls would subvert neighborhood taverns and other centers of proletarian discourse. The Party’s frame of reference denied the possibility of a rising standard of living, anticipated severe depression, and for a short but disastrous period predicted fascist dictatorship.
Surprisingly, a number of activists faced the early fifties with hope and enthusiasm. Like Jessica Mitford, many could “hardly imagine living in America in those days and not being a member.”34 The younger members, born in the late twenties, too young to have participated in the struggles of the thirties or even the war years, deeply involved in the Wallace campaign, sought to build a movement in the midst of massive repression. Moe and Sarah Levy were not the only young couple who went off as colonizers at this time. At least until the Korean War broke out they anticipated an economic crisis, if not a severe depression, and they assumed that workers would then be more attracted to militant activity.
Most members focused on peace efforts, gathering signatures for the Stockholm pledge, or engaged in support activities for the growing number of indicted Communist leaders and for local civil rights struggles.35 Events in Korea, a hot war, made it virtually impossible to find a hospitable environment for peace agitation or for any activity labeled “Communist.” Mike Caldwell recalls, “The atmosphere changed so fast.” Both governmental prosecutions and public intolerance escalated.
Most of the cadres “just hung in there,” holding on to a very tenuous “United Front idea,” trying to maintain the Party, revive the Progressive Party movement, and rally all progressives against what Communists categorized as “red-baiting.” Under severe attack, the hard core of the Party held. Most simply threw themselves into their political work. Many were defiant. Ike Samuels, called before McCarthy’s subcommittee, asserted, “I have more patriotism in this little finger than you have in your whole body.” He fondly recalls neighbors raising their pinkies at him to remind him of his daring act. Others, less in the limelight, faced harassment, FBI visits, surveillance, phone taps, loss of employment, and abuse of their children and their families. Many were scared and became exceedingly cautious; others “told the FBI to go screw.” Al Schwartz tells of comrades bringing their left-wing libraries to him for safekeeping, but another activist insists, “We didn’t give away our books.”
Moe Levy emphasizes that the Party’s organizational network, at least in remote areas, fell apart. He was subpoenaed by a congressional committee in the fifties. The Party offered him no guidelines; he had to take over all leadership efforts in his industrial section. He advised local workers also subpoenaed to tell the committee the truth about their activities in the hope of saving their jobs. In fact, those who ignored his advice and took the Fifth Amendment were fired; the others, finally supported by the national union because of Levy’s efforts, got their jobs back. Levy threatened to publicly charge the union, a very conservative one in heavy industry, with being Communist if it did not support these workers. He himself was fired; his boss expressed friendship and regrets but said that it was too risky to keep him on.
Some Communists were shunned by old neighbors who had once been more sympathetic to left-wing causes and even by former Party members. Yet many found surprising support and protection from neighbors. One scarred couple moved to a new neighborhood, made new friends who “restored their faith in mankind,” and proceeded to become neighborhood activists again.
Johnny Tisa found his union expelled from the CIO and the local under attack from an anti-Communist slate. They won a battle for representation in the early fifties but finally faltered under grand jury investigations and fears of prosecution. He had to merge his now smaller union with other besieged unions to survive.
Sammy Cohen spent this period in an outlying section of Philadelphia that included some old immigrant workers, “sectarian, proud, beautiful people” who wanted to face McCarthyism openly. They declared, “We’re communist!” and were willing to register under the McCarran Act.36 Fearing that some might be deported, he persuaded them to desist. He spent much of his time servicing the Party underground, aiding messengers who appeared and then disappeared at all hours and moments, creating harrowing scenes of late night rendezvous and mysterious phone calls.
Many remember the period of underground activities as painful, lonely, at times pathetic, and even ridiculous. In 1951, in anticipation of a coming fascism, the national leadership ordered many cadres to disappear; there was a “deep freeze” for those hiding in order to stay out of prison, a “deep, deep freeze” of trusted cadres ready to take over leadership if others were arrested, and an “O.B.U.”—an “operative but unavailable” leadership—of disguised cadre, acting as the link between open and “frozen” categories.37 Most now consider the underground period a mistake. Meyer Weiner recalls going on vacation to Cape Cod only to bump into a crew of supposedly underground district cadres. Several Philadelphians were sent underground with their families. They had to change their names and their children’s, move to other towns, and try to survive. A few managed to share such ventures with other couples also in hiding. But most simply felt isolated and bewildered by this turn of events. Many of those sent underground had to leave their families. Cadre morale suffered, “scores of nervous and mental breakdowns occurred,” and many began their first serious questioning of the viability of the Party.38 One veteran cadre, after several years of seemingly meaningless hiding, simply went home to resume his private and political life. Many remember feelings of paranoia, the fear of detection, the intricate games used to keep in touch with loved ones. Several Philadelphians hid underground cadres in their homes for short or long stretches. All assumed that the FBI was well aware of their amateurish efforts.
