Last Sunday there were dueling diaries that reached the recommended list on DailyKos: History Tells Us The Extreme Left Cannot Beat Trump and What History Really Tells Us About Defeating Trump.
I did not agree with either one.
I am not a historian, but I have read a lot of American history. I am, after all, a frigging book dealer, so I should read a lot of books, right? And I don’t think it is conceit on my part, as I shuffle past the three-score mark in this mortal veil, to assert that I know a bit more about American history than a lot of other people appear to know.
For example, neither one of the two dueling diaries mentioned what, to my mind, is the obvious role played in American history by the leftist populist movements of the late 1800s. Nor did either of the diarists discuss the crucial role of the radical left in shaping the New Deal.
I was going to write a comment outlining some of what I knew, mostly by cutting and pasting from a diary I posted in December 2015, but realized there was not enough detail there about what I wanted to write about. So I went traipsing down various corridors of The Tubez, and came upon a truly wonderful article by Van Gosse, a history professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn. Professor Gosse co-founded Historians Against the War in 2003, and focuses on the African American struggle for full citizenship since the American Revolution, the New Left as a "movement of movements," and the Cold War in Latin America. The article by Gosse I found is entitled, What the New Deal Accomplished, and I will excerpt liberally (ha-ha) from it.
Even better, Professor Gosse has agreed to be my first subject of an interview-by-email, an approach I’ve been cogitating for quite a while now.
In What the New Deal Accomplished, Professor Gosse writes:
Three movements stand out as directly influencing the key New Deal programs. First was the radical movement of the unemployed which surfaced in early 1930. Through "hunger marches," constant lobbying and local protest, it forced the issue of relief for the unemployed onto the national policy agenda. Second was the movement to provide pensions for the aged, led by a California doctor named Townsend, which made the idea of universally-available government pensions so popular that Democrats adopted it. Finally, and most important, was the movement for industrial unionism embodied in a new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).Professor Gosse then proceeds to examine each of these three movements, beginning with the unemployed.
I asked Professor Gosse to supply some more background on these 1930s radicals. How spontaneous were these protest activities? In other words, would they have occurred without the organizing of groups like the Young Communist League ? And are there any historical connections between these groups of the 1920s and 1930s, and the various populist organizations of the late 1800s, such as the Grange, the Farmers Alliances, the Greenback Party, the People’s Party, and the Non-Partisan League? Professor Gosse's reply is immediately below. Note that this radical organizing only became effective when it began to include women.
The Unemployed Councils tapped into a great deal of spontaneous, urgent anger and outrage, but they were an organized and directed effort by the CPUSA. My article "`To Organize in Every Neighborhood, In Every Home': The Gender Politics of American Communists Between the Wars," Radical History Review (Spring 1991), 109-141, explains how the Party changed its strategy in early 1930 because of bottom-up pressure to stop focusing just on the (male) workers and look at families. They took off like a rocket because the party had all these dedicated cadres in place, including women, who finally found the right thing to do (as in fighting evictions, demanding more “relief”). I would not say there were many connections to the populists of various sorts you have named, because those were based in the rural heartland, whereas the Unemployed Councils were rooted in dense urban ethnic neighborhoods in places like Detroit, Chicago, the Bronx etc. They did draw on existing traditions of working-class activism that predated the CP, especially among Jewish women. The IWW also had developed what I would call a “familist” practice during its big strikes in the early ‘Teens, which may have influenced the CP.I do not know much about Townsend. Was he a leftist radical? I do not know. Judging from the brief profile in Wikipedia, I doubt it. He and his employer, Robert Clements, just appear to have come up with the right idea, with the right pitch, at the right time.
I do not think it matters much, because as Professor Gosse notes, the influence of the unemployed movement, and the Townsend movement, were easily dwarfed by the massive increase in labor activism that a forgotten section of New Deal legislation set in motion.
