The Great Depression: Political Ideologies Leaning Left 1929-1939

Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

Introduction

“I did what I believed in. I believe Socialism is inevitable. Life cannot go on forever without that step, and setbacks don’t change it.” These words were spoken by Gus Hall, longtime head of the Communist Party, USA (cited May 30, 2001. Available online at http://www.bookzen.com/obits/o_hall_gus.html ).

A variety of political forces influenced responses to the Great Depression. Pressures mounted from the right and left of the political spectrum. Generally forces from the “left” in the United States tended to be liberal. These advocates not only believed in “big government,” they advocated the active intervention of government in the economy and daily lives of citizens. To the “right” were the conservatives who sought to preserve the status quo and generally fought against radical changes. Those on the “right” wanted limited taxes and a limited role for government. Generally they supported each citizen helping himself or herself, rather than intervention of the government.

Between 1900 and 1930 the United States was a fertile setting for left-leaning views. Many of these sentiments were imported from Europe by immigrants unhappy with conditions in their countries of birth. They brought with them commitments to socialism, communism, anarchism, and unionism. Socialism is the belief in collective ownership in industry and shared wealth; communism relates to government ownership and control of the economy; anarchism is a belief that government is unnecessary and society is based on individual cooperation; and unionism promotes the ability of people to form organizations to improve their working conditions. They came from a background where these ideals were commonplace and government was expected by many to work for the interests of all citizens. As a result they envisioned legalized labor unions, controls on great wealth, regulation of the economy, and social welfare systems, underwritten and administered by the government. Some, impatient with the lack of change in the United States, advocated the violent overthrow of the government through revolution.

The views from the left fell on fertile ground in many parts of the United States. Even though the early twentieth century period, particularly the 1920s, was considered an economic boon time, never had the gap in wealth between the wealthy and workers been greater. With the rapid growth of industrialization, the United States was becoming a nation of mass consumerism. With easy access to credit from banks, the average worker was going deeper into debt to keep up with the modernizing trends. In addition, workers were frequently left to toil in crowded and unhealthy work-place conditions while government was largely unwilling to intervene and impose higher standards on employers.

In the 1890s the People’s Party had campaigned for government intervention in the economy. It wanted more money in circulation through the coinage, as it was phrased, of “free silver.” It also wanted to check the power of corporations and for the government to own key utilities. Between 1900 and 1920—the era of “progressive” reform—local, state, and federal government activities increased significantly. New laws regulated railroads, set maximum hours for workers, and clearly changed the role of government in the affairs of citizens.

On the left were those who thought the nation had not done enough to help the poor. The pressure to shove the country in new directions arose during the campaign of 1932 and persisted throughout the 1930s. This pressure included the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), Liberty Party, Socialist Party, and followers of vocal critics of the New Deal, the series of government programs promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to help the country out of the Great Depression. Among the more notable critics were Dr. Francis E. Townsend, Huey Long, and Father Charles Coughlin. A number of writers, some of them with communist sympathies and many more with disillusionment about conditions during the Great Depression, used their literary talents to raise issue and push from the “left” of the political spectrum.

The occurrence of the stock market crash in 1929 and following Great Depression only worsened the social and economic conditions of many. With unemployment steadily rising to 25 percent of the workforce by 1933 and millions of others fearing reductions in pay, many who had earlier accumulated debt could no longer pay it off. President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933), who largely took a hands-off government approach, advocated personal responsibility of individuals for their welfare and reliance on private charities and local government relief organizations. This proved not only highly ineffective in addressing the severe economic woes, but made the federal government appear cold and aloof from people’s lives. In addition many blamed the crisis on the greediness of U.S. business leaders and began to question the validity of free market capitalism in general. Confidence was slipping in both the United States’ political and economic systems.

Issue Summary

Liberty Party and William Hope Harvey

With faith in traditional U.S. political and economic systems declining due to the Great Depression and President Hoover’s ineffective response to it, many were looking for someone to lead them out of the crisis. Hoover was highly unpopular and Roosevelt was seen by some as just another representative of the U.S. system that was failing. A sense of urgency was quickly escalating as breadlines and shantytowns were growing. During the presidential campaign of 1932 a number of candidates espoused unique causes. William Hope Harvey, who had gained national recognition in the 1890s for his advocacy of the “free and unlimited coinage of silver,” surfaced as a candidate who had a program to solve the Great Depression. Harvey wrote Coin’s Financial School (1894) in which he advocated an expansion of the amount of money in circulation through the federal purchase of silver bullion and minting it into coins.

In 1932 Harvey brought out a new volume, The Book, in which he presented the same formula. Harvey’s faithful followers of the Liberty Party gathered at Monte Ne, Arkansas, to nominate him and his running mate, Andre Nordskog, to carry the banner of free silver. Harvey and Nordskog secured only 54,000 votes in the 1932 presidential election. Although the Liberty Party suffered a crushing defeat, the idea of an inflated (decreasing the value of money so that items cost more) currency attracted attention and was a modest legacy of old “Professor Coin.”

End Poverty in California (EPIC) and Upton Sinclair

Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-1945), of the Democratic Party, won the 1932 presidential election. Pressure on Roosevelt’s New Deal—his plan to revive the economy and help the people—came from a variety of movements promising basic solutions to the problems of poverty and unemployment. Many believed Roosevelt would not take such radical actions as they believed necessary to end the crisis, such as nationalizing the banking system (having the government assume control) and some industries. They saw the New Deal as offering only simple solutions to much deeper problems. The governor of Minnesota, Floyd Olson, accused capitalism of causing the Great Depression and stated, “I hope the present system of government goes right down to hell.” Olson’s sentiments were echoed by Upton Sinclair, the socialist and author of The Jungle (1906). Olson and Sinclair both thought the solution was a greatly increased government role in business activities and people’s daily lives. They believed government could provide much greater economic security through various types of social programs and that business should be much more beneficial to society. In 1934 Governor Olson even went so far as to propose abolishing capitalism and establishing state ownership of all means of production in Minnesota. This did not, however, come to pass.

