Black Liberation, Working-Class Unity, and the Popular Front: A Reply to Mel Rothenberg

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Michael Goldfield

MEL ROTHENBERG HAS written a generous review of my book The Color of Politics, (Against the Current 75, July/ August 1998), in which he praises and succinctly summarizes certain of my key arguments. For this I am, of course, grateful.

On one issue, however, Rothenberg draws conclusions with which I wish to disassociate myself, conclusions that I believe do not flow from my writing or analysis. The issue concerns his assertion about the importance and salutary effect of popular front approaches to the struggle for African-American equality and liberation, and for the interracial unity of the U.S. working class.

Rothenberg argues the following:

Goldfield’s work, among others, demonstrates that the Popular Front period, for all its problems, was the high tide of Black and white working-class unity. The leading aspect of a Popular Front, or in current terminology a center-left coalition, is that it focuses on the role of the working class within a multi-class alliance that prioritizes the kind of democratic demands which are a large component of the traditional African-American struggle for justice and equality.

Yet my research and writing, as well as my considered analysis, is that exactly the opposite was true.

Let us first begin with some definitions. Some think that the popular front is a call to drop sectarianism and work with all progressive people for common goals. If that were all it was, there would be no issue for debate. Rather, as Rothenberg notes, the popular front is indeed a multiclass coalition that seeks an alliance with the so-called progressive wing of the bourgeoisie.

Rather than prioritizing democratic demands or focusing on the role of the working class, popular front politics does the opposite. It has always involved de-emphasizing the independent, radical role of the working class, in order not to frighten away bourgeois allies.

In this country it has also often involved a de-emphasis of fighting against discrimination, especially when class-based solutions are required. There are numerous examples of this, some of which are discussed in my book.

The center-left coalition, on the other hand, was a strategy of the CP within the CIO during the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, which kept them in a subordinate alliance with the CIO main (so-called center) leadership. It was not a cross-class alliance, except to the degree that the leaders with whom they were allied may have represented bourgeois forces.

Some have extolled these approaches because they believe they are open and non-sectarian, but their more central characteristics are an abandonment of anticapitalist perspectives, in order to remain in a long-term relationship with less-than-radical allies.

Alternative approaches, seeking to maintain independence of action for the working class and its parties, have been the united front and the “united front from below.” The united front perspective encourages broad alliances on all sorts of issues, but views them as only short-term and tentative.

The united front from below, characteristic of the so-called Third Period of Comintern policy (roughly 1928 to 1935), considers all other groups and forces as reactionary, and sees the only alliances that can be made as those involving the members of rival working-class organizations (thus “from below”), without alliances with their leaders or organizations.

This stance has indeed been sectarian and at times highly destructive. More on all of this below.

Popular Front Success Story?

Let us step back a moment and put the claim about the benefits of the popular front in context. The vast majority of writing today about the U.S. Communist Party tends to praise the activities of the CP during its popular front periods, to laud the party under Browder’s leadership (especially 1935-1945), to argue that these were the policies that allowed it to sink deep roots in the working class and general population, and to grow the most.

It failed, lost out, suffered the most, was ineffectual—so the argument goes—during those times when it abandoned these policies in favor of more radical (many would say sectarian) approaches. This stance can be found in the writings of Mark Naison, Maurice Isserman, Fraser Ottanelli, Edward Johannesmeister, and Ellen Schrecker, to name a few relatively recent prominent leftist authors, as well as in the work of more right-wing analysts, including Harvey Klehr.

Yet in many ways this analysis is wrong, even factually incorrect, certainly denying the gains made during the more radical periods as well as the problems with the popular front periods.

The period from 1929-1935 is considered the most sectarian and ultraleft of times in the CP’s history (when the party perspective was the united front from below). The SP was referred to as fascist (“social fascist”), along with politicians from both the Republican and Democratic Parties, including FDR. The CP trumpeted “class against class” slogans, anti-capitalism, and the necessity for a social transformation to socialism.

Yet with 7500 members in 1930, membership had more than tripled by 1933 (at a time when trade union membership was still rather stagnant), quadrupled by 1935, and gone to 42,000 in 1936, when the CP had not yet fully committed itself to Roosevelt.

At no other time did membership grow so quickly. Subsequent membership increases, whether from 1936 to 1939 (during the first popular front period) or during World War II, appear quite modest compared to the membership gains in the first half of the 1930s.1

In fact, I would argue that even these pre-popular front numbers underestimate CP influence and support during this period. The reason is quite simple.

The CP’s revolutionary image, its uncompromising position in support of African-American rights, its appearance as the U.S. representative of the Russian Revolution, attracted those who wanted to fight the system. Thus unemployed workers, African Americans, students without prospects, displaced intellectuals and many others flocked to the party.

People turned to what they thought was the most radical, militant movement, the Communists. It was in this period that the party recruited significant numbers of Black members, that its working-class and unemployed cadre became involved in large-scale struggles and demonstrations.

Discouraging Radicalism

What of the decline? Figures indicate that the numerical decline in membership began after World War II. The seeds of the decline, however, took place much earlier, even if the weaknesses of the party were not fully exposed until the Cold War began in earnest.

