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The Workers' Bill

Here's the last section of chapter 6 of my dissertation on the unemployed in Chicago during the Depression. The previous two sections are here and here. It's mostly about the now-forgotten—outrageously—Workers' Unemployment Insurance Bill that the Communist Party wrote, which became wildly popular among millions of people. Almost no historians have written about it—maybe in part because it too-radically challenges notions of American individualism, centrism, conservatism, and the like. These things, to the extent they exist, are the product of class repression, not some sort of innate liberal/conservative consensus in Americans' DNA.


Popular radicalism

The kinds of mass behavior that have been described here should put to rest the old notion that victims of the Depression tended to be timid, subservient, and primarily self-blaming. Rather, it seems that at least as often they were resentful, rebellious, and conscious of injustice. They lashed out against their subjection to callous institutions, braving police brutality in order to force their demands on government and the relief administration. The ease with which Communists were able to mobilize countless numbers across the country already in early 1930—by insisting that relief was a “right rooted in justice rather than a privilege based on charity,” to quote James Lorence—testifies to a decidedly non-submissive attitude among the public, as does the willingness of millions in the next few years to publicly acknowledge their unemployment by participating in highly visible demonstrations. However discouraged the Depression’s victims may have been, and however ashamedly they may have initially approached the relief station, it did not take long for possibly a majority of them to come to the radical conclusion that relief, in fact generous relief, was something to which they were entitled.[1]

On a relatively individualized level this attitude, or something like it, was manifested in the “fraud” that relief clients frequently engaged in. The paucity of discussions of relief fraud in historical scholarship is unfortunate, for it was anything but a marginal phenomenon. From the standpoint of the relief administration, this fact was inevitable: since caseworkers were often responsible for more than two hundred cases each, they could hardly investigate every one with the thoroughness that the Chicago Tribune, for example, would have liked. (The Tribune frequently ran articles alleging fraud of massive proportions among relief recipients.) This means that reliable statistics do not exist. Occasional special investigations, however, had suggestive findings. An investigation by the IERC in 1938 found that a third of relief cases in Springfield were receiving relief through “fraud or inefficiency.” Another investigation that year found that nearly half the cases in Granite City, Illinois evidenced fraud. Indeed, an informant from the IERC told the Tribune that “the Illinois Workers’ Alliance has been, to all practical purposes, running the administration of relief [in Granite City].” Two studies of fraud in Chicago found that 51 percent of “chiselers” were foreign-born whites and 18 percent were Black.[2]

The resourcefulness with which people cheated the relief administration is revealed by E. Wight Bakke’s anecdotal accounts. One caseworker in New Haven who understood Italian was able to eavesdrop on Italian clients’ conversations: she would hear the mother call to her son to come see the investigator but to put his old shoes on first, or parents tell someone in the back of the house to put away the wine or food before the investigator came inside. One man who was living with relatives complained to a steam fitter that he could not get on relief. “Did you tell them you’re living with relatives?” his interlocutor asked. “Yes.” “You are a damn fool. You never should have told them that. Tell them you are light housekeeping in a couple of rooms.” “It doesn’t pay to give them a straight story, does it?” “Oh, Christ!” the steam fitter scoffed. “You’ll never get anything if you tell the truth. You gotta be wise, give them a good story.” The fact that this was considered utterly obvious, as if one had to be extremely stupid not to know it, suggests how widespread such wisdom must have been.[3]

However mundane and commonsensical relief fraud may seem, in its essence it was not far removed from the eviction protests, relief demonstrations, hunger marches, group thefts, and bootlegging that have received more attention from historians. All such activities constituted a kind of class resistance—resistance against rules and institutions that upheld the power of a dominant class. And all such activities both presupposed and encouraged the attitude that people suffering from material deprivation were entitled to resist power for the sake of their dignity and well-being.

A particularly radical form of this belief, or an extension of it, was the conviction that structures of power had to be drastically altered so that society would provide for those who could not provide for themselves. Whether elderly or infirm or involuntarily out of work, people were owed economic security; and it was to be provided at the expense of the wealthy. In immense numbers, Americans in effect believed and fought for the communist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[4]

An illustration of this fact is the support that Americans gave between 1930 and 1936 to a radical proposal for unemployment and social insurance that was originally authored by the Communist Party. While the proposal took slightly different forms over the years, its essence is captured in the description given at the end of chapter one of this book. When it was introduced (as the Workers’ Social Insurance Bill) in Congress for the last time, in 1936, by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and Republican Senator Lynn Frazier of North Dakota, it took an even more generous form than before: it included insurance for widows, mothers, and the self-employed, appropriated $5 billion for the year 1936, established a Workers’ Social Insurance Commission to administer the system, and elaborated in much more detail than its forerunners had in 1934 and 1935 on how the system would be financed and managed. As before, Congress did not come close to approving the measure. Its provisions were so radical, in fact, that it never had a chance. But what is interesting is the momentum that developed behind it, despite what amounted to a conspiracy of silence from the press and extreme hostility from business constituencies, conservative Congressmen, and the Roosevelt administration.[5]

The history of the Workers’ Social Insurance Bill (in its various forms), which was to become one of the most popular pieces of legislation of the Depression decade, began in 1930, when the Communist Party proposed its first iteration—an incredible $25 per week to the unemployed and $5 for each dependent—and immediately proceeded to agitate on its behalf. The reception that the unemployed gave this campaign suggests that it did not take long at all for a large proportion of the Depression’s victims to reject the voluntarist ideology of the 1920s—not to mention “self-blame” for their troubles—in favor of massive government intervention in the economy for the purpose of income redistribution. By late summer of 1930, the Daily Worker was already reporting mass petition signings and continual demonstrations for the bill in scores of cities, including small ones like Indianapolis, Springfield, Belleville, Rockford, Milwaukee, South Chicago, and Gary, Indiana (to speak only of cities near Chicago).[6]

