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The Communist Party in the 1930s: What Lessons for Socialists Today?

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As a new generation of socialist activists are being forged out of the turmoil in American society, they will look to previous movements for successful methods of struggle. Marxists believe it is essential we learn the lessons of the past in order to be prepared to successfully wage future battles. As we prepare for struggles in the coming years, the activities of the Communist Party in the 1930s are a treasure trove of important lessons, both positive and negative, for socialists.

The American communist movement emerged in 1919 out of the left wing of the Socialist Party. The Russian Revolution sent shockwaves throughout society, especially the left and the working class. In fact, initially two communist parties were formed in the U.S.; one dominated by exiles of Slavic countries, the other with more roots in the native-born working class. They had a combined estimated support of 70,000.

The most important factor in the early years of the American communist movement was the positive influence of the newly formed Communist International (also known as the Comintern) With Lenin and Trotsky in the leadership of the new workers state in the Soviet Union, the communist movement in the U.S. had the opportunity to ground itself in Marxist strategies and methods. This contrasted with the Socialist Party, whose leadership had been dominated by right-wing reformists, despite the revolutionary Eugene Debs being their best-known leader. While Marxism understands that capitalism has to be overthrown for the working class to achieve liberation, reformism mistakenly believes that workers can solve their problems gradually within the framework of the capitalist system.   

One essential issue was the insistence of the Comintern that the CP place support for the struggle for Black liberation as a key part of their program and work. One of Lenin’s most important contributions to Marxist theory was his sharpening of the Marxists approach to fighting oppression, especially national oppression. While many socialists saw it as a distraction from the class struggle, Lenin explained that without being the best fighters against all forms of oppression, the Communist Parties could not be successful. This was because of the use of “divide and rule” by the ruling classes and capitalist politicians. The poison of division could only be blocked by socialists fighting to strengthen the unity of the working class and by making the fight to end oppression an issue for the whole working class.

A second crucial contribution the Comintern made to the socialist movement in the U.S. was the need to build a revolutionary party with a clear program, rooted in Marxist methods. This meant politically grounding the party on a clear strategy of class struggle as opposed to the methods of reformism which paralyzed the Social Democratic parties of the Second International. Marxism explains that the state under capitalism is not neutral, but instead is tied by a thousand strings to the capitalists, and that the working class, as part of transforming society, needs to replace it with its own institutions that would defend their interests. As the workers government works to end inequality and remove the material basis of oppression pointing towards a classless socialist society, the need for a state will “wither away.” The reformist leaders of the Second International betrayed the working class exactly when revolutionary opportunities opened up the possibility for the working class to take over state power and end capitalism after World War I.

However, the influence of the Communist International turned out to be a double-edged sword for the Communist Party in the U.S. While it played a hugely progressive role in the early 1920s in uniting the two communist parties in the U.S. and politically arming them, the degeneration of the leadership of the Soviet Union, with the rise of Stalinism in the mid-1920s, then became an increasingly negative force.

The new privileged caste that came to power in the Soviet Union based on the idea of “socialism in one country” looked to defend their own interests, at the expense of the needs of the wider working class in the Soviet Union and internationally. This narrow political outlook was an abandonment of a key tenet of Marxism – that only an international movement of the working class could overthrow capitalism. It also increasingly distorted the politics of the Communist International. Also, the bureaucratization of the Soviet Communist Party was directly transferred into the Communist International. As different political factions fought for power in the USSR, this led to increased factionalism in the CP in the U.S., with each faction trying to decide their politics based on the balance of power in the Soviet Union.  

1930s: Unemployment and Evictions Struggles 

The collapse of stock markets around the globe in 1929 precipitated a decade of economic depression and mass unemployment, which reached 25% in the U.S. in 1933 (15 million workers). This was a devastating blow to the working class and created conditions for mass radicalization and struggle. The CP stepped into the huge vacuum of working-class politics and played a role that, while flawed, demonstrated what an enormous influence on politics and society even a small revolutionary organization can have. 

1929 found the politics of the CP in a period of political flux. The Comintern was just entering a phase called the “Third Period,” so named because this was seen as the third period of political strategic shift since the 1917 Russian revolution and the beginning of the end of world capitalism. In 1928, the leadership of the Soviet Union also began a desperate struggle against the growth of pro-capitalist forces in the USSR. When transferred to the Comintern, this new political position led to the adoption of an ultra-left strategy of the “revolutionary offensive.” This disastrous policy, which started not from an analysis of the world economy and world processes, but from a dogma, shipwrecked the Communist Parties around the world as adherence to the line dictated by the Kremlin replaced independent analysis of how global processes played out concretely and affected the momentum of the class struggle in each particular country. 

