California Communism and Its Afterlives: On Robert W. Cherny’s “San Francisco Reds”

California Communism and Its Afterlives: On Robert W. Cherny’s “San Francisco Reds”

San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919–1958 by Robert W. Cherny

WHEN SAM DARCY arrived in San Francisco in December 1930, he found an organization in disarray. As he entered Communist Party headquarters on the city’s “skid-road,” he found “seven or eight [men] lying around […] dead drunk.” A fight broke out when Darcy threw them out of the building; he had to take on two at once. A couple of days later, he was forced to defuse a tense situation after a handful of armed members “made a hold-up on some other Party members.” “[W]e had all we could do to prevent the police from learning of the situation,” he complained in a letter.

Darcy was the Communist Party’s new district organizer for California. In New York, the son of immigrant garment workers (né Dardeck) had distinguished himself by organizing mass demonstrations of the unemployed. Sensing a potential rival in the “swell-head” Darcy, national secretary Earl Browder sent him to the Party’s most remote outpost, the American politburo’s equivalent of banishment to Siberia. Immediately after its founding in 1919, the California branch had been devastated by intense state repression, its leaders jailed and deported on charges of “criminal syndicalism.” As the Party stumbled out from the underground during the following decade, it became mired in poisonous infighting, with rival factions occupying its Market Street headquarters. In the late 1920s, an internal report found that the state organization had “no functioning shop nuclei” and had failed either to get its candidates on the state ballot or to inform its members how to write them in. While his assignment may have been a form of punishment, Darcy quickly realized that his new position afforded him certain opportunities. California’s distance from New York allowed a degree of strategic, organizational, and ideological flexibility that was unusual in an “official” Moscow-aligned communist party. Beginning under Darcy’s leadership, the California CP surged in membership and political influence as it diverged in significant ways from the Party line.

Histories of the American Communist Party often focus almost exclusively on New York City, where the Party was headquartered and where a plurality of its members lived. But by the late 1930s, its other significant base was California, where it had a robust organization based in San Francisco. At its peak in 1947, the Party boasted nearly 10,000 California members. Other than New York, with its 33,000 registered communists, no other regional district came near this number. In its brief heyday, the CP came impressively close to California’s political mainstream, with a GI Bill–accredited school, leadership in major regional labor institutions, and a working relationship with the Democratic governor. In an organization known for its dogmatic rigidity, the California branch was distinguished by a considerable degree of autonomy. In the 1930s, it bucked Comintern policy by developing its own union strategy, vying for serious influence in the Bay Area labor movement. Later on, CP leaders in California defied the Party line by openly criticizing the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. They resisted national policies that mandated the expulsion of Japanese members during World War II and gay members during the postwar “Lavender Scare.” The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area, the gay liberation movement, César Chávez’s farmworkers movement, and the Berkeley student movement all had meaningful organizational and ideological roots in the California Party.

Despite the organization’s remarkable size and reach, and its outsize influence on the development of major 20th-century social movements, Robert W. Cherny’s San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919–1958 is the first scholarly general history of the Communist Party in California. This is the third book by Cherny on the world of midcentury California radicalism, following the biographies Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (2017) and Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend (2023). All three draw heavily on Soviet archival materials held in the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI), which cast light on the Party’s inner workings as well as its complex relationship with the Soviet Union. San Francisco Reds traces the history of the Party from its founding by socialists giddy over the October Revolution to its near-disintegration following Nikita Khrushchev’s traumatic 1956 report on the crimes of Joseph Stalin. Cherny, an emeritus professor at San Francisco State University, narrates what he calls the California Party’s journey “to the mainstream and back,” as communists allied closely with progressive liberals who promptly turned on them at the outbreak of the postwar Red Scare. Yet, while Cherny’s account is attentive to what historian Anthony Ashbolt called California communism’s “distinctly regional and independent flavor,” it fails to identify many of the Party’s more enduring legacies.

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When Darcy took the helm, official Party strategy hewed closely to Moscow’s “Third Period” line, which rejected any activity short of immediate class conflict and insisted on the inevitability of world revolution in the near term. CP leaders, whom he characterized as “middle-class rejects who couldn’t make it in the bourgeois world,” put this line into practice through agitational propaganda and demonstrations, hectoring workers to “smash bourgeois law and order.” Changing course, Darcy directed resources toward organizing the unemployed. He developed an impressive program to recruit and train new members, de-emphasizing revolutionary rhetoric in favor of the practical and concrete. As Party membership in California doubled in just over a year, he trained its sights on the state’s massive agricultural industry.

