the communist as organizer
In the period between the Great Crash and the McCarthy era the CPUSA was the most effective organizing agency within the American experience.1 In this most politically stable of societies, radicals have usually battered their heads against the stone wall of affluence, rising expectations, and Democratic Party loyalty. Within the narrow space of agitation allowed by the political order, Communist Party activists built a small but influential organization devoted to organizing constituencies for social change. According to even the most unsympathetic accounts, Communist activists played important roles in organizing the unemployed, evicted tenants, minorities, and workers in a wide variety of fields. They were central in the emergence of the CIO and thus in the organizing of workers in heavy industry and mass production; they spearheaded the defense of the right of black people to equality before the law and social and economic opportunity; and they participated in virtually all of the national efforts to establish humane social services and eliminate hunger, disease, and neglect from our communities.2
Many analysts question the motives of Communist Party activists, and there certainly is controversy about the extent of their organizing successes. Nevertheless, Communist organizing merits serious and objective consideration. For a period of approximately thirty years, Communist Party activists and organizers sought out constituents in the mines, plants, and neighborhoods of the United States. Other left-wing groups, such as the Socialist Party, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, and A. J. Muste’s Workers Party, also deserve study, but the CPUSA offers students the best opportunity to examine the dynamics of organizing sponsored and directed by a radical political group.3
The organizers under consideration came to political maturity during the 1930s, mostly in an era associated with the Popular Front, and remained within the Party until at least the mid-Fifties. Indeed, many remained active organizers and participants after leaving the organizational framework of the Communist Party. In the thirties and forties, they modified their Bolshevik rhetoric and participated in antifascist alliances, worked for modest short-term successes within the fledgling CIO, and provided support and manpower for a diverse group of radical and progressive political movements and leaders, including Democrats, Farmer-Laborites, the American Labor Party in New York, and Communist Party councilmen in New York City, all under an essentially New Deal banner.4
Organizers operating in the greater Philadelphia district had important trade-union successes and played a key role in organizing unemployed councils, electoral efforts, tenant rights, and peace, professional lobbying, civil liberties, ethnically based, and neighborhood groups. For a period of approximately ten years, from 1936 to perhaps 1947, the Communist Party of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, District Three, played an important if modest role in the political life of the area, generating ideas, programs, and visions that later became the commonplaces of social policy.
The Party offered its membership several roles. One could remain at the rank-and-file level, become a cadre, or rise to functionary. One could engage in mass work within one of the Party fronts or a non-Party organization (e.g., the YMCA) or one could become a “colonizer,” engaging in industrial organizing at the beck and call of the Party. In addition, one could work within the professional section, providing the Party with such services as legal counsel.5
rank and file
At the lowest level of Party membership were the rank and file, the proverbial “Jimmy Higginses” who worked within Party clubs and branches, paid their dues, went to a variety of meetings, and joined the mass organizations and fronts, often focusing on a specific issue like Spain, civil rights, or Scottsboro. Such rank-and-filers were at the heart of everyday activities and what Gornick calls “grinding ordinariness.”6 There was an extraordinary turnover among such members, who often became weary of meetings, Daily Worker solicitations, and office chores.
Many rank-and-filers began their activism while in college or sometimes high school. The Philadelphia high school movement was quite sizable, including ASU and YCL chapters in at least eight schools. High school activists ranged throughout the city, meeting radical peers, socializing, and developing their own circle of comrades. For those who entered college either already active or about to be radicalized, there was an almost dizzying flow of activities, including demonstrations, marches, sit-downs, leaflettings, fundraisers, dances, parties, socials, lectures, speeches—and meetings. Always, there were meetings, one for every night of the week, often more.7 Enthusiastic, recently converted Communists, like their spiritual children in the 1960s, had unbounded energy for political work. Most speak of being aroused and inspired by their sense of the significance of their efforts, the quality of their comrades, and the grandeur and power of their movement. Abe Shapiro recalls being engrossed at one time in the following activities: formal YCL meetings, ASU leadership, a university antiwar council (of which he was director), Spanish civil war relief efforts, a variety of antifascist activities, a student-run bookstore cooperative, and support work for assorted civil liberties and civil rights causes. Some activists found schoolwork boring under the circumstances and devoted all of their time to politics. A few became “colonizers.” In most cases, however, Communist students completed their degree work, and if they dropped out of school, it was often for financial reasons. For most, the excitement of campus politics held their attention and their interest.
Some found Party youth work a path toward leadership, becoming citywide or national ASU or YCL leaders. Others on leaving campus became YCL branch or section organizers in different parts of the district.
Many who did not attend college did neighborhood work with the YCL, often focusing their mass organizational efforts through the American League for Peace and Democracy. To many youthful rank-and-filers, “the YCL became . . . Marxist-Leninist theory all mixed up with baseball, screwing, dancing, selling the Daily Worker, bullshitting, and living the American-Jewish street life.”8 Certainly the first flush of radicalism, the emotional high of purposeful activity, the sense of accomplishment and of sacrifice for the good of humanity, the work with fine and noble comrades, the love affairs with those sharing a common vision, the expectation that the future was indeed theirs, created a honeymoon effect for most young Communists.
For some, the fad of radicalism passed upon graduation or thereabouts. Others simply maintained a regular but distant “fellow-traveling” role as they entered the work world. And many were disillusioned by the Party’s dogmatism or the great purge trials, the attacks on Trotsky, or the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. Others, including those interviewed, remained in the Party. The shortest stay was six years, and most remained loyal for twenty years or more. For all of those who stayed, the Party and its small subculture became their lives.
