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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dramaturgy | A Short (and quite simplified) History of Communism in the United States

by Rachel Lerner-Ley, Dramaturg

On Wobbly Legs—pre 1917
Huge waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe bring Marxist teachings. Soon, these socialist teachings will move into the mainstream…in fact, Oklahoma becomes a hotbed for communists!   

At the same time, an American brand of Socialism is emerging. There is great discontent amongst the working classes that primarily labor in dangerous and unsanitary conditions in factories (a la The Jungle by Upton Sinclair). Monopolies and robber barons are everywhere; Big Business has begun. As Howard Zinn puts it: “In this situation—terrible conditions of labor, exclusivity in union organization—working people wanting radical change, seeing the root of misery in the capitalist system, moved toward a new kind of labor union.”

A new union is formed—a mega, all-inclusive union called the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW; still kicking today). Members are later nicknamed “Wobblies.” The Wobblies hold large meetings, organize workers, strike. This is scary for Big Business, and thus, the Wobblies are deemed a threat to “America.”

The First Red Scare—1921
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution occurs. An official American Communist political party is formed soon thereafter—an above ground institution directly tied to Moscow—and advocates for revolution. A combination of misunderstanding and fear leads to a massive governmental strike against American communists. There are constant arrests and deportations. Anti-subversive laws are passed, making it illegal to deliver speeches promoting revolution. Communists go underground: change names, destroy incriminating papers. By the end of 1921, the “Red Scare” is over. In its own way, the scare leads to the emergence of a stronger, more devoted party, as those who were “armchair” communists had fled at the first sign of trouble.

1930’s—the height of American Communism
A tiny little economic crisis cripples the U.S. in 1929 and proves that there are some major problems with the capitalist system. This revelation boosts the communist party. The party begins to take a softer approach, focusing on immediate reforms to help the unemployed masses rather than calling for violent revolution. By 1939, the party has 100,000 registered members, let alone hundreds of non-citizens.

WWII—My enemy’s enemy…
Once Hitler invades Russia, the Soviet Union joins the Allies. This new alliance takes the heat off American Communists for a bit, and they begin working beside Democrats. Meanwhile, Soviet spies have infiltrated the US and recruited government employees and scientists to pass along information.

Korean War and Cold War—late 1940s and 50s
It’s post-WII, and the Cold War begins. The arms race is in full swing. Truman requires all non-elective government employees to sign a loyalty oath stating that they have never been and never will be involved with the Communist Party. Penalty for perjury will be imprisonment.  

America practices a policy of “containment”—trying to keep Communism from spreading—but it’s not working. The USSR has already held onto more territory than its due at the end of WWII, and soon communist North Korea will invade South Korea. Communism is spreading, and the US government fears the American communist party, already so public. Will communism spread within America, too?

HUAC and Blacklisting—late 1940s
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) begins investigating alleged communism within the film industry. Several actors and producers, including Ronald Regan and Walt Disney, came forward and name names. However, a group of ten writers, producers and directors refuse to testify, taking the 5th. The “Hollywood Ten” are sent to prison for Contempt of Congress. The “Hollywood Ten” along with the other film professionals whose names were named are blacklisted by producers and are unable to get hired for years.

McCarthyism—early 1950’s
Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, leads a vigorous and vicious campaign against potential communists within the government. He kicks off his anti-red campaign with a 6 hour speech delivered before the senate in 1950 in which he claims the Democratic Party has been harboring communists and assisting the Soviets for years. In 1952, he is named chairman of the Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations and holds public hearings, putting hundreds of “communists” on trial. His persistence leads to a second “red scare.” However, once McCarthy begins attacking members of the military, his credibility is called into question, and the anti-communism fervor begins to die out.

Horrors of Stalin revealed—late 1950s and beyond
In February 1956, Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, delivers a secret speech to the USSR’s Communist Party Congress. In the speech, he details the atrocities committed under Stalin’s nearly 30 years of what essentially was a dictatorship masked under the title “Communism.” Under Stalin, thousands of innocents were killed in “purges” (let alone the thousands in the Ukraine that died due to Stalin’s agricultural reforms that resulted in the starvation of an entire nation). Hundreds were sent to gulags—prison camps—in Siberia. Khrushchev refers to Stalin’s regime as a “cult of personality,” and his speech inspires Soviet satellites to come forward with their own tales of Stalinist terror.

Eventually the speech is leaked and published in major US newspapers. It presents a devastating blow to American communists. As Klehr & Haynes explain: “In the mental world of American Communists, Stalin’s mass murders were visible only if Moscow could see them. Once Khrushchev gave Moscow’s sanction to the charges against Stalinism, American Communists, in shock, suddenly saw bodies littering the landscape.” This new acknowledgement crushes the spirit of many an American communist.

By 1958, ¾ of the American Communist Party has dropped out. During the 60’s many of the political movements take on communist teachings, and radical groups such as the Weather Underground emerge. The Communist Party continues to be active today, though has never again reached the heights of the 30’s and 40’s.

--sources/adapted from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The American Communist Movement: storming heaven itself by Harvey Klehr & John Earl Haynes,,

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