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.”