When I returned from Canada after an absence of nearly nine months, early in September 1930, I found a vast change. I had expected a change—I had kept in touch with events at home by reading both party and nonparty American newspapers, magazines, other publications. Visual contact now reinforced the mental image I had formed in Canada and charged it with emotional content—we, the party, were being proved right! Capitalism was on the downgrade and was sliding rapidly into an abyss.
The appearance of the City of New York seemed to have altered. Not only the city had changed but also the eyes with which I was viewing it. My experiences in Canada had made me more perceptive; my eyes had learned to pick out highlights; my mind had become trained in the “political approach”—to consider most manifestations of life from the point of view of the “class struggle.”
Physically New York looked shabby, dirtier, run-down. The former infectious gayety, the determined rush, the purposeful hurry was missing from the stride of the pedestrians—the spirit of the people seemed to be running down.
I still detected the pushing and the shoving, the rudeness of manners, that stone-cold indifference and self-centered concentration of the New Yorker which seems to say, “I’ll have to look out for myself, no one else will.” Yet there was an evidence of mellowing manifested in the warmer sympathy afforded to the unemployed apple sellers, to the long lines of dispossesed queuing up in front of the many soup kitchens. The eyes of the passers-by had lost their former self-assured look—they reflected the same uncertainty, the self-doubt—the haunting feel of insecurity I had come to recognize so well in Canada.
When I left New York, the visible trouble had been mainly at the top. The big capitalists, the big exploiters were then the ones who had been reeling under the shock of the Stock Exchange crash. They were the ones who were losing their shirts, jumping out of office windows, putting guns to their temples, taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The causes and consequences of that stock market crash were now affecting the masses. Mills, mines, factories were shutting down one after another and bleak unemployment was spreading its paralyzing grip deep and wide all over the land.
The party had shrilly predicted the coming collapse months before the market crash. Now as our dogma began to prove itself we were convinced that we were the true prophets chosen to carry the sword of Red Islam, even though our muscles were thin and our ranks were sparse. We felt it was our destiny to face up to a task imposed on us by history, and if we were found lacking we would fail history.
The battle for the streets of New York was on. The police were brutal and savage. The official policy was, “Suppress the symptoms of distress; choke the cry for relief back into the throats of the hungry; banish the bastards from the streets; prevent the starving from exhibiting their sores in public—and this crisis will pass, we hope it will pass, Christ, it’s gotta pass, we gotta show those bums who is the boss!”
In retrospect, at this writing when our national income is running at more than 500 billion annually, when we enjoy a standard of living unprecedented in history and any criticism of the free enterprise system is considered subversive, it seems ironic to record in how cowardly a fashion capitalism behaved less than three decades ago, how little faith the capitalists themselves had in the survival of their own system, in the validity of their own thinking. Instead of asserting faith and leadership, they squirmed, twisted and turned; instead of thinking and planning they struck out blindly. Unable to fathom the mysteries of their own economic system, the capitalists resorted to incantation and black magic; they invoked suppression, praying that the lid would stay clamped down.
The seat of the tumor was in the United States and the malignant growth was spreading all over the globe—except for one sixth of the earth.
The eyes of the world—except for those whose gaze was fixed on the rising star in the East—were fastened on the United States where the High Priests of Capitalism reigned. The world turned to them in supplication but the eyes of those High Priests were glazed.
The High Priests were basically little men. They had not been trained to think in terms of human society. They had been encouraged to grab; to stake out claims; to gather in and to hoard; to ride roughshod over everyone who stood in their way to the glimmering harvest. They had been brought up in a one-way street ruled by “heads I win and tails you lose.” Now they found the one-way road had become a dead-end street where the once reliable coin wouldn’t perform and even the “heads” lost, and they sat down in confusion.
The High Priests had their Supreme Priest presiding over the nation, the symbol of human genius at its apex, begotten out of the political wedlock of engineering and big business. But they knew his feet were also made of clay and heeded not his admonitions.
The Supreme Priest invoked the old magic chant.
“Prosperity is right around the corner!” he intoned.
Prosperity failed to respond to blandishments. It regressed further.
