Friday, April 21, 2006
William Z. Foster 1881 – 1961
“Pages from a Worker’s Life”
by Richard E. Noble
Who the heck is William Z. Foster? I had never heard of the gentleman and my guess is - neither have most of you.
I have recently been acquainted with Mr. Foster through his book, “Pages From a Worker’s Life”. I have also come to find out that this is not the only book that Mr. Foster has written. He has been quite prolific, and is very, very well known in certain circles.
J. Edgar Hoover, I have no doubt, had a very extensive file on William Z. Foster. Mr. Hoover, I’m sure, has Mr. Foster listed as a top ten American Scumbag of all time. But in reading the biography of the now deceased J. Edgar Hoover, I find that it becomes more difficult determining top American Scumbags as the years roll by. Yesterday’s hero may be today scumbag and yesterday scumbag may become one of today’s heroes. From what I have read so far on these two men, I am more attracted to Mr. Foster than to Mr. Hoover.
“Pages from a Worker’s Life” was great. There is no doubt about it; Mr. Foster was an American Workingman. The man lived quite a life.
He belonged to the Bulldog’s gang in the infamous four corners section of New York - recently made into a big movie. He worked the turpentine plantations in Northern Florida in the “peonage” days, as he calls it. Peonage is a fancy word for slavery. I’ve heard it referred to as “wage slavery”, but as Mr. Foster’s describes it, there really wasn’t much “wage” connected with it.
Foster was a miner, a railroad worker, a factory worker, a homesteader, worked the carnivals; told of a very interesting experience in a fertilizer factory - which sounded like it could have been a chapter in Upton Sinclair’s “the Jungle” (he worked as a meat packer too). He was even a shepherd.
He sailed around the world, before the Mast, like William Henry Dana. His tale was not as “sophisticated” and well spoken as Mr. Dana’s, but, I’m sure, much closer to truth and reality - the uncut version, I would say. Mr. Foster was not the son of a wealthy ship owner and he harbored no future plans of attending Harvard when his trip was over. He was also not overly concerned about who might be offended by what he had to say.
Then came his life as a Hobo. If you hold any glamorous notions about the Hobo-ing life, “beat” your way over the “big Hump” (Rocky Mountains) riding the “rods” under some boxcar with Mr. Foster, going West in the dead of winter. Not very romantic, let me tell you. He nearly had his toes frozen off.
Then follow Billy the Bum as one of the “floating workers” army of the I.W.W. - (Wobblees/Industrial Workers of the World). It was somewhere around this point in his life that J. Edgar probably became aware of Mr. Foster’s personage - Mr. Hoover being then very active in A. Mitchell Palmer’s army and actively promoting the Red-Scare of that era, post World War I.
Mr. Foster’s association with the Wobblees got him to Germany, France, Italy, England and Russia as an American Union worker representative. As a hobo and a sailor he had already been to Central and South America. All of this was somehow accomplished with very little money - almost nothing. He tells of being in Germany attending some big international union gathering and being arrested that evening as a vagrant which could have gotten him a number of years in a foreign prison.
Mister Foster becomes an active participant in the worker revolution of the period. Many people today don’t know that there ever was a worker revolution in the U.S.A. - or any place else in the world for that matter. He is at one point or another a Wobbly, a syndicalist, a socialist, an anarchist, and finally starts his own group. A group well known today as the American Communist Party.
It is difficult to be an American and think of a Communist as anything but a bad person. But in the early days of the radical labor movement, the American Communist Party was one of the most active, most idealistic, and socially inclusive of all the radical labor groups. Mr. Foster was a zealous adherent of the Marxist communist philosophy. He thought the Russian Revolution to be the greatest step ever taken in history on behalf of the workingman. He thought Lenin was the berries and Uncle Joe Stalin, a Russian and world hero. He was in Russia at the time of the Revolution. He listened to Lenin and Stalin speak.
He talks glowingly of the early achievements of the Russian Revolutionary experiment. He gives a vivid description of the early poverty, starvation and general squalor; the intensive opposition - the sabotage and foreign inspired intervention. “In years to come the Soviet’s winning of the Arctic will probably be considered the most important economic development of this period,” says Mr. Foster. “It is the completion of man’s conquest of the globe ... In the summer of 1935, I saw some of this vast Arctic development via the new Stalin Baltic-White Sea Canal.”
The “what" canal? Have you ever heard of that one?
Well, William claims that it was an even greater achievement than the Panama Canal - and it didn’t take so long. And he goes on:
“The new Stalin Constitution is by far the most democratic in the world, guaranteeing the people political freedom, religious liberty, the right to work, the right of the worker to his product and the farmer to his land, the right to organize, the right to education, the right to full medical care, the right to rest and recreation, and the most complete system of social security to be found anywhere. Old Russia, the home of hunger, misery, ignorance and oppression, has now become a land of song, laughter, culture, hope and happiness.
The accomplishments of the Soviet government are so huge and unmistakable that all the world is being compelled to recognize that the new socialist system is a success.”
Well? Very interesting. Mr. Foster wrote this in 1939. He closed his book with an update of the Russian accomplishments in World War II - which are equally spectacular - and much closer to the truth.
I must admit that my reading of the achievements of Joseph Stalin are not quite so glowing as Mr. Foster’s who died in 1961. I seem to remember something about purges and gulags and then there were all those Polish generals and those ten to twenty million missing Russian peasant farmers.
Let’s see, who shall I choose as my hero, Joseph Stalin or J. P. Morgan? ... William Z. Foster or J. Edgar Hoover?
I really enjoyed Mr. Foster’s book. He was a worker;I have no doubt - he was in the mold of the zealous true believer. None of his contemporaries have anything but praise for his abilities, his temperament and his ideals. I feel pretty confident that he was probably a nice guy. I’m not so sure about J. Edgar Hoover or Herbert Hoover for that matter.
Joseph Stalin? I really and truly have my doubts. F.D.R. thought that he could work with the man. Winston Churchill thought that Uncle Joe was a better choice than Adolf Hitler - but that still leaves us a lot of room for consideration. I mean, if my wife said of her relationship with me - “I have been able to work with the man and he is a nicer man than Adolf Hitler,” I don’t know if I would find that, all that complimentary.