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The contradictions of William Z. Foster

Rank and file or organic leaders


Avery Wear analyzes the tensions within the political life and writings of William Z. Foster.

The International Socialists organized study groups on William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) in preparation for its members’ early-1970s entry into the labor movement. The organizing of this small group led to the formation of multiple rank and file caucuses and ultimately to Labor Notes-a media and organizing project that nurtured left labor writing through the difficult decades that followed.  Today green shoots of labor renewal and leftism are creating new literature.  Jane McAlevey’s 2018 book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age references Foster.  Yet McAlevey’s background and ideas differ from the traditions that spawned Labor Notes.  Marian Swerdlow, in Against the Current, critiqued McAlevey’s use of Foster.  She polemicized persuasively against No Shortcuts’ specific organizing prescription for relying on organizer-designated “organic leaders”.  Against which Swerdlow points to Foster’s steelworkers’ pamphlet advocating reliance on rank and file radicals instead.

So did McAlevey just misread Foster?  I have written elsewhere of Foster’s achievements as perhaps the single most original and generative figure in the history of the U.S. labor left.  This article will focus on how contradictions in Foster’s outlook make him legitimately seminal for distinct and sometimes opposing trends in the labor movement.

In 1910, Foster visited France as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) correspondent researching the world’s leading syndicalist organization, the 400,000-strong Confederation General du Travail (CGT).  He returned to the U.S. in 1911 a changed man.  Now an anarcho-syndicalist, he sought to convince the IWW to abandon its dual-unionist opposition to the AFL and, in the words of CGT leader Leon Jouhaux, “get into the labor movement”.  The CGT, Foster believed, had been won over to militancy and revolution because organized collectives of revolutionaries (“noyaux”) had successfully fought for power within it—“boring from within”—instead of organizing separate IWW-style unions.  These noyaux embodied a concept prevalent among European syndicalists—that of the “militant minority”.  That meant those few class-conscious workers who, if they concerted their efforts, could lead the mass toward the full development of their power through confrontation with capital.

William Z. Foster in 1919, while serving as secretary-treasurer of the strike committee of 250,000 steelworkers seeking union representation. Photo by Washington Area Spark.

Except for a brief period of Comintern-mandated dual unionism in the early Depression, Foster spent the rest of his life building militant minority groups for boring within AFL and CIO unions.  In 1912 his Syndicalist League of North America (SLNA) split from the IWW for this purpose.  Starting in 1917 a looser collection of his followers, nominally linked in the International Trade Union Educational League (ITUEL, distinct from the later TUEL), spearheaded massive and groundbreaking industrial union drives first in Chicago’s packinghouses, then across several states in the Great Steel Strike.  Foster brought his next formation-—the TUEL—with him into the Communist Party.  From 1922 to 1928, the TUEL organized AFL-wide campaigns for a Labor Party and for the amalgamation of craft unions into industrial organizations.  And it formed powerful rank and file opposition groups in the machinists’, carpenters’, ladies garment workers’, mineworkers’, furriers’, and other unions.  From 1935 on, the members of the Communist Party themselves became the core of this militant minority playing a decisive role in the rise of the CIO.

Kim Moody, who helped found both the International Socialists and Labor Notes in the 1970s, calls the TUEL, “the first experiment in the rank and file strategy”.  But if Foster’s earlier career led him to this experiment, he later veered away.  This wasn’t mainly a case of abandoning principles at the behest of Moscow.  Rather, Foster’s contradictory phases remained largely consistent with his own looser, cruder theory compared to that developed by his more recent followers.  The difference starts with Foster’s elitist reading of the militant minority concept.  Throughout his career, he downplayed the intelligence, initiative, and courage—in short, the revolutionary potential—of the mass of rank and file workers.  To make up for this he vested hope in the militant minority.  As important, he also held a simplified vision of unions as inherently revolutionary organizations.

In France, Foster saw the CGT as “dominated by ‘dangerous leaders’, who are attempting to force a rather reluctant and ignorant rank and file to adopt the most approved methods of class warfare”.  In his 1913 pamphlet Syndicalism, he wrote that in every group “there are to be found a few individuals who exercise a great influence over the thoughts and actions of the rest of the mass…they are the directing forces…the sluggish mass simply following their lead”.  In the 1920s, he argued that workers come to power “led by straight-thinking revolutionaries” leading “stupid masses goaded by hunger”.  Note the language about ordinary workers: “reluctant”, “ignorant”, “sluggish”, “stupid”.

