The Popular Front Didn’t Work
The Communist Party’s 1930s popular front strategy weakened the labor movement and empowered the Democratic Party.
A new left is emerging in the United States. The explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has now reached thirty thousand members, marks the rebirth of socialist politics and organization — one we have not seen since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, we have an opportunity to build a democratically organized, multi-tendency political organization capable of popularizing socialism and training thousands of new radicals as political militants. The DSA’s expansion over the past few months represents the first time in over forty years that the emergence of a mass socialist organization has become a real possibility. This revival demands new discussions of strategy.
In a recent essay, Joseph M. Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara, two leading DSA members, propose a strategy to once again make socialism a mass presence in the United States. All socialists should agree with much of their vision.
For one, we must be “at the forefront of the fight” for immediate reforms that challenge capitalist power and wealth — like the fight for single-payer health care — and we must work to build a public presence for American socialism. As they write:
Socialists not only have to be the most competent organizers in struggle, but they have to offer an analysis that reveals the systemic roots of a particular crisis and offer reforms that challenge the logic of capitalism.
Socialists also recognize that workers are “the central agents of winning change” because of their structural position and social power. As Schwartz and Sunkara suggest, a revived socialist left needs to wage ideological battles against market individualism and put forward “a compelling vision of democracy and freedom” to overcome the equation of socialism with bureaucratic rule. Finally, they call for socialists to maintain their distance from the forces of “official reformism” — certain liberal Democrats, union bureaucrats, and NGO figures — while seeking more and more people in mass struggle.
Schwartz and Sunkara attribute these strategic insights to the US Communist Party’s (CP) strategy of the late 1930s and 1940s: the popular front. They claim that this strategy allowed the CP to become both “tribunes for socialism and the best organizers.” As they write:
[The] Popular Front was the last time socialism had any mass presence in the United States — in part because, in its own way, the Communists rooted their struggles for democracy within US political culture while trying to build a truly multiracial working-class movement.
However, they also recognize this period’s “dark side,” reminding readers that CP militants:
a . . . hid their socialist identity in an attempt to appeal to the broadest swath of Americans possible. When forced to reveal it, they referred to an authoritarian Soviet Union as their model. And by following Moscow’s line on the Hitler-Stalin Pact and then the no-strike pledge during World War II, the party abandoned the most militant sectors of the working class. Thus, the Communists put themselves in a position that prevented them from ever winning hegemony within the US working-class movement from liberal forces.
Schwartz and Sunkara’s contradictory claims about the Popular Front flow from the fundamental problem with the strategy. On the one hand, the Communist Party appeared to have a mass presence in the late 1930s and 1940s: it could boast nearly one hundred thousand members; it led important industrial unions, civil rights movements, and other organizations; and it enjoyed significant presence in popular culture. However, the CP’s alliance with the forces of New Deal liberalism and the Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) official leadership isolated it from the most militant workers, paving the way for the eventual purge of radicals from unions and social movements.
Indeed, a more careful examination of history shows that the CP had its greatest impact on social struggles and American politics before the party adopted the Popular Front strategy in late 1936. The alliance with the Democratic Party, the CIO, and middle-class leaders in the black movement actually reduced the CP’s influence among the militant minority of workers and minorities. Communists ended up helping these center-left forces derail struggles in the late 1930s and 1940s, facilitating the United States’ historic rightward political shift during and after World War II.
Of course, no revolutionary breakthrough in the United States was on the immediate agenda at any point in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the mass struggles of industrial workers, women, and African Americans opened the door for a militant workers’ movement, with strong and independent shop-floor organization that could have organized the South and the growing clerical workforce. These struggles not only created the possibility of an independent labor party but also built a small, mass socialist current within the working class.
None of these possibilities were realized. Instead of militant unions capable of building class unity, we saw the consolidation of bureaucratic business unionism in the CIO and the deepening of racial and gender divisions in the working class. Instead of a mass party, the labor movement (and every subsequent social movement) tied itself to a Democratic Party that over time collaborated in the rightward shift in US politics. Finally, rather than a small mass socialist current in the working class, we have witnessed the historic divorce of socialist politics from American workers.
