Red Herring: The Great Depreession and the American Communist Party

(Editor’s Note: "It goes without saying that the Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in American history, and no doubt one of the worst crises ever to face the nation—wars included. …. Anything so severe was bound to have numerous consequences, foreseen and unforeseen. The rise of the New Deal and its historic expansion of the federal government was one such result. Another, we are told, was the rise of domestic communism in the United States. Or so we are told. And that is the subject of this paper."

In "Red Herring: The Great Depression and the American Communist Party" (5,678 words), professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College—Dr. Paul Kengor—highlights "a standard teaching in American education, from the high-school level to our universities. Unfortunately, it is not totally accurate; reality is considerably more complicated." Dr. Kengor’s white paper is "very much an abbreviated narrative of much more that could be said. The point is that the American communist movement first took flight in the 1920s, not in the 1930s, with the Great Depression not leading people to communism, but rather, vice versa, as the communists exploited the Great Depression to try to lead people to their ideology. This is the total reverse of how the era is typically understood and taught in modern education."

"In the end," Dr. Kengor concludes, "the Great Depression was an asset to the American Communist Party, but not in the way that we have historically understood. The party took off literally a decade before the crash; it was launched during economic golden times. American communists saluted the red flag long before the Great Depression of the 1930s. To argue to the contrary is, to borrow a phrase, a classic Red herring."

If you would like to reach Dr. Kengor for comment,
please contact him at [email protected]

Red Herring:
The Great Depression and the
American Communist Party
By Paul Kengor, Ph.D.


Given the current economic turmoil facing America and the world, the Great Depression is suddenly back in the headlines. It goes without saying that the Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in American history, and no doubt one of the worst crises ever to face the nation—wars included. Beginning in 1929, intensifying through the 1930s, and arguably not fully recovering until as late as 1954—when the stock market at long last returned to its pre-depression level—the nation witnessed soup lines and employment lines, dust bowls and closed shops everywhere, a plummet in national morale and the response by the New Deal. The nation’s unemployment rate reached an unprecedented 25%.

Anything so severe was bound to have numerous consequences, foreseen and unforeseen. The rise of the New Deal and its historic expansion of the federal government was one such consequence.

Today, pundits, economists, and historians jockey to inform modern Americans of the causes and results of the Great Depression.One such result, we are told, was the rise of domestic communism in the United States. Or so we are told. And that is the subject of this paper.

~ ~ ~

It has been historically argued that the American communist movement took flight in the 1930s during the zenith of the Great Depression, when people were so desperate that they were looking anywhere for solutions to their economic misery—even to the farthest regions of the political left, i.e., all the way toward communism. This historical narrative has had the long-term effect—especially among the academic community—of generating empathy, even sympathy, for much of the American communist movement: It was understandable, the argument goes, that so many Americans "went Red," given the desperation of the times. The depression, historians maintain, was a boon to Communist Party USA (CPUSA), a source of recruitment, and American communism was essentially launched at this time.

The rise of American communism—albeit never a very steep rise—thus, is linked to the 1930s and the era of the Great Depression.

This is a standard teaching in American education, from the high-school level to our universities. Unfortunately, it is not totally accurate; reality is considerably more complicated. It is my hope that a more nuanced understanding will be grasped particularly by students at Grove City College, where all students are required to take the course, Modern Civilization in International Perspective (Humanities 302), in which the Great Depression is among the 20th century topics studied.

To be sure, the Great Depression indeed turned some Americans to communism. CPUSA’s own internal self-reporting showed increases in membership rolls in the 1930s.[1] That is undeniable. As President Harry Truman was fond of saying, it was the "silo of misery" and poverty that turned people toward communism around the world. Addressing the poverty, and thus, reversing communism’s advance, was one of the motivations for Truman’s Marshall Plan in 1947.

Yet, the reality is that American communism was launched well before the Great Depression, not only in a time absent of economic catastrophe, but in one of the most prosperous economic decades in all of American history: the 1920s. American communists were railing against the evils of American capitalism long before the economic severity of the 1930s—i.e., well before one could even attempt to link the Great Depression to the alleged ills of free markets. The Great Depression was simply a tool for later exploitation by American communists once their organization was up and running.

