International Socialist Review, Fall 1961


James P. Cannon

William Z. Foster

An Appraisal of the Man and His Career


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No. 4, Fall 1961, pp.103-106, 114.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

[This appraisal of William Z. Foster, who died September 1, 1961 in Moscow, is extracted from the author’s Letters to a Historian which constitute a section of a book now ready for publication under the title The First Ten Years of American Communism – Report of a Participant. Part of this material has been previously published in past issues of this magazine.]

May 27, 1954

I NOTE from your numerous questions about Foster that you are reaching for the heart of the mystery in his case. I knew Foster – close up – precisely in that period when he decided to make the transformation from a trade-union leader to a party politician, and to pay whatever price it might entail in formal subservience to Moscow.

I thought I knew Foster in his bones thirty years ago, and still think so. His later evolution, sickening as it became to those who had known and respected him as a rebel, never surprised me at any stage. The basic decision he made at that time conditioned him for his step-by-step degeneration. He could not have made the decision, however, unless the tendency was inherent in his character.

May 28, 1954

Foster’s original design, I think, had been to play the part of the outstanding mass leader, not publicly identified with the party, operating with a wide area of independence and getting the full support of the party on his own terms. He had once remarked to me:

“Debs never wasted any time on caucuses. He built up his prestige among the masses. Then, after the party politicians had made their decisions in caucus, they first had to inquire what Debs thought about them before they could carry them out.”

Things weren’t working out that way in our party in 1923. Foster saw that when the showdown came, the party controlled everything; and that if he really wanted to control the trade-union work and keep it within the bounds of realism, he would have to have a big hand in the control of the party itself. I don’t know whether he had already made up his mind, then, to shift the main axis of his activity from the TUEL [Trade Union Educational League] work to the party; but that’s what it came to in a very short time.

Foster and Browder

August 4, 1954

Foster himself, in a big way, and Johnstone and Manley to a far lesser extent, made personal contributions to the CP. But it would be historically false to represent the Foster AFL group as a contributing current in the new movement. Even Browder, who had been a pre-war Fosterite syndicalist, did not come to the CP by way of Foster. He jumped over the head of the Foster group – if it is proper even to speak of such a formation as a definite ideological tendency – and came in as an individual three years ahead of Foster. It was Browder who was commissioned by the party to invite Foster to attend the Congress of the Profin-tern in 1921 and thus started him on the road to the party.

In his History of the Communist Party of the United States Foster makes an elaborate attempt to backwrite history by blowing up the minuscule Foster group of practical trade unionists in the AFL, and representing it as a serious ideological tendency and a contributing current to the movement of American communism. Here Foster really outwits himself. He actually does himself an injustice, although I would not accuse him of such an intention. If no more were involved than that, one could well afford to let the matter rest. But since history is no good, and is even worse than useless, if it is not true, I feel obliged to defend him against himself in order to set the record straight.

Foster’s astounding success in organizing the packinghouse workers (1917-1918) in an AFL set-up almost designed and guaranteed to make such a thing impossible, and his repeat performance in the steel strike (1919) under still more difficult conditions, were extraordinary personal accomplishments.

In the late Thirties the unionization of the steel industry was a pushover; the official leaders simply rode the tide of a universal labor upsurge generated by the long depression, and Lewis got US Steel’s signature to a contract without a strike. But in the year 1919 – before the depression and before the rise of the CIO – no one but Foster, with his executive and organizing skill, his craftiness, his patience and his driving energy, could have organized the steelworkers on such a scale and led them in a great strike, through the road-blocks and booby-traps of craft unionism, under the official sponsorship of the Gompers AFL.

Foster’s steel campaign was unique. It was all the more remarkable precisely because he did it all by himself against all kinds of official sabotage, and with the assistance of only a small handful of people of secondary talents who were personally attached to him and worked under his direction. His ex post facto attempt to represent himself in this grandiose action as the instrument of an ideological tendency tributary to the communist movement, not only falsifies the historical facts, but by indirection, detracts from the magnitude of his personal achievement.

