Michael Goldfield's Color of Politics

— Mel Rothenberg

THE ROLE OF race, specifically the position of African-Americans, within the working class and progressive movements has been the center of an ongoing debate among U.S. socialists since the middle of the nineteenth century. The two poles of the debate are expressed clearly in the contending views of Eugene Debs and W.E.B. DuBois.

Debs, the foremost U.S. socialist leader of the twentieth century, announced early in this century that "We (i.e. the socialist movement) have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeal to all races." (Quoted by Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics, 15. All further references to this work will be abbreviated COP.)

In 1903 DuBois put forth a profoundly different analysis when he wrote "the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line." W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: McClurg, 1903). It is Michael Goldfield’s thesis, in this long political essay under review, that not only was DuBois correct about the 20th century, but that color and race remain the fundamental fault line of our movement as we move into the twenty-first century.

Goldfield’s approach is to examine U.S. history during the periods of great turmoil and social transformation. His general thesis is that, while significant gains were made in some of these periods, their radical potential was in the end subverted by the failure of the labor and progressive leadership to confront the color line.

More precisely, the failure of the US working class to develop sustained forms of class organization and consciousness is the result of the failure to confront white supremacy. This book consists of a detailed argument of this thesis. See COP, 30-31 for the statement of the general thesis summarized above, and the pages preceding for the broad historical periodization discussed below.

Historical Background

Goldfield isolates five critical periods to focus on. They feature the dramatic rise of working class consciousness and combativeness and the popular appeal of advanced democratic programs and politics. They all end, however, with the defeat of the radical, democratic forces and the consolidation of power by the property owning classes.

The first is the colonial period when, to establish and reinforce slavery, the color line was drawn and racial identities were established. The second was the Revolutionary War/Constitutional period in which political rights and property rights were codified. The third great period of transformation was the civil War/ Reconstruction era, when the labor system of the south, slavery, was transformed into a new system of agricultural peonage," based on a changed white supremacy that dominated the country as a whole well into the next century." (COP, 29)

The forth critical period was the Populist period, out of which came "the system of 1896 which solidified the rule of northern business and the national political dominance of the Republican Party for almost four decades." The fifth was the Depression/New Deal era, which lasted from 1930 through the Second World War and into the early 1950’s. "This period marked the rise of industrial unions, broad social policies at the federal level, and the beginning of the breakup of the old Jim Crow." (COP, 30)

Finally, although not listing it as one of the five critical periods, Goldfield devotes two chapters, sixty pages, to the Civil Rights movement, the movements of the 1960s, and the building of the present day white racist coalition, which he sees as dominating current political life.

In attempting to cover three hundred years of U.S. history, Goldfield inevitably uses a broad brush. At the same time, he is very familiar with the most recent scholarship as well as classical left sources and uses them with deftness and precision. His ability to integrate disparate analyses, and theoretical insights, in an overall vision is one of the strengths of this book.

Here are a couple of examples, which allow me to touch briefly on the early parts of this book.

Goldfield’s analysis of the colonial and revolutionary war period utilizes the very important work of Ted Allen, The Invention of the White Race (New York: Verso, 1994), which details how "race" was socially constructed. Allen’s work (reviewed by Jonathan Scott in Against the Current 72, January-February 1998), has influenced a whole school of contemporary labor and race historians.

Among the most prominent of these are Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger. See for example Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995) and David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness; Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991). Goldfield draws on their work on pre-civil war labor, particularly that of Roediger, while taking issue with the very pessimistic assessment of Ignatiev, and some others, on the progressive potential of white workers.

The perspective of Goldfield, which I share, is that the construction of white racial identity is an ongoing process, incomplete, partial and threatened by the rise of class struggle. In this way he is able to utilize the insights of this "social construction" school without falling victim to their tendency to fetishize psychological and cultural racist constructs.

In treating the Civil War and Reconstruction, Goldfield’s dominant influence is DuBois, by far the deepest Marxist historian of this period, and secondarily the writings of the contemporary labor historian Eric Foner. See the bibliography of COP for the basic works of these essential thinkers. While not attempting to defend what is out of date in DuBois’ work, Goldfield successfully communicates to a contemporary audience this great thinker’s basic insights.

DuBois’ great contribution was to link, in a concrete and detailed historical exposition, the Afro-American struggle against slavery and for social emancipation, to the broad goal of working class democracy and power. Only in this essential context can the failure of the 19th century white labor movement to take up the abolitionist cause and to support Reconstruction be understood as leading to the first great political defeat of the entire working class.

This explication of DuBois’ profound insight is one of the high points of Goldfield’s book, and distinguishes it from most left books on labor history which tend to apologize for, if not defend, mid-nineteenth century labor racism.

