The Last American Communists: The story of the fall of the Communist Party USA

This is the the sixth of nine chapters in my eventual book, and is the sequence of events that occur right before the climactic action in the narrative. The main characters in the chapter will all be introduced earlier in the book. Jay Schaffner, Charlene Mitchell and Ted Pearson are former national committee members. Daniel Rosenberg was a party worker, and he and Schaffner feature prominently as the title characters of the book. Gus Hall is the general secretary of the party at the time.

This chapter begins where the previous left off—introducing glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union—and ends on the cusp of the 25th national convention of the party during which it all fell apart. In this chapter I describe the rapid growth of party tensions, the founding of the reformer faction of the party, and the political and policy fault lines along which members divided themselves. The chapter also discusses the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and how it contributed to the fall of the CPUSA. There is a source list at the end of the text.

There are some terms I use in this chapter that will have been introduced and defined in previous chapters:

  • The Central/National Committee consists of members of the party who have been elected by their regional counterparts to attend the national convention and vote on significant party decisions.
  • The National Board is the top party leadership.
  • Democratic Centralism refers to the policy under which political decisions reached by voting processes are binding upon all members of the party.
  • Communist Plus was put forth by Gus Hall as a theory that because of their scientific understanding of the nature of class struggle, CPUSA members are to be the most effective organizers. I discuss it in a very narrow context in this chapter.

Chapter Six: Lines in the Sand

There was nary a member of the Communist Party USA who believed Gus Hall had even the smallest chance of winning an American presidential election, not even Hall himself. He had run in 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984. 1988 was about to become the year in which he would run a fifth time.

His candidacy was simply an extension of Communist Plus. As fear of communism had dwindled since time of McCarthy, along with actual persecution of American communists, the party adopted this position as a means to expand its presence in the mind and eye of the American public. Communism could not grow itself surreptitiously in America; the revolution would in fact have to be televised. Party members had to be entirely open about their role in the Communist Party with their families, in their workplace, and more generally in public. Both Daniel Rosenberg and Jay Schaffner thought that this whole policy was entirely unrealistic. For many members, telling their workplace that they were actual communists was an easy way to get fired.

In elections, Communist Plus meant backing the candidate put forth by the party, rather than supporting a labor candidate who had a better shot at actually winning anything, and as such demanded total support of Hall’s presidential candidacy. In several states independent candidates were required to collect a certain number of signatures from the public in the months leading up to the election in order to appear on the ballot. For Hall and the CPUSA, this meant sending out party workers door to door in their home states up to six months before the actual election.

Pearson and Schaffner both did their time. In each of the four previous elections, they were tasked with distributing flyers, talking to neighbors about Hall’s candidacy, or collecting signatures. This often took many hours, spread over several days, and also used a majority of the total manpower available to the party—which wasn’t much to begin with. Some party members thought this stopped the party from doing what it was supposed to be doing—building a broad based movement to fight inequality and racism. Party members who were on the FBI radar for being communists in their own cities were not exempt from campaigning in public. Instead, they were asked to go to neighboring states to campaign. The party’s policy of democratic centralism meant that there was to be no questioning of Hall’s candidacy; the matter had been discussed and decided upon decades prior. Schaffner, Pearson and the others did as they were told as good comrades.

The party’s narrow focus on the class struggle in its election campaign also chafed for some party members. Hall and the leadership adopted a “socialist election” position, meaning that rhetoric and policies catered largely to the white working class. Issues like gay rights, the treatment of African-Americans, and police brutality were categorized as “wedge issues” that would divide their voter base and were largely ignored. For members like Daniel Rosenberg this defeated any attempt to create as broad a movement behind the party as possible—the reason why he joined the party in the first place. These racial differences in the party were largely papered over until the death in 1986 of Henry Winston, the party’s national chairman, second in power to Gus Hall. Winston, an African American, was key to presenting an of image of black-white leadership in the CPUSA, despite Hall’s total control as general secretary. Winston led the party’s movement to free Angela Davis, and also helped ensure that the socialism it extolled was inclusive of the African-American and civil rights movements.

