Home

Overview of American Left

Related sites

Contact Us

Access to the Online Content

Access to the digitized content from the American Left Ephemera Collection, held by the Archives Service Center, can be found in the finding aid to the collection, specifically the Collection Inventory. After following the link, select a subject category of interest from the list on the left, or scroll down the page to access digitized material from all categories.

The following brief essays describe each category of content and were written by Dr. Richard J. Oestreicher, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh.


  African Americans and the Left

I. African Americans and the Left

This series focuses on the role African Americans played in leftist movements and on left wing support for campaigns against racist practices and for Black civil rights, including the major role Communism played in the Civil Rights Movement before the 1950s, and influence of Black Liberation on the New Left. While the Socialist Party gave nominal rhetorical support to racial equality, most Socialist Party leaders considered racial discrimination (or gender, ethnic, or religious discrimination) as distinctly secondary to the class struggle, and a significant minority within the Party harbored racist views. Blacks folks suffered, SP leaders argued, primarily because their labor was exploited and that would only be solved by socialism.

Show / Hide More Information

Communists, in contrast, stressed the importance of racial discrimination, saw combatting racism as a prerequisite to progress on all other issues, and insisted on individual personal commitment to antiracism as a non-negotiable part of adherence to Party discipline. While advocacy by Black activists contributed to this posture, it resulted primarily from positions developed within the Communist International (Comintern) and pushed by key Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Stalin. Communists considered the problems of African-Americans as a special case of what they called the “national question,” that is the national aspirations of ethnic groups and peoples suffering discrimination and denial of rights because of their domination within colonial empires or within multi-ethnic European Empires such as the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. Communist concern with the national question derived mainly from two influences. First, the Soviet state incorporated the many discontented national groups of the Russian Empire forcing Soviet leaders to develop a national policy. They responded by creating a series of nominally independent ethnic republics or autonomous regions and reinventing the state as a theoretically egalitarian union of these republics. Second, Communists considered the massive popular discontent of colonial peoples as the Achilles heel of world capitalism and a great political opportunity to expand their global influence. Soviet and Comintern efforts attracted the attention of many prominent anticolonial leaders including a group of Black intellectuals who developed to develop the ideal and program of Pan-Africanism. While many Pan-Africanists eventually became disillusioned with Communism, this overlap between Communism and Pan-Africanism had enduring influence on Black nationalists within the United States into the 1960s even after the CPUSA ceased to be an even minimally viable organization.

New Left concern with civil rights and Black liberation derived first from the inspirational role of the Civil Rights movement, and second from the way the US participation in the War in Vietnam made activists aware of the problems of colonialism, imperialism, and relationships between developed and underdeveloped countries. New Leftists, inspired by Pan-Africanism (in some cases without full awareness of the history of these formulations) tended to think of African-Americans as a colonial people marooned within in the imperialist metropole.



  Anarchists

II. Anarchists

Several waves of anarchists participated in left-wing movements in the U.S., sometimes in tension with the Marxists who led the SPUSA, the CPUSA, and other left-wing organizations. From the late 1800s through the 1930s anarcho-communists predominated in anarchist circles. Like Marxists they considered private capital ownership inherently exploitative, but since they considered all authority illegitimate they criticized Marxists’ commitment to state ownership of the means of production. Other tendencies including syndicalism, communitarianism, and individualist libertarianism also influenced anarchist thought and practice.

Show / Hide More Information

Anarchist influence declined after the 1920s but small circles persisted not only preserving the anarchist tradition, but also developing new ideas that would become influential with the rebirth of anarchism in the 1960s. More recently many young anarchists seeking intellectual inspiration have gravitated toward anarchism in part because of the perceived intellectual and moral exhaustion of the Marxist tradition.

Although the collection includes examples from all of these waves of anarchism, anarchist materials are under-represented in the American Left Ephemera Collection because they could not match the resources of organizations like the SPUSA or CPUSA or even the Trotskyist parties so nearly all the material they produced appeared in very small numbers and has not been widely preserved.



  Anti-War Propaganda

III. Anti-War Propaganda

Four waves of peace and antiwar activity played major roles within the twentieth century American Left. First Socialists before and during WW1 opposed military preparation and American participation in the war after 1917. In the 1930s revulsion against the memory of WW1 and fear that the world was drifting towards an even more devastating world war fueled large scale antiwar and peace agitation. Antiwar activity overlapped with antifascism (as in the title of one of the largest organizations—The League Against War and Fascism) because activists perceived the militarized fascist right as the primary source of war threats. College students played a key role in the movement circulating mass petitions urging draft refusal and staging several one day national strikes for peace.

Show / Hide More Information

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the biggest focus of peace agitation was nuclear disarmament, but by the late 1960s opposition to the War in Vietnam predominated. Peace and antiwar agitation continued through subsequent decades but never reached the levels of mass support of these earlier waves. Communists also campaigned actively for peace in the late 1940s and 1950s and opposed US participation in the Korean War, but they did not generate mass support because most Americans, including those who also opposed the Korean War, believed that Communist antiwar efforts were motivated by support for Soviet national interests rather than a more general commitment to peace.

The American Left Ephemera collection includes items from of all of these eras. Communist material from the Cold War and Korean War are overrepresented, compared to the support they actually commanded, because even as the Party declined, it still had sufficient resources to support substantial publication of its materials.



