Eugene Dennis

Eugene Dennis

Francis Xavier Waldron (he later changed his name to Eugene Dennis) was born in Seattle, Washington, on 10th August, 1905. He worked in various trades and was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Dennis joined the American Communist Party in 1926 and was involved in organizing workers in California. He was arrested several times and in 1929, after jumping bail, fled to the Soviet Union. He returned in 1935 and became a loyal supporter of the new leader, Earl Browder.

The leadership of the American Communist Party remained loyal to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was argued that this was the best way to defeat fascism. However, this view took a terrible blow when on 28th August, 1939, Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler. Dennis and other leaders of the party decided to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

In 1944 Earl Browder controversially announced that capitalism and communism could peacefully co-exist. As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "Browder had developed several bold ideas which were stimulated by the unprecedented situation, and now he proceeded to put them into effect. At a national convention in 1944, the Communist Party of the United States dissolved and reformed itself into the Communist Political Association." Ring Lardner, another party member, explained: "The change seemed only to bring the nomenclature in line with reality. Our political activities, by then, were virtually identical to those of our liberal friends." Dennis also supported the ideas of Browder.

Earl Browder was the American Communist Party candidate in the 1940 Presidential Election, but the government imposed a court order forbidding him to travel within the country. His campaign efforts were limited to the issuing of written statement and the distribution of recorded speeches. In the election he won only 46,251 votes. Later that year he was found guilty of passport irregularities and sentenced to prison for four years. When the United States joined the Second World War and became allies with the Soviet Union, attitudes towards communism changed and Browder was released from prison after only serving 14 months of his sentence. Membership of the party also grew to 75,000.

Except for William Z. Foster and Benjamin Davis, the leaders of the American Communist Party unanimously supported Browder. However, in 1945, Jacques Duclos, a leading member of the French Communist Party and considered to be the main spokesman for Joseph Stalin, made a fierce attack on the ideas of Earl Browder. As John Gates pointed out: "The leaders of the American Communists, who, except for Foster and one other, had unanimously supported Browder, now switched overnight, and, except for one or two with reservations, threw their support to Foster. An emergency convention in July, 1945, repudiated Browder's ideas, removed him from leadership and re-constituted the Communist Party in an atmosphere of hysteria and humiliating breast-beating unprecedented in communist history."

William Z. Foster now became the new chairman and Dennis the general secretary. Two years later, after being criticised by leaders in the Soviet Union, Earl Browder was expelled from the American Communist Party. He was later to argue: "The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language."

After the Second World War it was decided to use the Alien Registration Act against the American Communist Party. On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, and eleven other party leaders, including William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, John Gates, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".

The trial began on 17th January, 1949. As John Gates pointed out: "There were eleven defendants, the twelfth, Foster, having been severed from the case because of his serious, chronic heart ailment." The men were defended by George W. Crockett.

It was difficult for the prosecution to prove that the eleven men had broken the Alien Registration Act, as none of the defendants had ever openly called for violence or had been involved in accumulating weapons for a proposed revolution. The prosecution therefore relied on passages from the work of Karl Marx and other revolution figures from the past. When John Gates refused to answer a question implicating other people, he was sentenced by Judge Harold Medina to 30 days in jail. When Henry M. Winston and Gus Hall protested, they were also sent to prison.

The prosecution also used the testimony of former members of the American Communist Party to help show that Dennis and his fellow comrades had privately advocated the overthrow of the government. The most important witness against the leaders of the party was Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the party's newspaper, The Daily Worker.

Another strategy of the prosecution was to ask the defendants questions about other party members. Unwilling to provide information on fellow comrades, they were put in prison and charged with contempt of court. The trial dragged on for eleven months and eventually, the judge, Harold Medina, who made no attempt to disguise his own feelings about the defendants, sent the party's lawyers to prison for contempt of court.

After a nine month trial the leaders of the American Communist Party were found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Robert G. Thompson, because of his war record, received only three years. They appealed to the Supreme Court but on 4th June, 1951, the judges ruled, 6-2, that the conviction was legal.

