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Forging American Communism
The Life of William Z. Foster
By Edward P. Johanningsmeier
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
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I cannot remember the time when I was not imbued with that class hatred against employers which is almost instinctive to workers. —William Z. Foster, Twilight of World Capitalism
In the introduction to his 1937 autobiography, From Bryan to Stalin, William Z. Foster explained that "I have tried to show those forces which impelled me, an American worker, to arrive at revolutionary conclusions, to become a Communist." Similarly, in the introduction to his collection of more personal sketches, Pages from a Worker's Life, Foster noted that the rationale for the book was to illustrate "the forces that made me arrive at my present political opinions." In his deterministic analysis of his own life, he left little room for a consideration of his family and the subjective experiences of his early childhood. Yet there is no doubt that the circumstances of Foster's early life, especially the poverty in which he grew up, decisively shaped his political identity. When asked by a Senate committee investigating the Great Steel Strike of 1919 to explain his political views, he began by asserting that "I am one who was raised in the slums."
In Foster's portrayals of his childhood, only one personality emerges from the formidable welter of "forces" he describes to influence his life in a decisive manner: his father, James. Even so, his father as well as his mother remain shadowy figures, possessing neither complexity nor dimension in Foster's accounts. His reminiscences reveal no deep affection for either one, and he offers no elaboration at all when citing the fact that both died while he was still in his teens.
James was born in County Carlow, Ireland, and was twenty-seven years old when he arrived in the United States as a Fenian political refugee in 1868. A vigorous, combative, and intensely political man, he was a devoted member of a secret revolutionary brotherhood that had conspired to raise an armed revolt by Irish soldiers of the British garrison in Ireland. James told his son of a "traitor" who betrayed him and his comrades. At the time, British officials were acting decisively to purge the garrison of nationalist plotters; the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended and police were making wholesale arrests of suspected Fenian insurrectionists. Hundreds of others besides James fled to the United States to escape imprisonment.
James's forced emigration brought him first to Boston, then to nearby Taunton by the late 1860s or early 1870s. It is quite possible that James was initially drawn to the town by family ties, but the only evidence for this is an occasional proximity of addresses recorded in the city directories. When he arrived in Taunton, the town already possessed a sizable population of first- and second-generation Irish immigrants, many of whom worked in the town's large textile factories. James, however, appears not to have been directly employed by the mills. His name first appeared in the Taunton city directories in 1874, with his occupation listed as "hostler"; this is consistent with William's description of his father's occupation as that of a livery stableman and carriage washer.
James's wife, Elizabeth McLaughlin, was born in Carlisle, England, into a family of textile workers. It is unclear when or where James and Elizabeth met or were married, but James may have met his wife during his residency in Taunton. She was ten years younger than James, and unlike her husband was a devout Catholic. Neither James nor Elizabeth possessed any formal education. Of the two, Elizabeth may have had more experience as an industrial laborer; James, a stableman, was "of peasant stock." In the mid-nineteenth century, Elizabeth's family, which for generations had made their living producing textiles from the hand loom, witnessed first-hand the terrifying starvation conditions that had attended the transition from the hand to the power loom in the British textile industry. Although William recalled that Elizabeth's "political activities were nil," it is quite likely that his mother possessed at least an understanding of the traditions of labor unionism, which were well developed in the English textile industry by the 1850s, particularly so in Carlisle.
It is difficult to speculate on the nature of James's and Elizabeth's relationship, but the family raised one child whose baptismal record shows another woman's name listed as the mother, with James as the father. In addition, the elder Foster was a heavy drinker whose "special predilection" for fighting Irish policemen often landed him in jail. A restless man with few attachments, his most valued possession was a fine homespun overcoat that he had brought with him from Ireland. In Taunton, James was unwilling or unable to establish a home of any permanence for his family. When William was born in 1881, the family's address was an apartment located on an interior alleyway near the center of town; however, James and Elizabeth made their home at nine different addresses during the years in which they lived in Taunton, between 1872 and 1887. During this period, according to various records, Elizabeth gave birth to nine children, including William E. Foster (the "Z" was added much later). Of these nine children, four survived into adulthood; three are recorded in Taunton municipal records as having died at age three or younger. Two of the children succumbed to common respiratory infections, croup and bronchitis, while two other children "disappeared" in the sense that they cannot be accounted for in either municipal records or census manuscripts. They are not mentioned by name in either of William Foster's autobiographies. It is possible that they were given for adoption, yet, according to Foster's account in From Bryan to Stalin, most of the twenty-three children his mother bore died in infancy.
