Communist Party USA gathers in Chicago
Members celebrate 95th anniversary, look back on notable events
By Ron Grossman, Tribune reporter
8:10 p.m. CDT, June 14, 2014
A cheerleader for the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century and a leader in the labor movement during the Depression; hounded during the McCarthy era and orphaned after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party USA on Friday returned to Chicago, the city of its birth.
Given the movement's history, some might wonder why anyone would want to be a communist.
But the more than 300 adherents who came to celebrate the party's 95th anniversary at the University of Illinois at Chicago see it the other way around: Who wouldn't want to be a member?
Among them was Susan Gosman, who on the opening day of the convention stood in front of sign-in sheets divided by decades. Delegates were asked to mark the one during which they were radicalized. "For me, it would be 1944," she said. "The year I was born."
Gosman is a "red-diaper baby," as a communist born to communist parents is known. Her father took part in the 1930s sit-down strikes in automobile plants that won autoworkers a union. But it also got him in trouble during the 1950s. That meant tough times when she was growing up, and her parents cautioned her about the perils of following their political path.
Yet a year and a half ago, she joined the Communist Party.
"I finally realized, I didn't believe in the other side," said Gosman, a retired employee of the Los Angeles school system.
The Chicago convention will feature three days of speeches, panel discussions and workshops. One session will be devoted to catching up with an online era.
Communists, like other radicals, traditionally recruit by hawking the party's paper on street corners. But financial constraints have forced the People's World to abandon its print edition. So one question up for discussion is how can peoplesworld.org put the party in touch with low-paid workers, environmentalists and advocates for social justice?
Mary Davis has been a member of the British Communist Party for 50 years. To her, adherence to communism is as unalterable as her blood type. Born in London's East End, a poverty-ridden neighborhood, it's engraved on her memory that it was the communists who blew the whistle on Hitler when France and England were appeasing the German dictator.
Of course, the complete story of the run-up to World War II isn't something of which communists can be proud. In 1939, Stalin and Hitler became allies, forcing communists everywhere to abandon their anti-war campaign — until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, two years later.
Those flip-flops still haunt American communists, noted Tim Yeager, who juggles three roles: United Auto Workers union organizer, Communist official and Episcopal priest.
"Everyone in our movement is stained by what was done by the Soviet Union and American communists' failure to see Stalin for what he was," Yeager said. He added that despite those failings, communism has played a key, if unexpected, role in his life.
Raised a Christian, he drifted away from the church, which seemed too worldly. Instead, he became a communist through opposition to the Vietnam War. He was ordained a couple of years ago. "I realized that Jesus preached the same values as communism does — equality and social justice," said Yeager, senior priest at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on the West Side.
Friday morning, Yeager led a bus tour of some party history. The first stop was at the Haymarket statue on Desplaines Street just north of Randolph Street, where in 1886 a bomb thrown during a labor rally killed seven police officers and at least one civilian
Known radicals, some not even present at the rally, were rounded up, speedily convicted and hanged. Several were buried at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, making it a pilgrimage site for labor activists and the second stop on Friday's tour.
The Haymarket affair made Chicago the natural site for the Communist Party's founding convention in 1919. In fact, there were two — each held within a short distance of the party's 2014 meeting place — indicative of the factional splits over how to understand the legacy of Karl Marx.
Yeager noted that the Chicago establishment leaders who called for swift punishment of the Haymarket martyrs were "the 1 percenters of that day" — the favored few who enjoyed immense riches while the majority toiled for crumbs.
To many party members, history is repeating itself. One of the Florida delegates, Yennifer Mateo, joined only a short time ago, motivated by the tough times her father experienced as an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
"I'm new to this, so I don't know all that much about communism," said Mateo, 23, an AFL-CIO field worker. Still, she knew she wanted to mark her newfound hope for a better future for others to see. She had a hammer and sickle tattooed on her forearm.
Cupid helped guide Rose Padett to the party. A college student in Oregon, she tried anarchism as an answer to what seemed the oppression of big government. She moved on to spiritualism, which also seemed limited. Then she met a boyfriend who was a communist.
"We formed a dialectic of our own," she said. He taught her Marx's theory of how a just society could be built. Her spiritualism helped soften the edges of his political philosophy.
Tim Taylor, a firefighter in Columbus, Ohio, joined the Communist Party a year ago "because the governor of the state came after the firefighters union," trying to take away public employees' bargaining rights in the name of budget balancing.
So for Taylor, the Haymarket story was a case of deja vu. He was pre-radicalized by folk music, especially the songs of the Weavers, Pete Seeger's group. Now he hopes those records can inspire a younger generation.
"I'm marinating my kids in the Weavers," he said.
And for Hank Millstein, there's a wonderful irony in how Marx predicted society dividing into what we now call the 1 percent and everybody else. In palmier days his forecast was rejected. Now even mainstream politicians have to acknowledge the problem of runaway inequality.
"Just when Marxism was supposed to be dead," Millstein said, "it turns out that he was right."email@example.com