…. the original NRA [National Industrial Recovery Act] legislation pushed through Congress in the famous "100 days" of Roosevelt's first term contained an obscure provision that acted as a catalyst for an unprecedented grassroots awakening of America's workers. Clause "7A" of the legislation establishing the NRA specifically guaranteed employees the right to organize. Never before had Congress taken such an unequivocal stance in favor of labor. Across the country desperate workers took this not as a vague sop to the AFL [American Federation of Labor]—as originally intended
—but as an explicit endorsement of unionization. The phrase "the President wants you to join a union" was taken up and repeated by organizers, and even found its way onto posters.
Spurred by the NRA, workers flooded into the AFL from 1933 on. In many cases, the Federation had nowhere to put them. The AFL only recognized workers who possessed a specific craft or recognized job title (like boilermakers, machinists or brewery truck drivers). Unskilled or semiskilled employees in large factories had to be grouped into temporary "federal locals," while the Federation tried to figure out which craft union could take them. But this institutional roadblock did not matter in the end, as workers kept striking and forming ad-hoc union locals in textile mills and steel factories, assuming that the labor movement wanted them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
By 1934, this bottom-up insurgency assumed a scope that to some suggested revolutionary possibilities. Workers seemed almost anxious to walk out, and refused to back down in the face of massive repression. 1.5 million struck that year, despite the fact that unemployment in some urban centers approached half of the workforce. Though labor battles took place in all parts of the country, three local strikes served to underline the new dynamic--the "general strikes" led by unabashed radicals in three industrial centers, Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.
First, what is a general strike? A strategy well-understood in Europe and Latin America, where it has sometimes been used to bring down governments, a general strike means that all workers in a city, region or even a whole country stop work. Obviously, this constitutes a great threat to authority in general, and has vast potency as a tactic. For a variety of reasons, however, there have been few general strikes in American history, and even those few (as in Seattle in 1919) did not last long.
Things were different in 1934. In Toledo, a key center of auto parts production where a walk-out could close down much of the industry, the strike began in the Auto-Lite factory and spread throughout the city when strikers were killed by National Guardsmen. Organizers from the socialist American Workers Party played a major role in making the strike general. In Minneapolis, an armed confrontation developed between the city's teamsters, under the leadership of dissident Marxists from the Communist League of America, and the city's businessmen and mayor. Again, street battles led not to the strike's collapse but to the shutdown of the city's business as a whole. Finally, in the most spectacular instance, San Francisco's longshoremen struck, led by an Australian named Harry Bridges, who was very close to the Communist Party. The dockworkers faced down machine guns along the Embarcadero, suffering many casualties, but won their point. In each of these cities, the workers and their unions won major victories—even if only the right to have a union, and attempt to bargain. The biggest effort of the year, however, was a brief general strike of more than 300,000 textile workers in mills stretching from New England to Georgia, which ended in a crushing defeat. The combined effect of this unprecedented militance demonstrated the potential of the most exploited employees and the great obstacles facing the trade union movementI asked Professor Gosse to again expand a bit on the groups involved. Was there coordination between the general strikes? Why was the strike of the textile workers defeated, while the general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis succeeded? Is the lesson that, given the communications technology of the time, a nation-wide strike was vulnerable to repression, while large strikes confined to local areas were not? His reply is immediately below. Note how fractious the radical left was at that time—I don’t think the left in USA is any closer to unity today.
No, there was no coordination, and more’s the pity. Each of these famous strikes was led by a different group of Marxists, and they did not get along. The orthodox Trotskyists (who soon became the Socialist Workers Party) organized the Minneapolis teamsters. A.J. Muste’s Workers Party had a concentration in Toledo, and led that. The Communist Party (CP) was key to the San Francisco strike, and eventually to many of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)’s big strikes and organizing drives. But the level of sectarian rivalry and hatred was very intense between the CP and the others. Once the CP adopted the “popular front” line in 1935, they were open to cooperation, so that Communists and old-line Socialists did ally in the CIO for a while but the general pattern is one of estrangement between “Stalinists” and “anti-Stalinists." Very unfortunate, a history I hope we do not ever repeat.