  Christian Socialism

IV. Christian Socialism

Both the Marxist and anarchist traditions usually opposed religion because they conceived of rationalism as the only path to human liberation. Religion, they argued, befuddled the masses in two ways. First, by basing itself on the supernatural, religion encouraged irrational thinking and discouraged the masses from developing rational capacities. Second, by promising rewards in a future life for dutiful behavior in this life, religion encouraged passivity and discouraged protest. However, these arguments ignored how radical social movements had been inspired by egalitarian elements in Judeo-Christian theology from the peasant wars of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance mobilized by dissenting Protestants and heretical Catholics to the radical wing of the English civil war inspired by radical Christian sects to the abolitionist movement in which evangelical Christians had played an overwhelming role.

Show / Hide More Information

Two significant cohorts of Christian Socialists operated within the orbit of the major left-wing movements from the 1890s through the 1960s: Protestants influenced by Social Gospel Protestantism and Catholics influenced by liberation theology. Both argued that the moral visions of socialism and Christianity overlapped and that you could not be a true Christian in the modern world unless you committed yourself to social and economic justice. The first group formed a Christian Socialist Fellowship affiliated with the Socialist Party that published The Christian Socialist and encouraged ministers to seek Socialist Party nominations for public office. Some of the most prominent Socialist politicians were ministers and members of the Christian Socialist Fellowship including George R. Lunn, mayor of Schenectady, N.Y. and J. Stitt Wilson, mayor of Berkeley, Ca.

While several individual Catholic priests also supported the Socialist Party and the IWW, they faced concerted opposition from an overwhelmingly anti-socialist church hierarchy. Catholic support for the left expanded in the 1930s when Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement garnered support not only among lay Catholics but also among some members of the Church hierarchy. Both the rise of the CIO and the emergence of the Popular Front in the late 1930s offered more political space for radical Catholics. The former involved massive strikes and protests by industrial workers who were disproportionately Catholic and expected Church validation for their actions. The Popular Front made collaboration between religious and non-religious agitators less problematic because the Communists toned down their inflammatory rhetoric and actively sought alliance with anyone who would work with them.

By the 1960s liberation theology had become a mass movement in Latin America and radical Catholics could take prominent roles in both the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement without fearing retaliation from the Church. Religion also, perhaps, fit in with 1960s protest because of protestors’ widespread interest in mysticism and spirituality.



  Citizens Party

V. Citizens Party

Dissatisfaction with the Carter administration led a diverse array of activists to form the Citizen’s Party in 1980 around a program combining environmentalism with calls for “economic democracy.” The party nominated environmentalist Barry Commoner for president. Commoner’s candidacy initially attracted both press coverage and endorsements by several prominent labor leaders and liberal Democratic elected officials, but the campaign was not well-organized and many initial supporters ending up voting for Carter out of fear of a Reagan victory. Commoner received only 221,000 votes. A handful of party candidates won local offices in 1980 and after, but the 1984 Citizen’s Party presidential candidate, Sonia Johnson, received less than a third of Commoner’s total (72,000) and the party disbanded. In Pennsylvania the Citizen’s Party achieved ballot status in the Consumer Party’s (a previously existing Philadelphia based) third party line.



  Communists and Civil Liberties

VI. Communists and Civil Liberties

Communists and their supporters issued most of the items in this section during the period following World War II when the Federal Government, several state governments, and numerous private organizations began systematic surveillance, prosecution, and harassment of Communist Party members, close fellow travelers, and former Communists suspected of still harboring sympathy for communism. While many observers call this the McCarthy Era, after Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who garnered substantial publicity for his speeches asserting the threat of a Communist conspiracy within the Federal government, the repression began well before McCarthy’s first major speech on the question in 1950 and continued well after his censure for procedural excesses in 1954.

Show / Hide More Information

Federal prosecutors used three legal strategies to pursue Communists: indictment under the 1941 Smith Act (which made it a crime to conspire to advocate overthrow of the government—a legal subterfuge designed to find a way around Bill of Rights protections for speech and association); actions to revoke citizenship and deport foreign born Communists (under clauses of the immigration laws that made advocacy of violent overthrow of the government grounds for denying or revoking citizenship), and prosecution for failing to fulfill the demands of several Federal laws that required Communists and Communist front groups to register as agents of a foreign power (which, if carried out, opened those who did so to other prosecutions). In addition widespread hearings on Un-Americanism threatened those called to testify with a legal double threat. Much of the public viewed pleading the Fifth Amendment equivalent to a guilty plea, and employers frequently fired individuals who did so. But individuals who answered any question forfeited rights to refuse to answer any subsequent question and faced indictment and imprisonment for contempt of Congress if they did so. Both state and Federal governments also instituted loyalty oaths as conditions of public employment. Employees who refused to sign would be dismissed. Those who did so but were subsequently revealed to be Communists could be indicted for perjury. Private employers supplemented prosecution by denying employment to individuals known or suspected of Communist membership or sympathy. While the blacklist in the entertainment industry has been the most closely studied part of this phenomenon, the FBI routinely informed all major employers of suspected individuals employed by their firms and most employers fired such people. The FBI also released the names and addresses of suspected Communists to daily newspapers that subsequently published the lists. Individuals whose names appeared faced not only loss of employment, but also social ostracism, physical attack, and vandalism to their homes and automobiles.

