By Staughton Lynd, a peace and civil rights activist, historian, professor, author and lawyer. Originally published in Radical America, July-August 1974 as “The United Front in America: a Note;” cross posted from Louis Proyect’s website
Between the harsh and isolating politics of 1929-1933 and the bland and self-abasing politics of later years there thus came about an intermediate episode, full of interest for the present. Roughly it may be dated from the coming to power of Hitler and Roosevelt early in 1933 to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization in November 1935 and Roosevelt’s second campaign in 1936. The strategy of the Left in that time was, as Richmond rightly emphasizes, experimental and localized. It was not mechanically adopted after some overseas initiative. The best summary phrase for what was attempted then had it not acquired other, sectarian meanings would be the “united front from below”.
Minimally, this meant that rank-and-file workers associated with different Left tendencies should seek ways to act together against their common enemies. David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher speak of the 1911-1922 upsurge when “the old lines dividing revolutionary groupings tended to break down, and their once-competing local members threw themselves into actual class struggle without regard to their former ideological and organizational hostilities”. (6) Something like this also happened in 1933-1935. In contrast to the later 1930s there were no union bureaucrats with whom one could hope to ally. Rather the felt need was for people active at the grass roots to join forces in collective struggle. This was the spirit responsible for the local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco in 1934.
It is important to recall that despite Roosevelt’s great popularity when first inaugurated and again after the “second New Deal” of 1935-1937, in 1934 and 1935 there was much disillusionment with New Deal labor policy. The National Recovery Administration to which working people had enthusiastically responded in 1933 was renamed the “National Run Around”.
There is no way that the working-class mood of those years can be considered anti-fascist. What was to the fore was a growing disenchantment with liberalism and with Roosevelt. Those who, like myself, did not experience that time can, I think, get a sense of it by recalling the mood of SNCC activists and the northern black community in 1962-1964. Just as Kennedy was then criticized for rhetorically espousing civil rights, yet standing by while those who acted on his rhetoric were jailed, beaten, and killed, so on the bloody picket lines of 1933-1935 men wonderingly asked themselves: Where was Roosevelt ?
What one observes in the general strikes of 1934 is a happy fusion of the intransigence of the Third Period and the ability to widen an action beyond its initial protagonists. The typical scenario was for one group of striking workers to be beaten on the picket line, and then for the entire working class of the locality to walk off their jobs in sup-port. Trotskyists in Minneapolis, Socialists and Musteites in Toledo, Communists in San Francisco all appear to have acted in a manner that avoided the sectarianism of the years preceding and the opportunism of the years that followed.
Electorally, the thrust of the Left in 1933-1935 was to-ward a labor party (not a people’s party). Throughout 1935 Communists and Socialists advanced this objective, Earl Browder and Norman Thomas appearing together at a Madison Square rally in the fall. The Central Committee of the Communist Party called for ‘a Labor Party built up from below on a trade-union basis but in conflict with the bureaucracy, putting forward a program of demands closely connected with mass struggles, strikes, etc., with the leading role played by the militant elements, including the Communists”. The Party, its Central Committee stated, “should declare its support for the movement for a Labor Party and fight in this movement for the policy of the class struggle, resisting all attempts to bring the movement under the control of social-reformism”. (7) As I have written elsewhere, the formation of local labor parties was endorsed by labor conventions and councils in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Toledo, and Paterson, New Jersey; local labor party tickets were formed in San Francisco, Chicago, and Springfield, Massachusetts; and in October 1935, strong support for a labor party was voiced at the annual AF of L convention.
In November sweeping Socialist victories were recorded in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Reading, Pennsylvania. In Detroit, Attorney Maurice Sugar, running for alderman on a Labor Party ticket, just missed election, polling 55,574. Speaking to an audience of 1500 in New York City, Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson of Minnesota predicted that a national farmer-labor party would make a bid for power in 1936 or 1940. As 1935 came to an end the Seattle Central Labor Council endorsed and affiliated with the Washington Commonwealth Federation; a Farmer-Labor Federation was formed in Wisconsin; the founding conference of the South Dakota Farmer-Labor Party was held; and Vice-president Francis Gorman of the United Textile Workers announced that forces working for a national farmer-labor party would open an office in the near future. (8)
The popular-front strategy which replaced that of the united front from below produced a qualitative change. The change did not happen all at once. Although the Communist Party hoped for a Roosevelt victory in 1936, it did not formally support him, and indeed declared publicly : “Roosevelt stands for capitalism, not socialism.” (9) As late as 1938 the Communist Party criticized “the inconsistencies and vacillations of the Roosevelt administration” and called for a ‘progressive realignment” based on beginnings such as the Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the American Labor Party in New York, the Commonwealth Federations of the Pacific, and Labor’s Non-Partisan League. (10) Nevertheless the direction of change was clear. In 1935 the Party’s center of gravity was rank-and-file working people. By 1938 it was an amorphous coalition of so-called progressive forces. The united front was based on the rank and file, not on a “left-center” coalition with union bureaucrats. The united front was improvised on the basis of American needs, ra-ther than following an international line. The united front attacked the Democratic Party, instead of supporting it as after 1936. The united front was a response to the promises and failures of liberalism, whereas the popular front was directed at fascism overseas. It may be, for reasons indicated at the outset, that there was no real possibility of a mass radical movement in this country in the 1930s. If there was such a possibility, the hope for it lay in pursuing to the end the strategy of the united front from below.