Whether a nationwide coordinated effort was possible is an interesting question. Certainly, once the CIO was formed, there was considerable national coordination, but even then, each union had its politics and internal tensions: the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (later USW) was very different than the UAW which was in turn different than the Electrical Workers or the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and behind all of them was the United Mine Workers (which effectively founded the CIO), under the personal control of John L. Lewis.
The sudden labor militancy of 1934 had two important effects. First, it led directly to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935. This Act is also known as the Wagner Act, since its author was U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner, a New York Democrat who was born in the Rhineland-Palatinate of Prussia (now part of Germany) in 1877, and immigrated to the USA with his parents in 1885.
Was there any connection between the Wagner family, and the German revolutionaries of 1848? This question remains unanswered at this time.
The Wagner Act guaranteed the rights of workers to form and join labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and engage in collective action including strikes and boycotts. Previously, these rights had been repeatedly denied by a number of court decisions, in a legal climate that has become known as the Lochner Era. The Wagner Act also created the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to conduct and enforce elections for unionization of a workplace or company, and require employers to engage in collective bargaining with any labor unions thus formed.
In early 1935, no serious observer could envision anything but prolonged, bitter and bloody class struggle, escalating in ways that most feared to imagine, unless something was done. That is what the general strikes, the spontaneous insurgency overwhelming the old-guard AFL, and the failed textile strike all implied. In that context, Senator Wagner (only reluctantly backed at the last minute by FDR) proposed a way out of a terrible impasse, a new social contract—not out of sentimental liberal idealism, and certainly not because of secret revolutionary tendencies, but simply because something had to be done. The Wagner Act, the NLRB and a new government-regulated and enforced right to collective bargaining was a compromise, then, but one that established not just organized labor—still very weak—but more importantly, America's immigrant-based working-class as a serious political actor.That last sentence leads us to the second important effect. The strike wave of 1934 transformed the labor movement itself, by eclipsing the power and influence of the craft unions and the American Federation of Labor, which had dominated organized labor for decades, and which were generally amenable to laissez faire capitalism, and unwilling to organize workers at giant industrial companies such as the steel and auto makers. New, more militant labor organizations, most notably the Congress of Industrial Organizations, would come to the fore, and become the foundation of the new ruling political coalition being forged by Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.
In his article, Professor Gosse explains that before the 1934 strike wave,
…. the union movement was isolated from the majority of the working class, and largely represented a "labor aristocracy" of skilled workers with conservative tendencies. Until the 1930s, a very high proportion of union members (and most union leaders) were native-born craftsmen of Northwestern European, Protestant backgrounds, while the majority of working class people were unskilled factory workers--immigrants or the children of immigrants, mainly Catholics, Orthodox Christians or Jews. This deep cultural split, stretching from the shop floor to the local churches to taverns, had significant political ramifications. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was led by conservative "business unionists" who frankly stated that they did not believe the unskilled industrial workers could ever be unionized. Their attention was focused on protecting the privileges and jurisdictions of the exclusive crafts, which typically represented only a small minority of workers in a given workplace….
The AFL's approach to politics resembled its "business unionist" approach of defending practical gains by skilled workers, and ignoring the greater needs of the unskilled mass of factory operatives. Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL for nearly forty years, summed up the Federation's program in one word--"More," meaning more for his members, and little or no interest in anyone else, such as the women or blacks excluded by union bylaws and traditions. In national politics, the AFL tended to favor the Democrats, but its approach was cautious and its influence limited. At all times, it sought the mantle of respectability and legitimacy, rejecting any association with radical programs of social reform. During the 1920s, as American capitalism rode a business boom, organized labor stagnated. The AFL began to seem almost irrelevant under Gompers' unimaginative successor, William Green. By the Depression's beginning it was a minor force outside of major cities where craft locals exercised considerable control over the building trades, railroad yards and a few other jobs, and maintained some power in Democratic machines.
