Excerpt: Commonsense Anticommunism by Jennifer Luff

Between the Great War and Pearl Harbor, conservative labor leaders declared themselves America’s “first line of defense” against Communism. In a surprising account, Jennifer Luff shows how the American Federation of Labor fanned popular anticommunism but defended Communists’ civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1919 Red Scare. The AFL’s “commonsense anticommunism,” she argues, steered a middle course between the American Legion and the ACLU, helping to check campaigns for federal sedition laws. But in the 1930s, frustration with the New Deal order led labor conservatives to redbait the Roosevelt administration and liberal unionists and abandon their reluctant civil libertarianism for red scare politics. That frustration contributed to the legal architecture of federal anticommunism that culminated with the McCarthyist fervor of the 1950s.

In the following excerpt from Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars, Luff introduces unions’ early nuanced approach to Communism of simultaneously rejecting limits to free speech and assembly while accepting state repression of political radicals.


Between the world wars, the conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a paradoxical role in American politics. They were leading proponents of popular anticommunism, and steadfast opponents of statutory restrictions on Communist organizing. In contrast to the other antiradicals, AFL leaders advocated a commonsense approach to Communism. Doubting the capacity of the law to distinguish between legitimate militancy and subversive radicalism, labor conservatives disapproved of legislation outlawing sedition.  Instead they pursued a voluntarist program of evangelizing about the evils of Communism and excluding Communists from AFL unions. In the aftermath of the first Red Scare, labor conservatives formed a crucial backstop against reaction.

In the late 1930s, the situation changed. Alienated from the New Deal order and at odds with liberal union leaders in the competing Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), labor conservatives abandoned commonsense anticommunism for calculated red-baiting. AFL leaders backed new antisubversive laws such as the Smith Act and the Hatch Act and strategically smeared federal labor officials and CIO competitors as Communists.

The history of labor anticommunism recasts our understanding of the origins of popular anticommunism and McCarthyism. Historians often treat anticommunism as a conspiracy of capitalists and conservatives who whipped the nation into a red-baiting hysteria after World War II in order to reverse the New Deal order. After enduring a merciless onslaught intended to roll back labor’s recent gains, labor unions yielded to pressure and drove Communists and leftists out of their ranks. In these accounts, unions appear as the victims of anticommunism rather than as critical organizers and sustainers of the movement.[1] On the other hand, many historical studies of labor and anticommunism examine internecine wars among workers and union officials from the late 1930s through the McCarthy era. This literature often emphasizes how purging union radicals leached vitality from the labor movement, casting labor anticommunism as a “conflict that shaped American unions.”[2]

There is much to learn from this scholarship, but there is also more to the story, because the fight over Communism reverberated far beyond the house of labor. Labor anticommunism was a conflict that shaped the American state. Labor leaders did more than decide on union policy toward Communism. From the outbreak of World War I to the attack on Pearl Harbor, unions played a critical role in shaping federal legislation and policy on policing political radicals. Unionists had a unique perspective on Communism before the Cold War. The Communist Party (CP) was tiny and marginal in the interwar years, and few Americans encountered actual Communists. The party devoted most of its energy to recruiting workers, and especially members of AFL unions (even though the AFL was relatively small as well, representing less than one in ten workers before the Wagner Act). Thus in 1935 the AFL justly declared itself America’s “first line of defense” against Communism.[3]

During much of this period, the legal status of unionism itself was also dubious. In this context, AFL leaders thought seriously about the proper posture of the state toward domestic subversion, debating whether a policy could be contrived that distinguished between seditious conspiracy and militant but loyal labor protest. In the process, they crafted a distinctly laborist politics of civil liberties that rejected statutory limits on speech and assembly and opposed the expansion of federal political policing but acquiesced in ad hoc state repression of radicals. Thus AFL president William Green could simultaneously testify publicly against empowering the Department of Justice (DOJ) to pursue Communists—and privately request assistance from the Bureau of Investigation (BI) in identifying Communist unionists, as he did in 1930. It was a highly nuanced approach.