Workers in California’s “factories in the fields” had long endured some of the country’s lowest wages and most abusive working conditions. The itinerant nature of the work, the linguistic differences within its largely immigrant workforce, and the mainstream labor movement’s racist indifference combined to produce an industry that many considered unorganizable. Agriculture was not one of the industries the CP Central Committee identified as “decisive.” Over serious objections, Darcy deployed all the resources he could to the fields, where organizers with shoestring budgets set to work building the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU).

California field workers were looking for a fight in the early 1930s, and pickers, largely Mexican and Filipino, flooded into the radical union. Communist organizers such as 21-year-old Caroline Decker provided crucial leadership in what were, at the time, the largest agricultural strikes in history. In 1933, about a quarter of the state’s agricultural workers—some 50,000 people—were on strike. Faced with spectacular brutality from police and vigilantes, workers armed themselves. Some died. The state came down hard on the CAWIU, imprisoning organizers, including Decker, on criminal syndicalism charges. Though many agricultural strikers won significantly higher wages, they ultimately failed to secure union recognition. This agricultural rebellion was the major antecedent to Chávez’s farmworkers movement a few decades later.

The San Francisco office’s other consuming interest was the waterfront, where the Party’s long-standing organizing efforts had come to little. Third Period policy rejected working inside established unions in favor of organizing openly revolutionary “red” ones; the CP’s Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) had done little more than alienate sailors and longshoremen with “bombastic talk.” Rather than reform it, Darcy chose simply to ignore the MWIU. He urged his members to join the AFL’s International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), where they formed the Albion Hall group, a “militant, but not exclusively CP, caucus.” Harry Bridges, a preternaturally talented organizer and a Marxist with close CP connections, quickly emerged as the leader of this group. In May 1934, 15,000 longshoremen across the West Coast went out on a strike that rapidly spread to other waterfront industries. Under Bridges’s leadership, the strike would last into the summer in the Bay Area.

On July 5 of that year, San Francisco police opened fire on strikers while attempting to open the port to scab labor, leaving two dead. Over 10,000 mourners gathered downtown for the slain men’s funeral procession, in which Sam Darcy rode near the head. Shocked by “Bloody Thursday,” the San Francisco Labor Council declared a general strike. For four days, nearly all work in the city stopped. The maritime workers lost control of the strike to the more conservative Labor Council, who negotiated a deal that fell significantly short of the ILA’s goals. Nevertheless, the union, which soon joined the CIO and changed its name to the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), emerged from the general strike in a powerful position and with its radical leadership intact. It soon won its demand for a union hiring hall, wresting control from employers over a vital function in one of the region’s largest industries. Like other Left-led unions in which the CP exerted a strong influence, it promoted a vision of social justice unionism that made combating racism, both from employers and among union members themselves, a top priority. Three years before Pearl Harbor, the ILWU refused to move Japan-bound cargo in solidarity with Chinese victims of Japanese imperialism (in later years, the union would take similar positions regarding South African and Israeli cargo). As early as 1936, another CP-influenced maritime union, the Marine Cooks and Stewards, added a stance against homophobic “queen-baiting” to its campaigns against racism and red-baiting.

Cherny ably reconstructs the icy debates among Party officials vexed by Darcy’s renegade strategy and its undeniable success. As it happened, San Francisco had prefigured a shift in Comintern policy at large. Reeling from the rise of fascism, Moscow in 1935 directed communists around the world to abandon the sectarian fervor of the Third Period and instead forge alliances with other progressive and anti-fascist forces. Nowhere in the United States were they better positioned to pursue this popular front strategy than in California.

With a foothold in the maritime unions, the CP moved rapidly into the state’s political mainstream. They replaced the weekly Western Worker and its hammer-and-sickle banner with the daily People’s World, which positioned itself as a nonsectarian progressive paper that carried articles by noncommunists, loudly boosted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stalin, and incorporated humor, sports, movies, and “Comrade Kitty’s tips on how to be fashionable on a budget.” Communist cells grew in more rarefied professional spaces, attracting Hollywood writers and intellectuals at elite universities (including the infamous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer). By 1938, the Party was a relatively respected partner in the state’s New Deal coalition, helping elect Governor Culbert Olson, Senator Sheridan Downey, and Lieutenant Governor Ellis Patterson, an ally of the CP so reliable that some suspected him of being a member. Once elected, Olson made good on his promises to the communists, pardoning political prisoner and radical cause célèbre Tom Mooney and nominating CP member Germain Bulcke to the State Harbor Commission. This honeymoon passed quickly, as the coalition buckled under the weight of McCarthyism and the CP’s disastrous foreign policy zigzags after the Nazi-Soviet pact. But the Party and its allies were now entrenched in important positions in California labor and culture. None of these allies was more important than Harry Bridges, by this time the western regional director of the CIO.

