Lessons of the Early CPUSA (Part 1)

In January of 1917, a meeting was held in New York City to begin organizing the left-wing of the Socialist Party of America. They wanted to publish a regular Marxist paper, which would be a tool to win over the rank and file of the SP to a Marxist program. There were approximately 20 people at this meeting, one of whom was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was new to New York and the USA. Soon after the meeting, he would leave the U.S. and go back to Russia and play the role of co-leader of the first successful workers’ revolution, while the SP left-wing would go forward and eventually become the Communist Party.

Communist_Party_of_America_logoIn previous Socialist Appeal articles looking at the Socialist Party of America, we looked at some of its strengths and weaknesses, as lessons for revolutionaries today who are trying to build the subjective factor – the revolutionary leadership – for the future American revolution. There are many rich lessons in the Communist Party’s history as well.

The Second International (Socialist) was a mass International founded by Frederick Engels and others. When the First World War began, the Second International split apart. The majority of the Socialist International capitulated to their own bourgeoisie.  Wars almost always create situations where, at least after the early period of enthusiasm and euphoria, there is much discontent and suffering. However, instead of preparing to use the situation as a way to develop the strength and confidence of the working class to fight for the socialist transformation of society, the majority of the sections of the Second International supported the war effort of “their” country’s ruling class.  This was one of the greatest betrayals in the history of the world working class. The genuine Marxists in the Second International were isolated and reduced to a tiny force internationally. When the Marxists met as the Left Zimmerwaldists in Switzerland in 1916, Lenin said that all the internationalist revolutionaries in the world could fit in just two coaches!

All parties under capitalism, including the mass organizations of the working class, face constant pressure to conform to the system. “We must be realistic and practical,” is one of the most used phrases of the leaders of the labor movement. These words are used to prepare the working class to accept some “give-backs” or other harsh measures demanded by the bosses. The only way to combat the pressure of the capitalist class is by having a firm grasp of Marxist theory and the dialectical method. The capitulation of the majority of the Second International reflected the fact that from its founding in 1889, to 1914, capitalism developed the productive forces through massive investment and exploitation around the world. Most of the countries where the International had sections were imperialist or semi-imperialist countries. As a by-product of the struggle of the masses during this period, more reforms were gained and higher standards of living were attained by sections of the working class. In that context, and increasingly divorced from the workers they were supposed to represent, many of the leaders started to believe that the reforms would continue indefinitely, and things would naturally progress to Socialism in a gradual, linear manner. This was especially true for those leaders who had been elected to government or trade union positions.

The Socialist Party was affected by the split in the International and became polarized by the US participation in the First World War. There had been tensions and outright battles between the SP right-wing and the left-wing prior to this. Once the US entered the war in 1917, the SP right supported the war effort and the left faced savage repression from the US government, as it opposed the war. Eugene Debs was locked up in prison for the crime of speaking out publicly against the war. So much for free speech!

In November of 1917, news that the working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks), had taken power in Russia, reached the US. The SP’s left-wing and many members and supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were elated. Contrary to the views of the cynics of the world, the USA is not exempt or disconnected from world events. The First and Second Internationals both inspired supporters here, and the Bolshevik Revolution also received an American echo. Soon, thousands of workers and youth wanted to establish a workers’ government in the US. They wanted to create a party, like the Bolsheviks, so that they could achieve similar results.

This itself was both an opportunity and a great problem. How do you bring together all these different people who had many different ideas and methods of operating into one united party? The Socialist Party’s left-wing was not a unified group; it had many different factions, groups and leaders. Many people from the IWW were self-sacrificing militants, but had ideas that were anarcho-syndicalist in nature. As a result, there were many serious political mistakes made that delayed the building of an American Communist Party.

Split from the Socialist Party

It would seem that in founding the Communist Party, the comrades should have tried to win a majority of the Socialist Party. If this could have been achieved, the SP right-wing would have almost certainly split off, and to the many SP members or supporters, would have looked like people who were trying to sabotage the party.

The idea that the Marxists could win over a majority of the party was not a far-fetched idea.  Eugene Debs was a solid supporter of the Bolsheviks. Even the right-wing of the party publicly supported the Bolshevik Revolution. In a party of 100,000 members, the SP Left likely had a solid majority, people who wanted the SP to leave the Second and join the Third (Communist) International. Various branches voted in favor of a left-wing leadership for the national party. However, the right-wing controlled National Executive Committee began to expel state and local party organizations controlled by the left. Their attitude was to bureaucratically seize power since they could not win the elections in a democratic fashion. By August, the SP membership was down to less than 40,000, since many branches and state organizations were simply kicked out!

Most workers realize the importance of unity. Trotsky often made the point that when Marxists must under certain circumstances split from an organization, it must be clearly explained why this is being done, so the workers can understand the political issues involved. The members of the SP Left that were expelled should have fought against this and campaigned to be let back in, in order to fight for their ideas from within the party. This would have helped those on the Left still in the party and rallied those workers who supported the SP around a clear political orientation to the new Third International. However, a large part of the SP Left-wing, mainly grouped around the foreign language federations, wanted to split right away and form a Communist Party in the summer of 1919, prior to the September SP convention.

Foreign Language Federations

The SP of America was not organized along the lines of democratic centralism. The Party even allowed entire nationalities to form their own “party within a party.” Lenin always supported the idea that a Marxist party must produce material in the language of the workers to whom it is trying to speak, and be at the forefront of the battle against discrimination and national oppression.  However, Lenin believed that the working class in a given country should be organized into one united party and trade union federation. Lenin fought against the idea that the workers’ organizations should be divided along national lines within a given state. He knew that these divisions would be used by the capitalists as a way of dividing the proletariat.

The Foreign Language Federations in the US SP proved Lenin correct. These bodies argued for a sectarian attitude during the crisis in the SP. They did not want to win over the SP membership; they wanted to form a “pure” party –  “like the Bolsheviks!”  In particular, the Russian Federation of the SP thought they were more revolutionary than others, because of their national origin. However, these leaders did not know, or chose to ignore the real history of Bolshevism. Despite serious and growing differences with the reformist wing, Lenin had worked in the RSDLP for years until there was a definitive break along clear political lines. At the time of the split with the Mensheviks in 1912, the Bolsheviks constituted a major force with real influence in the Russian working class.

Once all of the Communists were out of the SP, the Communists were then split among themselves into two tendencies. A Marxist party will of course have different opinions on various issues. That is why the Marxists must have thorough democratic debate and discussions, which will in the end, lead to a clearer policy and higher theoretical level for party members. Those “self-satisfied Marxists” who cannot stay in the party and argue patiently for their views, but rather, run away to create their own “pure” organizations, will never be able to seriously intervene in the movement. Fortunately, in the case of the new CP, the Communist International was eventually able to unify the different groups.

Source: Socialist Appeal (USA)