Ron Radosh

On Elena Kagan's Senior Thesis: Sound anti-Communist Labor History

Some conservatives have been criticizing Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan for her 1981 Princeton senior thesis in history titled “To The Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933.”  Not me.

As a historian who has read widely in socialist and communist history, and written about the topic, I found her thesis to be academically first rate, based on a wide-ranging use of primary and secondary source material, with a thoughtful analysis and sound conclusions that derive from the evidence.

In her senior thesis, Kagan looked into the broader question of why socialism never took hold in America through a case study of New York City.  For a time in the 1900s, socialism appeared to be taking root and to have a bright future in New York, as it did in the rest of the country. What was it in their approach to politics that caused socialists to fail, despite their strong militancy and commitment to the rights of workers — especially those in what was called then the needle trades, i.e., the garment industry in New York City?

Kagan found her answer in the warfare between the socialists and communists, and the emerging split in the union movement, especially among garment workers, in the period when the Communist Party sought to create a “dual union” and then to change tactics and attempt to move into the existing garment union and take it over.  Kagan concludes that the communists were loyal not to American workers, but to the Soviet Union and its leadership. She writes:

The U.S. communists frequently requested the Soviet Union to settle their internal disputes, allowed The Third International to hand-pick their leaders, regarded the U.S.S.R. as their native country. In effect, the American communists’ political and psychological identification with the Bolsheviks strengthened in the same measure as their own sense of accomplishment decreased. Small, divided and isolated, the communist parties had to live vicariously.

The above, we might say, is sound anti-communist history, not at all sympathetic to the strategy, tactics and orientation of those labor activists who were influenced most by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  Indeed, when she writes about the “civil war” in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), she reveals the duplicity of the tactics used by the communists. Kagan calls it a fight between “constructive and revolutionary socialism,” the constructivists being those who knew they lived in a country where working for trade unionism was a worthy goal in and of itself, and the revolutionaries who favored the Bolshevik path for America.

Kagan discusses the stealth tactics by which the American communists sought to take over the shop delegates’ movement, and how a “small group” worked to form a bloc, control votes at meetings, and then force the union in a direction favored by the Soviet Union. They used this control, she writes, “to connect the leagues to the Trade Union Educational League, a CP organization designed to carry out the Third International’s union policies by directing and coordinating the activities of party members within established labor organizations.” The communists, she adds, “began an all-out drive for control of the ILGWU.”

Kagan’s discussion has a personal dimension to me. My late mother was a member of the ILGWU Local 25, active in their strikes, and at the time, one of the rank-and-file that took the communists’ advice. Later, when the party shifted its position overnight, and ordered their followers to shift ground, abandon the old strategy, and move en masse into the ILGWU, she quickly learned how she and her friends had been chess pieces in the party’s strategy to take over American labor.

The final result of the internecine warfare was what Kagan describes as the collapse of radical politics, the end of socialism in the union, and the resorting by both sides to the use of thugs and gangsters to force workers into one or another faction. The story she relates is hardly a pretty one. She puts it this way:

Those formerly militant trade unionists who remained within-the ILGWU had lost much of their passion for radical politics. These members had watched as the Communist Party subordinated their battle to a seemingly irrelevant connection to the Bolsheviks. They had watched as the socialists resorted to unconstitutional suspensions and overt alliances with the capitalist class in order to remove the left-wing threat. They had watched as communists and socialists alike hired gangsters and thugs to keep straying members in line and pull defecting ones back into it. In the process, these workers had seen their fondest radical hopes and dreams utterly destroyed.

She notes that the end result was that the union formally broke with even the moderate socialists, whose leader was Norman Thomas, and became an ardent supporter of FDR and the New Deal, working as its left-wing but clearly operating within the confines of the American political system.

In her concluding observations, Kagan returns to the question of why, in an imperfect society, a radical party never became a major force. She notes in her acknowledgments that one of her motivations to explore this subject was her brother, whose “involvement in radical politics” inspired her to explore this subject.  Her answer is that in New York City, the movement developed “internal decay,” as “sectarianism and dissension ate away at its core.” She calls the story “a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism’s decline, still wish to change America.” American radicals, she writes, “had become their own worst enemies.”

We can observe, then, that as a college senior, Kagan wanted like so many others of that generation, to “change America.” She decries the radicals for fighting themselves instead of unifying in a practical manner. She wrote as one sympathetic to their goals and dreams. Her thesis is good history, something she has a right to still be proud of. Indeed, it is clear had she continued, Kagan probably would have become a first rate historian. I imagine, however, that some senators might wish to question her on her views on judicial restraint vs. activism.  Do any of her views as reflected in her approach to history in a thirty-year-old thesis make her a proponent of using the law to promote social change? That is a fair question. One must realize, of course, that people change their views after so many years. Had Kagan been writing on this question now, perhaps she would have taken a different approach to the subject.

Her thesis — written from the perspective of an anti-communist scholar who was not in sync with the pro-communist leftism of what by then was a declining New Left — does not reveal that she was an advocate of radical social change. It does reveal an individual who, like the socialists and unionists she was writing about, also wanted to “change America.” It is clear that she found their struggles inspirational and that she empathized with their fight. If she has not changed her views on these issues, it puts her right in the mainstream of what is today’s left-of -center Democratic Party. Her views, however, were far removed from those Obama appointments like the short-lived one of Van Jones, who openly espoused communist and revolutionary ideas, which once exposed, forced him to offer his resignation.

Some may disagree with the political sympathies that led her to write on this topic, but I believe  the thesis itself  should serve as no grounds to deny her appointment to the Supreme Court.

UPDATE: May 22, 8:30 est.

In Slate, historians David Greenberg of Rutgers Univ. and Tony Michels of Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison have written their own take on Kagan’s thesis. You can read it here. You will surprisingly find that their points are quite similar to mine.  Good history should be informative to all, despite one’s politics. And for my critics who are conservative, I believe that there is solid good history that is being written by historians of the Left, just as there is good history written by people who are conservatives. And writers and historians of any political view can write poor and misleading history as well.