The Supreme Priest called a conclave in Washington.
The High Priests all responded and officiated in the rituals of exorcising the Devil. They solemnly pledged to cease being frightened, to stop further layoffs, to start rehiring, and to resume normal production. No sooner had they left the White House than the High Priests rushed to their long-distance phones and called their plant managers. As long as the other fellow was hiring that was a good time to sneak in a rabbit punch, to take a bit of advantage. The workers lining up in front of the hiring gates with the folded newspapers in their hip pockets headlining the happy news were met by a flood of men streaming back, those who had been freshly fired that morning.
The Supreme Priest preached the return to the good life, to thrift and austerity.
To set the example he cut the government budget. The haves responded promptly by grimly clutching their belongings and by hoarding even tighter.
“Waste not, want not,” they chanted, and cut back their buying, sending production into a further tailspin.
The have-nots clenched their empty palms into fists, yet stood by in dazed helplessness.
The Supreme Priest invoked moral suasion.
“The American people are too proud to accept the dole,” he proclaimed from the depth of his Quaker soul.
“Those bums are starving because they are lazy. They don’t want to work. Anybody who wants to work can find a job,” recited the righteous haves, turning a stone heart to charity as being a violation of moral precepts. For has it not been written that the wastrels are committing an offense against God?
With sermons on their lips and clubs in their hands, the High Priests of capitalism staggered around, preaching they did not know what, laying about in blind fury, in the faint hope that if they succeeded in stifling the screams the epidemic itself would pass. Yet their very own lips trembled, the hands that gripped the clubs shook with palsy. They feared those forces around them which they had once proudly claimed to have mastered. Their ships unaccountably foundered, the Captains of Destiny now found themselves bouncing about in fragile walnut shells. They were no longer steaming toward a goal, but merely bailing in blind desperation, praying for survival.
It is appalling to contemplate how quickly these High Priests of Capitalism, these Captains of Industry, began to doubt the basic soundness of their own productive system, how little they understood the economic laws that govern production and distribution, and determine the prosperity of a highly industrialized capitalist society.
To me the most outstanding fact, the most amazing social phenomenon in that dark early era of depression is that deep in their hearts the capitalist leaders themselves had lost faith in their own system. They found themselves on a toboggan and could picture themselves only as going down. They lacked the imagination to find new ways of getting off the slide and they gave up hope of coming up. They concentrated their energies on digging in their heels to slow down their rapid descent.
Single out one capitalist leader, one important captain of industry, cite one outstanding capitalist economist, if you can, who dared proclaim:
“These are not symptoms of decay, these are growing pains of the capitalist system. Once we overcome them it will be capitalism that will usher in the era of plenty. Capitalism can and will build a land of plenty for our people in our country long before Socialism can rise to that in the East.”
Capitalism had apologists, defenders, upholders, whip-wielders, palm readers, soothsayers, and fortunetellers aplenty. Yet in those days of the depression it was unable to produce one single proponent with faith sufficient to stand up in the market place and prophesy:
“Within twenty-five years in these very same United States employment will rise to more than 6o million; nearly two in every three families will own their own homes; our people will be better fed, better clothed, better sheltered than any nation in history—all under a capitalist system!”
The faith of the capitalists was shaken.
The faith of the middle classes, merchants, professionals was shaken.
The faith of the workers and farmers was shaken.
Our faith alone was strengthened. There was no unemployment in the Soviet Union!
The men of good will, the humanitarians and the kind in heart, the sentimentalists brought forth their healing salves. “Man is good in heart,” they prayed. “We’ll have to reach the hearts of the employers with kindness.”
“Give a job,” pleaded, urged, cajoled Heywood Broun from the depth of his heart in his newspaper column and over the radio. He received four offers of jobs and 400 applicants stood in line for them.
Men of charity set up bread lines and soup kitchens. “How long have you been waiting in this line, Bud?” I asked one of the men in front of Bernarr Macfadden’s soup kitchen.
