A piece about William Z. Foster and the myth that had arisen around the "boring from within" strategy.
A golden bridge: a new look at William Z. Foster, the Great Steel Strike, and the “boring-from-within” controversy
I — WHY A NEW LOOK IS NECESSARY
“It sounded silly to hear grown-up ‘militants’ still talking about ‘boring from within.’” So writes Ralph Chaplin in his autobiography, Wobbly. Chaplin, best remembered as the writer of “Solidarity Forever,” was describing his reaction in about 1920 to the efforts of William Z. Foster, Jack Johnstone and Joe Manley to build the newly formed Trade Union Educational League as a center for militants seeking to expand their influence in the American Federation of Labor.
Over half a century has passed since Foster launched his T.U.E.L.; and that was by no means his first attempt along those lines. One would expect events since that time to have settled the argument between those who went with Foster in his attempt to “bore from within” the AFL and those who stuck with the policy of the Industrial Workers of the World of striving to organize the unorganized into new, revolutionary industrial unions.
Not so. The argument is still pursued on the left. And it is not merely a matter of interpreting a dead past. A vital question facing the left today is whether it is more rewarding, from the standpoint of revolutionary gains, to put effort into penetrating and influencing the existing unions or, alternatively, in concentrating on the creation of new forms of mass organizations at the workplace outside of the existing unions. Naturally, the partisans of the former position look to Foster for inspiration; those who hold the latter view regard the IWW as an important model for their own work.
At the present time, the “Foster-ites” are clearly in the majority. It is axiomatic in nearly all left circles that the main task in mass work is to transform the character of the existing unions. Those who question this principle, on grounds both of achievability and decisiveness, are considered hopeless sectarians.
One of the sharpest arrows in the “Foster-ite” quiver has been the experience of the Great Steel Strike of 1919, organized and led by Foster himself. That strike has been offered as the outstanding example of what could be accomplished by a skilled and determined militant group operating as a faction within a reactionary union. As a vindication of Foster’s approach and a refutation of IWW objections, it is all the more convincing since the most spectacular results were achieved by Foster operating almost singlehandedly, the majority of leftists being then under the poisonous influence of IWW “dual unionist” policy.
So runs the argument. Those who stubbornly insist on the essential soundness of the IWW position on this question — a number which definitely includes this writer — have no choice but to take up the challenge of the 1919 steel strike: to discover, first, whether all that is claimed for it by the “Foster-ites” is true; and, second, whether it actually proves what they suppose it to.
That is the first reason why a new look is necessary.
There is a second reason. As is well known, Foster, shortly after the steel strike, joined the Communist Party and assumed a position of prominence in it which he held until his death. In the last few years he has been adopted as something of a model by many of those who identify themselves as the “new communist forces.” They hark back to a time when, so they think, the C.P. in this country was generally sound and progressive; and they associate this “golden age” with the name of Foster.
This is pathetic. An object less worthy of such high esteem would be hard to find. One result of the practice of glorifying Foster’s role in history is that people are led to glean, not the best, but the worst from C.P. history and tradition.
The desire to counter such a harmful effect provides the second reason why this new look is necessary. Of course it will not be possible in a work as short as this to set the record completely straight regarding the career of anyone whose public life was as long and active as that of William Z. Foster. But we shall make a beginning, and perhaps in the course of this effort suggest a few potentially rewarding directions for future investigation.
II – THE DEBATE IN THE IWW
Almost from the day of its birth, the IWW was the target of criticism from some on the left, mainly from within the Socialist Party, for what they called its “dual unionism.” While paying tribute to its militant spirit, these critics contended that its policy of withdrawing from the AFL meant abandoning that organization to its conservative leaders and sacrificing the revolutionary aspirations of labor to a futile, stubborn, self-isolating “purity,”.
The general response of the IWW to these criticisms was scornful. The AFL “is not a labor organization,” wrote one IWW, and even if its leadership “is succeeded by ‘Socialists’ of the S.P. type the A.F. of L. would be almost as yellow as it is today. The S.P. proves this itself, as it is becoming more reactionary every year.”
In 1911 the question was again raised, this time from within the ranks of the IWW itself. The initiator was Foster, a former S.P. member who had joined the IWW two years earlier fallowing the Spokane free speech fight. Foster says he had been won to the policy of “boring from within” while on an extended overseas visit, made for the purpose of studying the European labor movements. (During the visit, he had acted as IWW delegate to an international labor conference in Zurich.) In lengthy discussions with Leon Jouhaux, the leader of French syndicalism, he had been introduced to the concept of the “militant minority,” which supposedly determines the course of the labor movement. He was also favorably impressed by the example of Tom Mann, the British syndicalist who had gained considerable influence within the reactionary British trade unions by pursuing the policy known in Britain as “permeationism.”
On his return to this country, Foster set himself the task of winning over the IWW to his newly acquired views. Following the IWW convention in September 1911, where he managed to convert a handful of delegates, he opened his campaign in the organization’s press. He had been nominated for editor of the Industrial Worker, and chose to run on a platform of a “boring from within” policy. In a letter to the Industrial Worker and Solidarity he wrote the following:
“The question: “Why don’t the I.W.W. grow?” is being asked on every hand as well within our ranks as without. And justly, too, as only the blindest enthusiast is satisfied with the progress, or rather lack of progress, of the organization up to date. In spite of truly heroic efforts of our organizers and members in general and “that the working – class is rotten ripe for industrial unionism,” the I.W.W. remains small in membership and weak in influence.”
The reason for this failure, Foster argued, was the insistence on the necessity of building a new labor organization because the existing craft unions were incapable of developing into revolutionary unions. He, too, had accepted this “dogma” until he visited Europe. In contrast with the failure of “dual unionism,” he pointed to the tactics of the French C.G.T., which “literally made a raid on the labor movement, captured it and revolutionized it and in so doing developed the new working-class theory of Syndicalism. . . . By propagating their doctrine in the old unions and forcing them to become revolutionary, they have made their labor movement the most feared in the world.”
Foster cited even greater triumphs in Britain using the tactics of “boring from within” and concluded: “I am satisfied from my observation that the only way for the I.W.W. to have the workers adopt and practice the principles of revolutionary unionism — which I take is its mission — is to give up its attempt to create a new labor movement, turn itself into a propaganda league, get into the organized labor movement, and by building up better fighting machines within the old unions than those possessed by our reactionary enemies, revolutionize these unions.”
The Industrial Worker and Solidarity opened their columns to the debate. Most of the letters published rejected Foster’s suggestion. Their arguments broke down into the following basic ones:
(1) The AFL was not a labor organization, but “a job trust and nothing else.” Why waste time trying to capture a corpse?
