These are heady times for socialists in the United States. In the past two years, socialism has again become an important political current for the first time since the mid-1970s. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign—despite its containment within the capitalist Democratic Party—demonstrated that there is a mass audience for “democratic socialism” in the United States. Over thirteen million Americans voted for a self-proclaimed socialist—and Sanders won more voters under thirty years of age in the primaries than both Clinton and Trump combined.1 On the other hand, the organized socialist left in the United States has grown exponentially. The membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has increased from less than 2,000 in 2015 to nearly 30,000 in late 2017.
The renewed presence of socialism has reopened a discussion of our political vision—what we are fighting for—and strategy—how we can win. Not surprisingly, many on the new socialist left are looking back to the 1930s and 1940s, the last period of major
pro-working-class social reforms and of a mass socialist presence among working people in the United States. At the beginning of his campaign, Sanders invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal as his model of “democratic socialism”:
Almost everything [FDR] proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country, was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another as “socialist.” [D]emocratic socialism . . . builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.2
More recently, DSA chair Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara have credited the US Communist Party’s (CP) popular-front strategy of the late 1930s and 1940s for pushing US politics to the left—both winning Roosevelt’s reforms and making socialism the “common sense” of a significant minority of Americans. They recognize the “dark side” of the popular front—the CP’s uncritical support for the Stalinist Soviet Union, support for the wartime no-strike pledge, and downplaying socialist politics. However, Schwartz and Sunkara insist “the popular front was the last time socialism had any mass presence in the United States—in part because, in its own way, the Communists rooted their struggles for democracy within US political culture while trying to build a truly multiracial working-class movement.” 3
This essay suggests that Sanders’s admiration for the New Deal, and Schwartz and Sunkara’s embrace of the popular-front strategy are based on an idealized history of both the Roosevelt administration and the Communist Party’s politics. The New Deal reforms Sanders evokes were not the product of a farsighted, enlightened reformer, but responses to tumultuous class struggles in the early and mid-1930s. These reforms sought to contain explosive social struggles and were never truly universal, excluding women and African-Americans, for example. After mass struggle ebbed, Roosevelt shifted back to his original goal of stabilizing US capitalism while moving toward establishing US global domination during World War II. Progressive reforms came to an abrupt halt in the late 1930s, allowing the rollback of many popular gains during the 1940s.
The ebbing of workers’ struggle in the late 1930s had many causes, but a significant factor was the Communists’ shift to the popular-front strategy. It is true that the CP appeared to have a mass presence in the late 1930s and 1940s—reaching nearly 100,000 members; leading important industrial unions, civil rights, and other organizations; and having a significant presence in popular culture. However, the CP had its greatest impact on social struggles and US politics before adopting the popular front strategy in late 1936. The popular-front alliance with liberal Democrats and the CIO leadership actually reduced the CP’s influence among the militant minority of workers. Communists helped the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) officialdom derail militant struggles in the late 1930s and 1940s, facilitating the historic shift to the right in US politics during and after World War II.
Demythologizing the New Deal
Contrary to the received wisdom on both the US Left and Right, the New Deal Democratic Party was not some sort of “liberal-labor” party; nor did Roosevelt come to office in 1933 as a radical social reformer or even an advocate of Keynesian spending programs as a cure to the capitalist crisis of 1928-33. The Democratic Party, which had initially emerged as the main party of the southern slave-owners and northern land and transport speculators in the 1820s, had evolved over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the South, the Democrats remained the party of the southern planter class—the party of “Jim Crow” racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching. In the North, the Democrats were the party of urban real-estate developers, immigrant capitalists, and small business owners. While the Democrats relied on the votes of a mostly immigrant working class to win elections in the North, the “Dixiecrats” were secure in their regional dominance through the exclusion of African-Americans from the electorate. The domination of the Dixiecrats, immigrant capitalists, and corporate “moderates” guaranteed that the “liberal-labor” coalition within the New Deal Democratic Party remained a captive, junior partner. Not surprisingly, the Democrats had shed any residual resistance to US global domination in the early twentieth century and led US entry into World War I in 1917.4
Roosevelt, like his predecessor Hoover, was a fiscal conservative who believed in balanced budgets as a key to restoring economic stability. Roosevelt differed from Hoover on two issues: First, Roosevelt like most early twentieth-century “progressive” politicians and thinkers, rooted capitalist economic instability in excessive competition.5 Unregulated competition supposedly led to falling prices, declining profits, and periodic depressions. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) sought to use the capitalist state to promote “cartelization”—setting prices and wages in various industries—that would eliminate less efficient firms, reduce competition through the concentration and centralization of capital, promote recovery, and prevent future crises. The famous section 7a, which vaguely embraced the right of workers to bargain collectively, lacked any mechanisms for enforcement, and was an afterthought included to win the support of the leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Second, Roosevelt understood much better than Hoover the dangers the struggles of the unemployed posed to capitalist political and economic recovery. Beginning in 1930-31, communists, socialists, and supporters of A. J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP) began to organize the unemployed. The unemployed organizations led militant, direct actions in defense of evicted tenants, sit-ins at relief offices, and mass demonstrations for unemployment insurance.
