IN THE SPRING of 1936 I got a six-month leave of absence from the College to serve as the legislative representative of the Teachers Union. I spent much of my time in Albany, in Washington, and at City Hall in New York. I was successful in having two Union bills passed and the Union was well pleased.
I now represented a growing educational pressure group. With the Communists in control, the New York Teachers Union expanded its membership rolls by taking in unemployed teachers, substitute teachers, and WPA teachers. These made a large bloc for political pressure. We added further strength to it by working with the communist section of the PTA and several student organizations.
With these to support campaigns, my activity in politics was greatly increased. I organized this bloc on an assembly-district basis with teacher-union captains in charge of each district. When legislation was pending, I called on my own captains to put pressure on recalcitrant representatives.
The Communist Party was pleased, and later it promoted to important positions with the American Labor Party, which it controlled, many of the teachers who got their first experience in practical politics with teachers’ district clubs.
At this time I became one of the Teachers Union delegates to the A.F. of L. Central Trades and Labor Council of New York. When I first went to Beethoven Hall on East Fifth Street, Joseph Ryan was president and George Meany was legislative representative.
I was proud of the assignment. I was young and idealistic and eager to serve the workers. I now became a member of the Communist Party “fraction” in the A.F. of L. This meant that I would meet regularly with the Communist Party members of the A.F. of L. and the leaders of the Party in order to push A.F. of L. policy toward the communist line.
The Party maintained an active fraction in labor groups, including the A.F. of L. In 1934 the Red unions under the title TUUL, led by William Z. Foster, had been ordered liquidated by the Communist International. The radicalized core of workers, trained by Foster, turned their energies to A.F. of L. unions. They attracted new followers by militant support of legislation for the unemployed. This struggle for a worthy cause enabled the Party to build emotional and organizational ties with workers belonging to many unions.
In 1936 I met, through the Party, committees of the striking seamen who, under the leadership of the Communist Party, were fighting both the shipowners and the corrupt leadership of the old I.S.U., an affiliate of the A.F. of L. A rank-and-file movement was organized against the old leadership of the I.S.U. These insurgents were led by Joseph Curran and Blackie Myers, who immediately started a strike, unauthorized by their union, against the shipowners. To gain some support from organized labor they sought assistance from the Central Trades and Labor Council. They wanted to present their grievances before delegates of the city’s organized labor body.
I was summoned by the Communist Party and told I had been selected to present to the Central Trades a petition of the striking seamen with their demands for a reorganization of their union along democratic lines. I agreed to cooperate though I was only partly aware of the implications. I met the committee of seamen outside Beethoven Hall. Joseph Curran and a number of other seamen gave me the petition and briefed me.
There was full attendance inside the hall; the leadership expected trouble. When the agenda of the meeting had been covered, I asked for recognition from Joe Ryan and got the floor. To disarm the opposition I talked first about democracy in unions and then I announced breathlessly:
“I hereby present the petition of the striking seamen. In the interest of union democracy they are entitled to a hearing.”
Pandemonium broke loose. The chairman hit his gavel again and again, so hard that it finally flew from his fingers. That night I was escorted home by a group of the communist delegates who feared I might suffer bodily harm. But the press got the story of the seamen’s demands and printed it. We had accomplished our mission.
I learned something important that night. I found that acts of daring, supported by the appearances of moral justification, have a terrific impact in building a movement, regardless of whether or not you win. This is a fact the Communists know how to use.
Of course I was hardly representing the teachers by becoming involved in matters which were of no immediate concern to my union. But I had learned that serving the Communist Party was the first requisite for continued leadership in my union.
From my tutors in the Party I learned many communist lessons. I learned that Lenin held in contempt unions interested only in economic betterment of workers, because he held that the liberation of the working class would not come through reforms. I learned that unions which followed a reformist policy were guilty of the Marxist crime of “economism.” I learned that trade unions are useful only insofar as they could be used politically to win worker acceptance of the theory of class struggle and to convince workers that their only hope of improving their conditions is in revolution.
