Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States


Chapter I
The Communist Party in the Twenties


1. The Founding of the Communist Party USA

The October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was the event that led to the formation of Communist parties outside the USSR. In the US, Communism was built on both socialism and syndicalism. These tendencies had organized expression in the Socialist Labor Party, which was founded in 1877 and had Daniel De Leon as a leading figure, the Socialist Party, which was founded in 1901 and had Eugene Debt as a leading figure, and the Industrial Workers of the World, which was founded in 1905 and had William Haywood as leading figure. After October 1917, the SP grew rapidly to 110,000 in 1919. There had been an influx of foreign language federations with Bolshevik leanings. The Executive Committee of the SP expelled seven of these federations in May 1919. This added momentum to the movement to form a Communist party, which was also promoted by labor unrest in 1919 – the Seattle general strike, the Lawrence textile strike, and In the fall the steel strike.

In Chicago in September of 1919, both the Communist Party, including the bulk of the foreign language federations, and the Communist Labor Party, with more native radicals, were formed. Of the estimated 40,000 in the two taken together, only 10% were English speaking. The Palmer-Hoover raids of January 1920, ending in thousands of arrests and the deportations of aliens, sent the parties underground, and quickly drove membership down to 10,000. [1]


2. Influence of the Comintern

The 3rd Communist International was founded in the USSR in March 1919. The 2nd Congress of the Comintern, as it was called, in 1920, called for unification of the two US Communist parties, and implemented this decision by sending a delegation that in fact united the parties in 1921.

The 2nd Congress also called for working in the American Federation of Labor, against the policy of the IWW of dual unionism. This Implemented Lenin’s views criticizing “left-wing” communism. [2] Under this policy, the CP began to work within the Trade Union Educational League, founded in 1920 by William Z. Foster, a leader in the 1919 steel strike. TUEL worked within AFL unions to develop a class-struggle unionism approach.

Because of the failure of revolution in Europe. the 3rd Congress of the Comintern pushed for a united front between Communists and militants who would work with them. This was to be a united front from below and not one with high officials. At the 3rd Congress, Lenin raised the question of forming a labor party with the US delegation. In the following year, 1922, the CP adopted the labor party as a part of the united front tactic that had been defined by the Comintern.

In 1921 there was both a legal party, the Workers’ Party, and the illegal CP. The Comintern sent a delegation, that included the Hungarian John Pepper (Joseph Pogany), to heal this split. Shortly afterwards, in November1922, the 4th Congress ordered merger and full legalization. Charles Ruthenberg, the first CF secretary, said, “It is not an exaggeration to say that if there is today in the US one party ... it is because of the persistent effort and tactful guidance of the International.” [3]

It was Lenin’s intervention in 1921 that led to organizing among blacks and to a decisive break with the pre-Bolshevist socialist practice of having no special program for blacks.


3. TUEL. and the Farmer Labor Party

In abandoning an ultra-left approach to unions and parties, the US communists set out, in 1921, to build a mass revolutionary party. TUEL was to be one of the instruments. With Foster and the militants associated with him won to the CP, TUEL adopted a three-point program: amalgamation of craft into industrial unions, the formation of a labor party, and the recognition of the USSR.

TUEL carried resolutions on amalgamation into international conventions, state federation conventions, city labor councils, and locals. Widespread victory was, though, turned back by the bureaucrats. The AFL leadership attacked TUEL as dual unionism and expelled its militants. To protect itself. TUEL formed caucuses, the strongest of which were in the furriers, ladies garment workers, and miners unions. The 1925 furrier strike was led by TUEL militant and CPer Ben Gold. TUEL fought for democracy in the United Mine Workers against the autocracy of John L. Lewis. [4]

TUEL lacked the support it needed because of the semi-prosperity of the 20s. Also it was weakened by two serious mistakes on the labor-party tactic. Taking the turn to building a mass revolutionary party was not easy.

The Communists, whose party was at this point called the Worker’s Party, were to cooperate with the Farmer-Labor Party, based in Chicago, to form a new national party in 1923. John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago AFL represented. the Farmer-Labor Party. A split developed in the approaches of the Chicago TUELers and the Communist officials in New York. Pepper insisted publicly that Party interests take priority over labor party interests: “Every militant Communist should write on his shield: My Party, right or wrong, my Party!” Fitzpatrick became concerned. The Chicago CP trade unionists lost control of negotiations to Party officials, Pepper and Ruthenberg, from New York. Fitzpatrick wanted to call off the founding of the party. Pepper, who had quickly become a member of the EC, insisted, against Foster, on going ahead with the founding of a party. The Party rounded up enough delegates for the convention to win the issue of a new party, to be called the Federated Farmer-Labor Party. The original Farmer-Labor movement group was alienated: Fitzpatrick walked out: TUEL lost the support of the Chicago AFL and nationally expulsions began from the AFL. When Communist control of the FF-LP became clear, it was deserted by everyone outside the Party itself. There was no united front left.

