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Forging American Communism

Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster

Edward P. Johanningsmeier
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 458
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    Forging American Communism
    Book Description:

    A major figure in the history of twentieth-century American radicalism, William Z. Foster (1881-1961) fought his way out of the slums of turn-of-the-century Philadelphia to become a professional revolutionary as well as a notorious and feared labor agitator. Drawing on private family papers, FBI files, and recently opened Russian archives, this first full-scale biography traces Foster's early life as a world traveler, railroad worker, seaman, hobo, union activist, and radical journalist, and also probes the origins and implications of his ill-fated career as a top-echelon Communist official and three-time presidential candidate. Even though Foster's long and eventful life ended in Moscow, where he was given a state funeral in Red Square, he was, as portrayed here, a thoroughly American radical.

    The book not only reveals the circumstances of Foster's poverty-stricken childhood in Philadelphia, but also vividly describes his work and travels in the American West. Also included are fascinating accounts of his early political career as a Socialist, "Wobbly," and anarcho-syndicalist, and of his activities as the architect of giant organizing campaigns by the American Federation of Labor, involving hundreds of thousands of workers in the meatpacking and steel industries. The author views Foster's influence in the American Communist movement from the perspective of the history of American labor and unionism, but he also offers a realistic assessment of Foster's career in light of factional intrigues at the highest levels of the Communist International.

    Originally published in 1998.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6367-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-2)
    (pp. 3-9)

    Among twentieth-century American radicals, William Z. Foster will surely stand as one of the most implacable. His was an obstinate revolutionary temperament, unadorned by complex ideological convictions and only lightly constrained by legal or political convention. Driven by a deeply held hostility to many of the central assumptions of American politics and economic life, his career as a socialist, Wobbly, syndicalist, labor organizer, and Communist spanned five decades.

    Foster’s long and circuitous political journey began at the turn of the century in Philadelphia, where a compelling soap-box speaker inspired his first identification with the American socialist movement. However, his articulate...

  8. Chapter 1 BEGINNINGS
    (pp. 10-30)

    In the introduction to his 1937 autobiography,From Bryan to Stalin, William Z. Foster explained that “I have tried to show those forces which impelled me, an American worker, to arrive at revolutionary conclusions, to become a Communist.” Similarly, in the introduction to his collection of more personal sketches,Pages from a Worker’s Life, Foster noted that the rationale for the book was to illustrate “the forces that made me arrive at my present political opinions.” In his deterministic analysis of his own life, he left little room for a consideration of his family and the subjective experiences of his...

    (pp. 31-55)

    When William Foster wrote that the drifting workers of the American West at the turn of the century “usually had no homes or families, and often no religion,” and were “voteless and took little or no part in the political and social life of the cities,” he was describing a way of life with which he was quite familiar by the time he had reached age twenty. He considered himself to have become an “industrial worker” after he quit his apprenticeship to Edward Kretchman in Philadelphia, but he also remembered this period of his life as a time of “floating”:...

    (pp. 56-87)

    The history of the nomenclature of American radicalism includes certain terms that seem to have been wholly and immediately unassimilable, incapable from the moment of their introduction of achieving any widespread use other than in a negative or entirely derogatory sense. Such terms appear, in retrospect, to have required no huge mobilization of public opinion in order to guarantee their estrangement from public discourse. Yet, these “disabled” terms, categories, and labels, described particular social ideals or modes of action that were influential enough to elicit a response from certain elites, and were perceived by them as distinctly threatening in a...

    (pp. 88-110)

    In the years after 1916 William Foster dedicated himself to a future of gradual trade union progress, which he thought would culminate in the abolition of the wages system. Although Foster’s faith in the revolutionary potential of unionism was not borne out in his lifetime, it is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which employers in the last years of the 1910s perceived unions to be radically inimical to the very foundations of their enterprises. In the industries where Foster was working as an organizer in these years, meatpacking and steel, managers and owners were absolutely steadfast in their refusal...

    (pp. 111-149)

    On August 28, 1919, William Z. Foster, in the company of Samuel Gompers, John Fitzpatrick, and several other labor leaders, was ushered into a palatial room in the White House for a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson. The subject of the conference was the imminence of economic warfare in the various towns and communities that were the homes of America’s vast steel industry, the vital heart of the nation’s economic and military preponderance. When William Foster spoke during this discussion, he did so as the person who was responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the organization that represented one side...

