Chapter Twenty: The Communist Party and the Great Economic Crisis (1929-1933)

20. The Communist Party and the Great Economic Crisis (1929-1933)

William Z. Foster, Robert Minor and Israel Amter shown here
at the time of their arrest in 1930.  CPUSA was intrumental
in organizing Unemployed Councils in response to the
Wall Street crash and capitalist crisis of the 20's and 30's.
The golden era of "permanent prosperity" in the United States was brought to a sudden end by the terrific stock-market crash of October 1929. This was accompanied by a headlong fall in all spheres of the national economy, a decline which continued without let-up for the next four years. Over $160 billion in stock-market values were wiped out, basic industry production sank by 50 percent, 5,761 banks failed, and the value of farm products fell from $8.5 billion to $4 billion. Wage cuts for all industries ran to at least 45 percent. By 1933 some 17 million workers were walking the streets unemployed, and many millions more were on part time.1

This great cyclical crisis, beginning in the United States, spread rapidly throughout the capitalist world. The other countries of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the colonies were all engulfed by it. Capitalist world production dropped 42 percent and foreign trade 65 percent. The number of unemployed throughout the world reached the staggering total of 50 million.

The crisis was one of overproduction—an explosion of the basic capitalist internal antagonism between the private ownership of industry and the social character of production. That is, rapidly expanding production had far outrun the limited power of the capitalist markets to absorb this output, owing to the systematic exploitation of the toiling masses by the robber capitalists. This condition was accentuated by the anarchy of capitalist production. Hence the general economic glut and violent crisis catastrophe resulted.

The cyclical crisis was far and away the most severe in the history of world capitalism, in its depth, duration, and universality. This exceptional severity was due to the fact that the breakdown took place within the framework of the deepening general crisis of the world capitalist system. That is to say, the crisis occurred in the midst of a prolonged international agricultural crisis, of great political upheavals in the colonial world, and of the tremendous growth of socialism in the Soviet Union. The cyclical economic crisis, in turn, greatly deepened the general crisis of world capitalism and had the effect of intensifying the decay of that economic and political system.

The capitalists of the world and their Social-Democratic lackeys were profoundly shocked and demoralized by the great crisis, particularly those in the United States. All their dreams of the "new capitalism," which was to establish permanent capitalist "prosperity" and to put an end forever to the menace of socialism, were destroyed overnight by the terrific economic hurricane. The capitalist leaders were confused, frightened, and planless, and so they remained throughout the crisis.

Many capitalist spokesmen became panicky. Whereas only a short while before they had seen a capitalist heaven at hand, now they heard the Socialist revolution knocking at their doors. The leading Wall Street economist, Dr. Irving Fisher of Yale, warned that the United States was in danger of being "devoured by some form of socialism." Judge Brandeis declared that "The people of the United States are now confronted with an emergency more serious than war." Representative Rainey, in the House, stated that the United States is "right up against Communism"; and the capitalist press generally was filled with the most lugubrious forebodings.

To make the capitalist-Social-Democratic discomfiture worse, not only was their supposedly crisis-proof capitalist system broken down, but the Soviet economic system, which the bourgeois economists had long since condemned as unworkable, went right on throughout the crisis, growing and flourishing like a bay tree. Between 1929 and 1933, when world capitalist production was cut almost in half, that of the Soviet Union increased by 67 percent; the number of wage earners jumped from 11,500,000 to 22,800,000; wages were doubled; and unemployment became non-existent. The first five-year plan, which all the economists and labor leader flunkeys of capitalism had sneered at, was finished in four years. Triumphing over tremendous difficulties—fifteen years of imperialist and civil wars, intervention, and blockade—the Soviet Union leaped forward from a predominantly agricultural country, almost medieval in its backwardness, to first place among the industrial nations in Europe. And it did all this while world capitalism, caught in the tangle of its own contradictions, lay economically prostrate. Altogether it was a world-shaking demonstration of the superiority of socialism over capitalism.


The outbreak of the economic crisis did not take the Marxists of the world by surprise. They had understood from the outset of the Coolidge boom period that the capitalist "prosperity" was built upon sand. Repeatedly during these years the Marxists, notably in the speeches of Stalin, had pointed out the coming of an economic crisis in the United States. The American Communist Party had analyzed indications of the approaching crisis, namely, the prolonged agricultural depression, the big unemployment in coal mining, textiles, and other industries, and the deadly overproduction effects of the speed-up and low-wage policies of the bosses and their agents, the top trade union leaders. At its meeting in February 1928, the Central Committee of the Communist Party warned that serious cracks were appearing in the American economy and that these would grow and have far-reaching effects. In the presidential election campaign of that year the Party made a central issue of the question of unemployment. Also, during the fight against Lovestone in 1927-29, a key matter of dispute was precisely the economic prospects of the United States. Lovestone contended that whereas other parts of the world might become involved in economic crisis, the United States, in an exceptional position, would continue indefinitely upon an upward spiral of development; whereas the Marxists in the Party maintained that a great American economic crisis was in the making.