At this point, with families separated and members fearful of prosecution and imprisonment, the Party began its own witch-hunt, turning in upon its membership. The organizational structure of the Party had already been weakened by the security-inspired limitation of membership in Party clubs to between three and five and the decision to have fewer meetings. Now it imposed on itself vigorous campaigns to eliminate white chauvinists, Freudians, and all kinds of revisionists.39
The second red scare had a fearful effect on the children of most Philadelphia Communists. Many speak poignantly of how their children suffered from emotional problems initiated, or at least exacerbated, by the traumas of the period. One child, formerly a charming extrovert, became fearful of playmates and was frequently found crying in class by the kindergarten teacher. Many local Communists recall how neighborhood youths ostracized and baited their children, taunting them about their parents being executed “just like the Rosenbergs.” A few parents reflect that at the time they were so busy trying to survive financially and struggling to remain politically effective that they did not realize how much the political repression was affecting their children. Sensitive children, not wanting to add to their parents’ burden, often hid their pain and fears and concealed their symptoms. Ruth Shapiro notes that one of her daughters only recently told her about the severe stomach cramps she experienced daily throughout her youth.
Old political comrades “huddled together,” supporting one another as much as possible. They called on the Party’s remaining subculture and social network to sustain their lives and those of their children. One woman emphasizes “the tight circle that we stayed close to before, during, and after” the McCarthy period. Some became closer to their own families. Many tried to remain in the ethnic pockets with Communist linings that contained at least some understanding and tolerant neighbors.
Party members relied on such institutions as the radical Jewish I WO schools and the progressive summer camps often directed by sympathetic Quakers to provide a supportive environment for their children. Several children speak enthusiastically about their experiences in these progressive institutions.40 Mostly, however, the more informal social networks of Party members served to bolster morale, sustain a sense of meaning and purpose, and provide the kinds of everyday contact that sustain group identity.
Many Communists faced occupational crises. They were blacklisted from many shops and offices and were sometimes too well known to get conventional jobs. Mark Greenly found himself stuck in a business that “nauseated” him; he dreamed of becoming a commisar of insurance so that he could obliterate it in the name of the revolution. Twenty-six Philadelphia public school teachers were fired for “incompetence”—that is, for refusing to answer questions about their politics.41 Such people had to find jobs in fields outside their training and work experience. Some relied on family, and others found assistance within the Party network. Certain institutions manned by Party sympathizers and civil libertarians became havens for victims of political repression. It was a source of resentment among black Communists that they did not have as much access to this network as the mostly Jewish white Communists. A few black members did eventually find havens in such institutions, and several blacks called on their own community resources and the network of church or college fraternity activities and associations.
The dominant civil liberties case in the area was the Smith Act prosecution of nine district Party leaders in 1953.42 Many Philadelphia Communists, including some interviewed defendants, speak proudly of how the defense was handled. It merits attention as the first such case to be defended by prestigious non-Left attorneys along civil libertarian lines.43
One participant recalls the debates within Party leadership over defense strategy. One side argued for a Foley Square model. Named after the site of the federal court where the national Party leaders were tried, this was a defense of the Party and its principles and positions. The other side called for a more civil libertarian approach along First Ammendment lines. Several who argued for the latter approach felt that many within the Philadelphia progressive community would rally to a defense of free speech but not to a particular defense of the Party’s line. The civil libertarian approach won with minor dissent. The district leaders then persuaded the president of the local bar association to help them gain counsel, arguing that it was disgraceful for the legal profession to evade defending unpopular causes. The wives of the Smith Act defendants played a particularly valuable role in securing legal representation for their husbands.44
The Party’s national office, according to several sources, pounced on this modest strategy and sent a functionary down to Philadelphia to lay down the law, threatening all the district leaders with expulsion. The district officers held their ground and established a First Amendment defense. They were convicted but later exonerated on appeal in late 1957.45
Mike Caldwell, reflecting the sentiments of a substantial minority, feels that in this period the Party abandoned working-class organizing to concentrate on raising money from “bourgeois” sources to manage its defense efforts. It would certainly have been difficult for a smaller, weakened Party under attack from the government, in the courts and at every level of daily life to invest energy and resources in industrial organizing; and given the Party’s constituency and the politically repressive environment, such an investment would probably not have paid off. Caldwell’s feelings, however, reflect significant tensions within the Party that were kept within bounds while all were on the defensive but that would erupt by the mid-fifties.
