3.05 Communist Party, USA
1920s (scroll below)
1930s to the Present (scroll below)
3.05 Communist Party, USA. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) originated in 1919 from a split in the Socialist Party, which produced the Communist Labor Party (CLP) with 10,000 members and from a split in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which produced the Communist Party with 58,000 members. The splits resulted from the success of the Soviet Revolution. The two parties were unified in June 1921 as the United Communist Party. The name was changed to the Workers Communist Party in 1925 and to the CPUSA in 1929.
1920s. Catholics in the CPUSA have been part of the party from the start. These have included in the 1920s the Irish-Americans James Larkin, Thomas O'Flaherty and William Z. Foster. Larkin was described by a friend as "a brilliant communist orator in the formative days of the American CP, who was nevertheless, as befits an Irishman, a devout Catholic." [Betram Wolfe, Strange Communists I have Known, (New York: Stern & Day, 1965), p. 54]. Larkin came to New York from Ireland in 1914 to raise funds for the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC). He had just been released from prison where he had been confined for his union work. He remained in the US throughout World War I. In 1915 he went to work organizing the subway workers in New York City. He fought against the racism and national chauvinism that was used to divide the workers. He commented in the New York socialist newspaper, the Call:
If we are to have a real international movement, there must be room in it for the Catholic worker too. A short time ago, I asked a man here, a socialist, why something was not done about organizing the subway workers, and he replied it was useless since they were Irish and Catholic. Well on investigation, it turns out they are 16% Jewish, 20% Italian, 40% Irish, and the rest American born. But suppose they were all Irish and Catholic? Aren't you going to organize them? Are the capitalists losing any chance of getting these people? I deny that it is any harder to organize irish Catholics than any other people, and I know because that has been my work. [James Larkin, Call (Jan. 18, 1915), quoted in Emmet Larkin, James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader, 1876-1947 (Menton: The New English Library, 1968), p. 175].
In 1918 Larkin, along with Tom O'Flaherty, Patrick L. Quinlan of the IWW, Shaemus O'Shael and Eadmonn MacAlpine, helped establish the James Connolly Club in New York City and a newspaper, the Irish Worker. In 1919 Larkin joined the Socialist Party's left-wing and was a delegate to the founding convention of the CLP. During the Palmer raids in January 1920 he was jailed. In all ten thousand communists in 70 cities were arrested in this period and 500 were deported. At his trial between April 7-27, 1920, he was convicted of criminal anarchy, the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force or violence or by other unlawful means. Larkin's position was that he was for a dictatorship of the proletariat and that this could be done by a strike, as had happened in the USSR or by ballot, if only those who did useful work were allowed to vote. Overt illegal acts were not necessary. [Jim Larkin, The American Trial of Big Jim Larkin (Belfast: Athol Books, 1976), pp. 7, 15]. Larkin conducted his own defense at the trial. He did not believe in the judicial system as a device for revolution, but he was not willing to be silent in the face of unjust accusations and "inhumanity against humanity." In his view no one could come into the courts of the US and get justice without some financial backing. It would have cost him $6000 for a lawyer, which a working person could not afford. (Larkin, The American Trial, p. 82). Further, as he told the jury, communists were not allowed to serve on juries and the U.S. district attorney and judge were not elected officials nor were they representative of the majority of the people. They were puppets of the small class that had captured the government and used it get and keep wealth and hold everyone else down. (Larkin, The American Trial, pp. 70, 74). Larkin was convicted, sentenced to Singsing Prison for 5 to 10 years, pardoned in 1923 after three years and deported.
A second Catholic involved with the party during its early years was Thomas J. O'Flaherty (1889-May 19, 1936). He immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1912 as a teenager where he worked on a newspaper, the Irish People. [Liam O'Flaherty, The Letters of Liam O'Flaherty (ed. Angeline Kelly, Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1996), p. 20]. He later married and helped establish the CPUSA and edit its newspaper, the Daily Worker, which put out its first issue on Jan. 13, 1924. He wrote a regular column, "As We See It," which, along with his articles in the party's theoretical journal, Political Affairs, often addressed Catholic issues. When the Daily Worker was first being set up, O'Flaherty thought his younger brother in Ireland Liam O'Flaherty (1896-1984) would be a good choice to edit it. Liam, who had earlier studied for the priesthood without being ordained, had been making a positive contribution to communist movement. In the summer of 1922 Liam had worked in the defense of Jim Larkin who was then on bail in the US and awaiting retrial after a long term of imprisonment. [Liam O'Flaherty, "Jim Larkin the Rebel," The Plain People vol. 1, p. 4 (June 18, 1922). Tom wrote of the proposal on May 29, 1923 to his brother in Ireland, but it did not work out. (Liam O'Flaherty, The Letters, p. 19).