William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Eugene Dennis, Henry Winston, John Williamson and Jacob Stachel leaving the courthouse in New York (21st July, 1948)
William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Eugene Dennis, Henry Winston, John
Williamson and Jacob Stachel leaving the courthouse in New York (21st July, 1948)

Justice Felix Frankfurter argued: The particular circumstances of this case compel me to conclude that the trial judge should not have combined in himself the functions of accuser and judge. For his accusations were not impersonal. They concerned matters in which he personally was deeply engaged... No judge should sit in a case in which he is personally involved... At frequent intervals in the course of the trial his comments plainly reveal personal feelings against the lawyers.... Truth compels the observation, painful as it is to make it, that the fifteen volumes of oral testimony in the principal trial record numerous episodes involving the judge and defense counsel that are more suggestive of an undisciplined debating society than of the hush and solemnity of a court of justice. Too often counsel were encouraged to vie with the court in dialectic, in repartee and banter, in talk so copious as inevitably to arrest the momentum of the trial and to weaken the restraints of respect that a judge should engender in lawyers... Throughout the proceedings... he failed to exercise the moral authority of a court possessed of a great tradition.

Justice William Douglas agreed: "I agree with Mr. Justice Frankfurter that one who reads the record will have difficulty in determining whether members of the bar conspired to drive a judge from the bench or whether the judge used the authority of the bench fo whipsaw the lawyers, to taunt and tempt them, and to create for himself the role of the persecuted. I have reluctantly concluded that neither is blameless, that there is fault on each side, that we have here the spectacle of the bench and the bar using the courtroom for an unseemly discussion and of ill will and hot tempers."

In his autobiography, Being Red, the author, Howard Fast commented: "That the jury made a mockery of the months of evidence and came to its verdict of guilty almost instantly tells more about the nature of this trial than a hundred pages of legal evidence. What fell to us - and by us, I mean those of us in the arts - was the question of what we could do in the new conditions of anti-Communist propaganda created by the trial. It was not only the twelve defendants in Foley Square who were under attack; in every trade union where the Communist Party had any influence, Communists and suspected Communists were being attacked and driven from their leadership positions, from the union, and from their jobs. In this, the anti-Communists (many of them in their jobs because of the work and courage of the Communist organizers) in the AFL and the CIO turned and led the hunt against the Communists."

As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "To many in the leadership, this meant that the United States was unquestionably on the threshold of fascism. Had not Hitler's first step been to outlaw the Communist Party? We saw an almost exact parallel."

In April 1956 Eugene Dennis published a report on the American Communist Party. John Gates pointed argued that it "was a devastating critique of the party's policies over a whole decade. Like all reports, it was not only his own, but had been discussed and approved by the National Committee members in advance. Dennis characterized the party's policies as super-leftist and sectarian, narrow-minded and inflexible, dogmatic and unrealistic." William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis and Robert G. Thompson, constituted a minority of the leadership that led the attack on Dennis.

According to Joe North, Dennis was not easy with people. Howard Fast meet Dennis for the first time in 1956. "He sat behind his desk; he did not rise nor did he offer his hand. Nor did he smile. Nor did he ask me to sit down. Nor did he indicate that he was either pleased or displeased to meet me... Now this is the national leader of the Communist Party of the United States. Here I am, one of the leading and - at that time - most honored writers in the country... But Dennis never asked me to meet him, and now that I was in his office, he looked at me as a judge might look at a prisoner before passing sentence."

Dennis continued as general secretary of the American Communist Party until 1957. Eugene Dennis also served as national chairman of the party from 1959 until his death on 31st January, 1961.

Primary Sources

(1) Statement by Eugene Dennis ( March 21, 1949)

We eleven defendants will prove that the very time when we allegedly began this menacing conspiracy we were in fact advocating and organizing all-out support to the Government of the United States. We will prove that all of us taught the duty of upholding the United States Government and of intensifying the anti-Axis war effort and we defendants will put in evidence the honorable war record of the 15,000 American Communists who, in accord with what we taught and advocated, served with the armed forces in the military defense of our country.

We will show with what peaceful intent we taught and advocated, amongst other things, to oppose American support to the unjust and criminal war against the Chinese people waged by the miserable Chiang Kai-shek, to oppose the civil war against the Greeks, waged by the monarchist-fascist puppet of the American masters, with the American people footing the bill, to oppose the Anglo-American oil lords against the new State of Israel, and the people of Indonesia, and to oppose the restoration of the German and Japanese monopolies and war potential under the new management of the American cartelists.

You will see that our Communist Party Constitution acknowledges not only that we learn from Marx and Lenin but that we owe much to and learn from the teachings of men like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Sylvis, and Eugene V. Debs.

The prosecution asks this jury for what amounts to a preventative conviction, in order that we Communist leaders may be put under what the Nazis called protective custody. I ask the jury to weigh the prosecution's case against the proof we defendants will offer to establish that we have taught and advocated the duty and necessity to prevent the force and violence of Fascism, imperialists of war and Iynching and anti-Semitism. I ask you to weigh carefully our sincere offer of proof which demonstrates that we Communists are second to none in our devotion to our people and to our country, and that we teach and advocate and practice a program of peace, of democracy, equality, economic security, and social progress.

