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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

A Workers' Republic Against Fascism:
The Voice of Action's Idealized Depictions of Soviet Russia in the 1930s

by Elizabeth Poole

The Voice of Action, a radical labor newspaper published in Seattle in the 1930s, portrayed workers as heroes and the Soviet Union as their antifascist republic. Note that in this image, a woodcut by artist Richard Correll, the arrows assaulting the worker have swastikas.

The Voice of Action was a radical, labor-oriented Seattle newspaper published from 1933 to 1936. The Voice of Action’s loyalty to the Communist Party and Soviet Russia developed in intensity and radicalism over its four volumes due to changing international political relations. Initially, the Voice of Action focused on labor issues at the local and social level. However, as the rise of fascist Germany tipped the balance of international relations, the Voice of Action became increasingly vocal in its support of the Soviet Union. The paper created its own rhetorical stance around Soviet Russia, holding the U.S.S.R. up as a model for the labor movement both locally in the Northwest and on a national level, but also used this stance as a way to relate local labor events to larger international developments. As the geopolitical climate of the mid-1930s moved toward war, the Voice of Action openly aligned itself with Stalinist Russia and criticized the Roosevelt administration as detrimental to both American labor, Communist ideals, and international peace.

Hitler’s ascent to German power in January of 1933 created a stir of apprehension within the Seattle Communist Party. Nazi party rhetoric was fiercely anti-Communist and anti-Soviet.[1] After the Reichstag Fire Decree on February 28, 1933, Adolph Hitler began openly hunting Communists and Social Democrats in Germany, outlawing their papers and arresting thousands.[2] The Voice of Action slowly began publishing news of Nazi violence in their initial volumes, beginning on June 7, 1933. An article entitled “Secret Details of Nazi Terrors Are Revealed” reviewed a dispatch sent to the International Labor Defense—the legal defense organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—in New York, outlining the “gruesome Nazi torture of German workers and intellectuals…perpetrated on militant workers regardless on whether they be Jew or Gentile.”[3] This article was strictly informative yet marks the start of the paper’s fight against fascism from local politics to an international level. The early issues of the Voice of Action published news which focused on the violence of the Nazi Party, as opposed to adopting a strictly anti-fascist stance in alignment with the Communist Party. An image titled “Down With Hitler” on July 26 portrayed a large gathering of demonstrators in New York gathering contributions for victims of Hitler. The image is one of broad social solidarity against Hitler, not directly tying fascist opposition to the Communist Party.

Early on, the Voice of Action raised Seattle public interest in international events by creating bonds between local labor issues and international politics. The September 4, 1933 issue of Voice of Action published the story of the arrest of Yakima Valley workers on the front page. On August 26th and 27th of 1933, police and vigilantes attacked picket lines at Congdon Ranch and the scheduled Washington State Farm Conference. Eighty-five workers striking against the fifteen-cent wage standard in Yakima Valley were jailed and put on trial for charges ranging from assault to unlawful assembly. The paper predicted the trial to be “one of the greatest battles which the workers of this state have to face.”[4] The same issue cited events in Yakima as evidence of an international drive toward fascism. It compared the arrests of Yakima workers to that of a Hamburg worker arrested by the Nazis for owning a copy of the illegal German Communist Party newspaper Volks-Zeitung.[5] Through such comparisons, the Voice of Action effectively created a tie between local labor issues and the growing threat of fascism that Nazi Germany posed on the political world order of 1933.

From 1933 to 1936 the United States’ political relationship with the Soviet Union was one of estrangement.[6] During these years the Voice of Action continually sought to highlight the connections between local events, citizens, and labor issues in Seattle with those in the Soviet Union. A 1933 article, “Russia and War,” was the first in the paper to call for solidarity of Seattle citizens in support of the Soviet Union. Henri Barbusse wrote “There is a new factor on the horizon – the Union of socialist Soviet Republics. The face that the Soviet masses are building a Socialist society makes the capitalists hate them bitterly. The imperialist desire above all is to crush the Socialist state. I appeal to all workers and intellectuals to defend the Soviet Union [against][1] the attacks of its enemies.”[7] In printing this, the Voice of Action aligned itself with the Soviet Union against the forces of imperialism and capitalism.

