That CPUSA Life


The Communist Party USA’s Workers’ Bookshop, New York City, September 1942. Image via Wikimedia Commons

From New York Review of Books:

The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was formed in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. Over the next forty years, it grew steadily from a membership roll of two or three thousand to, at the height of its influence in the 1930s and 1940s, seventy-five thousand. All in all, nearly a million Americans were Communists at one time or another. While it is true that the majority joined the Communist Party in those years because they were members of the hard-pressed working class (garment district Jews, West Virginia miners, California fruit-pickers), it was even truer that many more in the educated middle class (teachers, scientists, writers) joined because for them, too, the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent concrete shape to a sense of social injustice made urgent by the Great Depression and World War II.

Most American Communists never set foot in party headquarters, nor laid eyes on a Central Committee member, nor were privy to internal party policy-making sessions. But every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor in this country; that it was mainly party lawyers who defended blacks in the Deep South; that party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia, farm workers in California, steel workers in Pittsburgh. On a day-to-day basis, through its passion for structure and the eloquence of its rhetoric, the party made itself feel real and familiar not only to its own members but also to the immensely larger world that then existed of sympathizers and fellow-travelers. It had built a remarkable network of regional sections and local branches; schools and publications; organizations that addressed large home-grown miseries—the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils—and an in-your-face daily newspaper that liberals as well as radicals regularly read. As one old Red put it, “Whenever some new world catastrophe announced itself throughout the Depression and World War II, The Daily Worker sold out in minutes.”

It is perhaps hard to understand now, but at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one’s own humanity that made life feel large: large and clarified. It was to this inner clarity that so many became not only attached, but addicted. While under its influence, no reward of life, neither love nor fame nor wealth, could compete.

“What Endures of the Romance of American Communism”, Vivian Gornick, New York Review of Books