Where Was Roosevelt?

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.

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  1. Ulysses

    Our best prospects for change still rest with the “rank-and-file”

    I see some hope for a revival of worker activism in the Teamster elections. While it appears that the boss-friendly Hoffa slate will just barely hang on to power, many locals have demonstrated that their members won’t be satisfied with “business as usual.”

    Here’s Teamsters for a Democratic Union endorsed candidate Fred Zuckerman:

    “As the ballots were tallied this week, we shocked the employers and the Hoffa-Hall slate and won the majority of the vote from Teamsters in the United States. Hoffa-Hall overtook our lead when the Teamsters Canada ballots were counted…

    We believe in coalitions and bringing union officers and members together and we will continue to do that. The election results show that many officers are badly out of touch. They need to start standing with their members or they will find themselves replaced by a new generation of Teamster leaders.
    The International Union vote count is nearing a close. The fight for our future is just beginning.”


  2. TheCatSaid

    [Response to Ulysses’ comment] This begs the question of whether those votes were cast or counted accurately. In my early days of learning about election fraud (particularly at the Black Box Voting.org website and discussion threads), a topic that came up time and again was that there was extensive history of election fraud associated with union elections. IIRC, as electronic voting machines were being actively promoted, one of the avid supporters of using these methods was trade unions.

    A couple articles that touch on some of the history (though not specifically in relation to unions) are this one by Victoria Collier written in 2012 but with some important history, and chapter 4, “A Brief History of Vote-Rigging” from Bev Harris’ book (available free online).

    Harris later learned that the lever machine companies and technicians had all been convicted of election fraud, going back to the 1880s, all over the US. Lever machine tampering was also discovered not long ago that changed election results, resulting from a single “miscalibrated” machine that it turned out had been producing anomalous results for over a decade. Richard Hayes Phillips in his lectures and book about the theft of the OH 2004 election (and thus the presidency) describes with detail how one of the methods used was altering the punch cards or sending voters to the wrong precinct machine, so their ballot would end up with undervotes or overvotes and not be counted.

    It would be interesting to know about the election procedures for that union election, particularly the Canadian vote. Was it on machines? Paper? How secure was the chain of custody of the ballots?

      1. Anon

        In it’s original sense, yes. As used in today’s language, it is being used very much in the venacular. No need to nitpic: the point is valid.

  3. Left in Wisconsin

    Staughton Lynd – brilliant as always. Some basic takeaways:

    1. People (notably “noted” economists and political scientists) who date the beginning of the New Deal to 1935, or even 1937, miss much of the real action, which was in 1933-35, when political outcomes were uncertain. At the time, the elements that we think of as “final” and thus the intended outcomes (Wagner Act, FLSA, Social Security, etc.) were seen as tentative, early compromises that would surely later be improved and built upon.

    2. Ditto for the CIO and the big industrial unions (i.e. UAW and USWA). They were helpful in an organizational sense from 1935-36 on to give industrial workers an institutional home within organized labor that wasn’t the AFL – but they were as much an effort to harness rank-and-file labor power as unleash it. The UAW was at its most powerful in the early years (through 1941 or so) when various factions were at war with each other and everything was completely chaotic. (Reuther didn’t consolidate power until 1947.) Even from the perspective of institutional labor, much more relevant were the AFL Federal Labor Unions (FLU’s), which were the local unions created ad hoc by the AFL in 1933-34 into which were dumped the masses of industrial workers spontaneously organizing that the AFL had no idea what to do with, since they didn’t fit into the AFL’s craft structure and didn’t want to.

    3. The notion that the Dems or progressives or even “the left” need to coalesce around a particular program or strategy in order to gain power has no historical basis. The left makes gains when capitalists run scared, which is when things are chaotic and outcomes are most uncertain. Organization and institutionalization have value but in times when real change is needed, they are more likely to be an impediment to change than a catalyst. Lambert likes to beat up on Trumka, who I personally don’t think is any worse than the others. But I do agree that labor will only become a political force again not when people like Trumka gain influence, but when they are deposed.

    1. Cry Shop

      The general public, not just unions, and other organs, had a powerful influence on the public governance in part due to Muckraking.

      He (David Graham Phillips) also helped educate the public on how the senators were selected and that it was held in the hands of a few bosses in a tight circle, helping increase the corruption level. As a result of these articles, only four of the twenty-one senators that Philips wrote about were still in office.

      On the other hand, I wonder how long Philips would have held his job if he had started to cover the mining interests, and other explorations South of the border which were a factor in Hearst’s war mongering yellow journalism.

      Thanks to Picketty’s Law, the mass media has lost most of that trust, but even more, the use of housing as capital, REITS, mutual funds, IRAs, etc; a long with social institutions like gated communities, mass private k-12/charter schools, and suburban sprawl have made everyone a capitalist who hopes his funds do better than his neighbor, destroying solidarity and replacing it with narrowly defined self-iinterest and greed.

  4. flora

    Thanks for this post. In the 30’s large labor was located in or around an owner’s physical space (mines, factories, docks, cab companies, etc). So much factory work now has been off-shored. In it’s place there is the gig economy, Uber, the single person alone with an app. So many of these app jobs – Uber driving, AirBnB hosting – make money for the app owners and their stock ipo float by breaking local laws and regulations.
    Why haven’t the Dems or GOP stopped the illegal activity by enforcing law? The congress is on the side of “new economy” monopolists, it seems.
    How does labor today, fragmented and ignored, make demand ?

    1. Cry Shop


      They gain some immunity by making everyone a potential capitalist, per my comment above. That it’s a game where all their efforts line the monopolist pocket comes later in the game, when these abuses have become normalized. Uber bled very large sums trying to keep all the drivers in China behind them, even the communist parties can be sensitive to that kind of public appeal,

  5. d shatin

    I really feel sick to my stomach. Unfortunately in the main I see 2 groups of people- the kind, compassionate, other oriented and the competitive, greedy, self oriented that views survival as keeping andd staying ahead of everyone else. I am less sanguine especially having watched the film “the Sorrow and the Pity” about inside Vichy France under the Nazis. We really must form an underground in every town secretly and prepare to respond in unity at a moment’s notice.

  6. Clonal Antibody

    Michael Hudson’s father Carlos Hudson was imprisoned by Roosevelt under the Smith Act in 1941 as a part of the prosecution of the Minneapolis 18. He was sentenced to 16 months at Sandstone MN.

    Earlier, he was fired from the WPA for organizing WPA teachers into a union

  7. Louis Proyect

    Always impressed with the acumen of Naked Capitalism commenters. I am working on a series of articles about whether the Democratic Party ever did really represent the workers.

    Part one dealt with 19th century Democrats and Woodrow Wilson: https://louisproyect.org/2016/11/14/did-the-democratic-party-ever-really-represent-the-working-class-part-one/

    The Lynd piece was “raw footage” for part two, an article I will be posting soon on FDR. Right now I am reading Ahmed White’s “The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America”, a book I can’t recommend highly enough. This was the strike that inspired FDR to say “a plague on both your houses” after a police riot in Chicago killed 10 and wounded 100 steelworkers and their supporters who were peacefully protesting.

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