Little known to historians, but now clear from recently declassified documents from the Soviet Comintern, the American Communist Party’s own self-reporting actually claimed a higher number of members at its founding in 1919, when the American economy was doing just fine, contrasted with 1934, several painful years into the Great Depression.

This paper examines the start of the American Communist Party, just prior to the economic boom of the 1920s, and well before the tragedy of the Great Depression. It also underscores the crucial fact that the American party was inextricably linked to the Soviet Communist Party, principally through the Soviet Comintern. This is a reality that many professors still to this day are loathe to acknowledge, and seem to prefer to ignore—since it clashes with their preconceptions and ideological sacred cows—even as the irrefutable evidence continues to flow from various archives of CPUSA, the Comintern, the FBI, the Library of Congress, and more. Finally, the paper concludes by highlighting another forgotten element of the history of the American Communist Party in the 1930s: how the party demonized the Roosevelt administration and FDR’s New Deal. For American Communists, the Great Depression was always a mere propaganda tool, one to be used to draw people closer not to the American model but to the Soviet model.

Ironically, those now long-gone American communists would have considered it another propaganda victory to hear modern academic historians inaccurately argue that their movement began not in boom times but in bust times. That argument would have fit their template nicely. It is our task today to be real historians, to read the evidence, and to get it right.

The Comintern and Worldwide Revolution

Not coincidentally, the American Communist Party was founded the same year as the Soviet Communist International (Comintern). To achieve his "full-fledged political project, world socialist revolution," Bolshevik founder Vladimir Lenin established the Comintern in March 1919 at a congress in Moscow.[2] The international objectives of the Comintern were self-evident from its title. Even then, the objective was re-emphasized in other preferred names for the Comintern, such as Trotsky describing it as the "General Staff of the World Revolution."[3]

In an immediate article for Pravda on March 6, the last day of the congress, Lenin wrote that, "the founding of the Third Communist International heralds the international republic of Soviets, the international victory of communism."[4] In his concluding speech to the congress, Lenin proclaimed that with the founding of the Comintern, "the victor of the Proletarian revolution on a world scale is assured. The founding of an international Soviet republic is on the way."[5] The Comintern was thus centralized under Moscow leadership, which was to have "uncontested authority" over the other communist parties that would soon be established all over the world, including in the United States of America.[6] Moscow, and by extension the leader of the Soviet Union, was to be the conductor of the global symphony, orchestrating a literal international association of national communist parties, all dedicated to the goal of a global revolution—of worldwide communism.

Even then, though founded in March 1919, the Comintern really did not get down to business until a year later, delayed until the summer of 1920, once Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war—much more difficult than imagined—was a fait accompli and Lenin and his comrades could then focus on the larger prize: the world.[7]

As the eminent Harvard Sovietologist, Dr. Richard Pipes, has noted, by 1920 Lenin had already left no doubt that he envisioned the Comintern as (in Pipes’ words) "a branch of the Russian Communist Party, organized on its model and subject to its orders." The 1920 Comintern congress made this clear, demanding of its foreign delegates that when they returned home, they would impose "iron military discipline" upon party members in their countries, ensuring fealty to and "the fullest comradely confidence" in the headquarters in Moscow. Beyond the parties, they were to seek to take over mass organizations and especially trade unions in their home countries.[8]

Significantly, the Comintern made clear that members of foreign communist parties—from Europe to America—who did not toe this line, who did not give total subservience to Moscow, "who reject in principle the conditions and theses put forward by the Communist International, are to be expelled from the party." This was the classic, infamous "party discipline" that was a trademark of communist parties everywhere. Such discipline was enforced within the domestic parties themselves, including in the American party, where it took harsh and at times almost laughable forms, more fiercely dogmatic than any religious excommunication. Regardless, overall, subservience to Moscow was obligatory. The 1920 congress further added as a condition for admission and membership to the Comintern: "Every party which wishes to join the Communist International is obligated to give unconditional support to any Soviet republic in its struggle against counter-revolutionary forces."[9]

