International Labor Defense

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The International Labor Defense (ILD) was a legal advocacy organization established in the United States as the American section of the Comintern's International Red Aid network. The ILD defended Sacco and Vanzetti, was active in the civil rights and anti-lynching movements, and prominently participated in the defense and legal appeals in the cause célèbre of the Scottsboro Boys. In 1946 the ILD was merged with the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties to form the Civil Rights Congress, which served as the new legal defense organization of the Communist Party USA.

Organizational history[edit]

Pre-Communist forerunners[edit]

Ever since the birth of the organized labor movement economic disputes have spilled over into the legal system, frequently as part of employer or government desire to terminate labor disputes or to punish alleged malefactors for physical violence or property damage resulting from such turmoil. The use of the injunction by employers to prohibit specific actions and its enforcement by the courts occasionally resulted in groups of defendants being embroiled in the costly legal system for union activities. The Pullman Strike of 1894, which brought about the trial and imprisonment of the officers of the American Railway Union, is but one example.[1]

The syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World was subject to particularly intense legal pressure, framed at times as "free speech" actions and in other situations less ambiguously as legal actions against union organizers and activists for their economic activities. As a mechanism to defend its core activists and their activities from systematic legal attack, the IWW established a legal advocacy organization called the General Defense Committee (GDC), which raised funds and coordinated the union's legal defense efforts.

A similar effort to silence and jail conscientious objectors and anti-militarist political opponents of World War I in 1917 and 1918 led to more than 2,000 prosecutions.[2] These cases led to the formation of a legal defense organization for these defendants called the Civil Liberties Bureau, continued today as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Communist forerunners[edit]

Party leaders jailed in connection with the August 1922 raid on the CPA's Bridgman Convention. Executive Secretary C.E. Ruthenberg is seated in the front row in the middle. The Labor Defense Council was established to defend the individuals arrested in this raid.

The fledgling American Communist movement which emerged in the summer of 1919 quickly found itself under systemic legal attack as part of the First Red Scare. On November 7 and 8, 1919 New York state authorities at the behest of the Lusk Committee of the New York state legislature conducted coordinated raids upon headquarters and about 70 meeting places of the Communist Party of America (CPA).[3]

This effort was expanded and intensified on the night of January 2/3, 1920 in a mass dragnet by the Bureau of Investigation of the Justice Department, coordinated by assistant to the Attorney General of the United States J. Edgar Hoover and remembered to history as the Palmer Raids. An estimated 10,000 arrests and detentions resulted from the latter operation, with hundreds held for possible deportation from the United States for alleged violation of immigration laws caused by their purported "anarchist" political activity.[4]

The need for legal defense on the part of those arrested in connection with these official operations against the communist political movement was massive. In 1920 the Communist Party established its first legal defense organization, the National Defense Committee (NDC), to raise funds and provide legal services for its adherents in legal trouble with criminal or immigration authorities.[5] A number of leading communist activists, including political leaders Max Bedacht and L.E. Katterfeld of the Communist Labor Party (CLP) and C.E. Ruthenberg of the CPA, as well as attorney I.E. Ferguson, served on the governing Executive Committee of the NDC, with CLP member Edgar Owens acting as Secretary-Treasurer.[6] A number of prominent liberal and radical attorneys were employed by the group, including Swinburne Hale, Walter Nelles, Charles Recht, and Joseph R. Brodsky.[6]

The NDC maintained headquarters in Chicago and coordinated its work with another radical legal defense organization based in the East called the Workers Defense Committee (WDC).[7] The efforts of these groups to defend those arrested in the Palmer Raids was largely successful, with the result that ultimately fewer than 10% of those arrested in Hoover's January 1920 raids suffered deportation.[8]

Rare pinback button issued by the Labor Defense Council in conjunction with the 1923 trials of chief Bridgman defendants William Z. Foster and C.E. Ruthenberg.

