Excerpts: A Historical Essay by Gail O’Brien

Gail O’Brien is a professor emerita of history at North Carolina State University and the author of The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South.

Following the strike by Local 22 in the spring of 1947 and the HUAC hearing that summer, Junius decided to reveal publicly that he was a member of the CPUSA. He hoped that the respect that he and his family commanded in the Chapel Hill vicinity and around the state would demonstrate that Communists were not the demonic threat that the growing Anti-Communist movement asserted. Unfortunately, his hope did not materialize.

When Scales joined the CPUSA on his nineteenth birthday, March 19, 1939, it was on an upward trajectory in terms of membership and influence. When he left in 1957, at the age of thirty-seven, it was falling apart. The successes and failures of the CPUSA stemmed in part from the nature of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine to which it adhered. They also resulted from the relationship between the CPUSA and Soviet Communists and from the actions and responses of Anti-Communists in the U.S. to the Party during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

A significant problem encountered by the American CP was that the U. S. was quite different from the worlds in which Marxism and Leninism were created. In The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Marx and Engels contemplated the evolution of British and European society from a feudal to an industrial state. As Marx saw it, over time wealth would become increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists, while growing numbers of workers would become more and more destitute. Eventually, a workers’ revolution would bring a classless and equitable society. How and when this revolution would take place, and what rule by workers would look like, were left unclear.

Vladimir Lenin modified this doctrine in light of conditions in early twentieth century Russia in his 1902 work, What Is To Be Done? Given that Russia at this time was largely a peasant society, Lenin envisioned a small group of highly disciplined, highly centralized “professional revolutionaries” who would provide political leadership to the under-developed working class. Additionally, given the repressive measures with which the Russian Tsar met any political challenge, this vanguard party would seize power through a highly-secretive, underground operation.

Most Americans who were born and reared in the U.S., including industrial workers, did not buy into Marx’s vision, let alone Lenin’s alterations. Having never experienced feudalism and the persistence of an aristocracy based on bloodlines, most did not think in terms of social stratification or “classes.” Certainly, appeals for “class solidarity” had little resonance with workers divided by race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as skill level. Workers around the country, like those in the textile industry in 1934, were more than willing to join labor unions and to strike if necessary, but they sought a larger piece of the economic pie, not its destruction. Nor did the secular approach of Marx and Lenin sit well with the religious traditions of many American workers. For these reasons, the CPUSA, established in 1919, was not nearly as large and significant as its counterparts in Europe. Not surprisingly, the majority of members in the CPUSA at the time it was founded and for many years thereafter were immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe.

Given the disconnect between Marxist-Leninist doctrine and circumstances in the U. S., the CPUSA veered back and forth between two extremes from the time it was founded in 1919. In the late 1920s, early 1930s, last half of the 1940s, and first half of the 1950s, it adhered rigidly to Communist dogma, preaching class solidarity and revolution, creating its own labor unions, and trying to effect a revolutionary alternative to the Democratic and Republican Parties. When in this mode, the Party remained, or increasingly grew, small and isolated. In much of the 1920s and from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, it downplayed its doctrinal views, softened its language, and joined with left-liberals in union efforts and partisan affairs. During this time, the Party’s membership and influence increased. As Theodore Draper noted, the extremes of political orthodoxy or “sectarianism” on the one hand, and mass influence or “opportunism” on the other, were not irreconcilable positions; individuals could assume one stance or the other, depending on time and circumstances, and often, Draper added, these tendencies warred for supremacy within the same person …


Junius Scales, 1947

In retrospect, it may be difficult to understand how anyone could admire a regime headed by a brutal dictator like Joseph Stalin, but what we know about Stalin today was not always clear at the time, and even when it was, it was often downplayed. Thousands of American writers, scholars, journalists, and some government officials, as well as radicals, traveled annually to see the efforts being made by Stalin and his central planners to modernize the Soviet Union. Most praised these efforts and minimized the horrendous effects they were having on Russian peasants. Eight million died in 1932-33 as agriculture was placed under political control or collectivized and grain that would have been used for food and seed was removed from the countryside to feed industrial workers and to export for cash to purchase machinery. American visitors to the Soviet Union glossed over this horrible occurrence largely because they were convinced that modernization was highly desirable and that Russian peasants were hopelessly backward. These views had developed over a long period of time; neither materialized in the wake of the Russian revolution …

Finally, one of the CPUSA characteristics that was most harmful was its secretiveness. Party members often kept their political affiliation quiet as they toiled in labor unions or participated in other organizations, even during the Popular Front decade from 1935-1945. In response to the Red Scare in 1919-20, Communists went underground. Because top leaders like Foster believed that fascists were about to take over in the U. S. following WWII, the CPUSA implemented an underground plan again in 1951 when the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions of eleven high-level Communist leaders in the first Smith Act trial. At this point, Junius was forced to leave Gladys and his infant daughter Barbara behind, becoming “operational but unavailable,” as he traveled circuitous routes from city to city under a system of aliases, conducting furtive meetings with Communist groups in southern states under his jurisdiction as District Organizer. This underground operation took an immense toll on everyone who participated, and most who were involved, like Junius, left the party in the mid-1950s, along with thousands of others, in the wake of revelations by Khrushchev about Stalin’s crimes and the suppression of the Hungarian revolution by the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, no Communist Party in any other democratic country practiced this kind of secrecy, and it undoubtedly contributed to, as well as resulted from, the intensity of McCarthyism. The main weapon of Congressional committees – most significantly, the House on Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) of the Judiciary Committee – was exposure. Being called before one of these committees and refusing to “name names” could bring a contempt citation and jail term. Taking the Fifth Amendment on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself avoided a jail sentence but not public derision. Either could result in ostracism from friends and neighbors and the loss of a job, an apartment, and even an insurance policy …

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