“I got here a little after five in the morning,” the man told me. He expected to get his soup “pretty soon,” in about two or three hours. That was at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Nutrition experts gave advice and the papers printed it. There was nutrition in grass, they proved, that could sustain human life if cooked long enough, say six to eight hours, and eaten in sufficiently large quantities, say six to eight pounds. There was still the matter of the bitter taste, but one can’t have everything. They did not say how to reopen shut-off gas meters. We Communists had to teach the unemployed that trick.
Other nutrition experts were more realistic. They offered menus for the less destitute. A given minimum quantity of barley and oats mixed with some kind of cheap seed germ, they promised, would provide a nutritionally balanced diet for a person for only one and three quarter cents a day, or seven cents for a family of four. This discovery, too, was hailed in some papers.
The only people in America who had professed to understand the true causes of the Depression were the Marxists. It was all down there in black and white, in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, also in the red-inked pages of the Communist Manifesto.
The Socialists of Norman Thomas, the Musteites, the Socialist Labor Party, the IWW, all loudly asserted that the depression was the long-predicted breakdown of the capitalist production system which only social reforms could remedy.
But we were not only Marxists, we were Marxist-Leninists. We were certain that we knew even better. At the 6th Congress of the Communist International in 1928, fully one year before the stock market crash, at the height of the boom, Bukharin had warned that we were entering a new period in post First World War capitalist development.
“The Third Period—A period of capitalist crisis, of wars and revolutions,” the thesis had asserted.
We Communists far outdistanced in boldness the other Marxists whom we denounced as “social-fascists.” We had the brassier lungs, the brasher manner, we had our party discipline, and the fanaticism of martyrdom. We also had something else—we had a star of our own to guide us—the five-pointed Red Star rising with ever-brighter flame in the firmament in the East, while the tired constellation of capitalism was sinking in the West.
We were certain that we alone knew the score and we yelled it from the roof tops at the top of our lungs.
“This is no cyclical depression that reforms can cure.”
“Capitalism is in crisis! Times are bound to get much worse!”
The lines outside the factory gates were growing larger by the day. “No help wanted” signs blossomed all over the land, nailed down permanently over the windows of employment offices. The men waiting helplessly outside the gates cast envious glances at the men employed within. The men working inside the plants stole baleful and apprehensive glances at the long line of job applicants outside-the capitalist’s dream of the ideal setup for wage cuts.
“Capitalism will utilize the crisis to cut wages—to speed you up!” we trumpeted.
We were vociferously bearish in a declining economy, and we guessed right. Every calamity we predicted quickly came true with a vengeance, and brought in its wake greater human suffering than even we had anticipated.
We exulted in our wisdom! Leninism, dialectical materialism provided us with the key to the secret of the future. We prophesied even more dire events, and capitalism co-operated with us. The more frantically capitalism tried to stop the decline, the more blunders it committed. Instead of expanding the economy, it kept cutting back, bringing more unemployment as a result.
Capitalism was thinking in reverse, it wanted to fit production to declining consumption to eliminate “surplus.” As a consequence, the more people were laid off the less they were able to buy. That brought further layoffs which curtailed consumption still more—and the circle thus widened; the more people lost their jobs, the greater the surpluses grew. The national income was shrinking by the day—now was the time for the government to act.
The government did act. President Herbert H. Hoover, the production wizard and economic genius—for had he not by his own efforts in his youth amassed a fortune running into millions—was a hardheaded realist who wouldn’t let his Quaker heart enter the calculations of his brains. He pecked away at his adding machine trying to get the ledger to balance. As an engineer he knew that the machinery was jammed yet he bore down harder on the keys in the blind hope that somehow the machinery would right itself and come up automatically with the right answer.
“The budget has to be balanced!” he stated the new formula.
Consequently the currency was even more deflated, making money still tighter to borrow, thus further inhibiting production. Government revenues were shrinking so he fired more government employees, heaping more humans on the castoff pile.
We knew what the remedy was. We shouted for reforms, for government relief, for social insurance.
“Tax the rich to feed the poor!”
We roused the people, we drummed it into their heads:
“Don’t starve in silence! Raise your mighty voice! Cry out until your distress is heard, until no ear can be plugged against it in whatever high places!”