In August 1922 another legal crisis hit the American Communist movement when its 1922 National Convention at Bridgman, Michigan was raided by state and federal authorities, resulting in the arrest of dozens of leading party activists, headed by top trade union official William Z. Foster and CPA Executive Secretary C.E. Ruthenberg — the latter having only recently been released from Sing Sing prison after a conviction for "Criminal Anarchism" under New York state law. A new legal defense organization called the Labor Defense Council (LDC) was established to raise funds and coordinate defense efforts for this new group of defendants.[9]

Costs associated with the Bridgman case were massive, with prominent labor lawyer Frank P. Walsh demanding a fee of $50,000 in the case.[10] Another $90,000 was tied up in bail from supporters. The LDC contributed mightily to this effort raising more than $100,000 from party supporters and concerned trade unionists in the interest of the case.[11]

Although established by the Communist Party, the LDC included a number of prominent non-Communists among its formal Executive Committee, including recently freed Socialist Party orator and writer Eugene V. Debs and Cleveland trade unionist and journalist Max S. Hayes.[11] This broad base of support made easier the fundraising activities of the organization among those who would be less inclined to support a purely Communist organization. Control of the organization and its funds remained firmly in Communist Party hands, however.[11]

The Bridgman case ended in a protracted stalemate. The initial test case against William Z. Foster resulted in a hung jury; a second case against C.E. Ruthenberg netted a conviction, but a series of appeals running all the way to the United States Supreme Court extended the process for years, with Ruthenberg dying of acute appendicitis shortly after his appeals were exhausted but before he could be shepherded to prison. Tens of thousands of dollars remained tied up on bail well into the 1930s, but no further cases were tried against those indicted in association with the 1922 Bridgman conclave.

International Red Aid (MOPR)[edit]

Main article: International Red Aid.
Symbol of International Red Aid used at the time of its 10th Anniversary in 1932.

In the spring of 1922 former Wobbly leader turned bail-jumper and defector to Soviet Russia "Big Bill" Haywood made a proposal in Moscow for the establishment of a new entity dedicated to the legal defense of political prisoners in America.[12] This sentiment was echoed by representatives of the Communist Party of Poland in Soviet Russia, which sought organized support for their jailed comrades in Poland.[12] The Russian Society of Old Bolsheviks and Former Political Exiles and Prisoners, a group whose members had previously raised funds for the support of political prisoners in Tsarist times, acted upon these suggestions late in the summer of 1922 by passing a resolution calling for the establishment of a new international organization for the legal and economic support of left wing political prisoners.[13]

This organization was established first in Soviet Russia as the International Society for the Aid of Revolutionary Fighters (MOPR). Outside Soviet Russia the organization was known as International Red Aid (IRA), although the MOPR acronym was somewhat confusingly also used as an abbreviation for the international organization.[14]

IRA was formally launched on an international basis in conjunction with the 4th World Congress of the Comintern, held in Moscow from November 5 to December 5, 1922.[15] Although professing to be a "non-party, mass organization of the working class," the organization did not hesitate to emphasize its organic connection to the Comintern during its first five years.[15]

In its initial phase, IRA limited itself to activities on behalf of jailed Communists rather than non-party labor activists and members of other political organizations.[16] The Russian national section, MOPR, was responsible for providing some 98% of the funds gathered in 1923, of which more than 70% were spent on the defense and support of jailed revolutionaries in Germany and Bulgaria alone — two countries in which there were failed Communist uprisings in that year.[17] While other funds were doubtlessly collected outside of Soviet Russia by national affiliates of IRA and spent locally,[18] the organization remained in essence a mechanism of Soviet support for the defense of imprisoned revolutionaries in its initial phase.

Over the next several years debate occurred within the Comintern and the IRA apparatus as to whether the organization should continue on its path as an openly Communist organization giving aid only to jailed Communists or whether it should attempt to win broad influence by extending its activities to individuals professing allegiance to other organizations or to no organization at all.[19] This latter approach ultimately won the day in the middle 1920s, a decision formalized at the 6th Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in early 1926.[19]


During its initial period of existence the ILD made efforts to portray itself as a multi-tendency organization largely independent of the Communist Party, as exemplified by this ILD magazine featuring Eugene V. Debs of the rival Socialist Party of America.

The legal communist party in the United States, the Workers Party of America, long sought to coordinate and regularize its legal defense activities. Former Industrial Workers of the World activist turned Communist party leader James P. Cannon was particularly interested in such a new legal defense structure, suggesting the idea of a new group to be known as the "International Workers Defense Committee" as early as April 1924.[20] The idea of such a broad party-sponsored organization for the defense of so-called "class war prisoners" was further developed in Moscow in March 1925 during conversations between Cannon and bail-jumping IWW leader turned defector to Soviet Russia William D. Haywood.[21]

Upon his return to the United States in April 1925, Cannon took up the question of a new legal defense organization with the governing Political Committee of the Workers Party, which simultaneously receiving a further push for the establishment of an American affiliate of International Red Aid from the Comintern.[22] Cannon's desire for "Americanization" of the name of the new group, thereby "giving it a title which would not push away non-Communist elements," was accepted.[22] The new organization was to be known as International Labor Defense (ILD) and Cannon was made its chief organizer.

