books The Many Worlds of American Communism
The Many Worlds of American Communism
Recent studies of the Communist Party USA have promised a synthesis of the perpetual binary of historiography that trapped historians between the traditionalist (anti-Soviet, Cold War) lens and the revisionist (purely internal and local) school. Entrenched in this synthesis frame, Joshua Morris’ The Many Worlds of American Communism contends that grasping the grassroots views and actions of party members requires a broader understanding of national and international communist politics (xiv). Unlike traditionalists, he avoids moralistic denunciations and applies a Gramscian principle that emphasizes how the Communist Party’s history reflects the society’s social, cultural and material realities, including their international dimensions.
The Many Worlds of American Communism spans eight substantial chapters, tracing the Party’s formation from World War I’s end to 1950. Despite the title’s promise of multiple worlds, Morris primarily focuses on three: the ‘political world’, the ‘labor world’ and the ‘community world.’
Amidst global revolutionary events and a massive US labor uprising in 1919, the stage was set for change. Dissatisfied leftists in the Socialist Party, disheartened by its stance on the US role in the war, its opposition to the USSR and its overall lack of action toward socialism left to establish the Communist Party. Chapters one and two explore the formation of the ‘political world’ of the early Party, detailing Louis Fraina’s ‘mass action’ theories, Charles Ruthenberg’s third-party organizing and John Reed’s internationalism. Multiple unifying attempts were thwarted by organizational differences, ideological and cultural variants, and the onset of anti-communist machinations deployed by the government and mainstream labor and political forces. Morris navigates the factional disputes, the era of illegality and the uneasy encounters between the ‘labor world’ with the ‘political world’ with the arrival of William Z. Foster in 1921. Foster, who had led the 1919 steel strike, brought new connections to US labor and a large constituency of English-speaking US-born radicals. His leadership improved the party’s legitimacy and practical activity that would ‘signal a new era in the domestic communist movement’ (49).
Foster immediately set to work organizing the Trade Union Education League as a vehicle for coordinating a ‘militant minority’ of Communist trade union organizers (64). He established potent alliances with other labor radicals and advanced the strategies of ‘amalgamation’, an alternative to the AFL’s narrow craft unionism, and ‘entryism’, a substitute for the IWW’s dual unionism. Amalgamation, or industrial unionism, aimed to draw all the workers in an industry into a single effort. Foster and his allies also drew attention to craft unionism’s racist exclusion of lack workers which weakened the struggle and denied African Americans avenues for securing political power.
Despite this transformative foundation, Foster’s involvement failed to resolve the Party’s factional disputes. Chapter three documents how Foster’s presence introduced another dimension, shifting disputes from cultural, ethnic and ideological divisions to the question of whether one was a ‘labor communist’ or a ‘political communist’ (90). Especially compelling is Morris’ account of the party’s union organizers who led labor struggles in Pennsylvania’s coal mining districts, the 1926 Passaic, New Jersey textile strike and the development of the amalgamation movement in New York’s ILGWU. These leaders’ principled efforts secured significant concessions from employers (133) and rallied thousands of workers to align with the party and TUEL (167). Despite anti-communist expulsions, this work paved the way for future communist leadership and widespread support for the amalgamation drive.
Chapter four addresses the rough and successful mediation of the labor and political worlds of the party accomplished through the unfortunate early death of Charles Ruthenberg and the Comintern’s intervention in 1927-1928. The Workers Party of America was consolidated as the US communist movement after it ordered a membership reorganization into clubs based on workplace and neighborhood rather than ethnic communities. Initially, the conflict between Foster’s faction, closely linked to the ‘labor world’, and Ruthenberg’s faction rooted in the ‘political world’, took center stage. With Ruthenberg’s death, Jay Lovestone’s attempts to secure US leadership by jumping into the Russian Party’s internal conflict and aligning himself with Bukharin in the Comintern ‘exposed [him] as a political opportunist’ (183). Cannon’s ties to Trotsky emerged while Morris depicts Foster as loyal to the Comintern’s directives, to the USSR and to the immediate goals of building unity in the US party.