In response to unrest among the unemployed, Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps in the spring of 1933, followed by the Civilian Works Administration in the fall of 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in the summer of 1934, and the Works Projects Administration in 1935. While putting some five to seven million unemployed to work temporarily between 1933 and 1937, these jobs programs short-circuited more radical proposals, were often used to undermine strikes, and discriminated against women and workers of color.6 The Roosevelt administration’s programs were an alternative to the more radical “Ohio Plan” of 1934, which allowed state and local unemployed offices to reopen closed factories under state control, rehire workers, and produce goods that would be distributed free to the unemployed. During the textile strike and other workers’ struggles in 1933 and 1934, state and local officials routinely banned strikers from public employment. Finally, there were explicit quotas on the percentage of African-American and other nonwhite workers who could be employed by these programs—concessions to win the support of the southern Democrats. Women, who were expected to stay home and raise children, were also generally excluded.
The “Second New Deal”
The massive industrial workers struggles of 1934-1937 compelled Roosevelt to launch the “Second New Deal”—the National Labor Relations, Social Security, and Fair Labor Standards acts—which Sanders holds up as a model of democratic socialism. Before mid-1934, workers in the mass-production industries—coal, auto, steel, rubber, machine making, and textiles—launched organizing drives and strikes, believing that “the President wants you to join a union.”7 However, the AFL that organized these workers into “federal labor unions” with appointed leaders derailed these strikes. They urged workers to rely on federal labor mediators appointed under the NIRA, who convinced workers to end strikes and promised negotiations to ensure employer recognition of the new unions. In most cases, mediation resulted in hundreds of union activists losing their jobs or becoming demoralized as employers refused to countenance union recognition.8
The tide for industrial unionism turned in the spring and summer of 1934 with the victories of three city-wide general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco, all led by self-proclaimed revolutionaries who refused to depend on federal mediation. In the wake of these victories, workers across the US, often under the leadership of communist, socialist, Trotskyist, and syndicalist radicals, revived local workplace committees, engaged in strikes and factory occupations (sit-down strikes), and sought to create new rank-and-file controlled internationals in their industries. They were aided by a layer of AFL officials—most notably John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers—who led industrial unions and who saw an opportunity to organize the unorganized and tame a potentially radical rank-and-file-based industrial unionism that pressed for an independent Farmer-Labor Party as an alternative to the Democrats. The strike wave culminated in the victory of the Flint, Michigan General Motors sit-down strikes in December 1936 and January 1937, followed by a wave of sit-downs in other industries during the spring of 1937. In the wake of these victories, new industrial unions, affiliated with the breakaway CIO, were consolidated in the mass-production industries.9
The industrial unrest of 1935-36 led significant sectors of the capitalist class that had supported the NIRA to abandon Roosevelt temporarily. Roosevelt, however, received the CIO’s support through Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL), which was central to his reelection in 1936. Together, the CIO leadership and the northern New Deal Democratic Party liberals worked to systematically wreck independent labor parties that had emerged in several midwestern states and in industrial towns and cities across the North. Promising labor party and pro-CIO militants a “place” on the Democratic Party electoral line or on ostensibly “independent” ballot lines tied to the Democrats, the LNPL short-circuited the promising labor party agitation of the mid-1930s—killing the chances for independent working-class political action for nearly a decade.10
Hoping to stabilize class relations, Roosevelt and the northern Democrats launched the “Second New Deal” in 1935–1936 with three major pieces of legislation. The first was the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to organize elections for union recognition and regulate collective bargaining. The second was the Social Security Act, which created old-age pensions, state-administered unemployment insurance, and Aid for Dependent Children, a cash assistance program for widows with children. The last was the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a national minimum wage and mandated payment of time-and-a-half pay for overtime.