Those working at the branch, club, and section levels were rarely on the Party payroll and had to find work to support themselves. For single people problems were few and life could be lived at a double-time pace, working hard all day and then organizing and holding meetings every night.
Some young Communists drifted for a time after school, doing Party work but not settling into anything. Ben Green lived in Strawberry Mansion, a lower-middle- and working-class Jewish neighborhood filled with Party people at the time. He did some work with the American League Against War and Fascism, spoke on street corners occasionally, went to three to four meetings a week, and helped to start a union local of public employees at his Works Progress Administration (WPA) office. He remembers that the Party “made it a big thing” when he shifted from the YCL to adult membership, but he was still looking at his future with uncertainty.
Upon completing high school, George Paine felt that “sports were gone” from his life except for an occasional neighborhood basketball game. He kept in touch but saw less of old non-Party buddies and did standard political work, “hustling the paper,” going to meetings, demonstrating. Finally he decided to go to college, suspending but not ending his Party ties.
One rank-and-filer was a skilled craftsman, “glad of the class I was born into.” He belonged to a conservative craft union and limited his political work to mass work at the local YMCA. He never really got involved with a club or branch group but paid his dues, subscribed to the paper, and worked with comrades to move the “Y” in a more “progressive” direction. He was quite open about his views, which would eventually get him into trouble at his job: “I felt that since to me everything was so clear, they’d hug me.”
Tim Palen, a farmer and skilled craftsman who lived in a rural suburb of Philadelphia, worked with the Farmers Union. A Party rank-and-filer, he helped farmers get low-interest loans through the union and sympathetic banks. Palen never involved himself with Party affairs in the city, and the highest office he held was dues secretary of his section.
Since the Communist Party did not formally label members according to their rank, it is not always clear who was a rank-and-filer and who was considered cadre. One former district leader defines cadres as the people in training for leadership, like officers in an army. The rank and file are, therefore, foot soldiers, less involved and more a part of their own neighborhood or plant, more likely to hold conventional jobs, and more subject to pressures from neighbors, family, and changing circumstances. Annie Kriegel, who analyzes the French Communist Party as a set of concentric circles, places fellow travelers who vote for the Party and read the Sunday Party press on the “outer circle” and “ordinary party members” in the “first circle.”9
Many observers describe such rank-and-filers as less “Bolshevik”—that is, more likely to break Party discipline in everyday activity and closer to the behavior and sensibilities of their non-Party peers. Harvey Klehr puts it, “Many party members received no training of any kind, attendance at party meetings was often spotty, and members frequently ignored or failed to carry out assigned tasks.”10 Almond presents esoteric and exoteric models to distinguish rank-and-filer from cadre, suggesting that the Party daily press directed itself to the relatively idealistic and naive external members, while the Comintern, Cominform, and internal Party journals spoke to insiders and sophisticated activists.11
The cadre has a “personal commitment.” He or she is a “true Bolshevik,” internally Communized, with an almost priestly function and sense of specialness. The cadre is a “professional revolutionary” along Leninist lines.12 Philip Selznick adds that cadres are “deployable personnel,” available to the Party at all times.13 Some observers use “cadre” interchangeably with “functionary,” while others distinguish them. I interpret “functionary” as a more administrative and executive role, usually carrying more authority and generally associated with top district and national leadership.14
Cadres were field workers, organizers, sometimes on the payroll but often holding a non-Party job. Some more mobile cadres left their own neighborhoods, but most worked at least within their home districts. (Functionaries, on the other hand, could be homegrown and district-bound or at the service of the national, even international, office.)
Many studies exaggerate the distinction between inner core and outer rings because of their dependence on the abstractions of Party tracts. Almond, for example, claims that the “true Communist” was beyond any commitment to the Popular Front since he was presumably fully Bolshevized and aware of the duplicity and tactical nature of moderated rhetoric. Perhaps this is true of the national leadership, who had associations with Moscow, training at the Lenin School, and Comintern experience. At the district level, however, the patterns are not as clear and seem to be more sensitive to generational, class, and ethnic variables.15
Among informants, the word “cadre” connoted “hard-working,” “brave,” “dogged,” and “honorable”—someone who followed a Leninist model of behavior; “functionary,” on the other hand, was often used negatively to imply that someone was “bureaucratic,” “aloof,” “abstract,” and “remote from struggle”—in brief, the Stalinist apparatchik. Neither necessarily belonged to an inner core.
Fred Garst tells of the “process of indoctrination” he underwent as he entered into Party life, beginning with “the regularity of systematic participation”—dues, meetings, selling Party literature. He says that the number of meetings began slowly to escalate to three, sometimes five a week: section and subsection meetings, executive meetings, front meetings. Next, Garst was asked to lead a discussion, then to take responsibility for organizing the distribution of literature. He started taking classes at a local Workers School in Marxist theory and labor history. His commitment grew, his experience deepened, and he soon became a section leader.
Some Philadelphia Communists moved from rank-and-file to cadre roles during important political campaigns like the Progressive Party efforts of 1947–1948. One woman had been serving in a minor capacity—“not anything earth-shattering”—but was swept up by what Wallace referred to as “Gideon’s Army.” She became a full-time Progressive Party organizer at a district level, her “first real organizing”; from that point on, she was fully involved in Party work at a variety of levels.
Some cadres emphasized front and mass work, serving as leaders of IWO ethnic groups, youth groups, and defense groups. Such cadres were particularly likely to operate clandestinely, although many communicated their affilitation all but formally to constituents.