In 1934 Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California on the platform “End Poverty in California” (EPIC). The nation had no social safety net in place prior to the 1930s for providing financial assistance to those in need, including the aged who were no longer able to work. He promised a pension of $50 every month to anyone over the age of 60—one of the first proposals of social security. Sinclair sought to finance the program by raising income and inheritance taxes. Sinclair’s EPIC proposal asserted that the unemployed would be put to work at productive labor, thus making everything that they consume. Exchanging goods among themselves would be through a method of barter. The unemployed, he argued, should be given access to good land and machinery so that they could work to support themselves thus taking the burden off taxpayers.

Sinclair truly believed that no harm would be done to the private industry because the unemployed were of no use to industry. Furthermore, he believed that if prosperity were to come back, workers would drift back into the private industry. The unemployed would produce something in the meantime, thus relieving the state from providing for the jobless.

Sinclair won in the primary but lost the election, and his EPIC program collapsed. It did, however, generate considerable interest in government circles. Sinclair had argued for welfare, distribution of surplus goods, active government interference in the economy, and stiff taxes on property assessed at more than $100,000. EPIC fostered new ideas that would soon appear in new New Deal programs such as Social Security and the work relief projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), as Roosevelt attempted to defuse the popularity of these movements and incorporate them into his own administration.

Social Security and Dr. Francis E. Townsend

Like Sinclair, Dr. Francis W. Townsend, another Californian, developed a plan in 1933 to help the elderly and poor. The plan was originally published in a Long Beach, California, newspaper as an extended “Letter to the Editor.” The response to Townsend’s plan was swift and massive because the retired doctor had tapped into a major social problem in the United States: the helplessness of the impoverished senior citizens. The plan was then published as a pamphlet and distributed throughout the United States. Plans such as Sinclair’s and Townsend’s were a challenge to the existing social and political order. Under President Hoover, the government had little to do with people’s daily lives. People were expected to take care of themselves. The Depression exacerbated an already existing need for support of the poor and elderly and prompted proposals that, ultimately, gained momentum and found inclusion in Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Townsend Plan went further than Sinclair’s proposal and promised $200 a month to all unemployed citizens over 60, regardless of past earnings. The only condition was that they spend the money in the same month they received it. The funds were to be raised principally by a two percent federal sales tax. Despite much criticism from economists, thousands of Townsendites organized Townsend Pension Clubs across the country. In the early stages of the campaign, supporters saw President Roosevelt as an ally, and Townsend expected Roosevelt to endorse the plan. Roosevelt, like many politicians at this time, however, saw the plan as irresponsible and unworkable since it would be very costly to the government by creating more bureaucracy to run the program and to ensure that people complied with its provisions of spending money.

Through Townsend’s zeal for the plan, its simplicity, and the organization of “Townsendites,” support for the plan increased despite much condemnation from politicians. Congress, however, continually defeated bills to establish the Townsend Plan. The strength of the movement declined after the economy began to recover and the future effects of new Social Security system were beginning to be anticipated in the United States.

Townsend and his remaining supporters, however, were disappointed with Social Security because it did not promise immediate payments in 1935, and people had to work in order to earn a payment. In fact payments would not begin until 1937, and then would be far less than the $200 Townsend proposed. Although Townsend’s plan was never implemented, he inspired plans for social security and helped spark the concept of providing financial aid for the elderly. Like Sinclair’s movement, Townsend’s movement challenged Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, leading the president to shift more to the left politically as he began crafting his Second New Deal strategies in 1935.

Social Justice and Father Charles Coughlin

Although Townsend and Sinclair pressed the New Deal to the left, the protest movements led by Father Charles E. Coughlin and Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana were of another order. Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Detroit, attracted audiences of 30 to 45 million to his national radio show. He supported the New Deal in its early days, but then attacked the plan as excessively pro-business. Increasingly controversial with his speeches, Coughlin mixed his religious commentary with proposed images of a country operating without bankers and businessmen. He also roused his audiences with anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) comments and further propelled the fury against Jews, who were becoming more commonplace in the United States in the 1930s. Coughlin’s message was appealing, especially to the urban lower-middle class who disdained the banking industry and leaders of big business. To many others, his rhetoric, particularly against Jews, was offensive and troubling.

Coughlin railed against “rapacious capitalists” for not living up to their social responsibility. Like William Hope Harvey, he called for the return to a silver standard, issuing more greenbacks, or paper money, and federal control of the banking system. These, he believed, would achieve his agenda of social justice and prosperity. In 1935 Coughlin established the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) and launched a strong campaign to influence Congress with his views through this organization’s members letters and telegrams.

“Share-Our-Wealth” Plan and Huey Long

Politician Huey Long, like Father Coughlin, had charisma and personality that won him support from millions who were trying to overcome the Great Depression. Long came from further to the left than Father Coughlin and had greater socialist tendencies. In 1924 Long ran unsuccessfully for governor of Louisiana on a platform that included road construction, increased support for public schools, free textbooks for all children, improvements in the court system, and state warehouses for storage of farm crops. Defeated, Long continued to be concerned with the fact that the wealth of the land was tied up in the hands of only a few. He was concerned that wealth would never trickle down to the poor. In response he launched his “Share-Our-Wealth” campaign after his successful election bid for governor of Louisiana in 1928.

Huey Long’s radical ideas were unthinkable to some since they ran counter to basic capitalist ideals of economic markets operating relatively free of government regulation or oversight. He managed, however, to draw many who supported his ideologies. In order to gain support Long developed a successful campaign style. He used mailed circulars, radio speeches, and the warm response of the general public. Long appealed to the populace because, though he was blessed with a phenomenal memory, razor-sharp wit, and work ethic, he was nonetheless a product of his upbringing in Winnfield, Louisiana. Winnfield was a town where some stores and shops were located in tents and where there were no sidewalks, no paved streets, and free roaming livestock.