The pace of actions died down a bit in the fall but picked up again in December and January, in preparation for February 10, 1931, when 150 delegates elected from around the country were going to present the bill and its hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress. Requests for signature lists flooded into the New York office of the National Campaign Committee for Unemployment Insurance from not only the large industrial centers but even towns and farms in the South and West, and Alaska. Metal workers in Chicago Heights got involved in the campaign; railroad workers and section hands in Reno, Nevada signed petitions; letters like the following were sent to the Daily Worker:

Let me know what I can do to help carry forward the fight for unemployment insurance? This is the greatest need at this hour. I am the only reader of the Daily Worker here in Ashby, Minn., and am one of four Communist votes cast here in the elections. I am a woman of 60 years, living on land; I pass out all my Daily Workers to neighbors and am getting new subscribers. Will help all I can to get signatures for the bill.[7]

Countless united front conferences of workers’ organizations took place in cities around the country, for instance Gary, Indiana, where the keynote of one conference was sounded by a Black steelworker and veteran of World War I who said, in part, “It’s no use going way over to France to fight. We can demand things here just as good as we can there, fight here just as good as there, and if need be, die here just as good as there… Let’s fight for ourselves, right here, now.” They fought in Charlotte, North Carolina; Ambridge, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia; Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, and San Antonio; Hartford, Buffalo, and San Francisco. City hunger marches were so numerous that the Daily Worker could not keep track of them. The Workers’ Bill, of course, was not the only or even the most pressing issue addressed by all these actions, but it figured prominently among their demands. On the big day, February 10, demonstrations and state hunger marches occurred in at least sixty-three cities as the delegation in Washington, D.C. interrupted a session in the House and was forcibly ejected by police. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the type of action occurred that was already becoming rather common: demonstrators broke through police lines around the state capitol and occupied the legislative chambers, announcing that they would not leave until the legislature had acted on their demands.[8]

In short, even before churches, charities, and benefit societies had conclusively demonstrated their inability to meet the crisis, well over a million people nationwide were actively demanding that the U.S. become in effect an expansive social democracy. In general, a collectivist orientation among the populace did not have to wait for Roosevelt and the New Deal to act as midwives. It emerged organically on the grassroots level, stimulated both by radical groups and by suffering people’s sense that society, with all its abundant resources possessed ultimately by the federal government, had to do something to end the epidemic of unjust suffering. Roosevelt and the New Deal were products of the country’s growing collectivism more than they were causes of it. And for many millions of Americans, they never went far enough.

Support for the Workers’ Bill grew during the next few years. In June 1931, a hunger march of several hundred delegates to Springfield culminated in one of its leaders’ delivering a speech before the Illinois state legislature demanding enactment of the bill. Other such marches occurred, for example, in April, August, and October of 1933. The two national hunger marches that Communists organized in December 1931 and 1932 gave publicity to the bill; and on February 4, 1932, which the Communist Party had dubbed National Unemployment Insurance Day, hundreds of thousands of people around the country demonstrated for it. Petitions garnered thousands of signatures: according to the Hunger Fighter, in just three weeks in March 1932, over 30,000 people in Chicago—in factories, AFL locals, public shelters, and neighborhoods—signed the bill, in preparation for May 2, when two hundred workers “from all important industries from every section of America” were again going to present the petitions to Congress. Across the country, including in Chicago, 1933 saw the organizing of numerous conferences of unemployed groups to coordinate the campaign for unemployment insurance and to prepare for the CP’s National Convention Against Unemployment in February 1934.[9]

That February was also the month that Representative Lundeen introduced the bill in the House. While it fared even worse in this session of Congress than it was to fare in 1935, Lundeen’s sponsorship increased the momentum of its popularity among the working class. Within just a couple of months of its introduction, eight hundred more AFL locals had defied the Federation’s leadership and endorsed it, joining 1,200 locals that had done so earlier. In Chicago, John Fitzpatrick and other leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor began to have less success than in previous years preventing unions from endorsing it, as locals of the Railway Conductors, Railway Clerks, Machinists, Painters, School Custodians, Women’s Upholsterers, Millinery Workers, and many other unions sent delegates to a Communist-sponsored unemployment insurance conference in the summer of 1934. In July, representatives of 43,000 workers who were organized in fraternal and benevolent societies attended a hearing before the Chicago City Council to demand that that body support the bill; committees also visited aldermen in their wards to demand the same. In September, at another conference in Chicago, delegates from the National Unemployed Leagues, the Illinois Workers Alliance, the Eastern Federation of Unemployed and Emergency Workers Union, the Wisconsin Federation of Unemployed Leagues, and the Fort Wayne Unemployed League—in the aggregate claiming a membership of 750,000—endorsed the measure.[10]

Meanwhile, in January 1934 an organization had been founded that was to play an important role in lending academic respectability to the bill: the Inter-Professional Association for Social Insurance (IPA). While not officially affiliated with the Communist Party, it had close ties to leading Party members and coordinated its campaign for passage of the Lundeen Bill with organizations of the Left. Within a year it had dozens of chapters and organizing committees around the country, made up of both individual professionals and representatives of groups—nurses, physicians, actors, teachers, engineers, architects, etc. The distinguished social worker Mary Van Kleeck of the Russell Sage Foundation led an army of her colleagues in supporting the bill and, in some cases, proselytizing for it in the press and before Congress. Economists and lawyers associated with the IPA testified to the economic soundness and constitutionality of the measure, especially in 1935, when Lundeen reintroduced it as H.R. 2827. Left-wing professionals considered it vastly superior to the Wagner-Lewis bill of 1934 and 1935—which became the Social Security Act—a professor at Smith College, for example, damning the latter as “a proposal to set up little privileged groups in the sea of misery who would be content to sit on their small islands and watch the others drown.” The Lundeen Bill was certainly not without flaws, including its vagueness and, arguably, the financial burden it would impose on the country, but evidently its Communist-style radicalism was so appreciated that even experts in their field were willing to overlook its defects.[11]

