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Forging American communism: the life of William Z. Foster.

PERHAPS NO FIGURE is more steadfastly fixed in the historiographic imagination with the literal trials and struggles of working-class communism in America than William Z. Foster. Like so many others in the US workers movement, Foster was born of an American union of Irish republicanism and Irish Catholicism, his father a footloose example of hard-drinking combatative masculinity, his mother almost a caricature of resigned feminine religiosity, frowning on her husband's militant Fenianism, impetuous business ventures, and neglect of the spiritual realm. The family lived in dire poverty, and most of the more than twenty children borne to Mrs. Foster died in infancy. By the mid-1890s a teenaged William had moved with the family to Philadelphia, where his social life was that of the street and his personal political economy from the age of ten one of hawking newspapers, apprenticed work in the craft metallurgy sector, and waged employment in the most industrialized foundry shops. In his street gang, the Bulldogs, the young Foster lived first-hand the debilitating fragmentations of race and religious prejudice at the same time as he learned early lessons in class solidarity during a violent 1895 street railway strike.

By the turn-of-the-century Foster's family ties were unravelling and by 1901 both of his parents were apparently dead. He began a decade-long tramp which took him to Havana and New York, Portland and Galveston. If he found work it was almost always temporary: fired from his job as a New York streetcar motorman because of his attempts to organize a union, he ended up in the lumber camps, railway construction projects, and port docks of capitalism's post-1900 boom. For a time he shipped out to sea, and touched down in England, Australia, Peru, and South Africa. Foster even tried homesteading. But the itinerant Foster's fundamental rootlessness was stabilized in his familiarity with railroad work, which was simultaneously waged employment, cultural context, and vehicle of mobility. And when he settled in Portland he looked for the social and political company of a militant brotherhood of socialists who understood the alienations and angers of the dispossessed. Rubbing shoulders with the ultra-left of Washington State, Foster found bits and pieces of attraction in the Socialist Party, Dr. Hermon Franklin Titus' Wage Workers Party, DeLeon's Socialist Labor Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose 1909 free speech fight in Spokane impressed the young radical with its "excellent discipline."

As a correspondent to Titus' Workingman's Paper, Foster was learning the agitational ropes of the left-wing propagandist. He took a step further along this educational road when he travelled to Europe in 1910, granted informal credentials by Wobbly figurehead Vincent St. John. "The Saint," who baptized many a promising young militant in those years, no doubt funded a part of Foster's expenses in return for a promise of articles on European labour struggles for the IWW press and Foster's presence as an IWW representative at the International Trade Union Secretariat gathering in Budapest. Arriving in Europe in time to witness the French syndicalists in action during the 1910 railroad strike, Foster managed to get himself arrested for vagrancy on the eve of the Budapest conference. Upon his return to the United States he committed himself to the futile project of restructuring the IWW, trying to convert it to a propaganda league that would serve as a militant minority working to transform the mainstream American Federation of Labor into an industrial union, eventually forming the Syndicalist Militant Minority League in Chicago. Drawn to the anarchists of the utopian Home Colony near Puget Sound, Foster met his lifelong companion and future wife, Ester Abramowitz, mowitz, a practising advocate of free love who was destined to remain a shadowy figure as Foster moved into increasing prominence in the left struggle to build first, a syndicalist opposition, and then, later in the post-1920 years, the Communist Party (CP).

Chicago became Foster's organizing base. He rose high in the ranks of the Chicago Federation of Labor, playing a pivotal role in the 1918 campaign to unionize the stockyards of packingtown, where working-class unity broke on the back of racial exclusions. With the Great Steel Strike of 1919, Foster became the bete noire of America's working class organizers, a man feared and despised precisely because he galvanized proletarian loyalties at the same time that he could not be dismissed by the bourgeois order as alien and other. The product of American conditions, Foster's alien status was that of the worker; he was an outlaw, not because of his "foreignness," but because he demanded the organizational rights of unions for all labour, regardless of national origin.

As a "free lance" organizer in the general trade union movement, Foster grew closer and closer to the Communist Party, which had broken out of its underground cliquishness to become a presence in the broad workers movement by the early 1920s. It took Foster a while to move into communist circles and join the new party but he eventually did secretly join, in 1921, after travelling to the Soviet Union; he soon became a central figure in the "amalgamation" efforts to create industrial unionism through the Trade Union Educational League.

Never quite comfortable in the Party's inner circles, Foster was part of an early faction of American trade unionists that included James Cannon, who would ultimately break with Stalinism in 1928. Their first task was to deepen the Americanization of the Party and to consolidate its trade union core by loosening the hold over party power of the New York-based, largely foreign-born, intellectual wing, many of whom were holdovers from the Goose Caucus which had struggled to keep the Party underground and theoretically pure to the point of isolation from the masses of US workers. Led by honourable former Socialist Party left wingers such as C.E. Ruthenberg and Max Bedacht, the New York Germans were orthodox theorists and straight-laced purists. Bedacht never recovered from the unease he felt when he met Cannon for the first time and found the Kansas-born former Wobbly chewing tobacco. Ruthenberg and Bedacht had the misfortune to be aligned with John Pepper, seconded to the US Party from the Comintern, where he had been involved in the disastrous events of the Hungarian Workers Republic in 1919. Pepper's leadership of the Party was instinctually opportunist, and in his programmatic efforts to curry favour with the LaFollette Third Party movement, was a preface to the later Stalinist subordination of Marxist practice in a host of popular front debacles. With Pepper recalled to the Soviet Union in 1924, the personnel of political factionalism in the CP took a turn for the worse as Jay Lovestone replaced Pepper. Communist leaders, Foster among them, rightly regarded Lovestone as "ruthless, unscrupulous, and iron-fisted."