Paradoxically, the strains of the McCarthy period sustained members, forcing them to suppress tensions, ambivalences, and questions that had begun to fester with the Party’s decline in the late forties.46 The reactionary assault diverted many loyalists from facing the increasingly apparent fact that the movement they had joined with the expectation of its ultimate triumph was in critical condition.
Depression-generation Communists were characteristically in their middle to late thirties or early forties when Dwight David Eisenhower took office. The responsibilities of adult life, long subordinated to the passions of commitment, could no longer be put off. As the remaining faithful hoped for the gradual softening of McCarthyism and prepared to rebuild their movement and their Party, they simultaneously worried about paying the bills, raising their children, finding a secure and hospitable neighborhood, and getting older.
Although Smith Act prosecutions and appeals continued and congressional committees persisted in investigating Communists and progressives, the second red scare had begun to slow down by 1956. Philadelphia activists, while still tied up in court proceedings and the problems of everyday life, sought to revive their organization and extend their political efforts. Before any kind of breathing spell could occur, however, a series of crises initiated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe exploded. These traumatic eruptions would result, finally, in the decimation of the district Party structure and membership.
Joseph Stalin died in 1953, and all of the Communist world mourned the loss of “the best loved man on earth in our time.”47 Unashamedly emotional and extravagant eulogies poured from the Party press. The struggle for succession did not shake up district members until the famous Twentieth Party Congress in the Soviet Union, featuring Nikita Krushchev’s speech on Stalin’s crimes. The address was presented behind closed doors and then published, first in the Western press. Finally published by an aroused Daily Worker, it exploded myths and loyalties, shattered faiths, and produced soul searching among many Party members.48
At the national level, a struggle intensified over the future direction of the Party. The Old Guard, led by William Z. Foster, called for minor adjustments, striking some rhetorical blows against “the cult of personality,” but holding firm for a pro-Soviet line. This orthodox faction, while admitting errors in economic forecasting and political analysis, reverted to a Popular Front domestic strategy. At first cautiously and then more aggressively, it struck out at all dissenters from Stalinist orthodoxy.49
The dissenters, often called Gatesites after John Gates, the reform-minded editor of the Daily Worker, called for “de-Stalinization.” They had no united program: some wanted the Party liquidated; others saw democratizing and revitalizing the Party as the only hope. The reformers were deeply affected by the revelations of endemic Soviet injustices—the rigged trials of the late thirties and early fifties, the executions not just of adversaries and innocents, but of loyal Communists, and Soviet anti-Semitism under Stalin, especially after the war. Those who remained committed to the Party offered what some would later call a model for Euro-Communism—independence from Soviet domination, a more democratized and open Party structure and process, and a recognition of the difficulties of socialist revolution in advanced capitalist democracies.50
In addition to these two factions, there was a determining group, usually called “moderates,” associated with Party Secretary Eugene Dennis. This swing group, also disparate and sensitive to which way the wind was blowing, preferred at first to play it safe. They had been through many Party purges and battles and refused to commit themselves until absolutely necessary. Initially they tilted toward reform but in the final counting joined with the Fosterites in restoring orthodoxy by 1959.51
The Hungarian uprising in October played a critical role in deepening the rift within the Party and generating the alliance that would defeat the Gatesites. Communists had to come to grips with the fact that Soviet troops had entered an independent nation to crush a rebellion, whether defined as socialist, nationalist, or “clerical fascist.” Even many of those who came to defend the intervention did so with deep reservations and lasting anguish. How, some asked, could it be alleged that fascism was still so strong ten years after the triumph of a “people’s republic” in Hungary?52
In the Philadelphia area, as elsewhere, many members simply drew away from the Party, without fanfare or formal acts, feeling betrayed and disillusioned. Fred Garst now speaks of how Communism “requires the abdication of a certain portion of your ego.” Al Rein, with growing children, struggling to hold a job, says he “simply drifted away from the movement,” somewhat affected by the Khrushchev speech, but mostly just exhausted. One veteran who departed in 1956 says that he experienced “a general feeling of malaise,” the result of “banal discussions, . . . too many decades of incestuous discussions.” He welcomed the Khrushchev revelations as “a breath of fresh air” but did not see any point in struggling from within; instead, he joined those who left to pursue their private lives and to focus attention on long-neglected careers and families.