The Party repudiated Lovestone and his bourgeois prosperity theories in good time. At the October 1929 meeting of the Central Committee the Party leadership examined the existing situation and declared that it showed "the clear features of an oncoming economic crisis which would shake the very foundations of the power of American imperialism." The Central Committee called upon the Party membership to get ready for the storm, to root out all passivity and indifference, and to adopt the methods and forms of struggle demanded by the new period. Hardly had the plenum adjourned when its analysis was confirmed by the roar of the great stock-market crash that was heard around the world.

The Wall Street magnates, and their little brothers, William Green, Norman Thomas, Jay Lovestone, et al., still refused to take this foreboding event seriously and predicted that capitalism, basically sound, would soon resume its upward growth. But the Party rejected such rosy prophecies. At its January 1930 meeting the Central Committee pointed out that the stock-market crash was but the opening phase of a serious economic breakdown. It said, "We are dealing with the most far-reaching economic crisis in the history of capitalism, involving the whole world." This correct analysis was an indication of the growing Marxist-Leninist development of the Party leadership.


With the outbreak of the economic crisis the bourgeoisie immediately embarked upon the same course that it had followed during all previous crises; namely, to unload the burden of the economic breakdown upon the shoulders of the workers and poorer farmers. Without the slightest concern for the welfare of their wage slaves, out of whose labor they had amassed their fortunes, the capitalists proceeded to throw millions of workers out on the streets without any relief, much less unemployment insurance, such as prevailed in most European countries.

President Hoover, who took office seven months before the crash, while spouting demagogic phrases that poverty was about to be abolished and that he would put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage for the workers, did nothing to relieve the ghastly situation of mass starvation. Hoover's idea was to let the economic hurricane blow itself out, as such storms had always done in the past. So he threw the power of the government behind the employers' wage-cut program, used the armed forces to intimidate the unemployed, relegated the stingy relief program entirely to the individual states, and filled the country with Pollyanna propaganda to the effect that the return of prosperity was "just around the corner." He used every means to protect the interests of the employers. A major device in this respect was the organization of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which handed out two billion dollars to the railways, banks, and industries, to the tune of his assertions that the benefits of these subsidies would "trickle clown" to the workers.

Meanwhile, the economic situation steadily worsened all through 1930-32, and myriads of workers and poor farmers fell into actual starvation. The United States had a dramatic example of the workings of the Marxist principle of the absolute impoverishment of the workers through the operation of the capitalist system. Bread lines and soup kitchens multiplied all over the country. "Hoovervilles"—horrible shanty towns built by the unemployed—sprang up on city dumps and vacant lots everywhere. Vast masses of workers were evicted from their homes—typically, 100,000 in Ohio alone during the first two years of the crisis. Millions of homeless workers drifted aimlessly on the railroads in a fruitless search for work. Although wages dropped almost 50 percent, retail food prices went down only 12 percent. The United States, erstwhile land of boasted capitalist prosperity, became a nightmare of hunger, sickness, destitution, and pauperization. Under these heavy pressures petty-bourgeois illusions among the workers were weakened and a fighting spirit grew.

Worst of all stricken were the Negroes. In the industrial centers unemployment among them ran about twice as high as among the whites. Negro workers were laid off and whites given their jobs at lower wages. Wages for Negro workers averaged 30 percent less than for whites. Also in the matter of relief the Negroes got much the worst of it, being either denied assistance altogether, given less of such aid, or discriminated against otherwise in the distribution process. Always the poorest paid in industry, the Negroes had few or no reserves with which to meet the crisis, and conditions among them beggared description. During the four crisis years 150 Negroes were lynched.

Meanwhile, the capitalists occupied themselves with destroying the huge surpluses that were glutting their production system. Among many such examples, great masses of oranges in California were soaked with kerosene to prevent their being eaten; in the Middle West vast amounts of corn were used to fire furnaces, and cattle and hogs were destroyed, and in the South big amounts of cotton were plowed under. And all the while the people starved. Capitalism in the United States had become idiotic in its chaos.


