Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 08:51 GMT

United States: The Communist Party USA; current legal status; history; number of members; organizational structure

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 June 1999
Citation / Document Symbol USA32018.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, United States: The Communist Party USA; current legal status; history; number of members; organizational structure, 1 June 1999, USA32018.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aab33c.html [accessed 21 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

 

According to Political Affairs [a monthly periodical of the Communist Party USA (CP-USA)], the Communist Party of the District of Columbia (DC-CPUSA), and the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 the CP-USA has legal status in the United States (Jan. 1999, 3; n.d., 1; 1990, 146). However, according to Marc Rohr, writing in the San Diego Law Review, the Communist Party and/or other "subversive organizations" remain illegal in the states of Arkansas, Florida, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Tennessee (1991, 114). Please see the attached document from the national Website of the Communist Party USA for a list of 27 regional, state, and local CP-USA offices (n.d.). In addition, 16 Young Communist League (YCL) branches, who "work in unity and cooperation" with the CP-USA and its clubs, are noted on this document by asterixes (n.d.).

According to Guenter Lewy:

There exist few accurate figures on Communist party membership and for some years no information at all is available. Claims by party officials have often been exaggerated and they have frequently failed to distinguish between recruited, registered, and dues-paying members, the last category being the smallest (1990, 307).

Please find attached "a rough picture of the fluctuations in Communist party membership" from 1919 to 1988 (ibid.). The Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 corroborates Lewy's report of 1988 party claims to having 20,000 members but it estimated the actual number of members as between 4,000 and 6,000 (1990, 146). The CP-USA is listed in Extremist Groups, although it is described as "operationally defunct" with an active membership of "less than 1,000" (1996, 878). More recent information on CP-USA membership numbers is unavailable to the Research Directorate.

In terms of the organization of the CP-USA, the DC-CPUSA states:

The "club" is the basic unit of Party organization, and all members of the Party belong to a club. Members of the club meet twice monthly to discuss and plan their efforts, review individual areas of political work in which members are involved, educate themselves about current issues, and participate in the life of the Party nationally. The club also hosts social events. Club members are active in a broad variety of work including their unions, the Hands Off Cuba Coalition, DC community politics, housing, civil rights and other areas of interest or concern (n.d.).

Further information on the organization of the CP-USA could not be found in the sources consulted by the Research Directorate, although there are references to periodic national conventions (The Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 1990, 148; CP-USA n.d.). Additionally, a Communist Party Ideological Conference is scheduled to take place in New York City, from 9 to 11 October 1999 and the party also plans to field candidates in the American elections in 2000 (ibid.).

In terms of the activities and expectations for members of the CP-USA, the DC-CPUSA states that it is "hoped" that the involvement of members will grow over time. It provides "a series of things [one] can do while being or becoming a CPUSA member":

1. Pay dues of $1.00 per month, or $12.00 per year.

2. Subscribe to the Peoples Weekly World ($20.00 per year) and Political Affairs, the theoretical journal published by the Party. ... it may be possible to subsidize the cost of your subscription.

3. Join a Party Club and attend meetings on a regular basis, or at least as often as possible given your energy and time limitations.

4. Participate in activities either sponsored or supported by the Party. The following examples are typical: Participate in demonstrations and rallies; recent events have included protests against police violence and the bombing of Yugoslavia. PWW distributions at demonstrations, on the street with a table, and door to door in neighborhoods where we are trying to concentrate. Attend meetings, educational discussions or lectures about current events. Attend classes on political theory, history, or other topics that may interest you. We currently do have a monthly educational meeting. Recent subjects have been the causes of poverty, an eyewitness report on Cuba, and a class analysis of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The following is a brief history of the party which is based on information from the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 (1990), Communist and Marxist Parties of the World (1990), and The Columbia Encyclopedia (1993).

The Communist Party of America was formed in 1919 as a result of a split within the Socialist Party and adopted the name "Communist Party-USA" in 1930. It was relatively influential in the 1930s and 1940s with sway in labour and other groups. In 1935 the party adopted its "Popular Front" policy in which it reversed its opposition to the New Deal and reached out to anti-fascist groups. However, in 1939 it described the war with Germany and the Soviet Union as one of imperialism and criticized American support for Britain. This stance changed in 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union and the party then called for full support of the war effort against Germany (Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 1990, 147; Communist and Marxist Parties of the World 1990, 367; The Columbia Encyclopedia 1993).