Cadres can be distinguished by their level of operation (club, branch, section, or district), by their funding (on the payroll or holding a regular job), by their relative mobility and willingness to do political work outside their own milieu, and, finally, by the type of organizing they did (mass or front work, electoral party work, industrial organizing). The most prestigious cadres were those who did full-time industrial organizing at the will of the Party leadership. Such organizers, whether of working-class origins or not and whether indigenous or colonizers, were the heart of Party operations, seeking to develop a proletarian constituency and a trade-union base.
Johnny Tisa’s history shows what an experienced organizer could accomplish. Tisa, a second-generation son of illiterate, working-class peasants, went to work at the Campbell’s Soup plant in his own South Camden “Little Italy” after completing high school in the early 1930s. While working summers at the plant, he had been stimulated by street-corner radical speakers and had joined the Socialist Party, which had a presence at Campbell’s Soup. The Socialists sent him to Brookwood Labor College, where he met young Communists who impressed him with their earnestness and apparent lack of factionalism, a problem he encountered among the Socialists. He returned to help organize the plant, starting with a small group of about a half-dozen Italian workers, none of them Communists, whom he molded through a discussion group. His group received a federal charter from the American Federation of Labor and began to develop an underground, dues-paying membership.
Tisa tells of frustrating experiences within the conservative AFL. At the 1939 convention in Tampa, for example, he found himself accidently strolling into a local walk-out of Del Monte workers, just as the police were arresting the leader. He spoke to the angry workers and was himself threatened with arrest. The workers exclaimed, “You got Bo [the arrested leader] but you’re not gonna get him,” and made a ring to escort Tisa to a streetcar. That evening, at his suggestion, there was a union meeting, packed and excited. When Tisa tried to speak about this remarkable experience at the AFL convention, he was refused the floor. Finally he simply took over the podium and microphone. Later that day, he met with other militants, including Communists, to organize the ClO-affiliated Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union.
He took a detour, however, as events in Spain captured his energies and idealism. Tisa served two years in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, gaining “a sense of internationalism that never escapes you.” On his return, he immediately set out to organize Campbell’s Soup.
At the time Tisa began to organize it, Campbell’s Soup employed about 5,500 full-time workers, with another 5,000 part-timers who came in during the heavy season. At least half the workers were of Italian descent; there were few blacks until the late 1940s. About half the work force was female. There was a sexual division of labor based on physical strength. Tisa’s organizing group consisted of eleven or twelve key workers, all leftists, mostly Italian. None were “colonizers.” All were indigenous workers who, under Tisa’s leadership, planned the unionization of Campbell’s. Tisa recalls that the group would often go crabbing and then return to his home to eat, drink, and talk strategy. Tisa was the only member of the group on the national union’s payroll; he made a bare ten or fifteen dollars a week.
The organizers distributed themselves through the plant, reaching out to obvious sympathizers and picking up useful information that they would relay to Tisa, who could not enter the plant. He would take names and visit workers in their homes, signing them up so that the union could hold a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. He would also cull information about working conditions from his organizers and publish it in a union bulletin that they distributed clandestinely, each carrying five to ten copies.
As their numbers increased, they became bolder and distributed the much discussed bulletin openly. Campbell’s Soup had Tisa arrested once, but when he was released, many workers came to greet him. He assured them that the law permitted them to organize a union. The company tried many tactics to block his efforts: they started a company union; they charged that he was a “Red” and had raped nuns and killed priests in Spain. But Tisa lived in an Italian neighborhood among plant workers and had a mother who had worked in the plant for many years (cheering his speeches, often at the wrong times, he wryly and lovingly notes); he could not be red-baited easily. He was an open Communist; his neighbors would say, “Johnny’s a Communist, but he’s all right.” Despite the real barrier of the workers’traditional Catholicism, he produced traditional trade-union benefits for members and was popular enough locally, a neighbor, to remain in leadership until the CIO purges of the late forties and early fifties finally forced him out.
Tisa’s experience highlights the importance of developing indigenous personnel in organizing activity. His efforts were certainly bolstered by support from the national union, by Communist Party training and aid, and by the relative benevolence of the federal government as expressed through the new NLRB. Yet the presence of local activists, something the Communist Party sought but did not often achieve, invariably made the task of organizing a plant or neighborhood that much easier.
Jack Ryan’s old man was “a union man,” later a foreman, a local Democratic politician, and a bootlegger. As a teen-ager, and a high school drop-out, Ryan ran poker and crap games in the neighborhood with a group of friends, some of whom wound up in prison. He worked sporadically as a roofer, during which time he was influenced by a socialist “who couldn’t read or write until he was twenty-three.”
His father finally got him a job at a local plant, where he worked as a crane operator in the early Depression years until he was laid off in 1931. Over the next two years, he tried a small store and “managed to hang on,” selling water ice and running crap games. In 1933 he went back to the plant just at the point when the local union was being formed. Ryan recalls that he was “sworn in in an elevator with the lights out in between the floors.” Despite his emerging radical politics, Ryan remained on the margins at first. “I deliberately didn’t get active,” he says, indicating that life seemed too unpredictable to take chances. In fact, he entered into a real-estate business on the side, and it eventually provided him with the cushion that allowed him to become more active within the plant.
Initially he ran for the general committee, backed by the other crane operators because of his successful grievance work. Still cautious (“I kept my mouth shut,” he notes), Ryan went along with the conservative local leadership while maintaining contact with the plant militants, several of whom were old Wobblies suspicious of any Communist Party leadership. Ryan worked primarily through his own crane operators’ network within the plant. He played the trade-offs in union posts among the plant’s crafts to become local president, an unpaid post, and finally business representative, the only salaried position within the local. Ryan remained close to the Party but never joined. “I was more radical than they were,” he brags. He criticizes their twists and turns and suggests that “in the end you can’t trust any of them” because of “the goddamn line.” He adds that the Daily Worker was “written for a bunch of morons.” On the other hand, Ryan admits that Party union members were often competent and successful organizers and that he agreed with most of their Popular Front stances, particularly their antifascism. On the Soviets, he says that he did not spend too much time thinking about them, but adds, “I don’t blame them for having a treaty with the Germans.”
