By Chris Townsend
June 1, 2023
As the Communist Party of the United States entered the fourth full year of the Great Depression in 1933, its leadership recognized that a major consolidation and refocus of Party effort was necessary to reach the vast potential of the moment. The communist movement had been established in the U.S. for 15 years by that point, and some advances had been made in rooting the Party in certain key sectors – but not others.
The left and socialist organizations were all growing amidst the Depression conditions as the tempo of the class struggle increased daily. Turmoil among unemployed workers, small farmers, and veterans was beginning to approach a mass scale, and the battered trade unions had begun stirring in scattered and desperate strikes in opposition to wage cuts and employer assaults.
Rightists, fascists, and militarists of every stripe likewise emerged in the economic collapse, tapping ruling class and mass working class discontent alike. Carbon copies of this process were unfolding world-wide. Something big was in the works, but what? A shift to the left? Or the right? Was another world war coming? Where was the United States going? What was ahead for the left? Would it be able to play a serious role in the fast-changing political and economic situation?
The Extraordinary Conference
Faced with this situation of both extreme threats and opportunities, the Communist Party opted to self-critically examine the actual state of things in its organization and work. Following a directive by the Communist International to conduct this “taking of stock”, parties across the world made the difficult self-assessment. The process that unfolded here in the United States culminated in a national Extraordinary Conference of the Communist Party that convened in New York City in early July 1933.
Every facet of Party work, leadership, and membership was critically dissected to prepare for the Conference. What was the real size and composition of Party forces? What was the condition of their actual organizational and political activity? What was working, and what wasn’t working? Was there growth, or not? Why not? What did the membership really amount to, both geographically and industrially? How many were in the unions? In what areas of activity had the Party fallen short, or failed? What was the actual measure of the influence of the Party at that moment? How effective was the leadership? Were new priorities needed? Were previous leadership decisions being carried out, or not? Was new leadership needed?
A rapid yet expansive and comprehensive inventory and inspection was made to determine what was really happening on the ground, top to bottom, in real numbers. Fuzzy claims and guesswork were discarded in favor of clear fact-based assessments. ( (For those seeking background on the 1932 and 1933 period see Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 11, The Great Depression The History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 11 (intpubnyc.com) and William Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States, The History of the Communist Party of the United States – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com) both from International Publishers International Publishers (intpubnyc.com))
A Party Only on the Margins
The 350 delegates who eventually took part in the 1933 Extraordinary Conference travelled to New York City with their heads spinning. They had much to consider as such a process had never before been attempted on such a scale. There was no escaping the fact that while the Party had made progress, and membership had increased markedly in the early Depression, the rate of progress, and the depth of the progress was insufficient to take advantage of the tremendous openings presented under the new conditions. Mistakes, miscalculations, and failures were chronicled. Some success was noted, but not nearly enough.
Overwhelmingly the preparatory work and the Conference deliberations themselves revealed and concluded that the Party was still not growing and expanding in major ways. But why? Tremendous efforts were being made, some truly valiant and self-sacrificing. The answer to these questions became self-evident as a result of the work done to arrive at the Extraordinary Conference: insufficient effort, sometimes no effort had been conducted to root the organization in the working class, in the industries, in the workplaces, and in the unions.
While all manner of good works and activities were being carried out by Party members and leaders in many fields, the Conference zeroed-in on the undeniable fact that the focus of the vast majority of its activity was far, far, removed from the workplaces and the trade unions. Too much priority was being placed on struggles removed from the centrality of the workplace and the working class that comprised the natural constituency of a mass socialist party. The Communist Party existed largely in the margins of U.S. political life, with no roadmap into the mainstream.
Facing this fact meant confronting it, explaining the error, and redirecting the new and greatly unified Party work. This work was intended to bring not just membership growth in numbers, but in quality. Growth needed to occur in places likely to position the Party for potential mass growth among workers as the Depression continued to worsen. At its conclusion the Conference issued a broadside to the membership, an “Open Letter”, explaining that business as usual, the same routine, just putting one foot in front of the other, all these failed approaches had to be cast aside.