Early on Foster could find support for this elitism from within anarchism.  Despite its dominant thrust toward bottom-up liberation, early 20th-century anarchism was also influenced by the elitism of individualist anarchist Max Stirner, and the often-associated writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche argued that superior individuals were oppressed by mass morality.  Emma Goldman and others argued that democracy was oppressive not only because it involved majorities imposing on minorities, but also because it allegedly favored mass cowardice and stupidity.  Foster echoed this disparagement of democracy in his prescriptions for specialist management in the post-revolutionary society in Syndicalism.  Significantly, he also included Nietzsche in his list of recommended authors for members of the SLNA.

This is not to argue that anarchism has any necessary elitism in it.  To do so would be a most tiresome re-run of the sorry tradition of Marxists misrepresenting and bashing anarchists.  Rather I argue that anarchism, like Marxism and any other set of ideas, has always manifested as part of a wider stream of ideas. Both enrichment and contradiction inseparably result from this.  Further, there can be no ideas about material reality without contradiction.  In their own ways, both anarchism and Marxism grapple with elitism as a problem.  Whether or not one has better answers than the other, neither can produce a perfectly consistent anti-elitism, for reasons discussed below.

The labor herald was the official publication of TUEL. Photo by Tobias Higbie. 

Later, Foster’s experience in Russia seems to have bolstered his elitism.  He wrote glowingly of local Russian Communist Party committees containing “a monopoly of the brains and idealism of the people” so that they “ordinarily dominate”, allegedly without coercion.  He considered the Russian Communist Party the ultimate militant minority group which “realizes it is the thinking and doing part of the proletariat, and it boldly claims its right to direct the ignorant, sluggish masses”.  Biographer Edward Johanningsmeir has also noted the influence of Progressive-era managerial theory, and the sociology of Lester Frank Ward, each with their own elitist traits, on Foster.

This does not mean that Foster’s main thrust was elitism.  To the contrary, Foster was born working-class, had contempt for the rich and over-educated, sought to displace entrenched labor leaders, championed Black, immigrant, and women workers, and repeatedly relied on rank and file rebellion and support against the bureaucratic “labor fakers”.  In the 1920s he could extol “bottom-up” action by union members to drive their organizations to needed struggles despite obstruction from the top.  He often wrote of the role and necessity of union democracy.  It does mean, however, that Foster’s view of organizing contained elitist contradictions that were resolved in a praxis that bypassed a properly-rounded vision of working-class self-emancipation.

Foster wrote in Trade Unionism: the Road to Freedom “it is idle to say that the trade unions will rest content with anything short of actual emancipation.  For they are as insatiable as the veriest so-called revolutionary union”.  He later explained this was because “their unchangeable policy is to withhold from the exploiters all they have the power to.  In these days, when they are weak in numbers and discipline, they have to content themselves with petty achievements.  But they are constantly growing in strength and understanding, and the day will surely come when…they will end the wages system forever.”  He said leftist trade union critics failed to understand this “evolutionary perspective”.  As he said in his dramatic torch-light speech to the 1922 underground Convention of the Communist Party in Bridgman, Michigan, “the fate of the Communist Party depends upon the control of the masses, through the capture of the trade unions, without which revolution is impossible”.

This is how Foster could believe in revolution while belittling the revolutionary potential of the majority of workers.  Unions as institutions were revolutionary and would act as such if and when captured by the organized militant minority.  Then they could lead the mass to revolution despite the masses’ deficiencies.

This view involved failing, like McAlevey, to theorize the structural causes of the conservatism of union leaders that both writers detest.  As anarcho-syndicalist Tom Wetzel has pointed out, Foster blamed union conservatism on the personal shortcomings of bureaucratic “labor fakers”, not structural features of unions under capitalism.  The weaknesses of the leaders in fact mirror those Foster attributed to average members, leading him to sometimes describe unions as weak due to undifferentiated top-to-bottom conservatism.  Or in McAlevey’s words, “people are flawed, and unions are made up of people, so unions too can be flawed”.

Wetzel correctly connects Foster’s non-structural analysis with a facile focus on winning official leadership.  This was especially evident in Foster’s early, SLNA period—though in a way the same could be said of syndicalism internationally in the pre-War era, whether it took charge via dual unionism (the IWW), or by boring from within (the CGT, International Syndicalist Education League, others).  This did not stop the later Foster from modeling pressure from below tactics— holding a referendum vote to defy Gompers in the Steel Strike, or organizing wildcat action in the TUEL-influenced UMWA Locals, for example.  Or from driving ambitious reform programs without personally holding top office (like Chicago meatpackers’ organization and the TUEL’s Labor Party campaign in the AFL).

