The founding of the Communist Party in America


September 1, 2017 marks the 98th anniversary of the founding the Communist Party USA. Presented here is an edited selection of excerpts from Philip Bart and William Weinstone, who wrote about the CPUSA’s early years in the International Publishers book, “Highlights of a Fighting History,” published in 1979.

The Communist Party of the United States was born in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1919. This is the commonly accepted date, although actually two communist parties came into being around that date — the Communist Labor Party on Aug. 31 and the Communist Party on Sept. 1. The formation of the two parties marks the beginning of the Communist Party in the U.S. The party arose in two sections due to a split among the left-wing members of the old Socialist Party.

The Socialist Party (SP), from which the Communist Party derived, was formed in 1900. It was itself an outgrowth of socialist organizations which existed during the last quarter of the 19th century. From its inception, the SP faced opposition to the opportunist policies of its leadership. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, however, the SP could not withstand the pressures of the new situation.

War and revolution

The first imperialist world war in history changed the face of our planet. Old empires collapsed and new states emerged. Social and political storms shook every stratum of the U.S. population. The people were opposed to entering the war. President Woodrow Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 under the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But six months later, the United States was embroiled in the conflict. Opposition to the war was seen in the widespread strike wave during the two years in which the United States was involved. This occurred despite the efforts of the AFL bureaucracy to block militancy and win support for U.S. imperialist policy.

The war was a consequence of rivalry among the imperialist powers. The United States entered on the side of the Allies to emerge as the dominant power. A weakened Europe was left in ruins.

Revolutions swept the continent. Social Democracy, which had continuously pledged itself to oppose imperialist war, failed. The Second (Socialist) International and its constituent Socialist parties, with the exception of the Bolshevik Party, collapsed. In Russia, czarism was overthrown, and the Bolsheviks, opponents of the war, under the leadership of V.I. Lenin, established the first socialist state in history. This event, which the American author and Communist John Reed described in Ten Days that Shook the World, influenced the course of all humanity — and its effects were felt no less in the United States than elsewhere.

A strike wave and other militant activities rolled across the country. A packinghouse strike (1918) and the Great Steel Strike (1919) were both organized by the ALF under the leadership of William Z. Foster. The Seattle general strike (1919) was also under left leadership.

Black sharecroppers emigrated North to enter the basic industrial plants and developed as a significant political force in the major cities. Black soldiers returning from France faced widespread lynch terror, and demonstrated a new militant resistance.

It was in these historic circumstances that the Communist Party came into being.

The founding convention of the Communist Party of America, Chicago, Sept. 1–7, 1919. | PW Archive

The split in Socialist ranks

The major immediate issue which led to a split within the SP was the acute discontent among the rank and file at the way the leadership had met the issue of war. The SP leadership, from the outset of the war in Aug. 1914, had opposed it, but chiefly on pacifist grounds. It exonerated the leaders of Socialist parties in Europe who had betrayed the anti-war resolutions of the Second International and supported their imperialist governments. The left wing of the SP increasingly demanded a strong working-class opposition to the war. Its influence grew following the party’s April 1917 convention, held in St. Louis shortly after America’s entrance into the war.

The SP leaders also faced criticism over their lukewarm endorsement of the Bolshevik Revolution, which occurred in November 1917. Sentiment for the revolution was high in SP and working-class ranks, but party leaders were hostile to the policies of the Bolsheviks, questioned the correctness of a workers’ revolution in Russia, and refused to join the new Third (Communist) International, founded in 1919.

The left wing carried on an intense campaign for over two years against the opportunism in the SP, seeking to change its policies and leadership. It took part in the referendum for a new SP national executive committee and swept the elections, winning 12 out of 15 seats and 4 out of 5 international delegates. But the old SP leadership, then headed by Morris Hillquit, was determined to stay in power at all costs. It refused to seat the newly elected delegates, invalidated the elections, and began a purge, expelling left-led state organizations and language federations that represented the overwhelming majority of the membership. By that arbitrary and bureaucratic expulsion, the right wing split the Socialist Party.

The National Left-Wing Conference convened in New York in June 1919, attended by 94 delegates from 20 cities representing the bulk of the SP membership. The manifesto passed at the conference accused the SP leadership of “failing to support industrial unionism and the workers’ economic struggles,” of “sabotaging the struggle against the war and opposing the Russian Revolution,” and of “generally carrying on a policy…which led not to socialism, but to the perpetuation of capitalism.”

For all its radicalism though, the manifesto failed to… READ THE REST AT PEOPLE’S WORLD.