Cannon was sent on the road to build support for the fledgling ILD, making use of his extensive network of personal contacts with present and former members of the Industrial Workers of the World (so-called "Wobblies"). An initial list of 106 "class war prisoners" needing legal and financial support, mostly convicted Wobblies jailed under various state criminal syndicalism charges, had been drawn up by Cannon and Haywood in Moscow.[22] This list grew to 128 by the next month, and included such high-profile cases as those of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, purported Preparedness Day bombers Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, and confessed Los Angeles Times bomber John B. McNamara.

The top leadership of ILD was determined by the Communist Party, with designated National Secretary Jim Cannon submitting a slate of 29 nominees for the group's nominal leadership body, the National Committee — a majority of whom were Workers Party members.[14] The actual governing body of the organization for its day-to-day operations was to be an Executive Committee of 9, of whom 6 were to be party members and 3 non-party.[14] With this governing structure pre-decided on June 27, 1925, a founding convention of the ILD was called to order in Chicago on the following day.[14] Subsequent changes to the structure of the organization decided upon at this gathering were minor.[23]

James P. Cannon was formally named as National Secretary of the ILD at its founding convention, with his factional associates Martin Abern tapped as Assistant National Secretary and Max Shachtman named as editor of the new group's official magazine, Labor Defender.[23] Dues were payable either on an individual basis or through the collective affiliation of entire sympathetic organizations.[23] A target of 200,000 dues-paying members was declared.[23] While falling short of this number, the ILD nevertheless did manage to claim a respectable 20,000 individual members in 156 branches by 1926, a figure bolstered by 75,000 collective memberships.[23]


Beginning in January 1926, the ILD published a monthly magazine called Labor Defender, a profusely illustrated magazine with a low cover price of just 10 cents. The circulation of the publication boomed, rising from about 1,500 paid subscriptions and 8,500 copies in bulk bundle sales in 1927 to about 5,500 paid subscriptions with a bundle sale of 16,500 by the middle of 1928.[24] This mid-1928 circulation figure was said by Assistant Secretary Marty Abern to be "greater than the combined circulation of The Daily Worker, Labor Unity, and The Communist[disambiguation needed] combined.[24]

Labor Defender depicted a black-and-white world of heroic trade unionists and dastardly factory owners, of oppressed African-Americans struggling for freedom against the Ku Klux Klan and the use of state terror to stifle and divide and destroy all opposition.[25] Writers included both non-party voices like novelist Upton Sinclair, former Wobbly poet Ralph Chaplin, and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, as well as prominent Communists such as trade union leader William Z. Foster, cartoonist Robert Minor, and former New York political prisoner Benjamin Gitlow.[25]

The magazine made a constant plea for additional funds for jailed labor activists across the country. A regular column called "Voices from Prison" highlighted the plight of those behind bars and reinforced the message that good work was being done on the behalf of the so-called "class war prisoners" of America.[26]

Within the faction-filled world of the 1920s American Communism, the ILD became a bastion for adherents of the Chicago-based faction of William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon. The organization's paid staff was stuffed with factional loyalists. By 1928 the opposing factional group headed by Jay Lovestone had gained a position of dominance over the party and the activities of the ILD came under increased scrutiny and criticism.[27]

In addition to sensational cases such as those of Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney, the ILD engaged attorneys in support of jailed strikers in various labor actions. In the late 1920s major initiatives were made on behalf of striking anthracite coal miners in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Illinois, as well as coordinating legal defense and relief for jailed textile workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts.[28] The group also worked for the release of imprisoned IWW members convicted for their part in the so-called Centralia Massacre of 1919.[29]

As the 1930s began the ILD claimed to be "defending nearly 1,100 workers against capitalist justice."[26] Local branches conducted an endless series of mass meetings and fundraising events.[30] New issues came to the fore, such as the use of veritable slave labor by the chain gangs of the Southern prison system.[30] With the official Communist Party emphasis on the black liberation movement, great attention was paid by the ILD and its magazine to the systemic abuse of the African-American population, including chronic inequities of the justice system and the widespread use of lynch law — extrajudicial violence involving the torture and murder of criminal suspects, frequently black.[31]