Depression, War and Labor

I suspect the real meat of the book for most leftists will be Goldfield’s treatment of the Depression and New Deal era (chapters 6 and 7). Goldfield is a specialist in labor history of the 1930s and 1940s; it is about this period that Goldfield is most insightful and original.

Most left historians divide this history into two distinct periods. The first is the glory days of the 1930s characterized by the explosion of working class militancy and class consciousness. The highlights of this period are the three general strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo, the founding of the CIO the following year, and the decisive breakthrough in 1938, where the sit-down strikes in Flint opened the door to the unionization of auto, and ultimately of steel and other mass production industries.

This first period was then followed by the second period of World War II and the early fifties, which saw a labor policy of class cooperation become one of class collaboration, co-option and capitulation, as the working class and trade unions became integrated into the cold war consensus.

Goldfield’s main focus here is to understand and explain the process by which this high level of class consciousness and struggle gave rise to an anemic and corrupt organized labor. He is concerned with pinpointing the social barriers and forces, present during the heyday of working class militancy and radicalism, which were ultimately to abort the development of a radical and unified working class movement. He finds the answer in the durability of the color line, which remained unbreached in this period.

Goldfield emphasizes the fundamental economic-social transformation which underlies the events of this period. This was basically the liquidation of the majority of the agricultural labor force. A fundamental consequence was the migration from the rural south of millions of African Americans from the southern countryside into urban areas and industrial work, initially in the south but later also the northern industrial centers. They became a significant proportion of the workforce in industries such as auto, steel, and meat packing.

This process stretched from the period before World War I into the post-World War II period. Although there were pockets of Black industrial workers prior to this, the migration and the mass entry of African Americans into industry constituted a basic transformation of the industrial working class in the United States. It meant that any attempt to organize industrial workers on a broad scale had to take these workers into account, i.e. to address the color line.

These Black industrial workers found themselves universally subject to open and brutal racism and discrimination on the job, often of a violent character. They also found themselves denied elementary political and civil rights both on the job and in their communities. Any serious effort to organize industrial workers into a unified , class conscious political force had to be multi-racial, and to do this it was necessary to effectively combat both forms of racist oppression.

The failure of the organizing drives in meat packing and steel at the end of World War I can be traced in large part to the failure to overcome the color line. Goldfield’s thesis is that this failure was repeated in the organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s, and that this failure to successfully carry through the fight against racial oppression and white supremacy entailed the abandonment of any broad, class politics.

For a labor movement unable or unwilling to unite the working class to challenge the existing order of white supremacy, a politics of class collaboration and eventually of class capitulation remained the only alternative.

The Operation Dixie Disaster

In Goldfield’s view this whole process came to a head with the fiasco of Operation Dixie. To understand this is to understand the core of the issue, and Goldfield’s discussion of Operation Dixie (240-249) is one of highlights of the book for me..

Operation Dixie was initiated in 1946 by the CIO, then at the height of its strength and membership, with the aim of organizing basic industry in the South. This area had been almost entirely bypassed in earlier organizing movement, and the exclusion of southern industry from unionization was universally understood as the great challenge and threat to industrial unionism in the United States. In particular, since the majority of Black industrial workers remained in the South, organizing the South meant breaching the color line in a fundamental way.

Operation Dixie, in Goldfield’s analysis, was a textbook example of business unionism in practice. It was headed up by Van Bittner, an ardent right winger, who conducted a campaign predicated on not antagonizing the southern political and business elites. He hoped to convince them that their power and authority would in no way be challenged by unionization, and thus win their acquiescence.

Since southern political power lay in the hands of racist Dixiecrats, who ran the Democratic Party in the South, this meant avoiding, at all costs, challenging racial oppression. Bittner was also determined to exclude leftists from the campaign. Thus southern liberal groups with anti-racist credentials, who wanted to support Operation Dixie, were iced out.

More important, African American organizers who were generally associated with the left wing of the CIO were also excluded, and the organizing staff was almost entirely white. In order not to raise the specter of race, the campaign targeted the southern textile industry which was almost entirely white, rather then other industries which were racially mixed and had a more recent history of trade union activity. Finally, the campaign was run in an exceedingly bureaucratic and heavy-handed manner, squelching any initiative from below.

Despite the attempt to run an ultra-respectable campaign, Operation Dixie was successfully baited by the anti-union forces as an experiment in communist race mixing. It failed to engage either the interest of white workers, or—very understandably in light of its politics—the enthusiasm of Black workers.

