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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 554

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This is the grave of William Z. Foster

Born in 1881 in Taunton, Massachusetts, Foster grew up in a politically active family. His father was an exile, a Fenian who had fled County Carlow after the suppression of the Fenian Rebellion. This spirit was passed down to his son. The family has an astounding 23 children, of which 9 survived infancy. This is hard to imagine but was not as uncommon as we might think.

Foster went to work at the age of 10, becoming an apprentice to a dye sinker. He spent the next many years traveling all over the nation doing any kind of job that seemed it had a chance. He worked in fertilizer plants and white lead factories (not a great job!) in Pennsylvania, for railroads in Florida, as a logger and sailor in Oregon. He even homesteaded out there for a year.

Foster became a radical from a young age. He was a member of the Socialist Party by 1901, was an officer in Washington’s state party, left over an internecine conflict (so, so common in leftist organizations), joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and was involved in the Spokane free speech fight in 1909. He rose in the IWW and was a representative of that organization at an international labor conference in Budapest in 1911. But his experiences in Europe began moving him away from the ideologically loose IWW and toward anarchism. He began criticizing the IWW’s unwillingness to engage and take over existing unions and its emphasis on independent action. He came back and formed his own organization, the Syndicalist League of North America. The SLNA rejected all bureaucratic structures. It actually had some success at attracting other prominent leftists. Tom Mooney became a member. So did Earl Browder and James Cannon. Foster met his wife in there, Ester Abramowitz, who had previously lived in an anarchist collective. The organization fell apart in 1914, but still was briefly significant.

Since Foster now believed in infiltrating existing unions, he took a job as a business agent for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and then as a general organizer for the American Federation of Labor in 1915, even as he worked toward syndicalism outside his job. His plunging into the heart of the labor movement did lead to political compromises. He did not publicly oppose World War I or criticize the mass arrest of IWW members during the war, which the AFL officially cheered. Foster instead got involved in organizing the meatpacking houses of Chicago, creating the Stockyards Labor Council, an industrial union structure intending to organize all the workers within the guise of the preexisting unions, which were mostly skilled labor organizations. But as they excluded African-Americans from membership, the factories simply hired thousands of recent black migrants from the South. Once again, racism got in the way of class solidarity, again showing why supposed “class not race” beliefs are in fact racist. Race consistently got in the way of organizing and the SLC was dead by 1922.

Foster then played a critical role in the 1919 steel strike, one of the largest and most important of the post-World War I strikes. Despite the AFL being indifferent, he and his organizers signed up over 100,000 steel workers by early 1919 and by August 250,000 workers went on strike. The U.S. military once again was used as a strikebreaking force and crushed it after General Leonard Wood imposed martial law in Gary, vigilantes killed over a dozen strikers in Johnstown, and black workers, knowing there was no home for them in the union, were happy to take the jobs.

Foster was pretty much on the outs with the AFL and blacklisted from railroads after the steel strike. The newly formed Communist Party initially distrusted Foster, but he joined it by 1921 after Earl Browder invited him to a conference in Moscow. He became the head of the Trade Union Educational League, a program for communists to infiltrate the existing unions and take them over. It tried to take over the United Mine Workers of America in 1922 and 1923, leading the dictatorial John L. Lewis to expel everyone associated with it from the union. It also alienated progressive labor leaders such as Sidney Hillman, who denounced it as duel unionism and suspended its leaders within his Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Foster spent the rest of his life in the constant internal struggles for power within the CP. Most everything it tried in the labor movement failed in terms of taking over unions, but then most everything anyone in the labor movement did failed in the horrible 1920s. Foster became a Stalinist, which helped him take and then consolidate power in the CP as Stalin did in the USSR. With orders coming from Moscow and Foster happy to follow them, dissident members were purged. He became General Secretary of CPUSA in 1929. But his health became to give him problems and his power started slipping. He had a heart attack while running as the CP candidate for president in 1932. He was forced to give up leadership to Browder as he went to Moscow for treatment. He remained very sick and did not return to active politics until 1935, by which time Browder was the clear party leader. Foster was the greater Stalinist and so remained a powerful opposition figure within CPUSA. The Party began to create a mini-cult of personality around Browder, but when the Cold War began, Browder’s loyalties were questioned and Foster returned to power, such as it was. Under his leadership (technically it was a group of three, but Foster was the real leader), the CP took a much harder anti-American line, turning its back completely on the Popular Front period and supporting the USSR in the Cold War.

Foster was indicted for subversion under the Smith Act in 1948 but escaped trial because of his sketchy heart. But he was strong enough to purge the party on several occasions. He supported whatever the Soviet line was, including Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin, as well as the invasion of Hungary that year. He went to Moscow in 1961 to celebrate his 80th birthday. His health poor, he remained there and died in Moscow later that year. Why the gravestone says he died in 1966 is totally beyond me.

Foster has a gravestone in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois. It is not clear to me however whether there are any ashes under there. He was cremated in Moscow and at least initially has his ashed placed next to Big Bill Haywood and John Reed there, after a state funeral in which Khrushchev headed his honor guard. But I’m not sure what happened after that.

If you would like this series to visit other leftists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gus Hall is evidently also in Forest Home, but I did not see him on my trip there. Tom Mooney is in Colma, California.Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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