CPUSA Donates Archive

New York University has received an archival goldmine. The Communist Party USA has donated their archive of 12,000 cartons of material that includes internal directives and memos, communiqu?s from Moscow, photographs, letters, programs, pamphlets, and even some artifacts, like Joe Hill’s handwritten will, which he composed in verse just before his execution in 1915. It’s an amazing collection that will surely give insight in the CPUSA’s history, its relationship to Moscow, and its place in American labor and civil rights movements.

Every box offers up a different morsel of history. One contains a 1940 newsletter from students at City College in New York criticizing Britain for betraying the Jews in Palestine; another has a 1964 flyer from the Metropolitan Council on Housing urging rent strikes “to oppose the decontrol of over-$250 apartments.” There are the handwritten lyrics to Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”; a letter from W. E. B Du Bois in 1939 denying he took money from Japan for propagandizing on its behalf; and detailed complaints of police brutality against African-Americans.

Piles of prison correspondence from activists or party members show the human hand behind the rhetoric. “My dear wife Lydia,” Minor writes in pencil after being arrested in 1930 during a labor rally in Union Square in Manhattan. “That little half-hour today seemed the shortest of my whole lifetime. And so indescribably sweet!”

One intriguing file contains the notes and drafts of CP cartoonist and journalist Robert Minor. Minor covered the Russian Civil War. According to the NY Times, Minor provided “a clear-eyed and lyrical account” of Lenin in a 1918 interview.

Lenin was fascinated by America, calling it a “great country in some respects,” and shot question after question at Minor: “ ‘How soon will the revolution come in America?’ He did not ask me if it would come, but when it would come.” Minor, who had not yet joined the party, found Lenin a bewitching figure. “When he thunders his dogma, one sees the fighting Lenin. He is iron. He is political Calvin,” Minor says in his typewritten notes. “And yet, Calvin has his other side. During all the discussion he had been hitching his chair toward me,” he writes. “I felt myself queerly submerged by his personality. He filled the room.”

As he leaves the Kremlin, Minor notices two men drive up in limousines. “A few months ago they were ‘bloodthirsty minions of predatory capital,’ ” he writes, “But now they are ‘people’s commissaries’ and ride in the fine automobiles as before, live in the fine mansions.” They rule “under red silk flags to protect them from all disorders. They have learned the rose smells as sweetly under another name.”

One does hope, as CUNY Professor John P. Diggins suggests, that the archive will inspire a slew of new dissertations to provide a much deeper and colorful picture of American radical movements.