While these acts were fundamentally a response to independent, massive, and militant movements from below, they were designed primarily to defuse class conflict and restore social peace by granting minor reforms to win the support of the CIO leadership and defuse labor militancy from below.11 Even though the vast majority of capitalists opposed these reforms, Roosevelt understood them to be the best way of defending capitalism in a period of social upheaval. As he described himself in a letter to his friend and adviser Felix Frankfurter, he was “the best friend the profit system ever had.”12
The National Labor Relations Act was presented as an alternative to strikes and sit-downs as a means of establishing collective bargaining rights. The historical evidence contradicts the claims of some scholars that the passage of the NLRA, formulated by independent state officials, promoted the growth of industrial unionism.13 As Michael Goldfield points out, the NLRB did not function until after the CIO successfully organized basic industry:
Although the NLRA was signed into law in June 1935, the NLRB settled very few cases before the Supreme Court upheld it . . . in April 1937. . . . Union membership, 3.5 million in 1935, grew to slightly under 4 million in 1936. In the aftermath of the Flint strike . . . General Motors, Chrysler, and Big Steel were unionized, along with hundreds of other companies. . . . Union membership surged to over seven million by the end of ; the dam had been broken with little help from the NLRB.14
Nor was the Social Security Act a universal social program that lifted all segments of the working class out of poverty and insecurity. The cost of gaining the Dixiecrats’ support for this piece of legislation was the exclusion of domestic servants and agricultural workers from both old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. These workers were also explicitly excluded from the provisions of the NLRA. Put simply, the vast majority of African-American workers in the South, who were still overwhelmingly domestic workers and wage-earning sharecroppers, were exempted from Social Security pensions and unemployment benefits until the 1960s, and are still denied the minimal protections of the NLRA.15
The end of reform
The CIO offensive came to a halt in 1937–1938. Most historical accounts highlight the “Roosevelt Recession” in late 1937, which saw a jump in unemployment from a low of 15 percent in mid-1936 to nearly 20 percent in 1938. However, of even greater importance was the defeat of the “Little Steel” strike in the spring of 1937, before unemployment spiked. US Steel, the largest firm in the industry, preemptively recognized the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) in the wake of the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) victory in the Flint sit-down strike. However, their smaller competitors—the “Little Steel” companies—resisted the SWOC’s campaign to organize their plants. After refusing to allow NLRB recognition elections, the SWOC struck the non-union steel firms.
Despite the fact that John L. Lewis and his lieutenant Phillip Murray hired hundreds of young Communists as staff organizers, the strikers limited themselves to legal picketing—there were no plant occupations, mass, illegal pickets, or other extra-legal actions that had been crucial to earlier CIO victories. The strike was defeated when New Deal Democratic governors in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania unleashed repression against the strikers, culminating in the Memorial Day Massacre, when the Democratic mayor of Chicago ordered the police to fire on a peaceful SWOC picnic, killing dozens. The CIO leadership, expecting his support after their role in his 1936 landslide reelection, was shocked when Roosevelt declared “a plague on both your houses.”16
As social peace returned in the late 1930s, New Deal social reforms came to an abrupt halt. A revitalized bloc of Congressional Republicans and southern Democrats blocked all attempts by northern pro-labor Democrats to expand labor rights or social programs. Roosevelt shifted his attention to asserting US military and political hegemony as Europe moved to war. By the time World War II began in September 1939, the Roosevelt administration was gearing up for war—rebuilding the US military, promoting war production, and providing military assistance to the allies.
Although John L. Lewis opposed the move toward war, most of the CIO leadership doubled down on their alliance with FDR. The labor officialdom believed that the war economy would not only eliminate unemployment, but support for the war effort would encourage federal support for the “top-down” unionization of the defense industry, and give them a “seat at the table” in planning the war economy.17 In the absence of sustained mass, militant struggles at the workplace, the CIO’s program brought few, if any, concessions from the Roosevelt administration.18
The postwar period saw Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Harry Truman, retreat even further from domestic reform in favor of consolidating US imperial hegemony. The CIO hoped that peace would allow it to make up for lost purchasing power and workplace power through revitalized collective bargaining; organize the “open shop” South; and secure a social-democratic legislative program of massive public-housing construction, a national single-payer health care system, and social-security pensions capable of providing real security for the elderly. The waves of postwar strikes won wage increases that were quickly wiped out by inflation. The CIO was unable to secure plant or industry-wide seniority in most companies, reinforcing the racial and gender divisions among unionized workers. “Operation Dixie,” the CIO’s ambitious plan to organize the South, floundered as the CIO leadership purged Communists and other leftists from the unions in order to cement its alliance with Truman and the Democrats. Their legislative agenda remained—and remains today—unrealized. The CIO was, at best, able to secure “private welfare states”—relatively generous health insurance and pensions in negotiated contracts—for their members, effectively excluding the masses of unorganized Black and women workers. Rather than new legislative gains, labor experienced major setbacks, most notably the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which placed major legal restrictions on the activities of unions in the United States.19
Demythologizing the popular front20
For many on the left, the US Communist Party’s embrace of the popular front strategy after early 1936 marked a break with the unrealistic revolutionary perspectives of the early 1930s. According to Maurice Isserman:
The Communists faced stark choices in the mid-1930s. They could submerge their political identities and participate in the organization of the CIO on the terms John L. Lewis offered, or they could remain on the outside as principled but unheeded critics. They could accept the fact that, by the mid-1930s, most American workers believed that New Deal social programs were the only thing standing between them and destitution, or they could continue to denounce Roosevelt as a capitalist tool and lose all political credibility outside their own ranks. They could make anti-fascist unity their top political priority; or they could refuse to compromise, and risk sharing the fate of their German comrades who kept insisting in 1932 and 1933, “After Hitler, our turn.”21
Isserman, like Michael Harrington before him and Sunkara and Schwartz after, believes that the Left has only two choices—be the “left wing of the possible” (Harrington) or maintain “revolutionary purity” and remain marginal to the life of the labor and social movements.