This nuance challenges historians to make some sense of seeming contradictions in the federation’s stance. Different strands of historical scholarship contain pieces of the story. Traditional accounts of the history of civil liberties discuss the role of radical unions in free-speech fights but omit evidence of labor’s collaboration in antiradical repression. Historians of radical labor movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) identify some of these instances of collaboration but overlook the AFL’s reluctant defense of the rights of Communists and Wobblies to speak and organize. Meanwhile, although its anticommunist rhetoric was unvaryingly antagonistic, the federation’s position on anticommunist repression changed over time. The consistency of the AFL’s polemics obscures alterations in its policy.[4]

This book untangles the complicated story of labor anticommunism in the interwar years, showing how labor conservatives became reluctant civil libertarians in the 1920s, and proto-McCarthyists in the late 1930s. It charts the turning points when AFL policy and practice changed on a timeline that begins before World War I with the birth of the modern civil liberties movement and follows the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) along with the AFL through the first Red Scare and the New Deal years. Although the ACLU and the AFL diverged ideologically, as the ACLU became more radical and the AFL more conservative, they often converged politically on civil liberties questions, arriving at common ground from different directions. In the late 1930s, both organizations shifted right, as the federation embraced Red Scare politics and the ACLU adopted the AFL’s voluntarist approach to civil liberties, exposing and expelling Communist ACLU members but opposing statutory limits on their civil liberties.


From Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars, by Jennifer Luff. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Jennifer Luff is research director at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, where she also teaches history.

  1. [1]For example, see Patterson, Grand Expectations, 201-2, who argues that McCarthyism “derived much of its staying power from the frightened and calculating behavior of political elites and of allied interest groups, not from the public at large.” On this point, see Heale, “Beyond the ‘Age of McCarthy,'” in Stokes, State of U.S. History, 139.
  2. [2]The most sustained treatment of labor anticommunism can be found in Ronald Radosh’s American Labor and United States Foreign Policy. As the title indicates, Radosh describes union leaders’ involvement in American diplomacy and covert operations from World War I through the 1960s, concentrating especially on AFL participation in efforts to undermine the early Bolshevik revolution and AFL-CIO support for CIO organized coups in Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s. I follow Radosh in examining labor anticommunists’ relationship to the state; my study fleshes out the domestic front of Radosh’s story. Cochran’s excellent Labor and Communism focuses mainly on Communism, rather than anticommunism, through the mid-1930s, carefully charting shifts in CPUSA labor organizing strategy, and picks up labor anticommunism in the late 1930s through Taft-Hartley. As for histories of anticommunism and McCarthyism, my account builds on Richard Gid Powers’s Not without Honor and Ellen Schrecker’s Many are the Crimes. I follow Powers in treating anticommunism as a coalition of diverse groups with distinctive approaches, rather than a transhistorical antiradical tendency. In this study I flesh out labor anticommunism, which is not prominent in his account. I rely on Schrecker’s astute analysis of the effects of McCarthyism on its victims, and the often-duplicitous intentions that underlay red-baiting and McCarthyism. Schrecker has called for more study of unions’ role in building American anticommunism, and my study responds to this need. I differ from Schrecker in seeing anticommunism as less continuous with an antiradical impulse arising out of American or western culture, and instead more as a political reaction to a political movement. I also see J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as a more contradictory force, sometimes containing reaction and sometimes fueling repression.
  3. [3]A quick word on terminology. In this book, I use “anticommunism” to refer to the broad range of ideological and political movements and policies that opposed Communism after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and “McCarthyism” to refer to the regime of loyalty oaths and investigations in the period from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. While many of the legal structures of what became McCarthyism were created before World War II, the scope and intensity of public and private anticommunist repression dramatically increased in the late 1940s. I use the word “red-baiting” to signify the use of false or specious imputations of Communist sympathies for political advantage. I capitalize “Communist” throughout, for readers’ ease, although I acknowledge the complex considerations underlying the question of capitalization; for a thorough treatment, see Filardo, “What Is the Case?”
  4. [4]On labor and early civil liberties, see Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years; Pope, “Labor’s Constitution of Freedom”; and Weinrib, “The Liberal Compromise.” On radical labor movements and AFL collaboration with repression, see Dubofsky, We Shall Be All; Preston, Aliens and Dissenters. On AFL antiradical rhetoric, see Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, 69-70; Powers, Not Without Honor, 121-22, 176-80.