Foster Endorses the Renewed Direction
William Z. Foster recalled that the Extraordinary Conference “…addressed an Open Letter to the Party, outlining a program of militant struggle, stressing the need to concentrate upon building Party units and trade unions in the basic industries and to give all support to the growing mass strike movement. …(The Extraordinary Conference) …played a vital role in preparing the Party for the big mass struggles.”
While not long the “Open Letter” issued by the Conference was distributed in massive quantities to all corners of the Communist Party membership and among supporters and contacts. An open letter to all members of the Communist Party | palmm.digital.flvc.org The Daily Worker of July 12, 1933, featured a front-page headline and article regarding the Conference, blaring that “Communist Party Holds Extraordinary National Conference to Strengthen Work in the Factories and Trade Unions” v10-n166-Nat-jul-12-1933-DW-LOC.pdf (marxists.org) The next day the Daily Worker published the entire text of the Open Letter to inform the membership and trigger discussion. For many months after the Conference, Party publications and cadre repeated the drumbeat; “Into the factories, into the unions!” There was unity on a scale never before seen. It wasn’t unanimous, or monolithic, but large sections of a national organization were moving in the same general direction. For a change.
The effect of the Open Letter was immediate and electrifying. The preface of the letter explained that “This Extraordinary Conference and the Open Letter are designed to rouse all of our resources, all of the forces of the Party to change this situation, and to give us guarantees that the essential change in our work will be made.” Several basic tasks were mandated to move the organization forward, out of its isolation from the mass of the working class, to be in a better position to play a decisive role in the rapidly unfolding and spreading labor upsurge.
It was decided that the Party was to refocus its primary efforts on organizing the workplaces and unions, specifically in geographic areas where key industries were concentrated. Expanded work was directed in the left-led unions and labor movement generally. It called for greatly increased activity among the unemployed, for a complete overhaul of work to expand distribution of the Party press and therefore its message. It called for the Party to embark on a program to dramatically expand the ranks of Party leaders and cadre drawn primarily from the workshops and unions.
Other work of the Party was not abandoned, but all of it was rethought and relaunched to support and complement the new emphasis. The results were immediate. New members began to trickle in, then pour in. Work in the unions exploded on all fronts, placing the Communist Party in the leadership of more labor struggles than it could have imagined just the previous year. Party morale zoomed as nearly everyone sensed that the decisions of the Extraordinary Conference had been correct.
Can We Do Anything Today?
Could any process such as that recounted here with the Extraordinary Conference be replicated today? So far as the status today of the left-wing organizations and networks, they apparently continue to slowly grow and develop, albeit without any central strategy or concentration of activity. With only a few exceptions the left organizations remain small and scattered although virtually all have grown significantly in the past decade. Much of the new membership arrives spontaneously or anonymously via the Internet. Members lapse or drop and there are few explanations for why they did this. Actual programmatic recruitment seems sparse and is sometimes completely neglected. Organizational functioning seems haphazard, and in some cases is conducted solely by Internet. In-person meetings and work still lag on account of the pandemic’s residual effects and likewise because of the widely scattered membership. Tremendous energy is expended on support for left Democrats running for office – or governing – in some of the organizations. The jury seems out on whether this work builds the organization of the Democratic Party or of the socialist organization offering the free assistance.
Every left group or chapter announces its formation with a creative logo, a web site, and with an ample social media presence, just before deciding “what to do first?” Actual discussion of socialism or study of socialist history or philosophy seems to be underway here and there but is not promoted widely. Socialist oriented podcasts, videos, and on-line journals seem to be having no problem growing and expanding – and reaching a significant audience – but few put any emphasis on actually building the socialist movement in any concrete way. For the first time in many decades, it appears that the center of gravity for the left has migrated away from the college campuses and into the communities, although the colleges and universities continue to dominate the vast bulk of left leadership and writing. “Socialist” activism today is most certainly rooted and focused on activities mostly outside of the workplace, outside of the unions, with some noted exceptions. As was the situation facing the left organizations and the Communist Party of 1933 there were hopeful signs and good works being done, some progress, but not nearly enough of either.
