Special Section:
Radicalism


A strike by WPA workers in Seattle, 1937, after congressional funding for federal employment was reduced and thousands of workers were laid off. (Image courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

Called the "Red Decade" by some journalists, the 1930s saw a surge of popular interest in radical ideologies and organizations, including the Communist Party. This special section brings together detailed histories, illustrated research reports, photographs, documents, and maps to explore the various forms of radicalism that surfaced during Washington's Great Depression. Click on the links in the box to the right to explore different aspects of Northwest radicalism.

Nowhere was the left more influential than Washington State where radicals played a major role in rebuilding the labor movement and reorienting the state's Democratic Party. Right-wing organizations also gained adherents, including the Legion of Silver Shirts, an avowedly fascist organization.

Washington had a long tradition of labor radicalism dating back to the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the Socialist Party developed a strong base in both eastern and western Washington while the IWW attracted members and attention in the lumber camps and mill towns, as well as in the cities. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 cemented the state's reputation as a place where socialist movements and radical labor unions were active and influential.

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This special section on Radicalism includes illustrated research reports, introductory histories, and photographs chronicling the various forms of Depression-era radicalism in Washington State. Browse further:

 

Unemployed Citizens League and Poverty Activism

Communism and Radicalism

Washington Commonwealth Federation and Popular Front Politics

Right-Wing Radicalism and Fascism

Radical and Labor Newspapers in Washington State


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Communist Party in Washington State History and Memory Project

Labor Press Project

But the left had come apart in 1920s. The World War I Red Scare nearly destroyed the IWW, and the Socialist Party never recovered from the 1919 split that created the Communist Party. By the time the Seattle Union Record, the socialist-leaning daily newspaper owned by the Seattle Central Labor Council, folded in 1928, the radical movement had lost its way. What remained were small parties and factions that spent much of their energy fighting each other.

The economic crisis of the early 1930s reawakened the state's radical movements. As unemployment surged, a group of former socialists in Seattle launched the Unemployed Citizens League to demand government assistance. Thousands joined and by 1932 the UCL had established neighborhood clubs throughout Seattle and other Puget Sound cities.

Independent radicals launched a second bold initiative in 1934, running candidates in Democratic Party primaries under the banner of the Commonwealth Builders Inc. (CBI). Affiliiated with Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California initiative, the CBI sought to elect state officials who supported their plan to establish cooperatively owned farms and factories. "Production for Use" instead of production for profit was the enticing slogan of the new organization. Reorganizing in 1935, the renamed Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF) would become a major political force in Washington State. With tens of thousands of supporters, the WCF turned the Democratic Party to the left while electing radical candidates to the legislature and to Congress.

The Communist Party had been small and isolated prior to the Great Depression. Highly disciplined and scornful of other radical groups, the Party attracted much attention and some new members in the early 1930s through its Unemployed Councils, a militant organization that competed with the UCL. In 1933, the CP began publishing the Voice of Action, a lively and loud Seattle-based weekly newspaper and its effectiveness increased. Even before the Communist International in Moscow officially declared in 1935 a new strategy of cooperating with other progressives, the CP in Washington had been building its own "popular front." Party members joined the Washington Commonwealth Federation and sometimes took leadership roles in the new unions that emerged starting in 1934. Never a mass organization--CP membership in the state rarely exceeded 2,000--the Party nevertheless was uniquely adept at organizing their way into influential positions in unions and coalitions like the WCF and the Washington Pension Union. Important too was their role in promoting civil rights activism in the 1930s.


The Voice of Action, the Communist Party's influential newspaper, begun in 1933.

The left had many dimensions, including a partially revived Socialist Party, a residual but active group of IWWs, and Trotskyists affiliated with what became the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. Unaffiliated radicals outnumbered all of those who followed particular parties and that makes it hard to precisely define and count the 1930s left. Where earlier in the century, the Socialist Party had provided the big umbrella covering much of the left, in the 1930s radicals worked in unions, unemployed organizations, civil rights coalitions, and most of all inside the New Deal Democratic Party.

This influence would be sharply reduced in the late 1940s. As the Cold War with the Soviet Union turned into a red scare in the United States, radical organizations, especially those linked to the Communist Party, faced persecution and marginalization. The red scare came to Washington State when Albert Canwell's Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities began to investigate communist influence at the end of 1947.