In fact, it was far more radical than the Soviet Union’s measures for unemployment and social insurance. While the Lundeen Bill provided, among other things, for unemployment benefits for an unlimited period of time equal to 100 percent of wages—or much more, since an unskilled laborer with a wife and four children who might be lucky to get $16 a week would get $25 if unemployed![12]—in Soviet Russia only about 35 percent of the customary wage was paid, and that for a limited time. Moreover, the various forms of insurance that H.R. 2827 would establish (unemployment, old age, maternity, disability, and industrial injury) were to be administered by councils of workers and their representatives, thus embodying “workers’ democracy,” which the Soviet system certainly did not. In effect, then, the millions of Americans who advocated the measure desired a system that was more authentically communist/socialist than the Soviet one. This is another indication that it was largely the designation “Communist” to which many people objected, not the substance of radical doctrines.[13]

A few days after Lundeen reintroduced his bill in early January 1935, the National Congress for Unemployment and Social Insurance was held in Washington, D.C., at the Washington Auditorium. Organized by the CP and its many allies, the congress comprised almost three thousand delegates who had come by truck, jalopy, rail, box car, and on foot from every region of the country and forty states. To quote one historian, “cowboys from Colorado and Wyoming, black sharecroppers from Alabama, Texas oil hands, Florida housewives, skilled and unskilled workers, employed and unemployed” in the dead of winter made the pilgrimage to the nation’s seat of power, guided by visions of an egalitarian society, conscious that in their aggregate they directly represented millions and indirectly represented well over half the country. Unions of all types—professional, AFL-affiliated, independent; fraternal organizations and political groups; farm organizations and shop delegates; women’s groups, church groups, veterans’ groups, and unemployed groups—hundreds of such organizations, in an anticipation of the Popular Front, managed to overcome the congenital sectarianism of the Left and call as one for unprecedented social democracy. A few of the scores of lesser-known unemployed groups that were represented included the Chinese Unemployed Alliance, the Farmer Labor Union, the Italian Unemployed Groups, the Relief Workers League, the United Mine Workers Unemployment Council, the Workers Union of the World, and the Dancers Emergency Association. The National Urban League, which endorsed the bill, also sent delegates.[14]

The legendary socialist and feminist Mother Bloor, who addressed the congress, pithily summed up its significance to a reporter from the Washington Post: “‘The congress is a success. It’s proved a big crowd of people can break down barriers of race, social position, political opinions, and convictions for a common cause. Why, there are white people and yellow people and black people out there.’ She nodded toward the mass meeting going on in the auditorium. ‘There are Communists and Socialists and Republicans. There’s even some Democrats.’” At the congressional hearings on H.R. 2827, the chairman of the congress stated, not implausibly, that it had “formed the broadest and most representative congress of the American people ever held in the United States.”[15]

The congressional hearings themselves were noteworthy. While the executive secretary of the IPA may have exaggerated when he wrote, “The record of the hearings on H.R. 2827 is one of the most challenging ever placed before the Congress of the United States and probably the most unique document ever to appear in the Congressional Record,” that judgment is understandable. Eighty witnesses testified: industrial workers, farmers, veterans, professional workers, women, the foreign-born, and youth. “Probably never in American history,” an editor of the Nation wrote, “have the underprivileged had a better opportunity to present their case before Congress.” The aggregate of the testimonies amounted to a systematic indictment of American capitalism and the New Deal, and an impassioned defense of the radical alternative under consideration. Witness after witness described the harrowing suffering that they and the thousands they represented (in each case) were enduring, and condemned the Wagner-Lewis bill as a sham. From the representative of the American Youth Congress, which encompassed over two million people, to the representative of the United Council of Working-Class Women, which had ten thousand members, each testimony fleshed out the eminently “class-conscious” point of view of the people back home who had “gather[ed] up nickels and pennies which they [could] poorly spare” in order to send someone to plead their case before Congress. Most of the Congressmen on the Labor subcommittee they were addressing were strikingly sympathetic.[16]

For example, when Herbert Benjamin, one of the leaders of the CP, had this to say on press coverage (or the lack thereof) of the Lundeen Bill—

So much has been said in the last few weeks about the Townsend plan [for old-age pensions]. I have discussed this question with a number of Members [of Congress], and they tell me that, outside of California, they received not a single postal card on the Townsend plan, but they received thousands of cards from all over the United States on the Lundeen Bill, asking for the enactment of this bill. Yet the newspapers, by reason of the fact that they really fear this measure and do not fear the Townsend plan, knowing that the Townsend plan can be a very good red herring to draw attention away from social insurance, have given publicity to the Townsend plan, and have yet avoided very studiously any attention to the workers’ unemployment and social-insurance measure—

the chairman of the subcommittee, Matthew Dunn, interrupted to say,

I want to substantiate the statement you just made about the Townsend bill and about this bill. Now, I represent the Thirty-fourth District in Pennsylvania, which is a very large district. May I say that I do not believe I have received over a half dozen letters to support the Townsend bill… [But] I have received many letters and cards from all over the country asking me to give my utmost support in behalf of the Lundeen bill, H.R. 2827.[17]

Incidentally, Benjamin’s complaint about press coverage was justified. Overwhelmingly more press attention was devoted to the ridiculous Townsend Plan that made no economic sense at all;[18] virtually no coverage was granted the Lundeen Bill except during and after the subcommittee’s hearings, and even then it was mostly local papers that covered it. According to the executive secretary of the IPA, “forty-three news releases to all the news agencies and newspapers of the major cities during the course of two weeks [i.e., during the hearings] were, with few exceptions, suppressed, although in those outlying districts where organization has made the demands of the workers more articulate, some papers carried workers’ testimony as front page news.” Historians have followed newspapers’ lead by ignoring the Lundeen Bill and focusing on the Townsend Plan, in many cases condescendingly interpreting the popularity of the latter as evidence of the credulousness of the American public. This emphasis is unfortunate in that (1) it was the press that was significantly responsible for propagating the Townsend Plan (presumably to divert attention from the Lundeen Bill), and (2) the supposedly simple-minded public had the organizational sophistication and political savvy to build a mass movement around a more reasonable bill premised on both the reality and the valorization of class conflict, not only without help from the press but despite intense hostility from all sectors of power. Under such conditions, for example, organizers’ ability to get over five million signatures on their petitions was no mean achievement.[19]