The plight of many Communists was quite severe. Many were either approaching or already in their forties. After doing Party and Party-related work for many years, they often lacked the credentials for professional jobs. Their children were in school, constantly needing new clothes; their spouses longed for respite, perhaps even nice vacations. Many had no job security, no pension plans. In the midst of such personal and family crises, Party members had to attend to crucial decisions concerning their political identities and loyalties.
One black activist resigned, feeling particularly bitter about the Jewish Communists who fled her neighborhood: “As the neighborhood began to change, their houses went up for sale.” She angrily concluded that all of the talk of integration and racial harmony was “just rhetoric on their part” and declared, “The hell with these people and the false position they were taking.”
Most Philadelphia Communists, however, struggled passionately with the mid-fifties Party crisis. Ruth Shapiro, who felt “relief from bondage” when the Stalinist myth exploded, recovered to enjoy the new freedom encouraged within the Party in mid-1956. But counterattacks from Fosterites made such freedom increasingly tenuous. One twenty-year veteran wanted the dissolution of the Party to be a discussion topic, feeling that all views had to be aired before any decision could be made. But a top district leader started a whispering campaign against him, charging him with emotional instability and anti-Communism. He thought, “I could have been Rajk or any of those guys that were purged and rehabilitated.”53 Another top cadre, a proponent of a more open and democratic Party who continued his membership even after orthodoxy had triumphed, felt deeply troubled over his own potential for the kind of political repression committed under Stalin. Many others admitted that they too might have executed innocent people if in power. It was a deeply humbling moment.
Some, particularly Jewish Communists, turned back to their roots. Otto Kramer says that the 1956 crisis “removed the rock of faith, the rock of support” that had sustained him and others for so long. He did not become anti-Communist or anti-Soviet, but he began to develop greater interest in his Jewish heritage. Ben Green, another second-generation Jew, recalls during the early fifties that “some of the truth was beginning to seep through” to him concerning Soviet anti-Semitism. He began to read the non-Party press to follow such charges and documentation. After the Twentieth Party Congress, he stopped attending meetings and refused to pay dues. He considered withdrawing from politics altogether, but instead began to work out a way to integrate his new anti-Stalinist socialism with sensitivity to Jewishness.
For many members, local tensions and disappointments were the chief sources of disillusionment. “It wasn’t Hungary that was the key,” or other international issues, although Sally Turpin admits being disturbed by the Soviet invasion; rather, she was annoyed at the policy of sending whites into the black ghettoes to agitate and sell Workers: “I was convinced that it wouldn’t work,” but “no one wanted to hear this, so I said to hell with this.” Such tactical grievances were magnified by the increasing impotence of the Party and by the mid-fifties trauma.
By late 1956 and early 1957, district membership had dropped to no more than a thousand. The district leadership had to accept the elimination of the Pennsylvania edition of the Worker in early 1956, while their own pending appeals faced delays. Few recruits were entering the Party, and consequently the average age of members was steadily rising.54
There were minor bright notes in this period. In the summer of 1956, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars tried to prevent the actress Gale Sondergaard from performing in a local production of “Anastasia.” Despite pickets, the opening night was packed and the blacklisted Miss Sondergaard received “prolonged applause.”55 The political repression of the McCarthy era was starting to lift, though the thaw came too late to revive the Party.
District leaders for the most part aligned themselves with the reform-minded faction of the Party and, with few exceptions, left the organization at the end of the fifties as it became apparent that orthodoxy had triumphed. Virtually an entire generation of Party cadres decided that the American Communist Party was no longer an effective vehicle for social change. As Maurice Isserman recently noted, “A full three quarters of the American Communist Party membership, people who had stayed with the movement in the worst years of McCarthyism, quit in the year or so after the events of 1956.”56 This core group, supportive of the Khrushchev speech and critical of Soviet actions in Hungary, drew conclusions about the nature of democracy and the right of self-determination from these events. For example, they refused and still refuse to accept the argument that presenting unpleasant truths about socialist countries is playing into imperialist hands; they simply state that the truth is always revolutionary. And they refuse to accept the Soviet explanation of the Hungarian intervention; they are skeptical of Soviet claims about fascist predominance and unwilling to justify further Soviet domination over a resentful people.