It would be unrealistic to claim that a relatively small group — whose working-class core never exceeded twenty thousand members — could have single-handedly prevented the CIO’s bureaucratization, the subordination of labor to the Democratic Party, or the post-World War II witch hunt. However, the CP’s shift to the popular front facilitated these processes enormously.
In the late 1930s, industrial militancy dissipated, and, as it disappeared, the capitalist state had no reason to grant further concessions to working people. The “second New Deal” reforms (Fair Labor Standards Act, Social Security Act, and National Labor Relations Act) came to an abrupt halt in 1938-39, never to be resumed. The CP’s membership reached an all-time high during World War II, but American politics had already turned to the right, a process that would culminate in the purge of radicals from the labor movement.
American Communism Before 1934
Throughout the 1920s, the CP built a small but active membership among first- and second-generation immigrant workers in industries as diverse as the needle trades, coal and iron mining, steel, and automobile and machine making.
Communist workers played central roles in unsuccessful rank-and-file reform movements within the bureaucratized American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions, including the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the United Mine Workers. CP members and sympathizers also tried to create independent unions in unorganized industries, including the auto industry. To facilitate these processes, the party developed the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), which convinced thousands of non-CP worker-activists to build democratic and militant industrial unions, to fight AFL officials, and to build an independent labor party.
The TUEL was the Americanized version of the Communist International’s (Comintern) 1920s “united front” strategy. This strategy rested on the belief that working-class radicalism grew out of militant mass struggles against employers and the state. Only through direct confrontation with capital in their workplaces and communities do workers develop the power to win better wages and working conditions or force state policies that benefit workers and the oppressed. These struggles also open broader and broader layers of the working class to anticapitalist ideas while demonstrating that the forces of official reformism — professional politicians and trade union bureaucrats — cannot lead successful struggles against capital.
In the late 1920s, according to the Stalinist Comintern, capitalism had entered its “third period.” The 1929 crash and subsequent global depression marked the system’s terminal crisis, and revolution was on the immediate agenda all over the world. Only the “social-fascist” leaders of the social-democratic trade unions and political parties stood in the way.
Following this line, Communist parties launched sectarian attacks on reformist leaders, refusing any and all united actions with social-democratic parties and unions. Germany saw the most tragic fruits of this strategy, where the Communists’ refusal to work with the Social Democrats against the rising tide of fascism allowed Hitler to take power and easily smash the world’s oldest and best organized labor movement.
The “Third Period” had a more ambiguous impact on the CP’s politics in the United States. One the one hand, the party dismantled the TUEL and created the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) in its place. This new organization sought to build “revolutionary unions” in opposition to the existing AFL structure. “Red” unions demanded that members accept the entire Communist program, not simply commit to democratic and militant worker action.
The CP’s trade union sectarianism had particularly tragic effects in the steel industry. The sizable Communist fraction in that industry refused to participate in the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers’ growing rank-and-file movement, which was agitating for a general strike in hopes of winning union recognition. Instead, the party maintained its relatively small “red union” — the Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union — rather than entering and giving organizational and political direction to the insurgent Amalgamated locals. Left to their own political resources, the steel workers’ rebellion eventually accepted federal mediation through the National Recovery Administration (NRA), dissipating the promising strike movement of 1933.
On the other hand, the CP did important work among the unemployed in this same period. While refusing to build common organizations with other radicals, especially members of the Socialist Party (SP) and A. J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP), the CP developed Unemployed Workers Councils in various industrial centers.
These groups organized militant, direct actions in defense of evicted tenants, held sit-ins at relief offices, and planned mass demonstrations calling for unemployment insurance. Their successful struggles won immediate relief for the unemployed, helping establish federal unemployment insurance in 1935.