We issued leaflets and we distributed them—a handful of us, 3,000 party members in the United States in 1930 out of a population of some 130 million souls.
We worked day and night. We were inept; we were rent by factions. Many of us hardly knew English and those of us who did spoke a strange jargon half of which we ourselves did not comprehend. Our voices were shrill, we spoke with accents guttural and harsh to which American ears had not heretofore been attuned.
We were full of compassion for the sufferings of mankind, we lived in hopes of a better world to come. We were dedicated men, ready to sacrifice ourselves to bring about that better world for all mankind. The masses needed help. They were ready to act if someone would only lead them, if someone would only show them how.
We were eager for that mission! We had initiative—and we had guts. We were ready to learn from the people and also to teach them a trick or two.
A party of 3,000 members of whom not even half were active boldly issued calls for mass demonstrations. Millions responded.
We spoke at street corners and crossroads, in squares and county seats, in towns and villages where we had never set foot before. We talked and the inhabitants listened to that strange talk, the like of which had not been heard even during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, part of which they didn’t even understand, much less agree with. But they approved the parts they wanted to hear, the parts they understood because they had already spoken them silently in their hearts and which we now made vocal for them.
“What kind of a father are you? Will you let your hungry children cry because you are too proud to accept the dole?”
“Are we too proud to accept the dole? No! No! A thousand times no!” we thundered raising our fists.
Tens of thousands of other fists rose in unison with ours, hundreds of thousands of other throats shouted with us in defiance.
We not only spoke, we also organized. A young comrade hitchhiked to Allentown, Pennsylvania with five cents in his pocket, to a town where he did not know a soul. He had arrived at the square at two in the afternoon, he told me, sat down on a bench, and started to ask the others sitting there where he could get a job in Allentown.
“You can’t get a job in this town,” he was told bitterly. “They are not hiring anybody. The mills are still laying off.”
By four o’clock he was standing on a park bench making a speech, by five he was chased by the police. By six he had been invited for dinner and had a place to sleep. By seven men were coming to the home of his host for a meeting. By nine that evening the first Unemployed Council in the history of Allentown was formed.
A group of mountaineers in the Ozarks lifted their hunting rifles off the hook and walked down the hill to the country store. “We don’t aim to do you any harm,” they said to the storekeeper, as reported in the papers, “all we aim is to take some supplies for we are out of groceries and ain’t got the money to pay for it.” They loaded up with flour, sugar, tobacco, fatback, lard, and cornmeal but did not touch the cash in the till. They were not robbers, only men out of jobs, and they were getting hungry.
We sent Comrade Emil Gardos (the last I heard he was one of the heads of the State Chemical Trust in Hungary) to track them down and to recruit them into the party. Gardos succeeded in making contact with them, he told me, and they averred, reckoned, and were mighty proud—neither of us had any ear for dialect—to join such a fine organization as that “Communistical Party” they had heard about. They joined up, about seventeen of them, and then sheepishly said that the Hoskins brothers had a powerful hankering to join, too, but they didn’t see how they could be admitted to that “Communistical Party” seeing as the brothers just didn’t have any rifles.
“They were a wonderful group to work with,” said Gardos with wistful eyes, “but we finally had to drop them. They insisted on bringing their rifles to the party meetings and we couldn’t have that. It could have brought disaster on the entire party.”
We agitated. We propagandized. We exploited every opportunity to organize.
The Schrafft restaurant chain in New York advertised for busboys—several of them: “Ten dollars a week, college graduates only.” Two hundred some odd young college men had been hopefully milling around for hours since dawn by the time the personnel manager arrived. He surveyed that horde of applicants then superciliously called out:
“Graduates of Harvard and Yale, step forward.”
In less than a minute that place was a shambles, the besieged manager frantically calling for police from behind his barricaded door. Not a single one of those young college men had until then been a member of the Communist Party, but subsequently quite a number of them joined.
Violence? What would you have done if all you had was a diploma from Princeton, Columbia—or horrors! from the City College of New York?
We organized Unemployed Councils. We organized delegations to call on councilmen, congressmen, mayors, other officials, even in the privacy of their own homes.
