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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Communism and Radicalism

Communism and Radicalism

The life of radical activist Earl George, here in 1965, exemplifies the long traditions of left-wing radicalism in Washington State. Born in Denver, he moved to Seattle after serving in World War I and took part in the city-wide General Strike of 1919. He was active in the IWW, the Workers' Alliance, and the Communist Party, working as a longshoremen and becoming the first African American to be president of union local in Washington. In 1951, he co-founded the National Negro Labor Council. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Library, Special Collections)

Communism made a larger impact on Washington than almost any other state. “There are forty-seven states in the Union, and the Soviet of Washington,” Postmaster General James Farley joked in 1936. Despite its exaggeration, the remark had some truth, as left-wing radicals played major roles in union struggles, electoral New Deal politics, and civil rights activism.

This section foregrounds the Communist Party in Washington during the 1930s, but see our companion site, the Communist Party in Washington State History and Memory Project, for a history from 1919-2002.

Washington had a long history of labor radicalism and left-wing class politics. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Socialist Party and International Workers of the World (IWW) had strongholds throughout the state. The Communist movement, founded in 1919, caught on quickly in the Pacific Northwest, picking up members from the fading Industrial Workers of the World and Socialist Party. Though radical politics had been fractured and isolated during the 1920s—a result of the World War I red scare and internal splits—the economic crisis gave radicals new ways to organize and a more sympathetic public audience.

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. However, the American Communist Party’s growing influence was cut short by new Soviet foreign policy concerns, which shifted their international tactical strategies in 1939 away from coalition building and toward a more sectarian and purist approach, weakening the coalitions and public trust that they had built over the 1930s.

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 worked  in unions, unemployed organizations, civil rights coalitions, and most of all inside the New Deal Democratic Party.

A protest of the Workers' Alliance in Seattle, who attempted to organize workers who labored for the federal Works Progress Administration, and was led by Communist Party members.

During the Cold War the issue of Communism and the prominent role of the Party in the affairs of Washington State became a powerful weapon for conservatives. The State’s red scare began in 1947 and party members were soon driven out of most positions of influence.

However, the organizing done by radicals during the Great Depression had lasting consequences which still reverberate today. Powerful industries, like longshore work, were organized by radicals, civil rights campaigns begun in the 1930s bequeathed strategies and a decade of experience to the open housing, anti-discrimination, and workplace campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s.

For a fuller exploration of the legacy of the Communist Party in Washington State, see our companion project, the Communist Party in Washington State History and Memory Project, which features video oral histories, illustrated research reports, flims, and documents.

Browse illustrated research reports about 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.