(2) The IWW was not building a dual union; it was building the only organization open to the “unorganized and hitherto despised millions of workers.” The writer cited its policy of “low initiation fees, low dues, universal transfer card system, no age, sex or color limitations, no apprenticeship laws and no closed books. …”
(3) The majority of workers were unskilled and were thus ineligible for membership in the AFL. Even the majority of the IWW could not join the craft unions. How were they to pursue a policy of “boring from within”? Instead of boring into the ten percent of the working class in the AFL, “let us bore into the 90 percent unorganized. …”
(4) Active IWW members had had sufficient experience in the AFL, with the main result being that they had been expelled. What guarantee did they have that things would be different now?
(5) The best way to influence the AFL in a progressive direction was by pressure from without. Already there were many AFL members who carried IWW cards; it was their job to struggle in the AFL.
(6) The growth and influence of the IWW was greater than Foster claimed, but most important it was sound. It was better to “grow slowly with the right tactics than to create a fake industrial union by using the wrong methods.”
After two months, Solidarity announced the discussion closed when it became apparent that there was little support for Foster’s position. The summary of the debate expressed the hope “that Fellow Worker Foster himself will abandon the idea when he becomes better acquainted with the American situation.”
Needless to say, “Fellow Worker Foster” did nothing of the sort. After some additional efforts to gain adherents within the IWW, Foster withdrew from the organization and formed the Syndicalist League of North America, to which we shall return.
Two things should be clarified concerning the context of the debate. First, Foster’s ideas made hardly a ripple in the IWW. He won over almost nobody, the question didn’t come up again, and the organization went on to achieve its greatest successes in the years immediately following his withdrawal from membership.
Second, while Foster was certainly in a minority in the IWW, such was by no means the case in the socialist movement in general. Of course, the “socialist” credentials of some of these “borers from within” might be open to question: for example, Max Hayes, who ran as a Socialist for president of the AFL against Samuel Gompers, and whose Machinists’ Union was lily white.
One historian, sympathetic to Foster, claims that he was displeased with the rightist character of many of those who shared his “bore from within” strategy. Some of Foster’s later statements and actions, however, provide considerable reason to doubt this, as we shall see.
III — PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS TO FORM UNIONS IN STEEL
The decade following the 1892 defeat of the Homestead strike was marked by two changes in the labor force: one, the elimination of the old type of skilled labor and the substitution of a system of task divisions suitable to modern technology; and, two, the gradual replacement of the native Americans and older immigrants from the British Isles by Slavs, Hungarians, Italians and Greeks who were assigned to the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs now prevailing.
In 1901, the board of the newly organized U.S. Steel Corporation passed a resolution which read in part: “We are unalterably opposed to any extension of union labor and advise subsidiary companies to take a firm position when these questions come up.”
The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, which had had considerable strength among the skilled workers prior to Homestead, feared that the steel trust intended its total extinction. Deciding to act before the Corporation became stronger, the Amalgamated demanded that three Corporation subsidiaries sign contracts for all their mills.
This demand precipitated the strike of 1901, which failed and led to one of the most humiliating settlements in labor history, in which the Amalgamated pledged itself not to accept members from the non-union mills or to try to change their status.
In 1909 American Sheet & Tin Plate, in a fourteen month struggle, wiped the union out of the last of the Corporation’s mills, leaving it almost defunct, with perhaps 8,000 members, exclusively skilled, scattered around minor plants.
Then in July 1909 a strike broke out at the Pressed Steel Car Company, a U.S. Steel subsidiary at McKees Rocks, Pa. The strike was important for at least two reasons: it was a model of IWW methods which were to become more widely known at Lawrence, Mass.; and it was the first victory against the steel trust (in fact the only victory prior to the CIO).
Space does not permit an adequate recounting of the events of this remarkable strike. It began as a spontaneous revolt against a chain of abuses which led the Pittsburgh Leader to denounce the “Pressed Steel Car Works as the most outrageous of all the industrial plants in the United States.” It ended six weeks later with 5,000 workers organized in the Car Builders’ Industrial Union, IWW.
The strike involved mass meetings with speakers in sixteen languages, battles with mounted police at which strikers’ wives told their husbands, “Kill the Cossacks! If you are afraid, go home to the children and leave the work to us,” gun battles which prevented a steamship from landing with strikebreakers, 24-hour picketing, a funeral procession of 5,000 for a striker killed by police, 13 dead and hundreds wounded, wagon loads of food from workers in Pittsburgh for strike relief, active support from European labor movements which temporarily halted immigration from some areas, the intervention of the Austro-Hungarian vice-consul, solidarity from trainmen and street car operators who refused to haul scabs into McKees Rocks, a mass meeting at which Eugene Debs called the strike “the greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement” and, at the end of it all, the triumphant singing of the “Marseillaise.”
The tremendous victory at McKees Rocks — hailed by the IWW as “the event of prime significance in the industrial history of America during the past year” — greatly enhanced the prestige of the organization. Within a few months the Wobblies carried “the spirit of McKees Rocks” to East Hammond, Indiana, where they succeeded in establishing Car Builders’ Union No. 301 among the workers at the Standard Steel Car Co., another subsidiary of U.S. Steel. The strike there featured the basic elements of mass picketing, active and militant participation of women, unification of American and foreign-born workers which had proven successful at McKees Rock.
At about the same time, in New Castle, Pa., the IWW got involved in supporting a strike initiated by AFL unions against the American Sheet & Tin Plate Co. Although the IWW entered the fray too late to salvage a victory from the mass of craft union narrowness (this was the strike that wiped the Amalgamated Association out of the Corporation’s mills), its efforts there aroused widespread interest in industrial unionism and considerable concern among AFL reactionaries.
By late spring of 1910 the IWW was the only functioning labor organization in the steel industry. Recognizing that its locals at McKees Rocks and East Hammond would not be able to hold out alone, the IWW set forth to organize a national industrial union of the slaves of steel. The campaign made little headway. The organization was very limited in resources, and besides was concentrating its main efforts on the free speech fights and the battles out west.
The steel trust focused its attacks on McKees Rocks and East Hammond. Within a year after its great victories there, the IWW was little more than a paper organization in the two places. How did this happen? The answer is known to every worker who has seen the fruits of valiant struggle eaten away by company persistence, and watched powerful organizations destroyed by intrigue, dissension and favoritism.