This movement promoted a pro-labor position among the unemployed, undermining the bosses’ ability to use out-of-work scabs to break strikes. The councils also organized across ethnic, racial, and gender lines, recruited new working-class cadres to socialist politics in key industrial cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron, and gave the working class its first experience of success since the defeat of the 1919 steel strike.
The CP also began serious work among African Americans during the “third period.” Whether or not the 1928 Comintern thesis on the “Negro Question” — which described black struggle in the South as a fight for national self-determination and struggle in the North as one for equal rights and integration — was correct, the argument nevertheless signaled that the party had started to prioritize organizing among African Americans.
In the North, the CP included black Americans in their Unemployed Councils, fought housing and educational segregation, and created committees that worked in solidarity with anti-lynching struggles. In the South, the party built successful sharecropper and wage-worker unions, created TUUL groups that became the beachheads of industrial unionism in strategically important cities like Birmingham, agitated against “Jim Crow” segregation and disenfranchisement, and organized armed self-defense against lynching.
The CP’s work among African Americans reached its high point in the early 1930s, when it campaigned in defense of the “Scottsboro Boys.” The Communist-led International Labor Defense (ILD), which had become a predominantly black, working-class “civil rights” organization across the South, mobilized millions of people to defend nine young African American men falsely accused of raping two white women.
The American United Front
The year after Hitler seized power, the Comintern still believed that the Nazis’ triumph represented a brief prelude to a successful socialist revolution. When it became obvious that the victory would not be short-lived, the international Communist movement spiraled into a profound crisis. Its previous strategy had failed abysmally, but it could not have an open, democratic discussion of past errors. As a result, the Comintern and the CP entered a period of political confusion and experimentation.
In the United States, Communist workers, in an informal united front with the SP and other worker radicals, played crucial roles in the strike wave that established the CIO in the mass production industries.
In early 1934, the CP abandoned its policy of boycotting the growing AFL “federal locals” and began leading its relatively tiny “red unions” into rebellious AFL organizations, where they returned to the politics they had promoted during the 1920s. Alongside Trotskyists, left-socialists, and Wobblies, they built rank-and-file movements in AFL unions that agitated for democratic, industrial movements capable of taking industry-wide strike action independent of the leadership or their erstwhile allies in the Roosevelt administration.
The CP gathered the first fruits of its new strategy on the Pacific coast. Assuming the leadership of the revitalized International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) locals, Communists led the successful 1934 strike that culminated in the San Francisco general strike.
Militants and sympathizers like Harry Bridges built democratic, workplace organizations of rank-and-file workers that could act independently of the ILA bureaucracy, brought these groups together in a highly democratic industrial union run by the membership with the aid of a small number of full-time officials, and promoted mass participation in strike decisions through elected committees that reported to worker meetings.
The waterfront Communists relied on mobilization and militancy rather than state mediation and secret negotiations; they educated other workers about the need for independent political action; and they resisted all attempts by the ILA’s Joseph Ryan to sidetrack struggles. The West Coast longshoremen won recognition and union regulation of the local labor market (“hiring hall”) in the fall of 1934.
The Minneapolis Teamsters and the Toledo Auto-Lite strikes of 1934 were also city-wide general strikes led by revolutionaries — Trotskyists in Minnesota, “Musteites” in Toledo. Together, these three strikes set the stage for the CIO’s rapid growth.
In the auto, rubber, maritime, electrical appliance, and machine-making industries, Communist and other radical workers led rank-and-file movements from within AFL locals to create new unions. The CP’s entry into these AFL organizations played a crucial role in the CIO’s early success. After AFL officials derailed the strike agitation in basic industry during 1933, the CP, along with other radicals, provided an effective alternative leadership.
The CP was particularly successful in building a rank-and-file movement in the auto industry. Alongside other radicals, Communist workers like Wyndham Mortimer and Robert Travis agitated against the AFL leadership’s reliance on federal mediation, demanding democratic organization instead. This powerful movement, which coalesced into the Progressive Caucus, organized unauthorized strikes against individual plants and small producers from 1934 to 1936.