The A.F. of L. leaders were no less shocked and demoralized by the crisis than were the capitalists themselves, and for the same basic reasons. Their stupid capitalist dreams had exploded in their faces. They developed no program whatever to protect the workers' interests in this unprecedented economic holocaust. Their whole impulse was to tail along after the capitalists, as the latter floundered about, trying to find some way out of the crisis. The Green bureaucracy followed Hoover's general line. They weakened the workers' militancy by re-echoing Hoover's demagogy to the effect that economic recovery was right at hand. They adopted the Hoover
"stagger plan" of employment, which meant pauperizing the whole working class. They surrendered to Hoover's wage-cutting program. Consequently, never in the history of the American labor movement did the trade unions submit so unresistingly to slashing wage cuts in an economic crisis as they did during 1929-32 under the misleadership of the A.F. of L. officialdom.

The A.F. of L. leaders especially supported the capitalists in combating the mass demand for unemployment insurance. With incredible brass and stupidity, they denounced this vitally needed measure as "the dole," as "subsidizing idleness," as "degrading the dignity of the working man," and as "a hindrance to real progress." President Hoover and the many generals, bishops, and capitalists who crowded the platform of the 1930 A.F. of L. convention, had good reason to congratulate-as they did—Green, Well, and company for so energetically combating the demand for unemployment insurance then being raised insistently all over the country by the Communists and the hungry working people. It was not until July 1932, after nearly three years of bitter crisis, that the well-paid A.F. of L. leaders finally yielded to the great mass pressure and reluctantly endorsed unemployment insurance. 2

The Socialist Party leaders, firmly wedded to the Green bureaucracy and its bourgeois ideology, followed a similar line during the crisis years. It was four years before they showed any life on the unemployment question. They supported the Hoover "stagger plan"; they made no fight for unemployment insurance, although the S.P. had endorsed it long before; they gave no support to strike resistance against the universal wage cuts; they counseled patience and predicted an early return of "good times." In "Socialist" Milwaukee, workers were evicted and starved, as elsewhere. The surrender policies of the Socialists were well illustrated by Norman Thomas who spoke with J. P. Morgan on the radio in support of Hoover's "block-aid" policy, a system of neighborly mutual aid, whereby presumably Morgan would help his needy neighbors on Park Avenue, while the starving unemployed did the same in the slums and "Hoovervilles" of Harlem and the East Side. The S.P., like the A.F. of L., had abandoned the unemployed.


There was only one party in the United States from which leadership could and did come for the unemployed—the Communist Party. With relatively few members, 3 but with a clear head and a stout heart, the Party boldly organized the famished unemployed. The first major result was seen upon the death of Steve Katovis, a striking bakery worker who had been brutally killed by the New York police in January 1930. His funeral procession, essentially a protest of the unemployed, massed 50,000 indignant workers.

Then on March 6, 1930, came the historic national unemployment demonstration, led by the Communists. The Communist Party, the Young Communist League, and the Trade Union Unity League threw their united forces into the preparations. A million leaflets were circulated and innumerable preliminary meetings were organized. The national demonstration was held under the auspices of the T.U.U.L. The central demand was for unemployment relief and insurance, with stress upon demands for the Negro people, against wage cuts, and against fascism and war.

Among the mobilizing slogans were "Work or Wages!" and "Don't Starve —Fight!" The city authorities everywhere massed their armed forces against the demonstration, as though to put down a revolutionary uprising—in New York 25,000 police and firemen were concentrated against the Union Square demonstration. Obedient to their capitalist masters, the A.F. of L. leaders cried out that it was all a Moscow plot—Matthew Woll shrieking that the T.U.U.L. had just received two million dollars from Russia to finance the great conspiracy against the United States.

The March 6th turnout of the workers was immense—110,000 in New York; 100,000 in Detroit; 50,000 in Chicago; 50,000 in Pittsburgh; 40,000 in Milwaukee; 30,000 in Philadelphia; 25,000 in Cleveland; 20,000 in Youngstown, with similar huge meetings in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and other cities all over the country. All told, 1,250,000 workers demonstrated against the outrageous conditions of hunger and joblessness. In the demonstrations Negro workers were a pronounced factor. Everywhere the unemployed had to face police brutality; in New York, for example, the police, refusing to permit the demonstrators to present their demands to the playboy "tin box" mayor, James J. Walker, violently dispersed the monster meeting. William Z. Foster, Robert Minor, Israel Amter, and H. Raymond, leaders of the demonstration, were arrested and railroaded to the penitentiary for indeterminate three-year terms.