Admittedly, compared to the number of signatures they likely could have collected had they possessed more resources, five million is not terribly impressive. In the spring of 1935 the New York Post conducted a poll of its readers after printing the contents of the Lundeen, the Townsend, and the Wagner-Lewis bills. Out of 1,391 votes cast, 1,209 readers supported the first, 157 the second, 14 the third, and 7 none of them. Of the 1,073 respondents who were employed, 957 supported the Lundeen Bill, 100 the Townsend Bill, 7 the Wagner-Lewis Bill, and 5 none. It would not be outlandish to infer from these findings that, had they known of the contents of the bills, the large majority of working-class Americans would have much preferred Lundeen’s Communist-written one. This is also suggested by the enormous number of letters congressmen received on the measure, such as this one sent to Lundeen:

The reason I am writing you is, that we Farmers [and] Industrial workers feel that you are the only Congressman and Representative that is working for our interest. We have analyzed the Wagner-Lewis Bill [and] also [the] Townsend Bill. But the Lundeen H.R. (2827) is the only bill that means anything for our class… The people all over the country are [waking] up to the facts that the two old Political Parties are owned soul, mind [and] body by the Capitalist Class.[20]

Feeling the pressure of this mass movement, both the subcommittee and the House Labor Committee voted in favor of H.R. 2827 that spring, making it the first federal unemployment insurance plan in U.S. history to be recommended by a committee. It had no chance in the House, though. The Rules Committee refused to send it to the floor, although it allowed Lundeen to propose it as an amendment to the Social Security Bill (as a substitute for the unemployment insurance provisions in that bill). It was defeated in April by a vote of 204 to 52.[21]

As far as its advocates were concerned, the fight was not over. Throughout the spring and summer the flood of endorsements did not stop. The first national convention of rank-and-file social workers endorsed it in February; the Progressive Miners of America followed, along with scores of local unions and such ethnic societies as the Italian-American Democratic Organization of New York (with 235,000 members) and the Slovak-American Political Federation of Youngstown, Ohio. Virtually identical state versions of H.R. 2827 were (or already had been) introduced in the legislatures of California, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other states. Conferences of unions and fraternal organizations were called in a number of states, including the Deep South, to plan further campaigns for the Workers’ Bill. That year’s May Day was one of the largest in American history, “monster demonstrations” (to quote the New York Times) of tens of thousands taking place in New York City; and in many cities, included among the marchers were united fronts of church groups, workers clubs, fraternal lodges, and Communist and Socialist groups parading under banners demanding the passage of H.R. 2827. While the majority of AFL unions never endorsed the bill, perhaps because William Green and the Executive Council were exerting intense pressure on them not to do so, it is probable that most of the rank and file supported it.[22]

As stated above, in January 1936 Lynn Frazier and Ernest Lundeen introduced in their respective houses of Congress a more sophisticated version of the bill, which the Inter-Professional Association had written. Again it was endorsed by unions, labor councils, and other institutions, including the 1936 convention of the EPIC movement in California. In New York, “flying squads” from the Fraternal Federation for Social Insurance visited lodges and fraternal organizations throughout the city to secure their support. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and several other cities, united-front conferences and committees were organized to campaign for the bill. The hearings before the Senate Labor Committee in April resembled the hearings on H.R. 2827, with academics, social workers, unionists, and farmers testifying as to the inadequacy of the Social Security Act and the necessity of the Frazier-Lundeen Bill. A representative of the National Committee on Rural Social Planning spoke for the millions of agricultural workers, sharecroppers, tenants, and small owners when he opined that this bill was “the only one which is likely to check the fascist terror now riding the fields” in the South (directed against the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and similar organizations).[23]

The fascist terror continued unchecked, however, for the bill did not even make it out of committee. After its dismal fate in 1936, it was never introduced again.

From a certain perspective, one might say that the Workers’ Bill, in its radicalism and collectivism, departed from traditions of “Americanism,” whatever that word is taken to mean. A more defensible perspective, however, would see the bill as something like the apotheosis of collectivist strains that for many decades had been, and would continue to be, embedded deeply in American popular culture. The class solidarity it embodied in its frontal attack on fundamental institutions of capitalism—private appropriation of wealth, determination of wages by the market, maintenance of an insecure army of the unemployed—was hardly an anomaly in the history of the U.S.

What one Communist organizer wrote of some workers in a small mining town in Southern Illinois can, perhaps, be generalized: “They were filled with capitalist ideology—at the same time being strongly anti-capitalist.” Even as many Americans believed, with these workers, that “capitalism had always existed, that it had come into existence peacefully, that capital and labor are equally necessary,” their actions revealed a starkly opposed ideology and value-system. Farmers and industrial workers, for example, in many cases identified with each other’s causes and embraced them. In November 1933, the Farmers’ National Relief Conference was held at the Coliseum in Chicago: seven hundred “frost-bitten” delegates from around the country met to coordinate their campaign for a cancellation of all farm debts, including mortgages, crop loans, taxes, and rents. They were greeted and joined by workers from basic industries in Chicago, and fed in part by donations of bread from the West Side Jewish Bakers Union. Around the same time, the Daily Worker reported that striking farmers in Kankakee, Illinois and employed and unemployed workers were helping each other: the farmers were distributing hundreds of quarts of free milk to workers who were on strike and to the unemployed, and at the same time workers had joined the farmers on their picket line. A few hundred miles away, in Detroit, a statewide conference was being held on the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill to which both farmers’ and workers’ organizations had sent delegates.[24]