When Hall began privately discussing running for president again in 1988 Schaffner was approached by James Steele, the chair of the Political Action Committee of the party, and was asked to head the national collection drive for signatures. He refused, and told Steele that he was instead going to vote for Jessee Jackson. Several other party members also made clear that they were going to vote for Jackson—who was running his second campaign—and hence could not campaign for Hall. Jackson’s campaign, which amalgamated the issues of the workers’ rights and the plight of African-Americans, fit in with what many CPUSA members thought was the party’s purpose.

Schaffner’s refusal, like that of many others, was born out of years of attrition with Hall’s policies. Yet this criticism was by no means new, nor was it novel. The party had always had avenues for disagreement, even if they weren’t particularly significant. One of these avenues had been the the People’s World, one of two official party papers. The People’s World was the California-based, West Coast equivalent of the Daily World, which was published out of New York. The Northern Californian contingent of the party was always far more radical than its New York brethren, and hewed less closely to the official Moscow party line. Their editor from 1980 to 1986, Carl Bloice, was particularly famous for his fiery opposition to democratic centralism and the CPUSA’s blind support of the Soviet government. In 1986, under pressure from Moscow, Hall folded the People’s World by combining its staff with that of the Daily World. He sent Bloice to Russia to be the paper’s Moscow correspondent—and to have him tone down his critique.     

These differences in opinion did not become visible within the party until 1988. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika were first discussed and announced in 1985, but only started taking effect through the Soviet Union and communist parties worldwide much later. CPUSA members who travelled to the communist nations in this period saw a new openness. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union began discussing structural issues and reform within the party and the USSR – discussions that were broadcast publicly.

One party member took a trip to the Soviet Union in 1988, and noticed that taxi drivers and shopkeepers had pictures of former party leaders displayed prominently, alongside pictures of Mikhail Gorbachev. It was previously unheard of to have photos of anyone but the current general secretary, yet here were Chernenko and Andropov staring down at him.

At the time, Jay Schaffner had been the head of Anniversary Tours for a decade. It was a travel company that helped arrange visits to communist nations both in and outside of Europe, and also organized exchange programs between youth members of the CPUSA and young students in communist countries. As such, he had been to the Soviet Union several times. One of his longest standing goals was to do a motor-coach tour for his students from Moscow to Leningrad. And for years, the answer from the requisite authorities in the Soviet Union had always been the same: it would impossible.

When he asked why, officials told him, “There is no highway.” He couldn’t believe it.  “There’s no highway connecting the two major cities in the country?” he’d ask. And then sometime in 1988, an official said, “Jay, can we have a private conversation with you? Comrade, that road is a closed road. There is a modern military highway that connects the cities, but it is only for the military.”

On one trip to the German Democratic Republic , Schaffner had several poor experiences with the Trabant, a car produced in East Germany that was infamous for breaking down. On another trip to Moscow, he saw grocery stores selling frozen food on street corners, in the snow. The stores had no refrigerators or freezers, and were using the snow to keep the food from rotting.

The other members of the CPUSA who most welcomed Gorbachev’s new policies were like Schaffner: They had visited the Soviet Union and seen what was wrought by USSR’s twisted socialism. Standards of living were so poor and consumer goods so pathetic. When the government did have money to spend, the arms race dictated that it be spent on military needs. Glasnost and perestroika had some promise, and Gorbachev’s dialogue with the United States offered an unprecedented chance at a thaw between relations between the two countries. Hall, however, seemed to be unmoved.

On the same trip during which his Trabant kept failing, Schaffner dined with his interpreter at a restaurant, and asked her what kind of activities the Germany Communist Youth League was doing in Berlin. She told him that they were repairing Jewish cemeteries and cleaning the outsides. Schaffner was appalled.

‘There are that many swastikas?” he asked.

How do you know about the swastikas, she responded, startled.

“You just told me,” he said. “The way I grew up, and where I grew up, you don’t repair a Jewish cemetery unless it’s been defaced with swastikas.”

She started crying. “You can’t tell anybody that I told you,” she said. “This is a state secret. We are so ashamed of it.”

When he returned to the United States after the trip, he did the same thing he did at the end of every trip: give a report of what he saw to Gus Hall. Hall screamed at Schaffner. He refused to believe the claims of anti-Semitism or any reports of the poor standard of Soviet consumer goods. His vision of socialism could not be changed; the Soviet Union and Marxism were both fine as is.