And so, a heavenly peace descended on the steel industry, and the Monongahela and the Ohio once again meandered uneventfully through their green valleys, and the waves of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan lapped quietly at placid shores, and the Pennsylvania Coal & Iron police ministered the divine order. And if, on occasion, mangled or scorched bodies were dragged from the infernos, and if in the milltowns women, in order to keep their men-folk working, were again forced to submit to the foremen, none raised their voices except a few “women and meddlesome preachers.”
In the gloom of mighty cities, mid the roar
of whirling wheels,
We are toiling on like chattel slaves of old, And
our masters hope to keep us ever thus
beneath their heels, And to coin our very
life blood into gold.
IV — FIRST EFFORTS TO BORE FROM WITHIN
Foster’s efforts to win the IWW to his policies met with little success, partly owing to the impact of the Lawrence textile strike, which was brought to a triumphant conclusion just when he was arguing against “dual unionism.” So he and a few followers in the Syndicalist League of North America withdrew from the IWW and began to enter the AFL.
The principles of the S.L.N.A. were set forth in two documents: a brief outline of principles adopted by the Chicago chapter, which, in the absence of a convention, was empowered to act as the national leadership; and a pamphlet, Syndicalism, about which we shall hear more later, written by Foster and Earl C. Ford. The League was strongly anti-parliamentary, and advocated the general strike both to force concessions and to overthrow capitalism. According to Foster, it “advocated industrial unionism, but laid less stress upon this organization form than did the I.W.W. . .” and proposed to achieve it through the amalgamation of related craft unions.
During its two years of existence, the League published a number of weekly or monthly papers in several cities, took part in some strikes and organizing campaigns, and gained considerable influence within AFL ranks, winning control of the Central Labor Council in Kansas City and a few other places.
It waged a defense campaign on behalf of the McNamara brothers, accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during a strike, and helped build a national tour for the British trade unionist, Tom Mann.
Its numbers never exceeded 2,000, and since membership was limited to those who belonged to “conservative mass trade unions,” it may be safely inferred that the 2,000 were virtually all native-born, white, male skilled workers and union officials.
In 1914 the League went into decline. That same year its national center was liquidated, leaving behind isolated groups in different places working within the AFL.
“So, hardly had the S.L. of N.A. collapsed than we began to move to organize a new national organization.” The International Trade Union Educational League was formed at a conference of a dozen delegates, held in St. Louis in January 1915. Chicago was chosen as national headquarters; Foster was elected Secretary.
The structure and policies followed the general lines of the S.L.N.A.; the one important change was a step to the right, away from some of the revolutionary positions which still clung to Foster from his IWW days. Here is how Foster himself describes I.T.U.E.L. policies:
“The most significant of these new conceptions was the far less stress the I.T.U. E.L. laid upon the importance of class consciousness among the workers. We took the position that the trade union movement, whether animated by a revolutionary theory or not, is by its very nature driven on to the revolutionary goal. We held that in all trade union movements, conservative as well as radical, there is going on a double-phased process of strengthening their forces and increasing their demands accordingly, and that this process of building constantly greater power and making bigger demands inevitably pushes the unions on, willy nilly, to the overthrow of capitalism...
All this constituted a theory of the spontaneously revolutionary character of trade unionism as such, regardless of its expressed conservative ideology. Consequently, we discounted such conservative A.F. of L. slogans as “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” and “The interests of Capital and Labor are identical,” as being only so much protective camouflage designed to obscure the basically revolutionary tendencies of the movement. . . .
Logically, from this argumentation, I concluded that the main revolutionary task was the building of mass trade unions. All else was subordinate to that.”
The above passage, along with the other information about the S.L.N.A. and the I.T.U.E.L., is taken from Foster’s book, From Bryan to Stalin, written twenty years later, after he had established himself as a Communist leader. In that same book, he admits that the I.T.U.E.L. “had in it, likewise, traces of Bernsteinism” — referring to the German Social- Democrat Bernstein who, at the turn of the century, propagated an evolutionary socialism, and summed up his views in the famous dictum, “The movement is everything, the final aim is nothing.”
To describe the I.T.U.E.L. as containing “traces of Bernsteinism” is a bit like characterizing the pope as “influenced by Catholicism” or hell as a “warm place.”
Like its predecessor, the I.T.U.E.L. never amounted to much and fell apart after two years. Undoubtedly its greatest achievement, one that would prove significant for the topic of this study, was its leading to a working relationship between Foster and a group of leaders in the Chicago Federation of Labor, headed by John Fitzpatrick.
V — MEAT PACKING
On July 11, 1917, the Chicago District Council of the Railway Carmen, Foster’s own union, endorsed his proposal for a joint organizing campaign of all trades in the meat packing industry, and two days later the Chicago local of the Butcher Workmen also approved it. The Chicago Federation of Labor unanimously adopted a similar resolution and on July 23, less than two weeks after the idea came to Foster, the Stockyards Labor Council, consisting of a dozen local unions with jurisdiction over packinghouse workers, was formed with Foster as Secretary.
He proposed calling a national conference of packinghouse workers to formulate demands. The AFL unions agreed, and the story was carried with predictions of a strike in the industry. The effect of this publicity on the mass of workers was electric; they began pouring by the thousands into the AFL unions, not only in Chicago but in Sioux City, Omaha and other centers.
This mass response terrified the AFL officials, who, according to Foster, were quite unprepared for anything like a major confrontation with Swift, Armour and the other giants of the industry. They therefore proceeded to invite the government in to arbitrate the dispute.
“Yielding to superior force . . . against our will,” Foster and the other organizers went along with government mediation. After six months of consideration, Federal Judge Altschuler handed down his award: in a war-time situation, with the demand for meat at an alltime high and with a powerful strike mood pervading the workers, he granted about 85 percent of the unions’ demands. Thus, 125,000 workers of the five big packers won improvements without a strike, although small actions were needed to force the lesser companies to accept the terms of the Altschuler award.
Foster hails the result as a great victory, terming it “a glowing justification of our boring-from-within policy...” Over the next three years, reactionary gangster officials of the Butcher Workmen’s Union, in collaboration with Gompers, managed to restore open shop conditions to the industry by expelling some 40,000 workers from the unions they controlled and murdering two organizers. This experience did not shake Foster’s confidence in his “boring from within” methods, although he does refer to the packinghouse episode as “one of the most shameful stories of betrayals in American labor history.”