The Toledo Chevrolet Strike in May and June of 1935 became the most important battle of this period. There, an elected strike committee of Communists, Musteites, and shop-floor militants resisted the AFL bureaucrats’ attempts to accept federal mediation, end the strike, and return to work without union recognition.
The partial victory at Chevy set the stage for the creation of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). This first international industrial union in auto was founded as an AFL affiliate in August 1935 and remained under the control of the corrupt and ineffectual official Frances Dillon for its first year. Thanks to its alliances with other revolutionaries and radicals, the CP could have elected Mortimer, its most prominent worker-leader, as the first president of the UAW-CIO in April 1936. But, by then, the party had already begun cementing its center-left alliance with John L. Lewis and withdrew Mortimer’s name from consideration.
Lewis feared the development of a “class struggle unionism” organized by the CP and other revolutionaries, so he formed the CIO in hopes of containing the mass movement from below within the norms of traditional “business unionism.”
During the 1935-37 CIO strike wave, the first cracks between the labor movement and the Roosevelt administration began to appear. The new industrial federation could not have won these early battles without breaking with the federal government. In 1933, AFL officials managed to divert the first wave of industrial militancy into the ultimately fruitless channels of National Recovery Administration mediation, but, between 1934 and 1936, the CP and other radicals convinced workers to maintain strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action instead of turning to federal mediation.
This practical break with the Democratic Party found expression in dozens of Labor Party experiments at the local and state levels. These parties were particularly successful in the Midwest and in New England, where workers had confronted the police and National Guard that “New Deal” Democratic governors dispatched during the mass strikes of the mid-1930s.
The high point of labor party agitation in the 1930s came during the April 1936 UAW-CIO convention. The Progressive Caucus, led by the CP, Trotskyist-oriented militants from the Workers Party, the SP, and other radicals, held a secure majority at the convention. They adopted a resolution giving “the strongest and widest support to the setting up of National, State, and Local Farmer-Labor Parties,” and a majority of UAW delegates initially refused to endorse FDR’s 1936 reelection bid. The convention reversed its decision only after CIO representative Adolph Germer threatened to withhold his $100,000 contribution from the new union.
The Popular Front and the Derailing of Militancy in the US
In 1935, the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress ended the party’s political experimentation. Its new strategic perspective called for building united fronts with social democrats in the struggle against “fascism and reaction,” legitimizing the unofficial alliances forged between Communists and radical socialist workers in the United States, France, and Spain. But the Comintern also endorsed a broader people’s front that would include the leadership of social-democratic parties and unions as well as “liberal democratic” capitalists.
The popular front strategy, motivated by the Soviet Union’s desire for collective security pacts with the democratic imperialist powers (the United States, United Kingdom, and France) against the fascist powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan), would have a profound impact on the evolution of parties in advanced capitalist countries.
The CP’s Ninth Congress in June 1936 codified the American popular front. The strategy had two central components: an alliance with the democratic middle classes and capitalists through the Democratic Party and a long-term, center-left coalition with supposedly progressive trade union officials in the CIO. The party hoped that loyally supporting Lewis and other pro-Roosevelt CIO leaders would help convince the president to enter a collective security agreement with the USSR.
Popular frontism transformed the CP. The party went from promoting self-organization, militant action, and political independence among workers, African Americans, and other oppressed groups to serving as the CIO bureaucracy’s point-men in its drive to tame worker militancy and cement its partnership with the Roosevelt administration.
We can see the strategy’s impact first in electoral politics. In 1936, many on the US left predicted that a third party, based on the newly created CIO unions, would win twenty to thirty congressional seats. But the CIO leadership instead launched the Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL), intended to mobilize the industrial working class for the Democratic Party.