Rather, it was in the period after 1935 that the radical moral capital of the CP was squandered, as the party began to be used more and more as a pawn for short-term Soviet foreign policy. James P. Cannon’s arguments in this respect are instructive:

Roosevelt had recognized the Soviet Union, and the Stalinists, in turn decided to recognize Roosevelt. They looked upon the great movement of American radicalism as something to be expended cheaply. They diverted it, through the leadership of the Communist Party, into the Roosevelt camp. They steered it away from the movement for an independent labor party, which was called for by the conditions of the time and the sentiments of thousands of workers. The big switch in policy, from class struggle to class collaboration, was made in the shortsighted temporary interest of Stalinist diplomacy. (Cannon, 97, Speeches).

Once the CP opted into the mainstream Democratic reform (or popular front) coalition, they were willing to do anything to remain part of it. Within the CIO, the CP leadership changed from being militant mobilizers of the rank and file, to aides of the CIO leadership in discouraging radical working-class activity.

After 1937 they discouraged sit-down strikes, including those being considered at Chrysler. After 1936 they joined in opposing the strong movement towards a labor party (a movement which was so popular that in the 1935 AFL convention, where John L. Lewis’ movement for industrial unionism garnered only one-third of the delegate votes, the motion for a labor party just missed obtaining a majority).

Further, as Harry Haywood points out in his autobiography and Robin Kelley notes in his book on the CP in Alabama, Hammer and Hoe, the popular front meant a de-emphasis of militant, radical Black organizing in the South. CP leaders also voted for, even authored, so-called anti-authoritarian resolutions that equated Communists with fascists, banning both from union leadership.

During World War II, the official party position was to oppose strikes (although this was often violated by individual CP activists at the local level) no matter what the grievances. This even led to strikebreaking activity by the CP in the 1944 Montgomery Ward strike.

Party leader Earl Browder at one point advocated a return to the much-hated system of piece work, in order to increase war production; he also urged that the no-strike pledge, whatever justification it might have held in workers’ minds during the war against fascism, be extended into the post-war period.

The CP also engaged in other forms of dubious activity, albeit not necessarily related to the popular front. During this period the CP fingered militants for the FBI and supported the Smith Act imprisonment of Trotskyists, the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party.

The moral capital the CP had earned by its militant, unyielding opposition to all forms of injustice, prior to 1935, was largely dissipated. Finally, in 1945, on the basis of a signal from Moscow (in the form of a critical letter by the French CP leader Jacques Duclos), the CPUSA leadership en masse engaged in the degrading activity of going from complete support for Earl Browder and his policies to denouncing him as having abandoned Marxist politics.

When the CP finally came under sharp attack in the post-World War II period, there was little reason for anyone to support them.

The Party Vanishes

Any full explanation for the CP’s decline would have to take into account the repression faced by the party and radicals in general, the world-wide hegemony of U.S. business and the U.S. government in the aftermath of the war, the subsequent affluence of U.S. workers, and their relative lack of broad forms of class consciousness as the postwar boom established itself.

Yet with far more resources and initial support than they had during the 1920s under even more difficult conditions, the CP during the Cold War period failed to maintain the support of the most militant workers, and vanished as a radical grouping with hardly a trace.

Thus there are two primary reasons why the CP declined and disappeared so ignominiously—two reasons in contradiction with each other. First, after 1935, the CP never regained an anticapitalist, radical, social transformatory perspective. Despite certain periods of renewed militance, largely dictated by the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy (the 1939-1941 Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact period), and certain periods of the Cold War, their perspective remained primarily reformist.

This approach robbed the Communists of their ability to attract the most militant and radical youth and workers. During the 1950s, for example, they trailed in the wake of the NAACP and were unprepared in the 1960s to support, much less lead, either the radicals in the civil rights movement or the student and anti-war movements.

Giving priority to democratic demands, in any case, would seem to have very little to do with the adoption of a popular front perspective. Quite the contrary: Such commitments and priorities, which often require going against the grain, risking losing liberal and not-so-liberal allies, as well as potentially alienating and losing the support of large numbers of white workers, have not been easy to maintain in the U.S. for majority white organizations.

Reexamining the Early `30s

The idea promulgated by many recent writers about how the CP grew and what led it to be most successful is, I argue, erroneous and simplistic at best. But of course, numbers and successful organizational growth are not everything, especially for a purportedly revolutionary organization.

When was the CP best, most aggressive and successful in pursuing the struggle for African-American freedom and interracial working class unity? An analysis that overlooks the advances and successes of the Third Period is not only shortsighted, but reveals more about one’s political inclinations than anything else.

In fact it was during the early 1930s that many of the most impressive struggles were launched and gains were made. Comintern resolutions in 1928 and 1930 led them in this direction. The CP put special emphasis on organizing in the South, including the organization of sharecroppers, and the development of a strong organization of Black working- class Communists in the Birmingham, Alabama, area which Kelley so poignantly documents.

