Episode 11 (Segment 2): Socialism and the Communist Party

Episode 11 (Segment 2): Socialism and the Communist Party


Class unity presented a major threat to the elite because unity meant that the employers could not play the divide and conquer game, the political and economic establishment did little to stem the tide of ethnic backlash, and in many ways deliberately stirred it up by using a 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to steer up fear and hatred for Eastern Europeans and Russians fleeing the civil conflict. The ideals of the revolution brought workers party unity that cut across ethnic lines. The extent of the hostility can be seen in the following excerpt of Democracy Now! that aired on August 22, 2007. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed eighty years ago today in Boston, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-American anarchists who were arrested and accused of murder at the height of the post-Bolshevik Revolution Red Scare and debates over immigration quotas. After a notoriously prejudiced trial in 1920, they were sentenced to death by a judge who called them “anarchistic bastards.” Their execution is infamous around the world and came to symbolize the intolerance and injustice of the American establishment towards immigrants and radical dissenters. Protests against their execution rocked every major city around the world in the days leading up to their execution. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind is a new book that explores the lives and ideas of these two men and the enduring relevance of their trial. Bruce Watson is author of the new book. I spoke to him yesterday from Boston, where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed eighty years ago, and asked him to talk about the context of the United States in 1920. It was a very jittery time. It was supposed to be a time of peace, but, in fact, 1919 was a year of tumultuous strikes. There had just been a plague flu epidemic that had just ended. Of course, 100,000 soldiers, American soldiers, had died. And it was a very tumultuous year Ö And so, at midnight on June 2, 1919, eight bombs in eight cities went off all up and down the East Coast, in churches, in homes. In fact, one man blew himself up on the steps of the attorney generalís home, the attorney general of the United States, right across the street from where FDR was living at the time. Well, this set in motion a huge crackdown that later became known as the Palmer Raids. And hundreds of radicals were rounded up and deported. And right after that, as that was waning, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. It was right on the edge of that hysteria. And they were tried a year later, when some of that was still going on. Ö And both of them, however, began to labor in the American system that was very unfair to Italians at the time. They were on the very bottom of the ladder. They were doing the most menial jobs ó Vanzetti, in particular. He worked as a dishwasher in a totally slimy kitchen at a very rich restaurant. He worked loading bricks and building dams and just the absolute most menial labor, spent a lot of time homeless living on the street. Sacco had a little bit better life. He worked as a shoe trimmer. He took a course and learned ó an apprenticeship and learned to be an apprentice shoe trimmer in the Boston area, where there are a lot of shoe factories, and he actually made pretty good money. But Vanzetti was not in that situation at all. Both men came to anarchism in around 1912 or í13. And anarchism was a creed at that time, widespread among Italian immigrants. You have to remember these are people who came over and had an American dream. They felt that this was going to be the land of plenty, and they saw quite the opposite. They were discriminated against. They were beaten down. They were denied jobs. Cops often arrested them. And they were drawn to this creed of Italian anarchism. Italian anarchists in those days would tour the country to speak to Italian immigrants, and they would sing. Some of them would sing songs, and they accompanied themselves on the mandolin. They were dodging police. They cut a very romantic figure that appealed to Sacco and Vanzetti and many other immigrants. Anarchism is basically the belief that someday humanity will come to the point where they wonít need a government. Italians, of course, had had nothing but an oppressive government, as far as they could remember, and they couldnít imagine a government of the people, by the people, for the people that would actually work for the people. All they knew was a government that oppressed and hounded and spied on people, etc. So they hoped, they dreamed that someday there would be no government, no need for a government. Ö And seated at the trial is ó seated at the bench is a man named Judge Webster Thayer, an absolute devout hater of anarchists. Heís a super patriot. He has sworn ó he said many times heís desperately afraid of the anarchist doctrine, of the Red Scare, the Red Doctrine. Heís sworn that heís going to do anything he can to stop anarchism from taking over. Ö And so, it went ahead just after midnight on this night. First Sacco and then Vanzetti were led to the chair and given 2,000 volts and carried out. Ö And the response around the world? Ö And around the world, there were protests, there were riots. The people threw ó uprooted lampposts in Paris, threw them through plate-glass windows. They attacked embassies. The Moulin Rouge was damaged. In Geneva, people took it out on American targets. They targeted stores selling Lucky Strike cigarettes and theaters showing Douglas Fairbanks films. There