Earl Browder, the son of William Browder, a schoolteacher, was born in Wichita, Kansas, on 20th May, 1891. After an elementary schooling he worked as a cash boy for the Wallenstein & Cohen Dry Goods Company. When he was 15 he joined the Socialist Party of America. Later he attended business college he found employment as a bookkeeper for the Potts Drug Company.
Browder, like most members of the Socialist Party, believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. Between 1914 and 1917 Browder made several speeches explaining why he believed the United States should not join the war.
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, several party members, including Browder, were arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. Found guilty of opposing the draft, Bowder was imprisoned (1917-18). When Browder was released he continued to campaign against the war and was imprisoned for a second time (1919-20) .
In 1919 several members of the Socialist Party left to form the American Communist Party. This included John Reed, William Z. Foster, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Claude McKay, Michael Gold and Robert Minor. Originally a revolutionary party, it evolved into a group advocating a popular front approach. Browder joined this new party in 1921.
Browder became managing editor of the Communist newspaper, The Labor Herald. He was appointed general secretary of the American Communist Party in 1930 and when William Z. Foster suffered a heart attack in 1932, he became leader of the party.
In the 1936 Presidential Election Browder won only 79,315 votes (0.2%). Norman Thomas did better with 187,910, but the left overwhelmingly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt (27,752,648), as they approved of his New Deal policies.
The leadership of the American Communist Party remained loyal to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was argued that this was the best way to defeat fascism. However, this view took a terrible blow when on 28th August, 1939, Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler. Browder and other leaders of the party decided to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
John Gates pointed out that this created serious problems for the party. "We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy and who still considered Hitler the main foe. People whom we had revered only the day before, like Mrs. Roosevelt, we now reviled. This was one of the characteristics of Communists which people always found most difficult to swallow - that we could call them heroes one day and villains the next. Yet in all of this lay our one consistency; we supported Soviet policies whatever they might be; and this in turn explained so many of our inconsistencies. Immediately following the upheaval over the Soviet-German non-aggression pact came the Finnish war, which compounded all our difficulties since, here also, our position was uncritically in support of the Soviet action."
Browder was the American Communist Party candidate in the 1940 Presidential Election but the government imposed a court order forbidding him to travel within the country. His campaign efforts were limited to the issuing of written statement and the distribution of recorded speeches. In the election he won only 46,251 votes. Later that year he was found guilty of passport irregularities and sentenced to prison for four years. When the United States joined the Second World War and became allies with the Soviet Union, attitudes towards communism changed and Browder was released from prison after only serving 14 months of his sentence. Membership of the party also grew to 75,000.
Browder controversially announced in 1944 that capitalism and communism could peacefully co-exist. As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "Browder had developed several bold ideas which were stimulated by the unprecedented situation, and now he proceeded to put them into effect. At a national convention in 1944, the Communist Party of the United States dissolved and reformed itself into the Communist Political Association." Ring Lardner, another party member, explained: "The change seemed only to bring the nomenclature in line with reality. Our political activities, by then, were virtually identical to those of our liberal friends."
Howard Fast was another supporter of Browder: "In 1944, Browder, the leader of the party through some of its most bitter struggles during the thirties, had attempted to change the party from a political party that offered candidates in elections to a sort of educational Marxist entity. His move, I believe, was based on the wartime and prewar influence of the party on Roosevelt's New Deal, and on the hope that it might continue."
Except for William Z. Foster and Benjamin Davis, the leaders of the American Communist Party unanimously supported Browder. However, in 1945, Jacques Duclos, a leading member of the French Communist Party and considered to be the main spokesman for Joseph Stalin, made a fierce attack on the ideas of Browder. As John Gates pointed out: "The leaders of the American Communists, who, except for Foster and one other, had unanimously supported Browder, now switched overnight, and, except for one or two with reservations, threw their support to Foster. An emergency convention in July, 1945, repudiated Browder's ideas, removed him from leadership and re-constituted the Communist Party in an atmosphere of hysteria and humiliating breast-beating unprecedented in communist history."
Browder's biographer, Malcolm Sylvers, has argued: "Expelled from the Party in February 1946, Browder held a position for a few years as U.S. representative for Soviet publishing concerns, but this in no way led to his political rehabilitation. In the years of his withdrawal from all public life... he worked on several versions of an uncompleted autobiography."
William Z. Foster now became the new leader. Two years later, after being criticised by leaders in the Soviet Union, Browder was expelled from the American Communist Party. He was later to argue: "The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language."
In April, 1950, Browder was called before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee investigating communist influence in government. Questioned by Joseph McCarthy, Browder was willing to criticize the American Communist Party but refused to answer questions that would incriminate former comrades. Charged with contempt of Congress, Judge Frederick Dickinson Letts, ordered his acquittal because he felt the committee had not acted legally.