Communists used three primary rhetorical approaches to seek public support in their battles against prosecution and harassment. First, they argued that their espousal of revolution was open and public, not conspiratorial, and purely rhetorical. Indeed, they vigorously opposed individual acts of violence, such as the bombings as “propaganda of the deed” advocated by some anarchists. None of the indictments against them, they pointed out, cited any specific violent acts. Second, they argued that they were a legitimate political party, functionally equivalent to the Democratic and Republican Parties. Finally they argued that harassment of Communists for their controversial views threatened the civil liberties of all Americans and stifled public discussion and thought. The first two defenses were probably valid descriptions of the frame of mind and intentions of the bulk of rank and file Communists, but prosecutors had no trouble demonstrating that Communist propaganda had frequently advocated violent revolution in the past and the necessity of revolutionary violence was a central contention of core Marxist-Leninist texts. Moreover, prosecutors had evidence (though they sometimes hesitated to present it in open court for fear of revealing details of the intelligence apparatus) that Party leaders and dozens of Party members had participated in Soviet espionage. The Communists’ third argument—that anticommunist repression stifled civil liberties and public discourse for non-Communists was true—but Communists found that liberals who they expected to support their defense on such grounds frequently refused to do so not only because of fear that they too would thereby invite harassment on themselves, but also because the Communists’ long history of sudden shifts in their public positions and vitriolic sectarian denunciations of political competitors had fundamentally undermined Communists’ credibility.



  Communist Party USA (CPUSA)

VI. Communist Party USA (CPUSA)

The Communist Party U.S.A., successor to the multiple left-wing factions that split off from the Socialist Party U.S.A. at its 1919 convention, did not develop significant influence until the mid-1930s. While they initially commanded at least nominal support of perhaps 70,000 of the SPUSA’s 110,000 members, that support drifted away as the rival Communist factions operated as secret undergrounds and refused to cooperate. The Comintern pressured them to combine into as an open political party, the Workers Party of America, in 1922, but they maintained a dual underground structure for several years thereafter, and continued factional squabbles. Ultimately the Party only achieved working unity between 1927 and 1929 by expelling the significant portions of the leadership who identified with Stalin’s factional rivals in the Soviet Party. The Party, thus, entered the Depression unified but isolated with a membership not much bigger than 10% of the combined membership of the 1919 Communist factions. Their dependence on Soviet intervention to settle disputes shaped the Party’s subsequent political culture. While all Communist Parties had to adhere to Comintern policy as a condition of membership, the CPUSA usually maintained less independence from Soviet direction than many other Communist parties.

Show / Hide More Information

American Communists expanded their influence in the 1930s by energetic agitation for the unemployed, industrial unions, civil rights, and antifascism, especially after the shift in Comintern policy from the highly sectarian ultra-revolutionary Third Period (1927-1935) to the antifascist alliance of the Popular Front (1935-39). By 1939 they had about 75,000 members and several hundred thousand fellow travelers. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 undermined their political credibility, especially among their not insubstantial base among intellectuals and cultural producers. During the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union they regained lost membership but not the level of moral authority they had enjoyed in some circles during the Popular Front. Perhaps that is why they were so quickly politically isolated at the beginning of the Cold War. However, despite the travails of McCarthyism, the Party maintained at least a third of it peak membership until the Khrushchev speech on ”the crimes of the Stalin era” at the 1956 20th Soviet Party Congress. After a brief unsuccessful attempt to reinvent the Party around democratic socialism, veteran members fled leaving an aging vestige of probably less than 5,000 active members (although they claimed more) by the late 1950s.

Throughout the Party’s history, the CPUSA sought to expand its influence by organizing and participating in a broad array of single issue organizations. Some were genuine mass movements with handfuls of Communists amidst tens or even hundreds of thousand of members. Others were Potemkin villages with little more than an office and impressive looking letterhead. Typically Party members filled important leadership slots in such organizations and Party members exercised influence beyond their numbers because of their energy and their policy of acting as a disciplined voting bloc. Both Communists and their critics referred to such organizations as front organizations, although for Communists the usage reflected their notions of “united front’ while for critics the word evoked “false front’ as in a Hollywood movie set. For simplicity, I decided to group many publications by such front organizations in the same section with publications and other ephemera produced by the Party itself. This is not intended as an editorial position on the nature of such front organizations.



  Ethnic Radicalism

VIII. Ethnic Radicalism

Immigrant radicals carried left wing politics to the U.S. in their cultural baggage. They settled in American ethnic communities and continuing organizing and agitating, gaining traction among fellow ethnics for two reasons. First, many immigrants still followed old country politics both for emotional reasons and because they frequently intended to return home after a sojourn in America. Especially for immigrants from countries where the Left expanded rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the strength of left-wing organizations in their homelands gave left-wing politics credibility despite the weaknesses of the Left in the U.S. Second, ethnic discrimination and deplorable living and working conditions disillusioned and radicalized some immigrant who had come to the U.S. with grandiose expectations of their prospects in Golden America.

Show / Hide More Information

Ethnic radicals maintained cultural influence and organizational stability by creating and controlling three types of institutions: newspapers, ethnic sections of left-wing parties, and fraternal and mutual insurance societies. Left-wing newspapers and magazines published in immigrants’ native languages often had readerships many times larger than ethnic party memberships or voting totals. Ethnic restaurants, bars, breweries, shops, funeral parlors advertised in their pages. Clubs announced their meetings. Newspaper offices functioned as focis of political activity. Hundreds of such publication supported the SPUSA, the CPUSA, and the anarchist movement. Socialist Party locals and later Communist locals in ethnic neighborhoods frequently included a preponderance of members from a non-English speaking ethnic group and conducted local business in that language. The Socialist Party recognized and accommodated this tendency by allowing these ethnically based locals to amalgamate into national foreign language federations within the Socialist Party. The foreign language federations gradually increased their influence within the SPUSA, especially after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution inspired many Eastern European immigrants. Some of them, most notably the Finnish Socialist Federation, went over to the incipient American Communist movement almost en masse. Indeed, the Finns represented 40% of the CP’s membership in 1924 and its most dependable base of financial support. In the late 1920s, however, as part of the policy of Bolshevization of the CPUSA (e.g. Stalinization), the Party disbanded much of its ethnically based organizational apparatus.