By facilitating the Democrats’ biggest electoral victory, the CIO leadership undermined most of the local labor party experiments that had grown up in 1934 and 1935. The CP went from portraying FDR as a “fascist” to a “friend of the common man,” playing a critical role in subordinating local independent parties to the Democrats. In New York, it helped ensure that the newly formed American Labor Party (ALP) would serve as a conduit for the votes of left-wing workers to Democratic and “fusion” (Democrat- and Republican-endorsed) candidates like FDR and Fiorella LaGuardia.
For workers in CIO unions, the popular front strategy had even more severe consequences. In exchange for influence with Lewis, the CP abandoned its history of organizing the rank and file and promoting direct action, especially in the automobile industry.
When workers seized the Flint GM plant in December 1936 at the height of the sit-down wave, CIO leaders feared that the workers’ militancy would “provoke” the Democratic governor to send in the National Guard and destroy their fledgling organization. They encouraged the left-socialists, Trotskyists, dissident Communists, and CP members who led the sit-in to end the strike and evacuate the plants before winning union recognition.
Against the wishes of CP members in Flint, the strikers refused. They instead occupied the strategically crucial Fisher #4 plant, where GM built its engines. The seizure of Fisher #4 brought the strike to a rapid and successful conclusion.
The next spring, the Communists used their prestige among the autoworkers to help Lewis and the CIO leadership block the spread of sit-down strikes to Chrysler and other non-union corporations. They also launched a campaign to end “quickie strikes,” short work stoppages sparked by shop-floor grievances.
This new center-left coalition had even more disastrous effects on the unsuccessful attempt to organize the “Little Steel” corporations in the spring of 1937. While hundreds of young Communists served as organizers for Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), they never challenged president Philip Murray’s bureaucratic strategy, which allowed “no conventions, no elections, [and] no autonomous locals or districts.”
The SWOC’s strike against the “Little Steel” corporations didn’t include mass picketing, sit-downs, or elected strike committees. The strikers were restricted to routine picketing, which did not prevent management from hiring scabs. The union was relying on the newly established National Labor Relations Board to secure recognition. The strike’s day-to-day organization remained in the hands of Murray and unelected staffers.
When the Chicago police opened fire on unarmed union members and their families during a union-sponsored picnic in May 1937, Lewis, Murray, and the Communists called on Roosevelt to condemn the steel bosses, the city’s Democratic mayor, and the Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Despite the CIO’s indispensable support for his 1936 reelection, Roosevelt called down a plague on both houses and refused to rebuke his party allies for the “Memorial Day Massacre.” Having already cast its lot with the Democratic administration and the CIO leadership, the CP could not present an alternative strategy in the steel organizing campaign. The Little Steel strike ended, concluding the CIO offensive in basic industry.
While the popular front allowed more Communists to serve as union staffers and local officers, it also demobilized rank-and-file militancy, ending the wave of successful union organizing in basic industry that had prompted the reformist thrust of Roosevelt’s second New Deal. In order to prove its loyalty to CIO officials, the CP dissolved its own shop-floor organizations, freeing Communists who had become officials from accountability to their rank-and-file comrades. Party membership became less an opportunity to organize with other radical workers in order to shape the life of the union and more a way to get off the shop floor and become a union bureaucrat.
The dissolution of the Communist’s industrial organizations limited the party’s ability to reach workers. As a result, the social composition of the CP radically changed in the late 1930s and early 1940s: the percentage of members who were industrial, clerical, or service-sector workers fell while the percentage of semi-professionals (teachers, social workers, nurses) and professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors) grew sharply.
The “No-Strike Pledge”
On the eve of World War II, American working-class movements found themselves at a crossroads. Important bastions of industry in the North had been unionized, but attempts to complete the organization of key industries like auto or to make inroads in the South had stalled. Despite an alliance with the administration, the new CIO leadership hadn’t won any significant reforms after Roosevelt’s reelection. The unions were increasingly bureaucratized, as Lewis and Murray either imposed top-down committees in steel and meatpacking or, in the case of the rank-and-file unions in auto, rubber, and machine making, created a dual structure of field representatives and regional directors accountable to the central leadership.