The Foster group in the AFL began with a revolutionary program outlined in a pamphlet based on French syndicalism (1913). But this first programmatic declaration was soon withdrawn, re-written and watered down to nothing but a tongue-in-cheek affirmation that mere trade-union organization would automatically solve all problems of workers’ emancipation. Thereafter, Fosterism was simply a method of working in the AFL by adaptation to the official leadership.

By adaptation individuals can get a chance to work. Foster demonstrated that to the hilt in practice. But adaptation is not a movement and cannot create a movement, for the question of who is serving whom always arises. Gompers, who knew Foster’s past and was no fool, thought that Foster’s work and adaptation could serve Gompers’ aims. He permitted Foster to work under AFL auspices for that reason, as he testified with brutal frankness before the Senate Committee Hearings on the Steel Trust Strike. Fitzpatrick was evidently of the same opinion. Both he and Gompers proved to be correct. Foster’s later adaptation to the Communist Party worked out the same way.

Foster’s work and achievement in the early days of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) under the Communist Party, were no less remarkable than his stockyard and steel campaigns. His rapid-fire organization of a network of effective left-progressive groups in a dozen or more different unions demonstrated most convincingly that his previous successes in the AFL were no fluke. It proved, for the second time, under different auspices, that given the forces and the machinery to work with, Foster was a trade-union organizer without a peer. In each case, however, his work was permitted and controlled by other forces which Foster had to serve. For that reason there never was and never could be such a thing as a Foster “movement” or, strictly speaking, even a Foster group. Foster has been condemned throughout his career, ever since he left the IWW, to serve the aims of others whom he sought to outwit by adaptation.

Foster was the leader of his own faction in the CP only within this framework. In the very first showdown in the original Foster group in 1925, when political issues of party interest were posed point-blank, he found himself in the minority and discovered that the policy of the Foster group was not his to determine at will.

In the second show-down of the group, by then reduced to a smaller composition of ostensibly pure Fosterites – in 1928, at the Sixth Congress caucus meeting of the opposition delegates in Moscow – the leader found himself completely isolated. Bittelman, seconded by Browder and Johnstone, attacked him most brutally and disdainfully on that occasion and took complete charge of the “Foster group.” He was left without a single friend or supporter in the caucus. (The rest of us, members of the opposition bloc but not Fosterites, simply stood aside and let the Fosterites fight it out.)

All Foster had left at the time of the Sixth Congress in 1928, was his name and the manifest intention of Stalin to use it for his own purposes. His name represented not a political tendency, however small, which had to be recognized. It was the symbol, rather, of his personal achievements as an organizer, of his public renown which was not yet seriously tarnished by his internal party defeats.

But, ironically, even his name and fame, which had been well earned by real performance, and which gave him a scrap of a special position in the party, was an obstacle to the realization of his ambition to be the official leader of the party, be it only by the grace of Stalin. For his own purposes Stalin needed in the US, as elsewhere, leaders without independent strength, leaders made by him and completely dependent on his favor. Browder filled the bill. He was the perfect example of the candidate distinguished not by the defect of his qualities, but by the quality of his defects.

* * *

Browder was an intelligent, industrious and dependable chief clerk by nature, but in no case an executive leader of independent capacity and resource. He was capable of filling the office of formal leader of the party by the permission of Stalin for 15 years without having, in his wildest imagination, previously entertained such an ambition and without having the slightest idea of how it came about or how his regime was brought to an end so precipitately and so easily. I don’t doubt that Browder began to think he was ten feet tall in the long period where he walked on stilts above the party multitude. But I doubt very much whether he could explain to himself or others how he got up so high in the first place, or why the stilts so suddenly gave way under him.

* * *

The original relationship between Foster and Browder, and the proper one, considering the personal qualities of each, had been the relation between executive and first assistant. The appointment of Browder to the first position in the party, with Foster subordinated to the role of honorary public figure without authority, really rubbed Foster’s nose in the dirt. It was not pleasant to see how he accepted the gross humiliation and pretended to submit to it.

