Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

An Enemy is Welcomed

At what point did the Communists find the crack in the wall of the New Deal and climb in?

The critics and enemies of President Roosevelt have made, from the beginning, the fundamental mistake of always misunderstanding him and his objectives. Throughout the first administration, his political enemies denounced him as the willing or unconscious agent of Communist philosophers bent on socializing America. This was not true. There was not in Roosevelt a grain of conviction on the side of the Communist philosophy. One of the facts about him least understood is that fundamentally he was without any definite political or economic philosophy. He was not a man to deal in fundamentals. Miss Perkins, who knew him well, was sure that Roosevelt was not a political or economic radical. "He took the status quo in our economic system." she said, "as much for granted as his family."

He had come into political life under the influence of Wilson's theories of liberal political reform. That is to say, he had voted for the Democratic candidates without any strong opinions about the subject. Roosevelt went as naturally into the Democratic party as he did into the Episcopal church. But while he was no radical, it is equally true to say of him that he was not a conservative. He was a man literally without any fundamental philosophy. The positions he took on political and economic questions were not taken in accordance with deeply rooted political beliefs but under the influence of political necessity.

Miss Perkins says he had "no theoretical or ideological objections to public ownership when that was necessary." It was a proposal upon which he could take either side without doing any violence to any basic political or economic philosophy, since he had none. Miss Perkins says that once a young reporter, in her presence, had the following conversation with Roosevelt. The reporter asked:

"Mr. President, are you a Communist?"

"No," said Roosevelt.

"Are you a capitalist?"


"Are you a Socialist?"


Then the young man asked what his philosophy was.

"Philosophy?" the President was puzzled. "Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat—that's all."

By a Christian he meant he was a member of the Christian church. By a Democrat he meant he was a member of the Democratic party. He was not concerned with the theories of the church or the party. These change. He could change with them. The test was the value of the theories as vote-getters. To put the matter in a word, he was in every sense purely an opportunist, and it was certainly not in accord with the opportunist philosophy to be a Communist or a Socialist or even a mild pink during Roosevelt's first administration.

Actually the one thing he did that was based on a very definite philosophy was the program that consisted of the NRA and the AAA. This was a plan to take the whole industrial and agricultural life of the country under the wing of the government, organize it into vast farm and industrial cartels, as they were called in Germany, corporatives as they were called in Italy, and operate business and the farms under plans made and carried out under the supervision of the government. This is the complete negation of liberalism. It is, in fact, the essence of fascism. Fascism goes only one step further and insists, logically, that this cannot be done by a democratic government; that it can be done successfully only under a totalitarian regime. Of course Roosevelt did not know that he was indulging in a fascist experiment because he did not know what fascism was. In those days fascism was not defined as anti-Semitism. It was a word used to describe the political system of Mussolini.

Roosevelt merely did something which at the moment seemed politically expedient because it satisfied a vast mass of farmers and business men. He never examined the fundamentals of it because that was not the way his mind worked. The NRA did not fully satisfy the technocratic groups represented by the Tugwells and their disciples in spite of the many points of resemblance. The NRA left too much control in the hands of business whereas they would have preferred to see that control in the hands of the technicians—preferably the professors. As for the Reds, they did not move in heavily until the second term and not en masse until the third term, although the entering wedge was made in the first. And then the point of entry was the labor movement.

In 1935, Roosevelt had a labor problem on his hands. When the NRA was launched it contained a clause called Section 7a. This was called labor's Magna Carta. It gave to labor the right to collective bargaining through representatives of their own choosing. Labor leaders did seize upon it as a great instrument for the rehabilitation of organized labor. Membership in labor unions had sunk to a low figure as a result of the depression. Some of the unions were on the verge of disintegration. As the NRA codes were launched, they represented literally compulsory unions of employers, and the labor leaders went to work to expand their own membership. They soon found that the NRA was, so far as labor was concerned, a complete fraud. Employers were required to form into a single code authority in each industry. Labor was merely given the right to organize and it could organize into one, two, three or a dozen different unions.