By defining the period as “revolutionary” this also dictated the need of the Communist Parties to prepare for a revolutionary offensive and a struggle for power. The Communist Parties were told to break from all alliances with other left forces and forge an independent path towards revolution under their own banner. The Social Democratic parties were described as “social fascist,” twins of the Nazis. This isolated the Communist Parties around the world, contributing directly to the victory of Hitler and fascism in Germany in 1933, as the German CP refused to work with broader socialist and working-class forces to defeat Hitler through a united struggle in the streets. This was a reversal of the carefully worked out policy of the “united front,” to unite working class forces into common struggle where the superiority of Marxism could expose the inadequacy of reformism. The united front had been a guiding policy in the Comintern since shortly after the Russian Revolution. 

Based on the politics of the “Third Period,” the small American CP took to the streets with dynamism and revolutionary zeal. This placed the CP at the forefront of struggle in the early years of the Depression and catapulted them to national prominence. Despite serious political weaknesses, they set an example for the type of struggle needed in this period of capitalist crisis. Through their dynamic initiative, they temporarily filled a political vacuum. However, their demands that other emerging social organizations accept CP leadership as a condition for collaborating in struggle seriously weakened their ability to help build a much broader movement and isolated Communist activists from the rest of the emerging left.  

The Communist Party set up Unemployed Workers Councils in order to organize dynamic, direct actions in defense of working class communities devastated by the Depression. This included protecting tenants from eviction through mass actions to prevent bailiffs seizing their furniture and possessions, sit-ins at relief offices, and escalating street demonstrations across the country calling for unemployment insurance.  

Their demands included an immediate grant of $150 for every out-of-work American and $50 for each dependent, an immediate end to all evictions, free milk for children of the unemployed, and “full wages to all workers unemployed from any cause whatsoever.” (Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade page 56)  These demonstrations were viciously attacked by club-wielding police. The CP members developed important traditions of militancy by refusing to back down in the face of the violence, and “gave as good as they got” when attacked in this way by the police.

This contributed to a growing momentum of struggle, and a National Hunger March brought over 75,000 workers and unemployed onto the streets of Washington D.C. in December 1932. They won important reforms for the unemployed and created mass pressure that ultimately resulted in the enactment of federal unemployment insurance in 1935. 

CP Develops New Anti-Racism Traditions 

The Communist Party broke ground for socialists in the U.S. in how to fight oppression alongside the struggle to build a powerful revolutionary movement of the working class to end capitalism. The CP made the struggle against Black oppression a central issue for all members, and integrated this into the struggle to build support in the wider working class. Their focus was on fighting against racism in all forms, and to make this a struggle for all workers, whatever their race.

The commitment of the CP to put the fight against the oppression of the Black population as a central plank of their work has huge lessons for today, where ideas of identity politics are powerful in the left. The ideas of identity politics, while playing a key part in the radicalization of a large section of young people, do not transfer into successful victories in the class struggle. The key to winning class struggles is building the greatest possible unity of the working class as a fighting weapon against the bosses. To combat this, the capitalists deliberately create division among workers based on race. In the U.S., the bosses systematically promoted the idea among less politically conscious sections of white workers that they had something to gain from racism. But this division lowered the living standard of all workers.

The successful mass struggle of the working class depends on fighting against all aspects of racism and forging unity based on united common struggle. We will see later how the anti-racist politics of CP members were essential to winning the confidence among Black steel, auto, and electrical workers on the front lines of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ organizing drives. 

In 1928, at the insistence of the Comintern, the CP took up the idea that Black people had the right to self-determination as a nation in the so-called Black belt, a region in the South where Blacks were a numerical majority. It was a mistaken application of the Marxist position of support for the right for self-determination of oppressed nations, including the right to form their own state. This concept, first developed by Lenin, was an essential aspect of the program of the Bolshevik party in Russia.  But it was a theory that only applied when an oppressed group has the material basis to form their own state, i.e. a separate language, culture, and territory that sets them apart from other peoples. While Black people in the U.S. were an oppressed section of U.S. society, they did not have a separate language, and with increased migration to the northern cities, did not have a common territory.  In practice, the Black belt theory and the call for self-determination were not central to the CP’s work among Black workers which centered on the fight to end discrimination and winning integration in U.S. society – the opposite of separation. But this mistaken theory played a role in miseducating a generation of radicals, and was not understood by radicalizing Black workers in the Northern cities. 