Here we see the pattern established early on: members of communist parties around the world, including in the United States, would see themselves as loyal Soviet patriots. It would be Moscow first. Soviet interests reigned supreme and held sway over those of any other regime. Befitting the vicious regime that was its source, the 1920 Comintern congress evoked war rhetoric as central to its mission, stating explicitly in point 17 of its famous 21-point manifesto: "The Communist International has declared war on the entire bourgeois world."[10]]

The global objectives of the Comintern were constantly reiterated; they outlived Lenin. The entire physical apparatus for the Comintern, which included several buildings and the radio school that served as its all-important source for mass communication, was located exclusively in Moscow. Every country with a Communist Party had a representative stationed in Moscow.[11] Among those was the American party.

Forming the Party in America

The Communist Party established in the United States was expected to thrive on deceit. This was clear at that first major Comintern congress in July 1920, which, among the 21 requirements for membership, included the extraordinary point three, which called upon communists in every country, including in America, to create a "parallel illegal apparatus," which, "at the decisive moment," would seize the day, rising to the surface and taking charge of the revolution. When the moment was ripe, those comrades would assist the masters in Moscow in "performing [their] duty to the revolution." There was no mistaking the clarity of these instructions to American communists, who published these orders in the United States in a document titled, "The Twenty One Conditions of Admission into the Communist International."[12]

The show opened in America in September 1919, when two communist parties were formed in the United States, the "Communist Labor Party" and the "Communist Party of America." They were organized at a convention in Chicago during the first week of September. After a few additional mergers and name changes, the communists by 1929 would form a single "Communist Party USA" (CPUSA). From there, CPUSA became the political party for American communists throughout the Cold War.[13]

It cannot be emphasized enough that American members of the Communist Party saw themselves as subservient to the Comintern and to Moscow. The American Communist Party had been established only months after the Comintern had been established in Moscow. The Comintern created an Anglo-American Secretariat as its vehicle for micromanaging the American Communist Party. A representative of the American Communist Party resided in Moscow as the go-between or liaison between the Secretariat and the American Party, supplying and transferring information between the two and delivering orders from Moscow to American communists.[14]

The manifestations of this control on a daily basis were constant from the outset: As Theodore Draper reported in his seminal work on the American Communist Party, when a new member joined the party in the 1920s, he or she signed a party registration card inscribed with these words: "The undersigned, after having read the constitution and program of the Communist Party, declares his adherence to the principles and tactics of the party and the Communist International: agrees to submit to the discipline of the party as stated in its constitution and pledges to engage actively in its work."[15] This allegiance to the Bolsheviks was the mission of American communists who joined the Communist Party. They swore to it.

The degree of Comintern/Moscow control of CPUSA was so total that when CPUSA picked leaders for its own Central Committee, a list was first sent to the Comintern for permission. These lists exist today, declassified in the Comintern Archives on CPUSA.

Here are three examples, from those archives, all from those founding moments in the summer and fall of 1919, that are significant in demonstrating the level of Comintern control over the American party and, in turn, the loyalty of those party members to Moscow:

The first example, highlighted as among the first documents in the Comintern Archives of CPUSA, was completed in the summer of 1919, just prior to the official formation of the party in Chicago in September 1919. The heading on the double-spaced draft is "Soviet Power and the Creation of a Communist Party of America," a so-called "Thesis of the Executive Committee of the Third International." The three-page document carries two important signatures: "For the Bureau of the Communist International, N. Bucharin, J. Bersin (Winter)."[16] This refers to Nikolai Bukharin, one of the famous Bolshevik founders, and Jan Berzin, the later Soviet general and head of Soviet military intelligence, the GRU.

The document begins by establishing that the American party will not be independent from the Soviet Comintern. It orders: "1) For the purpose of attaining an immediate success of the revolutionary class struggle, of systematically organizing it, of uniting and co-ordinating all really revolutionary forces, and for the purpose of unifying principles and organizations, it is necessary to form a Communist Party which should be affiliated with the Communist International." In the next line, the allegiance is made clear: "2) The cardinal unifying and directing idea should be the recognition of the necessity for proletarian dictatorship, that is, Soviet power."[17] The document commits both the Soviet and American representatives to the Soviet superstructure.

