Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Synopsis

Between the Great War and Pearl Harbor, conservative labor leaders declared themselves America's "first line of defense" against Communism. In this surprising account, Jennifer Luff shows how the American Federation of Labor fanned popular anticommunism but defended Communists' civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1919 Red Scare. The AFL's "commonsense anticommunism," she argues, steered a middle course between the American Legion and the ACLU, helping to check campaigns for federal sedition laws. But in the 1930s, frustration with the New Deal order led labor conservatives to redbait the Roosevelt administration and liberal unionists and to abandon their reluctant civil libertarianism for red scare politics. That frustration contributed to the legal architecture of federal anticommunism that culminated with the McCarthyist fervor of the 1950s.
Relying on untapped archival sources, Luff reveals how labor conservatives and the emerging civil liberties movement debated the proper role of the state in policing radicals and grappled with the challenges to the existing political order posed by Communist organizers. Surprising conclusions about familiar figures, like J. Edgar Hoover, and unfamiliar episodes, like a German plot to disrupt American munitions manufacture, make Luff's story a fresh retelling of the interwar years.

Excerpt

Between the world wars, the conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a paradoxical role in American politics. They were leading proponents of popular anticommunism, and steadfast opponents of statutory restrictions on Communist organizing. in contrast to other antiradicals, afl leaders advocated a commonsense approach to Communism. Doubting the capacity of the law to distinguish between legitimate militancy and subversive radicalism, labor conservatives disapproved of legislation outlawing sedition. Instead they pursued a voluntarist program of evangelizing about the evils of Communism and excluding Communists from afl unions. in the aftermath of the first Red Scare, labor conservatives formed a crucial backstop against reaction.

In the late 1930s, the situation changed. Alienated from the New Deal order and at odds with liberal union leaders in the competing Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), labor conservatives abandoned commonsense anticommunism for calculated red-baiting. afl leaders backed new antisubversive laws such as the Smith Act and the Hatch Act and strategically smeared federal labor officials and cio competitors as Communists.

The history of labor anticommunism recasts our understanding of the origins of popular anticommunism and McCarthyism. Historians often treat anticommunism as a conspiracy of capitalists and conservatives who whipped the nation into a red-baiting hysteria after World War II in order to reverse the New Deal order. After enduring a merciless onslaught intended to roll back labor’s recent gains, labor unions yielded to pressure and drove Communists and leftists out of their ranks. in these accounts, unions appear as the victims of anticommunism rather than as critical organizers and sustainers of the movement. On the other hand, many historical studies of labor and anticommunism examine internecine wars among workers and union officials from the late 1930s through the McCarthy era. This literature often empha-

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