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January 18, 2001

Library of Congress Opens to Researchers the Records of the Communist Party, USA

Microfilm Includes 435,165 Frames on 326 Reels

The Library of Congress has opened for research copies of the records of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) covering the period from the 1920s to the 1940s. This collection of documents had long been thought destroyed. However, in late 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, John Earl Haynes, learned that the CPUSA had secretly shipped these records to the Soviet Union more than 50 years ago, where they were kept in a closed Communist Party archives. In the post- Soviet era the new Russian government took control of these records and opened them for research.

In January 1993, Dr. Haynes traveled to Moscow and was the first American scholar to examine this historically significant collection, housed in what is today known as the Russian State Archives of Social and Political History. Upon his return to the United States, he recommended that the Library of Congress propose to the Russian Archives that the collection be microfilmed and a set of the microfilm deposited in the Library to ensure their permanent availability.

The Library of Congress opened negotiations with the Russian Archives in 1993 to microfilm the collection. The negotiations over the years that followed involved staff of the Library's Manuscript and European divisions as well as James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. In late 1998, a formal agreement was signed by Winston Tabb, Associate Librarian for Library Services, on behalf of the Library, and Kyrill Anderson, director of the Russian Archives. The project has now been completed. In total, the film includes 435,165 frames on 326 reels. The cost of filming was supported by a "Gift to the Nation" from John Kluge, chairman of the Library's Madison Council, and the Library's James B. Wilbur Fund for Foreign Copying.

The previous paucity of the archival record has been a major obstacle to scholarship on the history of the American Communist movement. Accounts of the history of American communism and the related issue of anticommunism have been highly contentious, with the academic consensus varying widely over the decades in part due to the shallowness and resulting ambiguity of the evidential base. The CPUSA has always been a secretive organization; while occasional government raids, subpoenas, search warrants, and congressional investigations made some documentation part of the public record, the quantity was never large because of the party's practice of hiding or destroying records. Although some party documents have also become available in the papers of various private individuals, the quantity is limited.

Now any researcher can read microfilmed copies of the original documents in the Manuscript Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Historians will, therefore, have a much stronger basis for reconstructing an accurate picture of American communism and anticommunism from the 1920s to the 1940s. A finding aid has been created to guide researchers through the collection.

Many of the documents in this collection are unique; the records are very detailed regarding the history of the CPUSA, particularly for its origins in the 1920s and the early and middle 1930s. There are fewer records for the 1937-1944 period than for the earlier years, probably due to the difficulties of shipping large quantities of records once war started in 1939. The CPUSA collection at the Russian Archives has no material later than 1944.

Among the items in the CPUSA collection are:

  • A 1919 letter from Nikolai Bukharin, head of the Communist International in Soviet Russia, to American radicals urging them to form an American Communist Party. The Comintern (as the Communist International was called) told American radicals that they should organize "Communist nuclei among soldiers and sailors...for the purpose of violent baiting of officers and generals, " recognize the "necessity of arming the proletariat," tell radical soldiers when demobilized from the army that they "must not give up their arms, " should expose President Woodrow Wilson "as a hypocrite and murderer, in order to discredit him with the masses," form "militant organs of the struggle for the conquest of the State power, for the dictatorship of the Workers" and adopt the slogan "Down with the Senate and Congress."

  • A 13-page application for admission to the Communist International from the newly organized Communist Party of America. The letter, dated November 24, 1919, ends with the declaration that "The Communist Party realizes the immensity of its task; it realizes that the final struggle of the Communist proletariat will be waged in the United States, our conquest of power alone assuring the world Soviet Republic. Realizing all this, the Communist Party prepares for the struggle. Long Live the Communist International! Long live the World Revolution."

  • A 1926 memo regarding Soviet subsidies to the American Communist movement. Different Soviet agencies subsidized different American Communist activities, and sometimes the funds, sent to the United States by surreptitious means, were delivered to the wrong recipient. In this memo, the head of the American Communist party attempts to reconcile who got which subsidies and which transfers were needed to ensure that the various activities received what Moscow intended.

  • Some documents illustrate the emphasis that the CPUSA placed on organizing African Americans. A 1924 letter from the Comintern, for example, confirms that it was providing a subsidy of $1,282 to send 10 black Americans to the "Eastern University," a Comintern school in Moscow. Another document is a 15-page report on the party's work in Harlem in 1934.

  • There is a small collection of the letters of John Reed in the CPUSA collection. Reed, a well-known American journalist of the 1910s, was a founder of the American Communist Party in 1919 and one of its early representatives to the Comintern. However, he died of typhus in the Soviet Union in 1920. This material is thought to have been in his possession at the time of his death and was added to the CPUSA collection by Comintern archivists. (Reed was the subject a successful 1981 Hollywood film, "Reds," in which Warren Beatty played Reed.) Reed reported on the Mexican Revolution, and in a 1915 letter in the collection, written from Mexico, he tells his editor in New York about his impressions of several of the leading Mexican Revolutionary generals: Francisco "Pancho" Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza.

  • A six-page report discusses Communist attempts to organize sharecroppers in the agricultural South in 1934. It includes brief sketches of the sharecroppers the party attracted to a "farm school" it set up in St. Louis.

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PR 01-007
ISSN 0731-3527

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