The gigantic March 6th demonstration startled the entire country. Under the leadership of the Communists, the unemployed had stepped forth as a major political force. The great demonstration at once made the question of unemployed relief and insurance a living political issue in the United States. It showed that the masses were not going to starve tamely, as the bosses and reactionary union leaders had thought they would. The bourgeois and imperialist press grudgingly admitted that the Communists were leading the unemployed masses. The vast turnout gave a new sense of political strength to the Party. Altogether it was a magnificent demonstration of the Leninist leading role of the Communist Party.


The National Unemployed Council, made up of workers of all political affiliations, was organized in Chicago, on July 4, 1930, at a convention of 1,320 delegates. It was fully backed by the C.P., T.U.U.L., and Y.C.L. Local unemployed councils were set up in scores of cities all over the country. Besides the unemployed, the movement also included trade unions, fraternal societies, Negro organizations, and other sympathetic groupings. The councils fought for unemployment insurance, immediate cash and work relief, public work at union wages, food for school children, against eviction, against Negro discrimination, and so on. They used mass meetings, parades, petitions, picketing, hunger marches, and many other forms of agitation and struggle; they formed block committees to organize the workers in their homes. The main instrument for work inside the A.F. of L. was the A.F. of L. Committee for Unemployment Insurance and Relief, headed by Louis Weinstock of the Painters Union, which won the direct support of 3,000 local unions, 35 city central labor councils, 6 state federations, and 5 international unions. This movement concentrated its general political demand on the Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill  (H.R. 2827).

The Unemployed Councils, in the face of widespread police brutality, conducted a mass of activities to bring pressure upon employers, local relief boards, and the city, state, and national governments. They led hundreds of demonstrations on a local and national scale. Some of the most important national mass movements were those on May 1, 1930, with 350,000 participating; on National Unemployment Insurance Day, February 25, 1931, with 400,000 demonstrators, and the turnout, on February 4, 1932, with 500,000 in the nationwide mass meetings. Three times mass petitions with a million signatures or more were presented to Congress. There were also hunger marches from the industrial centers to the capitals in many states. And then there were the two national hunger marches to Washington on December 7, 1931 (1,800 marchers) and December 6, 1932 (3,000 marchers).

These national hunger marches attracted tremendous attention. They were highly organized. The marchers traveled in old automobiles, which had been collected; the participants were registered, and each car, detachment, and column had a leader. The strictest discipline prevailed. Columns started from St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, and elsewhere, with regularly scheduled and organized stop-over places. All the columns converged upon Washington with clockwork precision. The return journey was made in an equally disciplined and organized manner. Attempts of American Legion elements and assorted hoodlums to break up the marches en route failed.

In Washington the marchers were a sensation. Their band played The International on the great plaza before the Capitol. Thousands of police and detectives had been mobilized from all over the country. Troops at nearby forts were held in readiness. One would have thought the marchers were going to try to overthrow the government. As the first hunger march went along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House (and later to the A.F. of L. building) to lay its demands before Hoover   (and Green), the parade was Hanked on both sides by rows of marching policemen who outnumbered the hunger marchers by at least two to one. The Party concentrated its entire forces upon making these national marches successful.

The manifold activities of the Unemployed Councils, besides making a burning national issue of unemployment insurance, also resulted in securing many immediate relief concessions to the unemployed all over the country. The frightened capitalist class saw that the old game of letting the workers starve it out during economic crises would no longer work. They were dealing with an awakening working class, one which in the next few years would write some epic labor history.


While the unemployed, under the leadership of the Communists, were thus militantly fighting against starvation, the masses of organized workers, locked in the grip of the Green misleaders, were yielding, almost without any resistance, to the repeated, deep-cutting wage slashes of the crisis years. Like Hoover, the top union leaders (though they made wordy complaints to the contrary) believed that the wage cuts were economically necessary; hence they helped the bosses put them through. This was quite in line with their no-strike, class collaboration policies of the previous Coolidge "prosperity" period, The union leaders' spinelessness and corruption in this respect were illustrated by the fact that when the railroad unions accepted a national 10 percent wage cut without a strike, Matthew Woll hailed it as one of the greatest industrial achievements in the history of the country. Consequently, during the crisis years the number of strikes fell to a record low, in contrast to the naming resistance of the workers during the crises of 1877, 1893, and 1921. Hoover, at the A.F. of L. convention in 1930, might well gloat that "For the first time in more than a century of these recurring depressions, we have been practically free of bitter industrial conflicts." Small wonder that during the crisis the Federation lost about a fifth of its membership.