As the paper entered its second year of publication, the Voice of Action strengthened its idealized portrayal of Soviet life. The Soviet Union was represented as a socialist utopia of comradeship to which an audience of disenfranchised Seattle laborers could aspire. In the May 1, 1934 edition, the Voice of Action espoused the success of the Soviet Union under the first Five-Year Plan. The paper reported that in the Soviet Union’s mayday celebrations (the international workers’ holiday), “workers pay tribute to the social system which assures every one of them security…which assures every one of them that a life is great to live.” It continued on to list the current struggles in the Northwest, from the “absurd emergency rations” from Federal Relief funds and decreased wages to the growing terror of local fascist organizations, ending with the call, “Workers of the Northwest…join in this militant mobilization… which will break the power of the oppressing class.”[8] The Voice of Action continually presented an idealistic and inspiring vision of Soviet Russia to Seattle readers in an effort to inspire allegiance to the Communist Party, to Russia, and to move Northwest laborers to struggle for a communist society.

Further evidence of this is provided by the paper’s optimistic account of agricultural development of the Soviet Union. The Voice of Action presented a brief history of agricultural development in the U.S.S.R. on May 8, 1934. The article argued that in congruence with the Bolsheviks’ intent to socialize agriculture along with industry, “land ownership was immediately placed in the name of the state” following the revolution of 1917. The article claimed that it was critical for the government to remove “well-to-do kulaks” (wealthy peasant landowners) by force for the “Soviet Union to save itself from internal destruction caused by a vast campaign or lies and misplaced sympathy in the capitalist press of the whole world.” The Voice of Action also wrote that under collectivization there were “great gains” but “also many mistakes and a shortage of tractors,” yet concluded that “with effective Bolshevist self-criticism the mistakes were quickly discovered and admitted and quickly remedied.”[9] Stalin’s agricultural development under the First Five Year Plan implemented the strict policy of collectivization in conjunction with de-kulakization. The article strongly echoes Stalin’s own 1933 report “The Results of the First Five-Year Plan” which glosses over the Soviet government’s violent and brutal repression of its population.[10] Historian Peter G. Filene asserts that the New Deal “increasingly distracted” Americans from Russia, resulting in the drastic decline of books and articles about the U.S.S.R. between 1933 and 1939.[11] Thus, the Voice of Action could publish reports of life and success in the Soviet Union to an audience with little, if any, access to contradictory information.

In this issue from January of 1934, the Voice of Action welcomes Soviet Seamen to Seattle and reports on a mass reception held in their honor. The slant of the Voice of Action's coverage portrayed Soviets as heroes and models for American workers.
The Voice of Action effectively constructed its own vision of Soviet life through human-interest articles. Firsthand accounts from Northwest locals in the Soviet Union provided readers with of view of “everyday life” in Soviet Russia. In September of 1934 the paper published an interview of ex-Seattle resident L. R. Stark, speaking on present conditions in the Soviet Union. In the interview, Stark asserts that in Russia, “workers have a say in running of the industries” and that “the rising generation in Russia knows more about world conditions than the average citizen of any other country.”[12] A letter published in January of 1935 written by a former member of Tacoma’s Machinist Lodge No. 297, August Shultz, provided a similar glimpse of Soviet Russia. The paper framed Shultz’s letter as an answer to “lies and slander against the Soviet Union” which it saw as “slander against the working class.” Shultz reported that a “great change” took place during his time in a Leningrad workers’ settlement and that the average worker’s free time was occupied with recreational sports, outings to the orchestra, and time in their clubhouse built on the grounds of an old church.[13] An interview of former Oregon resident Selma McCone refuted claims of Soviet-induced starvation as “a matter of past history.”[14] Firsthand accounts from locals of leisure opportunities and democratic successes in the U.S.S.R. were reinforced through positive images of Russian workers that could be contrasted with life in America. Alternatively, firsthand accounts of fascist Germany told stories of mass unemployment, with men forced into concentration camps not by Nazi force but by their “economic condition.”[15] The Voice of Action thus constructed a stark difference of life in both Soviet Russia and Fascist Germany for its readers to imagine.