Scottsboro Boys 

The CP’s campaign to defend the “Scottsboro boys” played a key role in winning support among Black people. In 1930, nine poor Black teenagers were arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white women on a freight train. Within two weeks, facing whipped-up racist hysteria and despite the lack of any evidence, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Through their legal defense arm, the International Labor Defense, the CP organized a massive national campaign in defense of the young men, challenging for the first time the exclusion of Black people from juries.

The campaign not only provided free legal help, but also developed into a mass campaign that exposed the class basis of racism in the South. This aggressive national campaign won support from important sections of the Black community. 

Others struggles in the South led by the CP broke new ground, especially in Alabama. Not least was their commitment and sacrifice in building the Sharecroppers Union as a militant organization of poor Black workers. The situation of a mainly white organization fighting unreservedly for Black workers, and demonstrating a total commitment for Black and white unity in the South in the depths of Jim Crow, was ground-breaking and in many ways was a precursor of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. 

The CP did not just fight racism in the South. They had a significant base in Black working-class communities in New York and Chicago. However, while the CP was ploughing new ground in the South, in Harlem their ultraleft approach to other social struggle organizations, especially Black organizations, reduced their ability to become a catalyst for a broader social movement. In his article, The Communist Party and black Liberation in the 1930’s, Paul D’Amato explains: “The CPs Third Period ultraleftism was more damaging, because it prevented the CP from calling for principled unity around immediate struggles which could have helped to win Blacks away from the nationalist Garveyites or the liberal NAACP. But its uncompromising militant stands attracted an important number of Black workers to join the CP.” 


It was in their approach to the labor movement that the contradictions in the approach of the Communist Party were most exposed. Having recruited the well-known labor fighter, William Z. Foster, in 1921, the CP was able to build an important base in labor in the 1920s. Foster was a leader of the massive steelworkers organizing drive and strike of 1919, which was crushed brutally by the state. In a visit to the Soviet Union, he and other activists were greatly influenced by the pamphlet of Lenin, Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder (recounted in Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., vol. 9, pp 109-110). In that book, Lenin argued that if socialists abstained from fighting in existing unions, they were abandoning the workers in those unions to their conservative leaders.

The dominant force in the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), had adopted a very conservative approach to labor organizing based on only representing workers in skilled trades,  often called craft unions.  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in 1905 by left-wing labor activists to build a radical labor movement and organize those unskilled workers, many of whom were systematically kept out of craft unions, as well as women and Black workers.  

Despite its more militant tactics, Foster became disillusioned with the IWW policy of refusing to work inside the established AFL unions. He launched the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) in 1922 based on bringing together union activists to transform existing unions based on solid militant trade union principles. These included: rejection of dual unionism; rejection of the AFL’s class-collaborationist policies and adoption of the principle of class struggle; amalgamation of existing unions into wider industrial unions; organization of the unorganized; unemployment insurance to support the unemployed; and for a labor party. (Foner, p. 130) The TUEL began to build a real base in the labor movement. 

The CP played an important role in the mid-1920s in building a core of militant workers in the U.S. Unfortunately, this excellent work was broken up by the dramatic shift towards “Third Period” policies by the Comintern in 1928. Under Third Period policies, the American CP was told in 1929 to wind up TUEL, get out of the AFL, and set off on a sectarian path by launching their own “red unions” under the banner of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) Now, the CP militants were cordoned off in small, isolated radical unions.

While the TUUL led a number of militant strikes in this period, they were ultimately all defeated due to their isolation. However, through these determined struggles, the CP built a layer of hardened fighters who would go on to have a huge impact in the drive to organize steel, auto, rubber factories, and electrical plants in the 1930s. 

1934: End of Third Period 

The coming to power of Hitler in Germany in 1933 forced a change of policy by the Comintern.  The ultra-left policies of the German Communist Party (KPD) let Hitler seize power without the powerful German working class organizing any serious mass opposition. Having burned their fingers in Germany with their disastrous ultra-left policies, the Comintern now flipped to a  reformist, class collaborationist position. As Trotsky pointed out, opportunism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin, both reflecting a failure to assess the real balance of forces and point a way towards winning the mass of the working class to a revolutionary position.