Historians have recognized that it was essential to the success of the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934 that thousands of the “class-conscious” unemployed, instead of scabbing, joined strikers on the picket lines. But this was only the most dramatic example of a phenomenon that was much more widespread than scholars seem to have appreciated. A miners’ strike in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in the fall of 1933 was successful largely because thousands of unemployed men joined it. That October, the municipal unemployment relief committee in Edgewater, New Jersey tried to use people on relief as scabs in the strike that was going on at the Ford plant nearby, but the unemployed refused to accept the jobs. Instead they joined the picket line and marched in solidarity with the workers on strike. It was noted above that members of the Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment, not to mention the Unemployed Councils, walked in picket lines with signs proclaiming “The Unemployed Won’t Scab.” This was the case in, e.g., Milwaukee too, as in the summer of 1934, when the Milwaukee Workers Committee saved the Electric Railway and Light Company strike by organizing mass picketing of the unemployed. That same year, Minneapolis General Drivers’ Local 544 recruited unemployed workers for its picket lines during a general strike, and even formed a lasting auxiliary called the Federal Workers Section. Robert Asher observed in 1934 that in both Wisconsin and Illinois (and evidently elsewhere), “the cooperation furnished by the unemployed to workers and farmers in industrial and agricultural disputes has been significant.” The Musteite Unemployed Leagues were similarly successful in providing solidarity to striking workers.[25]

It is true that in the absence of unemployed organizations, it was more common for the jobless to act as strikebreakers, or at least not to join strikes. The CPLA’s Executive Committee, allied with the Unemployed Councils, acknowledged this fact in December 1933, when it lamented that recent diversions of cadre from the UCs to other activities had resulted in a decline in participation by the unemployed on picket lines. This is hardly surprising, however, for organization has always facilitated radicalization. The noteworthy thing is that under certain conditions, even people desperate for work were willing and eager to aid their class brothers at the expense of getting a job.[26]

While there is not space to embellish much on this point, we may note that it is not necessary to turn to the Workers’ Bill or manifestations of class solidarity between employed and unemployed workers in order to find evidence of a kind of class consciousness and anti-capitalism. We can consider, instead, two phenomena that have received a great deal of attention from historians: the mass following behind Huey Long and the mass following behind the “radio priest” Charles Coughlin—at least before his antisemitism overwhelmed the genuinely left-wing content of his message (in the late thirties, by which time his popularity was a shadow of its former self). The Long and Coughlin movements have been analyzed so often that it is superfluous to dwell on them here.[27] However, a few observations may be worth making, to correct the “anti-left” biases of liberal historians like Alan Brinkley, Anthony Badger, and Jefferson Cowie.[28]

Brinkley, Robert McElvaine, and others have made the point, but it bears repeating: neither Long nor Coughlin (before 1938) was a fascist. A journalist wrote in early 1935 that Coughlin “talk[s] about a living wage, about profits for the farmer, about government-protected labor unions. He insists that human rights be placed above property rights. He emphasizes the ‘wickedness’ of ‘private financialism and production for profit.’” Consistent with these values were the principles of Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, founded in 1934, including the following: a “just and living [i.e., not market-determined] annual wage which will enable [every citizen willing and able to work] to maintain and educate his family according to the standards of American decency”; nationalization of such “public necessities” as banking, credit and currency, power, light, oil and natural gas, and natural resources; private ownership of all other property, but control of it for the public good; abolition of the privately owned Federal Reserve and establishment of a government-owned central bank; “the lifting of crushing taxation from the slender revenues of the laboring class” and substituting for it taxation of the rich; in the event of war, “a conscription of wealth as well as a conscription of men”; and the guiding value that “the chief concern of government shall be for the poor.” Insofar as Coughlin’s tens of millions of fans agreed with this political program, they certainly can be said to have desired fundamental reforms in American capitalism, reforms that would have ushered in a much more collectivistic and socialistic society.[29]

Indeed, were it not that Coughlin always remembered to denounce Communism almost as vociferously (though not as verbosely) as he denounced capitalism and Wall Street titans, one suspects that he might have encountered more censorship than he did. This is suggested by an unusual incident in March 1936, when, in order to advertise its supposedly liberal position on freedom of speech, CBS invited Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party, to speak for fifteen minutes (at 10:45 p.m.) on a national radio broadcast, with the understanding that he would be answered the following night by zealous anti-Communist Congressman Hamilton Fish. This “generosity” towards a Communist created quite a furor among right-wing organizations such as the National Americanization League, which subsequently picketed the CBS building, and a number of stations around the country refused to air Browder’s talk. But it was in fact considerably more tame than Coughlin’s diatribes. Browder simply appealed to “the majority of the toiling people” to establish a national Farmer-Labor Party that would be affiliated with the Communist Party but “would not yet take up the full program of socialism, for which many are not yet prepared.” He did admit that Communists’ ultimate aim was to remake the U.S. “along the lines of the highly successful Soviet Union”: once they had the support of a majority of Americans, he said, “we will put that program into effect with the same firmness, the same determination, with which Washington and the founding fathers carried through the revolution that established our country, with the same thoroughness with which Lincoln abolished chattel slavery.”[30]

Reactions to Browder’s talk were revealing: according to both CBS and the Daily Worker, they were almost uniformly positive. CBS immediately received several hundred responses praising Browder’s talk, and the Daily Worker, whose New York address Browder had mentioned on the air, received thousands of letters. The following are representative:

Chattanooga, Tennessee: “If you could have listened to the people I know who listened to you, you would have learned that your speech did much to make them realize the importance of forming a Farmer-Labor Party. I am sure that the 15 minutes into which you put so much that is vitally important to the American people was time used to great advantage. Many people are thanking you, I know.”
Evanston, Illinois: “Just listened to your speech tonight and I think it was the truest talk I ever heard on the radio. Mr. Browder, would it not be a good thing if you would have an opportunity to talk to the people of the U.S.A. at least once a week, for 30 to 60 minutes? Let’s hear from you some more, Mr. Browder.”
Springfield, Pennsylvania: “I listened to your most interesting speech recently on the radio. I would be much pleased to receive your articles on Communism. Although I am an American Legion member I believe you are at least sincere in your teachings.”
Bricelyn, Minnesota: “Your speech came in fine and it was music to the ears of another unemployed for four years. Please send me full and complete data on your movement and send a few extra copies if you will, as I have some very interested friends—plenty of them eager to join up, as is yours truly.”
Harrold, South Dakota: “Thank you for the fine talk over the air tonight. It was good common sense and we were glad you had a chance to talk over the air and glad to hear someone who had nerve enough to speak against capitalism.”
Sparkes, Nebraska: “Would you send me 50 copies of your speech over the radio last night? I would like to give them to some of my neighbors who are all farmers.
Arena, New York: “Although I am a young Republican (but good American citizen) I enjoyed listening to your radio speech last evening. I believe you told the truth in a convincing manner and I failed to see where you said anything dangerous to the welfare of the American people.”[31]