In 1928 he embarked upon a series of changes that went beyond rebellion against the ruling class. As governor Long raised severance taxes on natural resource industries to pay for schoolbooks for every child, regardless of whether the student went to public or private school. During his term Louisiana built more than 2,300 miles of paved roads, 111 bridges, and several hospitals and new schools. Long sought dental care at mental institutions and to abolish the straitjacketing and chaining of patients. He also instituted the state’s first rehabilitation program for prisoners. Additionally Long implemented an adult literacy program that largely served black Americans.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930, Long was impatient to get his views before the American people but refused to resign as governor until 1932. It was only until then that he went to Washington, DC, and took his oath of office. Only because of this strong local popularity and penchant for flamboyance was he able to take this unorthodox path. In 1933 Long published Every Man a King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long.

Although a supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal, Long broke with the new president by the fall of 1933 and began advocating his “Share-Our-Wealth” plan. Long talked about a guaranteed income of $2,000-$3,000 for all American families at a time when 18.3 million families earned less than $1,000 per year in 1936. Long also promised pensions for the elderly and college educations for the young. He planned to pay for these programs by taxing the rich and liquidating their fortunes, or changing property into cash by selling it.

Long’s plan called upon the federal government to provide families with income so they could afford the necessities of life. Long believed that every family should have a home, job, radio and an automobile. He also proposed limiting fortunes and annual incomes. His ideas were quickly rejected by Roosevelt in 1933 and, though popular with many, had difficulty gaining political momentum outside Louisiana. His promotion of redistributing the wealth in the United States clearly attracted much controversy as it directly conflicted with the basic principles of individualism and capitalism, which was traditionally embraced in America.

In 1935 Long formed the “Share-Our-Wealth” Society to promote his views. Increasingly it appeared he had aspirations to run for president, either as a Democrat or on a third-party ticket. His “Share the Wealth” Society rose from nothing in early 1934, to 27,431 chapters in every state, with a total membership of more than 4.5 million in less than two years.

Many argued that Long abused his position as governor of Louisiana, though he was undoubtedly not the first. Long’s public appeal was strong. Even though he was actually in Washington, DC, Long was a virtual dictator of Louisiana, personally controlling the police and the state courts. He appointed members of his family and supporters of his program to government jobs and rewarded key political supporters with state contracts. He used his position to live a fine life and to dress well.

What set Long apart from the fascist dictators of the time in Europe was his belief in the democratic process. Long would do just about anything to get peoples’ votes, except lie to them about what he would do once elected. It was that directness and honesty which set him apart from his predecessors. The bottom line was that Long worked hard to represent what he felt were the best interests of the people of Louisiana.

Long was assassinated on the steps of the capital building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in September 1935, by Dr. Carl Weiss, son-in-law of a ruined political opponent of Long’s. If he had lived Long might have mounted a strong third-party challenge to Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. His death curtailed his dreams and the “Share-Our-Wealth” movement.

Revolution and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)

With the continuation of the Great Depression, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) broadened its appeal by downplaying its commitment to immediate revolution. Its magnetism was based on many factors. First, the seeming success of the Soviet Union’s planned economy in the face of the worldwide economic depression gave some hope for the Marxist political formula. Second, the Soviet Union’s position against fascism and its support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, appealed to others. Third, the international communist leadership promoted the “Popular Front,” an anti-fascist and pro-New Deal organization growing by 1935. Fourth, the CPUSA skillfully out-organized its competitors, especially the socialists, and recruited many new members through the American Youth Congress, the League of American Workers, and the American League Against Wars and Fascism.

The most striking success of the CPUSA was its close association with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which formed in the late 1930s. Though not a communist, CIO leader John L. Lewis, permitted members of the CPUSA to hold important positions in his organization in exchange for their recruiting union members and building a bigger and more powerful CIO.

In 1930 the CPUSA had been a small organization with probably no more than 7,500 members. A decade later it had grown to more than 100,000 members. The dramatic growth caused some to refer to the 1930s as America’s “Red Decade.” A key factor in this growth was the Great Depression that had caused many to question the validity of America’s political and economic systems, particularly free market capitalist enterprises.

In spite of membership successes, however, CPUSA failed to draw actual voters. In 1932 William Z. Foster, the CPUSA nominee for president, drew only 103,000 votes compared to nearly 900,000 for Norman Thomas, the candidate of the Socialist Party. In contrast Roosevelt received almost 23 million votes and that rose to near 28 million in 1936. The rise of Earl Browder to leadership of the CPUSA played a critical role in the organization’s growth. Browder was a less “pure” Marxist than those holding strictly to the philosophies of German Karl Marx. He embraced the Popular Front and cooperation with the New Deal and President Roosevelt.

While Foster had touted “Towards Soviet America,” Browder promoted the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Marxism, a social and economic concept in which the workers own all means of production, became a theoretical cornerstone for communism. Foster’s Soviet America would involve a communist system of government ownership of industries and strong control of the economic system. In contrast Browder was more socialistic in character, adapted more to American traditions of private property. Both perspectives were foreign and frightening to the average American citizen.

By 1939 the CPUSA reached a high point with an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 members. An additional 20,000 were involved in the Young Communist League. The primary strength of the movement lay in its involvement in other organizations, particularly labor unions, and in the literary voice of disenchanted intellectuals who published articles in the New Masses or in sympathy with the communist cause.

More “Lefties”

Communist politicians were not the only leftist voices arguing that the New Deal was not going far enough to protect the poor, elderly, and the common people of the United States. Author Meridel Le Sueur, playwright Clifford Odets, labor organizers Gus Hall and Dorothy Healey, actor Paul Robeson, and author Richard Wright were other voices for those who were suffering during the Great Depression.