Ryan is clearly concerned with the practical issues of trade unionism. In describing one of his national officers, he exclaims, “A dedicated Communist but a helluva guy.” He praises John L. Lewis’s efforts at industrial unionization: “him and the Commies put together the CIO; they were the smartest crowd.” So Jack Ryan worked with but kept some distance from “the Commies”: “they were a little bit nutty.” His union was one of those expelled from the CIO in the late forties, and he remains bitter about the Party’s role in the union’s decline. He remained active, holding union office on and off until his retirement. Ryan proudly concludes that he was placed on Social Security while on strike for the last time in the early seventies.
Johnny Tisa and Jack Ryan were working-class organizers, with roots in their ethnic communities, able to establish a rapport with their peers and, at the same time, develop more sophisticated skills within a broader and more ideological movement in or around the Communist Party. Their failures were mostly exogenous, the results of Taft-Hartley oaths, CIO purges, and McCarthyism in general.
Others operated in less favorable terrain, without the decided advantages of an indigenous, working-class background. The most characteristic Party labor organizer was a young, educated, second-generation Jewish-American sent to “dig roots into the working-class.” The efforts of such organizers were prodigious; their accomplishments, however, were more problematic.
Al Schwartz’s father was a 1905er, a Party organizer in the garment industry who had to open a small shop after he was blacklisted. Al, a classic “red-diaper baby,” went through all of the Party developmental steps, from Young Pioneers through YCL to full Party involvement. Most of all he wanted to be a radical journalist. For a few years he was able to work on the Pennsylvania supplement to the Worker, but when it folded, his journalism career seemed over. Over the next half-dozen years, Schwartz, now in his late twenties, went into the shops as a “colonizer.” He remembers the sense of adventure and mission he felt working at a few of the larger heavy industrial plants in the area. Yet he also speaks of his sense of loss and defeat in having to abandon hopes of writing. Schwartz’s response to colonizing was painfully ambivalent: a college graduate and a Jew, born and bred within the Yiddish-Left subculture, he both relished the contact with blue-collar workers and remained distant from them. They were not like him, he stresses; they were mired in back-breaking labor, poor educations, and plebian forms of leisure. For a time he enjoyed the camaraderie of the local taverns, but ultimately he was an outsider, a Jewish family man and a struggling intellectual. Schwartz most fondly recalls the hardness and fitness of his body, the feeling that he was young and strong and physically a worker. But the successes were few, and later the McCarthy period made such Party efforts even more marginal. Schwartz found himself a family man in his mid-thirties without a career or a profession; frustrated and drifting out of Party life without drama or flourish, he moved to reorganize his life. His political values held, but his colonizing days were over.
Sol Davis grew up in a poor, working-class, immigrant household. He was a bright young boy, and like many other upwardly aspiring Jewish males, he flourished at the elite Central High School and began moving toward a professional career. At this point, in the early years of the Depression, he was swept off his feet, as he puts it, by the Communist Party. After completing his schooling, he worked lackadaisically at his profession while seeking an opportunity to go into the shops as a Communist Party organizer; he was “determined to be shop worker.”
His first attempts allowed him to learn something about machinery, although in each instance he was fired for his inexperience and incompetence. Finally he caught on. “I was in my element,” he asserts, describing the war years in heavy industry. For Davis, the good organizer had to have a commitment to “the principles of Communism,” “a talent for leadership,” and a willingness to listen. A confident speaker, whose words are clipped and terse, he worked twenty-nine years in the shops, twenty-six of them at one plant. Located within the city, the plant was staffed mostly by Catholic workers (Polish or Irish), initially few blacks, and even fewer Jews.
Davis’s recollections are filled with bitter refrains about red-baiting and “turn-coat ex-CPers,” sell-outs and “social democrats.” He is proud of his successes, which include chairing the grievance committee and serving as shop steward during most of his union years. Davis presents his life as devoted to organizing in the shops; he never got involved in his neighborhood and tended to leave Party electoral work to others. A hard-line orthodox Communist still, Davis argues that those who abandoned the Party were “petty-bourgeois with petty-bourgeois ideas,” whereas he “was nursed out of the trade-union movement.” In the fifties, he admits, “life became unpleasant,” both in his largely Jewish lower-middle-class neighborhood and in the shop, where “a certain resistance developed to my activity” among people he calls anti-Communist socialists.
Davis believes that most American workers have been bought off in “discrete and discernible fashion” by imperialist profits, manipulated by the mass media, and blinded by nationalism, religion, and racism. After spending almost thirty years in the industrial heartland, Davis remains “dedicated to an idea,” an “unquestioned belief” in communism.
Yet when asked about his ability to convert workers to class consciousness, a saddened Sol Davis replies, “Never—the shop was a desert for me.” He did not convert a single worker and was “in that respect an utter failure.” The shops, to the stoical Davis, were “a cultural, political, and philosophical wasteland despite having made so many friends.” Sol Davis has kept the faith since he was “baptized” in the movement; his singular lack of organizing success rests, in his mind, on factors beyond his control—repression, cowardice, self-interest. He is a confident man.