In general, the main themes of the letters were questions like, “Where can I learn more about the Communist Party?” and “How can I join your Party?” Some people sent money in the hope that it would facilitate more broadcasts. The editors of the Daily Worker plaintively asked their readers, “Isn’t it time we overhauled our old horse-and-buggy methods of recruiting? While we are recruiting by ones and twos, aren’t we overlooking hundreds?” One can only imagine how many millions of people in far-flung regions would have flocked to the Communist banner had Browder and William Z. Foster been permitted the national radio audience that Coughlin was.

The interpretation that Alan Brinkley espouses as regards radicalism in the 1930s reflects dominant tendencies in American historiography:

The failure of more radical political movements to take root in the 1930s reflected, in part, the absence of a serious radical tradition in American political culture. The rhetoric of class conflict echoed only weakly among men and women steeped in the dominant themes of their nation’s history; and leaders relying upon that rhetoric faced grave, perhaps insuperable difficulties in attempting to create political coalitions…[32]

But this argument is backward. The reason that left-wing leaders have had trouble achieving mainstream success is simply that forces of repression and censorship, emanating from institutions with overwhelming control over resources, have suppressed them and the ideas—or, even more importantly, the information—they have tried to propagate.[33] There is no great mystery about it, no need to invoke deep-seated cultural tendencies of individualism or lack of comprehension of “class” (which is a pretty simple notion, after all).[34] When Browder’s radio audience heard him discuss class conflict and Marxism, a large proportion of them considered it “good common sense.” They did not have to struggle painfully to break free of the shackles of American ideologies, as if liberating their minds from enslavement to a long tradition of bourgeois cultural hegemony. They simply thought, in effect, “this is true, and kind of obvious.” But the “grave, perhaps insuperable difficulties” that Communists and others faced in getting information out to tens of millions of Americans had prevented these listeners from learning much about the political ideology they found so commonsensical, and even more from getting involved in a radical movement.

Similarly, Brinkley is wrong to argue, in the sentence that follows the above quotation, “The Long and Coughlin movements, by contrast, flourished precisely because they evoked so clearly one of the oldest and most powerful of American political traditions [namely, opposition to centralized authority and demands for the wide dispersal of power].”[35] Rather, they flourished for two main reasons: first, in rejecting Communism and Socialism—at least rhetorically—Long and Coughlin were not quite as anathema to various political and economic authorities as Communists and Socialists, and so were, to some extent, tolerated and even supported by those with power (such as the Catholic Church in the case of Coughlin and many Louisiana corporations and businessmen in the case of Long).[36] Since they were not constantly censored and suppressed, they were able to get their message out. Second, the two men appealed to the masses by, on the one hand, denouncing the nation’s “pigs swilling in the trough of luxury,” to quote Long, and on the other hand proposing radical schemes to redistribute wealth. At its core, the matter is as simple as that. Brinkley, characteristically, tries to deflect attention from class and material interests, but sometimes the simplest and most obvious explanation is the right one.

It requires impressive intellectual acrobatics to strongly differentiate the populism of Long and Coughlin from a semi-Marxian populism of class, when, for instance, Long’s whimsical retrospective account of his First Days in the White House, a book completed a few days before he was shot, describes accomplishments that are so class-oriented. As a reviewer summarized Long’s post-presidential self-description, “he was the man of action who in rapid succession launched a stupendous program of reclamation and conservation, who planned for scientific treatment of criminals, cheaper transportation and popular control of banking. Higher education for all became fact. Tell every parent, he said to his advisers, ‘I will send your boy and girl to college.’ There was much more, but all was overshadowed by legislation for the redistribution of wealth [by means of confiscatory taxation].” Such a plan was certainly utopian and therefore, one might say, little more than fantasy, but the communist vision that inspired Marxists was arguably even more utopian and fantastical. In any case, while Long and Coughlin’s supporters were not expert in the dialectics of Das Kapital, it is clear that most of them dreamed of, in effect, expropriating the expropriators, the great class of propertied magnates, and democratically distributing the proceeds among the middle class and relatively poor.[37]

Given all the protest movements that have been surveyed in this chapter, movements that had been swelling and surging from coast to coast since 1930, officials in the Roosevelt administration should not have been surprised to learn from their roving reporters in 1933 and 1934 that great masses of people had adopted a thoroughly “un-American” attitude towards relief. In August 1933, Lorena Hickock wrote to Harry Hopkins from Pennsylvania, “I still feel, as I felt a week ago, that vast numbers of the unemployed are ‘right on the edge,’ so to speak—that it wouldn’t take much to make Communists out of them.” Another reporter wrote that men on relief had become truculent, “more critical, more complaining, more ready to react,” and increasingly resentful of investigation and surveillance by social workers. In Ohio, unemployed families were “less and less embarrassed to ask for relief and…more and more dependent on it as security against times of unemployment as well as in some cases a bulwark forever.” In Flint, Michigan, “all the [relief] workers were unanimous in saying that a large proportion of the relief lists took the ‘entitled to it’ attitude.” The same was true in the Stockyards district of Chicago: according to the supervisor of a relief station there, “the clients are less patient than they used to be. They demand relief with more assurance. They criticize more freely.”[38]