While the CIO bureaucracy “worked hand in hand with New Deal officials to promote ‘responsible’ negotiated settlements and to suppress the rampant use of the sit-down strike” in the late 1930s, rank-and-file workers continued to organize direct actions over day-to-day grievances through brief work stoppages and sit-downs.
The United States’ entry into World War II completed the transformation of both the CIO and the CP. During the war, party membership grew to almost one hundred thousand, leading many historians to cite these years as the height of twentieth-century American radicalism. But when we scratch the surface, we find a different reality.
The party’s rapid growth was primarily attributable to white-collar and professional workers: its base among industrial workers continued to decline. While the CP’s wartime patriotism gained it public acceptance and behind-the-scenes influence at the State Department and the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s predecessor), its role as the main enforcer of the “no-strike pledge” weakened the Left’s influence among rank-and-file workers.
World War II provided the CIO bureaucracy with the opportunity to consolidate its control over the new industrial unions. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the CIO — which Murray took over after Lewis led the UMW out of the federation in opposition to the war — agreed to the no-strike pledge in exchange for representation on the War Labor Board and government enforcement of union shop rules in basic industry.
The CIO leadership hoped that wartime cooperation would strengthen its position in industry and government, but the alliances actually weakened the union both politically and economically. The no-strike pledge made leadership responsible for rank-and-file compliance, thereby enlisting labor officials as active allies of capital in its renewed struggle for control of the shop floor. Further, the bureaucracy’s new role as cop at the point of production resulted in a massive centralization of the union apparatus, the imposition of a bureaucratic grievance procedure, and a general weakening of rank-and-file democracy and activism.
Convinced that they must subordinate everything to the war effort and the defense of the Soviet Union, the CP’s cadre of union staffers, local officers, and a shrinking number of rank-and-file workers actively aided and abetted the CIO bureaucracy’s drive to break the traditions of working-class self-organization and self-activity. For example, the party did not merely condemn the 1943 UMW strike as “pro-Nazi,” but it also served the CIO by opposing the rising tide of unofficial strikes in the war industries. The CP also advocated various schemes to increase the pace and intensity of work, and it supported proposals to set up “industrial councils” in which the union and management would work together to increase productivity. Communist union leaders even embraced “incentive pay,” which would have reintroduced or reduced piecework rates in a number of industries.
Anti-Stalinist socialists in the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party enjoyed some success coordinating wartime strikes. They eventually transformed wildcat actions into a movement calling for the end of the CIO’s endorsement of the no-strike pledge and the launch of an independent labor party. At its 1943 convention, the Michigan CIO passed resolutions making these very demands.
Meanwhile, the CP condemned any and all worker attempts to stop speed-up or to oppose workplace despotism as “fascist,” often collaborating with management and the CIO leadership to break wildcat strikes in the defense industry. As the only left current with real weight in the labor movement, the Communist Party’s wartime strikebreaking doomed the movement against the no-strike pledge.
Although the CP’s patriotism won it temporary acceptance among the liberal middle classes and the CIO leadership, the popular front strategy during the war undermined the credibility of the Communists and other radicals among rank-and-file workers and only enhanced the popularity of conservative and anticommunist elements within the CIO.
Forces as diverse as the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in United Electrical Workers (UE) and the supporters of Walter Reuther in the UAW presented themselves as militant defenders of workers’ economic interests against the Communists, who had proved their willingness to subordinate the American labor movement to the Soviet Union’s needs. As the wartime alliance between the USSR and the US broke down and the CP once again opposed American imperialism, anticommunists used their newfound credibility to purge Communists and other radicals from the labor movement.