The new “Popular Front” policy, adopted in 1935 was for unity not only with other working class organizations, but also, criminally, with the so-called liberal capitalist political parties.  This reflected not the needs of the working class, but the fears of the Soviet bureaucracy as they dropped all principles of Marxism in order to forge an alliance with the U.S., France, and Britain against the threat of invasion by Hitler.

This policy was delusional. The major capitalist powers were never going to be genuine allies of the Soviet Union. It was their strategic goal to overthrow the planned economy. Their price for the agreement was that the USSR stop pretending to play a revolutionary role in the world, and Stalin eagerly complied. In reality, the Soviet leadership had abandoned a consistent revolutionary position in the mid-1920s.

In the U.S., this meant channeling the struggle of workers away from independent politics and behind the Democrats, a capitalist party. The Communist Party’s policies in the labor movement were increasingly subordinated to the appeasement of Roosevelt, including blocking any independent political movement of the working class toward a labor party.   

1934 to 1935, Transitional Phase

However, from 1934 through 1935, as the Communist Party started moving away from the sectarianism of the Third Period and before total adoption of the Popular Front in 1936, they played an important role in encouraging the radicalizing labor movement.  

In his excellent article on the CP’s role in the labor movement in this period, The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History, Charlie Post writes:  

“In early 1934, the CP abandoned its policy of boycotting the growing AFL ‘federal locals.’ Over the next year, the CP led its relatively tiny TUUL ‘red unions’ into the rebellious AFL locals, where they returned to the politics they had promoted through TUEL during the 1920s.  

“In the auto, rubber, maritime, electrical appliance and machine making industries, Communist and other radical and revolutionary workers led a rank-and-file movement in the AFL federal locals to create new, industrial unions. The CP’s abandonment of ‘third period’ abstention from the AFL federal locals was crucial to the success of the CIO in 1935-1937. Whereas the AFL bureaucracy had easily derailed the strike agitation in basic industry during 1933, the CP along with other radicals were able to provide an effective alternative leadership after 1934.”

In 1933, workers swarmed into the AFL unions, but their ability to win struggles was blocked by conservative craft unionist methods. But in 1934, three victorious strikes led by socialists changed U.S. labor history by using class struggle methods. The Teamsters strike in Minneapolis was led by Trotskyists, the general strike in Toledo auto parts factories was led by the American Workers Party, and the longshore strike in San Francisco was by the militant leader Harry Bridges, who had just joined the CP. Each of them won major victories through the strategy of escalating the class struggle to the wider working class, including use of partial general strikes. 

CP membership in AFL unions exploded from 2,000 members in 1934 to 15,000 in mid 1936. They had delegates at every state AFL convention. (Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party in the United States; From the Depression to World War II, p. 140) They played a huge role in building the base of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), winning the leadership of the United Electrical Union (UE) and a dominant position in the United Autoworkers Union (UAW). By 1938, 40% of industrial unions were either led by the CP or by their close allies.  Overall membership in the CP had grown from 26,000 in 1934 to 75,000 in 1938. (Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade, p. 238-239) 

They played an especially important role in the successful organizing drive in the steel industry. According to William Z. Foster, out of the 200 organizers sent into the steel factories, 60 were from the CP. Racist hiring practices were central to the steel company’s anti-union strategy. In 1936, there were 85,000 Black steelworkers, 20% of the total workforce. Philip Foner writes:

“Restricted to the worst jobs, they received the lowest wages averaging between sixteen and twenty dollars a week for hazardous and degrading employment. The companies based wages on a differential pattern for whites and blacks, but they poured money into black churches and fraternal society to buy their allegiance to the employers…The future of the CIO and organized labor in America was at stake in the colossal battle that was shaping up between the unions and the steel industry for the loyalty of the steel workers.” (Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619 to 1973, p218)  

Alongside important efforts of the National Negro Council, a pro-union Black organization, the anti-racism of the CP organizers and members in the steel plants was decisive in convincing Black workers to join the organizing drive by demonstrating that this new radical industrial unionism would not exclude them, as had many of the craft unions.