Though the left-wing movements were far more visible and effective, Washington State also saw the emergence of conservative and fascist organizations with their own responses and solutions to the crisis. The New Order of Cincinnatus, launched in 1933, gained legitimacy throughout the state, while providing future governor Arthur Langlie with his start in politics. Attacking high taxes and championing moral and political reform, the organization drew fire from the left which saw it as a potential vigilante or proto-fascist threat. Those fears proved unfounded. Worries about the fascist commitments of the Silver Shirt Legion of America, however, were well-placed. The Silver Shirts drew their inspiration and paramilitary style directly from Italian fascism and German Nazism, and Washington State hosted one of their largest chapters.

Copyright (c) 2009, James Gregory

Next: Civil Rights

 

Click on the links below to read illustrated research reports on left- and right-wing radicalism during Washington State's Great Depression:

 

Washington Commonwealth Federation and Popular Front Politics:

   
Building the People's Republic in Washington State: The Washington Commonwealth Federation, Comintern Foreign Policy, and the Second World War, by Skyler Cuthill

The changes in Soviet foreign policy heavily influenced the foreign policy of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, leading to successes and losses in state politics and public influence.


The Washington Commonwealth Federation and the Washington Pension Union, by Jennifer Phipps

Washington's Communist Party was central to two broader political formations that reshaped state politics, reform, and social services.


“Fascism and Its Ally, Racism”: The Complexities of the Washington Commonwealth Federation's Stance on Civil Rights, by Catherine Roth

The civil rights policies of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a labor/left political coalition, mirrored the zigzags of the international Communist Party's politics, swerving from defending them to silence around Japanese American internment in World War II.


The Washington Commonwealth Federation and the Japanese Boycott, 1937-1938, by Chris Kwon

The labor/radical reform coalition, the Washington Commonwealth Federation, organized an "anti-fascist" boycott against Japanese goods as part of an effort to oppose Japanese imperial expansion into China. However, this stance bled into anti-Japanese sentiment that would culminate in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.


The Spanish Civil War and the Pacific Northwest, by Joe McArdle

Nearly seventy men volunteered to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1937. on the side of the democratically elected Spanish government against Franco's fascists. This paper surveys the political attitudes and backgrounds of those volunteers, with an emphasis on University of Washington students who enlisted.


“To Vote Democratic, Vote Commonwealth”: The Washington Commonwealth Federation's 1936 Electoral Victory, by Drew May

The left/labor political coalition launched a 1936 electoral campaign to challenge the right wing, anti-New Deal Democrats in Washington State, as well as advocate radical propoerty redistribution and social insurance policies.


Washington Commonwealth Builder/Washington Commonwealth, newspaper report by Jessica Dunahoo

Read a history of the newspaper of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a left-labor-communist political coalition that reshaped state politics during the Depression.


Washington New Dealer, newspaper report by Jonathan Stecker

The New Dealer was the final paper, from 1938-1942, of the radical-labor political coalition, the Washington commonwealth Federation.


   

Communism and Radicalism:

   
Communism, Anti-Communism, and Faculty Unionization: The American Federation of Teachers' Union at the University of Washington, 1935-1948, by Andrew Knudsen

The founding of an AFT-affiliated faculty union at the University of Washington allowed faculty job security and redress during the economic crisis. Yet the radical and sometimes Communist politics of its members made the union susceptible to federal anti-Communist repression by the 1940s.


The Voice of Action: A Paper for Workers and the Disenfranchised, by Seth Goodkind

The Voice of Action was a radical labor newspaper published in Seattle between 1933 and 1936. This paper traces its never-official links to the politics of the Communist Party and its commitments to workers and the unemployed.


A Worker's Republic Against Fascism: The Voice of Action's Idealized Pictures of Soviet Russia in the 1930s, by Elizabeth Poole

The Voice of Action portrayed Soviet Russia as a model for an antifascist workers' republic.


Organizing the Unemployed: The Early 1930s, by Gordon Black

As elsewhere in the country, Washington State's Communist Party helped to organize the unemployed into active political and social formations. In Washington, the Unemployed Citizen's League and its newspaper, The Vanguard, gained the state Communists a broad appeal, and integrated the unemployed into the state's radical reform coalitions.


Organizing Unions: The '30s and '40s, by Brian Grijalva

This paper traces the Washington Communist Party's attempts--and successes--in organizing unions during the 1930s and 1940s.


Harold Pritchett: Communism and the International Woodworkers of America, by Timothy Kilgren

Pritchett, a Communist, became president of the combative timber union on the West Coast, but was eventually denied re-entry to the US because of his red politics.


