Annual Meeting Preview: Is Communism Twentieth-Century Americanism?: Writing Communist History on the 100th-Year Anniversary of the Founding of the CPUSA


This session takes place on Thursday, April 4, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)
Twitter: #AM2802

Chair and Commentator: Gerald Horne, University of Houston
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University
• Erin D. Chapman, George Washington University
• Laura Browder, American Studies/University of Richmond
• Sara Rzeszutek, St. Francis College
Tony Pecinovsky, St. Louis Workers Education Society

Is Communism Twentieth-Century Americanism?: Writing Communist History on the 100th-Year Anniversary of the Founding of the CPUSA

How do we resist tyranny in the United States? How do we build democracy in a country that has long touted itself as an exemplar of democracy even—maybe even especially—when it most grossly violates democracy? These questions have always been central to U.S. history, and this panel wants to highlight an important, and often overlooked or even vilified, part of this answer: Communism.

The title of our panel is borrowed from Communist Party USA (CPUSA) chair Earl Browder’s slogan “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism.” Browder wanted to emphasize how communism developed a democratic project thought to be central to U.S. history. His was an important rebuke to those on the right who classified communism as an “UnAmerican Activity.”

The theme of this year’s conference is “the work of freedom,” and we wanted to highlight an organization that has been central to many freedom struggles in the United States: The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Many will be surprised to learn about the work of freedom carried out by an organization conventionally demonized as opposed to “freedom.” But the CPUSA has played an important, though often underappreciated, role in the Civil Rights Movement, Decolonization, the fight against fascism in the 1930s and 40s, and virtually every progressive struggle in the United States. 2019 also happens to be the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CPUSA, so we thought it was an especially good year to highlight its role in the work of freedom in United States history.

We hope our panel will be of interest to a wide range of attendees, from these who have never heard of the CPUSA or its role in a variety of progressive causes in the United States to scholars already familiar with, and contributing to, the well-developed and growing literature on this topic. We also welcome an audience with a whole range of political perspectives, from those (on the left and the right) skeptical about the radically democratic project of an organization more commonly associated with Soviet state socialism to party members and sympathizers who want to talk more about our common radical history.

The panelists themselves have all conducted research on history of the CPUSA and the longer history of communism and struggle for freedom and democracy in the United States. They come from inside and outside academia, with a broad range of experiences in scholarship and activism.

Everybody is welcome at this panel. We do not expect audience members to come with any prior knowledge of the CPUSA, any particular opinions about the CPUSA, or to have done any reading prior to the panel. We will be glad, of course, to recommend further reading to anybody who is interested in learning more, either during the roundtable or in informal discussion afterwards.

Panelists will address specific topics including the role of Communism in Lorraine Hansberry’s political and artistic work, biography as a method of understanding the role of the CPUSA in the student free speech, civil rights and peace movements of the 1960's and 70's, and the CPUSA and transnational history. We will also talk, more broadly, about the problems and benefits of integrating the history of communism into the history of democracy in the United States.

Andrew Zimmerman is professor of history at the George Washington University. He is the author of Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago, 2001) and Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, 2010). He is also the editor of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in the United States, a collection from International Publishers. He is currently writing a history of the American Civil War as a transnational revolution against slave labor and wage labor.

Posted: January 11, 2019
Tagged: Previews, Conference, OAH Works