Carlo Bloice, who had been in Moscow since 1986, returned to the United States in 1989. In meetings with his comrade he relayed what he saw as a monumental shift in international communism—glasnost and perestroika would provide a new rationale for self-examination within the rigid CPUSA of Gus Hall. In April of the same year Charlene Mitchell, a member of the national board of the party, sent out an invitation to members of the national committee whom she believed would be open to discussing change within the party. The invitation stated that it was to a private gathering in New York, and asked that if the person receiving the invitation was not interested, to not mention it to the party leadership.  Schaffner had been in close touch with Mitchell on organizing the meeting, but when he attended, he was shocked at some of the people who were there. He had underestimated the extent of dissent within the party. Everybody was from the central committee, and members had come from California, from Illinois, from New England.

At the meeting, Bloice, Schaffner and others discussed their opinions of what they had seen in the Soviet Union. Other members brought up glasnost and perestroika and welcomed it as a chance to thaw relations between the United States and the USSR, reducing the costs of the cold war to the Soviet public. Much of the discussion centered around what they saw as a central irony —the merits and norms of communism were being discussed in Europe, but not within their own party in America. Schaffner criticized the party’s commitment to democratic centralism, arguing that it encouraged the survival of archaic, anachronistic norms that had no relation to the vitalism that communism was supposed to represent. Even those who supported democratic centralism tended to agree that Hall and others in the party leadership were abusing it for their own gain. The meeting bore no real plan of action for reform, but all gathered agreed it would be a good idea to meet again.

This small group grew in subsequent months into a faction. Members referred to themselves as the reformers, or by the name of a short manifesto they were preparing, titled the “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party.” Members quietly reached out to other comrades and old friends whom they believed shared their interests in renewing the party. Their chance to present their manifesto would only come two years later in 1991 at the next party convention, which was held every five years. Until then they would have to bide their time, and hope to stay under Hall’s radar.

Meanwhile, criticism of the party and Hall’s leadership began to grow and present itself in unprecedented forms. In July 1990 James Steele, the member of the central committee who had asked Jay Schaffner in 1988 to help run Hall’s presidential campaign, made a presentation to the national board that started with the words “No response is a racist response.” He targeted the party’s false promises—central to their membership in the sixties and seventies—with regards to the struggle of African-Americans, and charged it with never doing enough. The lack of discussion of party policies was one of his central criticisms, and he blamed it for the party’s narrow goals. Towards the end of his speech, he also warned that if the party did not change its tune soon and return to the activist roots from which it first sprung, it would head down a path from which it would never recover.

In November 1990 at party gathering in North Carolina, a national committee member named Maurice Jackson launched into a fiery speech in which he implicated Gus Hall in almost every single failure of the party. He accused the leadership of being out of touch with the masses, of protecting themselves from the opinions of party members, and even charged fellow party members with not doing enough—of not criticizing the leadership out of fear of retribution when the entire point of their communist project was criticism of the ruling system. Hall remained silent on most of this censure in party meetings and official party transcripts, but privately complained that matters were getting of hand, and that he knew of the existence of a group of reformers. Yet matters only came to a head publicly in late 1991.

On August 19, a faction of the Soviet government—popularly referred to as the Gang of Eight—attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the party and leader of the government. In documents that they distributed and over the radio waves of Moscow, they announced their opposition to Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, and to the decentralization of the Soviet Union’s central government’s powers to the rest of the the republics. The coup only lasted three days, but its aftershocks persisted in the Soviet Union and made their way across the Atlantic to the CPUSA.

When news of the coup reached the United States, Hall and his inner circle were revitalized. They saw it as both a validation and a fulfillment of their own opposition to Gorbachev’s policies. In an audio tape Hall sent out to fellow party leaders on August 20, he warned them “not to join the bring-back-Gorbachev bandwagon.” Particularly hardline members of the party even celebrated the coup attempt. Some went as far as to call for Gorbachev’s execution. After a private meeting of the national board, an official communique was sent out announcing that the party would neither condemn nor condone the events of August 19.