Meridel Le Sueur became well known for her writings about labor unions, downtrodden women, and the plight of the jobless. She was concerned that unions did not have a recognized voice, lacked negotiating power, and were often unable to recruit new members into the workplace. Le Sueur’s books, I Was Marching, an account about the 1934 Minneapolis truckers’ strike, and Annunciation, a tale about a young wife living in a one-room flat with a husband who opposed her pregnancy, were two popular accounts depicting life during the Great Depression.

Gus Hall, born Arvo Kusta Halberg to radical Finnish immigrant parents in Minnesota, became a member of the CPUSA in 1926. Hall was schooled in revolutionary communism at the Lenin School in Moscow in 1931-1932. He returned to the United States to promote communism, especially by organizing workers into union activity and strikes against the capitalists.

Dorothy (Rosenblum) Healey emerged as an energetic organizer in California. Joining the CPUSA in 1928, Healey was an ambitious member of the party in California for the next 45 years. She became active in the Young Communist League (YCL) and recalled in Dorothy Ray Healey and Maurice Isserman’s California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (1993, p 28):

Joining the YCL made a big difference in my life in all kinds of ways. I quickly lost interest in the friends I had made in junior high school. The parties I had started being invited to up in the hills had never really been fun for me … In any case the YCL provided a kind of ready-made alternative gang for me. Most of my YCL comrades were older, in their late teens and early twenties, and that also had a great appeal to me.”

In the mid-1930s Healey, like many other American communists, became involved in labor organizing. Communists sensed the unrest in American workers and believed taking up their cause against the business leaders would be the best path for increasing membership rolls. In addition many workers were immigrants or immediate immigrant descendents who were more comfortable with more radical politics than found in the United States. In 1933 she went to the Imperial Valley, a highly productive agricultural region, to work with the Mexican Mutual Aid Association to build up the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). In 1933 the CAWIU mounted 25 strikes in California that involved thousands of workers. Healey then moved on to organize mariners and dock workers in San Pedro.

Similar to Healey, Harry Bridges, a fiery labor organizer in San Francisco, welded together the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). Bridges was “close” to the CPUSA and was repeatedly investigated by the FBI but kept a public posture of non-membership in the party. With establishment of communism in Russia and the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, Roosevelt was increasingly sensitive to the prospects of radical political movements taking hold in the United States. Under Roosevelt’s commands the FBI began shifting its focus away from American gangsters and outlaws to activities of political activists.

Playwright Clifford Odets, another voice for labor unions, believed that through union solidarity the little man might find a way out of the despair of America’s economic and social ills. Odets’s play, “Waiting for Lefty” (1935) reflected his political interests in the Communist Party, USA, which he joined in 1934. The play was a call to arms for labor unions. The play is set in a union hall where workers are discussing the need to organize. The importance of Odets’s and Le Sueur’s writings was that they pushed the public to go beyond the basic ideas of the New Deal. They were a voice for the people and used specific stories as examples of the plight of all during the Great Depression.

Richard Wright was a writer and supporter of the political left as well as an advocate for equality for African Americans. Wright spent his youth in the South where he was confronted with racial tension. His uncle was killed by whites, but no arrest was ever made. Wright excelled at school and was valedictorian of his high school class. He was appalled with the illiteracy of black Americans and the strife they had to endure in the South. When Wright was a young man, he moved to Chicago where he found a job working at the post office. In 1930, however, with the start of the Great Depression, Wright’s hours at the post office were cut dramatically.

Wright began to write stories and poetry for various magazines and organizations and eventually moved to New York. While in New York, Wright joined the Communist Party and expressed his political beliefs through leftist publications. His writing appeared in such magazines as Left Front, Anvil, and New Masses. As Wright grew as a writer, he continued to explore the ideas of the communist left but was also concerned with the racial strife of the South and the inequality that black Americans had to endure. Some of Wright’s most influential works—Lawd Today! Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, and Black Boy—propelled him to international fame.

Wright’s publications about the communist left and the strife of black Americans in the South had an influence not only in the United States but all over the world. He was well received by intellectuals in France, Spain, Italy, England, and Argentina. Wright, however, was unable to return to the United States for fear of being subpoenaed by an anti-communist congressional investigative committee.

The United States, built on principles of individualism, personal freedom, and free enterprise, held a strong distrust of radical politics and group movements. This distrust even included labor unions. By the 1930s the rise of communism and fascism in Europe and increased communist party activity in the United States caused alarm in many. Public pressure would force Congress to investigate communist activities and influences in the United States. Wright eventually settled permanently in France where he died in 1960.

Whether directly involved in politics or simply a voice for the common working class, members of the political left had a great influence on Roosevelt’s New Deal, leading to the Social Security Act, creating a formal national retirement financial assistance system and the Wagner Act creating the National Labor Relations Board and recognizing the role of labor unions. A common concern among those with communist leanings was that a system of financial security needed to be created by the federal government to provide for the elderly. Members of the political left were also involved in fighting high unemployment and worked toward expanding the rights of labor unions. Those who were politically leaning to the left expressed their views and ideologies with much conviction. They in turn gained such support from the public that the New Deal was deeply influenced and affected by their convictions.

Contributing Forces

Populism and Progressivism

The tilt of some Americans to the “left” of the political spectrum during the 1930s was a legacy of trends in politics over the previous 50 years. In the 1890s the People’s Party, whose members were known as populists, advocated government-ownership of railroads, telephone companies, and the telegraph. The populists also supported government-price support of farm products through a sub-treasury system, free and unlimited coinage of silver (to cause inflation), and abolition of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a company of hired security guards used by industrialists to break up strikes and protect their properties. Farmers were a major element of the populist movement who wanted inflation to drive up the prices of their produce. Although the platform of the People’s Party seemed radical at the time and did not attract sufficient support to elect major candidates, the ideas drew considerable attention. Eventually a number of the demands were enacted.