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The Australian-born Bridges was a constant target of the federal government, who repeatedly tried to prove that he was a secret member of the Communist Party and therefore eligible for deportation. With the aid of RGASPI documents, Cherny devotes granular attention to the somewhat arcane question of Bridges’s Party membership. After close-reading the use (and nonuse) of the word “comrade” to refer to Bridges in the private correspondence of Party notables and examining the marginalia on a French-language list of proposed American Central Committee members, Cherny concludes that it is “highly unlikely” that Bridges carried a Party card or paid dues. While probably not a member, Bridges, one of the most powerful California union leaders well into the 1970s, was what CP officials called an “influential”—someone who maintained a close cooperative relationship with the Party’s inner circles but was not under its discipline. On the question of recruiting Bridges, Sam Darcy once said: “There was no need for it.”

The hard facts of Bridges’s membership are of definite historical interest. But in focusing so narrowly on the question, Cherny may be falling victim to a conception of the CP too similar to that found in the propaganda of both the FBI and the Communist Party itself. Each had a stake in presenting the Party as a rigidly organized group with a totally effective, hierarchical command-and-control structure. In reality, Party operations were a great deal messier and more ad hoc. As Cherny points out elsewhere, membership itself was often an ambiguous category. He quotes Caroline Decker, who endured years in prison and the then-longest trial in California history for her Party activities, as recalling, “I never carried a book, I never paid dues. … As far as I was concerned, I was a member; I was prepared to give my life and I gave an awful lot of it.”

While it certainly was a membership organization, the Party can in some ways be better understood as the central locus of a number of overlapping social movements, with participants operating at many different layers of commitment and involvement. These included formal Party membership; membership in Party-related formations like the Young Communist League; and activity in its political “mass orgs” (among which were the National Negro Congress and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League), CP-led political parties (the Farmer-Labor Party, the Independent Progressive Party), its red unions, or its many cultural organizations (People’s Songs, the Film & Photo Leagues, etc.). These wide-ranging groups involved and influenced far greater numbers of people than the CP itself ever did, and they better reflect its impact than narrower studies of Party officialdom allow for. A fuller understanding of the Communist Party and its place in American history requires us to look beyond the strict questions of card-carrying membership that were so central to legal attacks on the Party as a “criminal conspiracy.”

No institution better demonstrates the Communist Party’s presence in mainstream Bay Area life than its California Labor School (CLS). Cherny writes that the school “may have been unique among the party’s schools in major cities in the extent to which [it] maintained a diverse curriculum that attracted thousands of non-Communist students.” CLS was financially supported not only by the Party but also by an impressive array of unions, cultural institutions, Black organizations, and more. The school secured GI Bill accreditation; it boasted nationally renowned faculty in science and the humanities, with an art department that rivaled the San Francisco Art Institute’s. The school had a special focus on Black history and issues of racism and discrimination (one of California’s first integrated marriages following the repeal of the state’s miscegenation law was performed at CLS). Its students took lessons on painting, chemistry, history, social science, and other subjects from a perspective that CLS director Holland Roberts described as “explicitly and implicitly but not obtrusively or wholly Marxist.”

At CLS, the Party blended with the city’s bohemian artistic milieu, demonstrating an unusually high level of ease with the nonnormative lifestyles common in that community for an organization whose official policy banned gay people from membership. Cherny reproduces a document from the CP’s internal “Security Commission” taking San Francisco to task for allowing “bohemian elements, drunkards, homos, [and] lesbians” into positions of leadership both at the school and in the Party itself. While expulsions of gay members did occur in California, it’s clear that national officials did not feel San Francisco took the problem seriously.

In fact, despite the Party’s official homophobia, some of the earliest articulations of gay liberation took place within the California CP. Harry Hay was a Los Angeles–based Party member who had his life “completely changed” by the San Francisco General Strike (which he participated in with his lover, actor Will Geer of The Waltons fame). Hay adapted the Marxist-Leninist theory he taught at the California Labor School’s L.A. branch to his own situation, using Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question (1939) to argue that homosexuals constituted a “culturally oppressed minority.” This new theory underpinned the Mattachine Society, which he founded in the Silver Lake neighborhood in 1950 while still an active Party member. As queer scholar Will Roscoe points out, the fact that Hay “could make this extension of Party doctrine without feeling any sense of contradiction or departure from Marxist principles speaks to the spirit of the Party as [he] knew it.” Hay left the CP on good terms the following year to avoid damaging its reputation by associating it with his radical gay rights organization.