Political Effect of Popular Frontism 

Despite the Communist Party’s excellent work in building militancy in many unions during this brief but very critical period, their work as a supposedly revolutionary party in the labor movement was deeply flawed. While they supported militant action by workers, this was undermined by a refusal to challenge the union leadership and their increasing abandonment of the fight for an independent political role for workers. It also meant a refusal to help or lead struggles against the bureaucratic, industrial union strategy of the CIO union leadership. While the CIO leadership had broken from the AFL craft unionism, they had not broken from business unionism in general. Driven by the politics of the Popular Front, the CP during the late 30s increasingly became a police force to ensure the movement did not challenge the CIO leadership, including its lining up behind Roosevelt.  

In the aftermath of the successful sit-down strike by autoworkers in Flint, Michigan at the end of 1936, UAW members of the CP could have taken the leadership of the UAW, with party member Wyndham Mortimer being the best-known radical leader in the union. With their base in the militant movement of workers around the CIO, they could have emerged as a powerful force in the labor movement pushing for a break with the Democrats and helped launch a new workers’ party. This would have transformed American politics.  

Instead, driven by the class-collaborationist logic of the Popular Front, they refused to challenge the pro-Roosevelt leadership of the CIO. They let a right-wing candidate take over the leadership of the UAW with disastrous consequences, and were instrumental in blocking a motion in support of a labor party at the UAW convention in 1936, despite majority support among UAW delegates.

The effect of Popular Front politics can be most clearly seen in the evolution of the CP’s position towards Roosevelt. In 1932, they absurdly called him a “social fascist.” With the turn to the Popular Front they began a trajectory which, while it ended up fully embracing him in 1937, had interesting twists and turns.

In 1935 and 1936, after they broke from the ultra-leftist verbiage of the Third Period, they briefly embraced independent politics for the working class through a labor party-farmer party. If they had been able to operate outside the framework of the Stalinized Comintern, and maintain that position in the following years, they could have played a key role in catalyzing support for such a party at a time when the most politically conscious sections of the working class were starting to look for an alternative to the pro-capitalist politics of Roosevelt.

In early 1936, the Comintern told the CP to back away from their support for a farmer-labor party. In the 1936 national elections, they ran their own presidential ticket, with a Black vice-presidential candidate, James W. Ford. But in this campaign, they refused to criticize Roosevelt, concentrating on putting forward their own program. During 1937, all pretenses of a critical position on Roosevelt disappeared. The full adoption of the Popular Front meant that any candidate who they deemed to be not a “fascist” should be supported in the fight against fascism.  Once they defined the Republican party as “fascist,” this then meant full support for Roosevelt and the Democrats, and they fiercely criticized anyone who challenged this. 

By 1937 and 1938, the CP was in full retreat from any pretense of a revolutionary position, and they became the most ardent promoters of Roosevelt. A measure of this capitulation can be seen in the South where in 1937 the CP endorsed Alabama Democrat, Lister Hill, for Congress – a seasoned representative of racist Jim Crow politics and an opponent of anti-lynching legislation.  Across the board, the CP dropped all militant campaigning in the interests of the working class, and instead looked to merge with middle class and liberal groups in defense of the Democrats, and in preparation for U.S. entry into World War II. During the war, they directly took the side of the bosses by becoming the most ardent support of no-strike pacts.  

The most radical workers, especially Black workers in the South, turned away from the CP in disgust. A whole generation of fighters who joined the CP in the 1920s and early 1930s were lost due to the betrayal of the leadership of the CP and the Comintern. The policy of supporting the Democrats as the “lesser evil” capitalist party had a devastating effect in miseducating the rest of the U.S. left, instead of fighting for independent working class politics. Instead, every four years the CP raised the need to support Democrats as part of the fight against “fascism,” which they defined as the Republican Party.

Socialists and activists should be inspired by the positive examples of the Communist Party and its members during this turbulent period of U.S. history. They hold essential lessons for the new generation of emerging activists. At the same time, we need to have a sober approach to their mistakes. It is not enough just to proclaim opposition to capitalism and support for socialism. The successes of the best years of the CP were grounded in the Marxist strategies of the united front, political independence from all corporate parties and linking the fight against all oppression with the struggles of the working class. These were rooted in the politics of the first four congresses of the Comintern.  When they abandoned this heritage for the class collaborationist policy of the Popular Front, it had devastating consequences. We need to dig into this history in order to arm our movements with the kind of Marxist strategies that can win us victories in the coming years.

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