With the Communist Party so heavily engaged in leading the unemployed all over the country, the lefts and progressives were unable also to secure the leadership of the employed, to smash the no-strike policy of the Green bureaucracy, and to develop a solid resistance against the sweeping wage cuts of the period. Nevertheless, during this period the T.U.U.L. unions, most of whose leaders were Communists, did lead a number of important strikes. These included several textile strikes against wage cuts in New England, involving some 75,000 workers. A very important and successful strike was that of 1,500 steel workers led by the T.U.U.L. in October 1932, at the Republic Steel plant at Warren, Ohio. Then there were numerous small strikes among the needle trades workers in various cities, together with T.U.U.L. strikes in food and other industries. Important, too, were big T.U.U.L.-led strikes of 7,000 agricultural workers in Imperial Valley, California, in 1930, and 18,000 Colorado beet workers in 1932.

But the most important T.U.U.L. strike of the crisis period was that of 42,000 coal miners, 6,000 of whom were Negroes, in the Pittsburgh area, beginning in May 1931. This was the largest strike ever led by a left-wing union in the United States. The fierce struggle, with its slogan of "Strike against Starvation," was conducted by the National Miners Union—T.U.U.L. The miners, whose U.M.W.A. union had been destroyed locally in the great strike of 1927-28, were at the last extreme of hunger and desperation. The strikers fought in the face of violence from the mine operators, the government, and the U.M.W.A. leaders. After a desperate struggle of four months the strike was broken. An aftermath of this bitter fight was a strike of 8,000 Kentucky miners, on January 1, 1932, also under the leadership of the N.M.U. Guerrilla war conditions prevailed, with the whole union leadership arrested in Pineville. This strike, too, was beaten. Harry Simms, Y.C.L. organizer, was killed in this Kentucky strike.

The Labor Research Association listed 23 workers brutally murdered by the police, company gunmen, and vigilante thugs in the many struggles of the Communist Party, Unemployed Councils, and Trade Union Unity League during 1929-32. Eight of these were killed in strikes and 15 in unemployed demonstrations. Hundreds more were slugged and jailed. Five workers were killed by police in the famous hunger march to the Detroit Ford plant on March 7, 1932, including Joe York, Y.C.L. organizer and Joseph Bussell, 16-year-old Y.C.L. member. Three Negroes were shot down in an anti-eviction fight in Chicago on August 4, 1931. Unemployed Council and T.U.U.L. headquarters were raided repeatedly. Two national secretaries of the National Textile Workers Union, William Murdock and Pat Devine, were deported to England as Communists. The Food Workers Industrial Union had no injunctions issued against it in New York strikes, and 100 T.U.U.L. agricultural strikers were arrested, with eight of their leaders being sent to the penitentiary for terms of from 3 to 42 years. It was during this period, in May 1930, that the House of Representatives established the Fish Committee, forerunner of the notorious Dies, Thomas, Wood, Rankin, and McCarran thought-control committees of later years.


One of the greatest achievements of the Communist Party during the big  economic  crisis was its penetration of the South. During the Coolidge years the Party had carried on considerable work in the South —the building of scattered branches, the Foster election tours of 1924 and 1928, and so on. But its real work there began when, on August 30, 1930, it established the Southern Worker at Chattanooga, Tennessee with James S. Allen as editor. Conditions in the South at the time were shocking—huge unemployment, sharecropper farmers at the point of starvation, and the country overrun with a plague of terroristic organizations—K.K.K., Blue Shirts, Silver Shirts, Black Shirts, Crusaders, White Legion, and others.

The Party worked bravely in this extremely difficult situation. It carried on unemployed demonstrations among the textile workers in the area from Virginia to Georgia, and also in various other centers. It actively led the heroic strike of the Negro and white miners of Kentucky and Tennessee early in 1932, under the auspices of the National Miners Union. In diis bosses' civil war many were killed. The Harlan County mine operators association posted a reward of $1,000 for the arrest of Frank Borich, Communist president of the N.M.U., dead or alive. 4 For a worker to carry a card in the N.M.U. or the Communist Party subjected him to a charge of criminal syndicalism. The Party was also very active among the Negro and white steel workers and miners of the Birmingham, Alabama, area. 5

The greatest struggle that developed out of the Party's southern penetration was the international fight to save the nine Scottsboro youdis. On March 25, 1931, nine Negroes—mere boys—were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama, charged with having raped two white girls on a freight train. Actually the rape never occurred, as Ruby Bates, one of the girls concerned, later publicly testified. 6 Nevertheless, as part of the general terrorism directed against the Negro people, the nine boys—C. Norris, C. Weems, H. Patterson, O. Powell, O. Montgomery, E. Williams, A. Wright, W. Roberson, and Roy Wright, were quickly convicted in a lynch atmosphere, and all except Wright (who was 13 years old) were sentenced lo die in the electric chair.