The Communist Party’s efforts to engage the national question became the catalyst for its eventual unity and the radical shift in how it operated within the social ‘worlds’. In the early 1920s, party officials and union organizers had routinely criticized employers, the mainstream labor movement, the government and other political parties for racist policies or for failures to fully tackle racism. In TUEL’s metal trades section struggles in Pennsylvania, for example, Black inclusion in the union and fair employment practices had been among its demands. Writers frequently echoed these demands and criticism in the Party’s newspapers and journals. By 1928, however, the Party’s internal problems with developing a concentrated focus on the fight against racism and the low numbers of Black members and leaders stemmed from the lack of a clear theoretical position on racism and the Black freedom movement.
Morris touches on the Comintern debates that involved Black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Claude McKay, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, Harry Haywood and James Ford, but other scholars have produced far more nuanced and detailed accounts (e.g. Minkah Makalani’s In the Cause of Freedom). Indeed, a handful of errors in Morris’ work are notable. For example, Morris suggests that the Comintern named William Patterson in 1921 to head its ‘Negro Commission’, when he did not join the party until 1927 (185). Further, in tracing the Party’s views of Black experiences, Morris cites a two-part article by ‘John Bruce’ and ‘J.P. Collins’ in The Communist in 1921, which he suggests took, for the time, advanced positions on understanding racism as a semi-autonomous social problem. Morris intimates the authors were ‘Black writers’, when surely these were pseudonyms (‘Robt. Bruce’ is listed as the author in the second part), and James Cannon often used the name ‘J.P. Collins’ (Palmer 2007: 131). Morris notes that Lenin and Stalin repeatedly criticized the predominantly Euro-American US leadership for its insufficient engagement with Black communities. According to Morris, Stalin used the issue not only to shape the self-determination thesis in 1928 to establish organizational unity, but also to consolidate his leadership within the Comintern. While the latter claim lacks substantial direct evidence, the former claim appears credible based on accounts elsewhere (Horne 2013: 32-33).
The intervention’s practical result depended less on the advocacy of the self-determination thesis, and more on the opening of a third ‘world’ – the community. The centrality of the ‘community world’ is the focus of chapters five, six and seven. Addressing racism required more than ‘third party’ political organizing or leadership of the labor movement. The Party deepened its concentration on communities during the Depression as it led campaigns for housing de-segregation and unemployment relief, against police brutality and ‘lynch law.’ The move into the ‘community world’ significantly influenced the Party’s approach to labor and politics, especially as bourgeoning Black migration to northern cities and Southern urban centers further altered the Black population’s class composition (ironically giving the self-determination thesis’ premises less validity). Before 1928, there existed ‘no homogenous or unified communist political movement’, as it was plagued with factional struggles. After 1928, the ‘community world’ ‘emerged as the social expression of American communism’ (225).
The Communist Party’s practical work among African Americans saw it adopt tactics that called for their equal inclusion into existing social institutions and political processes, while elevating their working-class leadership, their issues of concern and rooting out racist chauvinism within the party (201-202). Indeed, this concerted entry into the ‘community world’ and the need to create ‘intermediary organizations’ that could build relationships between the party and Black working-class communities fostered a homegrown orientation toward the subsequent ‘popular front’ policy (194). Morris positions the shift to the popular front as primarily an endogenous political concern due to the infusion of Black members and the centrality of the anti-racist struggle (rather than Comintern orders).
The goal of greater practical unity with progressive forces proved decisive for ‘the evolution and maturation of American communist politics’ (281). A delicate balance of power persisted between the ‘labor’ and ‘political’ worlds that allowed each to function semi-autonomously, while both relied on new relations with the ‘community world’ to build mass support for struggles. Morris argues that the whole period 1928-1945, though marked by major (sometimes wrong-headed and contradictory) policy changes based on world events, was marked by strong organizational unity, deep influence in US society and a high level of political sophistication. Post-World War II complexities, McCarthyism and the reconstitution of the Party saw the return of factionalism and what Morris calls ‘diffusion.’ This latter topic is treated in the book’s eighth chapter.
In sum, The Many Worlds of American Communism is at its best in its detailed treatment of political debates and the labor histories of the formative period and the popular front period. Occasionally, an overuse of details obstructs narrative clarity. Excellent accounts of the various selected exemplars of the Party’s role in the ‘labor world’ outshine faulty discussions of the Party’s treatment of racism, though the general thrust of the thesis toward the ‘community world’ and its impact on the Party’s effectiveness is well met.
2 October 2023
- Gerald Horne 2013 Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Struggle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).
- Bryan D. Palmer 2007 James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).