Other colonizers had more mixed results. Mike Caldwell, a college graduate with a middle-class WASP heritage, recalls that in his initial colonizing effort, “I wasn’t very smart and made a lot of stupid mistakes—talked to people, became known as a troublemaker.” He was fired. Fortunately for Caldwell, his firing made him a “celebrated case,” and the predominantly Irish and Italian Catholic workers, and even the conservative union officials, rallied to his support. Caldwell says that whereas other Party organizers had their best contact in their own departments, he touched bases throughout the plant and often socialized at the local bar to maintain and develop relationships. “A fair number knew I was a Communist,” he says. “I never denied it.” But most did not. In most plants to admit membership in the Party meant probable firing and certain harassment. For organizers like Caldwell, discretion was the rule.
His efforts paid off against the union’s local establishment. The national, a left-wing union, sent in an organizer to help fashion a local coalition to defeat the established group, and Caldwell worked with him as elections chairman. The progressive slate was successful.
Caldwell, a leader of a left-wing veterans’ group, participated in the 1946 strike surge. When mounted police chased people onto porches in Southwest Philadelphia to break up injunction-defying demonstrations, the local CIO was able to bring out 25,000 workers to protest against police brutality in front of City Hall. But such Popular Front-style unified efforts were shattered by the developing Cold War consensus, which began to drive radicals, particularly Party members, out of the unions.
Caldwell shifted jobs in this period, finally taking a full-time organizing job in a nearby industrial town. The plant had some IWO members and a few Party members, but no organization. Caldwell, who observes that “it really became difficult after the Korean War” started, found some success in putting out a small paper and handing it out at the main gates. He worked to develop contacts mainly by distributing the Party paper, first for free, then by subscription. Caldwell remembers proudly that he won a district drive with eighty subscriptions in his area. Gains were modest: a Hungarian sympathizer sent him two black shop stewards; then a few Irish Catholics made contact. Caldwell recalls going into Philadelphia to see prize fights with the latter workers, mixing pleasure with discussions of possible articles about their area for the Party press.
But the times wrecked any chance Caldwell had of developing a Party group. The FBI scared off possible sympathizers; he was arrested for circulating antiwar petitions, and the venture finally ended in the heyday of the McCarthy period when Caldwell was sent to join the Party’s underground.
Caldwell and Al Schwartz experienced the ebb of the progressive union movement in the late forties and early fifties. Most Party labor organizers and colonizers, however, joined the fray during the extraordinary upsurge of the late thirties that established industrial unionism through the CIO.
Milt Goldberg, despite winning a Mayor’s Scholarship, was unable to continue his education after graduating from Central High School. Instead, he scratched to make a living at odd jobs, gradually becoming interested in radical politics. While he was working a pre-Christmas job at Sears, the department store warehousemen went out on strike. Clerks refused to cross the picket lines. Goldberg recalls that the increasingly anxious owners persuaded the clerks to return to work with promises of improved conditions and wage increases that were never fulfilled; meanwhile, the warehousemen settled. In the aftermath, the strike leaders were all fired. Goldberg says that many of them were Communists and that he began to notice how often that was the case: “I respected the Party people; they were able, talented people.”
Goldberg became an organizer for a white-collar union dominated by mobsters who made deals with management at the expense of the membership. He describes his early efforts as “naive, inexperienced.” Goldberg played a key role in leading his membership out of the corrupt union into a new CIO local, whose Philadelphia office staff was dominated by Party organizers. In those days, the late thirties, the era of sit-downs and a crescendo of collective bargaining agreements, organizing was remarkably fluid. Goldberg says that charters were granted easily and with little need for substantiation or the apparatus of negotiation soon to appear under the NLRB. In those days, he asserts with some nostalgia, one could go in and organize a place in one or two days, present demands to the employer, and make a deal. Such rapid victories were, of course, exceptions; Goldberg also recalls the often brutal resistance of management, particularly in heavy industry.
After serving in the war, Goldberg returned to his union efforts, despite family advice that he try something more prestigious and lucrative. The union was his life, so he stayed. He never formally rejoined the Party, although he remained in close contact. The Taft-Harley anti-Communist oath soon reinforced this decision. Nevertheless, Goldberg and his small union were red-baited and constantly under McCarthyite attack.
How did he survive? Goldberg argues that he “was very close to the membership” and had solid support from his fellow leaders. He emphasizes that the union provided real benefits and services to membership and sustained their loyalty despite the attacks. In addition, he notes that by this time the small union did not have a Party group, only him. One of the more damaging policies of Party-dominated unions was what Goldberg calls “the resolution bit”—the passing of Party-sponsored resolutions on every issue from Scottsboro to Spain. Too many left-wing unions manipulated such resolutions without making any effort to educate the membership; all that mattered was that local such-and-such of the so-and-so workers sent a resolution attacking Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Goldberg dropped such tactics in the postwar period, instead working with his local’s officers and servicing the practical needs of the membership. By the mid-fifties, still a socialist, Milt Goldberg had become estranged from the Communist Party.
As is true of most arts, the qualities that make for a successful organizer are uncertain and descriptions are inevitably cliche-ridden. As the experiences of Johnny Tisa and Jack Ryan indicate, having roots in the work force being organized gives one a decided advantage. But the Party could use only the troops it had available, and these were for the most part educated, urban, Jewish Americans, most of whom had no experience in the heavy industries that were their “colonies.” Most of them experienced frustration; one cadre estimates that 95 percent of all Party colonizers failed. Too often colonizers were unable to operate in a sea of Gentile proletarians. Fred Garst, still angry at the Party for its insensitivity to context, charges that “the Left didn’t have any organizing skills.” But some organizers, remarkably, succeeded.