At one unit meeting I attended in Cleveland, a comparatively new member of the party, Comrade Lombardi, was listening with ever-diminishing patience to a discussion of whether the unit should lead the proposed unemployed delegation to a certain councilman’s home or his office. A desperate relief situation was developing in that district and that councilman was hostile to the demands of the unemployed, dodging their delegations. Comparative merits of either step were discussed at length until finally Comrade Lombardi lost his temper. He banged on the table.
“We go to da house. If he not home we go to da office. We breaka da window, breaka da furniture, breaka da desk and set ’em on afire! Next point on da agend’ is da Daily Worka. Comrades, da Daily Worka is in a very bad condidution. . . .”
I lectured that unit, especially Comrade Lombardi, that the party neither approved of such tactics nor condoned them. Comrade Lombardi was amiable.
“O.K., we no breaka da window, no smasha da furniture, no set ’em on afire. We only tear up da papers.”
We unofficially compromised on tearing up only a few papers, and those only when nothing else availed. As it turned out, even that wasn’t necessary. The unemployed crowded into that office until there wasn’t an inch of space left, until that councilman was pushed against a corner, nose to nose with Comrade Lombardi. Lombardi talked and the councilman agreed. From then on he also became a co-operative councilman.
Violence? Maybe. But those unemployed had the right to be heard, to address their grievances to their elected representatives.
When thousands of families had their gas meters shut off and their electricity disconnected we organized emergency flying squads of experts to connect up gas pipes, restore the cut-off current.
Violation of private property rights? Maybe. Have you ever seen a mother with four hungry young children sobbing in the kitchen slumped over a dead gas range, unable to heat even water? I have. And we did something about it. We would also pick up the furniture of evicted families dumped on the sidewalk and carry it piece by piece, two, three, six flights up back to the old apartment.
Interference with enforcement of the law? Maybe. In Cleveland silver-haired Sheriff Sulzman, four times elected sheriff by a great popular majority in the County of Cuyahoga, most heavily populated county in the sovereign state of Ohio, called us aside one time, when he found himself way behind in carrying out the hundreds of writs of eviction issued by the local courts. We had interfered too often, with too many street fights and minor riots, and the arms of his deputies were getting weary with both fighting and lugging furniture down.
“Listen, boys,” he said, “why can’t we get together on this? Let’s be sensible. Why fight? Why not make it easier for both of us? I have to carry out the orders of the courts. Let’s have a system. We’ll carry a few sticks of furniture out to satisfy the judgment of the court and you won’t interfere. You will then only have to carry a few pieces back. Everybody is happy and nobody gets hurt.”
It worked out fine. Who said the Communists wouldn’t cooperate with law-enforcement agencies?
We organized hunger marches to dramatize the plight of the unemployed. The “marchers” traveled by trucks and they were showered with so much food at every stop by local citizens who gathered around them in sympathy that many of those “marchers” had gained a few pounds by the time they returned. One truck broke down—it had not only been fixed free but came back with two new tires as a gift from some garage man on the road.
In some places bloody fights took place. We didn’t start them, it was the police that attacked us, particularly in company-owned towns. We were met with threats, with denunciations, with arrests, with deportations. Firehoses bowled us off our feet with torrents of icy water in subzero weather. We were met with police clubs, blackjacks, riot guns, machine guns, even with tanks, led in person by bemedaled General Douglas MacArthur in a steel helmet, on the fiats of Anacostia in Washington.
Scores of us were killed, hundreds of us were wounded and jailed, thousands of us were beaten, had our skulls cracked.
But we couldn’t be silenced. Hundreds of thousands of the unemployed followed us, millions of the starving prayed for our success.
We developed lungs of leather and we demanded!
Mayor Davis of Cleveland once told a group of newspapermen—I was one of them—”Those people are too arrogant. Maybe if they were to ask politely we’d let them have something, but I won’t give in to demands.”
It wasn’t arrogance. It was sound tactics.
