In an essay titled When New York City Was the Capital of American Communism published by The New York Times, Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History, reviewed the history of the Communist Party in the city during the 20th century. The piece appeared in the “Red Century” series, defined by the Times as “exploring the history and legacy of Communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution.” It also appeared in print in the international edition on Oct. 31 and the Chinese edition online.
“For a few decades — from the 1930s until Communism’s demise as an effective political force in the 1950s — New York City was the one place where American communists came close to enjoying the status of a mass movement,” Isserman began. He traced the party from its founding as the Communist Party U.S.A. in Chicago in 1919 to New York where in 1927 Communist headquarters shifted to a party-owned building in Manhattan.
According to Isserman, “By 1938, the party counted 38,000 members in New York State, about half its national membership, and most of those lived in New York City. Communists were increasingly native-born (although many were the children of immigrants). Party-organized mass meetings in the old Madison Square Garden were packed with as many as 20,000 participants; the annual May Day parades drew tens of thousands, too.”
Isserman pointed to 1956 as the moment when, “the party was dealt a fatal blow when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered a 'secret speech' to the 20th party congress in Moscow, denouncing his predecessor, Stalin, as a bloody mass murderer. The speech leaked. So did the disillusioned membership of the Communist Party U.S.A., reduced to a few thousand members by 1958, and never recovering much beyond that in decades to come. It did, however, survive the collapse of its political inspiration, the Soviet experiment.”
The essay appeared on the New York Times website on Oct. 20 and also appeared in its China edition.