    (pp. 150-174)

    In a 1924 article in which he described his role in the Chicago Federation of Labor during the meatpacking and steel campaigns, Foster reflected that his position had been that of “a free lance in the general trade union movement.” To a certain degree, this was an accurate description. He did not belong to any explicitly revolutionary organization at the time that he gained his most notoriety as a radical, even though the leadership Chicago Federation of Labor was classified in some official circles as “revolutionary.”¹ During the 1910s, he had woven ephemeral groupings of trade union radicals around his...

    (pp. 175-213)

    Although William Foster secretly became a Communist shortly following his return from Moscow in September 1921, he would remain somewhat of a “free lance.” For nearly a year and half, he publicly denied that he belonged to the Party. This denial represented more than simple prevarication or wariness about possible prosecution; the defining characteristic of his career in the 1920s would be his discomfort with his new allies, his uncertain fit within the early Communist movement. In his first years as a Communist, the Trade Union Educational League would be the primary focus of his activities. The dichotomy was not...

    (pp. 214-248)

    On March 2, 1924, approximately thirty men and women gathered in a small rented hall in Los Angeles for an evening meeting of the Trade Union Educational League. The guest speaker was to be Ella Reeve Bloor, then sixty-seven years old, a lecturer and fund-raiser for the Workers’ party. The individuals who sat in the audience were all members of local trade unions; they were precisely the kind of unionized militants that the TUEL sought to attract to its organization. This night, however, Mrs. Bloor’s speech was interrupted when members of the Los Angeles Police Department “Wobbly” squad and a...

    (pp. 249-271)

    The decade of the Great Depression was filled with ironies for William Foster. In certain respects, his was a radicalism of preparation and waiting; finally, “the masses got into action” as he later put it. On the other hand, for Foster the vengeful fighter, the decade was punctuated by political uncertainty and physical sickness. The period of the “heyday” of American Communism would belong in large measure to his former aide, Earl Browder, an efficient organization man who had little experience leading American workers. During a time of unprecedented national influence and acceptance for the Party, Foster’s political and personal...

    (pp. 272-292)

    Foster’s return to active involvement in the American party occurred in the midst of momentous changes in the international Communist movement. The rise of fascism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe made it imperative that Communists seek alliances with bourgeois politicians as well as the formerly despised Socialists. In the summer of 1935, representatives of Communist parties from around the globe met in Moscow at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress, and were formally urged to abandon Third Period tactics and slogans. The definition of what exactly constituted a “fascist” in the eyes of the Communists became far more restrictive and precise,...

  18. Chapter 11 “BROWDERISM”
    (pp. 293-313)

    The period encompassing the Communist party’s support of the war might have been a relatively unchallenging one for the Party. For many Communists it was a time of unstinting patriotism; the crisis in Europe required not professional revolutionaries but men and women willing to devote themselves to the relatively uncomplex task of national defense. The revival of the Popular Front after 1941 meant that the Party could return to a politics of collaboration rather than confrontation; a soothing measure of acceptance and legitimacy was the result. The progressive policies of the Roosevelt administration and the president’s support for organized labor...

    (pp. 314-332)

    In spite of his vision of a labor movement forced by political developments to defend its accomplishments in an arena where it was weakest and most vulnerable, Foster clung stubbornly to his optimism about the potential of the industrial union movement. American workers, he suggested hopefully in 1945, had largely lost faith in free enterprise, even though they had not yet drawn the “correct socialist conclusions.” Workers believed in what he called “New Dealism,” which, while based on the “illusions” of Keynesianism, nonetheless represented an advance in political consciousness.¹

    One reason for optimism, according to Foster in 1945, was that...

  20. Chapter 13 FINAL STRUGGLES
    (pp. 333-352)

    During the Cold War, American Communists paid a terrible price for their ideological connection to the Soviet Union; perceptions of and official policy toward American Communists were irrevocably tied to the public’s understanding of the role of the Soviet Union in world politics. However, for a brief period in the first months of the Eisenhower administration, this connection between policy and perception appeared to dissolve momentarily. The Korean armistice was signed, the United States Senate approved a censure of McCarthy, and the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider appeals brought to it from a number of Smith Act convictions. Eisenhower inveighed...

    (pp. 353-354)

    In his later career Foster was often disparaged as an inflexible dogmatist. However, his final years were ones of deep uncertainty, which he was only partly successful in masking with a brittle scientism and hard determination. His often inconsistent meditations on the central problems of Communist politics during the Cold War betray something of an angry lashing out at phenomena that defy deeper analysis or betray understanding. Despite his relentless and obsessive efforts to locate a ground of certainty in Marxist theory, it was finally his voiceless rage that formed the inviolable core of his identity. Foster the “fighter” was...

  22. NOTES
    (pp. 355-422)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 423-433)