However, there was a third alternative to the hopelessly unrealistic and sectarian politics of the “third period” and the adaptation to the labor officialdom and Democratic Party liberalism of the popular front. The CP pursued this strategy, based on the early Communist International’s (Comintern) policy of the “united front,” through most of the 1920s and between early 1934 and late 1936. The Communists had their greatest, most positive impact on the class struggles of the 1930s before they adopted the popular front strategy, which actually undermined the possibilities for a militant labor movement, significant social reforms, and left-wing politics, including an independent labor party in the United States.
Throughout the 1920s, the CP built a small but active membership among first- and second-generation immigrant workers in the needle trades, coal and iron mining, steel, automobile, and machine-making industries. Communist workers played central roles in unsuccessful rank-and-file reform movements within the bureaucratized AFL unions, including the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the United Mine Workers. CP members and sympathizers also tried to create independent unions in unorganized industries, including the auto industry. To facilitate these processes, the party developed the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), which convinced thousands of non-CP worker-activists to build democratic and militant industrial unions, to fight foot-dragging AFL officials, and to build an independent labor party.
The TUEL was the Americanized version of the Comintern’s united-front strategy, which rested on the belief that working-class radicalism grew out of militant mass struggles against employers and the state.22 Only through direct confrontation with capital in their workplaces and communities do workers develop the power to win better wages and working conditions or force state policies that benefit workers and the oppressed. These struggles also open broader and broader layers of the working class to anticapitalist ideas while demonstrating that the forces of official reformism—professional politicians and trade-union bureaucrats—cannot lead successful struggles against capital.
For many on the left, the popular front of the 1930s was simply an elaboration of the united-front policy of the early Comintern in the epoch of “antifascist” struggles. However, there were sharp differences. The Communists’ call for a united front sought to unite working-class organizations—Communist and social-democratic parties, trade unions, women’s organizations, and racial minorities—in common struggles against capital and the state. Within the united front, the Communists maintained their political independence to both propagandize for revolutionary socialism and to present alternative strategies and tactics to the forces of official reformism.23 As we will see, the popular front envisioned a very different set of “strategic alliances”—with liberal “democratic capitalists” and with middle-class liberals and the trade-union officialdom.
In the late 1920s, the Comintern, dominated by the new ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, abandoned the united front strategy with tragic consequences. The Stalinist leaders of the Comintern argued that the 1929 crash began the “third period” of capitalism since the end of World War I. The global depression marked the system’s terminal crisis, and revolution was on the immediate agenda all over the world. Only the “social-fascist” leaders of the social-democratic trade unions and political parties stood in the way. Following this line, Communist parties launched sectarian attacks on reformist leaders, refusing any and all united actions with social-democratic parties and unions. Germany saw the most tragic fruits of this strategy, where the Communists’ refusal to work with the Social Democrats against the rising tide of fascism allowed Hitler to take power and easily smash the world’s oldest and best-organized labor movement.24
The Third Period had a more ambiguous impact on the CP’s politics in the United States. One the one hand, the party dismantled the TUEL and created the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) in its place. This new organization sought to build “revolutionary unions” in opposition to the existing AFL structure. “Red” unions demanded that members accept the entire Communist program, not simply commit to democratic and militant worker action. The CP’s trade-union sectarianism had particularly tragic effects in the steel industry. The sizeable Communist fraction in that industry refused to participate in the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers’ growing rank-and-file movement, which was agitating for a general strike in hopes of winning union recognition in 1933. Instead, the party maintained its relatively small “red union”—the Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union. Left to their own political resources, the steel workers eventually accepted federal mediation through the National Recovery Administration (NRA), dissipating the promising strike movement of 1933.25
On the other hand, the CP did important work among the unemployed in this same period. While refusing to build common organizations with other radicals, the CP built Unemployed Workers Councils in various industrial centers. These groups organized militant, direct actions in defense of evicted tenants, held sit-ins at relief offices, and planned mass demonstrations calling for unemployment insurance. The unemployed struggles were not only key to winning relief and job creation programs, but promoted pro-labor organizing among the unemployed, undermining the employers’ ability to use the unemployed to break strikes. Organizing workers across ethnic, racial, and gender lines, the unemployed movement recruited new working-class cadres to socialist politics in key industrial cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron, and gave workers their first experience of successful struggle since the defeat of the 1919 steel strike.26