For Tom O'Flaherty, being a communist was a Catholic tradition. His family was from Inishmore (Aranmore), the largest of the Aran Islands in County Galway. The Gaelic principle was common ownership by a people of their sources of food and maintenance. After landlordism was imposed by British imperialism the Gaelic principle included the struggle to restore common ownership. O'Flaherty's parents farmed 15 acres and fished for a living. They paid rent to absentee British-Catholic landlords, the Digby's of Herefordshire in England. One of O'Flaherty's early memories was the police evicting his family in the 1890s for failure to pay the rent. [Thomas O'Flaherty, Aranmen-All (Dublin: 1934); Sheeran, The Novels, p. 18]. Famines were frequent in Galway, as in 1894, 1895, 1897, 1898, 1900 and 1906. Their burden was increased by money-grubbing landlords. The people ate seaweed, became skeletons and many children died from diarrhea, so that the rich could live in comfort. O'Flaherty commented that the people ate the dogs, the dogs ate the people and shooting landlords, drowning process servers and similar resistance was a matter of self-defense. O'Flaherty's relatives had been part of Land League and Fenian locals during the 19th century which had a tradition of armed struggle.
One of the Catholic issues which O'Flaherty propagandized about in his writings during the 1920s was internationalism. For example in his view, the fight of Irish Catholic working people was not against the British working class or against Protestants, but against the British capitalist class, which included Catholic and Irish capitalists. O'Flaherty wrote with respect of his village school teacher who first taught him about internationalism. His teacher taught love of Gaelic culture without being a "cheap jingo nationalist," as O'Flaherty put it:
David O'Callaghan had no word of Irish when he came to Aran. He learned the old tongue and after he had mastered it he impressed upon the islanders the importance of preserving it and taught them to pride themselves on its possession.
In those days the islands were being rapidly anglicized. Policemen, tax collectors and the native shopkeeping shoneens were at work hammering a sense of inferiority into the people. "English is the language that'll stand by you when you go to America," was the maxim. Children were reared for export to the American marked.
Mr. O'Callaghan did great work. He was no cheap jingo nationalist of the type who froths at the mouth at the mention of an Englishman; he hated British imperialism with all its works and pomps. (O'Flaherty, Aranmen-All, p. 158).
A third Catholic who made a contribution to the communist movement in the early years was William Z. Foster (1881-1861). His life was marked by dedication to the working class through organizing of militant trade unions and fighting for inner union democracy and the election of class conscious public officials. One of 23 children born to his mother, he went to work at age 10. He first joined the Socialist Party as a young worker and in the 1910s the IWW. With the backing of the Chicago Federation of Labor, he was named secretary of the AFL's strike committee that led 365,000 steelworkers in a 3 1/2 month strike against U.S. Steel in 1919. During the strike, state troopers killed 22 workers at Braddock, Homestead and Rankin, Pa. It took 20 more years of struggle before the workers forced U.S. Steel to recognize their union in March 1937. [William Z. Foster, The Great Strike (New York: Hulsbach, 1920)]. Foster was the party's general secretary from the mid-1920s until 1927, when Earl Browder was elected to the position. Foster also ran as the party's national presidential candidate in 1924 and again in 1932. In mid-1945 he was again elected the party's general secretary. His election in 1945 was a vindication of those, including himself, who had opposed the party transforming itself into a political association at its convention in 1944. The idea of a political association was that the organization would no longer run political candidates. It would join with other organizations to form a mass-based labor party that would challenge the two-party (Republican-Democrat) monopoly.