There is another aspect to the meat packing campaign which is significant because it reveals something of Foster’s political views at that time, as well as something of his personal character. The organizing campaign was conducted, of course, after the U.S. entry into the World War. One of the slogans current at the time was “Food Will Win the War.” This was a period when the government was jailing and persecuting IWW’s and other opponents of the War by the hundreds, so it may be imagined how seriously it took developments in the packing industry. Several years later, in Senate hearings on the steel strike, Foster was asked about his attitude toward the recently terminated War. He replied that he had supported the War, had bought bonds, had made dozens of speeches supporting it as part of the organizing campaign, and that he identified himself with the “patriotic” elements in the international labor movement.
Now that was no small question for a professed socialist; in fact it was the central question which split the Second International into revolutionary and opportunist wings and gave rise to the Communist Parties. To have taken a pro-War stance was often enough in itself to bar one from subsequent membership in the Third International and was, at the very least, a definite handicap to someone aspiring to leadership in it.
Foster was very much aware of this and makes strenuous efforts to excuse himself, especially in his previously quoted work, From Bryan to Stalin. After explaining that the Senate hearings were held during a time of anti-red hysteria — the Palmer raids — and that their aim was to substantiate the charges of subversive influence behind the steel strike, he cites his determination to avoid giving a pretext for this by revealing his true views; thus he claims to have testified falsely before the Senate. He admits, however, that his position was “highly opportunistic,” and explains that, “The error of my war-time position originated in my false syndicalistic conception that the decisive revolutionary task was the building of the trade unions and that to this end all other activities should be subordinated or eliminated, including even direct agitation against the war.”
“Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.” Foster’s policy had come full circle since he split with the IWW in 1912; then the difference supposedly had been over tactics, how best “to have the workers adopt and practice the principles of revolutionary unionism”; now the main task was to get the unorganized workers into the reactionary, class-collaborationist, chauvinistic, pro-imperialist, corrupt and gangster-ridden American Federation of Labor. The lengths to which this policy would lead him will become clearer as we investigate the Great Steel Strike. (By the way, Foster’s attributing this opportunism on the War to his “false syndicalistic conception” is more dust thrown in our eyes; many syndicalists, both in Europe and the U.S., in spite of their erroneous conceptions of the state, distinguished themselves for their courageous opposition to the War.)
VI – THE STEEL CAMPAIGN
If the War had created a favorable situation for unionization in the meat packing industry, this was doubly so in steel. For one thing, the furnaces were on full blast to meet the increased demand for steel. For another, the War, with its attendant demand for national unity, elicited various measures from the federal government aimed at solidifying the support of “organized labor.” The general effect of such gestures — which included several decisions from the War Labor Board protecting unions’ rights to organize and also establishing minimum wage scales — was to enhance the prestige and respectability of the conservative unions. Lastly, the propaganda about the War being fought to “make the world safe for democracy” was bound to influence the steel workers, who could not help but observe the contradiction between fighting autocracy and tyranny in Europe while submitting to it at home.
“Labor unrest” had broken out as early as 1916 in Youngstown and Pittsburgh, where for several days the threat of general strike hung over the city. Even the moribund AFL unions gained membership with no effort on their part. As the old Amalgamated Association expressed it in 1917, “In the history of the American trades union movement, there was never a better opportunity to organize the skilled and unskilled workers...”
On April 7, 1918, one week after Judge Altschuler’s decision regarding the meat packing industry, Foster presented a resolution to the Chicago Federation of Labor calling for a national campaign to organize the steel industry. The resolution was adopted unanimously and forwarded to the AFL. There it was discussed with the Amalgamated Association officials and then submitted to the St. Paul convention of the AFL, held in June.
In his previously cited 1936 book, Foster tells a tale of the most incredible wheeling and dealing, which he says was necessary to gain official AFL sanction for his organizing plans, summing up his experience by saying, “After this maneuver I felt as though I had been swimming in a sewer and future prospects for the work seemed most unpromising.”
The episode is entirely missing from his book The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons, which he wrote immediately after the strike was over. In that book it merely states “a number of conferences were held during the convention, at which the proposed campaign was discussed and endorsed,” and there is no mention of the foot-dragging and outright sabotage on the part of Gompers and other officials he makes so much of later. It is a curious omission, until one realizes that in 1920, when the earlier book was written, he still had hopes of maintaining his position with the AFL hierarchy.
In any case the St. Paul Convention led to a Conference on steel, which was held in Chicago on August 1 and 2. Representatives of 15 international unions (later expanded to 24) set up the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers. Gompers agreed to accept the post of chairman (later withdrawing in favor of Fitzpatrick from the CFL); Foster was chosen for his customary post of secretarytreasurer. In his 1920 book, Foster praises the “progressive spirit” of those at the Conference, declaring that they met “many difficult issues squarely with the proper solutions,” and “realized fully the need of co-operation along industrial lines. . . .”
Needless to say, he writes quite differently in 1936.
At the Conference Foster outlined his plan for a whirlwind campaign, conducted simultaneously in all the major steel centers. Since a new, industrial union was out of the question, the campaign would take place along federative lines, workers being organized by the National Committee and then assigned to whichever of the 24 participating unions had jurisdiction over their particular task. Each of the constituent unions was to assign organizers to the work and to contribute proportionately to a fund that would total $250,000.
The aim was to: “catch the workers’ imagination and sweep them into the unions en masse despite all opposition, and thus to put Mr. Gary and his associates into such a predicament that they would have to grant the just demands of their men.” The success of the plan would depend on taking advantage of the favorable situation which then prevailed:
“The war was on; the continued operation of the steel industry was imperative; a strike was therefore out of the question; the steel manufacturers would have been compelled to yield to their workers, either directly or through the instrumentality of the Government. The trade unions would have been re-established in the steel industry, and along with them fair dealings and the beginnings of industrial democracy.”
Can anyone discover even a trace of revolutionary thought in the above, cited from pages 21 and 22 of Foster’s 1920 book? Is there anything there that could not be supported by a clever AFL business agent with a nose for larger dues income? Is there anything left in these lines of the man who once carried a membership card in an organization, the Preamble to whose Constitution stated, in part:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. . . . Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system”
In recent years C.P. publishing houses have been bringing out attractive, popularly priced editions of some of Foster’s books which had been out of print. This writer is willing to bet that there are at least two of his books which will not be making their reappearance under those auspices: his 1920 book on the steel strike, because it was so right-wing as to be embarrassing; and his 1936 From Bryan to Stalin, because it is so full of tortuous apology and self-serving distortions that it must turn the stomach of any careful and knowledgeable reader.
