Chapter Thirteen: The Workers Party (1921)

13. The Workers Party (1921)

Foster in 1919 with leaders of the
Pennsylvania Steel Strike. 
The years immediately following World War I were years of virulent capitalist reaction. We shall deal with this offensive of capital more fully in the next chapter. During this period the United States went through many hard-fought strikes, numerous "race riots," and labor frame-up cases. The labor movement was fighting for its very existence. The severe economic crisis of 1920-21 sharpened the class struggle. This was the time when the Ku Klux Klan, flourishing as never before, claimed to have five million members. In order to play an important part in the current big class struggles, it was necessary that the Communist Party should carry on public activities in all kinds of tasks so far as possible under the existing circumstances. The fusing together of the two "underground" Communist Parties at the May 1921 convention was a long stride in this general direction.

But to get the Party fully into the open was no small problem. In fact, it was a unique task, which was to take nearly two years to accomplish. The basic difficulty, of course, was to develop the mass work of the Party in the face of the reactionary capitalist offensive then going on. There was little known Communist experience to serve as a guide in this specific situation. Of course, there were cases of Communist parties which, forced underground by capitalist terrorism, had emerged into legality during periods of revolutionary upheaval. Striking examples of this were given by the Bolsheviks during the 1905 and March 1917 revolutions in Russia, and also by the parties in the Balkans after World War I. There were similar experiences later in many European countries upon the defeat of Hitler and the revolutionary upsurge of the working class in the aftermath of World War II. But few, if any, examples were to be found then of Communist parties that had legalized themselves during periods of sharp reaction, such as existed in the United States.

Besides these objective difficulties to the Party's assuming a fully open status in the face of the current capitalist reaction, there were also subjective reasons making this task even more difficult. That is, the sectarianism still prevailing in the Party—the tendency to stand apart from the daily struggles of the masses and to deal only with Socialist agitation, under the pressure of the force and violence of the authorities—led to the tacit acceptance of "underground" conditions, to the idea that of necessity a Communist Party had to be illegal in a capitalist country. Such false conceptions were strengthened by the fact that the left-wing non-citizen immigrant workers were victimized by arbitrary deportation and needed all possible protection from ruthless reaction.


The Communist Party, as the basic champion of democracy, always strives to carry on its activities in the greatest possible publicity, in order most effectively to reach the masses with its message. This was the fundamental orientation of the C.P.U.S.A. during this difficult formative period. The Party, as best it could, moved toward winning for itself the prevailing popular democratic rights of free speech and free assembly, in spite of all the barbarous persecution to which it was subjected. And it eventually succeeded in this endeavor.

Nevertheless the opportunities for mass Communist work were being neglected because of sectarian moods in the Party. The May 1921 C.P. convention correctly declared, "Far greater and much more effective use of legal channels can and must be made. Our legal activities, always under the control of the Central Executive Committee of the C.P., should be amplified and intensified."1 In line with this decision, the Workers League was set up in New York City, and it ran candidates in the Fall elections of 1921. Attempts by the local election board to disqualify these candidates on the grounds that they were either in jail or indicted were defeated. The Party also began to take an active part openly in various current local political struggles.

The Party's first organizational step toward a fully open status, however, was taken with the establishment of the American Labor Alliance. This body was set up, rather tentatively to begin with, at an open convention in New York City, in July 1921. There were 15 organizations present, including the Irish American Labor League, National Defense Committee, Finnish Socialist Federation, Associated Toiler Clubs, American Freedom Foundation, Ukrainian Workers Clubs, Independent Socialist League, Marxian Educational League, Hungarian Workers Federation. The A.L.A. convention elected Elmer L. Allison as secretary and established headquarters at 201 West 13th Street.

The Alliance declared that its aim was to "unify, through a central body the great mass of discontented 'left' political and economic forces of the country and rally them about a common aim."2  Later, and more specifically, the A.L.A. stated that it "is of the opinion that the time is ripe for the organization of the class conscious workers of America into a new revolutionary Party and it announces that in the near future it will call a national conference to form such a Party." 3 To this general end, one of the essential moves of the A.L.A. was to come to an agreement with the Workers Council.


After the big split in the Socialist Party in 1919, which led to the formation of the two Communist parties, there remained a number of opposition elements within the S.P. who were still nursing the hope of using that organization as the working class Party. This tendency was led by J. Louis Engdahl, Alexander Trachtenberg, William Kruse, Margaret B. Prevey, and M. Olgin. Numerous centrists also went along, including Salutsky, and others. The lefts in this group made the serious error of not leaving the S.P. with their following immediately upon the formation of the Communist Party in 1919.