1930s-Present. In the 1930s and up to the present the CPUSA has had Catholics at every level. Earl Browder then general secretary, noted in 1939 the positive contribution being made by Catholics:
We have more communicants of the Catholic church as members of the Communist party than any other denomination. While we make sympathetic contacts among protestants, they seldom become party members; but among Catholics, the speed with which a sympathetic contact develops into a loyal and active party member is much greater, and the proportion much higher. [Earl Browder, Religion and Communism, (New York: International Pub., 1939), p. 11].
Catholic functionaries who held national positions in the 1930s and more recently include George Meyers and Phillip Bonosky. Both were former altar boys. Meyers, a founder and president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in Maryland now lives in Baltimore and chairs the party's labor commission.
Phillip Bonosky (1916- ) was the cultural editor of the party's newspaper, the Daily World (1968-1974), and then the World's Moscow correspondent (1978-1982). Still later he was the editor Political Affairs, the party's theoretical journal. Bonosky was born and grew up in Duquesne, Pa., which borders Homestead and is 10 miles down the Monongahelia River from Pittsburgh. His parents were Lithuanian immigrants. His father was a steel worker at U.S. Steel's mile-long Edgar Thompson Mill in Duquesne. The Bonosky family, which included 8 children, belonged to St. Peter and Paul in Homestead, Pa. As a teenager Bonosky taught catechism lessons to those who wanted to join the church.
In his autobiographical novel, Burning Valley (New York: Masses and Mainstream Press, 1953) Bonosky wrote with admiration of the family's parish priest. For 30 years the priest used the liturgy and sacraments on the side of the workers. For example, strikes over safety conditions, wages, and work discipline routinely ended with working people being gunned down by state troopers and private security forces. The priest turned the funerals of the fallen strikers into demonstrations against U.S. Steel. This was despite orders against such funerals from the sheriff, mill owners and bishop. The priest took his orders from the working people. (Bonosky, Burning Valley, p. 185). Neither the priest nor Bonosky's parents were communists, but the strike committees, picket lines, emergency kitchens, and shop newspapers were often organized by a communist and even as a youth Bonosky, like many in his town, had "communist" beliefs about class struggle. The beatings and jailings of the communist strike leader in his town helped enlighten the people, "For a moment the conviction took hold that somehow the world got twisted and the good were in jail and the bad were out." (Bonosky, Burning Valley, p. 57).
For Bonosky, communism flowed naturally from his Catholic beliefs. For example, his Catholic tradition taught the him to take life seriously, to be concerned with substantive issues and to reject capitalist fetishes like consumerism and "keeping up with the Jonses." In the communist system, the working-class oriented, planned economy, along with rationing, education and the media likewise reject philistinism. The goal of capitalist culture is often to turn working people into compulsive consumers of food, clothing, cars, housing, alcohol, drugs, gambling and guns. Bonosky maintains that it was the tyranny of consumerism that was at the heart of Nazi Germany:
The most successful force at the command of any tyranny to suppress independent thought is not primarily a police force armed to the teeth, though that helps--not concentration camps--not even firing squads. The most powerful force at the disposal of any ruling class to dull the consciousness, and even the wits of its peoples, is calculated philistinism, built up from childhood. It was not the SS threat which stilled the German middle-class consciousness. It was a sausage; it was the philistinism of a bourgeois life. [Phillip Bonosky, Beyond the Borders of Myth: From Vilnius to Hanoi (New York: Praxis Press, 1967), pp. 67, 69].
In addition to the rejection of consumerism, a second illustration given by Bonosky of the dialectic running between his Catholicism and communism was work. For communists, work defines what it was to be human; its put bread on the table, made it possible to have a family and gave dignity and power. Catholic tradition as in the monastic ideal ora et labora (work and pray) likewise put work at the center of life and was embodied in the life of his family in Duquesne. Bonosky described his father's single-minded devotion to work:
For to keep out of the Poor House, one had to be not only an able worker but a good, a lucky, an indestructible one, a worker who made his job the central fact of his life, above everything else. Even the Catholic Church allowed hand-laborers to eat meat on Friday and to work on Sunday! Nothing could be permitted to deflect one's devotion to work, not even the approach of death--not, certainly, hands burned to a black crisp.