The united front in the United States
In the year after Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, the Communist International held onto the belief that the Nazi’s triumph in Germany would be a brief prelude to a successful socialist revolution. When it became obvious that the victory of Hitler would not be short-lived, the world Communist movement went into a profound crisis. Their previous strategy had failed abysmally, and incapable of having an open, democratic discussion of past errors, the world and US Communist movements entered a period of political experimentation. Across the world, the Communist parties returned, pragmatically, to the politics of the united front, building common struggles with social-democratic workers and their organizations, while agitating for action independently of the reformist leaders of the unions and socialist parties.27
Between 1934 and 1936, CP worker militants, in an informal united front with left socialists, Trotskyists, and the remnants of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), played a crucial role in the wave of strikes that established the CIO in the mass production industries. In early 1934, the CP abandoned its policy of boycotting the growing AFL “federal locals.” Alongside other radicals, they built rank-and-file movements in the AFL federal locals that agitated for democratic, industrial unions capable of taking industry-wide strike action independently of the AFL leaders, or their erstwhile allies in the Roosevelt administration.28
The first fruits of the CP’s new policy were in West Coast longshoreman locals. Assuming the leadership of the revitalized International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) locals on the Pacific coast, the CP led a successful dock strike in 1934, which culminated in the San Francisco general strike. CP militants and sympathizers like Harry Bridges built democratic workplace organizations of rank-and-file workers that could act independently of the ILA bureaucracy; linked these workplace organizations together in a highly democratic industrial union run by the membership with the aid of a small number of full-time officials; and promoted mass participation in strike decisions through elected strike committees that reported to mass meetings of workers. The waterfront Communists relied on mass mobilization and militancy rather than capitalist state mediation and secret negotiations; educated workers about the need for independent political action; and resisted all attempts by Joseph Ryan of the ILA to sidetrack the workers’ struggles. The West Coast longshoremen won union recognition and union regulation of the local labor market (hiring hall) in the fall of 1934. Together with the Minneapolis Teamster and Toledo Auto-Lite strikes, the San Francisco longshoremen strike set the stage for the rapid growth of the CIO.29
In the auto, rubber, maritime, electrical appliance, and machine-making industries, Communist and other radical and revolutionary workers led rank-and-file movements in the AFL federal locals to create new, industrial unions. The CP’s entry into the AFL federal locals was crucial to the success of the CIO in 1935–1937. While AFL bureaucrats easily derailed the strike agitation in basic industry in 1933, the CP and Trotskyists along with other radicals were able to provide an effective alternative leadership after 1934.
The CP was particularly successful in building a rank-and-file movement in the automobile industry. Together with other radicals, Communist workers like Wyndam Mortimer and Robert Travis agitated against the AFL leadership’s reliance on federal mediation and demanded democratic organization of the new federal locals.30 This powerful movement, which coalesced into the Progressive Caucus, led unauthorized strikes against individual plants and small producers in the auto industry in 1934-36. The most important battle of this period was the Toledo Chevrolet Strike in May-June 1935, where an elected strike committee of Communists, Trotskyists, and shop-floor militants resisted the AFL bureaucrats’ attempts to accept federal mediation, end the strike, and return to work without union recognition. The partial victory at the Toledo Chevrolet complex set the stage for the creation of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The first international industrial union in auto, founded as an AFL affiliate at an August 1935 convention in Detroit, remained under the control of Francis J. Dillon, a corrupt and ineffectual AFL official. By the second UAW convention in April 1936, the Progressives threw Dillon out, elected a new militant leadership, and affiliated with the newly created CIO.
The height of the CIO strike wave of 1935 through early 1937 also saw the beginnings of a practical schism between the labor movement and the Roosevelt administration. The failure of the “NIRA strike wave” of 1933 and early 1934 was the result of the AFL officialdom’s reliance on Roosevelt administration mediation. The victories of 1934–1936 were, to a significant extent, the result of the CP and other radicals’ ability to convince striking workers to refuse to end strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action in favor of empty promises by federal mediators.