were strikes all over South America, shut down transportation. The American flag was burned on the steps of the American embassy in Johannesburg. The riots went on. Three people were killed in riots in Germany. The riots went on for a few days, and then finally they stopped. And Sacco and Vanzetti ó the funeral in Boston attracted 200,000 people that marched through the streets of Boston to the cemetery where they were cremated. It’s on this stage that A. Philip Randolph stepped onto the scene. In a clear departure with WEB Du Bois and the NAACP, Randolph opposed involvement in World War I. He also clearly recognized that it was in the interest of the economic elite to stir up racial and ethnic tension so that one group can be played against the other. He wrote, “When no profits are to be made from race friction no one will longer be interested in stirring up race prejudice.” To that end he began an uphill battle to gain recognition for the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters union in the American Federation of Labor. The Pullman Palace car Company was the largest single employer of black people. It catered to affluent whites who were accustomed to seeing African Americans as servants and serving in menial roles. While the $67 average monthly pay which amounted to up to $300 with tips was relatively high compared to other types of employment open to African Americans, it did come at a price. African American porters were constantly deluged with insults and racial epithets from their white patrons. Like house servants, they were on call 24 hours a day. Time spent preparing the car and assisting passengers, which could take anywhere from one to five hours was considered off the clock and uncompensated. Additionally, porters had to pay out of pocket for shoe polish and other work related materials. They had to buy their own meals, pay for their own lodging at stopovers, and buy two uniforms a year-expenses that ate up nearly half of their monthly salary. Although many African Americans enjoyed a middle-class income, they were still paid less than white workers who were doing the same job. Here again, here itís easy to see the threat to white workers. Having a labor force that was willing to do the same job for less money should have made clear to white workers that an interracial union organizing for equal pay and benefits would improve conditions for African Americans while at the same time protecting white workers from being undercut by cheaper African American labor. Nevertheless, it took a decade for the AFL to pull it’s head out and issue a charter to the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters formally granting it recognition as a union in 1935. Like socialism, communists sought to set aside racial differences in favor of a class-based solution to economic exploitation. The Communist Party recognized that African Americans, women, and poor whites shared a similar condition as exploited members of the working class and that racism and ethnic division were the primary barriers addressing that exploitation. That is the reason why from the outset, the Communist Party sought to eliminate racial chauvinism from its ranks. They did so by elevating African Americans like Cyril Briggs to key leadership positions within the party who openly advocated alliance with working class whites. Both Briggs and the Communist Party recognized that racism had to be rooted out of the white working class so that an alliance could be forged based on common interest. To address the primary barrier to working class unity, racism, the Communist Party was vigorous in eliminating racist members from its ranks — almost to a fault. At one point the expulsion of antiracist members began to resemble a witchhunt in which if a party member wanted another member expelled all they had to do is accuse them of racism. The Communist Party leadership would hold hearings putting the accused racist in the difficult position of proving that they are not racist. What does one say to that? I have friends who are black? The main difference between the communists and the socialists was that socialists like A. Philip Randolph sought to work within United States institutions such as the American Federation of Labor, and as a result, he was bound by the constructs of race relations in the United States. The Communist Party was an international organization headquartered in the Soviet Union. The differences between the Communist Party and the socialists may seem subtle but they were enough to keep the two groups from effectively working together. A. Philip Randolph didn’t particularly like the idea of giving up control to an international organization — he believed that control and leadership should be from within the United States. Obviously, the limitations on working within US institutions are similar to those at the NAACP faced in that they were often hostile to issues of racial and social justice. Many African Americans who joined the Communist Party did so recognizing that central weakness, but many more who are sympathetic to the left-wing ideals of the Communist Party did not join — why? To many African Americans the Communist Party was too stigmatized to be associated with. After all, African Americans were already the targets of racism, discrimination, and violence. Why associate with an organization that would place another target on your back. Therefore, along with plain racism which was a formidable obstacle to class unity, both communism and socialism carried the stigma of being considered un-American, and those are the primary limitations of both approaches.

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