In the North, the CP organized hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, often in interracial struggles and organizations. They succeeded—often after a great deal of prodding by Black members and leaders—in involving white members in fighting discrimination. As Mark Naison notes: “Not only Jews felt moved by the Party’s position: Finnish, Polish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, and Slavic Communists became passionate exponents of the Party’s position on the Negro question.” (The Communists in Harlem, 49)

This position was advanced further by the 1931 public trial in Harlem of CP member August Yokinen, who had defended the exclusion of Blacks from a Finnish dance in which he was involved. The party emerged as a leading force in the Black community in 1933 with its defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine Black youth accused of raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama.

The CP, at the height of its pre-popular front strategy, built alliances with church groups and the Black middle class, mobilized its Black constituents and Black allies, and began to vie with the NAACP for leadership of the struggle within Black communities across the United States. In some sense, this was a period of the best and most successful work of the CP on these issues.

As the popular front began to take effect after 1935, the CP backed off its uncompromising approach in important respects. They quietly disbanded largely Black organizations in the South, including the sharecroppers. They played a less militant role in Harlem and actually lost some of their Black support there.

They failed to pressure the largely Irish Transport Workers Union, with its CP leadership, to push on civil rights and employment discrimination issues, and of course tailed the Democratic Party on a whole range of issues.

When the popular front line was temporarily dropped during the period of the Soviet pact with Nazi Germany (1939-41), militance on racial issues increased and the Communists regained support in Harlem. Their soft-pedaling of racial issues during World War II, although often undermined at the local level, is well-known.

The Balance Sheet

Nevertheless, the CP’s record on racial issues even during its less aggressive moments was usually better than that of other groups, and this sadly includes the Trotskyists, whose analysis of the Soviet Union, international events, and the popular front, was vastly superior to that of the CP.

Particularly at the workplace, both Black and white CPers were usually the leading militants in fighting discrimination, even during World War II.

In understanding the CP, I have generally found former SWP leader James P. Cannon’s writings to be the best and most insightful guide. Cannon notes the importance of the CP’s work during the 1920s and the Third Period for the CP’s later success. Where he falls short, however, is in his failure to understand the continuing commitment of the CP around racial questions, even in the early 1950s, long after any pretense to revolutionary credentials had disappeared.

From the point of view of socialists, the popular front as a strategy has numerous other problems as well. It leads one to downplay many issues that might be divisive to non-radical partners, belittles the importance of independent political organization of the working class, often leads to working within and accepting the terms of bourgeois parties, and leads to numerous sacrifices that make socialism less and less likely.2

Of course, mishaps do not always come from popular front approaches. The united front from below of the Third Period had its share of disasters, perhaps the most tragic of which happened in Germany during the early 1930s, as both the CP and the Social Democrats underestimated the potential of Nazism. The CP’s united front from below led it to denounce the Social Democrats as worse than the Nazis, helping pave the way for the triumph of Hitler.

In the United States, the CP’s united front from below, while it contained some interesting work, led them to become more isolated in the established labor movement, just as opposition to the top American Federation of Labor leadership was growing.

The Communists’ strategy of building red unions, completely divorced from the AFL and limited their influence. In the mineworkers, it led to their withdrawal from a coalition of oppositionists that might have ousted the dictatorial Lewis regime.

The CP became much more of a force when it moved to more of a united front approach, mostly from 1934 to 1936. It was during this period that they became a force in auto, West Coast longshore, and a host of other unions.

Thus, extolling the popular front was the last type of lesson that I had hoped my book would convey. Although conservative times like today seem to have led large numbers of people on the left toward popular front approaches, neither on race or any other important issues does the record seem to support this perspective.

I have been having this discussion with Mel Rothenberg off and on for several decades. Readers who are interested might read the book and judge for themselves.


  1. The CP’s membership high point in 1938 was 55,000, and in 1945 65,000 (using the same membership series). The World War II numbers are not indicative, since the CP was operating in a very favorable environment where the Soviet Union was this country’s most important ally and anti-communism was officially discouraged.

  2. When socialist alternatives loom as likely, popular front approaches lead parties to rely on and conciliate forces which ultimately pave the way to counter-revolution, as happened in Spain from 1936-1939, Indonesia during the 1960s, and in Allende’s Chile from 1970-1973. Those of us who were active during the 1960s heard similar arguments on a lesser scale. Within the civil rights movement, the more radical groups, especially SNCC, were urged to go slow, to not break with their more moderate allies, to be less confrontational, to concentrate on voting and access, not economic issues. When SNCC came out against the Vietnam War and the draft, they were attacked for diverting their attention to other issues. But clearly it was the militant, radical activities of SNCC and other groups that propelled the movement forward, captured the imagination of millions of people, and eventually led to many of the changes in laws and attitudes on civil rights.

    1. ATC 78, January-February 1999

1 comment

  1. Michael here has written a great article. But I find ironic that it shares the same webpage with the “Bail out the people” slogan of the Workers World Party. Such slogans are the very stuff of the Popular Front. There is nothing transitional about such slogans. they ask the bourgeois government to include “the people” (not the workers) among those getting a bailout from the federal government. This is a thoroughly reformist demand.

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