(2) Louis Budenz, testimony at the trial of Eugene Dennis and the leaders of the Communist Party (29th March, 1949)

The Communist Party bases itself upon so-called scientific socialism, the theory and practice of so-called scientific socialism as appears in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, therefore as interpreted by Lenin and Stalin who have specifically interpreted scientific socialism to mean that socialism can only be attained by the violent shattering of the capitalist state, and the setting up of a dictatorship of the proletariat by force and violence in place of that state. In the United States this would mean that the Communist Party of the United States is basically committed to the overthrow of the Government of the United States as set up by the Constitution of the United States.

(3) Abraham Isserman complained that the court was putting books on trial. Harold Medina responded by explaining why it was necessary to study the content of communist literature (30th March, 1949)

If the contents of the book and these other pamphlets and documents of one kind or another, that were handed around, and people were told to study them and to teach other people what to do, and how they were to go around and do the things that have been testified to here. I can scarcely believe that it is trying a book. it is trying those persons who used the book and other means to allegedly commit a crime, and that is part of the paraphernalia of the crime.

(4) Hugo Black, was a Supreme Court Judge who voted against the conviction of the twelve leaders of the Communist Party (4th June, 1951)

At the outset I want to emphasize what the crime involved in this case is, and what it is not. These petitioners were not charged with an attempt to overthrow the Government. They were not charged with overt acts of any kind designed to overthrow the Government. They were not even charged with saying anything or writing anything designed to overthrow the Government. The charge was that they agreed to assemble and to talk and publish certain ideas at a later date. The indictment is that they conspired to organize the Communist Party and to use speech or newspapers and other publications in the future to teach and advocate the forcible overthrow of the Government. No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.

But let us assume, contrary to all constitutional ideas of fair criminal procedure, that petitioners although not indicted for the crime of actual advocacy, may be punished for it. Even on this radical assumption, the other opinions in this case show that the only way to affirm these convictions is to repudiate directly or indirectly the established "clear and present danger" rule. This the Court does in a way which greatly restricts the protections afforded by the First Amendment. The opinions for affirmance indicate that the chief reason for jettisoning the rule is the expressed fear that advocacy of Communist doctrine endangers the safety of the Republic. Undoubtedly, a governmental policy of unfettered communication of ideas does entail dangers. To the Founders of this Nation, however, the benefits derived from free expression were worth the risk. I have always believed that the First Amendment is the keystone of our Government, that the freedoms it guarantees provide the best insurance against destruction of all freedom.

So long as this Court exercises the power of judicial review of legislation, I cannot agree that the First Amendment permits us to sustain laws suppressing freedom of speech and press on the basis of Congress' or our own notions of mere "reasonableness." Such a doctrine waters down the First Amendment so that it amounts to little more than an admonition to Congress. The Amendment as so construed is not likely to protect any but those "safe" or orthodox views which rarely need its protection.

Public opinion being what it now is, few will protest the conviction of these Communist petitioners. There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions, and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in a free society.

(5) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

A particular role in this crisis was played by two of the Daily Worker's editors, Joseph Clark (who was our correspondent in Moscow from 1950 to 1953) and Joseph Starobin, who had been stationed in Paris from early 1951, and had then gone to Peking, where he was the first American correspondent to spend a year in the New China, and from which he also scored a "scoop" in visiting the battlefronts of the Indo-China war on the Ho Chi Minh side. He was the first Western correspondent to have done so since 1946. Both of these men were party veterans, and had held posts of confidence beyond the purely journalistic; Clark had been a YCL organizer in Detroit, and Starobin had directed the party's peace activities in 1949-51. Each of them had quite independently of the other reached radical conclusions while abroad. They felt that the party had lost touch with American realities. They insisted in their letters that the international situation was being misjudged, and they had begun to have doubts about many Russian policies. In their view, a drastic re-orientation away from imitations of the world Communist movement was essential, and they tried to suggest this upon their return in the summer of 1953, three years before the Khrushchev report.

Both of them were met with suspicion and hostility by the Foster grouping, which insisted that they remain silent. When they refused to do so, Foster tried to oust them from the Daily Worker. Starobin left the paper in protest, refused to re-register, and his relations with the party became tenuous. He had tried in his book, Paris to Peking, to suggest some of the things on his mind; the book was for many readers an anticipation of the crisis. Clark's memoranda on party policy became a cause celebre in the top leadership. Alan Max, the managing editor, and his associate, Milton Howard, refused to accede to Foster's demands that Clark be removed, feeling that his views should at least be given a hearing and not spurned out of hand.