On April 9th, the International Labor Defense wired Governor Miller, demanding a stay of execution, and sent its lawyer, the veteran Communist Joseph Brodsky, to Alabama to defend the Negro youths about to be legally lynched. Meanwhile, the Communists moved promptly to make the case known all over the country, which action saved the boys from death. However, the A.F. of L., S.P., A.C.L.U., and even the N.A.A.C.P. displayed no interest in the case.

Then began a great legal mass struggle lasting for many years and paralleling the famous Mooney fight. The case was fought back and forth in the Courts. Mass meetings were held all over the country. The C.P. led all this work. Liberal and labor organizations finally interested themselves. In 1934, the American Scottsboro Committee, led by S. Leibowitz, was set up, and in 1935 the united front Scottsboro Defense Committee was organized; it was made up of the I.L.D., N.A.A.C.P., A.C.L.U., L.I.D., Methodist Federation for Social Service, and other organizations. This defense committee waged the legal battle, while the I.L.D. conducted the mass campaign. J. Louis Engdahl, general secretary of the I.L.D., died of pneumonia while touring Europe, speaking on the case. After the lynchers were frustrated in their attempts legally to murder the Negro youths, then came the fight to save the latter from the ferocious prison sentences —up to 99 years—that were inflicted on them. Actually, it was not until 1950 that this scandalous frame-up came to an end, with the release of the last of the innocent Scottsboro prisoners. 7 William L. Patterson was I.L.D. national secretary during most of this big struggle.

The great Scottsboro fight made the Communist Party known and respected by the Negro people everywhere. An aftermath of Scottsboro was the bitter fight of the sharecroppers at Camp Hill, Alabama, on July 16, 1931. With cotton selling at nine cents per pound and costing 17 cents to produce, the economic conditions of the sharecroppers were terrible. The landlords were raising rents, seizing more and more of the tenants' crops, and even robbing the small farmers of their livestock. The Party in the South, undertaking to organize the Negro and white sharecroppers, proposed as an emergency program 50 percent reduction in rents and taxes, a five-year stay on all debts and mortgages, and a cash advance from the government to the small farmers. 8

An important struggle began in January 1931, by a march to England, Arkansas, of 500 Negro and white sharecroppers, who forced the local planters and merchants to give them food. Meanwhile, Communist Party members initiated the formation of the Share-Croppers Union in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. A heavy clash came at Camp Hill in July when a meeting of the union, called to protest the Scottsboro outrage, was broken up by a white mob and the meeting place, a church, was burned to the ground. Captured after a gun battle in which the sharecroppers had defended themselves against mob violence, the Negro leader, Ralph Gray, was cold-bloodedly murdered by the mob. Scores of Negroes were slugged and arrested. But the Share-Croppers Union grew.  By the end of  1932  it numbered   1,500 members,  and it was to play an important part in the tenant farmers' struggles during the New Deal years.

Another big battle growing out of these early years of the Party's work in the South was the Angelo Herndon case. Herndon, a member of the Y.C.L., was arrested in Atlanta, on July 11, 1932, because of his activities in behalf of the Scottsboro boys and the unemployed. He was charged with incitement to insurrection (under a law of 1861) and after a kangaroo trial was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. The I.L.D. led the broad united front fight, and the leading lawyer was Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., now in prison as a member of the National Committee of the Communist Party. It was a long legal battle, backed by innumerable mass meetings and a huge petition campaign. The Supreme Court at first sustained the conviction but eventually reversed itself by a five-to-four decision. Herndon, out on $18,000 bail, was finally freed in 1937 from the clutches of the white supremacist lynchers.

During this period one of the most dramatic episodes in the Communist Party's figiit against white chauvinism, both within and without the ranks of the Party, was the public trial of a Party member, A. Yokinen, in March 1931, in New York City. Yokinen, charged with practicing social discrimination against Negroes, was given an open hearing, at which were present 211 delegates from 133 mass organizations, as well as 1,500 spectators. Found guilty by the workers' jury, he was expelled, but promised to change his course thereafter. 9

While the Communist Party was thus battling bravely and energetically for rights of the Negro people, the reactionary spirit of the Socialist Party was shown by the following scandalous item in its official organ: "Almost all the Southerners believe in segregating the Negro and depriving him of the social and political rights that whites enjoy. The Southern Socialists must adjust themselves to this state of affairs. It is certain that there never will be a thriving movement in the South unless it is conducted in southern style."10 Top A.F. of L. policy also remained at a similar reactionary Jim Crow level.