The CP-USA briefly disbanded as a political party in 1944 and became the Communist Political Association (CPA), which supported Roosevelt's candidacy for President (ibid.; Communist and Marxist Parties of the World 1990, 367). The CPA "advocated peaceful settlement of internal disputes and opposed raising the issue of socialism in the post-war period, in order not to weaken the national unity necessary to enable the Allied leaders' decisions to be put into effect."  This policy was subsequently criticized, leading to CPA leader Earl Browder's replacement by William Foster and the re-emergence of the CP-USA (ibid.).

In the 1940s and 1950s a range of official anti-communist measures were taken in the United States that led to, among other effects, the sentencing to five years' imprisonment of ten CP-USA national leaders, under the Smith Act of 1940, on "charges of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government" (The Columbia Encyclopedia 1993). After these sentences were upheld by the Supreme Court many leaders of the state parties received similar sentences between 1952 and 1956. This was the period of "McCarthyism" in which a range of measures were taken against persons suspected of association with communism (ibid.; Communist and Marxist Parties of the World 1990, 367; Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989 1990, 147).

Further to these problems for the CP-USA, were Khrushshev's criticisms of Stalin and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt. The party had maintained a pro-Soviet line but these events led to a major split in the party and an effort at internal reform that was led by John Gates. This effort eventually failed and was accompanied by the departure from the party of Gates and many of his supporters (ibid.; The Columbia Encyclopedia 1993; Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989, 147). According to the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989, "from 1956 to the present, the CPUSA has remained a marginal element of American political life. With the departure of the 'Gatesites,' the party, put under the guidance of the internally-popular but intellectually-limited Gus Hall in 1959, was effectively re-Stalinized" (1990, 147). Hall was the party's presidential candidate in the 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 elections (Communist and Marxist Parties of the World 1990, 367).

In the 1960s there was some limited renewed interest in the party, particularly among "young radicals" but this interest did not have a lasting impact. In 1966 it "resumed open activities" (ibid.). It was critical of Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s (The Columbia Encyclopedia). Gus Hall remains today as the national chairman of the CP-USA (Political Affairs Jan. 1999, 1). Please see the attached page for a brief history of the party written by the Communist Party of the District of Columbia (n.d.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References

The Columbia Encyclopedia. 1993. "Communist Party." [Internet] [Accessed 25 May 1999]

Communist and Marxist Parties of the World. 1990. Edited by Roger East et al. Chicago: St. James Press.

Communist Party of the District of Columbia (DC-CPUSA). n.d. "Frequently Asked Questions." [Internet] [Accessed 28 May 1999]

_____. "More Frequently Asked Questions." [Internet] [Accessed 28 May 1999]

Communist Party USA. n.d. "Communist Party Ideological Conference." [Internet] [Accessed 7 June 1999]

_____. n.d. "Documents of the Communist Party-USA." [Internet] [Accessed 7 June 1999]

Extremist Groups [Chicago]. 1996. John Murray and Richard H. Ward. The University of Chicago at Illinois: Office of International Criminal Justice.

Lewy, Gunter. The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life. 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 307-8.

Political Affairs [New York]. January 1999. Gus Hall. "Struggle the Battle Cry for 1999."

San Diego Law Review. 1991. Marc Rohr. "Communists and the First Amendment: The Shaping of Freedom of Advocacy in the Cold War Era." San Diego: School of Law, University of San Diego.

Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1989. 1990. Edited by Richard F. Starr. "United States of America." Stanford : Hoover Institution Press.

Attachments

Communist Party of the District of Columbia (DC-CPUSA). n.d. "A Brief History of the Communist Party, USA." [Internet] [Accessed 28 May 1999]

Communist Party-USA. n.d. "Communist Party-USA Offices." [Internet] [Accessed 28 May 1999]

Lewy, Gunter. The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life. 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 307-8.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at http://www.irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/. Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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