The Brooklyn-born playwright and critic Lionel Abel, who cut his political teeth in left-wing circles in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, remarked in his memoirs that during the Depression years, New York City “went to Russia and spent most of the decade there.” Leaving aside Mr. Abel’s taste for the mordant, he had a point.
For a few decades — from the 1930s until Communism’s demise as an effective political force in the 1950s — New York City was the one place where American communists came close to enjoying the status of a mass movement. Party members could live in a milieu where co-workers, neighbors and the family dentist were fellow Communists; they bought life insurance policies (excellent value for money) from party-controlled fraternal organizations; they could even spend their evenings out in night clubs run by Communist sympathizers (like the ironically named Café Society on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, a showcase for up-and-coming black performers like Billie Holliday).
What became the Communist Party U.S.A. (its name varied in the early years) was founded in Chicago in 1919 and, following a period of underground organization, opened its national headquarters in that city in 1921. But the bulk of the movement’s members were in New York, and in 1927 Communist headquarters were shifted to a party-owned building in Manhattan, at 35 East 12th Street, one block south of Union Square. (The building still stands, although under new ownership, and in what has evolved into a considerably less proletarian neighborhood than in the old days.)
New York would remain the capital city of American Communism from then on. Leading communists, including such figures as William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, had their offices on the top floor of the 12th Street building; accordingly, within the movement, it became the custom to refer to party leadership as the “ninth floor.” (And, for some reason, even in non- and anti-Communist left-wing circles, “the party” was always understood to refer to the Communists, rather than any rival organizations.)
Immigrants, many of them of Eastern European Jewish background, provided the main social base for the party in New York City in the 1920s: As late as 1931, four-fifths of the Communists living in the city were foreign-born.
Of course, immigrant radicalism was nothing new in New York. The socialist leader Morris Hillquit, born in Riga, Latvia, won more than a fifth of the votes cast in the 1917 mayoral election. Socialists initially hailed the news of the Bolshevik Revolution, but many of them — except for those who left to become Communists — came in time to understand and oppose the Soviet regime’s abandonment of the left’s traditional democratic and egalitarian ideals.
Neither of the two main rival left-wing parties, Socialists or Communists, enjoyed much success in the 1920s. But with the onset of the Great Depression, Socialists were poised once again to become the dominant party on the left. In the 1932 presidential election, the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, won almost nine times the votes that the Communist candidate, Mr. Foster, received. (Neither of them had a fraction of the support of the actual winner, Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
But the balance of power on the left was about to change, and nowhere would that change make itself felt more dramatically than in New York. With the Depression spiraling out of control in the early 1930s, the Soviet Union began to be viewed in a new and more sympathetic light by millions of people around the world, including many in the United States. The “workers’ state” with its planned economy, viewed at a hazy distance and with a lot of wishful thinking, seemed to offer a desirable alternative to the cruel irrationality of a failed capitalist system, with its mass unemployment and widespread social misery.
Marxism-Leninism, Communists proclaimed, was a science, whose practical application by centralized and disciplined revolutionary parties in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere, held the key to unifying the workers of the world. Within a few years of the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, Soviet leaders shifted their international strategy from promoting world revolution to seeking anti-fascist alliances with Western democratic powers. In the era of the “popular front,” as American Communists stressed the need for anti-fascist unity, they began to win grudging respect in labor and liberal circles, as useful allies in the struggle for social change.
Party members did their best to appear less threatening and less foreign-inspired even as they still praised all things Soviet, proclaiming that Communism was simply “20th-century Americanism.” Communists also reached out to groups they had previously scorned, like the New Deal Democrats, and to politicians they had previously denounced, like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
For a while, it worked. In cities around the country, from Detroit to Seattle to Los Angeles, Communists began to play a visible and effective role in politics, both local and national. But nowhere were they as successful as in New York.
By 1938, the party counted 38,000 members in New York State, about half its national membership, and most of those lived in New York City. Communists were increasingly native-born (although many were the children of immigrants). Party-organized mass meetings in the old Madison Square Garden were packed with as many as 20,000 participants; the annual May Day parades drew tens of thousands, too.
Some neighborhoods in New York could be likened to the “red belt” surrounding Paris: Communist-organized cooperative parties on Allerton Avenue in the Bronx were a strong base of party support, as were parts of East Harlem, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. In Harlem, the party’s strong commitment to fighting racism (still quite rare, even on the liberal left) helped it to attract the support of African-Americans across the social spectrum, including some leading artists like actor and singer Paul Robeson.
Communists were central to spreading the gospel of unionism from the garment trades to a host of previously unorganized industries and workplaces, as organizers and officials in the Transport Workers Union, the National Maritime Union, the Teachers Union and the American Newspaper Guild, among others. Ben Gold, the president of the Fur Workers Union, was one of the few labor leaders in the United States who openly avowed his Communist beliefs. A Communist candidate for the presidency of the city’s board of aldermen received nearly 100,000 votes in 1938; and during World War II, two open Communists, Peter V. Cacchione of Brooklyn and Benjamin Davis of Harlem, held seats on the City Council. At City College, Brooklyn College and Columbia University, there were hundreds of members of the Young Communist League, and thousands of students who joined Communist front groups like the American Youth Congress.
In the end, the decade or so that New York City “spent” in Russia came to nothing. The Communist Party’s ties to the Soviet Union, which forced it into the role of apologist for the worst crimes of the Stalin regime, from the Moscow Trials to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, limited its appeal even at the height of its success. With the onset of the Cold War, and of a second Red Scare more pervasive and longer-lasting than the original, Communists found themselves persecuted and isolated.
In 1956, with a hard core of 20,000 or so surviving members, the party was dealt a fatal blow when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered a “secret speech” to the 20th party congress in Moscow, denouncing his predecessor, Stalin, as a bloody mass murderer. The speech leaked. So did the disillusioned membership of the Communist Party U.S.A., reduced to a few thousand members by 1958, and never recovering much beyond that in decades to come. It did, however, survive the collapse of its political inspiration, the Soviet experiment.
On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the national headquarters of the Communist Party U.S.A. remains in New York City, on one floor of a party-owned building at 235 West 23rd Street. Party members are apparently divided over whether to keep the building, which generates considerable rent revenue, or make a killing on the real estate market by selling it.
A very capitalist question, in the end, to preoccupy the remaining comrades.
Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College, is the author of several books on the history of the American Left, including Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War.