A leading welfare administrator in New York declared in late 1934 that they could not go on for another year “without being forced to bring in a new social order.” The populist pressures were threatening to burst the integument of the old capitalist order. Far from, say, Long and Coughlin’s adoring fans not truly desiring radical change, even the average relief recipient apparently wanted the sphere of the market to be severely circumscribed and the federal government to assume the burden of guaranteeing economic security for all. It was Roosevelt’s failure to pursue this goal, to vigorously stand up to big business, that caused millions of Americans to turn away from him between late 1934 and early 1935. Historian Charles Beard observed a “staggering rapidity” in the “disintegration of President Roosevelt’s prestige” in early 1935, while Martha Gellhorn wrote, “it surprises me how radically attitudes can change within four or five months.” Correspondents wrote to Roosevelt that he had “faded out on the masses of hungry, idle people,” had served only the “very rich” and proven to be “no deferent [sic] from any other President.” “Huey Long is the man we thought you were when we voted for you,” a man wrote from Montana. The so-called Second New Deal shored up Roosevelt’s popular support, but it was not nearly as left-wing as many millions would have liked.[39]

In short, regarding the question whether broad swathes of America could have been called “revolution-minded” in the 1930s, the answer has to be yes, unless one arbitrarily confines the term “revolution” to a collective seizure of the national state and establishment of a so-called dictatorship of the proletariat. Sensibly, most Americans neither hoped for nor attempted such an uprising, which certainly would have been an abortive undertaking. Instead, large numbers of them attempted to carry out the more realistic and democratic revolution of compelling government to provide economic security to everyone, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, occupation, or age. The radicalism of this ambition was incredible: to realize it on a scale as immense as the United States would have been one of the great achievements of human history. It is no surprise, then, that the project failed. It is up to the present generation and its descendants to take up the battle again, illuminated by the study of past defeats and victories, and to carry it forward to fruition.

