re. Gus Hall

Graham graham at
Wed Oct 18 18:34:26 MDT 2000

Gus Hall  American communist leader whose rigidity reflected his party's decline

Paul Buhle


Wednesday October 18, 2000

>From 1959, until his death aged 90, Gus Hall was secretary-general of the
Communist party of the United States. During that time, the once-powerful
organisation passed, remarkably unchanged, through social struggle and reaction,
isolated but rarely threatened by the internal turmoil which shattered so many
of its counterparts. Hall's rigidity kept American communists simultaneously
faithful to eastern bloc-style state socialism - even in its absence - and to
the Democratic party.

Born Arvo Halberg in Iron, Minnesota, one of the nine children of a
Finnish-American mining family which supported the Industrial Workers of the
World - the Wobblies - he left school at 14 and became a lumber worker. His
blacklisted father was a founding CPUSA member.

In 1927, Arvo (renamed Gus Hall in the 1930s as part of "Americanising"
communism) joined the young communist league. He spent two years at Moscow's
Lenin Institute, organised the unemployed at home, and, in 1937, was charged
with attempted dynamiting of a steel plant - rivals later considered his escape
from prosecution suspicious. He then became a full-time communist.

After naval service in the second world war, Hall joined the CPUSA national
executive in 1945. In 1948, he was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the
government by force. Sentenced to five years' imprisonment, he became a model
party leader, absent from duty but unflinching in the face of persecution. Thus
his arrest in 1951, for jumping bail and seeking political exile in Mexico,
added years to his sentence - and credibility to his status.

Hall emerged from prison in 1957 into a ghostly remnant of his party, which had
peaked during wartime with 85,000 members, a popular following perhaps 10 times
that size, and influence from Hollywood to the civil rights and industrial union
movements. Legislative repression and FBI pursuit had narrowed the party, but
disillusionment had nearly erased it. In 1956, rebellion in Hungary, and Nikita
Khrushchev's revelations of Russian anti-semitism, had demoralised survivors.

A reform wing of the organisation argued for openness and internal democracy,
but the hardliners outlasted their opponents, thus preparing the way for the Gus
Hall era. Yet Hall apparently promised to take advantage of new winds from the
civil rights, peace and labour movements.

Taking power, he asserted a tone that never again left the CPUSA. Further
threats of federal persecution seemingly legitimised his military-style posture.
But so did the conspiratorial character of American responses to post-colonial
developments, from the Caribbean and Latin America to Africa and Asia. Russian
support for Fidel Castro, in particular, but also of many new regimes and
guerilla movements, gave the Soviet Union its last measure of support from
younger generations, and American communists an element of reflected glory.

Hall set the communists apart from the emerging new left, quite as much through
cultural conservatism as through their undying faith in Moscow. The mostly
middle-aged (or older) communists, including Hall, were morally offended by
campus activists' sexual politics and drug use. But they also opposed breaking
with the Democrats, and celebrated Lyndon Johnson's crushing 1964 defeat of
Barry Goldwater as a "people's victory". They opposed the black power slogan as

Highly influential in antiwar mobilisations in Manhattan, and enjoying a modest
resurgence in selected unions and some African-American causes, communists
nevertheless recruited few youngsters until the new left's collapse. Thereafter,
the election of African-American mayors in Chicago, Detroit and Berkeley - with
decades-long personal ties to local communists - symptomised the prospects for
revival. Armed with a daily newspaper, and hardworking mobilisers around causes
like Vietnam, South Africa, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua, communists
enrolled campus activists and union reformers - many of them the offspring of
the communist faithful.

By this time, Hall seemed an obstacle to revival, and rebuffed the grooming of
successors - and quickly identified Mikhail Gorbachev as a traitor to socialism.
In 1988, the People's Daily World became a weekly, and during the aborted Soviet
party coup against the reformers, Hall issued a taped message of support for
Gorbachev's opponents. This gesture sparked a significant internal party
rebellion, but he outmanoeuvered the reformers.

Thereafter, most of the CPUSA's past heroes, including Angela Davis, abandoned
the organisation. Yet Hall soldiered on, past the fall of the Berlin wall. The
long-hated Chinese Communist party now appeared admirable, if by no means as
praised as the governments of Vietnam, North Korea, or - above all - Cuba. The
CPUSA had outlived Mao-inspired rivals and, compared to its nearest left
survivor, the Democratic Socialists of America, remained an organisation of
activists (if increasingly octogenarian), with a weekly press, likeable local
figures, and the energy to support the post-cold war leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Hall's memories of past struggles, like the happier days in Roosevelt's New Deal
coalition, demonstrated the power of nostalgia and the absence of alternatives.
In that light, Hall had been a museum piece for almost his entire career. He is
survived by his wife Elizabeth, and a son and daughter.

Gus Hall (Arvo Kusta Halberg), political organiser, born October 8 1910; died
October 13 2000 On the specific issues raised in Lou P's post re. Stalinism and
Trotskyism: a broader raid on the US intellectual millieu amid which both
organisations/traditions fought for recruits can also yield insights. Thus from
council communist Paul Mattick we get breakthroughs in crisis theory lacking
elsewhere on the US left (Lewis Corey's work, while underconsumptionist, being
an exception to this).  Likewise VF Calverton's Modern Monthly aka Quarterly
pressed the need for radical intellectuals to adapt a 'more American' political
language, in a way that contained a useful insight ... the need to be
historically specific as a basis for tactics and analysis, but also became the
basis for an American exceptionalist argument and a rightward shift before his
death in 1940.  Perhaps a more useful insight was his argument that the real
relationship between his circle/his opponents on the left and the US working
class was objectively that of a propaganda group, not a mass party, so it was
time to act accordingly. In many ways Calverton is a pretty insubstantial
theorist, but in his journalism he had a knack of blundering into the right
approach - e.g. by maintaining an anti-imperialist position on WW2 even as
Germany attacked Russia.  Like Paul Flewers' take on George Orwell, Calverton's
useful insights often came from knowing how but not why.   Graham Barnfield Fax.
+44 (0)870 7345198
Editor, Culture Matters CMCRC strand    

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