My sister was standing before an open gas stove, and suddenly her flimsy dress rose in flame. With a sweep of his hand my father tore the flimsy dress away. The room was filled with the smell of burnt flesh. His hand was raw. He wrapped it in bandages, ordered my mother to wake him for work, and then went upstairs to sleep. My mother, frightened by the burnt flesh of his hand, then committed the greatest crime she could commit in his eyes: let him sleep on! She sat pale and nervous in the kitchen, watching for him to come down; and when the mill whistle blew, her hands rose convulsively to quiet it. I remember his footsteps, like the steps of doom, coming down the stairs: his glance at her and the word: "What time is it? -- and she unable to tell him.
He cried to her: "Why didn't you wake me? do you think they pay me for sleeping?" He had lost a "turn"! She sat silently under his wrath, as certain as he that she had committed a crime. [Phillip Bonosky, "The Life and Death of a Steel Worker," Masses and Mainstream, vol. 5, p 17 (Apr. 1952)].
There was another Catholic tradition that Bonosky learned while growing up that led him toward communism. That tradition was class consciousness, internationalism and the rejection of national chauvinism and racism. Lithuanian immigrants in the United States were taken advantage of by employers, denigrated in the capitalist media and discriminated against by educational and governmental institutions. At church and in their social gatherings, however, they were able to speak their language and celebrate their traditions. Bonosky commented on the superficial nature of capitalist culture when he compared it with the tradition in which he was raised:
Even the works of the great American democratic writers, powerful as they were, and profoundly influential, dealing as they did with "ordinary" people, nevertheless had one essential quality missing: the class-consciousness of oppression, and the knowledge of the mission of the oppressed in history. I was missing in American literature--that is, my town, the people I knew, the men who worked in mine and mill, fought the bosses, organized unions illegally; the men who died workers just as they were born. What was missing was the meaning of the Homestead strike, the 1919 Steel Strike, the struggle against the Coal-and-Iron police; Lithuanian kilbasai, Servian tamburitzas and Joe Magarac. . . Who spoke about all that? Nobody. It didn't exist. Even the way to speak about them, to know that they were the real material for literature, did not exist for me.
I always felt, as I read the books of American and British classic writers, that I stood on the outside of the permissible literary realm. I might speak of the oppressed, but only in humanitarian terms; never as heroic, self-helping bearers of their own liberation. I had pride in myself, my origin and my people; but the books I read did not. [Phillip Bonosky, "Salute to Mike Gold," Masses and Mainstream, vol. 7, p. 45 (April, 1954)].
For Bonosky the working-class consciousness and internationalism of the CPUSA was an extension of what he learned as a child. Soon after he graduated from high school in 1934, he got an education in communist internationalism from his involvement in the African-American liberation struggle. He got this education in the following way. Like his three brothers, he went to work at his father's mill after graduating. But he was laid off after a year due to the depression. To reduce the number of mouths that had to be fed at home, he took a freight car south in the spring of 1935. He ended up in Washington, D.C. between 1935 and 1937, where the African Americans and the CPUSA were waging a battle against racism and national chauvinism. In D.C. Bonosky worked as a day laborer. This brought him into contact with the Workers Alliance. The Workers Alliance was a largely African-American, communist-aligned organization. Washington had a large black working class. Through the Workers Alliance they demanded equality in employment and an end to police brutality. Years later Bonosky described the internationalist and anti-racist influence which the struggle of the Workers Alliance had for him:
I had seen the Negro people shot down by the police, tortured and daily insulted; I had seen them suffer stuffed in ghettos. But I had never seen them fight back. Was it really true that the Negro people accepted their oppression as a martyrdom, to which they bowed their backs silently? I did not then know that one object of segregation of Negro from white is to keep from the whites every evidence of rebellion which the Negroes show in a million and one small and big ways against their oppression. In the Negro ghettos, armed plug-uglies, in the guise of policing, roamed the streets; and their function was to suppress every rebellious incident, to divide and terrorize the people so that they could not strike back en masse.
To the casual observer, who did not go into the Negro sections and who depended for information about Negro affairs from the big newspapers who themselves were part and parcel of the conspiracy of oppression, there seemed to be no evidence of mass resistance by Negro people.
I was soon to see them rise as a people--and it happened in the following way. One day a Negro man was shot. I have forgotten now which of the many ways it was--the man who was running for a streetcar, clutching a bundle of laundry under his arm, and failed to hear the challenge of the cop? Perhaps. But this murder came close on the heals of several other brutal murders. The Negro people of Washington were stirred as they had not been in years.
