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This Day in Labor History: March 7, 1990

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On March 7, 1990, Jay Lovestone died. Lovestone has one of the tragic careers of the 20th century, someone deeply committed to social change and revolution who then became so disillusioned by Stalinism that he became a frothing anti-communist who spent his last years doing whatever he could to undermine social democracy in the developing world under the guise of anti-communism.

Jacob Liebstein was born in 1897 into a Jewish family in what today in Belarus. His father immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and then sent for his family in 1907. He then grew up on the Lower East Side. From the time he was a teen he was attracted to the Jewish-Socialist politics of the area, particularly the work of Daniel de Leon, who wanted to be the Lenin of the U.S. Liebstein went to City College in 1915 and continued engaging in socialist organizing. In 1919, he had his name legally changed to Jay Lovestone as a way to downplay his Jewish background in an anti-Semitic America.

Lovestone started studies at NYU law school. But the Bolshevik Revolution had inspired him so much that he dropped out to become a full time Communist Party activist. He was critical to establishing the CPUSA in 1919 at a meeting in Chicago, splitting the diverse socialist movements now that there was a successful revolutionary model to follow. He became editor of The Communist, the major CPUSA newspaper, in 1921. In 1927, he became the party’s national secretary. Of course, the CPUSA was deeply divided. No one loves factionalism like a communist. There were two major factions. One believed in a revolutionary party that stood out for the masses to see. The other believed in boring into the labor movement and taking over unions from within. This was the position of William Z. Foster, among others. Moscow tended to fluctuate on which approach it supported. Lovestone was a leader of the former faction. This all got wrapped up in which faction within the post-Lenin Soviet Union to support. Lovestone and his allies were big supporters of Bukharin’s bid to replace Lenin. Foster’s faction supported Stalin.

Well, we all know which faction won out in the USSR. And that had massive repercussions among American communists too. Lovestone was forced out of Party leadership after Bukharin’s purge, with Foster taking his place as national secretary. Lovestone appealed directly to Stalin, saying that his position was more popular in the U.S. But we all know Stalin wasn’t having any of this democracy in the communist movement. He told Lovestone, you “had a majority because the American Communist Party until now regarded you as the determined supporters of the Communist International. And it was only because the Party regarded you as friends of the Comintern that you had a majority in the ranks of the American Communist Party.” To be fair, that was true. Lovestone completely misread his own importance and what being a communist really meant by 1929.

Lovestone was expelled from the Communist Party entirely. Over the next decade, Lovestone attempted to lead anti-Stalinist communist factions. Still believing his position was the most popular, he was shocked when they flopped. What this led to within Lovestone’s mind was a deep hatred of communists. He spent the next six decades moving to the right. It’s a real tragedy because he ended up having a profound impact on both the American and global movements.

Lovestone had a lot of connections within American unions because the CP was so involved at this point. At first, those were quite negative. He supported John Brophy’s attempt to take leadership of the United Mine Workers of America from the dictatorial Republican John L. Lewis. That did not go well. International Ladies Garment Workers Union head David Dubinsky, a left anti-communist, hated him. But once Lovestone became a left anti-communist, he made up with Dubinsky, who increasingly embraced him. The thing was though that Lovestone didn’t stay a left anti-communist for very long. He soon became a right anti-communist. For example, in the late 1930s, when the nascent United Auto Workers were split between CIO and AFL factions, Lovestone became an ally of the really awful Homer Martin, head of the UAW-AFL, painting the Reuthers and other CIO leaders as commies. This was ridiculous; hardly anyone was more happy to purge communists from his union than Walter Reuther. By 1940s, Reuther was the left anti-communist. Lovestone was just anti-communist.

Dubinsky had also moved far to the right in these years and he and Lovestone now had a long term alliance that led the former to set up the former communist leader in key roles in the American Federation of Labor, particularly in international organizing. As the AFL despised the CIO as a bunch of commies, this was perfect. In 1944, Dubinsky got Lovestone on the AFL Free Trade Union Committee. This was the precursor to the postwar AFL’s work in creating anti-communist unions in Europe and then the Global South. The problem here was that this consisted of the U.S. labor movement, with the assistance of the federal government and corporate interests, directly interfering in workplace democracy around the world, seeking to create pro-corporate unions that often purged the actual workers leaders who were on the left. Some of these purged leaders were genuine communists, some were nationalists. But like the rest of the U.S. in the Cold War, Lovestone and the AFL saw any challenge to American domination as global communism and acted to crush it.

What did this mean on the ground? It meant that Lovestone became a close ally of the CIA and fed information directly to the vile CIA counterintelligence guru James Angleton about what he saw as communist labor unions. It meant actively supporting the 1954 Guatemalan coup against Jacobo Arbenz and the imposition of a right-wing dictatorship that made vague promises toward respecting an independent labor movement that it immediately proceeding to turn its back upon. In 1963, Lovestone became head of AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department, which was the worst of the AFL-CIA era. This sent millions of dollars of union dues to the CIA in order to undermine leftist governments in Latin America, playing a direct role in creating worker uprisings against Salvador Allende in Chile, for instance.

Even worse, by the early 1970s, Lovestone’s activities were way to right of even George Meany, a man far more concerned with killing communists in Vietnam than organizing American workers. In 1966, Meany had ordered Lovestone to cut his ties to Angleton and the CIA. Lovestone said OK and then just kept doing what he was doing. When Meany found out, he was furious. So he decided to force Lovestone out. In 1974, he told Lovestone that he needed to close his New York office and move to the AFL-CIO offices in Washington. Moreover, he had to stop publication of his right-international unionism paper Free Trade Union News. On top of that, he had to turn over his library and archives to the AFL-CIO. Meany knew Lovestone wouldn’t do this, at least not the latter. Indeed that was true. Lovestone resigned and left the union movement entirely. He basically lived in obscurity for the rest of his very long life, dying in 1990 at the age of 92.

Jay Lovestone’s life is a great way to sum up the broken ideologically rigid and incredibly violent 20th century. When his totalizing brain was pushed out of the CPUSA, his only option was a totalizing ideology of anti-communism, without shades of subtlety or action. It was total warfare for Lovestone, no matter which side he was on. In the end, he made the world a lot worse for his existence. It didn’t have to be that way. But it sure was.

This is the 384th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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