Publication Date

October 1, 2000



Historians of communism now have access to an enormous range of new sources, but the picture emerging is not at all clear. The Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI), formerly Moscow's Center for the Preservation of Documents of Modern History (RTsKhIDNI), holds the largest collection of materials related to international communism, totaling approximately 20 million documents. These collections include rich and varied sources related to communism in the United States that reveal a multidimensional story of American communism, one that will allow us to study local history in a national and international context.

I encountered this complex picture of American Communist Party history as I did my own research at the archive on the relationship between Chicago's party and the city's working people. The story I uncovered there is quite different from those I have been reading about in the most recent academic publications and popular press articles that suggest the last word on American communism is one of espionage and Moscow's domination. In fact, the substance of the archives should reopen the debate on the meaning of American communism.

The first studies based on these documents focused on national and international party issues. In The Secret World of American Communism, the first of a proposed 14-part series released by Yale University Press, Harvey Klehr, John Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov showed that the Soviet Union helped fund the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and that top leaders in the American party supported Soviet espionage. With carefully selected documents, they suggested that the essence of the communist movement was its attempts to sabotage the American government. The second volume in this series, The Soviet World of American Communism, used the same approach to prove that, in some all-consuming fashion, “the American Communist party was a creature of the Comintern and, through it, of the Soviet Union.”1

These works have been picked up in the popular media as if they held the long-sought-after evidence that established once and for all the depravity of the American communist movement, yet their arguments are still able to spark heated discussions among historians. In both books, the authors succeeded in gaining popular attention, as well as raising some historians' ire, by selectively using Moscow's archives to confirm assertions made by the first scholars of American communism—Cold War scholars whose anticommunist interpretations were shaped by the dominant political atmosphere of the country in the aftermath of World War II.

These Cold War historians and their 1990s counterparts believe the most important aspect of American communism was the party's subordination to Soviet Russia. Theodore Draper, writing in 1960, determined that by 1929, "nothing and no one could alter the fact that the American Communist Party had become an instrument of the Russian Communist Party."2 Thus Draper and those writing in the 1990s from the same perspective see the party organization as a monolith. Each communist act is explained as another example of Soviet intrigue.3

Because these historians assumed top-level party leaders determined the character and actions of the party, they also discounted the effect of local party experience in shaping the party and in influencing the politics of people who joined it. Focusing instead on the national leadership and emphasizing the Comintern's influence on it, Draper concluded, "a history of the Communist party is chiefly a history of its top leadership." Echoing Draper almost four decades later, Klehr, Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson argue that, "the dictates of the Comintern almost invariably superseded policies offered on the basis of local conditions."4

Because the CPUSA believed in democratic centralism, which required members to follow party policy, an institutional perspective is certainly an important part of the story. But Cold War scholars and their modern counterparts interpret all aspects of the party's organization and structure with negative moral overtones, depicting American communists as alienated from American society. Such nationally focused, institutional approaches therefore make it impossible to describe—let alone gauge the significance of—local party membership and activities. And by assuming that top-level discussions and factional fights always dictated the attitudes and actions of organizers in the streets and factories, these scholars ignore local developments and grassroots rationales that inspired working people to join the party.

Such one-sided interpretations were already under attack by the 1980s and early 1990s, when a group of scholars began shifting the terms of the debate. Most of these revisionist historians placed American communism within the broader history of this country's radical movements, taking three main approaches to the party's history. Some interviewed aging Communists to produce personal narratives that focus on activists' party experiences and activities, suggesting that Soviet policy could not explain all of their decisions and behaviors. Others made similar claims, in national party histories, arguing that America's party leaders were responsive to domestic political and social conditions. A third group, relying on oral history and newspaper sources, wrote local studies to discuss communist experience at the city level.5 Rather than emphasizing the small and sectarian party of the 1920s and the postwar years, as Draper and David Shannon had, these revisionist historians looked at the party during its Popular Front heyday of the 1930s and World War II era and concluded that people joined because this was a radical movement offering solutions to America’s problems. “Unlike their predecessors,” Michael E. Brown noted, “the new historians emphasize the variations and complexities of context.”6

But in their attempt to write a more sympathetic history of American communism, many of these scholars romanticize the communist movement, understate its bureaucratic structure, and downplay sectarianism. In an effort to demystify and decriminalize the party, they swung the pendulum far away from the depiction of communists as automatons of democratic centralism and toward a conception of communists as idealized, organic radicals.

While personal testimony allowed these scholars to rely less on party sources and institutional interpretations, the turn to oral history presented its own problems. Personal interviews tended to move historians away from New York's leaders and encouraged them to focus more on local contexts, but works based heavily on oral testimony ran into the danger of presenting skewed, personal interpretations of history.

And using local sources meant that revisionist historians did not always grasp the significance of being a member of an international movement dominated by the Soviet Union. Because the Communist Party was an international movement operating through democratic centralism, it was inherently different from any other American political organization. It is essential to integrate this international context with a grassroots focus in order to understand the Communist Party and the role it played in working-class politics more generally.

But if these scholars' emphasis on localism led them to understate the significance of internationalism, they at least began to provide a more nuanced interpretation of American communism. As they responded to what might be referred to as Cold War histories, paving the way for new research and new interpretations, their efforts were stymied in part by a shortage of sources.

