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Gus Hall; Communist Party Leader in the U.S. for 40 Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gus Hall, the lumberjack, iron miner, steelworker and union organizer whose name became synonymous with the American Communist Party, which he led for 40 years, has died at the age of 90.

Hall, once imprisoned for conspiracy to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, died Friday in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital of complications from diabetes, party officials announced Monday.

Although Hall mellowed with age and his party’s slow fade from public enemy to historic relic, he never repudiated his beliefs or his rosy view of the Soviet Union as it was under Leonid Brezhnev. Hall outlasted four Soviet leaders and the nation, but not even the dismantling of the Communist Bloc a decade ago could shake his ultimate loyalty.

“Just as feudalism was an advance over slavery, and capitalism was the next step after feudalism, socialism is the next step after capitalism,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1996. “Socialism in America will come through the ballot box.”

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After shifting the party goal from violent overthrow of democracy toward what he saw as “a peaceful, democratic road to socialism” in the mid-1960s, Hall waged four quixotic campaigns for president of the United States.

But he never got even 1% of the nation’s vote, and never qualified for the ballot in more than a handful of states. He appeared on the California ballot only once, in 1976, the year he received his highest nationwide tally, a mere 58,992 votes.

Hall blamed strict election law requirements, which he challenged unsuccessfully in several courts, for his poor showing at the polls--much as he blamed FBI surveillance and Red-baiting restrictions for the party’s steep drop in nationwide membership from a wartime high of 100,000 to about 15,000 today.

Never the ogre he was often assumed to be, the barrel-chested Hall in person was affable, nattily dressed and adept at telling funny stories over endless cups of coffee.

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The man who said he was a born Communist and was inevitably introduced as “Comrade Gus Hall” was also quintessentially American. He enlisted in the Navy as a machinist’s mate during World War II and repaired engines on Guam for the duration.

In a 1982 Times interview, Hall insisted that life in the Soviet Union at that time was far better than in America because of the Communist nation’s total employment, free education and medical care, low taxes and housing for all.

Yet asked if he would prefer to live there or anywhere other than the United States, he exclaimed: “Oh, no. This is the best country in the world in which to live.”

Elected general secretary of the American Communist Party in 1959, Hall changed his title to “chairman” in 1989 because he said he wanted “to make it more American.”

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Even his explanations of the party could make Communism sound as American as Mom and apple pie: "[The party] is a product of our American industrial and political system,” he said, “like mass production, town hall, the Bill of Rights, jazz . . . blues and baseball.”

Hall also had a few trappings of the capitalism he so soundly denounced in speeches, on television talk shows and in a dozen pro-Communist books and innumerable pamphlets.

In a 1990 Times interview, he blamed the fall of the Eastern European Communist nations on residents’ lust for “gadget socialism: videotapes, microwave ovens, computers, all kinds of gadgets.” Yet he had earlier confessed to a Times interviewer that he himself was “a gadget man” who bought every new item on the market, something never possible in his admired Soviet Union.

And he lived in a bourgeois house in suburban Yonkers, N.Y., where he painted pictures of woodpeckers and traveled by chauffeured limousine.

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He had to buy the house, he told The Times, because no landlord “would rent to a Communist leader,” and he needed the chauffeur, first because New York denied him a driver’s license and later for “security reasons.”

The driver’s license hassle harked back to Hall’s 1949 conviction for violating the Alien Registration Act, popularly known as the Smith Act.

Then general secretary of the party in Ohio, Hall, along with 11 colleagues, was indicted in 1948 for violation of the Smith Act, passed during the war era, and convicted the next year. He spent much of the lengthy, highly publicized trial in jail for contempt of court over his outbursts, but after the trial he continued to lead the party during appeals.

After the Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1951, Hall and three co-defendants jumped bail and fled to Mexico, hoping to make their way to a haven in Moscow.

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Captured three months later, Hall served more than 5 1/2 years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. There his next-door cell neighbor was the notorious bank robber George “Machine Gun” Kelly, whom Hall assured The Times was “a nice fellow.”

Born Arvo Kusta Halberg in Iron, Minn., the patriarch of American Communism used various aliases in his youth, including John Howell and John Hollberg, but legally adopted the name Gus Hall in the mid-1930s.

One of 10 children of a frequently unemployed immigrant Finnish iron miner and union organizer, he grew up in what he once described as “semi-starvation.” His parents helped organize the American Communist Party and recruited him for membership in his teens.

Hall dropped out of school after the eighth grade and worked as a lumberjack, iron miner, steelworker and union organizer. His hardscrabble experiences in the logging camps, mines and mills convinced him of the rightness of Communism.

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By 1926, at 16, he was a national committee member of the Young Communist League. His work in the party won him admission to the Lenin Institute, a Communist training facility in Moscow, where he spent the early 1930s. By 1934, he was on the national committee of the American Communist Party.

Frequently jailed for inciting riots during his union- and strike-organizing days in the upper Midwest during the 1930s, Hall made his first attempt at political campaigning in 1935, running for the City Council in Youngstown, Ohio.

He later ran for Ohio governor. But, disdainful of regulations, he served another jail term for a 1940 election scandal involving forgery.

Considered a better tactician than theoretician, Hall worked to rejuvenate his party after winning a 1966 Supreme Court ruling that enabled people to become party members without incriminating themselves under the Smith Act or the McCarran Act.

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Over the years, Hall occasionally supported mainstream causes--championing civil rights and denouncing the Vietnam War as a “vicious, savage and uncivilized assault” by the United States.

He lived so long that many outside the shrinking Communist circle considered him irrelevant or thought he had died, but Hall simply laughed it off.

Hall is survived by his wife of 66 years, Elizabeth; one son, Arvo; one daughter, Barbara; two sisters; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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