A second key document in the Comintern Archives appears to have been issued from the Chicago convention of September 1-7, 1919. It was issued on the letterhead of the newly established Communist Party of America, at 1219 Blue Island Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. It is a brief celebratory salutation from the Communist Party of America’s executive secretary, Charles Ruthenberg, along with attestation from present "International Delegates," Isaac Ferguson and Alexander Steklitsky.[18] It bears four simple sentences:

In the name of the Communist Workers of the United States organized in the Communist Party of America I extend greetings to the Communist Party of Russia.

Hail to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!

Long live the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic!

Long live the Communist International!

The level of loyalty in this letter, to what and whom, speaks for itself.

A third document in the archives from the period is the November 24, 1919, application for Comintern membership—a pro forma deal—by the Communist Party of America. The letter, signed by the party’s international secretary, Louis C. Fraina, claimed a total party membership of "approximately 55,000 members."[19] This figure may (or may not) have been exaggerated. Nonetheless, even allowing for some padding of the membership rolls, it is considerably higher than the 25,000-membership figure self-reported by CPUSA in 1934,[20] in the dark days of the Great Depression.

Many other examples could be cited. This fealty would continue throughout the existence of the American party and the Soviet party. As noted by Herb Romerstein, a former communist who to this day remains America’s leading authority on domestic communism, "from 1919, when it [CPUSA] was formed, to 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was under total Soviet control."[21]

The most telling evidence of that Soviet control, which emerged only after the Cold War ended, was the fact that CPUSA all-along received funding from the Soviet communist government, beginning in 1919 and continuing until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. We now know this was not some piddling sum; quite the contrary, it was a lifeline that kept CPUSA afloat, to the tune of annual stipends of millions of dollars. The funding continued for so long and at such a high level that it reached nearly $2.8 million for 1980 alone. In the 1920s, when cash from the USSR was not possible, the Comintern supplied the American communist movement with an enormous sum at the time: several millions of dollars worth of valuables—gold, silver, jewels—much of which was stolen by the regime, and in some cases likely removed from sacred relics from blown-up churches.[22]

The Daily Worker, the house organ of CPUSA, received heavy cash infusions from the Comintern from the earliest days of its existence.[23] The editor of the Daily Worker was approved by the Comintern. Soviet support of American communism was comprehensive, and had been from day one.

The significance of this cannot be understated: a foreign government, with which America was effectively at war, or certainly, at least, given the status of enemy by the late 1940s, was funding an American political party, and that party concealed the funding. This was illegal at both ends, from the Soviet side and CPUSA side.

The Great Depression and the Roosevelt Administration

So much for the idea that all of this happened as a result of the Great Depression; again, all of this happened in the 10 years prior to the crash on Wall Street. American "Reds" went red long before that.

Moreover, those communists would see the Roosevelt administration not as an ally but an enemy, one for both penetration, especially at agencies like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and as a whipping boy.

To liberals and traditional Democrats everywhere, the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was more than just a new president. The new man at the White House was a kind of political savior at the most desperate time in their lives and the life of their nation. But that was not how American communists saw Roosevelt, and they wasted no time assailing the new president and his New Deal.

The communists’ first opportunity to rip into the new president came with May Day 1933, a chance for them to somehow, someway brazenly denounce FDR as a fascist. This kind of over-the-top, utterly unjustifiable language is evident throughout communist literature at the time, where it was done openly. It is also clear today throughout the Comintern Archives of CPUSA, as copies of such vulgar material had been shipped to the Communist International, almost as if to brag or prove to the masters in Moscow that the good comrades on the American front were doing their best to undermine the new U.S. regime. As proof of the volume of what was delivered to the Comintern, this section of this paper draws its evidence exclusively from that archive, which, even then, is a mere sliver of what is available.

