David Lee McMullen, history professor at USFSP, explored on the role of three American Communists in the 1920s as part of the fifth annual banned book week.
“So are American Communists as evil as we think? No,” McMullen said during his Sept. 29 talk. “There are good republicans and good democrats, as much as there are bad ones.”
Starting with the Red Scare in 1919, McMullen said Communism in America has been villainized ever since.
“I guess the government doesn’t notice that the Chinese are communists,” McMullen joked.
All documentation of the American Communist Party has been destroyed. The remaining records sit in the basement at New York University.
“To the victor belong the spoils,” McMullen said. “You can silence new and alternate views and reduce available options. It eliminates positive change because it eliminates the possibilities.”
“Books can be dangerous,” McMullen said. He reminisced about a time when the Florida legislature required all graduating high school seniors to take a class in Americanism v. Communism. Behind him was an image of a book used in the course, “The Masks of Communism.” McMullen was a high school student in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It put me on a different wavelength,” he said. “If the Florida legislature was trying to make me a diehard capitalist, they failed.”
McMullen’s high school class inspired him to hold a magnifying glass to American Communism. That interest resulted in McMullen’s book, “Strike!: The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson.” Dawson was raised in working class Ireland, immigrated to the United States and became the first female labor leader in the textile union. Histories of working class women are scarce from this time period, which is part of why Dawson’s story sparked McMullen’s interest.
“Only in the past few decades have we’ve stopped writing his-story and started writing his and her-story,” McMullen said.
She began working at a textile mill in 1914, at age 13. It was a turbulent time in labor history for Ireland and Dawson was in the heart of it. After World War I, she witnessed “Red Clydeside” in 1919, a major and violent working class revolution in response to massive unemployment. Nearly 500,000 women lost their jobs. English troops and tanks came to quell the riots. Dawson immigrated to America in 1921, and found work in Passaic, N.J.
“I went to 35 different libraries on two continents to piece together the tidbits of her life,” McMullen said.
She worked the nightshift at a textile factory in Passaic. Dawson met fellow labor organizers Albert and Vera Weisbord and orchestrated a strike that lasted 16 months and included 16,000 workers, mostly immigrants.
This started Dawson’s membership in the communist party and her role as a leading female labor activist. She became the leader in the United Textile Workers union in Passaic.
“She covered the local press during the New Bedford Strike in 1928 because she was coming from outside the community, an outside agitator,” McMullen said.
The New Bedford Strike lasted eight months and included 30,000 workers. But it wasn’t as simple as employer against employee. There was a battle amongst native-born “skilled” workers and immigrant “unskilled workers.” Ultimately, the skilled laborers sold out the unskilled labor in the end, a common theme in labor history.
She also helped with the Loray Mill Strike of 1929, one of the largest strikes in the South, McMullen said. But she was expelled from the communism party and the union she led.
“Dawson didn’t believe in Stalin’s form of communism and was more concerned with helping the worker,” McMullen said. “She was expelled from the union because she wasn’t as concerned with dogma as the union.”
She married and later retired to Port Charlotte, Fla. Her husband moved to St. Petersburg, where he in 1992.
The couple Dawson worked with, Vera and Albert Weisbord, are the subject of McMullen’s current research.
“Albert was the brain and Vera was the heart,” McMullen said.
Albert went to Harvard Law school not to be a lawyer but because he “wanted to learn how the capitalist screwed the worker.”
He organized numerous protests for labor unions in the 1920s and 1930s, and traveled extensively through Mexico researching the plight of the worker. He visited Leon Trotsky in Turkey after Lenin died. He worked for The Nation covering the Spanish Civil War.
“Albert was a controversial figure, had an enormous ego, was a prolific writer and a true Marxist philosopher,” McMullen said. “When Albert asked Vera to marry him, he asked her to be his Krupskaya, which was the name of Lenin’s wife.”
After his presentation, McMullen answered questions from the audience.
USFSP alum Tyler Crawford asked McMullen what happened to Albert after the 1920s and 1930s.
“It seems like he just petered out after the ’20s and ’30s,” Crawford said.
After the Communist Party’s leader Lenin died, Stalin took over and had Trotsky assassinated and the Weisbords were “Trotskyites.”
“He had his 15 minutes of fame in 1926 during the Passaic workers strike but he never really got back to that same level,” McMullen said. “He is ignored, not banned. And being ignored is worse than being banned.”
McMullen was asked if Communism has been replaced by any another ideology in American culture.
“With the rise of the war on terror, terrorism has replaced communism,” McMullen said.
Photo by John Stevenson