John Gates, 78; Ex-Top U.S. Communist


John Gates, one of the 11 top U.S. Communist leaders convicted during the McCarthy era in 1949 of plotting the violent overthrow of the government but who left the party a decade later after an abortive attempt to free it from Moscow’s control, is dead.

The former editor of the Daily Worker, who joined the American Communist Party when he was 17, was 78 when he died Saturday at a Miami Beach medical center.

A family spokesman said Gates had been suffering from heart disease and the aftereffects of a stroke.

Gates and such top Communists as Gus Hall, the party’s perennial U.S. presidential candidate, were convicted on Oct. 14, 1949, after a nine-month trial that pitted the defendants’ right of free speech against the government’s Smith Act, which outlawed organizations of a revolutionary nature. The trial took place against a background of fear because of the Soviet Union’s post-World War II military and political achievements, which Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy used as the reason to investigate what he said was Communist infiltration of the U.S. government.


After appeals, Gates began his five-year prison term in 1950. After he left the party and wrote a book, “The Story of An American Communist,” Gates said it was during his time in prison that he began to have second thoughts about his party affiliation.

Josef Stalin had died in 1953 and two years later Nikita Khrushchev denounced the wartime Soviet premier for his excesses. In 1956, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to suppress a rebellion by freedom fighters.

“For the first time I felt ashamed of the name communist ,” Gates wrote. “Today the Communist Party has become irrelevant.”

He and such friends as former American Communist Party leader Earl Browder began to urge the substitution of a democratic socialism for communism, but they were rebuked by party stalwarts. In 1958 he resigned from the party and became a research assistant for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, helping union members with workers compensation and jobless claims. He retired in 1987.

His wife, Lillian, said that the recent reforms in the former Soviet Union, now the Commonwealth of Independent States, validated her husband’s call for reforms “but it was an unhappy vindication because it took so long and so many people suffered.”

Gates was raised in New York City and joined the Communist Party as a student in response to a political protest at City College. During the Depression he left college and ran for political office in Ohio. He joined the American-dominated Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and became a commissar when he was 24, making him the highest-ranking American in that war. He was a paratrooper in Europe during World War II.