At the Chicago S.P. convention, in September 1919, this group was responsible for the passage of a resolution making a qualified (originally unqualified) application for affiliation to the Comintern. The latter sharply rejected this, stating that "The Socialist Party of the United States is not a working class Party, but an auxiliary of the American bourgeoisie, of American imperialism." 4 At the New York convention of the S.P., in May 1920, the Engdahl-Trachtenberg group was again defeated, although Trachtenberg, candidate for international secretary against Hillquit, received one-third of all votes cast. This group supported the nomination of Debs, then in jail, by the convention—Victor Berger, who favored Hoan, declaring that no American would vote for a man in jail. At that convention, the group functioned as the "Committee for the Third International," which it had previously organized to carry on propaganda within the S.P. They also formed, in May 1921, the Workers Council, which was a functioning political organization, claiming the support of the Jewish, Finnish, and Czech federations, the German Workers Educational Society, and a part of the Italian Federation. It also received the support of groups of English-speaking members throughout the country who still belonged to the Socialist Party and who were in favor of affiliation with the C.I. In June 1921, the S.P. held its convention in Detroit. The convention declared against the Communist International, against the dictatorship of the proletariat, and against mass action.

Whereupon, the Workers Council group belatedly quit the Socialist party. In an article in their official journal, entitled "Farewell to the Socialist Party," they declared, "The Committee for the Third International sees no further reason for staying in the Socialist Party. It believes that the Socialist Party has completely and beyond recovery outlived its usefulness as an agency for propaganda and as an instrument for the realization of socialism."5

During this period the S.P. suffered a series of losses, in addition to the withdrawal of the Workers Council. Most important, the Finnish Federation, with several thousand members, seceded on December 20, 1920; the Jewish Federation followed suit in September 1921; and one week prior to this the Bohemian Federation had voted by ten to one to withdraw from the Socialist Party. 6 From 1920 to 1922, the S.P. declined from 27,000 to 11,000 members.

The wholesale splittings from the Socialist Party in 1919-21 left Debs almost the sole prominent "left" still within the Party. He cut a tragic figure, this one-time battler for the left who had been such a brilliant propagandist for socialism but who was now unable to follow the path toward socialism. When the big Communist split was developing early in 1919, Debs kept silent, making no statements as to his position in the basic conflict within the Party. Evidently, however, while supporting the Russian Revolution, he did not understand the dictatorship of the proletariat because of his bourgeois-democratic prejudices, nor could he realize that his old co-workers in the leadership of the S.P. were in actuality enemies of socialism. He was in jail when the 1919 split took place. D. Karsner, who visited Debs at his home and at the Atlanta penitentiary, states that the latter said to him, "I do not see any difference between the Workers Party and the Socialist Party," and he proposed a fusion of the two parties. Debs is also reputed to have told Karsner, "I have arrived at the definite conclusion that my place in the future as in the past is in the Socialist Party." 7 Whatever he may have said to Karsner, the fact is that Debs remained in the bankrupt Socialist Party until he died on October 20, 1926.


The American Labor Alliance, with the active support of the Communist Party, began, in August 1921, to charter locals for a new organization. At the same time the Workers Council, which supported the plan for such a party, also began organizational work to the same end. On October 15th, the Workers Council issued a call for a conference to consider the possibilities of forming the new Party. In consequence, the American Labor Alliance and the Workers Council, after considerable negotiation, got together and issued a joint call to establish a new Party. 8

The call was endorsed by the following organizations: American Labor Alliance, and its affiliated bodies, the Finnish Socialist Federation, Hungarian Workers Federation, Italian Workers Federation, and the Jewish Workers Federation, the Workers Council of America, Jewish Socialist Federation, and Workers Educational Association (German). The call was signed by Elmer L. Allison, for the Workers Party Convention Committee.

Accompanying the convention call was a statement of principles, which the participating organizations were required to approve. It read:

"1. The Workers' Republic: To lead the working masses in the struggle for the abolition of capitalism through the establishment of a government by the working class—a Workers' Republic in America.
"2. Political Action: To participate in all political activities, including electoral campaigns, in order to utilize them for the purpose of carrying our message to the masses. The elected representatives of the Workers Party will unmask the fraudulent capitalist democracy and help mobilize the workers for the final struggle against their common enemy.
"3. The Labor Unions: To develop labor organizations into organs of militant struggle against capitalism, expose the reactionary labor bureaucrats, and educate the workers to militant unionism.
"4. A Fighting Party: It shall be a party of militant, class conscious workers, bound by discipline and organized on the basis of democratic centralism, with full power in the hands of the Central Executive Committee between conventions. The Central Executive Committee of the Party shall have control over all activities of public officials. It shall also co-ordinate and direct the work of the Party members in the trade unions.
"5. Party Press: The Party's press shall be owned by the Party, and all its activities shall be under the control of the Central Executive Committee."