Again and again I heard Jack Stachel and Foster and lesser Communist Party labor leaders repeat that American workers need to be “politicalized” and “proletarianized.” Their feeling was that the American worker was not conscious of his class role because he was too comfortable. In line with this I saw senseless strikes called or prolonged. At first I did not understand the slogan frequently proclaimed by these men: “Every defeat is a victory.” Loss of salary, or position, or even loss of life was not important as long as it brought the worker to acceptance of the class struggle.
That year I was elected as delegate to the State Federation of Labor convention at Syracuse. The Communists and some of the liberal unions were determined to pass a resolution endorsing the formation of a Labor Party. I attended the Communist Party fraction meeting in New York in preparation for this convention. We went over the resolutions to be introduced and the objectives to be achieved. Assignments were made to individual delegates.
This use of fractions made the Communist Party effective in noncommunist groups. They went prepared, organized, trained, and disciplined with a program worked out in detail, and before other groups had a chance to think the Communists were winning advantages. They worked in every convention as an organized bloc. In other organized blocs the Communists had “sleepers,” assigned to protect Communist Party interests. These “sleepers” were active members in noncommunist blocs for the purpose of hamstringing and destroying the power of the opposition.
The “progressive” bloc at the State Federation convention that year decided to run me for a position in the State Federation of Labor. It seems ridiculous to me now that one so newly come to the labor movement should have been pushed forward against the established machine. But this, too, was a communist tactic, for Communists have no hesitation whatever in bringing unknown people forward into leadership, the more callow or ill-equipped the better, since they will therefore more easily be guided by the Party. The weaker they are, the more certainly they will carry out the Party’s wishes. Suddenly and dramatically the Communist Party makes somebodies out of nobodies. If tactics change, they also drop them just as quickly and the somebodies again become nobodies.
By 1936 plans had already been made by important forces in Washington for the launching of the American Labor Party, presumably as a method of solidifying the labor vote in New York for President Roosevelt. The Communists pledged their total support. Of course, no one in his right mind expected the A.F. of L. to move as a bloc into an independent labor party. The purpose was to radicalize the workers of New York and paralyze the two major parties. As I saw it the struggle on the floor of the State Federation convention was to launch the idea of a Labor Party to “politicalize” labor unions by tying them to a party presumably of their own as does the British Labor Party.
My nomination for office in the state A.F. of L. gave me an opportunity to make a passionate plea for independent political action by organized labor. It was well received. Though I was defeated, as the Communists had expected, I received considerable support. I got the vote not only of the communist delegates but also of many of the representatives of liberal unions.
It did not matter to the Party leader, who masterminded this activity from a hotel room at the convention, that I was fearful my action might result in reprisals against the Teachers Union which desperately needed A.F. of L. support. Ours was a union without job control and our activities were limited to pleading our cause for salaries and working conditions before city and state legislative bodies. We depended on support from organized labor to achieve our program.
In 1936 the communist hold on the A.F. of L. in New York State was slim. The Party was afraid to expose well-placed comrades in the A.F. of L. apparatus, reserving them for key positions in vital industries and for long-range strategy. In addition there were Communists occupying important positions in the unions who enjoyed their union “pie card” positions, and they objected to being sacrificed even by the Party. These argued that it was more important for them to hold their positions than to be used for mere opposition purposes.
The leadership of the Teachers Union was not affected by a fear of losing jobs; the tenure law for public schoolteachers was now effective. Therefore, the Party leaders found it expedient to use the teacher leaders in the A.F. of L. as the spearhead of A.F. of L. work. In addition teachers were generally better informed about current Party writings and were better disposed to follow the Party line than the old-time communist union leaders who were hampered by the fact that they had to give consideration to the bread-and-butter issues for their unions. Then, too, the teacher representatives were not affected by a desire to preserve “pie card” positions since there was no material advantage to leadership in the Teachers Union in my day.
But this steady use of the Teachers Union by the Communist Party in the city, in the state, and at times even in the national A.F. of L. brought reprisals from A.F. of L. leaders. They became colder and more unwilling to accede to requests for assistance from the Teachers Union.
When I appeared in Albany in the fall of 1936 as the legislative representative of the Teachers Union, I found I had a hard time ahead of me.