Ethnic radicalism continued to flourish within the Communist orbit, especially during the Popular Front period within the traditional third leg of ethnic radicalism: fraternal and mutual insurance associations. Ethnic fraternal and mutual insurance associations offered secular alternatives to church-based ethnic community activities and sold cheap insurance benefits to working-class families who could not afford the premiums of conventional commercial insurance. Leftist exercised a disproportionate influence in ethnic fraternal life in many nationalities (e.g. Finns, Eastern European, Jews, Croatians, Slovaks). Among the most successful was the Jewish Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle). In 1929 Communists within the AR, in keeping with sectarian Third Period Comintern policies split off to form an explicitly Communist and revolutionary alternative, the IWO, International Workers Order. The IWO began with probably less than 5,000 members but expanded rapidly during the Popular Front period reaching a peak membership of over 200,000 in the mid-1940s and expanding its ethnic representation to many other nationalities beyond the original Jewish base.



  Feminism, Gay and Lesbian

IX. Feminism, Gay and Lesbian

The sexual and gender politics of leaders of the Old Left generally did not stray very far from conventional bourgeois norms, but their movements nonetheless offered political space for feminists and radical critics of the gender system. The dominant position within both the SPUSA and the CPUSA viewed the “Women Question” as a special case of the Class Question. Capitalism fostered discrimination against women as a way of maintaining a subservient reserve army of labor that could be used to divide workers and lower wages. Only socialism would solve the Women Question. Both parties officially supported equal rights for women and opposed gender discrimination, but top leaders rarely gave these issues priority.

Show / Hide More Information

Nonetheless, both parties offered political space for female activists concerned with gender issues and for thinkers with more penetrating critiques of the gender system than the standard Party orthodoxies. Women with organizational skills, oratorical flair, or literary talents gained visibility and political capital within these Parties as well as access to wider networks of political influence. Both the SPUSA and CPUSA published writings on gender issues that anticipated arguments more generally associated with post 1960s radical feminism.

Gender issues and critiques of the gender system became much more visible in the New Left than the Old. In part, that reflected the New Left’s greater emphasis on personal liberation and quality of life issues. In part, it reflected wider social changes that had started to undermine older gender norms and empowered women (globally as well as in the US)—declining birth rates and increased access to birth control; increased female labor force participation; increased female access to education.

This greater visibility of political critiques of the gender system also facilitated the emergence of radical movements among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender sexual minorities. The Old Left rarely addressed questions of sexual identity or the oppression of sexual minorities. Neither the Socialist nor the Communist Party questioned heterosexual orthodoxy, although some anarchists did so occasionally. Some ex-Communists did play notable roles in the early stages of the Gay Rights movement such as several of the founders of the Mattachine Society. But the surge of radical feminism within the New Left encouraged far greater militancy and political visibility among LGBT activists.



  Labor

X. Labor

The SPUSA and the CPUSA, like virtually all left-wing organizations that considered themselves Marxist, described themselves as parties of the working class although significant portions of their membership were intellectuals, professionals, small business owners and farmers. Indeed, Trotsky, during his brief sojourn in NYC before the Bolshevik Revolution, is alleged to have described the American Socialist Party as a party of dentists and lawyers.

Show / Hide More Information

Since their theory told them that the working class was the agent of historical change, both parties considered participation in the daily workplace struggles of industrial workers as one of their highest political priorities. However, neither party reached consensus on how to relate to the labor movement. Both parties recruited nationally prominent labor organizers and trade union officials (e.g. Eugene Debs, William Z. Foster) as well as significant cohorts of local union officials and labor activists. But the majority of AFL (American Federation of Labor) unions subscribed to Samuel Gompers’ strategy of “pure and simple unionism” emphasizing short range limited goals such as wages, hours and working conditions and eschewing advocacy of utopian societal reconstruction such as socialism. Socialists and other radicals critical of the AFL organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905 as a revolutionary alternative, but many Socialists considered the IWW a sectarian and schismatic division of working class solidarity. Debates over how the Socialist Party should relate to the AFL or the IWW became one of the most important sources of the factional conflict that undermined the SPUSA.

Similar debates bedeviled the CPUSA. The Party shifted back and forth from a policy of “boring from within” the AFL to a policy of attacking the AFL and sponsoring rival revolutionary unions. Generally these shifts in CP trade union policies corresponded with shifts to the left or right in the Comintern line. In the years immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, American Communists devoted considerable energy to recruiting the IWW to the Communist movement. As the worldwide revolutionary wave crested without successful revolutions anywhere but the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders sought to consolidate their power and to convince their followers around the world to settle in for a long period of inconclusive political struggle. They urged American Communists to abandon notions of pure revolutionary unions and seek to garner influence within the AFL instead. William Z. Foster, by far the most prominent labor leader in the CPUSA, had organized the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) for labor radicals in the AFL in 1920, and in 1922 the CPUSA and the Comintern adopted and subsidized the TUEL.

