Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

In Minnesota it began in 1930, when Floyd B. Olson was elected governor of Minnesota on the Farmer-Labor Party ticket, and he immediately instituted a series of radical reforms. He instituted an income tax and price controls in agriculture; required businesses to provide unemployment insurance and old-age pensions; regulated telephone, railroad, and electricity companies.

Soon the national Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker, was lauding Farmer-Labor politics in an editorial that closed: "Let Minnesota take the lead. The rest of the country will follow."

It did. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and set about implementing what in many ways amounted to a carbon copy of Minnesota's reforms: Utility regulation. Social security. Unemployment compensation. The right for unions to organize without interference.

Mike Steirnagle

Both Floyd B. Olson and Franklin Roosevelt distanced themselves from Communism, but many of their initiatives could have been plucked straight from the party platform, says Toini Mackie. And they came just in the nick of time, she adds with satisfaction: "This was during the Great Depression, and people were ready for revolution. I've heard it said that if not for these [New Deal] programs, people would have revolted. With them, it's said, we actually saved capitalism."

What the party couldn't save, it would turn out, was itself. After a decade of spectacular growth--by the early 1940s, notes Mackie, Minnesota had several full-time Communist organizers--the movement began to plateau. When government stopped foreclosures, the farmers no longer needed the Communists' penny sales. By 1945 one-third of U.S. non-farm workers were union members, and as labor advanced, Communist organizers lost their once-heroic status.

Another, darker cloud was gathering over the party. In the 1930s Communist leaders had extolled the U.S.S.R. as a model for American workers: "The line was that the Soviet Union had avoided the Depression," notes Rachleff. Soviet sympathies were tolerated, if not encouraged, through World War II, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally in the fight against Nazism. But that changed as the Cold War ramped up. Soon U.S. Communists were suspected of being nothing more than domestic agents of the Bolshevik enemy. And then into the spotlight walked a jowly, undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy.


Tom Foley says his older sister Mickey "remembers a time when it was okay to be who we were. My mom would bake pies, socialize with neighbors. But I don't remember that. I was born in 1944, and I remember being frozen out by most people we knew."

In 1949 the U.S. Department of Justice began prosecuting Communists under 1940 legislation called the Smith Act, which made it illegal for anyone to "teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the U.S. government." The top 11 leaders of the Communist Party, including Iron Range native Gus Hall, were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. The department then set its sights on the next tier of activists.

Toini Mackie's brow furrows at the mere mention of that time, and she won't talk much about her family's fate. All she'll say is that like hundreds of other local and regional party leaders, her husband Martin realized that he would have to face jail or disappear. He chose the latter and went underground while she supported herself and their daughter.

"It was so awful," Mackie says. "Martin was gone about five years--for most of the time, I think, in Chicago. We would see each other so seldom. We'd have to rely on a person from each end to set it up, and sometimes one of us would be there and the other wouldn't.

"He would tell me that he worked in some factory, and since he was a good worker, they wanted to make him manager. But then he'd figure that he'd have to move again." Their daughter Karen was still in elementary school, and when Martin returned the girl considered him a stranger. "Other kids too," Mackie frowns. "Their fathers came back and their kids didn't even want to know them."

In 1950 Senator McCarthy ratcheted up the Red Scare with his charge that more than 200 Communists worked in the U.S. State Department. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings from coast to coast, interrogating people about Communist connections. And the FBI launched an all-out effort to find and arrest "pro-Soviet agitators." Between 1947 and 1952, more than six million people were investigated; not a single case of espionage was uncovered, note authors Douglas Miller and Marion Nowack in their book The Fifties.

But the campaign had plenty of other results. In the 1930s Tom Foley and his union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), had organized Honeywell, one of Minneapolis's largest employers. But the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required union officials to file affidavits vowing that they had no Communist members or associations. The UE's leaders refused to sign the loyalty pledge, and the union was stripped of its right to be listed on a ballot. When the Teamsters mounted a challenge at Honeywell, the UE didn't stand a chance.

Soon, Communist organizers struggled simply to feed their families. Blacklisting, a practice made infamous when actors and directors suspected of left-wing sympathies were frozen out of Hollywood, found its way to the Midwest. By the late 40s, Helvi and Matt Savola found that Matt had been effectively banned from the timber business. The couple also worried that he, like Martin Mackie, might need to go underground. They moved to Clifford, Wisconsin, a pocket of fellow radical Finns, where they managed a co-op store.

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