Dr. Lefkowitz, who had represented the Union for many years, was bitter over being replaced by a neophyte who was doing the bidding of the Communist Party. I found that he had prepared for my appearance by announcing to everyone that I was a Communist and he had warned the legislators against co-operating with me.
1 went to the A.F. of L. legislative office on South Hawk Street to talk with Mr. Hanley, but Dr. Lefkowitz had been there before me. I was met with stony politeness. I again wondered why there should be such bitter feeling about the control of a relatively small organization; its total membership in 1936 was under three thousand. I was to learn in the years to come that those who seek to influence public opinion on any question are just as effective with a small as with a large organization; and that it is easier to control a small organization.
I made overtures to the leader of the joint Committee of Teachers Organizations, the conservative association of the New York City teachers. May Andres Healey knew the New York schools and the New York political scene. She was endowed with political shrewdness. When I went to see her she expressed herself in no uncertain terms about the Teachers Union. She did not believe in unions for teachers, she said briefly. It was too bad to have her against me, for though she was not part of the A.F. of L., she had strong connections with their city and state leadership.
We did not receive the wholehearted support of the A.F. of L. because the Teachers Union in America was basically pro-socialist and supported an educational system intended to prepare children for the new economic collectivist system which we regarded as inevitable. This went far beyond A.F. of L. policy of those days.
Though I was at a decided disadvantage in Albany, I was not easily discouraged. I had a “good” legislative program and the Party comrades had assured me they did not expect me to get passed the bills we were sponsoring. Their real purpose was to have the program popularized and to use this as a means of recruiting more teachers into the Union.
I set to work with a will. I cultivated assemblymen and senators. I studied their districts and learned what problems faced them in elections. I held meetings with voters in their districts. I made many friends among the legislators.
In the fall of that year I went back to my classes at Hunter. By the following spring I asked for another leave of absence, but this time I had to appeal to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene for me with the Board of Trustees to obtain it. The Mayor was a friend of mine and at that time willing to indulge me.
In the May Day parade of 1936 more than five hundred teachers marched with the Communists. These included many college teachers. I was one of them. I had, in fact, been selected to lead the teacher contingent.
I felt excited as I marched with segments of organized labor. This was my gesture of defiance against greed and corruption. It was also an affirmation of my belief that a better world could be created.
Gone now was the pain which had moved me in the earlier years of the 1930’s, when I saw crowds of white-faced people standing in front of the closed doors of the Bowery Savings Bank. Gone was the shame I felt when I saw well-bred men furtively pick up cigarette butts from city streets or when I saw soup lines at the mission doors.
In 1936 people had a little more money than in those tragic years of 1932 to 1934. On the whole a tremendous change had taken place in America. Millions of people formerly regarded as middle class found themselves on relief or on WPA and had been merged into the comradeship of the dispossessed. To people of this group the Communist Party brought psychological support. It saved their pride by blaming the economic system for their troubles and it gave them something to hate. It also made it possible for them to give expression to that hate by defiance.
Many of these new proletarians marched that May Day down Eighth Avenue, through streets lined with slum buildings, singing, “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, Arise, ye wretched of the earth,” and ending with the promise, “Ye have been naught. Ye shall be all.” These men and women who marched were drawn together by a sense of loss and a fear of future insecurity.
When the parade disbanded, the college teachers, jubilant because of this mingling with proletarian comrades, gathered at a beer garden where we drank beer and sang again the songs of the workers. We college teachers had come a long way by marching in a Communist May Day parade. We felt part of something new and alive.
With the others I went from one group to another that evening. By the early morning we had reached one of the intimate little night clubs which the Communist Party financed and where Party people were wont to congregate. We were tired by that time and willing to listen to entertainers in the club.
When the paying patrons had gone, we continued our own celebration. We were a mixed group — workers being groomed by the Party as labor leaders, intellectuals, men and women of the middle class who were beginning to identify themselves with the proletariat. Only emotion could have bound us together, for our group embraced serious workers with good jobs as well as crackpots and psychopaths and some of life’s misfits.