However, during the Third Period (1928-1935) as the Comintern dictated labor policies of pure revolutionary unionism, the CPUSA disbanded the TUEL and organized instead the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) as a federation of revolutionary Communist unions organized as rivals to AFL unions. With the shift to the Popular Front in 1935, the CPUSA shifted back to engagement with the mainstream labor movement. Fortuitously, this shift corresponded with the appearance of the CIO in 1935. Communists devoted themselves to the CIO and played critical roles in organizing many of the CIO’s most important unions. Their dedication to the CIO earned them the regard of many trade unionists who did not necessarily agree with Communist ideology. The political capital Communists earned within the CIO was probably the most important source of the Party’s influence in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The New Left also had difficulty deciding how to relate to the labor movement. As a middle class movement and as a movement that arose out of disappointment with the Old Left, many early New Leftists doubted Marxist formulations about the historic mission of the working class and tended to view labor union officials as part of the Establishment, e.g. part of the problem more than the solution. On the other hand, as New Leftists moved off campus to engage in civil rights campaigns or community organizing, many began to appreciate both the skills and dedication of veteran labor union activists. This shift in point of view was encouraged by small schismatic Old Left parties such as the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL), both of which had surprisingly large influence within the leading New Left student organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during SDS’s final years. Also, as increasing numbers of student activists graduated from universities they looked for meaningful strategies to continue radical political activity. A variety of New left offshoots, as well as such Old Left parties as the SWP and PL, encouraged them to take jobs in factories, coal mines, and trucking companies. Several thousand former SDS’s did so.



  Leftist Organizations Thought in Relation to the Rest of the World and U.S. Economics/Imperialism

XI. Leftist Organizations Thought in Relation to the Rest of the World and U.S. Economics/Imperialism

Although they organized nationally based political parties, all of the Marxist parties considered themselves internationalists rather than nationalists. The SPUSA expressed this internationalism through its affiliation with the Socialist Second International. For the CPUSA its affiliation with the Communist Third International was even more fundamental to Party identity because the Comintern functioned in part as a franchising organization. The right of revolutionary activists anywhere in the world to call themselves Communist was contingent on their willingness to follow the discipline and policies of the Comintern. Therefore, not surprisingly both the SPUSA and the CPUSA paid close attention to events in many parts of the world and frequently circulated radical publications and pamphlets from other countries. Although New left organizations did not formally affiliate with bodies like the Second and Third Internationals, because the Vietnam War and more broadly Third World Revolution fundamentally shaped the New Left, New Left publications also addressed a wide range of international concerns and global issues.



  New Left Organizations

XII. New Left Organizations

In contrast to the Old Left, the New Left did not feature tightly knit organizations with bureaucratic structures, disciplined policy formation, strategic planning, or even something as simple as formal membership lists. Instead “the Movement,” as participants frequently called it, consisted of a wildly fluctuating body of free-floating activists united by a common political style and sensibility. This section of the American Left Ephemera collection includes ephemera produced by a broad range of single issue organizations, short-lived local organizing committees, ad hoc groups, and underground newspapers. Also included here are publications of the Radical Education Project, a New Left publishing cooperative—loosely affiliated with SDS-- located in Ann Arbor and later Detroit, Michigan; and portions of the National Guardian, an Old Left newspaper founded by fellow travelers in 1948 that made a transition to New Left orientation in the 1960s.



  Other Radical/Leftist Organizations

XIII. Other Radical/Leftist Organizations

Basically this section of the collection is catch all for a variety of material does not fit obviously into other categories or includes too few items to merit an entire section of its own.

Lovestoneites

In 1929 the CPUSA expelled former Party General Secretary Jay Lovestone and a substantial group of followers including Benjamin Gitlow, the CP’S 1924 and 1928 VP candidate. The Lovestone group supported the Soviet faction aligned with Nicholai Bukharin and opposed Comintern Third Period polices which they considered (correctly) sectarian and impractical. Initially the Lovestone group considered itself a loyal opposition to the officially recognized leadership of the CPUSA, but gradually developed a separate organizational identity. Although the group’s membership never exceeded a few hundred, it had more influence than might be expected both because officials in several unions respected the advice of prominent Lovestoneites and because the group included several important public intellectuals. Lovestone went on to a career as an activist against Communist influence in the labor movement, both domestic and foreign, and an advisor to portions of the U.S. national security apparatus concerned about that issue.



  Popular Front Culture

XIV. Popular Front Culture

The Popular Front grew out of the mutual recognition of Communists and non-Communist leftists in the mid-1930s that they needed to join forces against the threat of fascism. Formalization of this recognition included the 1935 shift in the Comintern line from Third Period policies that had mandated that Communists attack others on the Left as “social fascists” to Popular Front policies for a united front of the Left, and the electoral alliances that led to victories in 1936 elections in France and Spain.

Show / Hide More Information

In the US, the Popular Front functioned like the left wing of the New Deal. It drew support disproportionately from ethnics and racial minorities—e.g. immigrants and their children of Eastern and Southern European heritage, especially Eastern European Jews, and African Americans and Mexican-Americans. Popular Fronters championed the CIO, supported the Spanish Republic and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and campaigned for racial equality. It was also a cultural movement as well as a political movement featuring a left-patriotic ethos and a set of stylistic preferences including topical songs in a folk motif, populist paintings inspired by the example of the Mexican muralists, agit-prop Brechtian theater, and social realist literature. A startling array of cultural producers who were either already famous or would later become so participated in Popular Front culture.



  Progressive Party

XV. Progressive Party

Former Vice President Henry Wallace ran for President on a third party Progressive ticket in 1948. The Progressive Party emphasized three themes: opposition to Cold War policies, expansion of New Deal reform towards something closer to European social democracy, and racial equality. Serious discussion of a possible left third party began in 1946. In its earliest stages this movement drew support from a broad array of New Dealers, officials and activists in state third parties such as the New York American Labor Party, the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party, or the Washington Commonwealth Federation (more of a faction in the Washington State Democratic Party than a third party), CIO officials, and left-wing intellectuals.