The anti-FDR front was multifaceted, carried out not only on the streets of New York or San Francisco, but in smaller cities from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Rockford, Illinois. One flier for a May Day 1933 event at the court house in Terre Haute, Indiana, proclaimed to workers and farmers that this May Day would be "an inspiration for a UNITED FRONT of all impoverished masses against the Hunger, Forced Labor, Terror and War Government of the Roosevelt McNutt Dictatorship." FDR had only been in power for four months, but somehow it was clear to communist Americans that he was pursuing a terrorist dictatorship seeking war and forced labor. What was more, as the flier announced, were "the humiliating tactics of relief agencies."[24]

The Roosevelt administration would have been amazed that it was being so harshly criticized for doing such seeming "progressive" good in such a rapid period so quickly into the presidency.

All over America, from Terra Haute to Philadelphia to Chicago, demonstrations were held, and ads were placed in newspapers, all exploiting May Day 1933 as a club to bludgeon the new Democratic administration.

One ad, plugging a May 1 workers’ "celebration" at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in San Francisco, insisted that "Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, far from bringing relief to Labor, has turned out to be a program which includes forced labor for the unemployed at a wage scale of $1.00 a day." Listing a host of alleged economic crimes by FDR, the ad claimed the overall effect was "reducing our real wages yet farther."[25]

Curiously, this celebration of May Day morphed into an attack ad on "the capitalist class … preparing to plunge us into a new WORLD WAR," with the heart of the "danger" being an assault upon, of all places, the Soviet Union—the only country directly mentioned in the ad. And these capitalists were conspiring, "hand in hand with this brutal program of hunger and war," which, the ad had just noted, was a program of FDR and his New Deal. In the next line, Hitler’s fascist Germany was invoked, followed in the next sentence by the presumably similar fascist tactics against striking "pea pickers" in California. The America of 1933 was cast as dire, grim, and very unlike Stalin’s Russia (where, ironically, the Great Purge and Red Terror were getting underway).

The message was clear: America was speeding toward fascism, with a nefarious capitalist encirclement that was ultimately targeting the Soviet Union. The ad closed: "Comrades, Brothers: Let us unite our ranks for a fight to the finish against this horrible system which has doomed over half of our class to conditions of semi-starvation, which is sapping the very life of Labor!"

These were the talking points for fliers and ads around America organized by the communists for May Day 1933. A demonstration at Union Park in Chicago decried "Roosevelt’s forced labor camps"—when, remarkably, real forced labor camps existed in the Soviet Union—and spelled out FDR’s alleged true intentions: "Billions of dollars are b[e]ing spent for war. Yet our relief is out." Another promotion in St. Louis rang out against FDR, the "fascist dictator."

And yet another, promoting a May Day parade and mass meeting in Minneapolis, was as transparent as it was brutal. Under a giant heading to "DEMONSTRATE Against HUNGER, FASCISM, AND WAR," it accused the New Deal of seeking "a total abolition of the workers’ right to strike," of having "viciously attacked" unions, and of developing "the biggest war construction program ever known in the United States." "ALL THIS WAS DONE," screamed the flier, for emphasis, "AS THE CAPITALIST WAY OUT OF THE CRISIS. ALL THIS SHOWS HOW THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT IS MOVING HEADLONG TOWARDS FASCISM AND WAR." It ended with this final demand by "the workers of Minneapolis:" "For the Defense of the Soviet Union and Soviet China."[26]

Aside from ads, fliers, and meetings, the communists kept up the propaganda campaign against FDR in their publications. One such publication prominent in the files of the Comintern—aside from obvious party organs like the Daily Worker—was The Working Woman, which billed itself as the "magazine for working women, farm women, and working class housewives." CPUSA pushed to make the publication the leading American communist publication for women. In so doing, they took special aim at women in the Roosevelt administration, and particularly Mrs. Roosevelt, who, remarkably, was not progressive enough for CPUSA.

A case in point, copies of which CPUSA sent to the Comintern, was the January 30, 1934, issue, which led with a story titled, "Mrs. Roosevelt’s ‘Sweet’ Promises."[27] This article mocked Eleanor Roosevelt’s "boasted relief" as phony "sweet charity," a series of broken promises. It slammed two New Deal projects, one at Bear Mountain, New York, and another in Morgantown, West Virginia, as mere "publicity stunt[s] for the Roosevelts." The article, by reporter Sadie Van Veen, even zinged fellow travelers and closet communists like Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, who, said Veen, joined Eleanor and the rest of the Roosevelt administration in an unsavory display of "contemptible hypocrisy."