Both Eugene Dennis and I met with these colleagues as soon as we left Atlanta. It was evident that they had been trying to say something important on the party's course and future. When Dennis and I made our political return, at a Carnegie Hall mass meeting on the Daily Worker's anniversary, in January 1956 (well before the Soviet XX Congress), we decided to reflect our awareness of this prevailing mood, and to foreshadow important changes. Dennis, in the main speech, drew the greatest applause, and also raised many eyebrows, when he said that the party would reexamine all its policies at the earliest opportunity including those theoretical propositions which experience had outmoded. My remarks were centered on the national significance of the struggle for democracy in the South-which had been one of my chief concentrations of study while in prison. I said that the defiance of the U.S. government by the Dixiecrat conspiracy was a threat of rebellion and constituted the chief menace to the nation.

(6) Howard Fast, Being Red (1990)

The offices (of the American Communist Party) were in a nine-story building between University Place and Broadway, a building that also housed The Daily Worker and the Communist Party leadership. The people in the top offices of the party, the general secretary and the members of the National Committee, were housed on the ninth floor, and in referring to them, one often spoke simply of "the ninth floor." The general secretary of the party at that time, Gene Dennis, was a tall, handsome man who had taken over the party leadership from Earl Browder...

I had never met Gene Dennis and I had never ventured to the sacrosanct heights of the ninth floor, and being in proper awe of the leaders of an organization I had come to respect and honor, I went first to Joe North in the more familiar offices of The New Masses. Would he set up a meeting for me with Gene Dennis? I had perhaps an exaggerated sense of the importance of carrying a message from the Communist Party of Northern India to the Communist Party of the United States, yet in all reality, a plea from one Communist Party to another was of importance and to be treated with respect. Joe agreed with me, picked up his phone, and was told that Dennis would see me. I took the elevator up to the ninth floor, was shown into Dennis's office. He sat behind his desk; he did not rise nor did he offer his hand. Nor did he smile. Nor did he ask me to sit down. Nor did he indicate that he was either pleased or displeased to meet me.

Now this is the national leader of the Communist Party of the United States. Here I am, one of the leading and - at that time - most honored writers in the country. The party busted its ass to get me into the movement. It showered me with praise, lured me with happiness was enough, and I took myself down to the offices of The New Masses on East Twelfth Street. its most winning people, reprinted stuff from my books in The New Masses, and embraced me. But Dennis never asked me to meet him, and now that I was in his office, he looked at me as a judge might look at a prisoner before passing sentence.

Since he didn't ask why I was there, I delivered my message uninvited. Very briefly, I spoke of the crisis in India, and then I repeated to him what the Indian Communist leader had said. He listened, and then he nodded - a signal for me to go.

Am I crazy? I asked myself. Or is this some kind of joke? But Dennis was the last man on earth to exhibit humor. Wasn't he going to ask me what I had seen? Wasn't he going to ask me about the political situation? I had spoken about the largest colonial country in the world. Wasn't he interested? I waited. He told me I could go. I turned and left.

I then went from Dennis's office to Joe North and told him about Dennis's reaction to me and my message from India. Joe said that such was Dennis, and that Dennis was Dennis, and that he was not easy with people. It seemed to me that what a party leader dealt with most was people, and how the devil did he come to be the general secretary of the Communist Party? Joe admitted that Dennis was not the greatest, that it should have been Bill Foster, the grand old man of the left, but Foster had a bad heart and was too old. Since it was not much more than a year since I had joined the party, Joe felt that I should withhold judgment.

(7) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast (14th October 1949)

Let's examine some of the implications of the verdict. The men were indicted under the Smith Act, which was passed in 1940. It went through the Senate without a roll call, and only four votes were registered against it in the House. The verdict in judge Medina's court will be tested before the Supreme Court, and that body will have to try to determine the constitutional limitations that may be placed upon advocacy of change through violence.

There are some things that can be concluded from the verdict: If you conspire, as these men were convicted of conspiring, then you face a prison sentence and possible fine. The verdict means that there will be a determined campaign by the Communists to try to sell to the country the issues that were lost in the trial. It means that the eleven Communist leaders aren't going to be available to direct the affairs of the party for some time. The question arises as to whether the men who replace them will also be guilty of breaking the law. They could not automatically be judged guilty by virtue of their membership or official position in the Communist Party. The government would have to produce evidence, witnesses, documents and bring them before a jury as they did in this case. The verdict undoubtedly means Russian propaganda efforts to discredit our system of justice. But the verdict proves that under that system of justice, the accused can get a nine months' trial, plus a jury to hear the case - even if they are, as Prosecutor McGohey stated, "professional revolutionists."