The farmers of the West and Middle West fought back against the economic crisis hardly less militantly than the unemployed workers and the Negro people. They faced impossible conditions. Not only had the farmers' income been cut to less than one-half, but the banks and insurance companies were actively foreclosing on mortgages.   From 1929 to 1933. some 1,019,300 farmers accordingly lost their property.11

The farmers developed an aggressive fight against these barbarous ronditions. They organized milk strikes, carried on demonstrations, demanded relief. One of their most effective weapons was the so-called "penny sale." That is, when a foreclosed farm was put up for auction a friendly neighbor would bid a penny for it and the farmers assembled would prevent anyone else from going above this bid. The revolt against foreclosures reached the point of open resistance in many places.

The Communist Party was very active in many rural areas and actively supported this strong farmers' movement. Mainly upon its initiative, the Farmers' National Relief Conference was organized in Washington on December 7, 1932, side by side with the Second National Hunger March. Present were 248 delegates from 26 states, representing 33 organizations and unorganized farmers. The Conference set up a Farmers' National Committee of Action. In November 1933, this Committee of Action met in Chicago; the conference had 702 farmer delegates from 36 states, representing the Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, Farmers Holiday Association, and others. Communist and other left influences was responsible for its program, which called for cancellation of the debts of small and middle farmers, no forced sales or evictions, cash relief for destitute farmers, reduction in rents and taxes, reductions in prices of things the farmers must buy, and abolition of the system of oppression of the Negro people. This militant movement had much to do with developing the important role played by the farmers during the oncoming New Deal years.


One of the most significant and dramatic events of the crisis years of 1929-33, was the national bonus march of the war veterans to Washington in July 1932. The ex-servicemen, suffering the full blows of the deep economic crisis, betrayed by the American Legion officials, and kicked around politically by the Hoover Administration, took a leaf from the book of the unemployed and en masse presented their griev-ances to the heads of the federal government. The call for the national march to Washington was made at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee in April 1932 by representatives of the Workers Ex-Servicemen's League (W.E.S.L.). This organization was led nationally by the well-known Communists Emanuel Levin, Peter Cacchione, James W. Ford, and others.

There was a tremendous response by the veterans to the call for the march. Unorganized groups of veterans poured into Washington from all over the country, occupying empty buildings and setting up a great shack camp on the Anacostia flats. Attempts by the Administration, reactionary American Legion officials, and the A.F. of L. leaders to head off the demonstration only increased it. Many Negro workers were in the march, and there was no Jim Crow at Anacostia. The press shrieked "reds"  and "revolution."12

The marchers in Washington eventually reached a total of 25,000. They shouted, "We Fought for Democracy—What Did We Get?"; "Heroes in 1917—Bums in 1932." Their central demand was the payment of their adjusted service pay—miscalled a bonus. 13 This demand the Communist Party actively supported in the face of strong opposition from the Socialist Party and A.F. of L. leadership. Eventually the "bonus" was realized under the Roosevelt New Deal.

The Hoover Administration, highly embarrassed by the ex-soldier marchers and unable to induce them to leave Washington with their demands unmet, finally ordered out the armed forces against them. General Douglas MacArthur, nowadays posing as an ultra-patriot, military genius, and peerless statesman, thereupon, had his troops, armed with bayonets and tear gas, violently drive the ex-soldiers from their camp and burn it down. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then an aide of MacArthur and now an eager aspirant for the U.S. presidency, also participated in this dastardly affair. Two veterans were killed and scores wounded. This was the infamous "Battle of Washington." It proved to be a nail in the political coffin of President Hoover. It now rises to menace the hopes of General MacArthur to be the first fascist ruler of America.

The Communists played a very important part in this great movement of the veterans. The W.E.S.L., however, with its very small forces, was not able to maintain the leadership of the swiftly developing struggle. Another factor in this inadequacy was some initial hesitation in the Party leadership as to the potentialities of the movement.


