The USA and The Communists

With events in the Ukraine reminding us of the bad days of the Cold War, it is fascinating to discover how much the USA was changed by their long time enemy. This is from an atricle in The Independent, by David Usborne of 31 March 2007:

Murdoch’s New York Post was warning of the dangers of a new red scare, caused by the New York University’s Tamiment Library, known as a centre for leftist scholarship, accepting the archives of the Communist Party of the USA. Moscow had ceased funding the party funds in 1989 so they were struggling to pay their bills, so needed to rent out the space where their records were held – some 12,000 packed boxes worth. Though some of the information confirms the attempts to overturn the state, it shows the party’s immense role in bringing about positive social change in the USA, via the trade union movement, and surprisingly, in the civil rights struggle in the south. . One item found was the hand written lyrics to former member Pete Seeger’s song ’Turn, Turn, Turn’ based on the Bible, and widely seen as a call for peace.

“Beside it lies another sheet with more writing, this time in pencil and more obviously faded by the passing of the decades. It is the original will and testament of Joe Hill, who was executed by the state of Utah in November 1915 for a murder that some still believe he never committed. Hill died before he could join the Communist Party, but is remembered still today as arguably one of America’s most beloved folk hero of the left. He was also a write of militant songs, may of which influenced artists including Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (whose rendition of the Alfred Hayes song, ‘I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night’ was one of the highlights of Woodstock) and some of which became anthems of the Union movement. Foremost among them was his will itself, written in verse the night before his execution. It begins :”My will is easy to decide/For there is nothing to divide.”

Also on view is the service sheet for Hill’s funeral – “In Memoriam Joe Hill murdered by the authority of the state f Utah, Nov 19 1915” – as well as a missive sent by the condemned Hill, whose last words were “Don’t Mourn, Organise”, to his friend and comrade Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who later was to found the American Civil Liberties Union and become chairman of the Communist Party. ’Now goodbye Gurley dear. I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel,” he wrote from his cell. “

The collection also contains records of the founding of the party and the rival Communist Labor party, founded by journalist John Reed, and also of the Worker’s Party.

“The Writings of Ruthenberg, [the first executive secretary] reveal how quickly – afte its high-profile origins – the party understood that its work would need to be conducted underground. It was a condition that eased in the 1930s and most of the 1940s, a period when it enjoyed something close to respectability in the US and gained its largest number of followers. At its peak, just before the Second World War, the party, which openly supported President F D Roosevelt and his New Deal, may have had 100,000 paid up members.” Most of which was of course destroyed by the McCarthy Red Scare after 1948.

“Ruthenberg also writes of a letter signed by 2 figures of the Russian Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin, who was later to edit Pravda, and Ian Berzin. This was carried to America in the coat lining of a Bolshevik and contained instructions on how American communists should deport themselves. These instructed that party members should not allow themselves to be distracted by charity work but rather that they form “Fighting organisations for seizing control of the state, for the overthrow of government and the establishment of the workers’ dictatorship”

Insights into the early days also come from a well-known cartoonist and sympathiser, Robert Minor, who had travelled to Moscow and met Lenin in December 1918. He reports that Lenin considered the US a “Great country in some respects”. Among the questions he asked Minor was: “How soon will the revolution come in America?” He did not ask me it if would come, but when it would come.” He also added of Lenin: “I felt myself queerly submerged by his personality. He filled the room.”

But what the Soviets believed and what those in the States saw as possible were not the same. Tamiment’s director, Michael Nash said “I don’t think anyone expected Stalin or Stalinism to rule in the US. But they did think that something akin to what they took communism to mean would eventually reign in the United States.”

Though some candidates ran for office, with some success in New York, but their real success lay in working with other groups, such as the Congress of Industrial Organisations, or CIO.

“[Nash] cites evidence of the work done by party workers to help organise dn adefend the segment os=f society that was more repressed than anyone in the Thirties: African Americans, especially share-croppers in the South. Most tellingly, they centred their efforts in areas such as McComb County, Mississsippi, and Selma in Alabama, two places that decades later became identified with the triumphs of the civil rights movement.

“It’s clear that the Communist Party layed a central role in the pre-history of civil rights battle especially in the Thirties up until the Second World War…If I could say one thing it is how much influence they had in creating the pre-conditions of what happened in the Sixties. Clearly, they were helping to put up legal defences in the lynching cases and for blacks who were accused of rape.” Documents also reveal how in later years, even after the culling of their numbers by McCarthy, the party contributed to varying degrees to the Anti-Vietnam War effort, the battle against Apartheid in South Africa, the women’s movement and, more recently, the campaign for gay and lesbian rights.

Speakers at the seminar that Tamiment, held on the same day that the archives were unveiled, argued that opening them to the public would belatedly correct some of the bias injected into the history of the party by the hysteria of the anti-communist McCarthy period. “

“Frank Barbaro, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, agreed. “Whereever you look where there was a struggle for peace and justice you will find the Communist Party.”

For some, like the editorialists of the New York Post, nothing in these archives will convince them of any such thing. Communists were traitors then and continue to be traitors today. Even darkening the doors of the Tamiment to look at Joe Hill’s will or Ruthenberg’s early writings may be far too distasteful. But at least the history is now available. And we have the rather startling reminder that the Communist Party of the USA, after all its decades of ups and downs, is still with us, here in Manhattan.

“As long as capitalism is around,” Teresa Albano, the current editor of People’s Weekly world, declared last week, “there is going to be a Communist Party.””

And there seems a truly rich source of irony at how, in the space of a century, the roles of the USA and Russia have almost swapped. It is now the USA that is trying to export democracy and freedom, whilst the Russians have become the greedy, god fearing oligarchs.

Here’s Joan Baez at Woodstock:

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