Eugene and Peggy Dennis Papers, 1923-1982


Eugene Dennis (born Francis X. Waldron), general secretary of the Communist Party, USA from 1946 to 1959 and lifelong Party activist, was born into a working class family in Seattle, on August 10, 1904. In 1917 he began summer work as a lumberman, eventually joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and participating in the Seattle general strike of 1919. Dennis' experience in the IWW, his stepmother's humanist influences, the Russian Revolution, and his political reading all radicalized him early in life. He attended the University of Washington for six months in 1925, but dropped out to support his family as a teamster, carpenter, and electrical worker. He joined the American Federation of Labor Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. While caring for his ill stepmother, Dennis contracted tuberculosis, the effects of which he suffered for the rest of his life.

In 1926 Dennis joined the Communist Party. Within the year he was named educational director for Southern California and moved there with his stepmother. In 1928 he taught at a Young Communist League school in Washington State. There he met Peggy, a student at the school. In 1928 they lived in Los Angeles where Dennis worked as a longshoreman, an electrical worker, a trucker, and an ironworker. During this period he was often arrested for organizing maritime workers and Japanese and Mexican agricultural workers. In 1929, in San Francisco, he edited and wrote for The Far Eastern Monthly, later The Pan Pacific Monthly, a small magazine which supported anti-imperialist and Communist activities in eastern Asia. Returning to Los Angeles in 1929, Dennis worked as an organizer for the Trade Union Educational League, which became the Trade Union Unity League later that year. Dennis helped establish branches of the Marine Workers Industrial Union and Unemployed Councils in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Eugene Dennis was one of over 100 union leaders and supporters arrested several times in California in 1930 for violation of a state law against “criminal syndication.” His offenses were leading a demonstration against unemployment and organizing agricultural strikes in the Imperial Valley. As instructed by Communist Party leaders, Dennis, facing a possible forty year sentence, jumped bail and traveled to Moscow, where he worked at the Communist International. During 1933 and 1934 he traveled to South Africa, China, and the Philippines, organizing for national liberation movements.

Dennis returned to the United States in 1935. He became Wisconsin state leader for the Party, adopting the name Eugene Dennis. There he developed democratic front coalitions with portions of the Socialist and Progressive Parties, Farmer-Labor organization, and liberal Democrats and Republicans. Dennis also helped organize the first Congress of Industrial Organizations' Industrial Councils and developed a united front to support Loyalist Spain. In 1936, he was elected to the Party's National Committee. Dennis left Wisconsin for Moscow in 1937 on Party orders. He returned in 1938 to become a member of the Secretariat of the National Committee, working at Party headquarters in New York. From 1938 until 1946, when he was elected General Secretary, Dennis concentrated his efforts on legislative and electoral work, promoting the united front concept.

As government suppression of Communists increased after World War II, Dennis spent more time publicizing the relevance of the violation of the Communists' basic constitutional rights to the state of freedom in America for all Americans. In 1947 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to cooperate, he was indicted for contempt of Congress. In 1948, while his appeal of this charge was still pending, Dennis was arrested with eleven other Communist leaders for violation of the Smith Act (actually a section of the Alien Registration Act of 1940). He served a one-year sentence for the contempt conviction in 1950. In 1951 he began serving a five-year sentence for the Smith Act conviction: conspiracy to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the government and also membership in an organization that teaches and advocates such forcible overthrow. While in prison from 1951 to 1955, Dennis continued to write on political affairs.

With the release of the Smith Act defendants, the Communist Party emerged from the underground in 1955 into a factional dispute that lasted four years. Eugene Dennis stood for a middle course, warning against both the dogmatism of William Z. Foster and the revisionism of John Gates. These conflicting ideologies caused the Party great internal strife. In the middle of a bitter factional dispute at the seventeenth National Convention in 1959 Dennis suffered a mild stroke and was replaced by Gus Hall as General Secretary. Dennis was named National Chairman. From 1955 Dennis worked for the survival and unity of the Communist Party, stressing such issues as First Amendment rights, peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, and the struggle for the rights of blacks. He died in January 1961 after an eight-month struggle with cancer.

Peggy Dennis was born Regina Karasick in New York in 1909 to recently emigrated Jewish Russian revolutionaries. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1912 where Peggy was raised in a “...self contained, foreign born, radical community.” She was in the Socialist children's movement at age six, joined a Communist children's group at thirteen, and then the Young Communist League and Communist Party at sixteen. Peggy Dennis met Eugene Dennis at a Young Communist League school in 1928. She joined him in Seattle in September that year. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1929. There she bore their first son, Tim, and continued with her political organizational and educational activity.

In 1931 she joined Eugene Dennis in Moscow. When he left to organize abroad, Peggy Dennis worked as a social studies teacher at the Anglo-American school for children of foreign workers and as a researcher at the Profintern (Red International of Labor Unions), and attended the International Lenin School. She traveled through Europe in 1933 and 1934, assisting European Communist movements and African and Asian activists in exile in Europe.

In 1934 Peggy and Eugene returned to the United States and moved together to Wisconsin. There she adopted the name Peggy Dennis. She was elected to the state committee and the state board, was designated state education director, and became chairperson of the Party's Milwaukee County committee. In 1937 the Dennises were sent by the Party to Moscow. In 1938, upon Eugene's entry into the Party's national leadership, they moved to New York. They worked in New York and Washington; Peggy assisted Eugene in his position as secretary for politics and legislative affairs, and worked on a Party journal concerned with national legislative issues.

Peggy accompanied Eugene to Moscow in 1941 when he was selected for work at the Comintern. At the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Gene returned to the United States. Peggy remained during the first four and one-half months, until the seige of Moscow. She returned to the United States in the same year and gave birth to their second son, Gene, in 1942. When Eugene was convicted of contempt of Congress and imprisoned for Smith Act violations in the late 1940s, Peggy covered the issues for the Daily Worker and spoke throughout the country against political repression. She edited the women's page in The Sunday Worker from 1950 to 1951. In 1951 she helped organize and became chairperson of The Families of the Smith Act Victims Committee, an organization designed to aid families of persons prosecuted under the Smith Act. She also was active in the National Committee for Amnesty to Smith Act Victims. This organization held meetings and conferences, and petitioned with the purpose of obtaining unconditional amnesty for persons prosecuted under the Smith Act. In 1955, Peggy edited and wrote the introduction to a book of annotated letters which Eugene wrote during his prison term, Letters From Prison.

Upon Eugene's death in 1961 Peggy moved to San Francisco and worked until 1967 as foreign editor for the Party's west coast weekly, The People's World. In 1965 she toured Eastern Europe as a Party journalist. In the late 1960s Peggy grew increasingly disenchanted with the inflexible policies and sexism of the Communist Party. She resigned from the Party in 1976. The following year her book The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life was published. Peggy Dennis died September 25, 1993.