The American Exception: America, Communism, and Labor from the 1910s to the 1940s

This essay was written for an interdisciplinary English Language and U.S. History project, finished on May 26, 2017. The goal was to select and research a time period or topic in American history and write an essay on it. It has not been edited from the submitted version.

There is a concept in philosophy and politics called American Exceptionalism: the fact that America’s beginnings were unique in world history and therefore the typical predictors for economic and social progression don’t apply to America as well as they do other countries. One of the notable differences is that America economically started as a capitalist society instead of a feudalist one that progressed to capitalism. Because of this, America has had very significantly differing patterns on its overall views towards communism and labor than other countries, which typically have a relatively straightforward progression from feudalism to capitalism to communism. In America, while government view towards communism and labor stayed consistently negative throughout the time early to mid 1900s, public view fluctuated, with opinions of communism growing more positive or negative in response to events like the first Red Scare, the Great Depression and the second World War. This essay will document and analyze some of those fluctuations, namely from the 1910s to the 1940s.

Before an analysis, some definitions and background should be clarified. At its very core, communism is an economic system that makes the government responsible for ensuring that every citizen has access to basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and health. It isn’t a political system or a system designed to restrict the choices of an individual, just a system meant to give basic health and safety to everyone, no matter what. There are many different forms of communism, but the most well-known form is Marxism, originally created by Prussian-born philosopher Karl Marx. Marx’s philosophy is that the means of manufacturing, the ability to obtain the resources and money and land necessary to make factories and products, belongs to different people in different economic systems, and that communism is supposed to put the means of manufacturing into the hands of the laborers who do the manufacturing.

Labor is the other important part of this analysis. Many labor movements in the 1910s-40s were inspired by the communist uprising in Russia in 1917. It was one of the first successful revolutions held by laborers in centuries, inspiring more laborers around the world to revolt against authorities. Due to both the Russian revolution and large-scale strikes in America, the first Red Scare began in 1919, which will be discussed later. Labor issues are very closely intertwined with communism, since one of the tenets of communism is to give the means of manufacturing to the laborers. Workers and laborers can use a variety of tactics such as boycotting, striking, and other forms of protest to express their discomfort with their work conditions, and some of the biggest labor protests and uprisings in the history of America happened in the 1920s-30s.

Large labor struggles happened throughout the 1910s, with everyone from coal miners to shippers to hatters and more. Labor unions supported the war effort, using it to push for fairer wages for workers. Towards the end of the war, something happened that sparked America’s first interaction with communism: the Russian revolution. Laborers rose up and overthrew the upper class, something which American businessmen were terrified would happen to them because of the strikes. Instead of giving the workers what they wanted, the businessmen sparked the first of many Red Scares in American history. In January 1919, a shipyard workers’ union went on Strike in Seattle. On February 6, the strike became a general strike, with 60,000 workers shutting down the city. They mayor of Seattle at the time deployed three thousand federal troops and police officers to dispel the strike. Newspapers began calling the strike a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government, and the Senate responded by repurposing a wartime subcommittee on German subversion to, as the New York Times put it in 1919, “Turn the Light on American Bolshevism”. The media and the government working together to incite fear and hatred for communism brought the public opinion on communism down, but the drive for better labor conditions still continued on.

In 1921, ten thousand miners in West Virginia held the largest labor uprising in the history of America and the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. The miners were tired of being paid in company currency that could only be used at company stores for company wares with no guarantees of basic safety or living wages. The companies forced miners to sign contracts that forbade them from organizing, and had private detectives investigate miners that were suspected of striking and evict them. In response, the miners armed themselves and rose up, assaulting the troops an anti-union sheriff had set up on Blair Mountain to keep the union members from reaching a county where coal workers were being imprisoned by the coal companies. The battle raged on and off from August to September 1921 until President Harding deployed 2,100 federal troops to break up the uprising. When the battle was over, over a million rounds had been fired and between twenty and a hundred people had been killed (Andrews, Evan).