The second mistake was the decision to run a CP candidate for president in 1924 rather than to support Robert LaFollette’s Third Party candidacy. For six months the CP had been argung for an alliance with the Third Party, but in May of 1924 the Comintern excluded such an alliance, unless LaFollette would adopt the Farmer-Labor program and let it run his campaign. The Comintern, it seems, needed a counter to Trotsky’s charging it with opportunism. Political alliances in England, France, and Germany were also called off. LaFollette got the working class vote (5 million) and Foster, the CP candidate, got nothing (33,000).


4. Bolshevization

The structure of the CP was, until mid-1924, a variant of the structure of the old SP. The structure reflected the electoral activity of the SP. Party divisions corresponded to geographical electoral divisions: there were state parties, city locals, and branches within locals matching wards. There was room for considerable membership initiative, and the foreign-language federations were semi-autonomous.

The Comintern, wit Zinoviev in the lead, carried out a “Bolshevization” of the CPs after Stalin’s accession to power. With the Russian party model, the CP-USA structure was tightened, making it in effect more pliable for the Comintern. In addition, the formation of factory branches was emphasized and alliances with leaders of electoral parties was deemphasizod. This gave an organizational structure to trade union work of the sort that was to become central to the Party in the 1930’s. But it removed the Party from a broad left concerned with electoral alliances. [5] There was a net membership loss. a result of Bolshevization.


5. Socialism In One Country

The degeneration of the Comintern is linked with the dimming of revolutionary prospects outside the USSR. Stalin said that socialism was possible in one country in December 1924. With world revolution stalled, the only alternative to Stalin’s view was the claim that socialism couldn’t be built In the USSR. Trotsky’s perspective was that this was still a period of wars and revolutions. But this perspective rang no clear bells in the heads of foreign delegates who saw revolution ebbing away in their countries. They would settle for finishing the revolution in one country, the USSR, since it didn’t seem on the agenda at home. And thus they would rather make their parties subservient to the national interests of the USSR than to those of the near or distant world revolution.

It was from the perspective of socialism in one country that the Comintern begun to intervene after 1924 in the CP-USA. At the party’s 1925 convention, the Foster-Cannon forces won a clear majority. [1*] But the Comintern representative, S.I. Gusev, produced a cable overturning the majority and installing the Ruthenberg-Lovestone group in the key positions in the party. Again in 1927, the Comintern ordered the Cannon-Foster block dissolved in an effort to support Lovostone’s leadership after the death of Ruthenberg. [2*]

Comintern zig-zap on trade union policy wore numerous. In 1925, TUEL was, in a turn away from the united-front tactic, to be made into “a great opposition Left Bloc.” This allowed for organizing outside the AFL, as was done in the 1928 textile strike at Passaic, N.J. But before the end of the strike the Comintern struck out at “secessional movements, and the strike was given over to the AFL, to the detriment of the workers. The problem was the real one of how to organize the unorganized by the old TUEL strategy of boring from within the AFL, which had no commitment to organizing the unorganized.

Stalin’s “left turn” in 1928 for the world parties provided a cover for his own party to initiate the brutal collectivization program in retaliation for Russian peasants’ withholding grain. Following the left-turn line, the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern) denounced the AFL right in the midst of a TUEL backed “Save the Union” campaign in the UMW. Powers Hapgood, a member of the Save the Miners Union Committee, said to Foster:

Now look here, Bill, you wrote a book about the bankruptcy of the American labor movement. I think that book is a hell of a good book. In that same book you denounced dual unionism and I agreed with you one hundred percent. I still feel the same way. Now I am told that you and the CP have come out for dual unionism, and frankly, Bill, I just don’t understand it.

To which Foster replied lamely:

Powers, the CP decided that policy. As a good Communist I just have to go along. [6]

The 6th Congress of the Comintern, in 1928, pushed the leftward course on the ground that there was a world economic crisis and a growing radicalization of workers. Neither crisis nor radicalization in the US was visible to the Lovestone leadership, which held out for US exceptionalism. In fact the economic crisis in the US was still in the future, but only one year away, and the radicalization in the US would begin only in the mid-’30s. For not making the turn, for sympathies with the right-wing views of Bukharin, for American exceptionalism, Lovestone was stripped of leadership of the party, in which he had a majority, by personal actions of Stalin. He was expelled In 1929, and formed his own political tendency, which functioned during the ’30s.




1*. James P. Cannon had been an IWW organizer working out of Kansas City and became the CLP secretary for the Kansas-Missouri district In 1919.

2*. Jay Lovestone became head of the APL-CIO international Affairs Department where In the 1960-1970’s he attempted to subordinate foreign labor to US imperial interests.



1. Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 1980, Chap. I; Draper Is the major source used for information In this chapter. The author is indebted to David Finkel for first outlining and interpreting for him the sequence of events in the sixty years covered by this pamphlet.

2. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1921.

3. Quoted in Draper, American Communism, p.27.

4. Sandy Bayer, Trade Union Education League, Workers’ Power 114-118, Feb.- Apr. ’75.

5. Jamess Weinstein, Ambiguous Legacy: The Left In American Politics, 1975, pp.37-8.

6. Quoted in Draper, American Communism, p.297.


Last updated on 9.1.2002