In 1819, in the very wake of triumphant counterrevolution, Percy Shelley, in the last line of his most radical poem, The Masque of Anarchy, reminded those defeated: “Ye Are Many; They Are Few.” Embedded in this epigram is a sense of the inevitable overturn of societies structured so the productive majority perpetually loses to the acquisitive minority. William Blake had previously moved Shelley’s promise toward potential realization when, in 1804, he pledged that with unidentified comrades, we “will not cease from mental fight nor let the sword sleep in our hands … until we build … Jerusalem in Britain’s green and pleasant Land.”
The job of the Left is to bring this promise to fruition. Today, New York City is the site of the greatest income inequality in the United States. In 2012, the top one percent garnered almost 40 percent of the total income generated by the entire economy of the richest city in the world. Sadly, at the moment of its greatest relevance, the Left has failed in both the United States and Europe to advance a program or the means for its fulfillment. While the people are demanding a way out of this deadlocked misery, the Left offers vacuous slogans, elaborations on democratic procedures and clumsy political pageantry.
The essential weapons at the Left’s disposal are an understanding of history and a capability to build organizations. These are intrinsically connected pursuits.
Karl Marx awakened millions by affirming, “The [written] history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle. … [It has been] an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.”
Marx’s reading of history enabled him to see that the oppressed, even when they constituted nearly 90 percent of the population, were unable to reconstitute their societies until the advent of capitalism. Concurrent with the mines and the dark, satanic mills, capitalism created a new class: wage workers, men and women who crowded into cities with swelling populations to work in enterprises with larger and larger numbers of employees. These wage workers had the unprecedented opportunity to become aware of themselves as a class and the possibility of radically changing society. Based on necessity, they organized to fight for their collective rights, which had genuine potential for positive outcomes.
The period of history from the founding of The First International in 1864 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 represents an epoch of stupendous achievement for the working classes and oppressed peoples of the entire world. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 established a state dedicated to building socialism, the Soviet Union began to industrialize and implement universal education. Based on the leadership of the Communist Party, millions of people, with little or no experience in running governments or building economies, formed a society where disparities of wealth were minimal, unemployment was unknown and education, medicine, public transportation, culture, rent and utilities were free or of nominal cost. Outside the Socialist Bloc, mass socialist and Communist parties vied with liberal and conservative parties, and often with each other, for political power.
Communist Party USA, Revisited
The achievements of the Communist Party USA (CP), whose membership never exceeded 100,000, were remarkable and, in many respects, are still instructive. The CP built organizations that led movements that responded to the actual, urgent needs of the Party’s member and supporters as well as the enormous constituencies it intended to enlist in the wider struggle.
Curiously, because of the drastic decline of the industrial working class, the experience of the CP’s greatest success, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, may be the least relevant to present conditions. The creation, from the ground up, of industrial unions, where membership (unlike trade unions which organized only workers of a particular craft) included all workers of an industry, brought together in the same organization African- Americans, immigrants and women with the relatively privileged “old-stock,” white male workers. In CIO-organized factories, not only were the workers’ wages much higher than those that prevailed among nonunion workers, the disparities in the wages of unskilled to highly skilled workers were far smaller. The CP played a key role in organizing the Steel Workers’ and the Automobile Workers’ unions. The twelve CP-led CIO unions, with nearly one million members, were expelled from the CIO in 1949.
Less well-known, less-studied CP-led organizations have more immediate meaning to the rebuilding of a Left today. From its founding in 1925, the International Labor Defense (ILD) employed a dual strategy: It provided outstanding legal counsel while launching mass movements with as wide a reach as possible to victims of class and race oppression. Successes included the internationalization of the campaign to save Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the freeing of “labor martyr” Tom Moony, saving the Scottsboro Boys and the Supreme Court’s overturning the conviction of Angelo Herndon, an African-American Communist organizer accused of insurrection.
Fighting for Immigrant Rights
The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB), founded in 1923, provided legal aid to foreign-born Americans who faced deportation due to their political affiliations and activities. Simultaneously, it assisted immigrants in obtaining citizenship, mobilized public opinion on legislation affecting the foreign born and engendered sentiment for a multicultural United States.
The International Workers Order (IWO), a fraternal benefit society founded by the Party in 1930, organized into one “general” (that is, English-speaking) and fourteen “nationality” sections, offered low-cost term-life, burial and disability insurance policies while promoting cultural programs and first-language learning. The IWO’s membership peaked in 1947 at 185,000 men and women organized into over two thousand lodges. The IWO functioned to finance the Party’s foreign-language press, which reached a circulation of 400,000 in 1944. While drawing its members away from the Americanizing commercial culture, the IWO drew its members into the wider political Left under the slogan “Americans All.”
In 1944, a Left coalition dominated by the CP gained the leadership of the American Labor Party (ALP), which on average garnered 15 percent of the city’s vote. The ALP ensured the election of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to his second and third terms and the reelections of East Harlem’s Vito Marcantonio, the ALP’s sole member in the House of Representatives. There he functioned as an eloquent, tireless spokesperson for the American Left; in 1950, he cast the sole vote against U.S. intervention in the Korean Civil War.
The Benefits of Coordination
The CP–led and –influenced organizations shared a common political outlook and culture: Their individual missions were viewed as fulfilling the longer-range goal of challenging capitalism itself. These organizations, while advocating for wider changes, provided some means for immediate relief. CP-style politics gave opportunities for activists, many of whom had limited education, to develop talents and skills that empowered them in their political work and their lives. Emblematic of all CP-led organizations was its inclusion of African-Americans and other minorities in their leadership and a socialization of whites to discourage attitudes of white chauvinism, that is, the pervasive sense of entitlement and superiority characteristic among many on the Left.
The influence of each organization was multiplied by the coordination of their efforts: IWO lodges served as meeting places for the CIO organization drives; the IWO could reach deeply into nationality communities where many, fearful of the consequences of membership, willingly contributed and participated in the Party’s campaigns. In turn, the Party adopted a cultural pluralistic modus operandi. An excellent example of the coordination of these organizations to achieve an overarching goal was their mobilization to ensure Marcantonio’s election. The CP-led New York City General Labor Council, the foreign-language press and the general resources of the ALP were concentrated on sending Marc back to Washington.
There is much to learn from this history, but history is not a cookbook from which we select favorite recipes. We must draw inspiration and leads which have the potential of producing tangible gains for the people, while struggling for wider, longer-lasting remedies. We must go to the people, not as missionaries but as junior partners with skills and comradeship. We must build trust among ourselves that is based on actions. Let’s get started down a path that offers genuine hope of success. This is a life’s work for a life worth living.
Gerald Meyer is a professor of history at Hostos Community College (CUNY). He is the author of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954.