At this moment, the Communist Party led by both Negro and white, stepped into the picture. It proposed to organize a Death March throughout the city. Would the Negro peoples, with their white allies, come out into the streets and publicly throw their defiance into the faces of the hundreds of police who lined their route of march--police whose holsters were loaded with death and in whose dehumanized minds murder watched? Who knew what would happen? Would the police charge them and club them? Who would stop the police if the police would not?
Such a demonstration had never been called in Washington, so far as I knew. As the day drew near, there was some trepidation in the minds of the Negro and white organizers. But when they arrived at the route of the march, the street was jammed. Thousands had come to march, while thousands more lined the streets watching--and protesting. Rank upon rank the police stood with their impassive and pale faces viewing the crowd. Between these faces the thousands of men and women marched. They marched as they would have continued to march had they known they were marching to death. In absolute silence they moved bearing before them a dark coffin. The entire Negro section had come to this spot, drawn by an irresistible power. They marched and stood boldly in open defiance, for the placards they silently carried called for the punishment of the police murders and for the dismissal and indictment of the chief of police of Washington, D.C. The signs declared what not one of them would have dared to utter, except on pain of death, to any of these policemen alone. It was a national protest against their own oppression; and because at their head marched the leaders of the CP, it was a protest too of the white working class against the same oppressors.
I understood then what I had not understood before: that beneath the surface order, imposed by police and ghettos and segregation, moved the powerful protest of the Negro people; that they were not passively at rest, but slowly a force was growing among them, a gathering of bitter streamlets and rivers was proceeding silently; and in the end they would issue forth in some irresistible flood that would tear down all barriers before them. I know that this was so because I saw that it must be so: for the men who marched on that parade between the rows of revolvers and belts of bullets knew they could die in a moment should those policemen reach for their guns, but accepted their own deaths knowing that the thousands of them could not be killed. I felt with them this great security in numbers and profound militancy and the white police felt this, too, for not a finger was raised, not an expression was altered, not a word was spoken. And for two years from that day on not a single Negro man, woman or child was murdered by the Washington police. [Phillip Bonosky, "White Chauvinism: A Personal History," Masses and Mainstream, (November, 1949), vol. 2, pp. 74-75].
There is a final example, besides internationalism, the value of work and the rejection of consumerism, which Bonosky gave of where communism was part of his Catholic beliefs. Catholicism counted hope as a virtue. Likewise, one of the communist virtues was hope in the working class. There is no hopeless situation, as Bonosky puts it:
History is like a chain, which can be controlled link by link, if only one knows which link to grasp at which particular moment! The "link" always presents itself in the actual problem at hand--not in the future, not in the past, not under ideal circumstances--but always in the present. No matter what the situation, how difficult, how "hopeless," how overwhelmed with reaction, still Marxism teaches there is something that can be done, something right and possible that will point the way to victory. There has been in history no hopeless situation for the people, and cannot be!
The trick lies in being able to pick out, in all the confused welter of the day's struggle, that which is living and vital against that which is dying and fading away. To take hold of the living then--and pull. [Phillip Bonosky, Brother Bill McKie: Building the Union at Ford (New York: International Publishers, 1953), p. 162].
Bonosky gave the struggle to organize the steel workers union and then to obtain a fair contract during the 1930s as an illustration of where the virtue of hope was a weapon. After drawing close to the party while in Washington, D.C. during the mid-1930s, Bonosky returned to his hometown in 1937 along with a number of other young militants. Their goal was to help win a fair contract from U.S. Steel. It was class warfare and hope in the workers was their weapon. Bonosky later described the victory of what became U.S. Steel Workers, Local 1256:
Here they were, the real movers and shakers of history; they were about to show who ran the mills, and produced the huge profits; and in Homestead they raised the roar: "Shut her down." . . . Anyone who saw them pour by the thousands past the gunmen and racketeers into the little union that made the CIO, will never believe again in the docility of these men. And anyone who witnessed how they responded to communists at last--after apparently turning them a deaf ear for a long period before, letting them get jailed, be abused, beaten up and slandered--will never let himself say: there is no hope. [Phillip Bonosky, "Margin for Maneuver," Masses and Mainstream, vol. 9, p. 41 (Nov. 1956)].
Return to Home Page
Return to Top of Page