Through these years of frequent moving, the family continued to have their children baptized at St. Mary's Catholic Church; the congregation may have provided a center of support and orientation for the immigrant family, as it did for many of the Irish that settled in Taunton in the 1860s and 1870s. The extent of the Fosters' involvement in church, community, and ethnic organizations in Taunton remains unclear, however. Such memberships, if they were indeed a part of the Fosters' life at this point, apparently did not enable them to overcome the problems that resulted in frequent childhood deaths in their family: poor health care, inadequate nutrition, and uncertain housing.
In the winter of 1887, James and Elizabeth moved their family to Philadelphia. While the reasons for the family's move remain obscure, the family's mobility itself is significant, for it is a theme that persists in William Foster's early life. Geographic mobility was an important part of an immigrant family's strategy for survival and advancement, yet many such families cannot be traced by historians or demographers studying the social life of a particular community. Not only did William's family relocate frequently, its members appear and disappear in municipal, census, and church records and are often never mentioned. However, despite the incomplete evidence available on the precise composition of the family, it is possible to locate William Foster in a particular Philadelphia community during the years 1887 to 1900, and to establish what kind of "forces" were at work there, as well as the kind of choices that may have been available to him.
It is easy to imagine that the family's relocation in Philadelphia was a jolting experience. Census records and city directories reveal no other Fosters or McLaughlins living in the vicinity of the neighborhood where they settled, suggesting that the family could not rely on the cushion of clan loyalties upon arriving in the city. While the Fosters had moved often within the medium-sized mill town of Taunton, Philadelphia was a different environment altogether. In the 1880s, the city was a booming industrial metropolis, second only to New York in the size of its manufacturing work force and the value of its product. Although Philadelphia was noted in the nineteenth century for the exceptional architecture of its public and commercial buildings, developers imposed an efficient yet stark uniformity on the residential neighborhoods of the city's working-class population. In the districts that housed the city's immigrant laborers, vast grids of row houses fronted rear alleyways where thousands of families could be found living in crowded and squalid backyard houses or shacks. While visitors to Philadelphia were apt to remark on the cleanliness of the city or the beauty of the huge Fairmount Park, ugly court and alley slums, or "horizontal tenements," characterized districts like Southwark, Grays Ferry, Kensington, Port Richmond, and Moyamensing. For some, these areas symbolized the promise of Philadelphia's burgeoning industrial economy; one civic booster reminded observers that "wherever a great city is, extremes meet."
William Foster wrote that one street on the block where his family lived in South Philadelphia, Kater Street between Sixteenth and Seventeenth in the old Moyamensing district, "was a noisome, narrow side street, made up of several stables, a woodyard, a carpet cleaning works, a few whore-houses and many ramshackle dwellings." He also described two alleyways on his block where there was no running water, and where "half-starved, diseased, hopeless" people lived by "casual labor, begging [and] petty thieving." An impoverished African American community centered only two blocks north of the Foster residence harbored a "dangerous criminal class," according to W. ?. B. Dubois's 1896 study, The Philadelphia Negro. Here, according to DuBois, were gathered "shrewd and sleek politicians, gamblers and confidence men"; prostitution thrived as it did in many other parts of the city. Despite the proximity of Dubois's famous Seventh Ward to Foster's neighborhood, Irish gang members routinely attacked African Americans who ventured into their district.
An 1895 Philadelphia atlas portrays a residential alleyway of small wooden dwellings in the center of the block where James Foster and his family lived, but the Fosters occupied a three-story brick row house, described as a tenement in its property deed, facing South Seventeenth Street. The atlas also gives an idea of the mixed economy of the area, and suggests that in this district in Philadelphia, work and community were closely intermingled. The neighborhood at that time contained several small woolen mills, a chemical works, and a smelting works, as well as lumberyards, liveries, and stables. While horse-drawn streetcars were available in Philadelphia at the time, they were generally too expensive to be utilized on a daily basis, and most manual workers lived within a mile or so of their place of employment. It is therefore reasonable to assume that James Foster worked in one of the stables near his home. As for Elizabeth, it was unusual for the wife in a working-class family in Philadelphia to be regularly employed outside the home during this period. In a routine autobiographical questionnaire completed years later, William pointed out that his mother "did not work after marriage" and that his family was dependent on his father's income.