Ike Samuels still speaks with an accent that reveals the years he spent in Eastern Europe before his mother, taking the remains of the family silver, arrived in the United States. No red-diaper baby, Samuels describes his youth as “street-wise” and his ambition as making it in America. Like many others, however, “the whole thing burst into flame” when the Depression forced him to drop out of school and hunger marches, bonus marches, and unemployed council protests acted on his emerging social conscience. Soon he was moving toward the Party and engaging in union organizing.
Samuels, a gruff, self-deprecating man who often refers to his “big mouth,” rose to leadership within a small craft union and served on the city CIO council. His CIO union was dominated by a Popular Front coalition of the Party and a progressive Catholic group. The union president, a leader of the latter, was incompetent; on several occasions Samuels had to bail him out of collective-bargaining disasters. Finally the Catholic faction and the Party faction sought to replace the president with Samuels. The national Party leadership, however, afraid of upsetting the delicate coalition, said no. Samuels recalls that he “didn’t even question” the decision, but he was frustrated and soon left the union to become an organizer for a larger, industrial union.
Samuels agrees with Milt Goldberg that it was relatively easy to be a good organizer in that period. Labor was in an upswing, workers were clamoring to be organized, NLRB cards were easy to accumulate. In heavy industry, Samuels stresses, the key was to seek out the pockets of old radical workers—not colonizers, he emphasizes—who had broken down the old ethnic barriers. Many such organizers were members of the IWO foreign-language federations. Next, one needed the “pie-cards,” the full-time organizers supplied by the CIO itself, many of whom were veteran radicals. Along with and sometimes among the pie-cards were the younger Communists going into the shops, supported by a growing and confident Party organization. A “highly developed structure,” Samuels recalls, was essential to organizing success. One had to develop shop committees and day-to-day contacts in each department.
The sense of strength provided by the union itself and, crucially, by its CIO sponsor, allowed workers to imagine that the employers could be successfully challenged. In the automobile, steel, rubber, mining, and electrical equipment industries, workers faced mammoth corporations willing to use any means necessary to throw back the unionist surge. The New Deal, by encouraging a more neutral judiciary and law enforcement role, made it easier for the coordinated CIO drives to gain concessions from corporate heads. Samuels suggests that the workers, some of whom had backed decades of unsuccessful rank-and-file efforts, needed the sense that they were a part of a powerful coalition. John L. Lewis appealed to this sense when he proclaimed, “The President want you to join a union.” Such a coalition advanced unionization at the same time that it necessitated concessions and strictures that limited the leverage of the newly legitimized unions.16
Samuels argues that it was imperative for organizers to have knowledge of their industries. He deliberately worked in a craft shop to learn the trade and later carefully studied one heavy industry before going out to organize its workers. He was not typical. Hodee Edwards, a thirties organizer, stresses “our consistent failure to investigate the neighborhoods and factories where we tried to work, thus applying a generalized, sectarian plan usually incomprehensible to those we wanted to reach.”17 And Sam Katz suggests that the Party did not always recognize the tension between the leadership and the activist/organizer over the pace and nature of organizing. The functionaries often pushed for the most advanced positions, including the “resolutions bit,” whereas the organizers focused on the issues that confronted their constituents. Conflict was inevitable between broad policy and local needs and variations, and between policy planners and functionaries and field organizers and the rank and file. It is clear that the Communist Party suffered chronically from top-heavy decision making, which often left local organizers and members with policy directives that made little sense in local circumstances.
In addition to organizational strength and preparation, Samuels feels that leadership ability and, at times, personal courage must be demonstrated. On several occasions he had to take risks or lose the confidence of his membership. In one local the workers affectionately referred to him as “R.R.J.B.,” Red Russian Jew Bastard. He tells of organizing workers in a small Georgia company town. Fifteen hundred were on strike, and the patriarchal owners were negotiating only under pressure from the NLRB. They were stalling, however, so Samuels called on the work force to increase the pressure by massing outside the building where the negotiations were taking place. The next day, in the midst of bargaining, Samuels noticed the face of the company’s attorney turning an ash white as he glanced out the window. What he saw were about three hundred workers marching toward the building carrying a rope; lynching was on their agenda. Samuels went out and calmed them down, “modified” their demands, and then wrapped up negotiations. His early organizing days also included maritime struggles with gangster elements who were not beyond “bumping off” militants. Samuels implies that the Left elements fought back, sometimes resorting to their own brand of physical intimidation.18
Peggy Dennis describes the Bolshevik ideal as “soldiers in a revolutionary army at permanent war with a powerful class enemy.” And “in permanent war, doubts or questions are treason.”19 Yet as Joseph Starobin asks, “How could the Leninist equilibrium be sustained in a country so different from Lenin’s?”20 In fact, it was sustained unevenly and at a price. In a society with a tradition of civil liberties (albeit inconsistently applied and occasionally suspended in moments of stress) and a remarkably resilient political democracy, the Leninist model, hardened and distorted by Stalinism, mixed uncomfortably with American realities.21
At its best the Leninist ideal encouraged the incredible levels of hard work and perseverance that even critics of Communism grant to its cadres; it also evoked such personal qualities as integrity, courage, honesty, and militancy. Yet the ideal seemed to degenerate too easily into a model of behavior appropriately labeled Stalinist. Communist cadres accepted deceptive tactics and strategies that inevitably backfired and undermined their integrity and reputations—for example, the front groups that “flip-flopped” at Party command after years of denying Party domination. The intolerance and viciousness with which Communists often attacked adversaries, including liberals, socialists, and their own heretics, remains inexcusable.22 As organizers, Communist activists suffered from a tendency toward a special kind of elitism that often made them incapable of working with diverse groups sharing common goals. In some periods they turned this streak of inhumanity against themselves, engaging in ugly campaigns of smear and character assassination to eliminate “Titoists,” “Browderites,” “revisionists,” “left-wing adventurists,” or “white chauvinists.”
