William Z. Foster’s “Pages From a Worker’s Life”

William Z. Foster photographed on Oct. 3, 1919. (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

By Benjamin J. Rizzo, Red Phoenix correspondent, Florida.

The Red Phoenix is proud to present this inspiring excerpt from “Pages From a Worker’s Life,” a volume of autobiography by William Z. Foster (1881-1961), originally published in 1939.

Foster had a long and colorful career as a trade union organizer, labor leader, and member of many groups, including the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party of America, founder of the Syndicalist League of North America, founder of the Trade Union Educational League, and finally as a leader in the Communist Party of the United States of America, which he joined in the early 1920s after attending the Third Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. Foster participated in many union campaigns to organize workers, including those in packing houses, steel plants, and textile mills. The Loray Mills textile strike of 1929, during which the incident detailed in the article below occurred, was led by the National Textile Workers Union, which CPUSA had formed in 1928.

Although originally a syndicalist (an advocate of organizing workers by industry rather than by trade and using strikes and other forms of direct action to foment a revolution in which workers seize control of the means of production; syndicalists also eschew involvement with electoral politics), Foster’s 20 years of experience in the radical labor movement and exposure to the thought of Lenin eventually attracted him to Communism and to the Communist Party. Lenin’s writings exerted what Foster described as “a most profound effect” upon his political worldview and helped guide the course of his life for the next 40 years.

“I had read far and wide among socialist, anarchist and syndicalist writers, and had also much practical experience in their respective mass movements,” wrote Foster, “but Lenin’s masterly theoretical presentation was startlingly new and overwhelmingly convincing.”

“It was easy for me to agree with his brilliant analysis of imperialist capitalism, his devastating criticisms of revisionist socialism, syndicalism, and anarchism, his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to accept the general program of Communism–backed up as they were by the living reality of the Russian Revolution and world conditions generally. After more than twenty years of intellectual groping about, I was at last, thanks to Lenin, getting my feet on firm revolutionary ground.”

William Z. Foster

Foster served as General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1929 to 1932. He resigned from that position after suffering a heart attack while campaigning as CPUSA’s 1932 presidential candidate. After a few years, including five months in the hospital, he regained enough of his health to return to political activity, including serving on CPUSA’s National Committee. Foster became the chairman of CPUSA in 1945 following the expulsion of Earl Browder, whose efforts to purge the communism from the Communist Party Foster had long criticized. He served in the position until 1957, when he stepped down and was replaced by Gus Hall. He died in Moscow in 1961 where he had gone for medical treatment for the heart problems that had plagued him since the ’30s.

Foster was a prolific writer. He produced 13 books, and numerous pamphlets and articles. Unfortunately, only two of his books — “History of the Communist Party of the United States” (1952) and “The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons” (1920) — are currently in print. Some of his writings can be found online, including at this William Z. Foster archive.

“In his book, Jimmie Higgins, Upton Sinclair immortalized a basic and vital type that every participant in the trade union and revolutionary movement knows well. Jimmie Higgins is that active rank and file element which the French call the militant. He is the type of tireless, devoted, disciplined, self-sacrificing and brave worker–the very salt of the working class. Wherever there is hard, slogging work to be done, Jimmie Higgins is on hand. When the going gets tough and dangerous, he is always in the front line inspiring the masses to struggle. He is the rank and file builder of every union, party and other working-class body. And his reward is simply the feeling of his proletarian duty well done. Usually he is quite unknown to fame or glory, except in the esteem of his circle of contacts, who admire and love him.

“The Jimmie Higgins’ are the natural heads of the toilers. All dynamic working-class leaders have been of this category. It is especially among them that the Communist Party recruits its members. In making a Communist of Jimmie Higgins, the Party enormously increases his efficiency by teaching him the true meaning of Labor’s struggle, by infusing him with class consciousness, by transforming his primitive proletarian militancy into burning revolutionary zeal.

“I have always been inspired by the Jimmie Higgins’ militants. Their modesty, sincerity, selflessness, courage and invincibility are the qualities of the great heart of the proletariat itself. My experience in the trade union and revolutionary movement has been lighted up by innumerable devoted actions of these unknown but heroic working class fighters. Let one simple incident reveal Jimmie Higgins at his post in the class struggle.

“It took place in the concluding phases of the bitterly-fought 1929 [Loray Mill] textile strike at Gastonia, N.C., led by the National Textile Workers Union of the Trade Union Unity League [an industrial union umbrella organization under CPUSA from 1929-1935]. The strike was in a bad way, the union being pretty badly smashed, and the mills were operating. The leadership was in jail on the charge of killing Police Chief Aderholt in his raid upon the relief headquarters; a reign of terror prevailed in the surrounding country; the gifted strike-leader and labor song-writer, Ella May Wiggins [ca. March 1900-Sept. 14, 1929], had been murdered by company gunmen on the public highway; several organizers had been brutally flogged, and a vigilante gang had just raided the union headquarters and half-wrecked it. Altogether it was a situation of fierce class struggle.

“On the day in question a few of us had been to visit the newly-made grave of Comrade Wiggins, a few miles outside of Gastonia; and by the time we got back to the local union center it was already quite dark. The vigilantes, a real Ku Klux Klan outfit, had threatened to return that night to finish wrecking the headquarters, and we had resolved to take measures of defense.

“As our Ford drew up to the union building. We were loudly hailed by a union picket. He was armed, but quite alone and evidently entirely unafraid. I asked him if he did not know of the imminent KKK raid and he replied that he did and was prepared for it. He did not seem to think it it any way strange that he, one man, had been given the dangerous task of guarding the hall. In the previous raid, the KKK had torn down the big union sign on the building front, but the workers had replaced it, and the picket seemed particularly resolved to protect it. In his Southern drawl he quietly told us that the man who should climb up to take down that sign would surely die, no matter what happened to himself.

“And I had not the slightest doubt that he would have been so good as his word had the occasion developed.

“We scurried about and dug up a dozen other union members as guards, and for that night at least, the headquarters was safe. In the years that have passed, the figure of that lone union picket has stood out clear and bright to me as Jimmie Higgins at his best. It was such valiant proletarian fighters who carried through the Russian Revolution, who are holding back the fascist legions in Spain and China and who will finally, by their unconquerable spirit, put an end to capitalism everywhere.”

Categories: History, Revolutionary History, United States History

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