This practical break with the Democratic Party found expression in literally dozens of labor party experiments at the local and state levels. The high point of labor party agitation in the 1930s came during the UAW–CIO convention in April 1936. The Progressive Caucus, led by the CP, Trotskyists from the Workers Party, Socialist Party activists, and other radicals, held a secure majority at the convention of the largest CIO union. The convention adapted a program for “an industrial union, rank-and-file control, unity of all union forces, militant strike action, repudiation of AFL leaders and policies, and support for the CIO.”31 The convention also adopted a resolution giving “the strongest and widest support to the setting up of National, State, and Local Farmer-Labor Parties.” A large majority of UAW delegates initially refused to endorse FDR’s 1936 reelection bid. The convention reversed its decision only after CIO representative Adolph Germer threatened to withhold funding for new organizing. 32
The popular front in the United States
The Seventh World Congress of the Communist International (1935) brought the brief period of pragmatic united-front activism to an end. The strategy was elaborated in G. Dimitrov’s “United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War.”33 The new orientation was not driven by the needs of the class struggle, but by the desire of the Stalinist ruling class in the Soviet Union to cement diplomatic and military alliances with the “democratic” imperialists (United States, France, and Great Britain) against the fascist powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). The Communists did not seek unity in action with the forces of official reformism (social-democratic parties and union officials), but electoral and even governmental alliances with “democratic capitalists.” To secure this “broad alliance,” the Communists gave up independent propaganda for revolutionary socialism and, most importantly, any open criticism of the labor officials or their “democratic capitalist” allies. The new orientation of the Communist parties derailed revolutionary-workers’ movements in France and Spain, and the radical potential of working-class struggles in the United States.34
In the entire “democratic capitalist” world, the Communist parties began to abandon internationalist appeals and adopted instead “national-democratic” traditions.35 The adaptation to American patriotism was quite clear in “The Communist Election Platform, 1936.”36 Gone were any and all references to FDR as a “proto-fascist.” Instead, the CP, like Roosevelt, identified the main enemy as the “economic royalists” (a reference to British supporters during the American Revolution) represented by the Republican Party. The pamphlet ends with an open embrace of US nationalism:
Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism. The Communist Party continues the traditions of 1776, of the birth of our country, of the revolutionary Lincoln, who led the historic struggle that preserved our nation. In the greater crisis of today only the Communist Party shows a way to a better life now, and to the future of peace, freedom, and security for all.37
Despite running an ostensibly independent campaign in 1936, the impact of the popular front was first evident in the CP’s role in electoral politics. While many on the US Left predicted that 1936 would see the organization of a third party based on the newly created CIO unions, capable of winning twenty to thirty seats in Congress, the CIO leadership instead launched the LNPL to mobilize the newly organized industrial working class for the Democrats. In the process of facilitating the Democrats’ biggest electoral victory in 1936, the CIO leadership undermined most of the local labor party experiments that had grown up in 1934-1935. The CP played a critical role in expediting the subordination of local labor parties to the Democratic Party. In New York, the CP was pivotal to ensuring that the newly formed American Labor Party (ALP) would serve as a conduit for traditionally socialist voters to Democratic and “fusion” (Democratic and Republican endorsed) candidates like Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia. 38
The popular front also radically altered the CP’s stance in relation to US imperialism and the struggle against racism. Roosevelt had declared the “Good Neighbor” policy toward Latin America when he took office in 1933. FDR promised that the US would be “the neighbor who resolutely respects himself, and, because he does so, respect the rights of others.”39 Over the course of the 1930s, Roosevelt backed off the worst excesses of US imperialist policy in Latin America, repealing the Platt Amendment in Cuba and the US-Mexico treaties, both of which gave the US the right to intervene in the internal affairs of both countries. He also withdrew US troops from Haiti and renounced direct military intervention. However, the Roosevelt administration continued to support dictatorial regimes in Latin America that protected US investments. (FDR described the Nicaraguan tyrant Anastasio Somoza, overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979, as “our son of a bitch”.)40 The CP, during the popular front, fought for “a democratic application” of the Good Neighbor Policy, downplaying its critique of US imperialism. In 1942, Earl Browder, party chairperson, stated:
There is still much to be done to dissipate the fear and suspicion of Yankee imperialism in order to create confidence throughout Latin America in the role of the United States as a leader of the United Nations. Memories of the past, however bitter they may be, of broken promises and violent intervention, of economic pressures, sharp diplomatic practices and financial exploitation, all could be removed to the archives of history and no longer play a damaging role in the present, once the peoples of Latin America felt an assurance that the “good neighbor” policy was something deeper than the expediency of the historical moment.41
In Puerto Rico, the CPUSA encouraged their comrades in the US colony to abandon joint activity with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in support of independence. Instead, they supported the Democrat’s branch on the island, the Popular Democratic Party, which supported continued colonial status.42
The popular front also had a profound impact on the CP’s activities among African-Americans. The initial break with “third period” politics led the CP in both the North and the South to seek united actions around concrete issues with other forces in the Black community, including middle-class elements in the NAACP. However, the CP continued to try to organize African-American workers and intellectuals independently of the “Black bourgeoisie” through the League for Negro Struggle, which mobilized massive demonstrations in Black communities north and south in support of the Scottsboro Boys, against Jim Crow and disenfranchisement, against lynching, and in support of Ethiopian resistance to the Italian invasion in 1935.