Understanding the quiescent attitude of the AFL, and its decline throughout the 1920s, helps explain why organized labor mounted no significant challenge in the early years of the Depression. It led no protests, nor did it organize any major national campaign for relief, leaving that ground almost entirely to Communists and other radicals. No historian credits the AFL with any significant place in Roosevelt's sweeping victory in 1932, or the even greater Democratic Party triumph in 1934. In fact, until 1933-34, organized labor is almost entirely absent from the various chronicles of the Depression. To most observers, it seemed merely one more interest group to be assuaged, and certainly less significant than the National Association of Manufacturers or the Chamber of Commerce. Other than a few intense local strikes led by breakaway radical unions from the Communist-led Trade Union Unity League, no major strike action took place until 1934I asked Professor Gosse to provide more background on the Trade Union Unity League:
It was a “dual union” set up to oppose the AFL (keeping in mind that “dual unionism” has always been considered heretical and just plain wrong by most unionists), and I remember it as mainly a way-station before the CIO. When leftists were kicked out of the regular internationals, or whatever local they were in, or got really frustrated by do-nothing leadership, they would create an alternative body, but even the top CP trade unionists like William Z. Foster had to know this was a stopgap. Of course the CIO itself was the most dramatic expression of “dual unionism,” but it succeeded—in large part because some of the biggest unions in the AFL split to form it and brought their treasuries and staffs with them.Professor Gosse’s reply nicely leads into the next excerpt from his article. Here he details how the radical leftists within the labor movement of the 1930s broke with the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL and CIO merged in 1955. The membership of the AFL-CIO reached 20 million in 1979, before beginning its continuing decline under the hammer blows of Reagan, neo-liberalism, and deindustrialization.
…. the strikes of 1934 and the Wagner Act broke the dam within labor itself. At all levels, rebellion had been growing against the domination of "business unionists" and the extraordinarily cautious regime of President William Green. The demand for industrial unionism, uniting all workers regardless of craft, skill, ethnicity, religion, race or gender, had simmered for two generations, and now came to the fore. At the AFL' s [October] 1935 convention in Atlantic City, John L. Lewis, the formerly conservative and autocratic president of the United Mine Workers, challenged the craft unionists physically, punching Carpenters Union President William Hutcheson in the mouth. Immediately afterwards, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers formed the Committee on Industrial Organization (or CIO; the name was changed to "Congress on Industrial Organization" when they left the AFL formally a year later) to actively promote new unions in the mass production industries.
The new CIO rapidly became the center of the working-class social movement that had been growing from many different sources since 1930. In steel towns, auto plants, oil fields and on the killing floors of meatpacking houses, it became a magnet for a cohort of grassroots activists that had persisted since the failed union drives of the 'Teens. Many of them were middle-aged skilled workers from the British Isles, men with long years of shop floor militance behind them who were recognized as informal leaders by younger workers of different nationalities. Small left wing independent unions had existed outside of the AFL for years, and had mushroomed with new members since the NRA gave public sanction to unions. In effect, they were a movement waiting to happen, through the lean years of the 1920s and the chaos and desperation of the Depression's early years. Indeed, if the AFL had shown any willingness of its own, it could have rapidly have built national industrial unions. By 1936, however, the initiative had passed to the new CIO, which survived largely thanks to money and staff provided by John L. Lewis' Mine Workers….
These battles took place before, during and just after the crucial 1936 elections, when the Democratic Party's "New Deal Coalition" triumphantly came together, sweeping all but two states. During that election, the CIO threw all of its resources into securing FDR's re-election via a newly-created entity, Labor's Non-Partisan League. Though FDR had publicly condemned the Flint sit-down, he maintained a hands-off pose, and privately urged settlement on all parties. In light of past history, this was a marked advance: not since Theodore Roosevelt had the White House been officially neutral, effectively giving organized labor a co-belligerent status with corporate America.
