James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

Foster and Browder

Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, pp.127-131.
Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription & Mark-up: Andrew Pollack/Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

August 4, 1954

Dear Sir:

My statement about the limited number of Foster’s AFL group who became communists corresponds to the facts, and even probably gives this group a little the best of it. Only two of them, besides Foster – Joe Manley and Jack Johnstone – ever played a noticeable role in the party. I knew Jay Fox by reputation as an anarchist editor of pre-World War I days, but never encountered him anywhere in the CP. That meant pretty nearly for sure that he wasn’t there, because I knew everybody who was in any way active or prominent from one end of the country to the other. The same applies to David Coutts whom Foster mentions (in his History of the Communist Party of the United States).

It is quite possible that these people and a few, but not “many,” others of the Foster AFL group, formally joined the party and then dropped out without attracting anyone’s attention. Sam Hammersmark played a minor role in the Chicago local organization during the time I was there in 1923-1927. But like most of those whose ideas and methods of work had been shaped in the narrow school of trade unionism, he was lost in the complexities of party politics.

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 communist movement 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 Profintern in 1921 and thus started him on the road to the party. By one of those historical quirks, for which I ask neither praise nor blame, I was directly responsible for Browder’s coming into the left wing of the SP in the first place in 1918; for his introduction to the national leadership of the CP and his coming to New York in 1921; and for his delegation to the Profintern in the same year. It was in Moscow at the Profintern Congress that Browder got together with Foster again and then became his first assistant, and a very efficient one, in the office of the TUEL.

Browder’s background and my own were almost identical, as were the successive stages of our political evolution. We were both about the same age, both originated in Kansas, were both socialists from early youth, and both made the switch from the SP to syndicalism along about the same time. Thereafter, for a number of years our paths diverged a bit. Browder became a convert to the Fosterite version of syndicalism and I remained an IWW. However, partings of the ways organizationally never brought such a sharp break in cooperation and in personal relations as has been the case in later years after the War and the Russian Revolution.

In those days people in the various groups and tendencies used to maintain personal contact and cooperate with each other in causes of mutual concern, particularly in labor defense matters. Browder and I became well acquainted and worked together, along with radicals of other stripes in Kansas City, in defense committees for Tom Mooney, in the Schmidt-Kaplan case which grew out of the McNamara affair, and in similar activities of a “united front” character before we ever heard of that term.

We were drawn together more closely by America’s entry into the First World War and our common opposition to it. Browder and his brothers were influenced by the anarchist propaganda of Berkman and Goldman and attempted to organize an open fight against conscription, refusing on principle to register for the draft. I took a somewhat different tactical line – favored by most of the IWW’s and left socialists – of registering for the draft as a “conscientious objector.”

Shortly before his first imprisonment for a year in 1917, for refusing to register for the draft, Browder had made a trip to New York. There he contacted the people connected with the Cooperative League of America and began to lean very strongly in the direction of work in the cooperative movement, both as an occupation and as a means of political expression. While he was in jail I was completely revising my syndicalist views under the influence of the Russian Revolution and the popularization of its leading ideas in The Liberator and The Revolutionary Age.

To put my newly acquired political conceptions into practice I decided to rejoin the Socialist Party and connect myself with the national left wing, then being promoted by The Revolutionary Age; I got together with A.A. (“Shorty”) Beuhler and a number of other militants in Kansas City, who were favorable to the idea of a new political alignment, and we decided to start a weekly paper in Kansas City to express our views. At an early stage in the promotion of this project Browder and his brothers were released from jail and I immediately took up the new program with them.

I am quite sure that such a drastic reorientation had not occurred to Browder before this meeting. But he, like myself, was a pronounced anti-capitalist revolutionist to start with, and I found him receptive and sympathetic to the new idea. We soon came to agreement and then went to work in earnest to launch our paper, the Workers World. We joined the Socialist Party Local at the same time, along with a number of other live-wire militants in Kansas City-former IWW’s, AFL syndicalists, socialists, and quite a few independent radicals who had previously dropped out of the SP, finding it an inadequate expression of their radical views.

Browder was the first editor of the paper, but a short time later he had to go to Leavenworth to begin serving a second two-year term for conspiracy to obstruct the draft, and I took over the editorship. We ran the paper for about six months, until I was arrested in December, 1919, and indicted under the war-time Lever Act, because of my agitation in the Kansas coal fields against the anti-strike injunction of the federal government.

When Browder finished his second prison term, along about January, 1921, I was already in New York, a member of the Central Committee and in the thick of party politics. Browder was unknown to the other party leaders, but on my motion was brought to New York and placed in charge of organizing the delegation to the Profintern Congress. It was in that function that he resumed his contact with Foster and arranged for Foster also to attend.

This is a rather long and involved explanation of the original point – that the Foster AFL group was not the medium through which Browder came into the CP, although he had been previously connected with Foster.

* * *

In his History of the Communist Party of the United States Foster makes an elaborate attempt to back-write 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 (l9l7-l9l8) 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 19l9 – 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 steel workers 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, rewritten 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 achievements 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 showdown 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 support 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.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

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