Show / Hide More Information

The Communists, at first, were not enthusiastic both because the Progressive Party might be a competitor on the Left and because the international Communist line was shifting toward a more sectarian posture less welcoming of united fronts. But, as the Cold War heated up, the Progressives’ anti-Cold War posture caused the CP to shift toward enthusiastic support for the Progressive Party. However, the CP’s active engagement with the Progressive Party undermined much of its non-Communist support. Wallace’s disappointing 1948 popular vote--barely more than 2% after initial projections of perhaps 10 to 20%--further discouraged those non-Communists who had stuck with the organization. The Party faltered on through the 1952 campaign, but was justifiably viewed by most non-Communist observers as little more than a Communist front.



  Socialist Labor Party (SLP)

XVI. Socialist Labor Party (SLP)

The Socialist Labor Party began in 1876 as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, renamed the Socialistic Labor Party in 1877. A tiny remnant survives today.

Its only notable successes occurred in the years immediately after the 1877 railroad strike near the end of the bitter 1870s depression. The railroad strike had been as much a popular insurrection as a conventional strike. Fueled both by the anger that had provoked this insurrection and the sense of empowerment that it had kindled, significant numbers of U.S. workers turned to third party protest voting between 1877 and 1880. Most of those protest votes went to the Greenback-Labor Party, but the SLP drew substantial votes and elected local officials and state legislators in many Midwestern cities with substantial German immigrant populations.

Show / Hide More Information

The Party faded badly in the early 1880s because of a split between Marxists and anarchists, an upswing in the economy, and the rise of the Knights of Labor, a more credible organizational home for working-class activists than the SLP. In the early 1890s a charismatic intellectual, Daniel De Leon, took over leadership of what was left of the party. Although De Leon was an original thinker—Lenin praised him as the only American to make noteworthy contribution to Marxist theory—he was a terrible organizer, so irascible and dogmatic that he repeatedly drove people away from the organization.

Despite De Leon’s flaws the Party expanded in the 1890s benefitting from another Depression beginning in 1893, the surge of political energy accompanying the Populist movement, and publicity surrounding the announcement that railroad union leader Eugene Debs had converted to socialism. Inevitably, however, these new recruits came into conflict with the De Leonites. They joined with other socialist factions to found the Socialist Party of the United States (SPUSA) in 1901. The new party quickly eclipsed the SLP.

De Leon and his followers had one more story to tell. They played a key role on the founding of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) in 1905. Inevitably De Leon had a falling out with others in the IWW leadership, and left the organization to form a rival IWW faction in 1908.



  Socialist Party USA (SPUSA)

XVII. Socialist Party USA (SPUSA)

Founded in 1901 by disgruntled members of the Socialist Labor Party and other Socialist factions, the party became the most electorally successful left-wing party in US history. It reached a peak membership of almost 120,000 in 1912 and again in 1919, and drew about 3% of the national popular vote in the elections of 1904, 1908, 1916, and 1920 and 6% in 1912. During these years the Party elected congressmen from New York City and Milwaukee, several dozen state legislators and perhaps as many as a thousand local officials including mayors of such major cities as Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Show / Hide More Information

As a result of the 1919 split within their ranks between the Party’s Old Guard and those that wanted the Party to join the emerging Communist movement and the effects of government repression, the Socialist Party collapsed in the early 1920s. The Party endorsed Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette in the 1924 presidential campaign and that endorsement masked the Party’s weakness. La Follette drew nearly 17% of the national popular vote. Moreover La Follette had failed to achieve Progressive Party ballot status in several large states and only appeared there as a Socialist. Socialists could thus claim enough of the La Follette vote as their own to argue that their 1924 totals compared favorably to the percentages they had received between 1904 and 1920. But in 1928 when Norman Thomas made the first of his six presidential runs the Socialist vote was down to 0.7%.

The depression appeared to revive the Socialist Party in the early 1930s. Thomas expanded his presidential vote percentage to 2.2% in 1932, and in 1934 the Party elected mayors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Reading, Pennsylvania. Thereafter the Party found itself caught between a rapidly expanding Communist Party on one side and a Democratic Party that shifted to the Left after 1934. A substantial portion of the Party membership and leadership, including David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, leaders of International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU), two of the Party’s bastions, argued that Socialists should endorse FDR in 1936. When the top Party leadership refused to consider this, they seceded forming a rival Social Democratic Federation that did endorse Roosevelt. Thomas’s vote fell to 0.4% in 1936. The Party continued to run candidates thereafter—up to the present—but rarely did much better than other tiny left-wing factions such as the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).



  Socialist Worker's Party (SWP)

XVIII. Socialist Worker's Party (SWP)

In 1928 the CPUSA expelled American Communists sympathetic to Leon Trotsky and his faction battling Joseph Stalin for control of the international Communist movement. They reconstituted themselves as the Communist League of America. Although a tiny group, estimated at perhaps 100 members, it included several prominent founders of American Communism (e.g. James Cannon) and some talented and energetic organizers. The group made contact with Trotsky sympathizers in other countries, established a journal, The Militant, and pursued an energetic propaganda campaign that led to modest expansion.

