It has survived Red Scares, McCarthyism, internal
purges, lack of funds and lack of interest. The
CPUSA -- Communist Party, U.S.A. -- was founded
just two years after the Bolshevik revolution in
Russia. And while it is nowhere near as
influential as it once was, it still lives on --
with its decades-long chorus that socialism in
America is "inevitable."
The CPUSA was founded in 1919. It quickly became
targeted by the U.S. Justice Department -- which
attempted to arrest and deport thousands of so-
called "alien communists." The party's influence
rose during the Depression -- as Americans looked
for an alternative to the capitalist system that
had ruined millions of lives. In the years before
World War II, the CPUSA had an estimated
membership of between 80,000 and 100,000.
Congress passed the Smith Act in 1940 -- making it
unlawful to advocate the violent overthrow of the
U.S. government. That statute was used against
leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and fascist
organizations before World War II -- and against
the CPUSA during the postwar years.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required trade union
officers to file non-communist affidavits, and in
1950, as the Cold War deepened, the United States
imposed the Internal Security Act. Also known as
the McCarran Act, it placed new restrictions on
communists -- banning them from working in the
U.S. national defense industry and allowing the
internment of communists during times of national
emergency. The act also set up a Subversive
Activities Control Board -- which was authorized
to compel communist or communist-dominated groups
to register their members.
Eventually, most of those legal barriers against
American communists were dropped, and the CPUSA
was allowed to operate like other political
The CPUSA had to cope with widespread anti-
communist sentiment in the 1950s, along with
shocking news from Moscow. The so-called "secret
speech" by Khrushchev, denouncing Stalin and his
policies, radically thinned CPUSA ranks.
"The American (communist) party had for so long
tied its fortunes to the Soviet Union," says
Harvey Klehr, professor of history and politics at
Emory University and author of "The Soviet World
of American Communism."
"So when the head of the Soviet Union admitted
that Stalin had committed massive crimes, it was
terribly disillusioning. Up until the Khrushchev
speech, the party would never admit the Soviet
Union had made any mistakes," Klehr says.
The 1960s posed a new set of challenges for the
CPUSA. The nation was enjoying unprecedented
prosperity, minimizing the communists' call for
change. Actions by the Kremlin to quell dissent
within the Soviet bloc -- such as in Hungary in
1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- forced many
American communists to question the CPUSA's
alliances with Moscow.
Even when the United States was convulsed by riots
and demonstrations in the late 1960s in connection
with the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to
the Vietnam War, it appeared to many young
American "revolutionaries" that the CPUSA was out
of step with the times.
Throughout all the turmoil, the CPUSA remained a
part of the nation's political landscape -- if
only on the fringe. Gus Hall, the party's general
secretary from 1959 until his death in October
2000, received nearly 59,000 votes during the 1976
But the past decade, and the collapse of the
Soviet Union, have brought a new crisis to the
ranks of American communists. The opening of
Soviet records in Moscow have revealed that the
CPUSA received several million dollars annually
from the Kremlin for operating costs. And it turns
out that one of Washington's most valuable
intelligence operations in the U.S.S.R. involved
Morris Childs and his younger brother, Jack
Childs, both high-ranking members of the CPUSA who
had access to the top levels of the Soviet
government for decades.
In 1991, at the CPUSA's 25th national convention
in Cleveland, several hundred party members signed
an initiative calling for reform. Those dissidents
quickly found themselves expelled from the party,
or at least excluded from nomination for party
leadership. Over the next several months, hundreds
more quit the CPUSA to join an alternative
For decades, the CPUSA has estimated its
membership at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000.
But its critics say the real number of members is
a tenth of that figure. Party faithful still
operate the CPUSA's national offices and bookstore
out of a building on Manhattan's West Side.
And there are signs that the America mainstream
may be willing to accept some communism in the
post-Cold War years -- if only as a curiosity.
Rick Nagin, former chairman of the Ohio Communist
Party, is now a councilman's assistant in
Cleveland. In November 1997, communist Denise
Winebrenner Edwards was elected to the city
council of Wilkensburg, Pennsylvania. The AFL-CIO,
one of the most powerful union organizations in
the United States, removed an anti-communist
clause from its constitution in September 1997.
But for many Americans, communism is now more a
fashion statement than a viable political system.
Soviet-style art can be found in advertisements
for a variety of U.S. products. One ad for a fast-
food chain even features a pseudo-communist rally,
complete with red flags and chanting masses.
And The Communist Manifesto, which is celebrating
its 150th anniversary, has been released in a new
edition -- meant more for the coffee table than
the public meeting. To quote a creative director
at Barney's, the trendy and expensive New York
department store, "People are forgetting the Gulag
and the negative imagery. So it could be time for
Marxism to come back as pure style."