Avro Halberg, the son of immigrants from Finland, was born in Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota, on 8th October 1910. His father was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a founder member of the American Communist Party.
Halberg joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1927 and helped to recruit members in the mining towns of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. He participated in hunger marches and farm protests. On strike-related charges, he served a six-month prison sentence.
In 1931 Halberg went to the Soviet Union and spent two years studying at the Lenin Institute in Moscow. On his return he was one of the organizers of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike led by Farrell Dobbs. This resulted in Halberg being blacklisted and so he changed his name to Gus Hall. Hall moved to Ohio where he led the Warren-Youngstown steel strike. Soon afterwards he became a staff member of the United Steel Workers of America.
During the Second World War Hall served in the U.S. Navy. He saw action in the Pacific and on his return was elected to the National Executive Board of the American Communist Party. In 1944 Earl Browder controversially announced 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 Earl 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."
Earl Browder was expelled from the American Communist Party and 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."
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary of the American Communist Party, and eleven other party leaders, including Gus Hall, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, John Gates, Robert G. Thompson, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".
The trial began on 17th January, 1949. As John Gates pointed out: "There were eleven defendants, the twelfth, Foster, having been severed from the case because of his serious, chronic heart ailment." The men were defended by George W. Crockett. It was difficult for the prosecution to prove that the eleven men had broken the Alien Registration Act, as none of the defendants had ever openly called for violence or had been involved in accumulating weapons for a proposed revolution. The prosecution therefore relied on passages from the work of Karl Marx and other revolution figures from the past. When John Gates refused to answer a question implicating other people, he was sentenced by Judge Harold Medina to 30 days in jail. When Gus Hall and Henry M. Winston protested, they were also sent to prison.
The prosecution also used the testimony of former members of the American Communist Party to help show that Eugene Dennis and his fellow comrades had privately advocated the overthrow of the government. The most important witness against the leaders of the party was Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the party's newspaper, The Daily Worker.
Another strategy of the prosecution was to ask the defendants questions about other party members. Unwilling to provide information on fellow comrades, they were put in prison and charged with contempt of court. The trial dragged on for eleven months and eventually, the judge, Harold Medina, who made no attempt to disguise his own feelings about the defendants, sent the party's lawyers to prison for contempt of court.
After a nine month trial the leaders of the American Communist Party were found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Robert G. Thompson, because of his war record, received only three years. They appealed to the Supreme Court but on 4th June, 1951, the judges ruled, 6-2, that the conviction was legal. Hall, out on bail, fled to Mexico. He was eventually caught in Mexico City, and ultimately served a total of eight years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
John Abt and Vito Marcantonio were hired by the American Communist Party to defend it against the Alien Registration Act. Apt also mounted the legal challenge to the McCarran Internal Security Act, which made it illegal to belong to the Communist Party or any of the 200 organizations claimed by the government to be "Communist Fronts". Abt called the McCarran Act as a "blueprint of American fascism". Over the next thirty years Apt represented thousands of individual clients who had lost their jobs because of this legislation.
Hall was eventually released from prison in 1959. He immediately set about replacing Eugene Dennis as leader of the American Communist Party. During his campaign he accused Dennis of cowardice for not going underground in 1951. Later that year he defeated Dennis for the post. According to Dan Georgakas: "Hall rapidly placed his stamp upon the movement. Like those within the main branch of socialism, he and his fellow Communist leaders chose to remain committed fundamentally to reorienting the liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
Hall was the party candidate in the 1972 Presidential Election but received only 25,597 votes, whereas Linda Jenness of the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party managed 83,380. Hall improved his vote to 58,709 in the 1976 Presidential Election but one again he was well behind the SWP candidate, Peter Camejo.
Books by Hall include The Energy Rip-Off: Cause and Cure (1974), Basics for Peace, Democracy and Social Progress (1980), Fighting Racism (1985) and Working Class USA: The Power and the Movement (1987).
Hall was hostile to Eurocommunism as it developed in the 1980s and then to the reforms initiated in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev. Hall resisted the attempts to introduce democratic reforms. In 1989 Hall outmaneuvered his opponents, leading to large numbers leaving the party.
Gus Hall did not resign as party chairman until just before his death on 13th October, 2000, at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan from diabetes. He was buried in the Forest Home Cemetery near Chicago.