Voice of Action, newspaper report by Christine B. Davies

The Voice of Action was a newspaper for Seattle's radical and labor movements, published between 1933 and 1936.


   
The Unemployed Citizen's League and Poverty Activism:
   
Self-Help Activists: The Seattle Branches of the Unemployed Citizens League by Summer Kelly

In the summer of 1931 a group of Seattle residents organized to establish self-help enterprises and demand that government officials create jobs and increase relief assistance to unemployed.


Interactive map of the Seattle Branches of the Unemployed Citizens League

This interactive map shows the Seattle locations of the the Unemployed Citizens League which established self-help commissaries and demanded jobs and relief services for the unemployed.


Vanguard and Unemployed Citizen, newspaper report by Erick Eigner

The Unemployed Citizen's League, a radical organization of unemployed men, put out two newspapers during the Depression Years.


   
Right-Wing Radicalism and Fascism:
   
The Birth of Anticommunist National Rhetoric: The Fish Committee Hearings in 1930s Seattle, by Crystal Hoffer

The Fish Committee hearings in 1930s Seattle were a preface to the anti-communist trials of the late 1940s and 1950s.


Communism, Anti-Communism, and Faculty Unionization: The American Federation of Teachers' Union at the University of Washington, 1935-1948, by Andrew Knudsen

The founding of an AFT-affiliated faculty union at the University of Washington allowed faculty job security and redress during the economic crisis. Yet the radical and sometimes Communist politics of its members made the union susceptible to federal anti-Communist repression by the 1940s.


Nazism in the 1933 Seattle Times, by Michael Branscum

This paper traces the changing newspaper coverage in the Seattle Times of Hitler's rise to power, paralleling the federal government's own policies of initial support and lack of concern over reports of Nazi Germany's attacks on civil liberties.


Radical Newspapers:
   
The Voice of Action: A Paper for Workers and the Disenfranchised, by Seth Goodkind

The Voice of Action was a radical labor newspaper published in Seattle between 1933 and 1936. This paper traces its never-official links to the politics of the Communist Party and its commitments to workers and the unemployed.


A Worker's Republic Against Fascism: The Voice of Action's Idealized Pictures of Soviet Russia in the 1930s, by Elizabeth Poole

The Voice of Action portrayed Soviet Russia as a model for an antifascist workers' republic.


The Timber Workers' Strike of 1935: Anti-Labor Bias in The Seattle Star, by Kristin Ebeling

As the timber workers' 1935 strike became more and more controversial, The Seattle Star became less supportive in their coverage of the issue, leading workers' to develop their own newspaper.


Voice of Action, newspaper report by Christine B. Davies

The Voice of Action was a newspaper for Seattle's radical and labor movements, published between 1933 and 1936.


Vanguard and Unemployed Citizen, newspaper report by Erick Eigner

The Unemployed Citizen's League, a radical organization of unemployed men, put out two newspapers during the Depression Years.


Washington Commonwealth Builder/Washington Commonwealth, newspaper report by Jessica Dunahoo

Read a history of the newspaper of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a left-labor-communist political coalition that reshaped state politics during the Depression.


Washington New Dealer, newspaper report by Jonathan Stecker

The New Dealer was the final paper, from 1938-1942, of the radical-labor political coalition, the Washington commonwealth Federation.


Philippine-American Chronicle, newspaper report by Rache Stotts-Johnson

The Chronicle was the paper of the Filipino-led cannery workers' union, as well as a source of progressive news for the Filipino and labor communities in Seattle.


Guild Daily, newspaper report by Erika Marquez

The striking employees of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, produced The Guild Daily during the 105 day strike against the Hearst-owned newspaper in 1936.


Timber Worker, newspaper report by Geraldine Carroll and Michael Moe

Born in the midst of the 1935 timber strike, the Timber Worker was the union newspaper of the International Woodworkers of America, based in Aberdeen, WA.


The Pacific Coast Longshoremen, newspaper report by Kristen Ebeling

The Longshoremen began one year after the 1934 longshore strike, as the official newspaper of the International Longshoremen's Association.


Aero Mechanic, newspaper report by Julian Laserna

The voice of Boeing workers in Local 751 of the International Association of Machinists, Aero Mechanic was founded in 1939 and has been published ever since.


Bellingham Labor News, newspaper report by Jordan Van Vleet

Established in 1939, The Bellingham Labor News was the official publication of the Bellingham Central Labor Council.  It was published weekly until 1968 when it merged with other Northwest labor newspapers to become the Northwest Washington Labor News.