The popular front brought a new orientation toward the African-American middle class. No longer were Black professionals, small business people, and politicians erstwhile allies in the struggle against racism, they were now the legitimate leadership of the Black community. The League for Negro Struggle was abandoned in favor of the National Negro Congress, which brought together African-American trade-union officials, intellectuals, and politicians to lobby for anti-lynching laws and the end of Jim Crow. The end of the 1930s had transformed Black Communists in Harlem from organizers of street rallies and welfare office sit-ins into the most-active cadre in the emerging Democratic Party machine of the charismatic minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr.43
In Alabama, the best-studied area of CP activity in the South, the popular front had similar effects. Leading African-American Communists in Birmingham became full-time officials of the CIO Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers and the CIO regional bodies in the South. In the words of the veteran Alabama Communist Hosea Hudson, “everyone got soaked up in the union.”44 As was the case with their northern, second-generation European immigrant worker counterparts, many African-American Communists in Alabama left the CP when they became labor officials, “because the CIO, in their opinion, offered better opportunities for personal and community advancement.”45
The CP’s support for Roosevelt’s New Deal also led Alabama Communists, like their northern counterparts, to discourage direct action and militancy among workers and farmers in the South. In Birmingham, Black Communists led the Workers’ Alliance, which had become the union for workers in the federally funded Works Projects Administration (WPA). After 1938, the “Communist leadership (of the Workers’ Alliance-CP) now discouraged wildcat strikes and walkouts on WPA projects,” greatly limiting the ability of WPA workers to defend their wages, working conditions, and jobs against the Roosevelt administration’s cuts in the late 1930s.46 In general, the Alabama Communists, “to ensure harmonious relations with organized labor, Southern liberals, and the middle class,” discouraged workplace and community militancy and soft-pedaled issues of racism and racist violence.47 By the end of the 1930s, the CP in Alabama had been transformed politically and socially from an organization of African-American workers and farmers leading strikes, sit-ins, and armed confrontations with industrialists, mine owners, and landlords into an organization of white middle-class liberals, African-American professionals, and a handful of labor officials.
In the CIO unions, the popular front had profound consequences. In exchange for influence with Lewis, the CP abandoned the independent organization of the rank and file and the promotion of direct action, first and foremost in the automobile industry. The sit-down wave reached its height with the strike at the Flint GM plant in December 1936–January 1937. Lewis and Murray feared that the militancy of the workers would “provoke” the Democratic governor to use the National Guard to destroy the fledgling CIO. They encouraged the socialists, Trotskyists, and CP members leading the sit-in to end the strike and evacuate the plants prior to winning union recognition from GM.
While CP members in Flint supported Lewis’s plan, the strikers, under the more independent leadership of left socialists, Trotskyists, and others radicals, refused. They instead seized the strategically crucial Fisher 4 plant, where GM’s engines were produced. The seizure of Fisher 4 brought the strike to a rapid and successful conclusion. The next spring, the Communists used their prestige among autoworkers to help Lewis and the CIO leadership to block the spread of sit-down strikes at Chrysler and other nonunion corporations. They also launched a campaign to end brief work stoppages over shop-floor grievances.48
By late 1937, after the disastrous Little Steel strike, the CIO offensive and the reformist thrust of the Second New Deal came to an end. Although the CP in the late 1930s and 1940s would have thousands of members in staff positions and serving as officers of several CIO unions, their influence among rank-and-file militants began to decline. In order to reassure their newfound allies in the CIO officialdom of their loyalty, the CP publicly dissolved its own shop-floor organizations. The dissolution of the “industrial fractions” and “cells” in 1937 freed Communists who had become union officials from any political accountability to their rank-and-file comrades. CP membership became less an opportunity to organize with other left-leaning workers to impact the life of the union and more an opening to leave the shop floor and become union bureaucrats.