Between 1900 and 1920 “progressivism” arose, a reform period where city, state, and federal governments took on increased roles in meeting the needs of society. Supporters of the movement anticipated more and more government intervention in everyday life and labor of Americans. The progressive reformers set maximum hours of work, minimum wages, safety inspections in factories, and limits on railroad rates. Progressives supported conservation and “wise use” of resources, public health campaigns, and “good government.” Their sense of what was “good” was founded on the general health and happiness of all citizens.

The legacy of “populism” and “progressivism” was creating an atmosphere where some Americans were receptive to the government regulating and shaping the economy and improving the conditions of all Americans. Socialists tapped these attitudes and, during the 1910s, built a political party that elected a number to public office. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a vocal and militant labor union, also grew as it called for all sorts of government intervention on behalf of laborers. The general prosperity of the early 1920s, however, checked the growth of “isms” in America. Many were horrified with the rise of communism in Russia and pulled back from the socialists and anarchists who had attracted their attention prior to the entry of the United States into World War I (1914-1918).

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, unleashed new forces that built upon old ideas. Advocates from the left seized the opportunity to chart their solutions to the problems of the United States.

Revolution and Marxist Philosophy

The rise of communism with the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1919 led immediately to the formation of the Communist Party of the United States. The CPUSA slowly drew disenchanted laborers, immigrants, intellectuals, and others in the 1920s. The onset of the Great Depression brought a drop in faith in the U.S. capitalist system.

Leaders of big business were seen as greedy and the U.S. government as ineffective, thus leading to the worsening economic crisis creating more fertile ground for the party’s growth. The party, in general, endorsed the concepts of revolution and the triumph of the proletariat (working classes) in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, or middle and upper class capitalists. These concepts helped shape the party’s development in the 1920s and its nomination of William Z. Foster for president in 1924, 1928, and 1932.

With the economic strife beginning with the 1929 stock market crash, the Communist Party USA, found new opportunities for attracting members and threw its energies into organizing strikes and labor unions. Unemployment steadily climbed through the first few years peaking at 25 percent, or over 12 million workers, by 1933. With an ineffective response of President Hoover’s administration that believed government should largely stay out of the nation’s economic affairs, the unemployed workers began looking for other political alternatives.

The party pushed the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration to adopt its ideas but also cooperated with New Dealers by the late 1930s. The CPUSA in combination with advocates of social insurance for the aged, an inflated currency through coinage of silver, and massive government make-work and welfare programs contributed to shoving the New Deal to the “left” of the political spectrum.

Perspectives

Although President Roosevelt clearly rejected the radical politics of many of those on the left, he clearly felt a pressure to respond to some degree to diffuse their attractiveness to the public. Particularly as he became aware that he could not please both business and the average citizen with his New Deal programs, in 1935 he began to focus more on the common citizen. This major shift in focus by Roosevelt and the New Dealers was also clearly in response to some of Roosevelt’s main critics, such as Father Coughlin, Sinclair, and Long. Many of the New Deal programs reflected some emphasis of the left, including Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act. As a result much of the support for the more radical groups gradually shifted toward Roosevelt by the 1936 presidential election campaign, giving the president several million more votes.

Roosevelt remained very concerned over radical politics because of the events in Europe with the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Germany and Italy. Eventually he would instruct the FBI to place more emphasis on keeping track of individuals in the United States who were advocating such political concepts. The much more conservative Congress by 1938 would go further in opening hearings on the subject to investigate communism in America.

Wealth Distribution

Millions of Americans were “have-nots” by the 1930s. They did not have jobs, incomes, or homes. Many had lost their savings in bank failures or fore-closures on mortgages on properties they owned. Yet others, a small majority, continued the good life of wealth and extravagance. Many believed the stock market crash and Depression resulted from the great concentration of the nation’s wealth in only a few and the wider gap in wealth between them and the mass public. Therefore some manner of redistributing the wealth among the population was seen as a solution to the economic crisis and a means of avoiding future economic depressions.

A number of proponents raised the prospect of redistributing the nation’s wealth through government action. Huey Long, a Democrat and U.S. Senator of Louisiana, proposed his “Share-Our-Wealth Plan” by using taxation to take from the rich and give to the poor. Dr. Francis E. Townsend, a retired doctor living in Long Beach, California, wanted a tax that would enable the government to give old-age pensions to citizens if they agreed to spend the money within the month. Author Upton Sinclair wanted to tax the wealth to create state-owned communal farms and agricultural price supports in California, fostering jobs and what he said would be new prosperity.

Communist Party USA

For the Communist Party USA, the 1930s were initially a time to promote revolutionary communism. The communists believed the Great Depression was a confirmation that capitalism was a corrupt and ineffective economic system allowing only a few to concentrate the wealth and subjugate the remainder to low paying jobs in miserable working conditions. The Depression indicated such a system would eventually collapse. The party thus worked hard to offer a different political and economic option built on government ownership or control of industry. By 1935, however, the international leaders of communism felt that opposition to fascism was more important to the party and thus they promoted the “Popular Front.” For the CPUSA this meant shifting support to the New Deal and President Roosevelt and largely abandoning, for a time, the commitment to the ideology of Karl Marx and inevitable revolution. This shift in direction was largely managed by Earl Browder, head of CPUSA after 1932.

Limited or Large Federal Government

Until the New Deal the federal government had played a relatively limited role in the life of the United States. Although the government held vast tracts of land, it had primarily sought to dispose of those holdings by transfer from public to private ownership. The federal government also had, to a large degree, embraced a laissez-faire (leave it alone) attitude towards the economy and the conflicts between labor and capitalists.

The advent of the Great Depression provoked a spirited debate about the enlargement of government activity in the economy and everyday lives of Americans. Debates about centralized planning, legal identity for labor unions, the rights of workers to strike, stiff inheritance taxes, federal make-work projects, income distributions to the elderly, national health insurance, federal management of the public rangelands, as well as range within the national forests, and other matters sharpened the issues between limited and expanded government. Political conservatives generally opted for limited government and a laissez-faire philosophy; liberals commonly supported the rapid expansion of government action on behalf of Americans during the Great Depression.