Beginning in 1936 a prodigious effort was made by the Party in support of the Spanish Civil War, and this continued until 1939. Perhaps no other activity aroused greater devotion among American intellectuals.
Since 1932 the Communist Party had publicized itself as the leading opponent of fascism. It had used the emotional appeal of anti-fascism to bring many people to the acceptance of communism, by posing communism and fascism as alternatives. Its propaganda machine ground out an endless stream of words, pictures, and cartoons. It played on intellectual, humanitarian, racial, and religious sensibilities until it succeeded to an amazing degree in conditioning America to recoil at the word fascist even when people did not know its meaning.
Today I marvel that the world communist movement was able to beat the drums against Germany and never once betray what the inner group knew well: that some of the same forces which gave Hitler his start had also started Lenin and his staff of revolutionists from Switzerland to St. Petersburg to begin the revolution which was to result in the Soviet totalitarian state.
There was not a hint that despite the propaganda of hate unleashed against Germany and Italy, communist representatives were meeting behind the scenes to do business with Italian and German fascists to whom they sold materiel and oil. There was not a hint that Soviet brass was meeting with German brass to redraw the map of Europe. There was no betrayal of these facts until one day they met openly to sign a contract for a new map of Europe — a treaty made by Molotov and Von Ribbentrop.
In the Spanish Civil War, the Party called upon its many members in the field of public relations, agents who made their living by writing copy for American business, for the sale of soap, whisky, and cigarettes. They gave the Party tremendous assistance in conditioning the mind of America. People of all ranks joined the campaign for the Loyalists: pacifists, humanitarians, political adventurers, artists, singers, actors, teachers, and preachers. All these and more poured their best efforts into this campaign.
During the Spanish War the Communist Party was able to use some of the best talent of the country against the Catholic Church by repeating ancient appeals to prejudice and by insinuating that the Church was indifferent to the poor and was against those who wanted only to be free.
The communist publicists carefully took for their own the pleasant word of Loyalist and called all who opposed them “Franco-Fascists.” This was a literary coup which confused many men and women. Violent communist literature repeatedly lumped all of the Church hierarchy on the side of the “Fascists,” and, using this technique, they sought to destroy the Church by attacking its priests. This was not a new tactic. I had seen it used in our own country over and over again. When the Communists organized Catholic workers, Irish and Polish and Italian, in labor unions they always drove a wedge between lay Catholics and the priests, by flattering the laity and attacking the priests.
In the Spanish campaign the Communists in the United States followed Moscow directives. They were the distant outpost of the Soviet realm and co-ordinated with the Communist International in details. When the call came to organize the American contingent of the International Brigade, the communist port agents of the National Maritime Union along the East Coast provided false passports and expedited the sending of this secret army to a friendly country.
Various unions were combed for members who would join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which was the American division of the International Brigade. The Communists used the prestige of Lincoln’s name as they had other patriots’ names to stir men’s souls for propaganda purposes.
I, myself, swallowed the Party’s lies on the Spanish Civil War. There was little forthcoming from American national leaders to expose this fraud. The Party, from time to time, produced a few poor, bewildered Spanish priests who, we were told, were Loyalists and these were publicized as the “People’s priests” as against the others, the Fascists. In retrospect it is easy to see how completely they twisted the American’s love of freedom and justice to win emotional support for the Soviet adventure in Spain.
Through numerous committees the Communist Party raised thousands of dollars for its Spanish campaign. But the tremendous advertising campaign could not have been financed from the contributions made at mass meetings and other gatherings, though these were not small sums. I remember one mass meeting (where I made the speech), held under the auspices of the Teachers Union. It netted more than twelve thousand dollars.
It became obvious, as the extensive campaign went on, that some of the funds were coming from sources other than the collections. It is now well known that the Soviet Union was doing everything in its power to bring the foreign policy of the United States into conformity with its own devious plans and that it did not hesitate to use trickery to do so. It wanted the United States to support Soviet policy on Spain. I did not understand this at the time. After that odd pieces of information and desultory recollections of events stayed in my mind and finally pieced out an understandable picture.