The Conference approved the general outlines of Foster’s plan, until it came time to assign organizers and provide funds, at which point, as he put it,
“it failed dismally. The internationals assessed themselves only $100 apiece; they furnished only a corporal’s guard of organizers. . . . The slender resources in hand at once made necessary a complete change of strategy. To undertake a national movement was out of the question.”
And so, the organizers trimmed their sails and began work in one district only, the Chicago area. The response of the workers was tumultuous. At the first mass meeting in Gary, 15,000 attended, and similar turnouts occurred in South Chicago, Joliet and Indiana Harbor. Workers joined by the thousands, and Foster estimates that at the end of a month’s time the Committee could have, if it wished, struck all the Chicago district mills.
Encouraged by their initial success, the organizers moved eastward to Cleveland and the Pittsburgh area. In the latter, at the time the heart of the industry, they faced especially stiff resistance. For one thing, the War ended and recession set in, just at the time national headquarters were moved to Pittsburgh. For another, the Corporation ruled the steel towns of western Pennsylvania more directly than it did elsewhere. City officials frequently were company employees, and the right of assembly was simply denied. Organizers were shadowed and harassed, and one, a woman, was murdered. The situation was aptly described by one steel town mayor: “Jesus Christ himself could not speak in Duquesne for the A.F. of L.” In addition, the companies granted four successive wage increases, formed company unions, fostered Ku Klux Klan movements, set in motion an elaborate spy network, and carried out mass discharges of union members.
Foster writes, in 1936,
“But, of our multiplying difficulties, the most serious was the steady sabotage we suffered from within our own ranks, from the affiliated union leaders. They systematically and shamelessly betrayed the steel workers into the hands of the steel trust.”
On reading Foster’s oft-repeated howls of “betrayal” by the AFL officials, one can’t help but recall the story of the man who was engaged to a woman for fifteen years, during which period she had three times married other men; after the third wedding her “fiance” commented, “If she does that once more, I’m going to break off the engagement.” In spite of all obstacles placed in its way, the National Committee continued to enroll members in the unions. By the spring of 1919, over 100,000 had joined.
What did the union mean to those who joined? Jeremy Brecher, in his book Strike!, cites several observers to the effect that the issue was broader than simple economic demands. He quotes Mary Heaton Vorse’s remark, made after numerous talks with strikers, that“What they believed was not formulated into a dogma. It was not narrowed down to trade union bargaining,” and also a remark made by a steelworker in Youngstown: “If my boy could give his life fighting for free democracy in Europe, I guess I can stand it to fight this battle to the end. I am going to help my fellow workmen show Judge Gary that he can’t act as if he was a king or a kaiser..."
It is always difficult to isolate and articulate the motives of the participants in a great mass movement. Yet it does seem likely in this case, when so many of the workers came from countries embroiled in revolution and had, in addition, the recent example of the Seattle General Strike, that one journal was fairly close to the truth when it wrote that, “The real question is, Who shall control our steel industry?”
IWW leader Bill Haywood once remarked that, “Industrial unionism is socialism with its work clothes on,” and while that naked comment has since proved to be an exaggeration, it is true that the conservative union officials labored diligently to maintain the craft union form of organization. Brecher cites the Interchurch World Movement report on the strike to the effect that “in many plants the instinct of the immigrant recruit was to associate with his shopmates of different ‘crafts’ rather than with his ‘craft’ mates from other shops,” but that Foster and the other organizers “combatted the natural tendency of sections of the rank and file toward industrial unionism” by conscientiously parcelling out new recruits among the twenty-four international unions.
The National Committee was trying to avoid a strike, but pressure built up as more workers joined the unions. It was decided to call a conference with no decision-making power, in order to “give the men who have waited so long something tangible to look forward to. It would operate to hold the men in line.”
On May 25, 1919, 583 delegates, mostly rank and file steel workers representing all the important centers, gathered in Pittsburgh. In spite of the conference’s lack of power, it pushed forward the impulse toward a strike. This impulse was encouraged further by the arrogant action of Judge Gary, who spurned an offer by the officials of the Amalgamated Association to come to a separate agreement with the steel trust.
“All over the entire steel district the men are in a state of great unrest,” reported Foster on July 13. “Great strikes are threatening unless some means are found to prevent them.” The next week he read a telegram from Johnstown threatening to go on strike alone unless a national action were called. Resentment flared against the National Committee, and dues payment dropped off sharply.
In order to hold the men together, the National Committee authorized the taking of a strike vote. Since each union polled its own membership, the balloting consumed an entire month. On August 20 the vote was tabulated: an estimated 98% favored strike action should the companies refuse to accede to the union demands. The main demands were: right of collective bargaining, reinstatement of all those fired for union activities, the eight-hour day, one day’s rest in seven, seniority, a wage increase, dues check-off, and abolition of company unions.
The National Committee made additional efforts to avoid a strike, including a visit to Judge Gary, who refused to see the delegates, and an appeal to President Wilson to arrange a meeting with management. Finally, a strike date was set for September 22.
And then, a bolt from the blue: Wilson requested a postponement of strike action and was joined in this request by Gompers. When word of the possible postponement got out, it unleashed a flood of protests. Telegrams poured into the National Committee demanding that the strike go ahead as scheduled. In his 1936 book Foster cites several of the barrage of angry messages from the field and claims responsibility for their being sent. His 1920 book, however, makes no mention of them.
Unable any longer to resist the pressure for a strike, the Committee sent a letter to President Wilson, in which it expressed its “regret” and declared that, “This strike is not at the call of the leaders, but that of the men involved.”
In testimony before the Senate, Gompers explained why he changed his mind and went along with the strike:
“Notwithstanding what any of the officials of the trade unions would have done, regardless of what the Committee would have done, the strike would have occurred anyway, a haphazard, loose, disjointed, unorganized strike, without leadership, without consultation, without advice. It was simply a choice whether the strike would take place under the guidance and leadership of men who have proven their worth, or under the leadership of some one who might spring up for the moment.”
The reader may find it difficult to believe, but Foster, the “revolutionary,” the “syndicalist,” quotes the above testimony approvingly, on page 93 of his book, The Great Steel Strike. For his part, Gompers made it clear in later speeches that the “some one” he had in mind was none other than the “I.W.W., the Bolshevists of America.”
And so, on September 22, 1919, the strike began.
VII — THE STRIKE: SOME NOTES
There is no need here to recount the story of the strike; that has been done widely and well. Twenty-two dead, hundreds beaten and shot, thousands arrested and over a million and a half made hungry are eloquent testimony to the heroism and steadfastness of the steel workers and their families, and the heartless cruelty of the steel companies. Finally, on January 8, 1920, with over 100,000 still on strike of the estimated 300,000-plus who responded to the call, the National Committee declared the strike over and authorized those still out to return to work.