Operation Dixie was a miserable failure. It failed to organize anyone, and by the end of the 1940s the CIO had fewer members in the South then at the beginning of the campaign. The consequence of this failure was, in Goldfield’s words, "one of the great tragedies of American labor and all of U.S. society" (240). It left the South politically and socially in the hands of racist reactionaries.

This result shifted the whole center of gravity of American politics to the right It marked the end of dramatic union growth that had begun in 1933, and began the decline in union density that continues to the present day. It marginalized the union movement in national politics and paved the way for anti-labor legislation culminating in Taft Hartley.

Most crucially, it meant that when the Civil Rights Movement arose in the South it did so on ground lacking an organized working class. The inability to forge strong links between the Civil Rights Movement and working class organization had disastrous consequences for both.

Where Labor Went Wrong

I have put forth Goldfield’s thesis rather starkly, without the qualifications, subtleties, and detail of his formulation. I have done this so as to compare it with the two main "traditional " left explanations of why the fruits of a militant mass working class movement in the 1930’s was the class collaborationist and corrupt trade union politics and structures of the 1950s.

The view of the Communist Party, which has had great influence on generations of left historians, is that labor formed the core of a successful center-left coalition, in the terminology of that period, a United or Popular Front that constituted a political alternative to the ruling capitalist establishment. The CP viewpoint justified the policy of class co-operation of the World War II years as both necessary to defeat fascism and to build this Popular Front into a force capable of seriously challenging existing capitalist power.

What went wrong, in this view, was that the capitalists successfully split the center from the left around the issue of the Cold War, and used this wedge to destroy the influence of the left within the trade unions and other mass organizations, thus gutting the Popular Front.

The main alternative left view, which was advanced by the Trotskyist movement of that period, regards the Popular Front as a formula for class collaboration, and places the major responsibility for the degeneration of the workers’ movement at the door of the Communist Party whose platforms and policies provided a socialist cover for class capitulation. The classic presentation of the Communist Party’s version of the United Front is Dimitroff’s report to the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1935, in the context of the struggle against Fascism. This report became the basic formulation of general Communist strategy for the following decade. During this period every political question of any importance was framed in terms of the Popular Front. A summation of the Trotskyist critique can be found in James P. Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973). From the traditional Marxist perspective this critique was very telling, but to the vast majority of progressives of that period it suffered from the same flaw that decimated Trotsky’s critique of Stalin: The alternative presented was not credible.

Now Goldfield really has presented an intriguing alternative to both these positions. However, he fails to develop this alternative, but rather attempts to straddle the very broad issues raised. He agrees that driving out the Communist Party-influenced left from the trade unions was a crucial step in crippling the capacity and organization of the working class. This flows from his central thesis since, as he shows, the Communist left was the one force within the labor movement which most vigorously, in program and practice, fought racial oppression.

As a consequence trade union locals in those plants with large groups of militant Black workers were often sympathetic to, and aligned with the Communist left. With the purging of the Communists these groups were often isolated and undermined, destroying the best hope for a class conscious, multi-racial, working class movement.

At the same time Goldfield denounces the CP’s subordination to the Soviet Union , and quotes, approvingly, scathing remarks of James P. Cannon, the founder and foremost leader of U.S. Trotskyism, savaging Stalinism as the main force which gutted the US working class movement. Goldfield’s denunciation of Stalinism, however, is rhetorical and lacks content since it is not integrated into his general analysis of the period. It is easy enough to express moral outrage at the CP’s twists and turns in its attempts to justify the Soviet Union and its policies. But given Goldfield’s premise on the color line as the central issue of the period, any political critique of the CP requires an analysis of how its fundamental strategic line, the Popular Front, impacted upon the struggle for Black and white working class unity.

Such an analysis is strikingly absent from this work, and constitutes its main weakness.

Implications for Today

The issues raised above are not primarily of a historical nature, but reflect rather unresolved central strategic issues facing any working class-based progressive movement in the United States.

Goldfield’s work, among others, demonstrates that this 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.

Such an alliance and demands are also at the cutting edge of the other great social movement of our period, the Women’s Movement, whose emergence reflects the most important social-economic transformation of the last three decades, the massive entrance of women into wage labor.

This takes us back to where we began. Gene Debs, the great leader of the Socialist Party up to 1920, who died before the period of the Popular Front, would object to a policy featuring cross class alliances and the playing down of class struggle.

Reflecting the mainstream Marxism of his day, to which the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and many current Socialists continue to appeal, Debs argued that the main task of Socialists is to build unity of workers around class issues, to articulate and fight for a political program which focused on working class interests and aspirations. Debs believed that a well organized and class conscious industrial working class, mobilized behind such a program could wage and win the fight for Socialism.