Moreover, the secrecy within which Communists often operated, while sometimes justified by the danger of job loss or prosecution, served to undermine the Party’s moral legitimacy. An organizer’s relationship with his constituents depends on their belief in his integrity, and this is especially true when the organizer is an outsider. Too often, Communists undermined their own integrity by covering manipulative and cynical acts with the quite plausible explanation that survival required secrecy. The tendency of Communists to resort to First and Fifth Amendment protection during the McCarthy period falls under similar challenges. As Joseph Starobin asks:
Should left-wingers and Communists have gone to jail in large numbers? Might they have been better off politically, in terms of their image, to assert their affiliations, to proclaim them instead of asserting their right to keep them private, to explain the issues as they saw them, and to take the consequences?23
Communist activists certainly did not lack courage or commitment to a protracted struggle. Many risked prison, and some served prison sentences; perhaps as many as one-third of the cadres painfully accepted assignments to go underground in the early fifties. Their Leninism had to navigate contradictory currents of Stalinism and Americanization, militancy and opportunism.
Local Communist activists often lived a somewhat schizophrenic life, alternately internationalist and indigenous, Bolshevik and “progressive,” admiring the Leninist model of cadre and yet falling into more settled, familial patterns of activism. There was a clear if often ignored sexual division of labor: men were more likely to be the cadres, women performed auxiliary clerical functions and unnoticed but essential neighborhood organizing.
The Party was also divided between theorists and intellectuals on the one hand and field workers and activists on the other. As one field worker proclaimed, “I couldn’t be spending hours on ideological conflicts; I’m an activist, not an intellectual.” Many agree that the bulk of an organizer’s time went into local actions and much less went into discussions and considerations of important theoretical or programmatic matters.24 Only a small proportion received the type of ideological and intellectual training suggested by the Leninist ideal, an ideal that formally sought the obliteration of the distinctions between thought and action, intellectual and activist.
In fact, Party intellectuals faced chronic and ingrained suspicion, even contempt, from Party leaders. Abe Shapiro sardonically charges that the function of Party intellectuals was “to sell the Daily Worker at the waterfront.” He remembers checking on a new Party document on the economy: “I actually read the document. I wanted to know what the Hell it was.” He found it infantile and far below what well-trained but never used Party intellectuals and social scientists could have produced. The Party rarely, except for showcase purposes, relied on its trained intellectual or academic members; instead, it called on Party functionaries, often of very narrow training, to write about complex sociological, economic, and scientific matters. Theory suffered as a result, and the Party, particularly after 1939, included very few intellectuals.
Until the mid-fifties crisis, the Party, strangled by Stalinist dogma and intolerance, was closed to intellectual discourse. Abe Shapiro finally left the Party because his intellectual training had given him a commitment to intellectual honesty that he could not shake. Among organizers, Party arrogance cut off messages from the grass roots. Orders from what one veteran calls “the Cave of Winds”—Party headquarters in New York—often contradicted practical organizing experience.
The Party also suffered from insularity. Mark Greenly brought interested fellow workers to a Party-dominated union meeting. They were curious and “antiboss” but quite unsophisticated and not at all ready to make any commitments. Unfortunately, the Party organizer immediately started to discuss class struggle and a variety of abstract political matters. The workers were quickly alienated and frightened away, never to return. Ethel Paine recalls such “inappropriate behavior” as the sectarian conversations Party people would carry on in the presence of non-Communist acquaintances and neighbors. Although chronically secretive about membership, Communists could be remarkably insensitive to their audience in revealing ways. A successful organizer learned when and how to introduce more controversial ideas to nonmembers. Training, including the Party schools, helped to some extent, but most Communists agree with the veteran organizer who feels that such learning has to be done on the job, by trial and error. Many Communists, like Sam Katz and Mike Caldwell, tell painful if sometimes hilarious tales of their own and others’ ineptitude as beginning organizers. Some discovered that they simply were not suited for the job and would never develop the personal qualities that make for a competent organizer. Several veterans insist that organizers are born, not made. Yet relatively introverted and socially awkward young people, inspired by the idealism and the comradeship of the Communist movement, did transform themselves into effective organizers. Vivian Gornick points out that such transformations did not always survive the collapse of association with the Party.25 I did not, however, discover total or near total personality changes caused either by joining or abandoning the Party.
Although most of the literature about radical organizers deals with men, it is increasingly apparent that some of the most significant and consistently ignored organizing within the Communist Party involved women. The ten women interviewed performed a rich variety of Party tasks, but perhaps the most important were those not officially designated, like the informal neighborhood activities organized by Edith Samuels, described in Chapter Five.
Sarah Levy was also involved in such efforts. Sarah and her two children joined her colonizer husband, Moe, in leaving the comfortable Party concentration in the Strawberry Mansion section to live in a nearby industrial town. She refers to the next three and a half years as “not the easiest times and, yet to me, personally, one of the best growing experiences—and I have never regretted it.” (Moe’s wry rejoinder was “She didn’t have to work the blast furnaces.”)
There were only three Party families in the town, quite a difference from the thirty or forty Party friends they left behind in Strawberry Mansion. While Moe worked the furnaces and tried to develop contacts with plant workers, Sarah joined a folk dance group at the local “Y,” where she got to know Greek, Yugoslav, Italian, and other immigrant women. Moe, limited in the plant to a small Party circle of colonizers and sympathizers, was able to socialize with the husbands of Sarah’s folk dancing partners.