When Browder was finally deposed 15 years later, Foster was permitted to officiate at the ceremonies. It was pitiful to see how he gratified his long-standing grudge and gloated over the victim in celebration of his hollow victory. In reality the great organizer, who accepted the office of formal leadership without the power, was celebrating his own utter defeat as an independent political figure.

Foster’s Infirmity

March 17, 1955

You ask how I look at my own role in the formation of the Foster-Cannon group. I think that is indicated in the account I have written in those letters [May 19, 27 and 28, 1954 – Ed.]. I had the highest regard for Foster’s ability in general, and for his feel and skill as a mass worker in particular – a most essential quality which the leaders of the other faction seemed to lack – but I never belonged to Foster’s staff of personal assistants and was never in any sense a personal follower. Relations between me and Foster, from start to finish, always had the same basis. Cooperation in internal party affairs depended on agreement on policy, arrived at beforehand. That was no trouble in 1923; our thinking ran along the same lines.

Foster was the party’s outstanding mass leader and most popular figure, and he carried himself well in that role. But he was not a political infant as he has often been represented; he knew what he was driving at. He symbolized the proletarian-American orientation, which the party needed and wanted, and I thought he was justly entitled to first place as party leader and public spokesman.

He was rather new to the party at that time, however, and was still feeling his way carefully. As one of the original communists, I knew the party better. I had closer connections with many of the decisive cadres and probably had more influence with some of them. Our combination – while it lasted – was an effective division of labor, without rivalry, at least as far as I was concerned. Each made independent contributions to the combination and each carried his own weight.

Foster’s knowledge and feel of the trade union movement surpassed that of all the other party leaders in the early days, but his experience in that field was not all profit. He had learned too much in the school of the labor fakers, who got what they wanted one way or another, without regard to any governing theory or principle, and he mistakenly thought such methods could be efficacious in the communist political movement. Crude American pragmatism, which “gets things done” in simple situations, is a poor tool in the complexities of revolutionary politics.

Foster was somewhat mechanical and eclectic in his thinking, and this frequently led him to summary judgments in complex questions which called for qualified answers. His one-sided, almost fetishistic concentration on “boring from within” the AFL, as the sole means of radicalizing and expanding the labor movement – a concept which had to be thrown overboard in 1928, and which was brutally refuted in life by the rise of the CIO – is an outstanding example of his limitations as a thinker.

But in the frame of comparison with the other leading figures of the pioneer communist movement in this country, which in my opinion is the proper way to judge him historically, Foster was outstanding in many ways. Attempts to represent him as some kind of babe in the woods, led astray by craftier men, which have been recurrently made throughout the history of the party, beginning with his alliance with me in the formation of the Foster-Cannon group, never had any foundation in fact.

Foster was a shrewd and competent man, far more conscious and deliberate in all his actions than he appeared and pretended to be. Everything that Foster did, from first to last, was done deliberately. In fact, he was too shrewd, too deliberate in his decisions, and too free from the restraint of scruple; and by that he wrought his own catastrophe. The actions which, in a tragic progression, made such a disgraceful shambles of his career, derived not from faulty intelligence or weakness of will but from defects of character.

Foster was a slave to ambition, to his career. That was his infirmity. But this judgment, which in my book is definitive, must be qualified by the recognition that he sought to serve his ambition and to advance his career in the labor movement and not elsewhere. Within that field he worshipped the “Bitch-Goddess” of Success as much as any business man, careerist on the make, or politician in the bourgeois world.

Foster was a man of such outstanding talent, energy and driving will that – in the conditions of the country in his time – he could easily have made his way in any number of other occupations. But the labor movement was his own milieu, deliberately chosen in his youth and doggedly maintained to the exclusion of virtually all other interests. Within that limit – that he had no life outside the labor movement – Foster subordinated everything to his mad ambition and his almost pathological love of fame, of his career. To that, with a consistency that was truly appalling, he sacrificed his pride and self-respect, and all considerations of loyalty to persons and to principles and, eventually, to the interests of the movement which he had originally set out to serve.

