Monday, June 17, 2013

Forum on Labor and Civil Liberties in the June 2013 Issue of the Journal of the Historical Society

Randall Stephens

The latest issue of the Journal of the Historical Society should be in mailboxes and on the shelves of libraries now.  The June 2013 issue features a forum on Jennifer Luff's 2012 UNC Press book Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars. The introduction to the forum notes that: 
Luff finds that during the 1920s and into the '30s, the American Federation of Labor developed a policy position between labor radicalism and state intervention: the AFL's “commonsense anticommunism” promoted voluntarist efforts to curb Communist influence within its unions while also opposing legislation that would outlaw Communist agitation. This position would shift over time, but Luff reveals much about “labor conservatives” that should surprise readers accustomed to the usual popular narrative about the varied strands of the labor movement, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and American anticommunism. After Luff introduces her work to our readers, we present commentary by a number of scholars: Eric Arnesen of The George Washington University; Jennifer Delton of Skidmore College; Harvey Klehr of Emory University; Judy Kutulas of St. Olaf College; Tony Michels of the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Steve Rosswurm of Lake Forest College. To conclude the forum, Professor Luff responds to the commentary on her important book.

Luff writes:

I tried to follow the clues that the testimony of John Frey and J. Edgar Hoover gave me. In the end, I came up with Commonsense Anticommunism. The book argues that conservative officials of the American Federation of Labor were the vanguard of American anticommunism in the interwar years. The AFL's antisocialism and ingrained suspicion of state power produced an organic and reflexive opposition to Soviet Communism that pervaded the AFL from the first days of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet AFL leaders played a paradoxical role, evangelizing against Communism while opposing statutory restrictions on Communist activity, and often clandestinely collaborating with federal repression of Communists while rejecting formal authority for federal repression. In keeping with their longstanding ethos, AFL leaders advocated a voluntarist approach to contain Communism, which relied on private citizens and organizations to identify and repudiate reds in their midst. AFL leaders viewed Communism as an obnoxious but legitimate political movement, not a cultural tendency or a catch-all for all sorts of radicalism, which put them at odds with many other antiradical and patriotic groups in the interwar years. I call their approach “commonsense anticommunism,” and I argue that labor anticommunists were a crucial backstop protecting civil liberties in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Read the rest via the Wiley Online Library here.  Or, subscribe to the journal and Historically Speaking by becoming a member of the Historical Society here.

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