During the 1950s, senators, governors, and labor leaders denounced it as a "fifth column in the Cold War," outlawed its activities, banned its members from government jobs and from many ordinary trades. Left-wing groups of the 1960s, most of which had more radical programs, derided it as "the tail on the Democratic donkey," and perhaps with some accuracy, styled it as "too red for the liberals, and too liberal for the reds."
The Party never recovered from the two-fisted assault, nor did the Left. No group of its potency and size has taken its place, and the political terrain shows little hope for renewal now.
But the Communist faithful plod on, some of them, like San Antonio's John Stanford, because they are old enough to have endured even tougher times. Founded in 1919, the Party became the pre-eminent American radical group after members of the more broadly based Socialist Party, including presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, opposed American entry into World War I. To its advantage, in those days the Party had a clean slate and a fraternal relationship with the Bolsheviks, whose industrial leap soon earned the envy of much of the globe.
During the Great Depression, economic collapse at home and the threat of a new European war spurred the Party's membership to a peak of about 100,000. The Party's heyday was also partly the fruit of a tactical shift. From the mid—'30s onward, it pursued a consciously reformist, or evolutionary strategy, fitted to a people who were cautiously embracing a liberal regime under the weight of their own experience. With slogans like "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism," Party militants organized millions into unions, challenged segregation, fought in the trenches against fascists in Spain, and helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, four times.
Along the way, the Party picked up a few literary, scholarly, and even celebrity members. Novelists Richard Wright and Theodore Dreiser signed cards, as did NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois and historian Herbert Aptheker; by some accounts, Paul Robeson and even Lucille Ball belonged, too.
Activists flocked to the Party's banner nearly everywhere. San Antonio pecan strike firebrand Emma Tenayuca was a comrade for several years, and according to Stanford, East Side leader John Inman had been a member for a half-century when he died in 1996. But nearly half of the Party faithful lived in New York, and while they were able to elect two of their members to city council spots, conditions were much less favorable elsewhere, especially in the South. Records seized in Houston showed a total Texas enrollment of only 210 in 1949, the year after the Party began its nearly terminal decline.
A federal grand jury had indicted the Party's national leaders for "conspiring to teach the theory of the violent overthrow of the government," — i.e., for encouraging readers to study the works of Karl Marx.
Witch hunts followed by the score, and even as persecution tapered — perhaps because it had accomplished its ends — the worst arrived: The Soviets themselves denounced Stalin's crimes.
Over a two-year period in the wake of the Soviet disclosures, historian Maurice Isserman calculates that the Party's rolls, reduced by repression to a fifth of their peak, fell to about 3,000. It is unlikely that the Party's membership exceeds that number today.
Even during its prime, the Party suffered from a high turnover rate, 30 percent or more each year. Its influence came as much from sympathetic non-members, "fellow travelers" in the lexicon of the McCarthyites, and from those who quit, as from the duespayers who fearlessly hung on.
"People come in and out of the Party, but they almost always stay on the left," Stanford observes.
Today, the Party's members — there are fewer than 20 in San Antonio — are scattered across the spectrum of activist causes. Their chief common chore is circulating the Peoples Weekly World, the lone successor to New York's once-mighty Daily Worker and San Francisco's Peoples World.
The PWW's white pages are criss-crossed with type bars of red and blue; the tabloid looks like a flag. It's a tame organ, whose heroes of the day are striking Yale janitors and fleeing Texan legislators, not gun-toting rebels in Gaza or Nepal. Activists who read the PWW regard it as a bulletin board of American protest and as a source of news suppressed by mainstream media. But Marx must be weeping in his grave. Not only is the Soviet experiment kaput, but only a few of the Weekly World's readers believe, as the Party does, that salaried and hourly American workers have nothing to lose but their chains. •