Shakespeare’s Gratiano said they lose the world “that do buy it with much care.” Foster’s too-great consistency in his single-minded pursuit of fame and career at any price became a self-defeating game. His willingness to humiliate himself and surrender his opinions to gain favor with the Stalinist “power” only disarmed him before repeated exactions in this respect, until he was stripped of the last shred of independence. His disloyalty to people robbed him of any claim on the loyalty of others and left him without support at the most critical turning points. His readiness to profess opinions he didn’t hold, for the sake of expediency, to lie and cheat to gain a point, lost him the respect of his colleagues and eventually destroyed his moral authority in the party cadres. He ended up friendless and alone as early as 1928, incapable of contending for leadership in his own name, and fit only for the role of figurehead leader.

But even for that shabby substitute for fame and career, Foster has had to grovel in the dust, and to contribute his bit systematically, year after year for more than a quarter of a century, to the gross betrayal of the workers’ cause which he had proclaimed as his own. “Success” in the world of Stalinism is dearly bought indeed – if by some horrible misunderstanding one should call Foster’s pursuit of fame and career successful.

A Revolt of the Fosterites

February 1, 1956

The Fosterites had never talked to us about their own family affairs. Consequently, the big explosion at the joint caucus of the delegates of the two groups in Moscow [at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, 1928] came as somewhat of a surprise to us. To judge from the intensity of the feelings expressed, the revolt against Foster must have been brewing for a long time; it could hardly have been caused by the difference on trade-union tactics alone. It is more likely that the trade-union dispute, in which Bittelman and Browder could draw courage from being on Losovsky’s side, triggered an explosion built up out of many accumulated grievances.

One of Foster’s traits which I especially detested, after I got to know him well, was his different manner and attitude in dealing with different people. To those whom he thought he needed, such as Bittelman and myself, he was always careful and at times even a bit deferential. To those who needed him, such as Browder and Johnstone, he was brusque and dictatorial. They must have stored up many resentments against that.

I remember one rather dramatic incident during the discussion. Foster stood over Johnstone threateningly, with his fist clenched, and tried his old trick of intimidation with the snarling remark: “You’re getting pretty bold!” Johnstone, almost hysterical, answered: “You have been trampling on me for years, but you’re not going to trample on me any more.” Johnstone and Browder gave the impression at this meeting of people who had broken out of long confinement and were running wild.

Bittelman’s conduct was more difficult for me to understand. During all the time that we had been together in one group, and I had known everything that was going on with respect to personal relations, Foster had never presumed to bulldoze Bittelman. Yet at this meeting Bittelman’s tone and language seemed to be that of a man who was out to settle personal scores long overdue. He was absolutely ruthless in his attack on Foster, and even contemptuous of his arguments.

* * *

It was remarkable that not a single person in the meeting spoke up in defense of Foster. The whole faction was in revolt against him, with Bittelman in the lead and Browder and Johnstone close behind him. The funny thing about the whole business was that this fight, of almost unprecedented violence, which ordinarily would signify a complete break of personal and political relations between the participants, was apparently carried on with no thought of such consequences.

The Fosterites in revolt were still dependent on Foster’s name and prestige whether they liked it or not. At that time they had no prospect of playing a big role in the party without him. Foster, for his part, had nowhere else to go except to become a captive of the Lovestoneites, and that was impossible for him. So the whole stew blew up violently and then receded and continued to simmer and sizzle in the same pot. We, the “Cannonites,” stood aside and let the Fosterites fight it out among themselves. From a personal standpoint I felt a certain sympathy for the slaves in hysterical rebellion. But from a political standpoint I couldn’t see any sense whatever in encouraging a split with a view to realignment in the form of a bloc between our faction and the Fosterites, minus Foster.

Foster’s name and prestige, and his dogged persistence and outstanding ability as a mass worker, were always the bigger half of the assets of the Foster groups, and remained so even after he had been defeated and isolated within the group. This was shown quite conclusively a short time later. When Stalin wanted to convey a message – with more than a hint of future support – to the American opposition, he sent for Foster and gave it to him personally.

