Gus Hall: A great figure of the U.S. communist movement

By Nikos Mottas.

The 13th of October marked the 20th anniversary since the death of American communist and long-time leader of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) Gus Hall.

General Secretary of the CPUSA from 1959 to 2000, Hall was one of the most brilliant figures of the U.S. communist movement, alongside William Z. Foster, Paul Robeson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, W.E.B. Du Bois and others.

His birthname was Kustaa Halberg and was born in 1910 in Saint Louis County, Minesota. Son of Finnish immigrants, he grew up in a working class family and was involved early on in the labor movement. He left school at the age of 15 in order to support his poor ten-child family by working in mines, railroads and lumber camps. 

In 1927, at the age of 17, he became a member of the CPUSA and an organizer for the Young Communist League (YCL). Between 1931 and 1933, he travelled to the Soviet Union where he studied at the International Lenin School in Moscow.

After his studies, in the midst of the Great Depression, Hall went to Minneapolis where he participated in various activities including demonstrations, strikes and hunger marches. Due to his activity he was blacklisted by the U.S. authorities and was unable to find a job. This situation led him to change his name from Kustaa Halberg to Gus Hall.

In 1934 he moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where he found a job a steelworker and became a founding organizer of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Hall led the 1937 “Little Steel” strike which although it didn’t achieve its principal goal set the groundwork for the unionization of the Little Steel Industry. Gus Hall’s leadership of the strike was praised as a model of “effective grassroots organizing” by prominent trade unionists, while the SWOC evolved into the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in 1942.

After the 1937 strike, Hall was involved more actively in the Communist Party, becoming the CPUSA’s leader in Youngstown and in 1939 he became the Party’s leader for the city of Cleveland. He run as the CPUSA’s candidate for Youngstown’s local council as well as for governor of Ohio.

When the Second World War broke out, Hall was determined to fight against fascism and he volunteered for the U.S. Navy, serving as a machinist in Guam. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on March 6, 1946. The end of the war found Gus Hall in the high ranks of the CPUSA, as he had been elected in absense to the Party’s National Committee.

His reputation rose significantly when he was elected to the national executive board of the CPUSA under General Secretary Eugene Dennis who had replaced Earl Browder. The beginning of the “Red Scare” in post-war U.S. found Hall and his comrades in the crosshairs of an anti-communist witch-hunt. On July 22, 1948, Gus and 11 other cadres of the Communist Party were indicted under the “Smith Act” (Alien Registration Act), on charges of “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence”. Under this law and the paranoia of McCarthyism many communists and progressive militants were persecuted during the 1950s. 

Gus Hall and Angela Davis.

Hall was initially sentenced to five years in prison but he was released on bail.  He and three other men managed to flee to Mexico City, but they were arrested in October 1951 and served over five and a half years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. After his release from prison in 1959, Gus Hall became the Communist Party’s General Secretary, a position he held until May 2000.

In a period of 40 years, Hall’s name became synonymous with the U.S. communist movement. He and his party faced multiple persecutions by the authorities, including restrictions of their civil rights. But apart from these difficulties, Gus Hall had to overcome a series of ideological and political issues that had been manifested within the communist movement itself. One of these issues was the rise of the so-called “New Left”, which included the promotion of opportunist theories, the rejection of Marxism-Leninism and even the open hostility towards the Soviet Union by leftist groups.
 Gus Hall made a brave effort to reconstruct the Communist Party and forge a lasting alliance with the popular movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as, for example, the large anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights organizations and the young “baby boomer” generation of activists. His major vision was the creation of the broad popular front, on the basis of the Marxist-Leninist ideology, that would encompass the most progressive and radical elements of the U.S. society. His effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but he would always be remembered as a man of principle, integrity and honesty.

Gus Hall remained a stanch defender of the Marxist-Leninist ideology, an enemy of opportunist deviations (e.g. Eurocommunism, liberalization of the Communist Parties) and a firm supporter of the Soviet Union. He never lost his confidence in the democratic traditions of the American people, upon which socialism in the U.S. could be constructed.

Hall in his office, c.1996.

He ran for U.S. President four times: in 1972 and 1976 with Jarvis Tyner as his running mate and in 1980 and 1984 with Angela Davis. All these campaigns too place under conditions of very limited media coverage, low financial resources and multiple obstacles set by the bourgeois establishment. Hall and Davis ran in the presidential election for the last time in 1984 with the slogan “People before profits”.

During the counterrevolutionary overthrows in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989-1991, he remained an unwavering supporter of socialism. He once called Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin “a wrecking crew”. During an interview in April 1992 he said: “I did what I believe in. I believe socialism is inevitable. Life cannot go on forever without that step (socialism), and setbacks don’t change it”.

Gus remained the General Secretary of the CPUSA until May 2000, just a few months before his death. He was the author of several books about Marxism and the communist movement, such as “Imperialism today” (1972), “The crisis of U.S. capitalism and the fight-back” (1975), “Basics: For Peace, Democracy and Social Progress” (1980), “Karl Marx: beacon for our times” (1983), “Fighting Racism” (1985) and “Working class USA: the power and the movenment” (1987).

He was honored with the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union. 

* Nikos Mottas is the Editor-in-Chief of In Defense of Communism.

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