Supporters of both the reform Initiative and Gorbachev were furious at the party’s response and condemned it, arguing that the leadership never sought the opinion of the members of the national committee. In the Weekly World issue that was published in the following week, Charlene Mitchell and Danny Rubin lambasted the events of the coup and the reaction of the national board, accusing them that their official response was “a shamefaced apology” in support of the coup. At a national committee meeting convened on September 8, the party narrowly voted to officially condemn the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev’s government.  Hall was forced to take back his earlier opinions. He denounced the events of August 19 to 21 as illegal, but chose to slip in some criticism of Gorbachev’s policies as he did so.

“After the events of September 8, the party went into siege mode,” Daniel Rosenberg later remembered. Hall bristled at the censure he had to face, blamed it on the reformers, and began to perceive them as an immediate threat to his longstanding leadership of the Communist Party USA. Leaders of the Initiative also saw the lines that were now clearly being drawn in the sand, and accelerated their efforts to organize themselves before the upcoming 25th National Convention of the party in December.

The official document titled the “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party” was released to other party members in October, and was primarily drafted by Carl Bloice. In it, Hall’s policies were criticized, but Bloice was careful to word the document so that it did not assign any blame directly on his leadership. It also did not detail any potential changes in the party’s ruling committee, laws, or bylaws, nor did it propose any new policies. All it called for was an open discussion of the issues faced by the party and the divisions within it, and for the leadership to accept criticism as constructive. It also contained the name of over five hundred party members who were supportive of the Initiative, which included around 40 percent of the national committee.

“We had to include the names, because in sending the document out we needed to tell the people who supported us that, ‘This is who you should vote for, and only vote for people who you know support the Initiative,’” Jay Schaffner later said. Regional elections for the national committee were being held in November; elected members would then represent their districts at the national convention the following month. If the reformers were to have any chance of having their voice heard, and their proposed discussion supported, they needed to successfully elect as many of themselves to the national committee as possible.   

The New York elections were particularly successful for supporters of the Initiative, but elsewhere Hall took drastic action. In Chicago, a reformer stronghold, several party members who were incumbents and signatories to the Initiative—such as Ted Pearson—found themselves disqualified from the election by the national board for insubstantial reasons. In Massachusetts, another bastion of the Initiative, the entire national committee delegation was told it would not be allowed to attend the convention because it had either misappropriated or simply not paid party dues. In the Yonkers club in Westchester County, Gus Hall’s wife Elizabeth was caught faking votes in favor of members of Gus’ faction.  And in the weeks leading up to the 25th national convention Hall shuttered the offices the Weekly World for its open support of the Initiative and the criticism that had put forward against him.          

The convention was held in the second week of December, in a hotel in Cleveland. In the week prior, Jay Schaffner rented a separate room within the hotel with his own money. It was to be a kind of meeting center for the members of the central committee and national committee who were supportive of the Initiative. The reservation was made under his own name, and Schaffner told no one else about it, yet the party leadership got wind of the development.

When delegates began to arrive on the first day of the convention, December 5, 1991, there were rumors that a group of “reformers” were trying to divide the party, and that they were also attempting to stage their own competing congress in the same venue. Policeman were stationed outside the hotel and also guarded the doors to the convention hall. Hall and other members of the leadership had asked them to be present on the pretext that there were going to be disruptions at the event, caused by party members who supported the Initiative. Attendees eyed one another in the halls of the hotel, unsure of which side of the divide the other would fall upon.

Even on the night before the congress, Schaffner had been hopeful of reconciliation—that Hall might relent and allow the reformers to have a voice at what was supposed to be a democratic event. When he saw the policemen outside the hotel, and heard the whispers within the halls, he knew that it wasn’t to be. This congress would be his last, and the party itself would fall apart shortly afterward.      

Sources for the chapter:
The material in this chapter is based on interviews with former party members: Jay Schaffner and Timothy Johnson from New York, Daniel Rosenberg from Brooklyn and Ted Pearson from Chicago. One member chose not to be named. I also used archival material from the CPUSA papers and the Simon and Sophie Gerson papers at the Tamiment Collection at NYU’s Bobst Library. Rosenberg also provided me with his personal materials and research from a yet unpublished work. Secondary material is from Prof. Harvey Klehr’s book on the history of the CPUSA—The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press 1995).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *