Foster, William Z.

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William Zebulon Foster (February 25, 1881–September 1, 1961), a leading member of the Communist Party for four decades, was possibly the best-known radical activist of Depression-era America. Born in Taunton, Massachusetts, the son of immigrants, Foster grew up in an impoverished community in Philadelphia. His formal education ended at the age of ten, and, after a brief stint as an apprentice to a craftsman, he worked at a variety of unskilled jobs.

In 1901, at the age of nineteen, Foster joined the Socialist Party and for the next two decades crisscrossed the country as an itinerant worker. In 1909 he became a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) but left the organization in 1911 over the issue of dual unionism, advocating instead capturing and radicalizing mainstream unions. To that end he joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and became one of its most effective organizers. Foster gained a national reputation for his leading role in major organizing campaigns in the meat and steel industries.

Foster joined the Communist Party in 1921 and assumed a prominent role in party work. As a highly respected labor organizer he directed trade union activities throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s. In 1924, he became party chairman (a position he held until 1957) and also headed the party's ticket for president, as he did in 1928 and 1932. By the end of the 1920s he had risen to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy as a member of a three-man secretariat that included Earl Browder and William Weinstone.

In 1930, Foster launched the party's unemployed campaign with a mass demonstration of an estimated 100,000 in New York City. While campaigning in 1932, he suffered a heart attack and for the next three years was unable to engage in active party work. Once recuperated, Foster found Browder firmly in control and his role limited primarily to "literary activities." A prolific writer, he made good use of this period. Between 1932 and 1939, he penned three books, including two autobiographies, and numerous articles and tracts.

Throughout the 1930s Foster wrangled with Browder over the direction of the party. Respected but isolated, he regained a dominant voice in party affairs after Browder's removal from leadership and expulsion from the party in 1945. In 1957, Foster's health again collapsed, and he died four years later in the Soviet Union, where he had gone to seek medical treatment. Foster's widow returned his ashes to the United States and deposited them near the graves of the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago.



Barrett, James R. William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism. 1999.

Foster, William Z. From Bryan to Stalin. 1937.

Foster, William Z. Pages from a Worker's Life. 1939.

Johanningsmeier, Edward P. Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster. 1994.

Zipser, Arthur. Workingclass Giant: The Life of William Z. Foster. 1981.

Gwen Moore