Show / Hide More Information

In 1934, the group entered the Socialist Party en masse, establishing a caucus within the SP. This strategy facilitated recruitment to the Trotskyist group but inevitably aggravated factionalism within the Socialist Party. In the summer of 1937, the SP began expelling Trotskyists. Those remaining left the SP and established the Socialist Workers Party in December 1937. While still a small group, they had expanded to more than 1000 members between 1928 and 1937, included a number of prominent intellectuals, and had somewhat more political prominence than might be expected from their numbers.

However the movement’s growth was repeatedly compromised by factional splits in which ideological disputes among the leadership promoted splits and formation of tiny rival organizations. In the most serious of these episodes, perhaps 40% of the SWP’s membership seceded to found the Worker’s Party lead by Max Shachtman.

By the 1960s, although the SWP still had not grown much larger than its peak membership before the Shachtmanite split it looked somewhat more significant. The collapse of the CPUSA after 1956 left the SWP as the most energetic and visible of the Old Left parties. Their endorsement of Malcolm X garnered some sympathy among Black radicals, and their support for the Cuban Revolution, such as their participation in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, also earned support among the emerging New Left generation. They likewise played a prominent role in the anti-Vietnam War movement helping to organize some of the largest demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and other major cities.

In the long run, however, none of this activity resulted in permanent expansion of the organization beyond the modest levels that had characterized it throughout its history.

Other Trotskyists

Despite its small numbers—a peak combined membership of no more than 3,000 in all of its tendencies--the American Trotskyist movement suffered from factionalism and splits throughout its history. That was probably a function of the movement’s ideological heritage and structure. While Socialist and Social Democratic Parties in the US and elsewhere also experienced factional conflict, except in the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, these did not generally produce organizational splits because the parties conceived of themselves as big tent electoral coalition parties, not unlike their bourgeois counterparts. The Trotskyists, in contrast, took from their Communist heritage Leninist notions of centralized and ideologically coherent parties that enforced correct line discipline on all members. But while the Communists had an institutional apparatus—the Comintern and its successors—to establish the terms and limits of orthodoxy, the Trotskyists had no such institutional counterpart. People who believed that establishing and adhering to a correct line was the sine qua non of worthwhile political activity thus had no alternative to splits when they decided that their parent organization had erred grievously in its ideological and strategic judgments.

The largest and most enduring American Trotskyist organization was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Other Trotskyist groups represented in the American Left Ephemera Collection include the Workers Party (followers of Max Shachtman), the Spartacist League (an offshoot of the Shachtmanites), and the Workers World Party (followers of ex-CP and ex-SWP member Sam Marcy).



  Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

XIX. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

SDS began as the student affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), an organization of Fabian minded Socialist intellectuals and labor union officials that published detailed policy statements on public issues from a Social Democratic point of view. The LID sponsored a Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) that had substantial membership at several colleges and universities in the Debs era, but by the late 1950s both the parent organization and the student wing had declined to tiny remnants. However, the student wing had picked up energetic organizers influenced by the emerging New Left. In 1960 they rename the organization Students for a Democratic Society, suggesting how they had been influenced by such New Left oriented thinkers as C. Wright Mills. Mills criticized what he called the “labor metaphysic” of the Old Left and urged young activists to pursue new ideas and new strategies. This began a process of estrangement from the parent organization over such issues as anti-communism and the Vietnam War. The ILD was militantly anti-Communist and supported U.S. policy in Vietnam. Most SDS members had scorn for Communism (at least of the capital "C" variety; some of them could reasonably be called small "c" communists), but they were anti-anti-Communist because they considered American anti-Communism as a paranoid crusade stifling creative thinking in the United States. SDS vigorously opposed U.S. policy in Vietnam. SDS did not formally break with the LID until 1965, but the mutual antagonism between the LID and SDS was quite evident several years before.

Show / Hide More Information

In its early years SDS was a tiny organization with only a few hundred members on a couple of dozen campuses. It was far smaller than the Student Peace Union, and indeed smaller than the youth organizations of Old Left parties like the CP and the SWP. But the organization began to attract attention after the publication of its Port Huron Statement in 1962 in which it criticized both sides in the Cold War, discussed how both failed to satisfy unfulfilled utopian longings, and advocated as its alternative what it called participatory democracy. SDS also attracted new members through its early collaboration with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its early opposition against the War in Vietnam. It expanded rapidly after its sponsorship of the first large demonstration against the War in Vietnam in April 1965.

By its final years SDS was the largest, indeed the only substantial, organization of the American New Left. How large is impossible to say, in part because SDS, as part of its ideology eschewed the formal bureaucratic apparatus of Old Left organizations. In theory you became a member of SDS by filling out a membership application with a small application fee and mailing it off to the national office in Chicago. In return you received a membership card and a subscription to the national organization’s newspaper, New Left Notes. But most people who considered themselves members of SDS never bothered to do that. Local chapters of SDS operated as wholly autonomous units. In practice an individual was a member of the local chapter if they showed up for meetings and participated in group events. No one had to show a membership card to vote in meetings. De facto membership fluctuated wildly. But by the end of the 1960s certainly several hundred thousand people had participated in events organized by SDS.

In its final years SDS was sharply divided by internal factions. One faction, affiliated with the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), advocated a strategy of a worker-student alliance, and hoped to steer SDS in an Old Left direction. They captured the remnants of the organization after the 1969 convention in which the factions split apart. A second group, harboring romantic fantasies of domestic armed insurrection, conceived of itself as the Americong (in the words of a Jefferson Starship song). They became the Weathermen who attracted considerable press attention despite numbers that never exceeded two or three hundred. A third faction, essentially defined only by its opposition to the other two, had even less staying power. Within a year of the 1969 convention none of the factions amounted to anything. Most of the membership drifted away from all of them in bewilderment.