But it did fail to challenge illusions about what can be accomplished through winning union elections.  Especially by failing to recognize the inherent structural pressures on unions under capitalism.  And it left the door open to the CP’s Popular Front-era adoption of “permeationism”- the strategy of influencing unions by taking staff jobs, even to the extent of hiding one’s political affiliations to do so.

The International Socialists, both in the U.S. and UK, had advanced beyond this by the time of their “industrialization” turns in the 70s.  Then it was understood that the unions’ roles as negotiators between workers and bosses pressured staff, removed from the experience of workplace oppression by the employers, to safeguard the institutions and thus their jobs through conservative business-union strategies.  At the same time the unions were seen as the best-placed mediums for the emergence of class-consciousness, especially in and around independent rank and file struggle formations, regardless of whether bureaucratic leaders could be replaced up top.  Winning union elections might sometimes be advantageous or necessary.  But it would inevitably expose the winners to bureaucratizing pressures, at least during normal periods of capitalist stability.  Historically this conservative drift can be seen even among the very syndicalist federations set up as anti-capitalist, such as the CGT, Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), and the IWW.  From this point of view the struggle for class-struggle unionism, while central, cannot be permanently won under capitalism.  Yet something even more precious than unions with class-struggle policies can be developed by engaging in this never-ending battle: industrial concentrations of class-conscious, socialist-leaning workers.

Foster’s view of revolution, dependent on an idealized view of unions and dismissive of mass rank and file capacities, had little place for the spontaneity all actual workers’ revolutions have involved. Kim Moody has made a similar point about McAlevey.  Both Foster and McAlevey criticize “undisciplined” rank and file militancy.  Foster warned about wildcat mills jeopardizing his overall steel campaign.  McAlevey denigrates self-organizing “hot shops” as a basis for new organizing.  “Strategic campaigns begin with strategy and research”, and allegedly workers, unlike organizers, “don’t carefully research which unions to reach out to for assistance”.  Foster and McAlevey both make situationally valid points here.  But as Moody points out, McAlevey’s view that union staffers could, if fully mobilized, plan and execute the next great leap forward in unionization is utopian.  Union staff can never be numerous enough to do this.  Any big re-unionization of the U.S. working class will depend on a scale of activity possible only through a massive grassroots upsurge.  It is possible for revolutionaries to prepare to help lead that upsurge, but Foster and McAlevey don’t help.

At the end of the day, both Foster and McAlevey have written and acted for their own “militant minorities”.  In McAlevey’s case, that means union staff.  As she sees it, “organizing is a craft, and the knowledge that wins campaigns is founded on experience.  Workers that haven’t been through that experience—and most haven’t—need a skilled, experienced organizer.”  McAlevey avoids the elitist frankness found at times in Foster.  But since her recommended strategy centers industry-wide organizing plans, today only feasible as staff-initiated actions, she is led to disregard spontaneous action.  Worse, this leads to democratically problematic methods like organizer selection and the privileging of “organic leaders” (see Swerdlow).

There are inherent contradictions in the project of organizing power from below.  Bottom-up control means democracy.  But where organization does not exist, neither do democratic structures.  The aspiration to organize does not dawn simultaneously on any collective but starts with the few or the one.  And the process of winning collectives of oppressed people in their majorities to favor organizing involves strategic initiatives by the committed minority without ratification from those they seek to affect.  Even the most democratic methods and results must originate from pre-democratic conditions.

Advocates of socialism from below should keep this in mind to avoid self-righteousness.  A rank and file centered organizing strategy is not free of, and must navigate, the contradictions of constantly widening the circle of democracy.  But a staff-centered strategy like McAlevey’s, with a power relationship between paid organizers and workers, and bureaucratic interests underpinning the organizers’ funding, cannot yield the same degree of democracy, collective autonomy, and class consciousness.  McAlevey may have misunderstood Foster because his approach actually did center rank and file militants.  Yet it did so with an elitist twist, leading Foster to share with McAlevey a relatively static view of leadership.  Foster’s “superior” and self-selecting militants, and McAlevey’s organizer-selected “organic leaders”, appear destined for exclusive leadership in a way that belies the fluidity and universal self-changing potential seen in struggle from below.

Despite the impression this necessarily one-sided article may give, Foster contributed more than any individual to revolutionary union praxis in U.S. history.  McAlevey has become an influential voice offering labor very valuable advice from its left.  But in some parallel ways, without critique, both could lead us away from rank and file empowerment, mass upsurge, and revolution.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Washington Area Spark. Image modified by Tempest.

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Avery Wear View All

Avery Wear is a socialist union activist in San Diego, California.

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