Here we wish to consider another item, the manner in which the National Committee, including Foster, dealt with the problem of red-baiting. Part of this subject involves the question of the relations between Foster and the top AFL officials, especially Gompers. Predictably, the steel companies responded to the strike with cries of a “foreign plot” to “sovietize the steel industry.” Amid the lurid tales of gun battles in western Pennsylvania between IWW’s and state police, it was only natural that Foster, because of his radical past, should come under suspicion. More than that, he quickly became the principal focus of industry efforts to pin the “red” label on the strike leadership.
Foster’s radical past was well-known in top AFL circles. The general attitude was that he had “reformed.” When he was attacked by a right-wing labor paper in the spring of 1919, the National Committee gave him a vote of confidence.
Then a reporter for Iron Age came across a copy of his old pamphlet, Syndicalism, referred to earlier. When he was confronted with the pamphlet, Foster downplayed its importance, stating that it had been written eight years earlier, and said, “The important point is, not whether I have done this or that, in the past, but have I today the absolute confidence of Samuel Gompers? . . . He trusts me and that is enough.”
As the walkout began, headlines appeared across the country: “Steel Strike Leader is Called Advocate of Anarchist Ideas.” Newspapers printed excerpts from the long out-of-print pamphlet. Congressmen cited various inflammatory passages from it as evidence of “Bolshevik influence” in the strike.
While Foster kept silent, other labor officials responded to the attacks, point out that Foster had long since dropped his youthful radicalism and defying anyone to produce a single remark made during his tenure with the National Committee that would indicate he still held his earlier views. Moreover, he was only a paid functionary working under the direction of the National Committee composed of 24 AFL unions, of whose respectability there could be no doubt.
The denunciations, however, continued to rise in pitch and at the beginning of October several labor officials made their way to Washington to testify before the Senate committee investigating the steel strike. The stenographic record of those hearings was published under the title: “Investigation of Strike in Steel Industries; Hearings before the Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate — Sixtysixth Congress, first session. Pursuant to S. Res. 202 on the Resolution of the Senate to investigate the Strike in the Steel Industries.” Excerpts follow:
“Fitzpatrick: He [Foster — ed.] is not preaching and is absolutely confining himself to the activities and scope of the American Federation of Labor, and has done so for the years that I have known him.
The Chairman: Have you ever discussed this book [Syndicalism — ed.] with him at all?
Fitzpatrick: Oh, he joked about the views he had in his younger days, when he associated with men who were actuated with radical thoughts, and he was imbued by it, but when he got both his feet on the ground and knew how to weigh matters with better discretion and more conscience, he had forgot all of those things. . . . (pages 75 and 76)
Gompers: About a year after that meeting at Zurich — no, about two years after the Zurich meeting [where Foster had represented the IWW — ed.], and about a year after that pamphlet had been printed, I was at a meeting of the Chicago Federation of Labor, conducted under the presidency of Mr. John Fitzpatrick. I was called upon to make and did make an address. One of the delegates arose after I had concluded and expressed himself that it would be wise for the men in the labor movement of Chicago and of the entire country to follow the thought and philosophy and so forth which President Gompers had enunciated in his address. I did not know who was the delegate. He was a new personality to me. I might say that I was rather flattered and pleased at the fact that there was general comment of approval of not only my utterances but of the delegate who had first spoken after I had concluded.
Much to my amazement, after the meeting was over I was informed that the delegate was W.Z. Foster, the man who had appeared in Zurich and the man who had written that pamphlet. I think I addressed a letter to him expressing my appreciation of his change of attitude, his change of mind, and pointing out to him that pursuing a constructive policy he could be of real service to the cause of labor. He was a man of ability, a man of good presence, gentle in expression, a commander of good English, and I encouraged him. I was willing to help build a golden bridge for mine enemy to pass over. I was willing to welcome an erring brother into the ranks of constructive labor, (pages 111-112)
The Chairman (to Foster): But at that time, when you were advocating the doctrines of the I.W.W. through the country and abroad, you were running counter to the policies of the American Federation of Labor?
Foster: Yes, sir.
Chairman: Mr. Gompers, however, has not changed his views concerning the I.W.W., but your views have changed?
Foster: I don’t think Mr. Gompers’ views have changed — only to become more pronounced possibly.
Chairman: And you say now to the Committee that your views have so changed that you are in harmony with the views of Mr. Gompers?
Foster: Yes, sir. I don’t know that it is 100 percent, but in the main they are.” (page 423)
Not a whole lot needs to be said about this performance. James P. Cannon, who quotes from the testimony at length in his book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, sums up Foster’s role as follows:
“The facts are that the Foster group did not amount to a tinker’s dam as a revolutionary factor in the AFL. They actually followed a policy of ingratiating adaptation to the Gompers bureaucracy, not of principled struggle against it.”
Foster explains his behavior by the now-familiar reasoning cited earlier in regard to his support for the War (which was expressed during these same hearings): namely, that everything had been justified, in his mind, by the over-riding need to expand the trade unions. He also asserts that his “whole work was aimed at smashing the Gompers regime . . . ” but offers not a shred of hard evidence that the target of his “flank attack,” whom he characterizes as “a keen old fox,” was even aware of the threat. The whole nauseating apologia pro vita sua can be found in the section entitled “Regarding Some Criticisms,” which makes up pages 126 to 131 in From Bryan to Stalin. This section was omitted from the collection of his writings published as American Trade Unionism. (Over two decades later, after Earl Browder fell from favor in the C.P., Foster claimed to have opposed him all along, but did not produce a single document in the public record to support his claim. It was a trick he had learned in the school of trade union politics.)
There is a myth abroad, begun by Foster, cultivated by the C.P. and swallowed by most of those in the “new communist movement” who consider themselves opponents of the C.P. The myth is that Foster was an early American revolutionary, who waged a lonely battle against IWW dual unionism until he was at last vindicated by the Russian Bolsheviks, whose teachings matured him as a revolutionary and enabled him to take the final step along the path he had been traveling — toward communism.
The truth is that as of 1920, insofar as anyone could possibly discern from his public statements and actions, Foster was not a revolutionary, not an internationalist, not even a right-wing socialist (for they, at least, talked about something they called “socialism”). On every major question dividing the left from the right in the labor movement — the War, industrial unionism, attitude toward the Gompers machine — Foster lined up with the right wing. He was, at best, a conscientious, energetic, skillful pure-and-simple trade unionist.
