The early years of the CP

April 22, 2011

The American Communist Party (CP) began as a revolutionary organization dedicated to achieving workers' power. Within a decade of its formation in 1919, however, it had become a party loyal to Stalin in Russia and had drifted away from the ideas on which it was founded.

Bill Roberts looks at the transformation of the CP in 1920 and its effects on the development of socialism in the U.S.

THE NEWLY formed CP faced many problems its first year. Unlike many of the European parties, it numbered only in the few thousands.

The CP also face severe repression during and following the Palmer Raids of 1919, which thinned its ranks and forced it largely underground.

And while the party's origins in the left wing of he Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World gave it experience, it was also marred by sectarian and anti-theoretical tendencies.

With the help of he Communist International (Comintern), the CP was able to pull itself together in 1921-1922 and to avoid disintegration under the pressures of state repression and the isolation imposed by its own misunderstanding of the period and wooden application of the Bolshevik experience.

Much like a child on a bicycle for the first time, the CP wobbled its way through the 1920s. What happened in this period prepared the party for its degeneration.

By the mid-1930s, the CP was little more than an apologist for the Democratic Party, providing loyal troops to the Congress of Industrial Organizations bureaucracy.

William Z. Foster
William Z. Foster

The new CP struggled to defined itself between 1920 and 1923. Having left behind the struggles with the right-wing socialists of the Socialist Party, the left was now concerned with differences within its own ranks.

The big question facing the new party was how to "Americanize"--to break from European émigré politics and to establish roots in the American working class. But there were other battles as well, most crucially how the CP would relate to trade unions and other political organizations, and who would lead the party.

While these questions were fought out largely through tactical consideration rather than through arguments of principle, the approaches of the various faction in the course of these internal struggles began to shape the overall nature of the party.

Also, as early CP leader James Cannon noted:

The American party was throwing up its own indigenous leadership and fighting out its own battles with the help of the Comintern, rather than, as the preceding period, simply reflecting and re-enacting the international fight on American ground.

ONE OF the early questions debated in the CP was how to approach the growing sentiment in the labor movement for a labor party.

In November 1919, a national Labor Party was launched in Chicago. In July 1920, it amended its name to the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) and ran Parley Parker Christensen, a radical Utah lawyer, for president. He received nearly half a million votes that fall.

Fueled primarily by agrarian populism, the FLP expressed the radicalization of the time in its demands for nationalization of all utilities, basic industry, banking and natural resources. Furthermore, it called for worker participation in running industry.

Because the CP operated clandestinely, it was not actively involved in this. It took the intervention of the Comintern in 1922 at its Fourth Congress to push the party above ground and to begin the process of reaching workers open to radical ideas.

The American Commission of the Comintern decided unanimously after presentations by all sides and much debate, 1) to legalize the party, 2) to recommend that the party work for a labor party based on the trade unions, and 3) to appeal to seceding groups to return to the party.

The first major opportunity to project itself into the left wing of the labor movement came in 1923 when an alliance developed between the Chicago Federation of Labor and the FLP. Unfortunately, the opportunity went to the heads of the New York leadership group of the CP (then known as the Workers Party) who saw an opportunity not just to make propaganda but to actually lead a left labor political formation.

With nearly half the delegates at the July convention and with help from the more radical Washington state delegates, the Workers Party was able to push its agenda for the immediate launching of a Federated Farmers-Labor Party (FFLP).

The aim of the Workers Party leadership was to build a political organization that would attract the left labor movement and open the way to the party for wider contact with radical workers.

Unfortunately, their success as running away with the 1923 convention in Chicago frightened James Fitzpatrick, head of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who saw in the Workers Party not an ally but a threat.

Instead of moving closer to the communists, Fitzpatrick abandoned the idea of a third-party movement, rushed back into the fold of the conservative labor movement and became an anti-communist.

Without the support of the Chicago Federation of Labor, the new FFLP was not able to attract any local or central labor bodies.

Still, a section of the party leadership--John Pepper and Charles Ruthenberg--tried to gloss over the mistakes and pretend that the FFLP was a viable vehicle for political labor work as well as recruiting ground for the party.

Cannon and William Foster knew better and began opposing the idea in articles in the Daily Worker. As Cannon observed in this second article, "we seem to be organizing our enemies faster than we are organizing our friends: and "we still throw more bluffs and make more noise than our strength warrants."

The split in the leadership was to continue and develop into an ongoing faction fight that would eventually lead to split between those who adhered to the revolutionary traditions of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky and those who accepted the Stalinist perspective.

At this stage, however, the fight was between those who understood the situation in the American labor movement in a period of growing conservatism and those who completely misjudged the nature of the period and the role of a small revolutionary party.

LENIN'S DEATH in 1924 accelerated the faction fight in the USSR, which had an impact on CPs around the world. Pepper was the first to see the possibilities of combining the factional struggle in Russia with the factional struggle in the U.S.

Seeking to discredit the Cannon-Lore-Foster section of the leadership by associating it with Trotsky's side of the Russian fight, Pepper called for a motion in the Workers Party to support the "Old Guard Bolsheviks," namely Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin "triumvirate."

While Foster and Cannon were able to prevent a decisive vote on the motion by arguing that the Americans should not take a position on the Russian controversy, they, nevertheless, became identified with the "upstart" Trotsky against the triumvirate.

Unable to get his own way in the U.S., Pepper took the fight to the Comintern, where he was able to get consideration for the policy. But Trotsky's criticism of Comintern policy forced Zinoviev to talk "left" and argue against any form of cooperation with liberal social democratic parties.

The about-face of the Comintern in May 1924 marks the beginning of the arguments leading up to the "Third Period," a bout of frenzied ultra-leftism that lasted for five years (1928-1933), both in Russia and internationally. Stalin's motivation for this turn was to outflank his factional opponents both on the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky) and on the left (Trotsky and the Left Opposition).

With the American party's leadership now a football to be kicked around in the Comintern, the period in which the CP's positions shifted with the changes of the USSR leadership began in earnest. Pepper and his supporters were the first to lose since they were the instigators of the third-party tactic.

But all sections of the leadership were to learn that to be in favor with the Comintern meant taking the "correct" position with regard to the Russian leadership question.

As Ruthenberg noted:

Evidently Comrade Foster had learned while there that the Communist International did not look with favor on parties which refused to take apposition on such a vital question as the controversy in the Russian Communist Party.

1924 marks the beginning of the period of degeneration in the American CP. The earlier period was filled with mistakes but the party progressed with the help of the Comintern. After the summer of 1924, permanent factions began to form that were to lead in the end to "trials" and expulsions of key members and their followers.

Cannon, one of the founders of the American Trotskyist movement, described the difference between the early period and what happened after 1924:

Everything that happened in those earlier periods makes political sense and is easily comprehensible...

The purposeful and self-explanatory internal struggles of temporary factions in the earlier periods, by which the party was propelled forward in spite of all mistakes and inadequacies of the participants, gave place to a "power fight" of permanent factions struggling blindly for supremacy or survival in a form of political gang warfare.

People who had started out to fight for communism began to lose sight of their goal. Factionalism, which in earlier times had been a means to an end, became an end in itself.

Allegiance to communism and to the party gave way, gradually and imperceptibly, to allegiance to the faction-gang. There could be no winners in this crazy game, which--unknown to the participants at the time--was destined to find its eventual solution in a three-way split and a new beginning.

Thus, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution infected the stumbling American party. Within a few years, it was no more than an instrument for Stalin's foreign policy and domestic factional struggles.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in January 1990.

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