By: Jaiveer Mariwala
The Communist Party USA files at NYU are overwhelming in both size and the breadth of media they make available to researchers; a little over five hundred boxes of notes, letters, interview transcripts, cassettes, photographs (including some negatives), videotapes, and floppy disks. My goal was to sort through all this data to find a single piece of information – a means to contact someone, preferably alive, who lived through the party schism that followed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the eighties and nineties.
The files were part of the Tamiment Library archives, a research library that documents radical, labor, and left history. From what little I could glean from the official history of the CPUSA—as described on the library’s website—a faction of the party expressed their displeasure at the neoliberal nature of Gorbachev’s new policies, in terms of the harm that market-driven reforms could do to the labor unions and workers’ rights both within the Soviet Union and globally. But Gorbachev first mentioned perestroika in 1985, and the Soviet Union only began to see the real effects of the policy in late 1990 or even early 1991. When in those six years did the CPUSA faction begin to react to the policy?
My first instinct was to look through the files that contained the correspondence from 1985 through 1991 between the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPUSA, to see if I might find any hint of tension. Unfortunately a majority, if not all, of the material in these folders was simply congratulations, going both ways: “Congratulations Comrade Gus Hall on your election to National Chairman of the CPUSA!” “Congratulations Comrade Gorbachev on a successful National Congress!” “Congratulation Comrade Anatoly on the birth of your grandson!”
The word “glorious” appeared at least twice in every paragraph. It was an Orwellian cliché, a cliché of a cliché.
As an experiment, I tried to set alongside one another each of the letters the CPUSA sent to the Soviet party on completion of the latter’s 25th, 26th, and 27th Congresses, just to see if they repeated the same language over and over again. The clerk at the desk then chided me for moving the papers out of the order in which they were placed in the file, and my experiment ended prematurely.
From within the “glorious” blather, details leapt out. In the 1991 correspondence was a letter the CPUSA received from a now-anonymous sender (the return address and signature had been cut out.) It contained the names of six Soviet dissidents who had recently emigrated to the United States, and who were now doing countrywide tours in which they publicly denounced the Soviet Union, allegedly sponsored by conservative politicians. The letter asked the CPUSA to publicly counter their propaganda.
A note written by Gus Hall, the national chairman of the CPUSA, was stapled to the letter, and it was addressed to “Comrade Winters,” head of the party’s international affairs. It said the the CPUSA would have conduct “background checks” on the dissidents, but the matter would have to be set aside until “the problems of the national convention were dealt with.”
I went back into the Tamiment digital listings, and surely enough there were official records for each of the U.S. party’s national conventions, which were held every four or five years. The 25th convention was held in 1991, and all the official paperwork from the event was in one box, number 314, which I requested. One of the folders in the box had “Party Factionalism” scribbled on its header.
It was a thick folder, with all sorts of paperwork discussing the party schism. There were letters sent between the party’s leaders, letters from representatives of the Communist Party in various states, and official party documents denouncing the faction, which was either called “the faction” or “The Initiative to Renew and Reunite the Party.” It was being accused of holding a separate convention, using CPUSA funds, across the road from the main CPUSA convention.
There is something almost amusing, and definitely anachronistic, about a bunch of adults referring to one another simply as “Comrade X”, X being the comrade’s last name. For a historian, however, this was also incredibly frustrating, because it made it difficult to figure out who was on what side of the schism. Without full names, I didn’t have real people whom I could contact for my story.
It wasn’t until I moved on to another folder, “Official Convention Documents,” that I found what I was looking for. The members of The Initiative to Renew and Reunite the Party were kind enough to create a petition, and on which they not only signed their full names, but listed the city and state in which they lived. More than 350 names for me to go through, and to try and contact, to figure out the last schism of the dying Communist Party of the United States.