But there are some things that this verdict does not mean. It does not mean that membership in the Communist Party as such is illegal. The party is not outlawed. The verdict does not mean that you must read any specific books, talk as you will or peacefully assemble for any purpose other than to conspire to overthrow the government by force and violence. It does not mean that you are subject to legal action for saying things favourable to the Communist Party. Nothing in this verdict limits the citizen's right, by peaceful and lawful means, to advocate changes in the Constitution, to utter and publish praise of Russia, criticism of any of our political personalities or parties. You may, in short, engage in any action or agitation except that aimed at teaching or advocating the overthrow of the government by violence.

If this verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court, similar prosecutions may follow. But in each individual case it will be necessary for the government to prove, not only that the defendants were members of the Communist Party, but that they conspired to overthrow the government, and did so knowingly and wilfully.

One result of the verdict may be to convince a number of people that the Communists are not just another political party. In view of the mass of evidence produced in judge Medina's court, it will be pretty difficult in the future for anyone to maintain that he joined and worked for the Communist Party without really knowing that it advocated violent revolution. There have been many serious proposals to control, contain or outlaw the Communist Party in this country, efforts to hog-tie them without strangling our liberties with the loose end of the rope. It is both delicate and dangerous business. We can't legislate loyalty. But nevertheless the question of the control of subversion is one of the most important confronting this country.

(8) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

The main report by Eugene Dennis (in April 1956) was a devastating critique of the party's policies over a whole decade. Like all reports, it was not only his own, but had been discussed and approved by the National Committee members in advance. Dennis characterized the party's policies as super-leftist and sectarian, narrow-minded and inflexible, dogmatic and unrealistic.

He singled out the crucial issue of the "war danger," and in effect, admitted that much of what the party had done since Browder's time had been based on a misreading of world and domestic realities. Though Foster's name was not mentioned, and the entire leadership was indicted, the inference was unmistakable. Dennis projected the idea of replacing the party with a "united, mass party of Socialism," whose doctrinal basis would necessarily have to be much broader than our own, and which was to be formed with many Socialist-minded Americans outside our own ranks.

Dennis carefully, and characteristically, avoided putting his finger on the basic reason for the party's failures, namely, our worshipful and imitative relationship to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Max Weiss, the national educational director at that time, who had never been accused of undogmatic tendencies, gave the report on the XX Congress and he unmistakably concluded that our relations with the Soviet Communists had been wrong, unequal, one-sided, and harmful.

William Z. Foster was present at this decisive meeting and he vehemently opposed the reports of Dennis and Weiss. In his view, the party had been guided as well as possible, and history would vindicate his leadership. Foster was a remarkable man, a workingman who had educated himself. He had been one of America's finest labor organizers. Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and Philip Murray had all paid him this tribute...

Foster stood alone at this meeting, except for the half-hearted support of Benjamin J. Davis, the former New York councilman, who had been (with Thompson) one of the architects of the Party's debacle; Davis was the man who had said at an open-air meeting in 1949 that he "would rather be a lamppost in Moscow than president of the United States." Foster voted against the Dennis report and Davis abstained.

My own remarks at this meeting were different than any speech I had previously made. I felt it was time for the party to know of the profound differences in the leadership that had prevailed for a decade. Obviously, the Foster view was in irreconcilable opposition to the majority: it was time to let the membership know the facts honestly. Others spoke in a similar vein. Yet the opportunity was missed, and once again the facts were concealed from the membership. No doubt, this contributed greatly to the loss of confidence in the ranks, which almost immediately afterward began to thin out.

At this same meeting, I had a curious but revealing exchange with Foster. I had spoken of his many monumental works that had been eulogized by party leaders, but none of us had bothered to find why so few Americans read these books, and why they had so little influence; too often, they had simply been dumped on the lower party organizations, but were not read or sold. Someone chided me for being rude to so old a man, with so venerable a record. I went over and said I hoped he realized there was nothing personal in this criticism. To which he replied, most genially, that he was not the least bothered by it.

"Why," he exclaimed. "My books have been translated all over the world . . . into Russian, into Chinese, and many other languages." I was struck by Foster's complete divorce from interest in America. It did not seem to matter that few Americans were influenced by his work, so long as foreign Communists held him in high repute, or so he believed. He saw himself a world figure. He lived in a make-believe world of his own, and though more typically "American" than most party leaders, he was also strangely remote from his own land and people.