The convention for the new Party was convened at the Labor Temple on East 84th Street, New York, December 23-26, 1921. There were 150 delegates from all over the country. Among the most important organizations represented, with power to affiliate, were, in addition to the Ameriran Labor Alliance and the Workers Council proper, the Russian, Finnish, South Slavic, Ukrainian, Irish, German, Greek, Jewish, Italian, jjsthonian, Spanish, Armenian, Lettish, Scandinavian, and Hungarian federations and sections. There were also fraternal delegates from such organizations, among others, as the Proletarian Party, Left Poalei Tsion, young Workers League, and the African Blood Brotherhood. The convention acted for a combined membership of some 20,000 in the fully accredited organizations, which issued nine daily and 21 weekly publications.

The convention was opened by J. Louis Engdahl, who in a short address greeted the delegates and dealt with the historic significance of the gathering as "opening a new epoch in the struggle of the American working class." He welcomed the delegates from the various groupings, "who for many years had been traveling different roads and had finally come together and found common ground in the joint effort to build a real revolutionary Party in America."

The three days of discussion that followed revealed substantial agreement on all major questions of principles and tactics. The only important differences were those raised by the three fraternal delegates from the Proletarian Party. They criticized the whole project of the convention from a narrow "leftist" sectarian viewpoint, claiming that their own tiny organization would suffice as the party of the working class. The Proletarian Party later refused to affiliate with the new Party.

The new organization was named the Workers Party of America. Plans were made for the early publication of an official organ, The Worker. A Central Executive Committee of 17 members was elected; Ruthenberg was chosen secretary, but since he was in jail, Caleb Harrison, appointed assistant secretary, was named to serve as acting secretary. New York City was designated as the seat of the national headquarters. 9


The Workers Party convention of 1921 constituted a very important stage in the history of the developing Communist Party of the United States. It established the long-sought unity of practically all the Communist forces in the country, and it also marked the conclusion of the founding phase of the Communist Party. It ended the period of almost exclusively Socialist propaganda and initiated the new Party into the beginnings of mass work. It dealt a number of blows at the traditional sectarianism of the left wing by working out an elementary program of immediate demands. It marked, especially, an important step in the open work of the Party. In short, the convention registered real progress in the adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to the specific conditions of the class struggle in the United States. Enemies of the Party, such as James Oneal, have tried to interpret the founding of the Workers Party and the adoption of its specific program as an abandonment of the Leninist line of the Communists. But this was nonsense. The whole development represented the normal growth of the Party in its historic task of combining Socialist propaganda with a militant struggle for the everyday needs of the workers and the masses of the people.

The W.P. program, for the first time in a generation of left-wing history, contained what might properly be termed both a maximum and a minimum program. It did not confine itself simply to outlining the basic program of communism. The main principles of the organization were stated in the document that accompanied the call for the convention. These (see page 190) expressed in simple terms the general Socialist aims of the Party without, however, defining in detail the general perspectives and strategy of the Party, which had so much occupied the attention of previous Communist conventions.

In this respect, the program declared, "The Workers Party will courageously defend the workers and wage an aggressive struggle for the abolition of capitalism." The convention also gave a ringing endorsement to the Russian Revolution, which had ushered in a new period, "the era of Workers Republics," and it demanded recognition of the Soviet government by the United States. After making a concrete analysis of the world setting in which the United States found itself and of the general position of American imperialism, the program proceeded to outline a course of practical mass struggle.

The trade union question occupied nearly half the space in the program. After dealing with the shameful desertion of the workers by their Social-Democratic leaders in the current bosses' offensive, the program called upon all workers to join the union of their trade, to form minority groups of left-wing workers within the unions, to work for fighting programs in the organizations,, and to depose the reactionary union leadership. The program condemned dual unionism and all ideas of destroying the old craft unions. It supported the amalgamation of the trade unions into industrial organizations.

On the Negro question much progress was registered over the past neglect of this vital matter. Under the head of "The Race Problem," the program, beginning with an analysis of the history of Negro oppression in the South, went on to say that "The Workers Party will support the Negroes in their struggle for liberation, and will help them in their fight for economic, political, and social equality. It will point out to them that the interests of the Negro workers are identical with those of the white. It will seek to end the policy of discrimination followed by organized labor. Its task will be to destroy altogether the barrier of race discrimination that has been used to keep apart the black and white workers, and weld them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of their common enemy." While falling short of an understanding of the Negro question as a national question, this was the most advanced resolution on the matter ever adopted by any Marxist party in the United States up to that time.

The resolution on the youth provided that "The C.E.C. [Central Executive Committee] of the W.P. appoint a provisional national organization committee to amalgamate all existing militant young workers' organizations, to create new ones wherever possible, and to carry on all work preparatory to the calling of a national convention which will unite these forces and officially launch the Young Workers League of America." Pursuant to this resolution, a conference was held a couple of months later and the proposed league was established.