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California CP leader Dorothy Healey once complained that historians often “present the history of the party as if the thirties were our single great moment […] with the implication that everything that followed was just a sort of trailing penumbra,” insisting that, “[i]n fact, the immediate postwar years were actually our most productive.” Although he avoids many of the clichés of CP historiography, Cherny is somewhat guilty of the failing Healey identifies. For example, although San Francisco Reds touches on the Party’s involvement in antidiscrimination fights and on its somewhat hysterical internal campaign to “combat white chauvinism,” the book makes scant mention of the CP’s impressive postwar civil rights work.

The Party founded the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), which provided legal aid to victims of racial injustice, in 1946. Its director, William L. Patterson, considered the East Bay chapter the most effective in the country. Black workers from the South had flooded into the Bay Area during World War II, and the CRC led courageous, groundbreaking campaigns against the institutional racism these migrants faced. It defended Black victims of police brutality and frame-ups, successfully pressured Sacramento to launch an official investigation into racist policing in the Bay Area, bought homes for Black families in all-white neighborhoods, fought the demolition of Black-majority housing projects, and physically confronted violent segregationists in the streets of Contra Costa County. As with so many of the California CP’s most effective programs, national leadership was unhappy with the East Bay’s focus on local injustices at the expense of its more high-profile national campaigns. East Bay CRC’s executive secretary Jessica Mitford quietly resolved “to fight all the way to expulsion” if necessary rather than defer to their judgment.

The catastrophe of 1956 was also more contained in California, where the Party lost only one-third of its members in the wake of the Khrushchev Report, as compared with two-thirds nationally. The ravages of the Red Scare were less severe there, as the Left had sunk its roots deeper and wider. Far from disappearing, the California CP remained active into the 1960s, setting the stage in important ways for the explosive movements of that decade.

One of the CRC’s many little-known campaigns in the early 1950s helped save a young Black Oaklander from an onerous prison sentence. Nineteen-year-old Mark Comfort had been hit with major assault charges after he defended himself from a group of armed racists in a public park. Comfort met his wife, the daughter of two Party members, at a CRC rally held in his defense. The two would become fixtures in the Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area. In the early 1960s, he and CP leader Roscoe Proctor, a Black longshoreman, organized a number of interracial civil rights–oriented youth groups, leading to a series of militant sit-ins against racist hiring practices across the Bay Area. These sit-ins attracted large numbers of white college students inspired by the Southern Civil Rights Movement.

An outraged reaction from local businesses led UC Berkeley to crack down on student political activity, triggering the Free Speech Movement, in which young Party member Bettina Aptheker played a leading role. For his part, the beret-wearing, pistol-packing Comfort would become the Bay Area’s most prominent early Black Power advocate. He introduced the citizen’s police patrol and the black panther symbol into the area before both were seized upon by the more famous Black Panther Party, whose founder Huey P. Newton grew up in Oakland during the CRC’s anti–police brutality fights and counted CP lawyers Bert Edises and Bob Treuhaft “among his boyhood heroes.” Discussing the development of 1960s radicalism, Berkeley movement leader Frank Bardacke stressed the importance of these intergenerational links, recalling, “The CP in the Bay Area was not as isolated as it was in the East. […] So the relationship between the new and old generation of leftists was smoother.”

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This April, leading neo-McCarthyite Ron DeSantis signed legislation mandating instruction on the “history of communism in the United States” to the children of Florida. The Right, at least, continues to insist on the relevance of this long-defunct organization, if only as a fairy tale about “evil.” Against the rise of this new anticommunism, considerably less coherent three decades after the Cold War (and more than 70 years after the heyday of the American Communist Party), earnest examination of this chapter of our past is vital. San Francisco Reds is a welcome contribution, and hopefully an opening towards further study of this significant and neglected part of California history. At just over 300 pages, the book is necessarily incomplete. Distressingly, this incompleteness is partly due to bureaucratic failures: after waiting 15 years to receive Harry Bridges’s FBI file, Cherny, who is in his late seventies, completed the book without a number of files on other key figures. Slow-moving bureaucracies are far from the only obstacles to the thoughtful consideration of the history of American communism, which must not be left to the likes of DeSantis and other, pettier tyrants.

LARB Contributor

Matt Ray and Matthew Wranovics are the founders of Left in the Bay, a project that uncovers and retells stories of social struggle in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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