The magazine also included a preview of the coming International Women’s Day on March 8, 1934, a day that had been established way back in 1919 by Comrade Lenin and the Third Communist International. This preview, written by Working Woman’s Anna Damon, blasted the New Deal as the "Raw Deal"—the "new chains of slavery being forged by the ‘liberal’ Roosevelt administration." The future, said Damon, was not in the "Roosevelt program of hunger and war;" no, it was the "Soviet Union [that] shows the way."

And yet, while the communists were simultaneously trashing the greatest liberal president, his administration, his policies, and his wife, they were working hard behind the scenes to infiltrate the administration on behalf of the KGB. The extent to which they did so would only be learned after World War II, and is still being learned to this day, from the penetration by closet CPUSA members to literal spies for the Soviet KGB, of which the likes of Alger Hiss, the DOA and State Department official who ended up at the founding of the United Nations and with FDR at no less than Yalta, is only one example.

Among the most thoroughly penetrated areas of FDR’s administration was agriculture, and specifically the AAA. "No New Deal agency was more exciting than the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), a new wing of the Department of Agriculture (DOA)," reported Sam Tanenhaus, New York Times Book Review editor in his seminal biography of Whittaker Chambers. This new wing of the DOA, bursting with a huge staff of 5,000, had been formed by FDR to solve the farm crisis, and at a time when agriculture had long been America’s most dominant industry. As Tanenhaus noted, the likes of AAA’s chief counsel, Jerome Frank, had skimmed the top talent from Ivy League faculties and Wall Street firms to create an elite intellectual powerhouse ready to rescue America’s farmers. These men included liberals like Adlai Stevenson, Abe Fortas, Thurman Arnold, not to mention secret communists like John Abt and Alger Hiss.[28] And then there was Hal Ware, who would create an entire communist cell within the AAA.

Though no longer with DOA, writes Tanenhaus, Ware "became a familiar figure at the AAA," where he virtually "camped out in the lunchroom." From there, and much more, Ware, by early as 1934, could begin his influence, having, as Tanenhaus rightly noted, "assembled a secret Communist network in Washington," a cluster of seven cells or more, each with a leader who also belonged to an "elite nucleus" that wielded substantial influence. Commissar Ware and his comrades, hence, thrust their swords deep. [29]

How successful was the penetration? Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Harold Glasser are just a small few of the more notorious, major KGB agents who we now know were doing the work of the USSR.

And, thus, the communists were slashing the Roosevelt administration from both sides: 1) on one front, they were openly gashing the president and his policies in their slash-and-burn publications, some of which were front publications not honest enough to admit they represented the party; and 2) on the other front, they were even more insidiously penetrating the administration from within, looking for and finding recruits who would seek a far-reaching influence in the foreign policy of the United States, from where they could, consequently, change the world.


This is very much an abbreviated narrative of much more that could be said. The point is that the American communist movement first took flight in the 1920s, not in the 1930s, with the Great Depression not leading people to communism, but rather, vice versa, as the communists exploited the Great Depression to try to lead people to their ideology. This is the total reverse of how the era is typically understood and taught in modern education.

While that consensus is not confined strictly to liberal professors in the academy, it is true that left-leaning professors—meaning, the vast majority of professors—tend to subscribe to this school of thought more doggedly than any other group. That is because such a view accords to their own worldview, to their sense that capitalism is often brutal. For leftist academics, the American communist movement was a natural response to the harshness that they believed was often wrought by merciless free markets. This template has an added benefit for their political biases: it allows them to frame the communist movement as worthy of our understanding, certainly not our demonization, and, thus, of allowing those same professors to continue to demonize the anti-communists (especially Joe McCarthy) who later "persecuted" these good, loyal Americans allegedly merely practicing their civil liberties in a democracy.

In fact, as this paper shows, CPUSA members pledged loyalties that were not exactly consistent with the American ideal. Their allegiance to the Soviet Comintern was badly misplaced and not worthy of our sympathy. What was more, and not only not worthy of our sympathy but