[1] Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed, 32. [2] Wayne McMillen, “Client ‘Fraud’ in Chicago,” Social Service Review, vol. 14, no. 1 (March 1940): 36–60; Chicago Tribune, February 28, March 13, 1938. [3] Bakke, The Unemployed Worker, 371–385. [4] It is worth noting, in fact, that it was not only in the 1930s that this was the case. A poll in 1987 found that 45 percent of Americans considered the quoted principle to be so morally obvious that they thought it was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution! See Jonah Goldberg, “The Will of the Uninformed,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2007. [5] “The New Workers Bill,” Social Work Today, February 1936, 3; Leo J. Linder, “The New Workers Social Insurance Bill,” Social Work Today, March 1936, 9–12; Daily Worker, January 4, 1936. [6] Daily Worker, July 31, August 2, 13, 18, 20, 1930. [7] Ibid., December 18, 1930. [8] Ibid., January 9, 14, 15, 27, 28, 29, February 2–13, 1931; New York Herald Tribune, February 11, 1931; New York Times, February 11, 1931; Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1931. [9] New York Times, June 14, 15, 1931; “Speech of Phil Frankfeld In Name of Delegation for Unemployment Insurance Before the Illinois State Legislature,” n.d., CP records, microfilm reel 193, #76, Tamiment Library; Unemployed Council of Chicago, Council Letter #16, January 11, 1932, ibid., reel 232; Daily Worker, February 5, 1932, April 8, August 25, October 5, December 2, 13, 1933; Hunger Fighter, March 26, 1932; Klehr, The Heyday, 285. [10] A. F. of L. Rank and File Federationist, March-April, August, 1934; Daily Worker, July 4, 1934; Prago, “The Organization of the Unemployed,” 242. [11] Prago, “The Organization of the Unemployed,” 234, 235; Klehr, The Heyday, 288; Paul H. Douglas, Social Security in the United States: An Analysis and Appraisal of the Federal Social Security Act (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939), 74–83; “A Social Insurance Spree: Lundeen Bill in Congress Attracts Left-Wing Support,” American Labor Legislation Review, vol. 24 (1934): 67–70; Mary Van Kleeck, “The Workers Bill for Unemployment and Social Insurance,” New Republic, December 12, 1934; Dorothy W. Douglas, “Unemployment Insurance—For Whom?” Social Work Today, February 1935; New York Times, April 30, 1934; John A. Fitch, “Unemployment Insurance and the Lundeen Bill,” Catholic Charities Review, vol. 19 (January 1935): 8–11. Whether it indeed was economically unrealistic is debatable, since it would have tremendously raised aggregate demand and thus stimulated the economy. [12] $10 weekly plus $3 for each dependent. To the criticism that under this system malingering would flourish, defenders of the bill answered that this was actually a strength. By withdrawing workers from the labor market, it would force wage rates to rise until they at least equaled unemployment benefits. “The benefits to the unemployed,” Paul Douglas noted, “could thus be used as a lever to compel industry to pay a living wage to those who were employed.” Douglas, Social Security in the United States, 80. [13] Ibid., 79. [14] Prago, “The Organization of the Unemployed,” 242–245; Daily Worker, January 5, 7, 8, 1935; Elmer Brown, “The Social Insurance Congress,” Rank and File Federationist, January 1935; Los Angeles Sentinel, February 14, 1935. [15] Daily Worker, January 7, 1935; Washington Post, January 9, 1935; F. Elmer Brown, Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Labor, House of Representatives, on H.R. 2827, 14. [16] Albion A. Hartwell, “America Speaks: The Hearings on the Workers Bill,” Social Work Today, April 1935, 19, 20; Maxwell Stewart, Hearings on H.R. 2827, 681; Herbert Benjamin, ibid., 694. Many opponents of the bill had been invited to testify, but not a single one did. Apparently they had all decided that the best strategy to defeat it was to ignore it. [17] Ibid., 173. [18] On the Townsend Plan, see Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression, chapter 10. [19] Lenore K. Bartlett, “The Attack on the Townsend Plan,” Social Work Today, April 1936, 11, 12; Hartwell, “America Speaks,” 20; New York Herald Tribune, October 22, 1935; Klehr, The Heyday, 284. [20] Both this quotation and the information about the poll are in Kenneth M. Casebeer, “Unemployment Insurance: American Social Wage, Labor Organization and Legal Ideology,” Boston College Law Review, vol. 35, issue 2, no. 2 (March 1, 1994): 294, 295. [21] New York Times, April 19, 1935; Klehr, 289. [22] Daily Worker, February 19, 22, 23, 26, March 1, 18, 27, 30, April 10, 20, 24, May 2, 25, August 13, September 18, 1935; Atlanta Daily World, April 2, 1935; New York Times, May 2, 1935; Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed, 102. [23] Daily Worker, December 30, 1935, January 2, 4, 27, 29–31, February 5, 7, 8, 13, 22, 27, March 10, 18, 19, 21, 29, April 15, 17, 1936; A. A. Hartwell, “Professional Workers Plan,” Social Work Today, May 1936, 19. On the “fascist terror” in the South, see, e.g., Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015), chapter 9. [24] S. K., “Experiences of a Full-time Training School in a Mining Center,” Party Organizer, May 1936, 34–36; Daily Worker, November 9, 11, 14, 16, 17, 1933. [25] Israel Amter, “Low Ebb of Unemployed Work Contrary to Open Letter Line,” Party Organizer, November 1933, 30–32; New York Times, September 30, 1933; Daily Worker, October 4, 1933; Asher, “The Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment,” 70, 73; Rosenzweig, “‘Socialism In Our Time,’” 499; Charles R. Walker, “A Militant Trade Union,” Survey Graphic, January 1937, 29–33; Seymour, “The Organized Unemployed,” 32; Danielson, American Gandhi, 186. [26] “Minutes of the National Executive Committee, Conference for Progressive Labor Action, held at national office, December 13, 1933,” microfilm reel 258, CP files, Tamiment. [27] See, e.g., T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969); Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Vintage Books, 1983); Anthony J. Badger, “Huey Long and the New Deal,” in Nothing Else to Fear: New Perspectives on America in the Thirties, eds. Stephen W. Baskerville and Ralph Willett (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 64–100; David J. O’Brien, American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), chapter 7; Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression (New York: Times Books, 1984); Edward F. Haas, “Huey Long and the Communists,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 32, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 29–46; Charles J. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1965); Sheldon Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973). [28] Badger, for instance, argues that the solutions that Long and Coughlin offered “scarcely constituted a radical challenge to the New Deal from the left. They offered instead glib panaceas designed to reassure the discontented that the dramatic benefits that they were promising could be achieved without radical or painful change.” Badger, The New Deal, 294. Cowie is convinced that the followers of Long and Coughlin wanted nothing more than “to restore the republic to the little man, resurrect some version of traditional values, and deliver the individual from the crush of mass society.” Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception, 137. [29] New York Times, March 17, 1935; Marquis W. Childs, “Father Coughlin: A Success Story of the Depression,” New Republic, May 2, 1934; “Father Coughlin’s Preamble and Principles of the National Union for Social Justice,” in Brinkley, Voices of Protest, 287, 288; Verba and Schlozmann, “Unemployment, Class Consciousness, and Radical Politics,” 295. Like Badger’s above-quoted statement, Brinkley’s claim that “the Long and Coughlin messages [were appealing because they] avoid[ed] the troubling implications of radical reform” is puzzling, in light of the astonishingly radical reforms Long and Coughlin proposed. Voices of Protest, 160. [30] New York Times, March 6, 1936; Washington Post, March 6, 1936; Broadcasting, March 5, 1936; Variety, March 11, 1936; Billboard, March 14, 1936. [31] Daily Worker, March 11, 13, 1936. [32] Brinkley, Voices of Protest, 160, 161. [33] One of the essential functions of the mass media is to suppress information. See Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1988), as well as Edward Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda (Boston: Sound End Press, 1982). If great masses of people learn of the horrors that the powerful are constantly inflicting on the subjugated (whether in factories, on farms, in colonial or neocolonial domains, etc.) they will, naturally, try to stop the horrors and make society more democratic and transparent. So it is necessary to prevent them from knowing, for example by excluding Marxist speakers from the airwaves. [34] It isn’t hard to comprehend—or to agree with—the idea of a conflict between those who own and those who don’t. [35] Elsewhere, Brinkley states that Long, Coughlin, and their followers called for “a society in which the individual retained control of his life and livelihood; in which power resided in visible, accessible institutions; in which wealth was equitably (if not necessarily equally) shared.” Voices of Protest, xi. One is inclined to reply to this characterization that it is a rather apt summary of socialism, i.e., economic democracy (controlling one’s life and livelihood, etc.). So, in effect, even by Brinkley’s own admission, it was the socialist ideal that appealed to tens of millions of Americans. (And why shouldn’t it, after all? Socialism just means giving power (economic and political) to the people. The extreme dedication of liberals to denying that socialism resonates among Americans is somewhat suspicious.) [36] Badger, “Huey Long and the New Deal,” 95; New York Times, December 8, 1935. [37] Francis Brown, “Huey Long as Hero and as Demagogue,” New York Times, September 29, 1935; Raymond Gram Swing, “The Menace of Huey Long,” China Press, March 30, 1935; Verba and Schlozmann, “Unemployment, Class Consciousness, and Radical Politics,” 295. [38] Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley, eds., One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 12; William R. Brock, Welfare, Democracy, and the New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 263, 264; John F. Bauman and Thomas H. Coode, In the Eye of the Great Depression: New Deal Reporters and the Agony of the American People (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988), 75; Louisa Wilson, “Report, Flint, Michigan, November 30, 1934,” Harry Hopkins Papers, box 66, Franklin Roosevelt Library; Thomas Steep to Harry Hopkins, November 10, 1934, ibid. [39] Brock, Welfare, Democracy, and the New Deal, 264; McElvaine, The Great Depression, 249, 253, 254. For more examples of popular disillusionment with Roosevelt, see McElvaine, “Thunder without Lightning,” 73, 74, 82–88. See also Robert McElvaine, ed., Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), chapters 7 and 11.

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