Labor Unions and the Rights to Collective Bargaining

Workers had for decades since the rapid growth of industrialization following the Civil War (1861-1865) often worked in deplorable conditions with low pay, poor sanitation, long hours, few benefits, and little safety. With the Great Depression, many lost their jobs but many others had their pay cut.

The desire to organize, which had declined through the boom years of the 1920s, rose again. At the onset of the Great Depression, however, labor unions had unclear legality. Their right to organize and strike was frequently challenged by owners of companies. During the 1930s, tens of thousands of Americans joined unions in response to the organizing efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Although few in number, members of the Communist Party, USA were active labor organizers. They promoted strikes, enlisted workers in unions, and, most particularly, built up the CIO.

Impact

In the long term a number of major changes happened in the United States as a consequence of the “left” tilt of the New Deal. As a result the New Deal brought a major growth in government that would influence almost every aspect of American’s daily lives. Many of the New Deal programs and organizations such as Social Security, Works Progress Administration, and National Labor Relations Board felt various tugs from the left in their formulation to help the working class.

In order to enact welfare and “make-work” programs, the federal government engaged in deficit spending. That is, it spent money it did not have by borrowing from future generations. This was viewed as “priming the pump.” The argument was to pour investment into a dead or sluggish economy in order to stimulate its recovery and in the future to recover the monies borrowed to do it. The concept of deficit spending was highly controversial but was widely adopted. The national debt grew dramatically during the last half of the twentieth century.

The pressure of Huey Long, Upton Sinclair, and Dr. Francis Townsend marked the beginning of increasing assumption by the government for the responsibility of all citizens. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Social Security benefits commenced in 1940. Prior to 1940 there was no program in place to assist retired people. In time the benefits were extended to dependent children, surviving spouses, and the disabled.

Incorporating Leftist Ideas into the New Deal

As governor of Louisiana, Huey Long promoted massive construction projects of roads, bridges, highways, and educational facilities. He believed in creating a modern infrastructure for his state. The New Deal picked upon on many of these same ideas and through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) invested in the future of the country.

All three agencies—the CCC, WPA, and TVA—employed the unemployed, giving them jobs when no one else was hiring. Building roads, dams, bridges, and other public improvements, the federal government aimed to keep people employed and productive, and keep the nation moving, through the difficult years of the Great Depression. The extent of government involvement in public life under Roosevelt’s administration, as illustrated through these programs, was in stark contrast to the hands off approach favored by Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and those who went before him. With the New Deal, Roosevelt began a trend of government involvement that, while still debated, has not been reversed.

Continued Government Involvement

The nation recovered from the Great Depression as the 1930s closed and the country prepared for World War II (1939-1945). Following the war the federal government made a commitment to the Interstate Freeway system, which would connect the country by vast interstate roads and make travel easier. Between 1954 and 1990 the nation was linked with a modern, efficient road network, most of it paid for through federal appropriations.

Additionally, government efforts to improve standards for the people endured beyond the New Deal. In the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) launched the Great Society program. It was based on social and economic freedom and opportunity for all and was founded on massive federal expenditures to achieve its goals. Of singular importance to the Great Society were the Medical Care Act, which proposed federally funded health insurance for the elderly, and federal revenue sharing with the states to provide medical care to the poor through Medicaid. These programs remained in effect into the twenty-first century.

Johnson’s Great Society also established a Head Start program for young children from families of little means. Head Start was designed to better prepare children for public school by providing them with the socialization and other skills they needed.

The political left established a clear base for itself during the years of the Great Depression. Since then it has continued to make its presence felt in American politics and society. The Communist Party, among others, continued to support labor unions. The National Labor Relations Act made unions legal when it was passed in 1935, a result partly owing to the pressures on Roosevelt from the left including the Communist Party.

Unions grew rapidly in mid-twentieth century America and continued to fight for improved wages, working conditions, and retirement programs for workers. Unions remained strongly involved in U.S. business and labor until they began to wane in the latter part of the twentieth century in face of competition by overseas workers in manufacturing products and by the anti-union sentiments of a number of public officials.

Notable People

William Z. Foster (1881-1961)

Foster was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, to parents who had emigrated from England and Ireland. The family moved to Philadelphia where Foster, at age ten, left school to work in unskilled jobs. He joined the Socialist Party in 1901, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1909. Foster was involved in free speech fights and even jailed in Spokane, Washington.

Foster eventually broke with the IWW and in 1919 helped form the Communist Party, USA. He was nominated for president by the CPUSA in 1924, 1928, and 1932. In the election, where he campaigned against Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, he secured 102,785 votes, the largest number ever cast for a CPUSA candidate.

Foster suffered health problems in 1932 and was replaced by Earl Browder as party leader. In 1945, however, Foster regained the chairmanship of CPUSA. He was an ardent supporter of Joseph Stalin and declined to acknowledge Stalin’s brutality. Foster died in a hospital in 1961, near Moscow.

Gus Hall (1910-2000)

Hall was born Arvo Kusta Halberg in Iron, Minnesota, a small town in the Mesabi Range. His parents were Finnish immigrants and active members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Hall left school after the eighth grade to work in a logging camp and in 1927 joined the Young Communist League. In 1931 the CPUSA selected Hall to go to Moscow to attend the Lenin School to study revolutionary theory and tactics.

In 1933 Hall settled in Minneapolis where he helped organize protests and strikes; he was jailed in 1934 for six months for inciting a riot during a strike. Hall moved in 1935 to Pennsylvania and worked with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as an organizer for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). He was involved in the Little Steel Strike in 1937 against Republic Steel in Warren, Ohio. He was charged with plotting to dynamite company property and homes of scabs. Hall pled guilty and was fined.

