William Zebulon Foster (1881-1961), a leading figure in the Communist Party of the United States for 4 decades, was the patriarch of American communism.
Born in Taunton, Mass., the son of a poor railroad worker, William Foster grew up in a Philadelphia slum. He started working at the age of 7; at 17 he was a migrant laborer. For 20 years he traveled America and much of the world, working at a variety of frequently brutal jobs. These experiences made him a thoroughgoing radical. Expelled from the Socialist party because of his extreme views, in 1909 Foster joined the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, working as a pamphleteer and agitator. He also formed short-lived syndicalist and workers educational leagues and helped organize packing house workers during World War I.
Foster gained national prominence as the leading organizer in the steel strike of 1919, which crippled much of America's economy for months and further intensified the antiradical hysteria that swept the country in the aftermath of the war and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. For many Foster came to symbolize the "Red menace." In 1921, after attending the Red International of Labor Unions in Moscow in behalf of his own newly formed Trade Union Educational League, Foster and his aide, Earl Browder, joined the underground American Communist party. In 1922 the U.S. government charged Foster with criminal syndicalism in connection with his secret Communist activities; his trial ended in a hung jury. Two years later, when the Communist party surfaced to merge with the legal Workers party, he became the first Communist candidate for president of the United States. He ran in the next two presidential elections.
Foster and those who favored militant anticapitalism won control of the Communist party in 1929. But soon, plagued by poor health, Foster relinquished to Browder his post of general secretary and assumed the party chairmanship. Bedridden during most of the 1930s, Foster watched the party, on orders from the Stalin regime, swing from anticapitalism to close collaboration with non-Communist liberals and radicals in a "popular front" against fascism. He dutifully endorsed each policy change: from official neutralism to support for American democracy. By 1945 the Browder-led party, as a result of its cooperation in the American war effort, enjoyed the largest membership and greatest influence in its history. Then Moscow returned to hard-line, revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, and Browder was ousted not only from his party post but even from party membership. Foster, ever the faithful party man, again became the head of the American Communist movement.
The emergence of incessant Soviet-American international rivalry in the years after World War II created an increasingly hostile climate for the Communist party in America. Foster held his dominant position as thousands of Communists quit the party. Even more quit after Stalin's death in 1953, the "thaw" in Soviet-American relations, the revelations of Stalinist terrors, and the brutal crushing of the Hungarian rebellion.
Foster and his supporters kept the party in close conformance with Moscow's wishes, but membership shrank to less than 3,000 by 1958. By that time Foster, seriously ill, was virtually inactive. After a protracted legal contest with the U.S. State Department, he secured permission to travel to the Soviet Union for medical treatment. Foster died in Moscow on Sept. 1, 1961, and was given a state funeral.
Further Reading on William Zebulon Foster
Two of Foster's autobiographical works are From Bryan to Stalin (1937) and Pages from a Worker's Life (1939). Also vital for understanding his career in the Communist party are Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (1960); Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History, 1919-1957 (1957); and David A. Shannon, The Decline of American Communism (1959).
Additional Biography Sources
Foster, William Z., More pages from a worker's life, New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1979.
Johanningsmeier, Edward P., Forging American communism: the life of William Z. Foster, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Zipser, Arthur, Workingclass giant: the life of William Z. Foster, New York: International Publishers, 1981.