In contrast, in his writings during this period, particularly in the NAACP magazine which he edited, The Crisis, W.E.B DuBois was an enthusiastic supporter of what might be called Popular Front policies. The relationship of DuBois to the CPUSA was complex and not always free from antagonism. Although already a Socialist before WWI and a consistent lifelong supporter of the Soviet Union, he had serious political differences with the CPUSA throughout the 1930s and he only drew close during WWII. He finally joined the CP just before going into exile in Ghana in the early 1950s. He saw as key the task of integrating the Afro-American struggle with the class struggle, the anti-colonial struggle, and the fight against Fascism.

DuBois did not believe that the multi-racial U.S. working class could unite without directly challenging the color line. Moreover, he believed, it was absolutely essential to project a broad political program that could win the support of progressives from all social strata, particularly middle class intellectuals who would play an absolutely essential role in organizing Socialism on an advanced technological and scientific basis. He did not believe that workers, organized on a purely class basis, had that capacity. For an overly critical but fairly accurate elaboration of the Socialism of DuBois see Adolph L. Reed, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought. Fabianism and the Color Line, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, Chap 6.

The Popular Front strategy of the 1930s and 1940s was centrally concerned with the defense of the Soviet Union, and the fight against Fascism. Those issues are gone. What does remain, and in my mind remains crucial, is the orientation toward multiªclass alliances. If DuBois was right, such alliances are at the very core of constructing a viable socialist alternative.

More immediately and directly relevant to the book under review, such an orientation determines the type of involvement of Socialists in the Afro-American struggle. While it is our task to emphasize the centrality of the Afro-American working class, we must understand that the struggle of Afro-Americans for justice and equality remains a multi-class movement.

Successful involvement in this struggle necessitates the capacity to form cross class alliances. If this is correct, and if we take it seriously, this should influence our attitude toward immediate and controversial political questions.

For example, what is the role (and drawbacks) of the Labor Party and other third party formations from this perspective? Do African-American officials within the trade union bureaucracy have a progressive role to play? Can we afford to disregard the role of the Black Caucus (and in general the role of progressive minorities, feminists and gays) within the Democratic Party? Do we join and support middle class organizations which sometimes play a positive role, such as the NAACP?

What about Black religious groups which often have reactionary social views, but also have deep community roots and capacity to mobilize? What is our attitude towards nationalist tendencies and groupings?

These are difficult, complex issues, and no general orientation will lead to a quick and easy resolution. To convince oneself of this, one only need look at the rather tortured attempts of the CP from the 1920s on to come to terms with Black Nationalism.

Almost from its inception the CP took a stand against the main Black Nationalist movement of this period, the movement led by Marcus Garvey. However, in 1928 the CP itself, under the urging of Stalin and the Communist International, took a nationalist turn with the adoption of the position that the Negroes constituted an oppressed nation with a valid claim for a state located on the Black Belt region of the South.

The Communists never succeeded in convincing the bulk of the progressive AfroªAmerican leadership, including DuBois, that this position was realistic or sensible. When they later initiated the Popular Front activities, they stopped advocating it in practice. Still, the internal leadership dynamics of the CP, and the association this view had with Stalin, made it impossible to explicitly repudiate this position, which was not officially dropped until the Cold War years. An interesting and detailed history of this matter can be found in the auto-biography of the Afro-American Communist and leading U.S. advocate of the Negro Nation line Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik (Chicago; Liberator Press, 1978).

What is true, however, is that the Communist Party during the heyday of its Popular Front activity confronted these issues in a serious and politically sophisticated way. The Communists certainly made fundamental, even fatal errors yet also, through their approach, attracted a very significant, stable and talented core of Black militants, which made them a major force in the Afro-American movement from the 1930s through the early 1950s.

The present day Socialist groups, which grew primarily out of the New Left of the 1960s, have a much weaker record. The New Left itself grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, and in its initial phase involved talented Black leadership. Further for most of the new Socialist groupings, the Afro-American struggle was at least rhetorically a central focus of their various pronouncements and programs.

Yet these groups never succeeded in consolidating more then a tiny handful of African-American cadre, and have little present day influence among African American activists, or for that matter within any minority or Women’s movement.

Perhaps it is time to ask why this is so. Why has the contemporary left failed so miserably in its attempt to confront the color line in U.S. society? Can it have something to do with a failure to engage the concrete issues that have gripped the African -American community? Might this failure reflect a flawed orientation toward Socialist participation in mass politics?

Do not we have something to learn in this respect from the successes as well as the failures of the Popular Front? I believe the answers to all these questions are yes.

Mel Rothenberg is an independent Marxist in Chicago, active for many years in Civil Rights activism and socialist politics.

ATC 75, July-August 1998