For instance, the steel industry was united in the Steel Institute, but the steel workers were in no unions at all or separated into as many unions as there were plants. Aside from affording the unions protection, the operation of the act did not give them much cause for satisfaction. Codes guaranteed minimum wages but generally the wage guaranteed was $14 a week. In many instances, workmen were earning less money under the codes. For instance, in Detroit factory workers had their pay raised from 35 cents to 40 cents an hour. At 35 cents an hour they worked 60 hours and made from $42 to $45 in two weeks. At 40 cents an hour they worked 40 hours under the hour limitation, and made $32 in two weeks.

The whole thing got so bad that the Wagner Labor Relations Act was passed, presumably to force some kind of solidarity in labor and to give them effective bargaining rights. Actually a good many employers favored this law. The employer who wanted to pay labor decent wages and give them decent working hours and conditions could be undercut by anti-social employers who were willing to beat labor down as far as possible. There might have been a chance for this act but for the outrageous manner in which it was administered after Mr. Roosevelt's reelection in 1936.

At all events, several ideas were set in motion at this time in the White House. First, labor had to be appeased and something had to be done to quiet the mutterings which were coming up from the masses of labor.

The second was a far more serious idea. There were men around the President at this time who saw the tremendous possibilities of organizing labor as a political force. They knew the history of the labor movement in England, which had grown so great that it had completely wiped out the old Liberal party as a political force. They believed that something like that could be done in America and they wanted the President to use his vast powers and great funds to encourage the formation of labor into a great political force. To do this it was necessary to enlarge the field of labor organization.

In America, the American Federation of Labor, which included most of organized labor, specialized in organizing only craft unions. That is, carpenters, plumbers, masons, painters, machinists, etc., were organized in unions representing these separate crafts. They constituted only a small part of the labor force. The vast majority of workers were unskilled and were employed in factories or single industries and were unorganized. There were three large industrial unions—the United Mine Workers of John L. Lewis, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union of David Dubinsky and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of Sidney Hillman. An industrial union is one in which all the people engaged in a single industry are included without regard to the type of skills at which they work.

Lewis had for a long time talked about the importance of organizing all labor into industrial unions. The Federation of Labor bitterly opposed the idea. But the industrial union was the one great instrument by which all labor could be organized and it has been said that the President was urged to promote this idea as the starting point in building up a powerful political labor movement.

At the time there were about four million men in American unions and inasmuch as the unions finally achieved a membership of over fifteen million, it can be seen what the political possibilities were. Roosevelt sent for John L. Lewis and William Green and urged them to form industrial unions. Green, head of the A. F. of L., naturally refused, but Lewis did not need much urging. Under the leadership of Lewis, Hillman and Dubinsky the fight for industrial unions was begun. Lewis proposed that the Federation of Labor admit industrial unions to its membership. This precipitated a bitter fight between Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky on one side and what was called the Old Guard on the other—Green, Hutchinson and Frey. It reached a crisis at Atlantic City in 1935 at the Federation convention when the Federation committee brought in a report against industrial unions. Following this, in a furious exchange of epithets, Hutchinson of the Carpenters* Union, called Lewis a bastard and Lewis hit him on the jaw. Benjamin Stolberg, in his "Story of the CIO" says "that blow resounded across the American labor movement and split it in two."

Under the leadership of Lewis, a new group of unions was formed called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which opened for business on November 9, 1935. The backbone of it was the United Mine Workers, the Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Its total membership was a million. These unions did not withdraw from the A. F. of L. However, on August 4, 1936 the executive council of the A. F. of L. voted to suspend the CIO unions unless they disbanded within a month. And this threat was carried out. The important work of the new CIO was accomplished after 1936, but the year 1936 was a period of furious organizing work by it among the unskilled workers of the country.