At election time in 1932 the country, after 37 months of economic crisis, remained industrially paralyzed. The Republican Party, with Hoover as its candidate, proposed nothing but a continuation of the latter's fruitless policies. The Democrats, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, outlined a platform differing little from that of the Republicans; Roosevelt proposing government economy, a balanced budget, sound currency, and making general promises of unemployment relief. Roosevelt gave no indication of his later extensive reform program, but he did refer in his speeches to "the forgotten man," and he proposed vaguely a "new deal." The A.F. of L. leaders leaned toward Roosevelt, but still clung officially to their antiquated Gompersite nonpartisan policy. The election, a foregone conclusion, went overwhelmingly to Roosevelt by the record plurality of seven million. He carried all the states but six.

The Communist Party put up as its candidate for president William Z. Foster, and for vice-president James W. Ford, a Negro and former Alabama steel worker, whose grandfather had been lynched by klansmen. The Party's election platform included demands for unemployment and social insurance at the expense of the state and employers; opposition to Hoover's wage-cutting policy; emergency relief for the hard-pressed farmers without restrictions by the government and banks; exemption of impoverished farmers from taxes) and no forced collection of rents or debts; equal rights for Negroes and/ self-determination for the Black Belt; opposition to capitalist terror; opposition to all forms of suppression of the political rights of the workers; opposition to imperialist war; defense of the Chinese people and the Soviet Union. The Party, on the ballot in 40 states, campaigned aggressively, holding hundreds of meetings, distributing seven million leaflets, and selling a million pamphlets. In the midst of the campaign Foster suffered a heart attack, which was to lay him up, more or less, for several years. The Party's national vote was 102,991.


Obviously the Communist vote in the election, although more than double that polled by the Party in 1928, was in no sense proportionate to the big struggles led, and militant leadership showed, by the Party and other left-progressive organizations during the crisis years. The basic explanation for this disproportion was that although the workers in masses willingly followed Communist leadership in the bitter fights for their daily demands—relief, wages, etc.—they were not yet ready to make the break with capitalism as such, which they felt that a vote for the Communist candidates would imply. Also, caught in the trap of the two-party system, they did not want to "throw away their votes" on minority candidates.
The Party itself tended to restrict its vote and general mass influence by failing to develop a broad united front election campaign around the burning issues of the period, summarized in its platform. It should have kept these immediate questions far more to the front in its election work. Instead, it laid altogether too much stress upon such advanced slogans as "The revolutionary way out of the crisis," and "A Workers and Farmers Government." This was a leftist sectarian error, into which the Party was led by its failure more skillfully to develop a Leninist line to meet the devastating economic crisis situation.

At the seventh Party convention in June 1930, the secretariat was reorganized to consist of W. W. Weinstone, organization secretary; William Z. Foster, trade union secretary; and Earl Browder, administrative secretary. Browder was formerly editor of the Labor Herald and Labor Unity and had long been a member of the Central Executive Committee.

During the crisis years of 1929-33, the membership of the Communist Party went up from somewhat less than 10,000 members to 18,000, and that of the Y.C.L. reached about 3,000. These figures, however, also bore but little relationship to the extensive influence of the Communists in the broad mass struggles of the period. The workers, still believing in capitalism, while following the Communists in daily fights, were not yet disposed to join up with militant Communist organizations in large numbers, even as they were not ready to vote the Party election ticket.

Nevertheless, far greater membership gains could have been registered had it not been for inadequate organizational work, especially due to the effects of a stubborn tendency to believe that Party recruiting could not be carried on during mass struggles. The Party, in fact, was beginning to fall into the bad habit of doing nearly all of its recruiting during special membership drives, usually held during less tense political periods. Other negative factors of major significance in keeping down the Party's numbers were a lingering underestimation of the importance of specific youth organization and also, even among Communists, a failure to grasp fully the all-decisive importance of building a powerful mass Communist Party. The latter weaknesses have been particularly strong in the United States, where the trade unions have been the chief leading organizations of the working class and where the workers' parties historically have played.much less of a role.

1 See Labor Research Association, Labor Fact Book 2, N. Y., 1934.
2 Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, p. 294.
3 The C.P. convention of 1929 reported a membership of 9,642.
4 The Southern Worker, Feb. 27, 1932.
5 Mary Southard, unpublished manuscript.
6 Daily Worker, Apr. 6, 1935.
7 Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad, Scottsboro Boy, N. Y., 1950. 
8 The Southern Worker, March 21, 1931.
9 Race Hatred on Trial, N. Y., 1931. 
10 New Leader, June 21, 1930.
11  Labor Research Association, Labor Fact Book 2, p. 148.
12  Statement of the Communist Party in The Communist, Sept. 1932. 
13 Jack Douglas, Veterans on the March, pp. 16-18, N. Y., 1934.

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