This sad ending reflected a broader sense of strategic impasse among New Left activists. The antiwar movement staged many of the largest political demonstrations in American history, but the war raged on. Activists talked about participatory democracy and shouted “Power to the People!” but they were painfully aware that the larger public viewed student activists with hostility even as public opinion about the war was shifting. Factional conflict within radical movements was also stimulated by the penetration of the national security state into the movement. Political authorities were sufficiently worried by the revolutionary posturing of New Leftists and Black revolutionaries that they assigned thousands of agents to monitor and infiltrate activist groups. As part of the Federal government’s Cointelpro program, undercover agents were instructed to encourage internal conflict and factional division.



  Student Peace Union (SPU)

XX. Student Peace Union (SPU)

The Student Peace Union (SPU), founded in 1959, initially focused on nuclear disarmament but expanded to a broader range of peace issues including opposition to the war in Vietnam. Before the expansion of SDS in the mid-1960s the SPU was the largest organization of New left college students with a peak membership of perhaps 5,000. The organization was eclipsed by a combination of internal factional disputes and the rapid expansion of SDS after 1964. Most of the SPU material in the American Left Ephemera Collection came from the papers of a Philadelphia activist, Tom Barton.



  Utopian Socialism

XXI. Utopian Socialism

Since the 1820s small groups of socialist and anarchist reformers and revolutionaries had established model communities as essentially arguments by example. They hoped that the success of such communities would inspire others and silence critics who argued that communal or collective modes of social organization were contrary to human nature. Most failed in five years of less, but this did not dissuade later enthusiasts from trying again. The Llano Colony included among its sponsors prominent California Socialists including Job Harriman, the 1900 Socialist vice presidential candidate and 1911 Socialist Los Angeles mayoral candidate. After several years in Southern California, the group sold its California property and relocated to Louisiana where it survived longer than most such efforts. The counterculture of the late 1960s spawned a new wave of rural communes but few lasted any longer than those of earlier generations.


  Vietnam War

XXII. Vietnam War

Vietnamese Communists initiated armed struggle against the French colonialists in 1929. Although largely driven underground during the 1930s, they maintained armed militias that began to fight the Japanese military after the 1940 Japanese occupation. These became the seed for the army of the Viet Minh, The League for the Independence of Viet Nam, a Communist led organization that incorporated other nationalists. The Viet Minh did not attempt large scale engagements against the Japanese army but did have de facto control of parts of the countryside by 1945 when they staged an uprising in Hanoi a few weeks after the Japanese surrender in World War II. They declared a provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Show / Hide More Information

When the French attempted to reassert control in 1946 war ensued until their defeat at Dien Ben Phu in 1954. By the later stage of this French-Vietnamese War, French troops had essentially become a mercenary army for the U.S. Motivated by Cold War concerns of Communist advance in SE Asia U.S. policy makers decided to pay for most of the cost of the French military effort.

Under an armistice agreement the Viet Minh troops withdrew north of the 17th parallel and an international conference in Geneva negotiated peace accords and proposed a 1956 election to determine the government for Vietnam. The election was never held in part because the U.S. feared a Communist victory. Thereafter a Communist government controlled North Vietnam and a regime allied with the U.S. controlled South Vietnam.

The South Vietnamese government was controlled by unpopular elites, many of them Catholic and French speaking and viewed by some of their population as former collaborators with the French colonialists. Fighting broke out in the late 1950s between peasant veterans of the Viet Minh in South Vietnam and troops of the South Vietnamese government. Initially the North Vietnamese were reluctant to support the guerilla movement in the South, in part because of pressure from Soviet leaders seeking détente with the U.S., but the guerilla war escalated into full scale war between the governments of North and South Vietnam by the early 1960s.

Since 1956 the U.S. had provided the South Vietnamese government with arms and financial aid and small contingents of U.S. military advisors. As the war went badly for the South Vietnamese government, these commitments ratcheted steadily upward with the number of U.S. “advisors” reaching 16,000 by 1963.

By the following year the South Vietnamese government approached military collapse, and the Johnson administration decided on a full scale military commitment to prevent Communist victory in Vietnam. U.S. troops strength peaked at more than 500,000, augmented by the most massive commitment of airpower in global military history. The U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than all combatants had dropped during World War II.

The last U.S. troops withdrew in 1975. Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Vietnamese casualty figures are subject to debate, but the Vietnamese government claims more than one million Vietnamese military casualties and more than two million additional civilian casualties.

American Communists and some non-Communist peace activists occasionally published accounts critical of the US supported French war in Vietnam and the US support of the South Vietnamese government after 1956, but these attracted little notice before the escalation of US military involvement. Small demonstrations against the war occurred in 1963 and 1964, but the first large scale protest against US involvement in Vietnam was an anti war march in Washington sponsored by SDS in April 1965. Thereafter the scale and intensity of antiwar protest paralleled the expansion of US military action. The movement peaked in 1970 shortly after the Nixon administration admitted expanding US military action into neighboring Cambodia (such incursions had occurred before but on a smaller scale and not publicly acknowledged). For the first time since the beginning of the US military effort, a majority in national opinion polls declared the war a mistake and said the US should withdraw.

The long war in Vietnam fueled the expansion of the New Left in the United States more than any other cause or event. The anti-Vietnam War items in the collection were produced by a diverse array of national organizations and local ad hoc action groups. As expected, a majority of the material is from the period between 1967 though 1973.



 

 

This collection is hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library.