The fact that within two years after the end of the steel strike Foster was fighting for leadership in the Communist Party should not, of itself, cause one to question his sincerity. Dramatic conversions have been known to take place before — remember what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. But one must be clear that it was a conversion, not an evolution.
There is one remaining aspect to the steel campaign that is so crucial in determining its outcome, so representative of the general policies of the AFL and so revealing of Foster personally that it was thought best to leave it entirely to the end, where it could be treated in isolation. That aspect was the role of the Black workers in relation to the strike.
VIII — “THE ESSENCE OF PRINCIPLED POLITICS”
Black workers first entered the northern steel industry in large numbers during the First World War. They were by no means wanted: “It would be better,” said the President of Inland Steel after the War, “. . . if the mills could continue to recruit their forces from (Europe). The Negroes should remain in the South.” Nevertheless, the increased demand for labor combined with the drying up of European immigration forced the industry to open its doors to them, although they were rigidly confined to the lowest categories of unskilled labor.
By the time the National Committee began its work, the Black worker was no longer regarded as a mere makeshift. Figures vary somewhat, but Black workers seem to have made up between 10 and 15 percent of the work force in Illinois, Indiana and Pittsburgh. In the South, of course, they formed a much larger share, perhaps as much as half.
For forty years these southern workers had experienced jim crow exclusion on the part of their fellow white workers and the various unions in the industry. At its first annual convention in 1877, the newly formed Amalgamated Association had refused to definitely declare Black workers eligible for membership. This was a continuation of the policy of earlier unions such as the Sons of Vulcan.
The effect of this exclusionary policy was to hasten the Black worker’s entrance into the northern mills. The first Black workers to enter the steel industry in the North, so far as is known, were a group of puddlers who were brought from Richmond to Pittsburgh in 1875 to take the place of white strikers. Almost every labor disturbance between 1878 and the middle eighties saw Blacks used as strikebreakers. In every instance the men who were brought in had been trained in mills in the South.
These hard lessons soon taught the union that the Black worker could not be ignored. In 1881, the Amalgamated changed its policy and declared Black workers eligible for membership. However, the real attitude of the union was shown in its efforts, whenever possible, to organize the Black men in separate lodges. One can imagine the cynicism thus generated among the Black workers, who could see clearly that they were regarded, not as workers, but as potential scabs.
In 1918 an attempt was made to organize the steel industry in Alabama, when the machinists, blacksmiths, sheet metal workers and other metal trades unions launched a campaign in Birmingham. While the metal trades unions were all white, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers entered the field and attempted to organize the miscellaneous employees, white and Black, in the ore mines, blast furnaces and steel mills. The Black workers at first showed themselves willing to join the movement, but after one Black organizer was carried out to the woods and beaten and another’s home was dynamited — with no action taken by local authorities — they dropped away. It is probably a reasonable surmise that the character of the metal trades unions, in whose interests the strike was being chiefly waged, did not encourage Black support. In any case, Birmingham and the South generally was hardly affected at all by the bigger strike the following year.
To entrust the task of organizing Black workers in Pittsburgh and Chicago to the 24 AFL unions was truly a case of assigning the goat to guard the cabbage patch. The Amalgamated, well-known among southern Black workers for its jim crow policies, was more liberal than some of the others, such as the machinists and electrical workers, which barred Blacks entirely.
The effect of this sort of “union” on the Black worker was predictable. Foster writes, “In the entire steel industry, the negroes [sic], beyond compare, gave the movement less co-operation than any other element, skilled or unskilled, foreign or native.” (By the way, Foster’s refusal to capitalize the initial letter of the term “Negro” — consistent throughout his 1920 book — was an insult to Black people and a defiance of Dr. DuBois and others of their most distinguished leaders. Is it possible that Foster, after his experience with Black civic and church organizations in the meat packing and steel campaigns, was unaware of this?)
“. . . in most places,” writes Foster, “and exactly those where their support was needed the worst, they made a wretched showing.” This was the case throughout the Pittsburgh district, and in Pittsburgh itself, “a dozen would cover those . . . who walked out with the 25,000 whites. . . .”
At the South Works in Chicago at least 85 percent of the Black workers walked out initially, but they soon returned to work. This was due partly to the fact that they lived far from the mills, did not attend union meetings and little effort was made to reach them.
The attitude of the National Committee was that no special appeal to the Black worker was necessary or desirable; in some cases it was worse than that, with active measures taken to discourage union membership on the part of Blacks. For example, in Youngstown, one Black machinist walked out and stayed out for the entire duration of the strike but was never permitted to join the machinists’ union.
Aside from the failure of those Black workers already employed in the industry to support the strike, Black workers made up a large share of those brought in to take the place of strikers. According to the Interchurch World Report, imported strikebreakers were “principally Negroes.” While this may have been an exaggeration, it is certainly true that Blacks played a prominent part in the defeat of the strike. The National Committee reported that something like 30,000 Black workers were used to replace strikers, and Foster puts the figure somewhat higher.
One interesting exception to the general picture was Cleveland, where Black workers organized and struck almost 100 percent, and where, furthermore, the steel companies were unable to recruit strikebreakers from among the Black unemployed. The writer has been unable to discover anything in the Cleveland situation that distinguished it from the national picture, but research in that direction might prove rewarding.
In spite of this exception, it was generally acknowledged that the failure to win the support of the Black worker was one of the key reasons for the defeat of the strike, and widely bandied around in the Black community that it was Blacks that had “broke the great steel strike.”
Foster in his 1920 book admits that, “For the tense situation existing the unions are themselves in no small part to blame.” He criticizes them for drawing the color line, and calls upon them to “open their ranks to negroes, make an earnest effort to organize them, and then give them a square deal when they do join.”
But then comes the kicker:
“They know little of the race problem in industry who declare that it can be settled merely by the unions opening their doors to the negroes. It is much more complex than that, and will require the best thought the conscientious whites and blacks can give it. The negro has the more difficult part to solve, in resisting the efforts of unscrupulous white employers and misguided intellectuals of his own race to make a professional strikebreaker of him.”
There you have the basic argument of every white labor chauvinist: namely, that the burden is on the oppressed Black worker to “take his place where he belongs in the industrial fight, side by side with the white worker.”
Foster observes that the employers “are deliberately attempting to turn the negroes into a race of strike-breakers, with whom to hold the white workers in check; on much the same principle as the Czars used the Cossacks to keep in subjection the balance of the Russian people.”