A labor union is not something that can be brought hurriedly into existence by unskilled hands. Half a century of labor organization has built up a body of expert knowledge about organizing and operating a union. As John L. Lewis and Dubinsky and Hillman set about organizing millions of workers they were immediately up against the problem of finding skilled organizers to promote and manage the new unions. It was at this point that the Red appeared on the scene.

There had been in the United States a Communist labor organization known as the Trade Union Unity League which took its instructions directly from Moscow. It is estimated that ten or fifteen thousand Communists were in these unions. There were a large number of members who were not Communists, of course, and the Communist connection was carefully concealed. Joseph Zack represented the Communist party in the United States in charge of its labor activities from 1919 to 1934. He had gone to Russia where he was instructed in the techniques of Communist labor control.

Then in 1934, Moscow directed the Communist party in the United States to dissolve the Trade Union Unity League unions and to march the members of those unions into the American Federation of Labor. This was the beginning of their plan to bore into the American labor union movement from within. The purpose of this was not to advance the cause of labor unions or to get better working conditions for the members, but to use the apparatus of the labor union as an instrument of revolution. This is not surmise, but is proven by the testimony of Joseph Zack himself, as well as that of Benjamin Gitlow who was secretary of the Communist party of the United States and by the official minutes of the Party covering this period. The Communist party in the United States in January, 1935, passed the following resolution:

"The influx of hundreds of thousands of new workers from basic industries and mass production plants into the American Federation of Labor unions . . . make the American Federation of Labor unions more militant and mass unions in character, opening up new and greater possibilities of revolutionary mass work within them.

"In view of this, the main task of the party in the sphere of trade-union work should be the work in the American Federation of Labor unions so as to energetically and tirelessly mobilize the masses of their members and the trade unions as a whole for the defense of the everyday interests of the workers, the leadership of strikes, carrying out the policy of the class struggle in the trade unions . . ."

Shortly after came the split between the A. F. of L. and the CIO and John L. Lewis found himself in need of experienced organizers. The Communist leaders saw in the rise of the CIO a better opportunity for their own revolutionary objectives than in the A. F. of L. and instructed their members to withdraw from the A. F. of L. and go into the CIO. The CIO leaders on their part saw ready to hand several thousand trained union organizers and eagerly sought and used their talents. Some of these men were known to be Communists, but the CIO leaders imagined that they could utilize their special aptitudes for organization while at the same time suppressing their revolutionary energies. They were to learn the hard way, as we shall see.

Lewis was interested in bringing into existence industrial unions like his own, in which he had always believed. Roosevelt was interested in bringing into American labor unions as many voters as possible and in capturing their leadership to be used to build up a powerful labor faction which could control the Democratic party and which he and his allies could control through the vast power of the government and the vast powers of the labor leaders, along with the immense financial resources that so great a labor movement would have. The Communists were interested in getting into the unions, into key positions as union officers, statisticians, economists, etc., in order to utilize the apparatus of the unions to promote the cause of revolution.

I think we have to be fair in saying at this point that neither Roosevelt nor Lewis realized the peril to which they were exposing both the unions and the country. This thing called revolutionary propaganda and activity is something of an art in itself. It has been developed to a high degree in Europe where revolutionary groups have been active for half a century and where Communist revolutionary groups have achieved such success during the past 25 years.

It was, at this time of which I write, practically unknown to political and labor leaders in this country and is still unknown to the vast majority of political leaders. The time came when Lewis saw the gravity of the situation and faced it frankly and dealt with it immediately. But as we shall see, Roosevelt, through a combination of events and influences, fell deeper and deeper into the toils of various revolutionary operators, not because he was interested in revolution but because he was interested in votes.

For the time being, however, he capitalized heavily on the activities of the CIO. The CIO put up half a million dollars for Roosevelt's 1936 campaign and provided him with an immense group of active labor workers who played a large part in the sweeping victory he won at the polls. But among them now were a large number of Communists in positions of great power within the new union movement, some of them actually moving close to the center of power. This was the crack in the wall through which they entered. Their power was to grow and prosper.