The Democrats stance of guarded support, and sometimes open embrace, of a labor movement at the height of its militance, did not arrive in a vacuum. In fact, the Democrats actively feared serious electoral challenges from their left. To understand the significance of the historic alliance of the labor movement to the Democratic Party, which was locked in place in 1936 and persists to this day, we must look at the meteoric rise of radical third party efforts from 1934 on. Historians repeatedly cite Roosevelt's trepidation over a bid by Louisiana's eccentric populist Senator Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in late 1935. In fact, much more clear cut challenges to the Democrats came from bona fide radicals with established credentials. In the upper Midwest, a strong regional tradition of third-party progressivism revived. The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota effectively took over the state, electing governors and Members of Congress. In Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette's old Progressive Party surfaced again, led by other members of his family. Perhaps most startling, however, was the effort in California led by the veteran radical novelist Upton Sinclair. In 1934, he organized a campaign called End Poverty in California (EPIC), won the Democratic primary for governor, and narrowly lost the general election after intense red baiting. Numerous other examples sent a very clear message to traditional Democrats like FDR that they needed to move quickly to secure their working class support, and at the right moment an alliance with the CIO sent that message.It is instructive to review this history, and contrast it with how Democrats have reacted to mass movements more recently. To win election as President, Barack Obama and his campaign team attracted the grass roots support of over two million people whose small, individual donations and activism propelled team Obama to victory. But Obama was not really a populist at heart, and once actually in power, was unwilling to steer or otherwise use this grassroots movement to impose real change on the existing structure of the economy—despite the massive outrage over the depredations and arrogance of Wall Street. Micah Sifry, author of the 2014 book The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), has recently called this wasted grassroots movement “Obama’s Lost Army.”
The response of many of these people team Obama had mobilized, then failed to use, was to join ranks with Occupy Wall Street. Again, Obama and the Democrats chose not to support or even identify with this mass movement. Instead, the Obama administration joined with the private security forces of large banks, and with local police forces, and coordinated a national para-military suppression of Occupy. In fact, 4,000 Obama administration documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice in June 2014 through a Freedom of Information Act filing, reveal that the Department of Homeland Security treated calls by Occupy Wall Street in 2011 for a boycott of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, as a potential terrorist threat!
Finally, of course, there was the opposition mounted against the Sanders presidential campaign by elements of the Democratic Party leadership.
So, it seems that the institutional instinct of the Democratic Party is to not just completely shun the radical left, but even forsake its New Deal alliance with organized labor. (There are also tight parallels between the formal neoliberal conceptual assault on organized labor. See, for example, Chapter 5, “The Neoliberals Confront the Trade Unions,” by Yves Steiner, in the 2009 book edited by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective), and the ongoing attempts by ALEC, Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians to legislatively cripple organized labor in the USA.) As Thomas Frank explains in his new book, Listen Liberal — Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Democratic Party leaders began to turn their backs on labor following the disastrous 1968 election (pages 45ff). Frank argues this new direction was first pioneered by the Democratic equivalent of the 1971 Powell Memo (the Powell Memo laid out how corporations could begin to roll back the increasing public hostility to big business and what Powell called "the American free enterprise system"), the book of the same year by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s. This abandonment of labor allowed new Democratic Party leaders such as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Tim Wirth, Al Gore, and the Clintons, to embrace free trade, deindustrialization, and financialization, and shift the base of the Party from the working class to the rising new “professional class.”
In summary, the picture that emerges from actual history is that the radical left in the USA played a very important role in creating the New Deal. Most of the major ideas that created the social safety net—which remains wildly popular—originated in the radical left, percolated up through the working class labor unions the radicals organized, and were finally accepted by the national leaders of the Democratic Party in power only with some reluctance and hesitation. As Professor Gosse concludes his article:
…. the Roosevelt Administration was in fact responding to popular pressure, attempting to mediate and control a genuine upsurge. Increasingly, as time went on, it sought to ride the force of the mass movement spawned by the Depression to build a new Democratic Party coalition, with considerable success.