As for the workplace and trade union work of the left organizations today, there is only spotty and relatively recent work in evidence. All is positive, but as yet in too small a supply to be decisive or even measurable in many places. Anecdote might also lead us to conclude that the majority of workplace and trade union work underway by the left is spontaneous and not deliberately organized, a result of no more than the need of everyone post-school to go to work and somehow earn a living. The development and reinforcement of left forces within the unions is fragmentary at best, and as the last retirements of the 1970’s generation proceed many unions find themselves without any substantial left-wing membership or activism. There are widespread numbers of dedicated socialist trade unionists and hopeful organizers and salts at work, but again scattered with apparently little coordination, strategy, or common mission.
Ignore Workers? Or Reach Out to the Working Class?
Critics and opponents of the Open Letter and its methodology will likely point out that the degree of organizational unity and action that the Communist Party was able to muster was the result of a Leninist, meaning “democratic centralist” party structure and functioning. They might offer that to expect today’s left-wing groups to function with this degree of cohesion and discipline is unrealistic, even impossible. But this instantaneous rejection of a refocused course of action is defeatist in the extreme, perhaps unintentionally so. Trade unions are periodically able to adopt a unifying common mission, then apply resources and leadership effort towards that goal. The decision by the socialist organizations to refocus on workplace and trade union organizing does not require a restructuring of the organization along Leninist lines. Such a direction would be beneficial but is not required for the concentration on the working class to be initiated.The left organizations have for the most part
avoided concentration on the workplace and the unions for decades, and their decisions to focus on the “community” aspects of work has proven to yield a poor return for the oceans of effort poured into it.
As William Z. Foster proved with both the meat packing campaign and the great steel organizing drive – and later the steel strike – otherwise small and scattered left forces can literally move mountains when there is a clear, defined, and achievable goal with realistic time frames offered for the duration of the struggle. The bulk of Foster’s early work and accomplishments were not the result of the work of disciplined Leninist cadre but were instead the result of a relative handful of single-minded militants leading significant numbers of members in the unions – and relentlessly pushing on the union leaderships to carry out a popular course of action.
Mass campaigns are feasible today that would sweep into action large numbers of militants and members with no required discipline other than common agreement. The existing left organizational leadership must be won over to this understanding, and to an admission that so long as the left organizations pursue a loose, unfocused, and scattered program of activity that the results will remain small. So long as the left organizations treat the workplace and unions as an afterthought, or as a sideline, the bottomless basket of left issues will forever take precedence over direct worker contact and organization. And unless the socialist movement is able somehow to root itself directly in working class struggles, history has shown repeatedly that it will ebb and flow and eventually dissipate as new issues du jour appear and disappear.
The Left Wing Must Do the Work
The legacy of the Extraordinary Conference and its Open Letter is sadly forgotten but should be revisited. Not only for the organizational lesson that it offers, but because it requires socialist leadership to accept responsibility for their work and performance. The resolve of the Communist Party leadership and membership that flowed forward from the Conference and its Open Letter set a tone and course for a focus on union organizing and contact with the working masses that contributed greatly to the 1930’s radicalization. The foundations of the CIO upsurge were laid in many quarters by the work of the trade union militants in or around the Communist Party, and by millions of ordinary workers swept up in the left-wing spirit of the times. Left organizations other than the Communist Party – small and not so small alike – for the most part all turned their focus towards working class organization and trade union struggles in that period. These factors all contributed to the largest socialist and trade union organizational growth in the past 100 years.
Several of the significant left organizations and networks now approach their respective conventions in the year to come. Is such a refocus on the centrality of the class struggle and the working class possible, even in part? Can it be placed on the agenda? Will forces emerge to promote something resembling a concentration on the workplaces and the unions? Or will the situation persist where all issues are treated as equals, with little emphasis, and little hope of significant growth and revival of the labor movement? Will the leadership of the left organizations be measured by their performance so far as building the organization and its real reach, or will they be swept again into office based on a renewed approach to methods already proven to be failed? I encourage all of the left militants, trade unionists, and workers toughing it out in the shops trying to organize to familiarize themselves with the Open Letter. It is perhaps a modern-day guide for action today.
Chris Townsend was a member and staff member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) for a combined 38 years. He continues to work as a union organizer today. He may be reached at [email protected]