With the start of the Great Depression in 1929, America’s economy collapsed due to a combination of a stock bubble bursting and the failure of the government to intervene, instead preferring to hold a policy of “rugged individualism” which mean that it wouldn’t try to help or protect its people in any way, shape or form. Because of this, people began to feel abandoned and betrayed by the government and the capitalist economic system as a whole, and started to make a greater push for unions and worker protection. A photo titled “Open battle between striking teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis” from a June 1934 issue of the New York Times depicts what the title describes, a group of strikers engaging with police during the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike, which resulted in four deaths and countless arrests (Chicago Tribune). The protests in America caught the eye of politicians and philosophers worldwide, including an ex-Soviet Union leader named Leon Trotsky. In 1935, Trotsky published an article in the American magazine Liberty titled “Should America Go Communist”, detailing the potential advantages to communism in American society and why it wouldn’t be as risky and cause as many problems as it did in Russia. He argued that because America was already industrialized and making surplus, it wouldn’t have to go through the hardships that Russia did with its push to rapidly industrialize. In it, he wrote:

Nowhere else has the study of the internal market reached such intensity as in the United States. It has been done by your banks, trusts, individual businessmen, merchants, traveling salesmen and farmers as part of their stock-in-trade. Your soviet government will simply abolish all trade secrets, will combine all the findings of these researches for individual profit and will transform them into a scientific system of economic planning. In this your government will be helped by the existence of a large class of cultured and critical consumers. By combining the nationalized key industries, your private businesses and democratic consumer cooperation, you will quickly develop a highly flexible system for serving the needs of your population.
This system will be made to work not by bureaucracy and not by policemen but by cold, hard cash.
Your almighty dollar will play a principal part in making your new soviet system work. It is a great mistake to try to mix a ‘planned economy’ with a ‘managed currency.’ Your money must act as regulator with which to measure the success or failure of your planning.

However, not everyone thought Trotsky’s reasoning was sound. `The next week, Pennsylvania senator James J. Davis published an article in the same magazine as a direct refute to Trotsky’s titled “But America Won’t Go Communist!” which detailed issues that Davis had with Trotsky’s piece. “A factor of prime importance which has apparently been totally disregarded by Trotsky is the power of the troupe whom he calls ‘counterrevolutionists’ — the top tenth who own the greater part of our wealth and resources…Under skillful manipulation and astute publicity, this group has shown its power to plunge us into a war. Is not a force so tremendous a great factor to be reckoned with as a counterrevolutionary and a resistant?” (Davis, James) Both authors have strong points, Trotsky arguing that America’s economic strength would ensure a successful transformation into communism, and Davis replying that the resistance to revolution would be too strong for the revolution to be successful. No large-scale communist revolution ended up happening during the Great Depression, so neither party was ultimately proven right about whether it would be successful.

The 1940s brought the end of the Great Depression in the form of the second World War, giving the American economy a kickstart through blood and bullets. Guns and tanks and planes needed to be built, and soldiers needed to go fight. Many workers were drafted to fight in the war, leaving vacancies all over industry. To fill the vacancies, factories and companies started doing the unthinkable: hiring women to work in jobs that were thought of as men’s jobs. Many people were worried about the slippery slope that would result from women doing industrial work, and they turned out to be spot-on. A Boeing worker named Inez Sauer later recalled, “My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, ‘You will never want to go back to being a housewife.’ At that time I didn’t think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did. . . . at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence that I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a club woman . . . when I knew there were things you could use your mind for” (Harvey, Sheridan). The concept of communism was mainly put to the side to focus on the war effort, and was left there until the Cold War.

America’s exception to the typical formula of societal progression has left it in many odd states. Most notably, its skipping of the feudalist economic stage has caused its views on communism and labor to fluctuate massively throughout its history, especially in the early-mid 1900s. Its initial reaction was fear and rejection of this new economic system that could have very profound impacts if spread to America. This was followed by the largest labor uprising in American history and a rise in interest of better workers’ conditions and the communist system as a whole during the Great Depression, then communism fading into obscurity for a couple decades during World War II while the issue of women in the industrial workforce was brought to a forefront while all the men were away making war. Hate and support for communism have both made their resurgences in more recent history, with the second Red Scare in the 1960s and support for socialist practices growing in the form of universal healthcare, free college tuition and the rise of the sharing economy with services like ride- and house-sharing apps. The future is unknowable, but America will either to continue to be the global exception or work towards creating a more labor-focused and supportive society.

Works Cited

Andrews, Evan. “The Battle of Blair Mountain.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 May 2017.

“‘KILLINGS, RIOTS’ MARK STRIKES IN MINNESOTA.” The Chicago Tribune Archives. The Chicago Tribune, 15 May 1948. Web. 25 May 2017.

Davis, James J. “But America Won’t Go Communist!” Liberty Magazine [Rye, New York] 30 Mar. 1935: 14+. Liberty Magazine Historical Archive. Web. 8 May 2017.

Harvey, Sheridan. Library of Congress Webcasts. Library of Congress, 14 May 2003. Web. 26 May 2017.

“Open battle between striking teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis”. 1934. Photographic File of the Paris Bureau of the New York Times, ca. 1900 — ca. 1950, National Archives Catalog.

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