Colonizers often ended up working with a local Party apparatus while their wives, working through neighborhood networks, reached into the community through its women, older people, and children. As Angie Repice casually but proudly concluded about her work with a community center during the war years; “I am an organizer, so I organized a nursery.” Her husband was in the service. Moving around to stay close to his base, she put her organizing abilities and political values to work. Such efforts remain an unwritten chapter in the history of radical organizing.26
Few district functionaries other than Sam Darcy achieved any national stature or had much leverage outside the district. Dave Davis, the business manager of UE Local 155 and an important Philadelphia-area labor leader, was often elected to the Party’s national committee but never entered the inner decision-making group. Other district leaders—like Pat Toohey, Phil Bart, Phil Frankfeld, and Ed Strong—were D.O.s sent into the district and then moved out again to other assignments.
Most district functionaries played dominant roles within the district committee and ran such important Party operations as the local Progressive Party and the Civil Rights Congress. They drew meager salaries, which were sometimes supplemented by Party-related employment. The Party network, at least during the late thirties and forties, could place members in some union jobs.27 Possibly several dozen members depended on the Party for their livelihood in this way.
One often encounters Communists who, for very specific reasons, were not formal Party members. One former Progressive Party leader never joined the Party but worked closely with district Communist leaders to map strategy and coordinate activity. Some union leaders stayed out of the Party to deny employers the red-baiting weapon, and a number dropped out after the Taft-Hartley Act made a union officer liable to prosecution for perjury if he lied about current Party membership.28
Some professionals who joined the Party operated at a rank-and-file level, belonging to a professional branch or club, attending meetings, and fulfilling subscription quotas. Several recall being highly impressed with the other professionals they met at Party functions. But such members—often doctors, dentists, and architects—were on the margins of Party life.
Many professionals, especially lawyers associated with Party causes, found membership problematic and chose not to formalize their relationships with the Party, though they might be members of a professional club. “I fought against loose tongues,” one states. “I never asked a soul whether they were Communists or not.” Several left-wing attorneys stress that they did not want to be in a position to betray anyone or risk a perjury charge if questioned about their own affiliations and associations. The law in America is a conservative profession, and several Left lawyers paid a high price for their efforts.29 Another consideration was that the Party sometimes pressured lawyers to use a particular legal strategy in Party-related cases, and such pressure was more effectively applied to members.30 One attorney notes that the Party itself seemed ambivalent about requiring formal membership. A few district leaders pressured him to join, while others understood that it was not particularly useful or necessary.
Some lawyers, whether members or not, found their services very much in demand. They were needed in labor negotiations, electoral activities, and civil rights and civil liberties cases. In the late forties and early fifties, Party-affiliated lawyers found it less easy than it had been to earn a living through Party-based clients, such as left-wing unions. Instead they were called upon to deal with the titanic task of defending Party members indicted under the Smith Act and other pieces of repressive legislation. Thanks to this demand, as one attorney suggests, they received special treatment from the district leadership. They mixed with labor leaders, politicians, judges, and, at times, the national Party leadership. Several had more contact with the non-Communist local authorities than district functionaries had. One left-wing attorney recalls that he had the luxury of criticizing Party policies and decisions, within limits, because “I was needed, I was special, a lawyer.”
More significant than membership was the degree of autonomy a member had, and this was based on his importance to the Party or his institutional leverage. A professional could get away with criticism of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that would not be tolerated from rank-and-filers or most cadres. A union leader could ignore Party instructions, aware that his own organization was his power base. A former Communist, George Charney, criticizes in his memoirs the “left-wing aristocracy of labor that rarely mingled with the herd of party members or the middle functionaries.”31 Such trade-unions “influentials” often had contempt for functionaries and would go over their heads to top leadership.
Those who entered the Party, at whatever level, in whatever role, operated within a well-defined organization and lived within a somewhat insular and often nurturing subculture that provided them with formal and informal relationships. These relationships eased the often lonely organizing work. One veteran unashamedly calls his fellow Communist organizers “the most dedicated, most selfless people in the struggle.” Many would share Jessica Mitford’s feelings:
I had regarded joining the Party as one of the most important decisions of my adult life. I loved and admired the people in it, and was more than willing to accept the leadership of those far more experienced than I. Furthermore, the principle of democratic centralism seemed to me essential to the functioning of a revolutionary organization in a hostile world.32
Any tendency to romanticize such activists must be tempered by an awareness of their mistakes, limitations, and weaknesses, and it is true that many non-Communists made similar commitments to organizing the oppressed and the weak. They too merit consideration. These Philadelphia veterans of the Communist Party are very human actors who worked on a particular historical stage. Some conclude that their years of effort never really brought any of their factory and shop constituents into the movement. Like Sol Davis, they admit that they were utter failures in that “cultural, political, and philosophical wasteland” of blue-collar America. Others share the pride, perhaps the arrogance, of one of Vivian Gornick’s subjects:
We’re everywhere, everywhere. We saved this fucking country. We went to Spain, and because we did America understood fascism. We made Vietnam come to an end, we’re in there in Watergate. We built the CIO, we got Roosevelt elected, we started black civil rights, we forced this shitty country into every piece of action and legislation it has ever taken. We did the dirty work and the Labor and Capital establishments got the rewards. The Party helped make democracy work.33
The road from Spain to Watergate is a long one. Communists, euphoric at their prospects in the heyday of CIO sit-downs and Popular Front triumphs, later needed remarkable inner resources to sustain political activity. They sensed the first tremors from the purge trials, received a severe jolt from the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, and in the postwar years faced first political repression and then, more painfully, internal disintegration and demoralization.