The Fosters did not own the house in which they lived during their years in Philadelphia, although many Irish immigrants who had arrived in the city a generation earlier had been able to achieve home ownership. Few of the residents of Foster's neighborhood owned their own houses, but it was not unlikely that the owner of a tenement such as the Fosters occupied might have an Irish surname. Writing in 1893 of the apparent low proportion of "Paupers and Vicious Classes" in Philadelphia, the sociologist Lorin Blodget concluded optimistically that Philadelphia's experience showed that "it is not a necessity of the creation of great wealth, that there should follow great poverty to the creators of that wealth." Although Blodget attributed Philadelphia's apparent success to the "great numbers engaged at wages in productive industries," many observers at the time were alarmed by the existence of what seemed to be an idle, lawless, and degraded working class in areas like Moyamensing, where the Fosters lived. William Foster noted that in his neighborhood, many residents never worked, and lived only by their wits. His own family occupied an uncertain position in the industrial society that Philadelphians were creating, both as an ideology and as an existing milieu of limited opportunity, in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Although many Irish immigrants lived in Moyamensing in the 1880s and 1890s, it could not have been accurately described as an ethnic ghetto. Several streets near where the Fosters lived were almost entirely populated by Irish immigrants, but other blocks were more ethnically diverse. In this respect, the area was similar to many other districts in Philadelphia. In 1880, while roughly a third of the city's total population was of Irish stock, only one person in five of Irish background lived in the concentrated clusters of Irish ethnicity. Even in areas that included the highest concentrations of Irish, they composed only about half the total population. Moreover, in the 1860s the Irish in each residential cluster were largely heterogeneous with regard to occupation, unemployment rates, and extent of property holdings. As Philadelphia became more industrialized and transportation systems improved, increased social differences in the workplace began to influence choice of residence more than ethnicity; unskilled workers, in particular, became more isolated. Similarly, social class was steadily becoming more important as a factor in determining membership in Irish fraternal or community organizations in Philadelphia during this period.
Foster remembered that the small area in the Moyamensing district that constituted his neighborhood was known as Skittereen. The street gang to which he belonged rigorously defined this district as extending from Sixteenth to Seventeenth Streets, between South Street on the north and Fitzwater Street three blocks to the south. An examination of the census manuscripts of 1880 and 1900 reveals that this neighborhood was changing quite rapidly during the period the Fosters lived there. In 1880, seven years before the Fosters arrived, the area included a large number of poor Irish-born workers, especially on the smaller side-streets. Kater Street, for instance, was home to mostly unskilled Irish laborers living in tiny two-story row houses, the majority reporting their occupation as "carter" or wagon driver. However, the area was still diverse in ethnicity and occupation. While far from predominant, skilled workers such as carpenters, coachmakers, machinists, metal smiths, printers, and jewelers, as well as businessmen and proprietors with boarding servants resided on the block in which the Fosters were to live and the streets facing it, along with teamsters, other unskilled laborers, and immigrants from Germany, England, Scotland, Italy, France, and Cuba. In this diverse neighborhood, however, there was a significant sign of economic uncertainty. A large number of the residents—on some streets, over half of the census respondents reporting an occupation—stated that they had been unemployed at some point in the previous year.
By 1900, the year that William Foster finally departed, this small section of Philadelphia was home to a large proportion of African American workers, with some streets still showing a mixture of Irish and American-born white laborers. Many of the recently arrived African Americans listed birthplaces in the South, and simply described themselves as laborers. Those who gave an occupation were often domestics, waiters, bootblacks, janitors, and porters. On Kater Street, at the center of the block where the Fosters lived, of the approximately sixty-five individuals over age twenty who lived there in 1900, only five, comprising one family, had resided there in 1880. The relatively fluid ethnic composition of Foster's neighborhood is suggested by the fact that the three-story tenement in which the Foster family had resided from 1887 to the late 1890s was occupied in 1900 by three African American families, two of which were headed by laborers. Symbolically, a building across the street from the Foster residence that housed a workingmen's club in 1889 had been converted into a relief mission by 1901.
Excerpted from Forging American Communism by Edward P. Johanningsmeier. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
Note on Sources xxiii
CHAPTER 1 Beginnings 10
CHAPTER 2 Socialist and Syndicalist 31
CHAPTER 3 The Syndicalist Leagues 56
CHAPTER 4 Labor Organizing in "The jungle" 88
CHAPTER 5 The Great Steel Strike
CHAPTER 6 Labor Organizer and Communist 150
CHAPTER 7 The "Free Lance" and the Communist Party 175
CHAPTER 8 "Phrases Learned in Europe" 214
CHAPTER 9 The Reluctant Agitator 249
CHAPTER 10 The Democratic Front 272
CHAPTER 11 "Browderism" 293
CHAPTER 12 Unionism, Politics, and the Cold War 314
CHAPTER 13 Final Struggles 333