CPUSA loss of membership after the Nazi-Soviet Pact

John Haynes Discussion

There has been a great deal of progress in the scholarly study of American Communist history in the last thirty or forty years.  But sometimes one comes across something in current scholarly literature that is so jaw-dropping absurd one has to realize we still have a long ways to go.

The April issue of the American Historical Review contains a long review of the multivolume The Cambridge History of Communism.  The review is written by Jeffrey Burds, a historian at Northeastern University and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Russia & the Soviet Union.  He writes in the review: “Curiously, [redacted] made no mention of the August 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, when more than three quarters of American Communists (including most Jews) would abruptly resign from the Communist Party.” 

“More than three quarters”?  Even before the opening of CPUSA records in Moscow I can’t remember any serious historian who estimated the impact of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was even close to “more than three quarters.”  In any event, the records were opened in the 90s and we know with considerable precision what the actual figures were.  

As Harvey Klehr and I documented in The Soviet World of American Communism (1998), CPUSA registered membership peaked at 66,000 in January 1939 before the Pact, dropped to 55,000 by January 1940 after the Pact, and then to 50,000 by January 1941.  Further the party’s records show that nearly half of the loss, 7,500, were immigrants who had not taken out citizenship papers and whom the party had dropped so as to avoid coming under the Voorhis act.  This left 8,500 as the maximum loss that one could attribute to disillusion with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  A loss of 13% over two years is a significant loss but it is not even in the same league as a claim that more than 75% “abruptly resigned” due to the Pact.  And now thousands of historians will read this badly mistaken figure in the American Historical Review and, alas, far too many are likely to believe it and pass it on. 

John Haynes

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Thank you, John Haynes, for redacting my name from Jeffrey Burd's comment on my essay on American Communism that "Curiously, [redacted] made no mention of the August 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, when more than three quarters of American Communists (including most Jews) would abruptly resign from the Communist Party.” Apart from the reviewer's significant inflation of CP defections in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that John rightly corrects, what I find "curious" is Burd's remark that I made "no mention" of the Pact. In fact three paragraphs are included (pp. 646-7):

....With the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Nonaggression Pact on
23 August 1939, the CPUSA parroted Soviet foreign policy and pledged
opposition to the “imperialist” war. Being a loyal communist meant an
unhesitating defense of the Soviet Union. It meant ideological myopia:
being blinded by the Soviet myth. It meant an unquestioning adherence to
the current party line, however sectarian or self-defeating or contradictory it
may have seemed. And it meant discarding intellectual integrity and moral
balance. The stricture to conform to orthodoxy was intense, as was the
pressure to close eyes or mouths when challenged with doubts about the
Moscow purges in the late 1930s or confronted with evidence of Soviet anti-
Semitism in the late 1940s.

So in 1939 American communists denied their popular front experience
and returned to policies and rhetoric that revived the Third Period.
Previous enthusiasm for Roosevelt was retracted, and he and his “war
party” were designated as quasi-fascist. Alliances were splintered or
broken. Progressives with whom the party had worked closely were now
denounced as traitors to the working class. Intellectuals who deserted were
lampooned as lily-livered weaklings who “fawn when their imperialist
masters crack the whip.”9 Key supporters, such as the American Labor
Party’s Vito Marcantonio, were judged, and jettisoned, according to the
litmus test of “proletarian internationalism”: what one thought about
the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Consistent with Comintern
communications, fervent isolationism became the order of the day:
People wore “The Yanks are not coming” buttons and a “Keep America
out of war” committee was quickly formed.

This volte-face astonished, confused, demoralized and angered CPUSA
members. In the words of one, they were “knocked off balance by this
abrupt turn.”10 A great many Jewish communists felt betrayed: Seeing
photos of Viacheslav Molotov shaking hands with Joachim von
Ribbentrop was too much. Resignations flooded in. Critics were expelled.
Others quietly melted away. A few became committed anti-Stalinists; in
the 1950s they had neither forgiven nor forgotten. Overall, the CPUSA lost
approximately 40 percent of its membership. Less tangibly but more
significantly, it also lost much of the goodwill and respectability that had
steadily accumulated over the previous four years. Defections continued
and isolation increased during the “winter war,” when the USSR invaded
Finland (1939–40): a naked act of aggression unquestioningly supported by
the CPUSA leadership. In Harlem, the party lost its black base and its
“betrayal” was attacked by former long-time radical allies, such as Adam
Clayton Powell, Jr.11 ....

Phillip Deery

The relevant documents are: Nat Ross, “Organisational Status and Organisational Problems of the CPUSA, 27 August 1939, RTsKhIDNI 515-1-4083; “Report of J.W.” [John Williamson, CPUSA organizational secretary], 27 May 1941, RTsKhIDNI 515-1-4209; T. Ryan [Eugene Dennis], “The Organizational Position of the CPUSA,” 1 April 1941, RTsKhIDNI 515-1-4091. Dennis in his 1941 report put the January 1939 registered membership at 65,000 rather than the 66,000 Ross reported in 1939.

John Earl Haynes

RTsKhIDNI documents were transferred to RGASPI 20 years ago.

Grover Furr

RTsKhIDNI and RGASPI are the same archive. It was just a name change.

Professor Jeffrey Burds replied in the AHR with a continued defense of his assertion that "more than three-quarters of American Communists . . . would abruptly resign" after the Nazi-Soviet Pact. My comments on his defense (also reproduced) are in "On Jeffrey Burds comments in the American Historical Review", a paper that can be downloaded from academia.edu.

I accept the figures that John cites from the files at RGASPI. However, it is of interest that the FBI's numbers are very similar to those that John and Harvey found in RGASPI. The FBI's figures: 70,000 in 1939, 55,000 in 1940, 50,000 in 1941. See Membership of the Communist Party, 1919-1954, which Ernie Lazar has put online.