The Voice of Action depictions of life in Soviet Russia stand in sharp contrast to alternative testimonies from the U.S.S.R. from the same period. United Press correspondent Eugene Lyon’s autobiographical account of life in the Soviet Union evoked a darker image. Through the duration of the Moscow famine, Lyon divulged to Harper’s that “all correspondents were strictly forbidden to leave…without official permission, so that an eye-witness account was out of the question.” In the horrors of Nazi Germany he found “a scaled-down version of practices that had horrified [him] in Russia.” Lyon faced a dilemma “to tell or not to tell” the truth about the American intellectual trend of “exaggerated faith in the Soviet experiment” after his return to the United States in April of 1934.[16]

The Voice of Action underwent a significant shift in its final years of publication. The paper no longer opposed fascism through a strategy of broad social solidarity. Instead, it placed itself in a position of strong political opposition to the Roosevelt administration as well as international fascism. International politics grew increasingly important to the paper from 1934 to 1936 as the growth of Nazi Germany and expansion of Mussolini’s Italian fascist regime troubled American/Soviet relations. Stalin faced the German rearmament and the Japanese consolidation of its Manchurian holdings with the knowledge that the future security of the Soviet Union would depend on the alliances he chose to make.[17] By 1934 the Soviet Union had entered the League of Nations and become an advocate of “collective security” to contain the threat. Through 1935, the Soviet Union increased its urgency and called for cooperation between Communists and non-fascist parties against the threat of fascism,[18] The Voice of Action praised Stalin’s international diplomacy during this period. The paper’s report of Stalin and Soviet delegate Maxim Litvinoff’s negotiations in England asserted that “Stalin impressed the British with his profound knowledge of the world scene and his sympathetic treatment of the viewpoints of all nations.”[19] Alternatively, the Roosevelt Administration’s peacetime increase of the U.S. war budget to $401 million was severely criticized by the Voice of Action. The paper asserted that “while 21,000,000 unemployed slowly starve, the United States Senate prepares to act on four bills by the House for arsenals,”[20] thus criticizing Roosevelt’s foreign policy as detrimental to the well-being of American workers.

The paper issued a call to arms for labor’s support of the creation of the Northwest Congress Against War and Fascism on April 5, 1935.[21] On April 12, the paper printed the program of the American League Against War and Fascism alongside the Northwest Congress Against War and Fascism’s appeal to local unions. The Northwest Congress cited the development of fascism in Italy and Germany as proof that “fascism means the end of all civil rights and the destruction first and foremost of the trade unions and other worker organizations.” The newspaper effectively tied national movements to rising international conflict in order to raise the support of local labor against war.

In this issue from January of 1934, the paper advertises a Russian film.
As the Voice of Action continued to develop its Northwest antiwar campaign, its radical views on international politics became increasingly apparent. International news moved from the paper’s back pages to the front headlines. “U.S. THREATENS BREAK WITH THE SOVIET UNION” was emblazoned on the front page of the issue on August 30, 1935. The article claimed that the Roosevelt administration’s official protest of the Communist International’s activities in America was both an attempt by the state department to sever American/Soviet relations and an invitation to the American press for a “violent fascist blast…against the progressives in the American labor movement.”[22] As criticism of the geo-political crisis increased, so did the paper’s accounts of Soviet success and German cruelty, and their claim that American criticism of the Soviert Union amounted to “fascism.”[23]

The Voice of Action also increased the frequency of its eyewitness reports of idyllic conditions in the Soviet Union. On August 30, 1935 the paper printed radical journalist and labor organizer Anna Louise Strong’s response to attacks against the Soviet Union’s social formations. Strong succinctly refuted claims that Stalin stood as dictator in Russia, that under Stalin the Soviet had abandoned its vision for world revolution for the sake of Russian national policy, and of a low standard of living in the U.S.S.R.[24] In another interview, a member of the Saw Mill and Timber Workers’ Union, living as a delegate in Russia, scoffed at the idea of workers striking in Russia. He retorted, “The Soviet government is a government of the workers themselves, certainly the workers wouldn’t legislate against themselves.”[25] The paper continued its delivery of rhetoric supporting the Soviet Union as the ultimate symbol of worker solidarity. If a break between the U.S. and Soviet Union did happen, the Voice of Action made it clear that Seattle communists would align on the side Stalin and the U.S.S.R.

The territorial expansion by Mussolini and Hitler caused the Voice of Action to further align itself with Soviet power’s perceived commitment to anti-fascism. In response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in September of 1935, the Voice of Action stressed Litvinoff’s “vigorous” emphasis of the “peace policy of the Soviet Union at the League of Nations.”[26] The paper amplified its call for solidarity against the fascist threat in images that glorified the strength of Communist labor solidarity against the threat of fascist and imperialist powers.