During World War II Hall served in the U.S. Navy on Guam. In 1948 he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to promote the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. During appeal of his conviction, Hall jumped bail and fled to Mexico. He was captured, returned to the United States, and served his jail sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary until 1957.

Upon his release, Hall became general secretary of CPUSA in 1959 and, starting in 1962, was nominated by his party four times for president of the United States. Hall’s last years were marked with bitter disputes within CPUSA and he resigned as national chairman shortly before his death in 2000.

Hall was author of several books: Fighting Racism: The Nation’s Most Dangerous Pollutant (1971); Ecology: Can We Survive Capitalism (1972); and The Crisis of U.S. Capitalism and the Fight Back (1975). The CPUSA published many of his speeches and pamphlets. Hall received the Order of Lenin, the highest medal in the Soviet Union, following his release from prison in the United States in 1959. During the 1960s Hall became a familiar figure on college campuses, drawing large crowds and animated opposition to his right to speak.

William Hope Harvey (1851-1936)

William Hope Harvey was born in Buffalo, West Virginia. He studied at Marshall College after which he taught, practiced law, and was a real estate developer. He became interested in the monetary problems facing the United States during the Great Depression. Harvey was a proponent of bi-metallism at the time the argument over coinage of silver was at its height. He spread his beliefs by distributing pamphlets, which had a great influence on the Populist Party.

In the early 1900s Harvey was convinced that civilization was on the verge of collapse. He began to build a pyramid at Monte Ne, Arkansas, containing a history of the rise and fall of civilization. Included in the structure were instructions for rebuilding society, as well as scale models of important machinery.

Harvey is best noted, however, for his support of the “free and unlimited coinage of silver” as the best solution to the Great Depression. He became the Liberty Party’s presidential candidate in 1932, but failed to find a national following and, of course, lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dorothy Healey (1914-)

Dorothy Healey was born in Denver, Colorado, to Joe and Barbara Rosenblum. Her parents were Hungarian immigrants who came with their parents to the United States in the 1880s. Healey became active in the Young Communist League in 1928 and, through the 1930s, worked as a labor organizer and promoter of strikes for improved wages and working conditions in California. Her particular interests were farm and cannery workers.

In the 1940s she was a leader of the CPUSA in Los Angeles, one of the largest organizations of the party in the United States. Healey was indicted under the Smith Act in the 1960s as she plunged into civil rights and anti-Vietnam War advocacy. In 1973 she resigned from the CPUSA and, with Maurice Isserman, published her autobiography, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (1990).

Meridel Le Sueur (1900-1996)

Le Sueur was born in Murray, Iowa, to socialist parents. She became an author and poet and was known for books about the plight of workers. She wrote about many of the issues during the Great Depression based on her firsthand knowledge of working in garment sweatshops and restaurants. Le Sueur was blacklisted during the McCarthy era during the 1950s for her radical beliefs. From the 1970s to the end of her life, however, Le Sueur became a respected writer and lecturer who continued to support the common working class.

Clifford Odets (1906-1963)

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Clifford Odets left school at the age of 17 to become an actor. After a series of small parts on the stage and on radio, he formed the Group Theater in New York. Members of this group held leftist political views and sought to produce plays about important social issues. In 1934 Odets joined the American Communist Party.

In 1953 he was investigated by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Odets argued that he was never under the influence of the Communist Party and that his work was based on his sympathy for the working classes. Odets is regarded as one of the most gifted of the American social-protest playwrights of the 1930s and is best known for his plays, “Waiting for Lefty” (1935) and “Awake and Sing” (1935).

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)

Sinclair was born in Baltimore and moved to New York City in 1888. With his family poor and his father an alcoholic, Sinclair lived with his wealthy grandparents. He excelled at school and entered New York City College at only 14 years of age. He was able to pay for his college education by writing stories for newspapers and magazines.

In the early 1900s Sinclair became an active socialist, and in 1904 he was commissioned by a socialist journal to write a novel about immigrant workers in the Chicago meatpacking houses. Sinclair wrote the novel, The Jungle, which was originally rejected by six publishers. Many initially thought the book was too negative and felt that Sinclair did not desire to help the poor but rather hated the rich. The Jungle was eventually published by Doubleday in 1906 and was an immediate success.

Although President Roosevelt read The Jungle and ordered an investigation into the meatpacking industry, he felt that Sinclair’s novel preached socialism—and it did. In 1926 and 1934 Sinclair ran as the Socialist Party candidate for governor of California, but he was defeated in both elections. His EPIC (End Poverty In California) campaign, however, gained considerable support and helped to launch the national movement toward Social Security. In the 1920s Sinclair was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Dr. Francis E. Townsend (1867-1960)

Born in Fairbury, Illinois, Francis Townsend graduated from the University of Nebraska medical school in 1903. He practiced medicine in several Western states and in 1919 settled at Long Beach, California.

In 1933, at the height of the Depression, he produced the Townsend Plan, which called for a pension of $200 per month for citizens over 60 years of age, on the condition that the money be spent in the month received. The funds were to be raised by a two percent federal sales tax. Although Townsend’s plan created a following of supporters, the plan was not supported by President Roosevelt and was defeated in Congress on a number of occasions. Townsend did, however, publicized the concern of providing for the elderly, which eventually led to the Social Security Act.

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Born in Roxie, Mississippi, Wright spent his youth in the South, where he was confronted with racial tension. White men killed his uncle, a crime for which no arrest was ever made. Wright excelled at school and was vale-dictorian of his class. He was appalled with the illiteracy of black Americans and the strife they endured in the South.

When Wright was a young man, he moved to Chicago where he secured a job working at the post office. In 1930, however, with the start of the Great Depression, Wright’s hours at the post office were cut. He began to write stories and poetry for various magazines and organizations and eventually moved to New York. While in New York, he joined the Communist Party and expressed his political beliefs through leftist publications.