Recently, scholars of the postwar labor movement have attempted to argue that the anti-CP purge of the CIO produced fundamentally different strategies and tactics for industrial unionism in the United States. Maurice Zeitlin and Judith Stepan-Norris have pointed to language in contracts negotiated by CP-led CIO unions that allow strike action over grievances and other forms of shop-floor militancy. Unfortunately, they present relatively little evidence that these Communist-led unions’ workplace practices differed significantly from the internationals led by the center (that is, by Murray or Reuther). Both leftist and centrist unions embraced the National Labor Relations Board framework for securing recognition, the bureaucratic grievance procedure, and routine collective bargaining punctuated by strikes organized from above that remained within the boundaries of a restrictive capitalist legal system.
Regardless, the postwar purge had a profound impact on American unions. First, it created a labor movement completely loyal to American imperialism, cementing labor’s junior partnership with the Democratic Party. Henry Wallace’s dismal failure as the Progressive Party candidate in 1948 — which the CIO leadership condemned as a “communist front” — closed the door on effective independent political action.
Second, the purge crystallized divisions within the working class. The triumph of the CIO’s anticommunism served as a pretext for scuttling “Operation Dixie,” an ambitious plan to unionize the South. Rather than launching an organizing drive that would have confronted open-shop industrialists, Jim Crow landlords, and their Democratic representatives, the CIO leadership raided existing southern unions like the CP-led Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and appealed to white workers’ racism. By 1953, the electrical manufacturing industry had eighty different unions representing half the number of workers that the Communist-led UE had organized in 1948.
Finally, the CIO’s civil war led to the historic divorce between the socialist left and the American working class. The substantial minority of socialist workers, who maintained traditions of industrial militancy and radicalism within the increasingly bureaucratic unions, all but disappeared.
We cannot guarantee that, had the CP continued its militant united front policy, the outcome of the New Deal-Fair Deal cycle of class struggle would have been substantially different. Even with the best politics, the Communists may not have been able to prevent the new industrial unions from bureaucratizing, to build a labor party, or to stop anticommunist hysteria from sweeping the labor movement. That said, the popular front strategy actually encouraged the CIO’s deradicalization; it scuttled various attempts at independent working-class political action; and it destroyed any substantial socialist current within the labor movement.
A Popular Front Today?
Today, a popular front strategy in the United States would be even more destructive to the socialist left’s prospects than it was in the 1930s and 1940s.
First, we do not have the social or political weight to force any segment of capital, the liberal middle classes, or official reformism to include us in a “popular front.” The CP’s base in the working class and among African Americans — and the potential threat these movements posed to the status quo — made elements of the CIO leadership and the middle classes willing to enter a center-left coalition. We do not yet pose such a threat today. Pursuing such a strategy would divert us from our tasks of rebuilding popular resistance and educating for socialism.
Second, any attempt to permeate the labor leadership — by supporting progressive union officials who pay lip service to our political agenda or by becoming staff organizers — is bound to fail. The American labor bureaucracy today has only become more committed to allying with Democrats and cooperating with management. To look to any of them to revive the American labor movement is wrongheaded.
Finally, the Democratic Party has become even more impermeable to the Left today than ever before. Since the first Clinton administration and the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony among Democrats, the party has undergone a twofold transformation.
On the one hand, the absence of a member-led organization charged with selecting candidates has been compounded by the party’s transformation into a “fundraising cartel.” As Kim Moody has argued, the Democrats today are run by unelected and unaccountable committees at the local, state, and national level that direct corporate financing from donors to candidates. Their control of campaign funding allows them to crush any left-wing insurgency within the party.
On the other, a career in the Democratic Party has become a viable path to personal enrichment. For most of the last century, success as a politician in the United States — especially at the federal level — has been preceded and/or followed by a successful professional-managerial career. Today, the Democratic Party facilitates direct funding from capitalists to former politicians’ foundations, providing rewards even greater than before.
I share Schwartz and Sunkara’s vision of a mass, multi-tendency political organization in the United States. And I embrace their call for engaging in both socialist education and the hard work of building resistance to capital in workplaces and communities. We agree that independence from the corporate Democrats, union leaders, and NGO staffers is crucial. The popular front strategy won’t get us there, though.