October 9, 1936 marked the final issue of the Voice of Action. International relations between the powers of capitalism, communism, and fascism hung in a precarious balance. On the front page, A.B. Magil discarded the conservative argument that Roosevelt was a “Communist” because of his New Deal policies, and argued that Roosevelt’s aim had actually been to preserve the capitalist system. The article calls “the cry of Communism against the New Deal” “demagogic propaganda designed to discredit the Socialist and Communist movements.”[27] Thus the final pages of The Voice of Action solidified the paper’s allegiance to the Communist Party in direct opposition to an American domestic and foreign policy centered on the retention of capitalism. The Voice of Action ended publication on the brink of World War II, a war that resulted in a new era of international politics maintained through capitalist and Communist spheres of power. Although the paper’s publication was short-lived, the rhetoric and symbolism of the Soviet Union as a sign of the working class as developed in the Voice of Action would continue to shape international politics for the following century and a half.

 Copyright (c) 2010, Elizabeth Poole
HSTAA 353 Fall 2009

[1] Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 22.
[2] Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State, 28 February 1933; in US Chief Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), doc. 1390-PS, pp. 968-70.
[3] “The Secret Details of Nazi Terrors Are Revealed,” Voice of Action, June 7, 1933, p.4.
[4] “Syndicalism Charge in Yakima,” Voice of Action, Sept 4, 1933, p.1.
[5] “Around the World in Three Minutes,” Voice of Action, Sept 4, 1933, p.4.
[6] Thomas R. Maddux, Years of Estrangement: American Relations and the Soviet Union (Gainsville: University Presses of Florida, 1980).
[7] Henri Barbusse, “Russia and War,” Voice of Action, October 30, 1933, p.2.
[8] “Two Worlds,” Voice of Action, May 1, 1934, p.2.
[9] “Soviet Agriculture,” Voice of Action, May 8, 1934, p.2.
[10] Joseph Stalin, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan: Report delivered at the Joint Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. January 7, 1933 (Moscow : Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1933).
[11] Peter G. Filene, American Views of Soviet Russia 1917-1965 (Homewood: The Dorsey Press, 1968).
[12] “Ex-Seattle Man Tells of Ideal Conditions in the USSR,” Voice of Action, September 10, 1934, p.2.
[13] “Former Tacoma Trade Unionist, Now in USSR, Write of Huge Soviet Gains,” Voice of Action, September 28, 1935, p.2.
[14] “Semi-Tropical Vegetable Grown on Siberia Farm in Russia Today,” Voice of Action, February 15, 1935.
[15] “German Seamen Tells Conditions Under Fascism,” Voice of Action, October 28, 1935, p.2.
[16] Eugene Lyons, “To Tell or Not to Tell,” Harper’s, Vol CLXXI (June, 1935), p. 98-112.
[17] Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), p. 22.
[18] Micheal Kort, The Soviet Colossus (Winchester: Unwin Hyman, 1990), p. 204.
[19] “Newspapers Impressed by Stalin – Eden Negotiations,” Voice of Action, April 5, 1935, p.1.
[20] “Roosevelt Administration Feverishly Prepares Arms,” Voice of Action, April 5, 1935, p.1.
[21] “Wide Support Pledged Anti War Meeting,” Voice of Action, April 5, 1935, p.1.
[22] “State Dept. Gets U.S.S.R. Answer to U.S. Protest,” Voice of Action, August 30, 1935, p.1.
[23] “Nazis Begin New Terror Against Jews”, Voice of Action, July 26, 1935, p.3.
[24] “Workers Democracy Real in USSR. No Starvation, Unemployment in Soviet Union,” Voice of Action, August 30, 1935, p.2.
[25] “Wages, Conditions In Soviet Lumber Industry Better Than In U.S., Says STWU Member,” Voice of Action, May 24, 1935, p.3.
[26] “Soviet Union Peace Policy Stands Out at League of Nations Meet as Litvinoff Hits Mussolini War Plans,” Voice of Action, September 13, 1935, p.1.
[27] “Is Roosevelt a Communist?” Voice of Action, October 9, 1936, p.2.