Foster and Cannon came to a parting of the ways in 1925, Cannon seeing political programme and loyalty to the Comintern as centrally important, Foster making control of the actual Party apparatus paramount. For years this coveted end would elude him, and for much of the later 1920s, as Stalinism tightened its grip on the international communist movement, strangling opposition of any sort, Foster endured personal and political isolation and a series of humiliating dressing downs from those who questioned his "communist" loyalties or denigrated his grasp of Marxist ideas. He remained in the shadows of Party leadership throughout the 1930s, an enduring if somewhat nostalgic symbol. Eventually he succumbed to a nervous breakdown. But his vision of American mass production industrial unionism as the best hope for a revival of communism among the working class seemed vindicated by the momentous upturn in class struggle in the post-1934 years. Politically, however, these were years of Browder's control of the American Party, and while Foster challenged Browder in the 1940s he yet again stifled his anguished dissent in capitulation to Stalinist notions of "peaceful coexistence." When Browderism went too far, and its advocate had to be exiled from the Party of Stalin for his excessive popular front "deviations," Foster was, ironically, one of the few elder statesmen of American communism who could lay claim to the leadership of the Party. He took over the chairmanship of the Party, which was now to be run by a triumvirate of Foster, Eugene Dennis, and John Williamson. But this "victory" came quite late in Foster's political life: he was ill and he lacked a factional base or a rank and file constituency. Hounded by the FBI, living through the dark political night of McCarthyism, and something of a loner, Foster apparently derived little warmth from his relationship with his wife and not much more from his position of authority in the American communist movement. He lived throughout the 1950s under indictment for Smith Act prosecutions, free on $5,000 bail pending the recovery of his health. That never happened. After a series of strokes he petitioned the Supreme Court to release him from the terms of his parole, which confined him to the New York area, his stated desire being to travel to the Soviet Union. The government delayed issuing him a passport, however, until he appeared before the appropriate officer, driven to the building in an ambulance. Early in 1961 he went to the Soviet Union, most likely knowing he would die there. Eight months later, at the age of 80, he passed away in a sanatorium outside of Moscow. His ashes were deposited in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, placed near the graves of the Haymarket martyrs.

Edward P. Johanningsmeier gives us this portrait of Foster, and it is a remarkable book. Deeply researched, and drawing on the rich holdings of the former Central Archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Moscow), now called the Center for Research and Preservation of Documents on Modern and Contemporary History, this book advances the historiography of communism in the United States considerably. Learned and reliable, it will be an important source for scholars for decades to come. Johanningsmeier tries to situate his study of Foster within contemporary concerns about the gendered representation of class militancy and the language of political opposition, but these are asides in what is essentially a traditional political biography. Some reviewers may find this disappointing. That is their problem. The details presented here, from the fascinating account of Foster's early family life, to the alienations of his wandering years as a hobo, and into the factional intrigues characteristic of life in the communist milieu from the early 1920s into the 1950s, are all part of the life of the militant minority. They explain the personal and the political. Foster saw the hard lives of his parents and watched his siblings die in childbirth or infancy: he never fathered any biological children of his own. Foster experienced, intensely and with great feeling, the alienated rootlessness of the dispossessed: he himself lived as an ascetic, dressed in second hand clothes, gave money away to passersby, and never succumbed to the desire to own much of anything. Foster knew well the price the American working class paid for its individualism: once in the party of the international working class he stayed with it, less often for the better than for the worse. The factional intrigues and political maneuverings that Johanningsmeier recounts are not so much stolid accounts of unimportant doctrinal wars on the isolated left as they are statements about the meaning of programme and principle as they are applied to American conditions. This is especially the case for the 1920s, when the US Communist Party still retained the potential to be a revolutionary force, before Stalinism contained and destroyed its original Bolshevik currents.

Where I part company from Johanningsmeier is precisely around this issue of Stalinism. Communist Party historiography has reached something of an impasse of late, with the Theodore Draperinspired literature emphasizing the Comintern-dominated character of American communism and ideologically equating communism and Stalinism, while a New Left-inspired historiography avoids this critical question of Stalinism by stressing the indigenous radicalism of the American communist experience, focusing on secondary cadre and local experiences. Johanningsmeier's treatment of Foster may well appear to bridge this political and disciplinary gap, largely because Foster was such an unambiguous Stalinist from the late 1920s to his death and yet he managed to retain some of the romance of American communism by being the implacable defender of the militant working class and by being such a perennial "outsider" within the upper echelons of the Communist Party. But it is precisely in failing to challenge Foster's Stalinism and explore more analytically how he accommodated himself to the ugly twists of every Stalinist "turn" that Johanningsmeier misses an opportunity to transcend the limitations of the current historiographic impasse. Ultimately, such a revisionist breakthrough may not be possible by focusing on those who lived within Stalinism. It is perhaps time that the history of communism in the United States address more frontally the personnel and politics of communism's Left Opposition. In doing that there are none who will not benefit from a close reading of Johanningsmeier's Foster.
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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:2166
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