It is quite possible that Browder and Johnstone could have had illusions of going on without Foster as if nothing had happened, for they were notorious for their political unrealism and ineptitude. But I could not imagine Bittelman entertaining such illusions. He had always been pretty realistic in his estimate of the forces in the party and of his own impediments. He knew that he had to be allied with others who had what he lacked, and he relied on combinations in which he could play a strategic part. The original Foster-Bittelman-Cannon combination was made to order for him to play a role in the party that he never could have played by himself. His importance declined when one-third of the combination broke off. And he cannot have failed to understand that it would decline still more if he came to an open break with Foster.

I had known Bittelman as a man of reserve, who kept his personal feelings under control far better than most – a quality which I admired; and to this day I can’t understand what drove him to such violence in the attack on Foster as to risk the danger of an irreparable split. That he had any idea of fighting for the leadership of the party in his own name, is in my opinion the one hypothesis that has to be excluded.

* * *

There is one small postscript to my recollections of this family fight among the Fosterites, which was soon swallowed up in my preoccupation with the immeasurably larger subject of Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program, and all that it implied for my own future course.

After the meeting, in a personal conversation with Bill Dunne and me, Foster complained of the treatment he had received and intimated – without saying so directly – that he would like to have better personal relations with us for collaboration in the future. But my own mind was already turning to far bigger things than the old factions and faction squabbles in the American party, and I couldn’t get up any interest in them any more.

Foster’s Last Stand

January 22, 1958

Foster’s evolution in his twilight hours is strictly in accord with the evaluation of him which I have made in previous letters to you. Foster is fighting to the last twitch to justify himself, to protect his prestige, his place in history, which, as he sees it, long ago became completely dependent on the historical vindication of Stalinism.

But in the true sense of the word, Foster is not a “Stalinist Mohican” and still less a “Bourbon.” Foster is a Fosterite – a fame fetishist – who adapted himself to the Stalinist power as he had previously adapted himself to Fitzpatrick, and even to Gompers, with the calculation that in doing so he could serve his own ends and his own career. The big difference is that when his adaptation to Gompers, in order to serve his own purposes, ran up against the difficulty which always arises in such cases – that Gompers insisted on using the adaptation for his purposes – Foster could find an alternative field of operations, still within the labor movement, by adapting himself to Moscow, which eventually became an adaptation to Stalinism. But after that there was no third road open to him.

Foster was stuck with Stalinism. He could not hope to go back to Gompers and Fitzpatrick and find the necessary elbow room to advance his own fame and prestige.

He could not go over to the side of American capitalism; his role, his fame, and even more than that, his whole life, were irrevocably tied to the working class movement. To be sure, he might have considered the alternative of breaking with Stalinism and undertaking to create a new revolutionary movement from scratch. But for that he would have had to sacrifice his popularity, his prestige, his position and some kind of authority – or a simulacrum of it. It was not in Foster’s character to do that. So there he is, as his last sands run out, still clinging to his illusion that in trying to outwit history he is in some way or other making history.

Foster and the Later Stalinists

January 31, 1958

I do think it rather important, if one is to probe the phenomenon of American Stalinism to the bottom, to recognize the difference between Foster and that generation of young idealists who came into the party after it had become completely Stalinized and who never knew any other school.

Foster was past 40 when he came to the CP in 1921. His character, his general conceptions and his ambitions had been fully formed in the previous movements. There is no doubt that he had learned something from the Russians and changed a little. But his primary strategy was to adapt himself to the new power in order to serve his original ambition to rearrange things in the American trade-union movement and advance his own career in the process. The savage irony in the whole affair is that the Stalinist power, which he had set out to use, used him instead and used him up and is still using him in his last hour. Who can feel sorry when the biter gets bit? Not me.

You raise an interesting question when you say: “It’s better that he should be a fake Stalinist than a real one.” I personally find it easier at least to try to have a sympathetic understanding of the young men who joined the party in the early Thirties with full conviction that they were serving the cause of communism. Gates’ articles in the New York Post, which I have just read, unknowingly draw a poignant picture of this deceived and betrayed generation of young idealists. Their story remains to be written, but I suppose it would take a deep-seeing artist to do justice to the theme. There is a profounder tragedy in their aspirations and defeat than in the career of Foster who came to Stalinism with tongue in cheek.

Last updated on: 18.6.2006