What a comparison — the Black people of North America, victim of thousands of lynchings and mob attacks, subjected everywhere to the most humiliating forms of segregation, denied the bare minimum of legal protection . . . and the Cossacks, the favored of the czar’s minority nationalities, used as his shock troops against the workers’ movement. This great crusader for labor solidarity goes on to predict that,
“Should they succeed to any degree it would make our industrial disputes take on more and more the character of race wars, a consummation that would be highly injurious to the white workers and eventually ruinous to the blacks.”
In case the implied threat is not clear to every reader, let it be recalled that Foster’s observations were written on the heels of the Chicago race riot and on the eve of the Ku Klux Klan sweep of the North in the 1920′s, both of which are traceable, at least in part, to tensions between white and Black labor similar to those manifested in the steel strike.
Naturally, Foster’s later writings omit any reference to his blatant racist attitudes of 1920. Those leftist historians sympathetic to him, for example, Bimba, or Boyer and Morais, simply avoid all mention of the special role of the Black workers during the 1919 strike, perhaps thinking that by concealing traces of what they undoubtedly consider “backwardness” on the part of the Black workers they are performing a service for labor solidarity.
For our part, we take our cue from something written by C. L. R. James in a 1956 article entitled, “Negroes and American Democracy.” In that article, James wrote:
“This is the essence of principled politics, to let the class of which you are a member and the country in which you live go down to defeat before an alien class and an alien nation rather than allow it to demoralize and destroy itself by adopting means in irreconcilable conflict with the ends for which it stands.”
Those Black workers who, through their actions in the 1919 steel strike, showed their determination to join the union as complete equals or not join at all were every bit as heroic and acted every bit as much in the interests of the working class as those workers who struck. They were not “backward”; they were posing a challenge to white labor, a challenge which, unfortunately, it did not meet. They were practicing “the essence of principled politics,” while Foster and the rest of the leadership of the National Committee were practicing the essence of un-principled politics.
Just so every nail is in place: let no one come forward to defend Foster’s record with the argument that his views on the race question, while obviously inadequate for today, were advanced or progressive for their time. There were active, at that time, numerous genuine champions of labor solidarity whose writings offer an instructive contrast to Foster’s. Many of these were Black; a few were white. Listen to one of the latter, from an article by Vern Smith published in the April 1924 issue of the IWW paper, Industrial Pioneer:
“The radical portion of the White proletariat must at once sharply define its break with the White bourgeoisie, and the ideology of ‘Superior Race.’ The only way we can do this at all is to emphasize and over-emphasize the fact that we have absolutely no part in the discrimination against the Black skin. We will have to go considerably out of our way to make this clear. We will have to sit with the Negro in the street car by choice, and not by necessity . . . we must [carry on] a vigorous, public, defiant defense of all Negro workers in whatever trouble they find themselves, and never tire of protesting against, striking against, and struggling in every way possible against jim-crow laws, lynchings, and every other form of vicious attack on the Negro as a race. This is the only way we can make the Negro masses see that there are two sorts of white men, proletarians (friendly) and capitalists (hostile).
It is not enough to merely admit him to the IWW, most of the Negroes won’t hear of this. We must go farther, and make a demonstration of solidarity for him.”
IX — A FEW MORE WORDS
And so we are back to our starting point: the IWW. Would their way have worked any better in the steel industry than Foster’s way? We can’t know; it was never tried on a sufficiently large scale to provide a fair test. One thing we do know: that when unionism finally did come to the steel industry, it came not through a federated campaign of the craft organizations but through a brand new industrial union that pushed them aside like deadwood.
And one thing more we know: that regarding the consideration that matters above all others to revolutionaries, “the ever-growing union of the workers,” Foster’s way was bound to fail, for it was built on the elements of dis-union and surrender that were responsible in the first place for the subjection of the steel workers.
X — A NOTE ON SOURCES
The writer of this article has primarily aimed not at the discovery of new facts but at the laying bare of hidden relationships among facts already known. No new research has been done, and the only primary source utilized in the writing has been the work of Foster. For this reason the writer felt it unnecessary to clutter the text with footnotes. Important citations are identified in the text itself, and this note should supply any missing information on sources used.
Section II is based entirely on a chapter in Volume IV of Philip S. Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York, 1965). The “historian” referred to at the end of the section is Foner.
Section III is drawn from Steel — Dictator by Harvey O’Connor (New York, 1935) and from Foner’s book.
Section IV is taken entirely from Foster’s own description of the work of the S.L.N.A. and the I.T.U.E.L. contained in From Bryan to Stalin (New York, 1937).
Section V comes from the same place. Foster’s remarks before the Senate on the War were summarized by me from the testimony cited by James P. Cannon in The First Ten’Years of American Communism (New York, 1962).
Section VI is drawn from several sources: Labor in Crisis by David Brody (Philadelphia and New York, 1965); Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! (Greenwich, Conn., 1972); and Foster’s two books, The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons (New York, 1920) and the previously cited From Bryan to Stalin.
Section VII is drawn from Brody, Cannon and Foster.
Section VIII is taken from The Black Worker by Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris (Atheneum edition, New York, 1969) and Foster’s 1920 work. The quote from the Vern Smith article was furnished by Ken Lawrence.
Since much of the information in this article was drawn from Foner’s volume on the IWW, some additional remarks are necessary lest anyone carry away the impression that this writer considers it a good book. Foner’s commitment to defend the C.P. version of history leads him into a number of stupidities. I cite one here, by way of example. In his chapter, “America’s Entrance into World War I,” Foner declares that, “Many anti-war groups were now intensifying their activities to halt America’s entrance into the conflict. But the I.W.W. was not among them.” To substantiate this charge, he quotes an article by the editor of the Industrial Worker, as follows:
“I attended a peace meeting the other day at which one of the strongest advocates of antimilitarism was a pudgy parasite given to waving a hand, carrying the two-year wages for a worker in diamonds. I said to myself, ‘I am an anti-militarist because I am an internationalist, but you, damn you, peace or no peace, I am against you.’”
Every class-conscious worker will applaud this bold statement. Foner cites it as an example of the IWW “relegating the struggle against the war to the background.” Thus the very heart of a Leninist position on war, namely that imperialist war can only be halted by the waging of class war, is dismissed as one more evidence of “serious flaws in its ideology.”
Foner’s supporters claim that he stands in the tradition of Leninism. If this claim is true, then one could well argue that, in his efforts to build a worldwide revolutionary organization, Lenin’s greatest mistake was his attempt to enroll the IWW in the Communist International rather than the other way around.
Originally appeared in Soujorner Truth Organization's Workplace Papers (1975). Taken from Recomposition.