- "A Vast University of the Common People":Meridel Le Sueur and the Crafting of the Nineteen-Thirties Literary Left
OVERTURE: MINNEAPOLIS, 1934
In the summer of 1934, as record-breaking heatwaves throttled the Plains states, and as the Depression deepened to its nadir, the writer Meridel Le Sueur served chicken dinners to three thousand strikers at the headquarters of General Drivers' Local 574 in Minneapolis. A volunteer in the union's Women's Auxiliary, Le Sueur would document her work that summer in a series of essays in the Communist Party-affiliated New Masses, detailing firsthand a strike of Minneapolis transportation companies that brought to a halt virtually all trucking activity in the Twin Cities and which would, by the time it was resolved, dramatically reshape the organization and objectives of American labor relations. "I found the kitchen organized like a factory," Le Sueur wrote, "Nobody asks my name. I am given a large butcher's apron. I realize I have never before worked anonymously."1
Until that summer—as significant to U.S. history as the summers of 1863 or 1968—labor advocacy had revolved almost exclusively around the craft-based unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL): reformist orders of construction tradesmen, railway workers, and other skilled laborers eager to defend the traditions and privileges of so-called craft unionism. With the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, however—in particular its protections for collective bargaining—the Minneapolis Truckers' Strike became one of several labor initiatives to mobilize unskilled workers across a range of industrial occupations, organizing those workers into non-exclusive industrial unions. Recognition of those unions was a key objective in contemporaneous labor actions among West Coast longshoremen, Toledo auto-parts workers, and the diverse coalition of truckers, painters, cab drivers, and iron workers who banded together in Minneapolis to secure rights long denied them under the more conservative craft unionism of the AFL. [End Page 225]
It was the high degree of coordination across these worker groups that distinguished Minneapolis as a labor initiative. Specifically, the Minneapolis Truckers' Strike was perceived as an unprecedented instance of intellectual labor leaders teaching mass-production workers "to fight for their rights and [fighting] with them."2 Writing soon afterward in The New International, James P. Cannon singled out this aspect of the Truckers' Strike as a harbinger of future developments in the American labor movement. "In other places," Cannon wrote, "strike militancy surged from below and was checked and restrained by the leaders. In Minneapolis it was organized and directed by the leaders."3 An administrator in the Trotsky-influenced Communist League of America (CLA), Cannon and other strike leaders made up what the novelist Charles Rumford Walker labeled a "brain core of military operations" working out of strike headquarters.4 There, as Cannon described, "a group of determined militants, armed with the most advanced political conceptions, organized the workers in the trucking industry, led them through three strikes within six months and remain today at the head of the union."5 The Minneapolis Truckers' Strike, in other words, served equally as labor action and cross-class pedagogical initiative, with East Coast intellectuals instructing Midwestern workers in the theory and practice of labor militancy, and with working-class strikers, in turn, contributing on-the-ground intelligence and their own local knowledge of Minneapolis and its politics.
It was this cross-class exchange—between "teamsters and Trotskyists," as one historian puts it—which, for Cannon and others, constituted the "meaning" of Minneapolis and allowed strikers to outmaneuver not only their employers but virtually every layer of ameliorist government intervention, from city police to President Franklin Roosevelt.6 Gaining momentum over the long summer of 1934, the Minneapolis coalition seemed even more remarkable given that much of the 1930s Left remained riven by factional debates between precisely those groups the coalition unified—on the one hand, intellectual theoreticians and, on the other, advocates for a more autochthonous proletarianism. Falling out along Trotskyist and Stalinist lines, these debates, as I will show, would try allegiances, rend cultural institutions, and strain long-held friendships. While their ability to sidestep such debates was integral to the success of Minneapolis...