The dissolution of the CP’s industrial organizations also ended their independent socialist propaganda among workers. As a result, the social composition of the CP changed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. While total party membership grew to an all-time high of 100,000 in 1943, the percentage of members who were industrial, clerical, or service sector workers fell and the percentage who were semi-professionals (teachers, social workers, nurses), professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc.) and union officers and staffers grew sharply in the late 1930s and early 1940s.49
Despite a brief period of renewed militancy and antiwar agitation between the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939 and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in August 1941, the CP quickly became super-patriotic during World War II. While the CP gained public acceptance and behind-the-scenes influence at the State Department and the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) from their wartime patriotism, their role as the main enforcers of the “no-strike pledge” in industry gravely weakened the influence of the left among rank-and-file workers in the CIO, thus helping to open the way for the purge of the socialist left from the labor movement in the postwar period.50
Unfortunately, the debacle of the 1930s and 1940s did not end the US Left’s fascination with versions of the popular-front strategy of a “liberal-labor-left” alliance. Militant anticommunists along with former revolutionaries Michael Harrington and Max Shachtman advocated a similar strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. As leaders of the rightward-moving Socialist Party, Harrington and Shachtman called for the socialist left and labor movement to seek a “realignment” of the Democratic Party. The goal was to drive the Dixiecrats out of the party, allowing liberal and labor forces to transform the Democrats into a social-democratic party. Believing that the strength of the industrial unions combined with the growth of public sector unions and the civil rights movement could leverage this transformation, Harrington and Shachtman joined the leaders of the AFL-CIO and the major African-American organizations in this effort.51 Along the way they sacrificed the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Atlantic City convention, and subordinated the fight to expand social-welfare policies to support for the US war in Vietnam. In the wake of the McGovern candidacy in 1972, the Democrats did experience realignment, but not the one the social democrats hoped for. The Dixiecrats had abandoned the party in the 1960s, and the labor bureaucracy had become marginalized as the party came under the leadership of “New Democrats” who pushed the party sharply to the right in an embrace of neoliberalism.52
Today the growth of the socialist left in the US is ripe with possibilities. On the one hand, we are seeing the emergence of a new militant minority of activists with a radical political vision that can help rebuild the capacities of working and oppressed people to struggle in their workplaces and communities. On the other, there is the prospect of a mass presence for socialism in US politics—including a mass, multi-tendency socialist organization. However, ignoring the lessons of history will short-circuit all of these possibilities.
Today the politics of the popular front are even more unrealistic than in the 1930s and 1940s—no less than in the 1960s and 1970s. First, the socialist left does not yet have the social or political weight to force any segment of capital, the liberal middle classes, or official reformism (labor bureaucrats, etc.) to include us in a popular front. It was the CP’s base in the working class—and the potential threat it posed to the status quo—that made elements of the CIO officialdom and the liberal middle classes willing to enter a “center-left” coalition with the CP. Today, we do not yet pose such a threat—and pursuing a popular front strategy would divert us from our tasks of rebuilding popular resistance and educating for socialism.
Second, any attempt to “permeate” the labor leadership—by supporting “progressive” union officials who verbally support our political agenda (single-payer health insurance, opposing military adventures abroad, defense of public education, abortion rights, etc.) or by becoming staff organizers—is bound to fail. The labor officialdom in the United States today is even more committed to alliances with Democrats and cooperation with management at the expense of their members’ most immediate needs than in the 1920s. To look to any segment of them to revive the US labor movement is foolish, if not simply delusional.
Finally, the Democratic Party is even more impermeable to the Left today than ever before in its history. Since the first Clinton administration and the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony in the Democratic Party, the Democrats have undergone a twofold transformation. On the one hand, the absence of a membership organization that could select Democratic candidates and leaders has been compromised by the transformation of the party into a “fundraising cartel.” As Kim Moody has argued, the Democrats today are run by a series of unelected and unaccountable committees at the local, state, and national levels, which are the main conduits for corporate financing of the party.53 Corporate control of campaign funding allows them to easily crush any left-wing insurgency within the party. On the other hand, a career in the Democratic Party has become an important path to personal enrichment. Success as a politician—especially at the federal level—has been preceded by a successful professional-managerial career for most of the last century, or was rewarded by a similar position upon leaving office. Today, a career in the Democratic Party brings with it direct funding—before and after leaving office—from capitalists to former politicians’ foundations, providing rewards even greater than before.
The allure of the popular front/realignment politics is quite powerful. It appears to be a shortcut to building a significant socialist left and winning concrete gains that will improve the lives of working and oppressed peoples. The hope is that forging alliances with “progressive” leaders of the labor and social movements and using the Democratic Party as a “bullhorn” we can change the relationship of forces, win reforms, and build radicalism. Unfortunately, this strategy has only produced failures and setbacks—ultimately because it is based on an unrealistic understanding of capitalism and working-class consciousness. The simple fact is that real gains for working people, people of color, women, LGBT, and immigrants are only won through mass social disruption—through strikes, demonstrations, occupations, and the like. These disruptive actions also build working-class consciousness, as working people have to forge bonds of solidarity in common organizations and struggles, confront their employers and the state, and experience their own power to change the world. A strategy that allies the socialist left to the labor officials and Democratic liberals undermines our ability to consistently advocate and build independent organization and militancy. Only a strategy of independence from corporate Democrats, union leaders, and NGO staffers—the opposite of the popular front strategy—can possibly allow us to realize the possibility of a mass, multitendency socialist organization in the United States.