As Wright grew as a writer he continued to explore the ideas of the communist left, but remained also concerned with the racial strife of the South and the inequality between whites and blacks in general. Wright eventually moved to Paris, France, because of the continued racism he experienced in the United States. His most well-known works included,Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, and Black Boy.

Primary Sources

“Every Man a King”

In 1935 Huey Long teamed up with Louisiana State University band director Castro Carrazo to write a song about sharing the nation’s wealth. Long announced that if he ran for president “Every Man a King” would be one of his campaign songs. He arranged to have it recorded for presentation on a national newsreel service. The lyrics to the song were as follows:

Why weep or slumber America
Land of the brave and true
With castles and clothing and food for all
All belongs to you
Ev’ry man a King, ev’ry man a King

Upton Sinclair’s Crusade

The California League Against Sinclairism ran ads in 1934 in newspapers to oppose EPIC and Upton Sinclair’s candidacy for governor. Many were in response to a series of books that Sinclair authored describing what he would do as California governor. They include I, Candidate for Governor of California, and How I Got Licked (1935, 1994), I Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty, A True Story of the Future (1933), and We, People of America: And How We Ended Poverty, A True Story of the Future (1936). The advertisement and further information are recounted in an online display by the Museum of the City of San Francisco. Available from the World Wide Web at http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/sinclair.html (cited February 20, 2002).

A Challenge to Action! A Call to Arms!! In Defense of California! Sinclairism—the program of Upton Sinclair and his radical associates—is Communism, cleverly disguised, but deliberately designed to Russianize California state government.

It’s rooted in class hatred, fostered and fomented by radicals who boast of their hatred of American ideals and American principles of government. If it is successful, it will destroy California’s business structure, bankrupt our families, overthrow our organized labor, confiscate our homes, wreck our industries, and rob our employed workers of their employment.

Your personal security is at issue—the welfare of your home and family; your American citizenship, your rights of self-rule and freedom of worship—your job and your independence. At Tuesday’s election … stay American!”

Recollecting the Communist Movement

Dorothy Healey, an organizer of the Young Communist League, recalled her active work in the Young Communist League which started in Oakland, California, when she was a teenager and led her to San Pedro, California, in 1934 and 1935. Her memories are recounted in Dorothy Ray Healey and Maurice Isserman’s California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (1993, pp. 35, 63).

In my last few years in high school I was involved in a whole range of Party-organized activities including the Young Pioneers. The Young Pioneers was our children’s group. The group I was put in charge of was composed of fifteen or twenty Black kids from Oakland. They came each Saturday morning for the activities we sponsored, games and parties and singing and storytelling, always with a political moral …

I was enchanted with the sailors I met in San Pedro. They were already veterans of great labor struggles, very courageous, militant, and politically sophisticated. I can remember sitting in the headquarters listening spellbound to the yarns they would spin of life aboard ship and in the ports they visited. The YCL also helped organize the Cannery Workers Industrial Union in the fish canneries on Terminal Island in San Pedro harbor. We got a federal charter from the AFL for the cannery union, which was what they gave you when they didn’t have a union with jurisdiction over an industry. That allowed us to take all the workers of all the different crafts within the cannery into one industrial union …

While I was in San Pedro I shared a house with a group of young Communists. I suppose it was what would later be called a ‘commune,’ but we didn’t think in those terms. It was just a question of getting by with little or no money. As the local YCL organizer I was supposed to get paid five dollars a week, but it was part of my job to get that five dollars donated by sympathizers in San Pedro, which meant I often didn’t get paid. Every night I’d go eat with a different family. It was like being a schoolteacher or a minister in the nineteenth century village, it was considered part of your upkeep. For the first time in my life I started to gain weight because I always ate a lot of bread so that I wouldn’t have to eat the meat—I didn’t want to take the more expensive food out of the mouths of the people I was sharing with.

The President Issues a Challenge

President Franklin D. Roosevelt challenged communism at the American Youth Congress in February 1940. In response to his remarks he was booed and hissed by the delegates on the south lawn of the White House. Roosevelt said:

More than twenty years ago, while most of you were very young children, I had the utmost sympathy for the Russian people. In the early days of Communism, I recognized that many leaders in Russia were bringing education and better health and, above all, better opportunity to millions who had been kept in ignorance and serfdom under the imperial regime. I disliked the regimentation under Communism. I abhorred the indiscriminate killings of thousands of innocent victims. I heartily deprecated the banishment of religion-though I knew that some day Russia would return to religion for the simple reason that four or five thousand years of recorded history have proven that mankind has always believed in God in spite of many abortive attempts to exile God.

I, with many of you, hoped that Russia would work out its own problems, and that its government would eventually become a peace-loving, popular government with a free ballot, which would not interfere with the integrity of its neighbors.

That hope is today either shattered or put away in storage against some better day. The Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the fact knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world. It has allied itself with another dictatorship, and it has invaded a neighbor [Finland] so infinitesimally small that it could do no conceivable harm to the Soviet Union, a neighbor which seeks only to live at peace as a democracy, and a liberal, forward-looking democracy at that.

It has been said that some of you are Communists. That is a very unpopular term these days. As Americans, you have a legal and constitutional right to call yourselves Communists, those of you who do. You have a right peacefully and openly to advocate certain ideals of theoretical Communism; but as Americans you have not only a right but a sacred duty to confine your advocacy of changes in law to the methods prescribed by the Constitution of the United States—and you have no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the Government and the Constitution of this Nation.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Identify at least three pressures from the political left which helped shape the New Deal.
  2. Identify at least two of the following individuals and their solutions to the Great Depression: Upton Sinclair, William Hope Harvey, Francis Townsend.
  3. Explain why Huey Long’s “Share-the-Wealth” campaign gained major popular support by 1935.
  4. How were American labor unions strengthened as a consequence of events in the 1930s?