Now, however, the opening of former party archives in Moscow provides access to rich new sources. The RGASPI collection includes more than 4,000 files of CPUSA records, dating from 1919 to the late 1930s. Although the records are incomplete for the periods from 1919–22 and for the period after 1936, they still tell us a great deal about this enigmatic organization.

Fond (file) 515, the CPUSA's collection, holds minutes and correspondence for each department within the national party during this period. Perhaps most exciting from a social historian's perspective, however, is that it also contains the papers of each party district. This means that for the first time scholars have access to extensive internal party documents such as correspondence, financial records, meeting minutes, and discipline reports at the state, city, and neighborhood levels. Researchers can study shop papers, industrial reports, and organizing plans. Local educational material is plentiful, including the locations, materials, and course information for local party schools. The archive also contains local papers of agitation and propaganda committees, industrial committees, control committees, women's committees, Negro committees, and each ethnic group in the party.

The CPUSA papers represent just one collection at RGASPI containing United States material. There are thousands of other files that reach into the early 1940s pertaining to the Profintern (fond 534), which coordinated industrial organizing. This collection includes minutes of national and city industrial conferences, trade union organizers' reports, reports on the American Federation of Labor, minutes and letters from various industrial organizers, and copies of shop papers and leaflets. The Comintern papers (fond 495) include the papers of the Anglo-American secretariat, the Negro Bureau, and the Trade Union commission, each containing correspondence and minutes relating to local party activity and activists.

For the first time, it is possible to document the functioning of the local party, its relationship to the international, and the importance of individual members in shaping the party's program. Chicago's party sources reveal that local pressures and politics convinced communist trade unionists to leave the Trade Union Unity League for the American Federation of Labor before the Comintern agreed to this action. Local party organizers also led the way into the Congress of Industrial Organizations. These examples show that party policy was not merely imposed from the top, but was also established through the experience and activity of party trade unionists. Local shifts that predated Comintern policy changes also occurred in the Chicago party's unemployment activities and in its youth organizing. Its activists were dynamic elements of the social conflicts of the day and their party activities reflected it.

These materials also tell us a great deal about the ways in which ordinary people experienced communism. From the perspective of Chicago's neighborhoods, the party looked quite different than it did from New York and Moscow. Rather than describe rank-and-file experiences according to party leaders' plans, new evidence allows us to read about communist members' victories and frustrations from their own records. Neighborhood records, for example, show how activity varied from predominately African American to predominately Jewish neighborhoods. Rank-and-file letters to party leaders reveal party members' hopes, frustrations, and motivations. Such sources reveal openings in the movement in which individuals inserted their own visions of activism, and they allude to a larger context surrounding communists' activities, suggesting why communism made sense to some Chicago workers.

Pieces of this archive are showing up in various libraries and soon will be available online. The Library of Congress has already made some CPUSA materials available to researchers on microfilm. Also, the International Computerization of the Comintern Archive project (Incomka) is working on digitizing one million pages of the most used and "historically significant" collections of the Comintern archive. Such increased access will certainly help researchers rethink the meaning of American communism in this new round of scholarship although the editors' choice of documents will be important. But until such projects are complete, the best and the most complete records of American communism are in Moscow.

The opening of Moscow's archives has also opened a new period of Communist Party history, when opportunities to study local communist experiences are plentiful. While relations between the United States and Russia have changed considerably since the 1950s, the challenges of writing a balanced Communist party history are just as complicated and significant as ever. The new sources make it possible to reassess the movement, suggesting that in order to understand the experience of American communism we must be sensitive to the interplay between internationalism and localism. As Maurice Isserman noted in The Nation in 1995, “the story of the C.P.U.S.A. is full of contradictions, and it’s past time for all concerned to acknowledge and learn to live with them.” Certainly this archive and its collections make such a conclusion emphatic.


This research was supported by grants from the University of Illinois, SUNY Cortland, and the International Research and Exchanges Board, with funds provided by the U.S. Department of State (Title VIII program) and the National Endowment for the Humanities. None of these organizations is responsible for the views expressed.

1. Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.

2. Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Years (New York: Viking, 1960), 440. While Draper’s work has been the most influential, the Ford Foundation sponsored 10 studies, beginning in 1953, on various aspects of “Communism in American Life.”

3. As Hugh Wilford points out, these historians did not distinguish between the Comintern and the Soviet Communist Party. See Hugh Wilford, "The Communist International and the American Communist Party," in Tim Rees and Andrew Thorpe (eds.), International Communism and the Communist International, 1919–1943 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998): 225–33.

4. First quote is from Draper, 4; second from Klehr, Haynes, and Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism, 5.

5. Examples from the first group are Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson, American Radical (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981); Nell Irvin Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Dorothy Ray Healey and Maurice Isserman, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990). Examples of the second group are Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During The Second World War (1982; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, Reprint, 1993); Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991). Examples of the third group are Paul Lyons, Philadelphia Communists, 1936–1956 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982); Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).

6. Michael E. Brown, "Introduction: The History of the History of US Communism," in Michael E. Brown, Randy Martin, Frank Rosengarten and George Snedeker (eds.), New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), 18.

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