Those who ask are timid. A supplicant puts himself in a subservient position, he accepts his inferior position as preordained. He submits his fate to the whim of his patron; he proclaims in advance he has no rightful claim and that he would be grateful for whatever favors are shown—please! He begs for charity.
By demanding relief we asserted our claim that all men willing to work in an organized society are entitled to a job, that the government has a responsibility for the welfare of all the governed. That it is the responsibility of governments to keep their economic systems balanced, that a government has to interfere when one third of a nation is ill-fed or nonfed, ill-clothed or nonclothed, ill-sheltered or nonsheltered.
President Herbert Hoover was a man of brains, but his mind did not comprehend that. He had brought the land to near chaos and ruin.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man of heart—his heart comprehended that, and he saved our American form of government.
We demanded, and that was rude. We demanded, and we wouldn’t be sent to the backdoor for a handout. When one demands, you have to lick him or negotiate with him—one or the other. When they couldn’t lick us, rather they licked us often, but when they found we wouldn’t stay licked, they had to negotiate.
It was a fight. What a fight! In the end we won the major part of our immediate demands, thus helping to restore the stability of the capitalist system—although Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, who inspired us, had exactly the opposite in mind.
We got the dole.
We got relief baskets.
We got Home Relief—in cash.
We got W.P.A., P.W.A., H.O.L.C., F.H.A, and the other F.H.A. (Farms and Homes Administration).
We got Unemployment Insurance and Social Security.
We got the philosophy embodied in the first article in our Constitution re-established, that our government is responsible for the general welfare of the people and must interfere in the economic life of the nation to secure this.
Say what you please! Deny if you wish! Distort our role, or minimize it; give credit for the above achievement to whomever you wish!
One fact is outstanding—it cannot be denied. The Communists were the only organized force during the early part of the depression that relentlessly, with never-ceasing energy, generated the constant pressure compelling those New Deal reforms.
The other day I saw a woman in front of me at the supermarket cash her unemployment insurance check. It was for $35. She had bought a basketful of groceries, butter, and half a smoked ham. She carefully counted her change, then, as an afterthought, she asked for a carton of cigarettes. She paid over the money for that too, tucking the change in her wallet.
I smiled and remarked, “It’s quite a load you have.” She smiled back and replied, “I prefer to do my shopping all in one, then I’m through for the week.” We both agreed that was a good idea and I watched her wheel the wire basket out to her car because her purchases were too heavy to carry by hand.
She was a young woman around twenty-four and she saw nothing unusual in that transaction. I was happy and reflected that was as it should be.
I recalled the riot at Kroger’s in Cleveland just about the time that young woman was born, not over a full carton but only a single pack of cigarettes. One of the unemployed, when presenting his relief voucher, had asked that a package of cigarettes be included. The manager refused; by orders of the City Council those relief vouchers should only be honored for food, and he righteously added that the unemployed should be thankful to get something to eat, the nerve of some of them asking even for cigarettes. Some comrades happened to be present and that store was nearly wrecked by the time the manager tremblingly offered to turn over that pack of cigarettes. That news traveled fast, stores outside of the Kroger chain took note of it also. The clerks were speedily instructed to disregard that order of the City Council. From that day on no storekeeper again raised the question whether the unemployed had the right to a smoke or not.
Violence? Persuasion maybe, with a singular lack of tact on both sides.
I also recall a sequel to that incident. The Communists organized a march on City Hall demanding that relief be paid in cash instead of food vouchers. A councilman with a big cigar in his mouth smiled ironically!
“So they could spend it on joy rides, or even cigars, I presume?” he baited the delegates.
That cigar was rammed down his throat and a full-scale riot ensued. The police rushed in and blood splattered the floor of the Cleveland Council Chambers. Heads were cracked and demonstrators were jailed. But we got the cash relief.
Violence? Yes. But be it remembered—we bore the brunt of it.
Un-American? Like a hungry stomach.
Subversive? Ask Andrew Jackson.
The ways of the Lord are inscrutable. God in His wisdom may choose whatever instrumentality to impose His will upon selfish men with hearts of stone-even card-carrying Communists.
Aye, that He may.
Come the Day of judgment, my plea for redemption shall rest on that.