A Leftist Party: Communism on College Campuses in Interwar America

Social Gatherings for Socialism: Communism on American College Campuses

Reviewed by Nick Hallock
April 27, 2014

“Social Gatherings for Socialism: Communism on American College Campuses Between the Wars,” by Elaine Olla, comprehensively examines the growth of the Communist Party of the United States on college campuses during the interwar period. Although she points to visible examples of communist influence on campus, Olla argues that  the CPUSA went too far in attempting to attract students with social, non-ideological activities, and therefore diluted the strength of its radical message.

Olla focuses her argument on the actions of the Young Communist League (YCL), which was affiliated with the CPUSA and was the primary means for spreading communism at American colleges and universities. The YCL, Olla argues, attempted to attract new members by creating a “club atmosphere” that relied on social activities like basketball, baseball, and games like “bike ride,” “disappearing dinner,” and “beer party,” none of which taught new members about communist ideology.

Although they were unable to successfully proselytize, communists on campus during the Great Depression were still able to leverage the economic despair of the time into a strong political voice, and many of them supported open discussions of previously taboo ideologies such as communism and fascism. Indeed, this period saw the formation of new branches of the YCL on college campuses.

In one of Olla’s most surprising findings, the most tangible effect of the presence of the YCL – as well as the similarly oriented American Student Union’s (ASU) – was to substantially impact the number of young Americans who fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War. Over 3,000 young Americans volunteered to fight with the anti-Franco Lincoln Brigade.

Olla concludes that a variety of factors combined to reduce communist influence on campus by 1939-40. The Soviet invasion of Finland was widely criticized by the American public; the ASU and YCL held different opinions on the war; and, in 1940, the New York State Legislature organized a “witch-hunt” and suspended City College teachers suspected of being communists. After the war ended, the Cold War and Second Red Scare ultimately combined to kill the last remnants of communist sympathy at American colleges.

See the full article here!

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