Attempts to officially suppress workers' right to organize and to strike through criminal syndicalism legislation also became a matter of increasing concern to ILD in the 1930s.[31]



  1. ^ The literature on the Pullman Strike is voluminous. For a sympathetic contemporary depiction of the strikers' activities, see William H. Carwardine, The Pullman Strike. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1894. For a multi-sided account of union activity and its legal repercussions, see United States Strike Commission, Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July 1894. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1895. A modern review of the strike and its aftermath is Susan Eleanor Hirsch, After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
  2. ^ Jennifer Ruthanne Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement: Legal Activism in the United States, 1919-1946. PhD dissertation. Los Angeles, CA: University of California, Los Angeles, 2007; pg. 18.
  3. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 25.
  4. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 39.
  5. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pp. 40-41.
  6. ^ a b Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 42.
  7. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 43.
  8. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 44.
  9. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 67.
  10. ^ Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pp. 67-68.
  11. ^ a b c Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia. New York: Viking Press, 1960; pg. 175.
  12. ^ a b Ulmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pg. 73.
  13. ^ Uhlman, The Communist Civil Rights Movement, pp. 73-74.
  14. ^ a b c d Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, pg. 180.
  15. ^ a b James Martin Ryle, International Red Aid, 1922-1928: The Founding of a Comintern Front Organization. PhD dissertation. Atlanta, GA: Emory University, 1967; pg. 10.
  16. ^ Ryle, International Red Aid, 1922-1928, pg. 13.
  17. ^ Ryle, International Red Aid, 1922-1928, pp. 49-50.
  18. ^ Ryle, International Red Aid, 1922-1928, pg. 49.
  19. ^ a b Ryle, International Red Aid, 1922-1928, pg. 14.
  20. ^ Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007; pg. 261.
  21. ^ Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, pg. 262.
  22. ^ a b c Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, pg. 263.
  23. ^ a b c d e Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, pg. 181.
  24. ^ a b Martin Abern, "International Labor Defense Activities (1 January - 1 July 1928)," in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. New York: Prometheus Research Library, 1992; pg. 537.
  25. ^ a b Milton Cantor, "Labor Defender: Chicago and New York, 1926-1937; Equal Justice: New York, 1937-1942," in Joseph R. Conlin (ed.), The American Radical Press, 1880-1960: Volume 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974; pg. 250.
  26. ^ a b Cantor, "Labor Defender...Equal Justice," pg. 253.
  27. ^ Prometheus Research Library editorial note to Abern, "International Labor Defense Activities (1 January - 1 July 1928)," pg. 536.
  28. ^ Abern, "International Labor Defense Activities (1 January - 1 July 1928)," pg. 538.
  29. ^ Abern, "International Labor Defense Activities (1 January - 1 July 1928)," pg. 539.
  30. ^ a b Cantor, "Labor Defender...Equal Justice," pg. 254.
  31. ^ a b Cantor, "Labor Defender...Equal Justice," pg. 255.


Further reading[edit]

  • Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
  • Gerald Horne, Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 1946-1956. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.
  • Kenneth W. Mack, "Law and Mass Politics in the Making of the Civil Rights Lawyer, 1931-1941," Journal of American History, vol. 93, no. 1 (June 2006), pp. 37-62. In JSTOR
  • Charles H. Martin, "Communists and Blacks: The ILD and The Angelo Herndon Case," Journal of Negro History, vol. 64, no. 2 (Spring 1979), pp. 131-141. In JSTOR
  • James A. Miller, Susan D. Pennybacker, and Eve Rosenhaft, "Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931-1934," American Historical Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (April 2001), pp. 387-430. .In JSTOR
  • Hugh T. Murray, Jr., "The NAACP versus the Communist Party: The Scottsboro Rape Cases, 1931-1932," Phylon, vol. 28, no. 3 (QIII-1967), pp. 276-287. In JSTOR
  • Eric W. Rise, "Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951," Journal of Southern History, vol. 58, no. 3 (Aug. 1992), pp. 461-490. In JSTOR
  • Jennifer Ruthanne Uhlmann, The Communist Civil Rights Movement: Legal Activism in the United States, 1919-1946. PhD dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles, 2007.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]