A number of scholars suggest that the Party split in the mid-fifties between “hard-line” and reformers, Fosterites and Gatesites, followed generational, class, and ethnic lines.57 The orthodox faction, ever loyal to Soviet cues, is assumed to include the old immigrant, IWO-based, foreign-born, and often Yiddish-speaking Communists who refused to believe allegations about Soviet anti-Semitism. Such members had no place else to go and consequently were reluctant to abandon the protective if shrinking subculture and social network within which they were raised and nurtured.58
Old Party stalwarts also remained, according to this view, especially those who came into the movement before the construction of the Popular Front if they had not, indeed, joined as charter members. Foster, for example, predates the Party, having already established himself as a working-class organizer in the 1910s. They were “purer” Bolsheviks, trained in class struggle and always somewhat uncomfortable with the modified rhetoric and reformist practices of the Popular Front period. Several observers insist that this group of charter members plus the twenties recruits always maintained control of the Party, whatever the particular tactical phase.59
Finally, the hypothesis argues that the more working-class components of the Party remained loyal, whereas the more “petty-bourgeois,” intellectual, and professional elements broke ranks. Such a view notes the pro-Fosterite role of the New York seamen in the mid-fifties struggles. One counterview accepts all of the above groups as part of the orthodox faction but includes such professionals as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen as the “most intransigent” Fosterites.60
On the other side of Party barricades this hypothesis places the second-generation, Jewish American, thirties Communists of the Popular Front period, now become anti-Stalinist and reform-minded. George Charney describes this Depression generation:
As products of the 1930s, we had acquired an implicit faith in the Soviet Union as the “land of Socialism.” Our illusions about Soviet democracy and justice were greater, and so was the shock of disillusionment. Furthermore, our people, more typically American, had an enduring though unarticulated pride in our democratic traditions.
Gabriel Almond argues that Bolshevik ideology was less strongly instilled in Popular Front-era members who were not part of the “insider” group and that such members were likely to be less active as well—that is, noncadre.61 One still-orthodox Marxist-Leninist speaks harshly of “these Jewish Browderite hacks . . . mostly New Yorkers who remained tied to their parochial beginnings, all unsuccessful writers, none of whom had ever organized any workers in their lives, or participated in or led any struggles.” A more temperate view is that the thirties recruits were more Americanized and therefore more aware of the development of American class consciousness. They were upwardly mobile and quite comfortable with a Popular Front ideology that seemed to resolve the contradiction of dual loyalties. They differed from the more Bolshevik older members in their populist responses to American democratic traditions, FDR, John L. Lewis, and the Spanish Republic.
My very limited Philadelphia sample lends some support to this hypothesis. For example, all of the twelve Philadelphia Communists falling into the category of the second-generation Jewish American members of the Popular Front era are self-defined anti-Stalinists who broke with the Party in the mid-fifties after failing to transform it.62 They clearly left the Party for such ideological reasons as Soviet anti-Semitism, Stalinist repression, and, very often, Hungary. Despite the argument that finds them less ideological, and even less Marxist in their Popular Front assimilation to New Deal liberalism, most remain emphatically socialist more than twenty years after quitting the Communist Party.
The orthodox supporters of Foster, intransigent Stalinists, cut across generational, ethnic, sexual, and class lines with hardly any discernible pattern. The orthodox claim to be more working-class in background and identification, but such self-serving contentions must be viewed with appropriate skepticism.
Thirties Communists were less Bolshevik in the sense that they were part of a vital and growing movement that was clumsily trying to become indigenous—that is, Americanized—in both membership and constituency. Among cadres at least, the Popular Front ideology was both subordinated to and integrated into an economistic socialist strategy. James Weinstein argues that the Party, lacking a public vision of socialism, found its “private vision”—the Soviet model—shattered in 1956.63
What remained is what one might call a popular vision—an integrated if contradictory set of assumptions and values, a cluster of metaphors. Most Depression-generation veterans of the Communist Party maintain a populist hope that is rekindled by Pete Seeger folksongs about working people, movies like Norma Rae and Harlan County, U.S.A., and memories of sit-downs, unemployed marches, and anti-eviction actions. Such a populism, while deeply American, presupposes an internationalism that is periodically tested and strained by nationalistic behavior of Communist countries. Old Leftists are still moved by the concept of a unified world of working people, from Spain to El Salvador.
There is a tension in this popular vision between a populist-internationalist egalitarianism and a belief in socialism as planning, between its democratic vision and its assumptions about “objective conditions” and Scientific Socialism. Many Old Leftists, still uncomfortable with any dimensions of culture that belie their universalistic hopes—ethnicity, religion, sexuality, aggression, the psyche and emotional life—fall back on a belief in Progress, Science, and Reason (all in prenuclear, pre-Holocaust capitals). The popular vision is muted for most Old Leftists and occasionally comes close to flickering out, but it holds; tempered by sobering experiences, revised by new insights, still the socialist dream holds.