Power  /  Book Review

California Communism and Its Afterlives

A new book explores the Communist Party's western base and its alliance with the labor movement.

Histories of the American Communist Party often focus almost exclusively on New York City, where the Party was headquartered and where a plurality of its members lived. But by the late 1930s, its other significant base was California, where it had a robust organization based in San Francisco. At its peak in 1947, the Party boasted nearly 10,000 California members. Other than New York, with its 33,000 registered communists, no other regional district came near this number. In its brief heyday, the CP came impressively close to California’s political mainstream, with a GI Bill–accredited school, leadership in major regional labor institutions, and a working relationship with the Democratic governor. In an organization known for its dogmatic rigidity, the California branch was distinguished by a considerable degree of autonomy. In the 1930s, it bucked Comintern policy by developing its own union strategy, vying for serious influence in the Bay Area labor movement. Later on, CP leaders in California defied the Party line by openly criticizing the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. They resisted national policies that mandated the expulsion of Japanese members during World War II and gay members during the postwar “Lavender Scare.” The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area, the gay liberation movement, César Chávez’s farmworkers movement, and the Berkeley student movement all had meaningful organizational and ideological roots in the California Party.

Despite the organization’s remarkable size and reach, and its outsize influence on the development of major 20th-century social movements, Robert W. Cherny’s San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919–1958 is the first scholarly general history of the Communist Party in California. This is the third book by Cherny on the world of midcentury California radicalism, following the biographies Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (2017) and Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend (2023). All three draw heavily on Soviet archival materials held in the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI), which cast light on the Party’s inner workings as well as its complex relationship with the Soviet Union.

San Francisco Reds traces the history of the Party from its founding by socialists giddy over the October Revolution to its near-disintegration following Nikita Khrushchev’s traumatic 1956 report on the crimes of Joseph Stalin. Cherny, an emeritus professor at San Francisco State University, narrates what he calls the California Party’s journey “to the mainstream and back,” as communists allied closely with progressive liberals who promptly turned on them at the outbreak of the postwar Red Scare. Yet, while Cherny’s account is attentive to what historian Anthony Ashbolt called California communism’s “distinctly regional and independent flavor,” it fails to identify many of the Party’s more enduring legacies.