One of the most significant developments during the First World War in 1917 was the overthrow of the despotic government controlled by Nicholas II, Czar of all of the Russians, on March 12, 1917.
On November 7, 1917, another revolution took place in Russia, this time led and controlled by the Bolshevi (Russian for ‘‘majority’’). Like the leadership in the first revolution, they were influenced by the writings of Karl Marx. But the Bolshevi took Marx further under the leadership of V. I. Lenin, who called for a sudden and violent revolution, aimed at the creation of the ‘‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’’
The success of the communists led by Lenin preached a system of collective ownership of property. Given these goals (which would destroy capitalism) and the Soviet exit from World War I, it is understandable that nations coming out of the devastating war would see a significant threat to their political and economic way of life in the Russian Revolution of November 1917.
Indeed, within a matter of two years, Communist parties were organized throughoutWestern and Southern Europe and in Latin America. The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) was organized in 1919.
This nation and the world were rocked to the core by the devastating Great Depression of the 1930s. The Great Depression opened up the ‘‘Great Opportunity’’ for the Communist Party.
The Party worked mainly through unions (especially the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the C.I.O.) as the spearhead of its drive against capitalism, racism, and exploitation of the working class. Regardless of the terrible deprivations suffered by millions during the Great Depression, there was a deep-rooted antagonism against radicals and their solutions; the hope engendered by Franklin D. Roosevelt leading the nation in the ‘‘war’’ against the Great Depression showed the willingness to wait and give the economy a chance to recover. The ‘‘jump start’’ came in the form of World War II (1939–1945) in Europe and then in America. The Communist Party supported the war once Russia was attacked by Nazi Germany in June 1941; until then, the Party called for isolation from another capitalist war.
Through the 1930s, the CPUSA claimed the hearts and minds of a number of persons (including intellectuals, stage and movie stars) who approved of the announced program of the Party.
With the end of World War II, the alliance that won the war began to break apart. Instead of alliance, the world was introduced to the concept of a Cold War between the United States and its allies and Russia with Joseph Stalin as its communist leader. The domestic result of the Cold War between these countries was a Red Scare in the United States—a fear of communists, their Party, and those who followed in the path of their beliefs.
The Red Scare came as a result of a push to demonize all who were in the Party and those who agreed with the party line. The main figure was J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His aim was to destroy the Communist Party and all those who followed the Party program. He viewed the Party as a cancer on the nation’s body. Hoover carried on his anticommunist crusade, even during those years when, with great energy, the CPUSA supported the war.
Using materials such as CPUSA internal meeting minutes, the FBI gathered information in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. Illegal wiretaps, surreptitiously obtained letters, breaking into Party offices (Black Bag jobs), and a number of other quite illegal methods were used. Ultimately a criminal suit was filed against twelve national Party leaders.
The case, Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 497 (1951), was designed to break the back of the CPUSA and it did effectively do so, sending all defendants to jail, including all attorneys representing the defendants. All of the defendants were charged with violation of the Smith Act (1940), which made it a federal offense to advocate the forceful overthrow of the government. The times dictated the guilty verdicts for these defendants and for a parade of secondary CP functionaries.
At its height of membership during the 1930s, there were probably 80,000 CPUSA card-carrying members. By the end of the Dennis case (and those that followed), there were probably only 15,000– 20,000 left.
Reeling from serious body blows in the American court system, from a Red Scare mentality that looked for ‘‘Reds under the beds,’’ and the belief that all major problems in the nation and in the world were the result of the Communist Party and their followers, further reduced the number of members.
Even the charged attitude of the Supreme Court expressed in four cases decided in 1957 came too little and too late to pump blood into the dying veins of the CPUSA.
The Communist Party was never outlawed as such, but that made no pragmatic difference. Some will argue that the Party killed itself with its slavish attachment to the Soviet Communist Party line. In all, it was a terrible time for liberalism, Communism, the CPUSA, and for the American justice system. It was also a time of harm to the body of civil, political, and economic freedoms in our nation.
ARTHUR J. SABIN
References and Further Reading
- Buhle, Mari Jo, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1980.
- Clifford, Clark, and Richard Holbrooke. Counsel to the President: a Memoir, New York: Random House, 1991.
- Howe, Irving, and Lewis Closer. The American Communist Party a Critical History. New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, 1962.
- Klingaman, William K. Encyclopedia of the McCarthy Era. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996.
- Sabin, Arthur J. In Calmer Times: The Supreme Court and Red Monday. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
- Schrecker, Ellen. ‘‘McCarthyism and the Decline of American Communism, 1945–1960’’ In Michael E. Brown, et al., eds. New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism, 123–140. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993.
- ———. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1998.