A further resolution declared that "The Workers Party recognizes the necessity for an intensified struggle to improve women's conditions and to unify them in the common struggle with the rest of the working class against capitalism." It was to take the initiative in organizing and leading them in struggle. The convention pledged its support to the workers in agriculture. It also denounced the frame-ups against Mooney and Billings, and Sacco and Vanzetti, and it called upon the workers to fight for their freedom. Debs had been freed by President Harding, under strong mass pressure, and to him the convention said: "We greet with joy your homecoming [from prison] and fervently hope that you will soon again be fighting in the ranks of the American working class in their struggle for emancipation."

On the question of parliamentary action the program, while pledging participation in elections and in the general political life of the country, still displayed heavy indications of the traditional "left" sectarianism t>y considering parliamentary action exclusively as a means of exposing capitalism and of conducting Socialist agitation. The partial demands worked out for the elections and for other phases of the workers' struggles were altogether inadequate and in no sense presented a rounded-out program for the day-to-day struggle. The Party, as yet, also took no steps toward participation in that broad mass political activity of the American working class, the labor party.


The establishment of the Workers Party was an important step in winning the democratic rights of the Communist movement after it had been stripped, in its two original sections, of free speech and assembly by the ferocious Palmer raids of January 1920. But this progress was not achieved without a serious split in the Communist Party. Three members of the Central Executive Committee, believers in the theory that, of necessity, the Communist movement had to be "underground" in a country such as the United States, took the position that the very existence of the Workers Party would tend to liquidate the Communist Party both programmatically and organizationally. So they took a flat stand against this policy and developed a factional struggle to support their point of view. All attempts at resolving the differences having failed, the rebellious dissident group was suspended on November 2, 1921.

On February 3, 1922, the ousted group, under the name of the Workers Defense League of New England, issued a call for a national conference, to be held in New York City on February 18th. Here was formed the United Toilers of America, which, with a "leftist" line, was sharply opposed to the newly organized Workers Party. The new Party set up headquarters in New York and issued The Workers Challenge as its official organ. The United Toilers had a small following, mostly in the New York area, but it claimed a membership of 5,000. The movement was liquidated at the Bridgman C.P. convention of August 1922, nearly all of its members returning to the Party.

After the formation of the Workers Party in December 1921, the fight to establish in practice the democratic rights of the Communist Party proceeded apace. This question was the central issue at the Party convention in Bridgman, Michigan, in mid-August of 1922. Given the continuing post-war offensive of the employers against the whole labor movement, however, the convention, by a close vote, decided against liquidating the "underground" aspects of the Party. In the existing factional line-up, the majority group, led by Katterfeld and others, were known as the "Goose caucus," and they called the minority group, led by Ruthenberg, the "Liquidators."10

An indication that the government's attempt to outlaw the Party was not yet over—the Party convention was raided on August 22nd by agents of the F.B.I, and the State of Michigan, just as it had concluded its deliberations and was dispersing. Seventeen delegates were arrested with 40 more jailed later on.   They were all charged with violating the Michigan anti-syndicalist law-concretely, with "unlawful assembly." This was the beginning of a long legal fight (see next chapter) to win for the Party the elementary democratic right of freely presenting its program to the American people.

However, the conditions, marked by the illegal force and violence of the authorities, which had deprived the Party of its democratic rights, were changing. A new turn was developing in the general political situation (as we shall see in ensuing chapters), with the employers' offensive against the working class assuming less violent forms. The opportunity was, therefore, at hand for the Party to reach its desired goal of a completely public existence. Consequently, on April 7, 1923, the Communist party declared its full consolidation with the Workers Party. Thus, the "underground" period of the Communist Party, forced upon it by die barbarities of the Palmer raids, came to an end after 29 months. At its 1925 convention the Workers Party changed its name to the Workers (Communist) Party and, finally, at its 1930 convention, to the Communist Party of the United States. The winning of its elementary legal rights of free speech and assembly by the Communist Party was an important victory for democracy in the United States.

1 Proceedings of the Convention of the Communist Party in The Communist, July 1921.
2  The Toiler, N. Y., Aug. 6, 1921.
3 The Voice of Labor, Chicago, Sept. 30, 1921.
4 The Communist (U.C.P.), No. 10, igso.
5 The Workers Council, Sept. 25, 1921.
6 American Labor Year Book, 1922-23, p. 406.
7 David Karsner, Talks with Debs in Terre Haute, pp. 28-33, N. Y., 1922.
8  The Workers Council, Dec. 15, 1921.
9 For convention proceedings, see The Toiler, Jan. 14, 1921, and American Labor Year Book, 1923-84, p. 159.
10 For programs of the "Goose" and "Liquidator" caucuses, see The Communist, July 1922

Chapter 14

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