Nelson Lichtenstein and the Politics of Reuther Scholarship. (Controversies/Controverses)

Article excerpt

IN THE SUMMER OF 2001, while conducting research in the George Meany Memorial Archives, I came across a curious document. Thorough and meticulous, it detailed a 1939 meeting held in Detroit that identified Walter Reuther as a member of the United States Communist Party (CPUSA). In a subsequent Notes and Documents contribution, "Reassessing the Historical UAW," I situated this piece of evidence historically and historiographically and suggested the possibility of revising our understanding of Walter Reuther's politics and rethinking the role of Communists in the early United Automobile Workers (UAW). (1)

Nelson Lichtenstein, author of a landmark biography of Reuther, strongly disputes the document's implication that as late as 1939, the UAW leader and subsequent pivotal player in the construction of trade union liberalism was a Communist. I am flattered by Lichtenstein's attention. Although the relevant historical evidence is complex and, in some cases, open to multiple interpretations, I am unconvinced by Lichtenstein's largely negative arguments.

Lichtenstein agrees with my assessment of the document's likely source -- an adherent of Jay Lovestone "spying" for Homer Martin's anti-Communist, anti-CIO faction of the autoworkers' union. (2) He asserts that the gathering recorded in the crucial document could not have been a meeting of the "Political Buro" of the CPUSA's National Committee. Lichtenstein instead claims that it was a meeting of the CPUSA auto fraction, the UAW's pro-CIO Unity Caucus, or an amalgamation of all three bodies. (3) Unfortunately, he fails to provide any evidence to support such a conclusion. Moreover, the document itself contains information, including details that Lichtenstein does not dispute, entirely at odds with such an interpretation.

The composition of the meeting undermines the possibility that it was a gathering of the CPUSA auto fraction or the Unity Caucus. With the six or seven UAW members and officials attending this meeting, along with Walter Reuther as well as CPUSA National Committee members Bill Gebert and Wyndham Mortimer, only ten people at most (out of at least 41) attending this meeting worked directly in the auto sector. (4) Because of the small percentage of UAW activists present, it is difficult to conceive of this meeting being any kind of CPUSA auto fraction or Unity Caucus meeting. In fact, as the document indicates, the meeting adjourned on 12 February 1939 after CPUSA National Chairman William Z. Foster's comments so that the "Political Buro" members could hold meetings on the morning of 13 February with the CPUSA fractions in the Packard, Buick, and Briggs Locals of the UAW. (5)

Lichtenstein's speculations about the nature of the meeting are likewise undermined by the topics that the attendees addressed. The meeting's first and major topic was indeed the presidential election at the upcoming 1939 UAW-CIO convention. Other topics addressed in considerable detail, however, included the CPUSA's work in the American Federation of Labor's Non-Partisan League, the party's substantial work in the Democratic Party for the upcoming 1940 national elections, and the conflict brewing in radical circles between the CPUSA and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. (6) It is implausible that such topics, all of intense interest to the party's national leadership, would be discussed at any type of meeting involving either the CPUSA auto fraction or the Unity Caucus.

Reuther's party membership can also be adduced from the meeting's recorded discussion surrounding the upcoming UAW-CIO presidential election. According to the document, a "four-way battle among Thomas, Frankenstein (sic), Mortimer and Reuther" for the union's presidency was underway within the union. The party leadership expressed concern that this tussle could lead to the UAW's destruction. Agreeing with this sentiment, CPUSA National Chairman William Z. Foster "commented that such a fight among the four UAWU leaders, three of whom are Communists and one a close friend of the Party would utterly discredit the Communist Party and be a shameful exhibition of incapacity on its part. …