As one example of the puzzle that finally became a picture there is the story of the Erica Reed, which will serve as an example of hundreds of others. It was supposed to be a mercy ship taking food, milk, and medicines to hard-pressed Barcelona. It was chartered ostensibly by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain. In reality it was financed by Soviet agents.
The Erica Reed was laid up in New Orleans. At that time anti-communists were in control of the National Maritime Union in the Gulf, and the ship was manned by a crew which was either anti-communist or nonpolitical. This did not fit into the plans of the Soviet agent and the American Communists working with him. So it was decided to bring the Erica Reed to New York and there replace her crew with trusted Party men.
The little Soviet agent in a rumpled suit who sat in a New York hotel with several Communists from the National Maritime Union, and with Roy Hudson, then the Party whip on the water front, excitedly peeled off hundred-dollar bills from a huge wad and insisted that a trustworthy crew be placed on the Erica Reed, even if the old crew had to be removed by force and hospitalized.
Later, I talked to one of the men assigned to switch crews. A group had been ordered to board the vessel at night. Armed with blackjacks and lead pipes, they set to work. Some of the crew suffered broken jaws, arms, and legs,, and, as the little Soviet agent had planned, some were hospitalized. In addition a crowd of boys from the fur market, who were told they must fight fascism, congregated near the East Side pier where the ship was docked. They attacked the members of the crew who escaped the goon squad on the ship. They did not know that they were assaulting fellow Americans and were confused as to what the fracas was about.
Only the captain, an old Scandinavian, remained of the original crew. The new crew signed on by the New York office of the Union were nearly all pro-communist sailors, some of whom were looking for an opportunity for violent action and adventure.
When the Erica Reed left Sandy Hook, customs inspectors swarmed over her. But they found no arms or ammunition, and left the ship with only one bit of contraband: a communist blonde who was determined to go to Spain, and who was removed from the cabin of the chief engineer.
When the Erica Reed cleared Gibraltar and nosed toward her destination, Franco’s gunboats ordered her to stop. The captain, concerned for the safety of his vessel, made ready to do so. As he turned to give the order, a communist member of the crew held a pistol to the captain’s head and commanded, “Proceed to Barcelona.”
The Spanish gunboat, reluctant to seize a ship flying the American flag, returned to headquarters for further instructions. The “relief ship” with its supplies reached Barcelona where she was immediately ordered to Odessa. And so the Erica Reed, ostensibly chartered by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain, was sent to Odessa by her real charterer, the Soviet Union. The Spanish people were expendable.
During those years house parties were held by our union members to raise money for Loyalist Spain. Union and nonunion teachers were invited. Communists and non-communists rubbed shoulders and drank cocktails together. Eyes grew moist as the guests were told of bombs dropped on little children in Bilboa.
The International Brigade was eulogized by many Americans. They failed to realize that the first international army under Soviet leadership had been born; that though all the national subdivisions had national commissars, these were under Soviet commissars! There was the Lincoln Brigade and the Garibaldi Brigade. There was the emerging world military communist leadership developing in Spain. There was Thompson for the United States, Tito for Yugoslavia, Andre Marty for France, and others to act as the new leaders in other countries.
We teachers recruited soldiers for the Lincoln Brigade. I learned that Sid Babsky, a teacher of the fifth grade in Public School Number 6 in the Bronx who had been a classmate of mine at law school, was among the first to go. He did not return. Ralph Wardlaw, son of a Georgian minister, suddenly left his classes at City College and, without even packing his clothes, left for Spain. Six weeks later we received word of his death. Some of our substitute teachers enlisted and were spirited away to Soviet agents who got them out of the country with or without passports. In Paris they went to a certain address and there were directed across the border.
During this time communist girls wore gold liberty bells inscribed “Lincoln Brigade,” as a symbol of their pride in those “fighting fascism.” One of our talented Teachers Union members wrote a marching song which we sang at our meetings:
Abraham Lincoln lives again.
Abraham Lincoln marches.
Up tall he stands and his great big hand
Holds a gun.
With the Lincoln Battalion behind him,
He fights for the freedom of Spain.
And at various social affairs we also sang “Non Pasaron”; and sometimes with fists closed and lifted we shouted the German International brigade song, “Freiheit.”