“A Road to Peace and Freedom”
The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954
Publication: Jan 18
Publication: Jan 18
6 x 9
The history of the International Workers Order’s struggle to enact a social-democratic, racially egalitarian vision for AmericaRead the Introduction (pdf).
The International Workers Order was an American consortium of ethnic mutual self-insurance societies that advocated for unemployment insurance, Social Security and vibrant industrial unions. This interracial leftist organization guaranteed the healthcare of its 180,000 white, black, Hispanic and Arabic working-class members. But what accounted for the popularity—and eventual notoriety—of this Order?
Mining extensive primary sources, Robert Zecker gives voice to the workers in “A Road to Peace and Freedom.” He describes the group’s economic goals, commitment to racial justice, and activism, from lobbying to end segregation and lynching in America to defeating fascism abroad. Zecker also illustrates the panoply of entertainment, sports, and educational activities designed to cultivate the minds and bodies of members.
However, the IWO was led by Communists, and the Order was targeted for red-baiting during the Cold War, subject to government surveillance, and ultimately “liquidated.” Zecker explains how the dismantling of the IWO and the general suppression of left-wing dissenting views on economic egalitarianism and racial equality had deleterious effects for the entire country. Moreover, Zecker shows why the sobering lesson of the IWO remains prescient today.
"Based on extremely impressive research, 'A Road to Peace and Freedom' offers the first comprehensive history of the International Workers Order, a large Communist-initiated federation of immigrant insurance benefit societies that also lobbied for the rights of workers and the foreign-born. Zecker makes his arguments concrete by looking at the lives and aspirations of rank-and-file members. His book is a fascinating analysis of an organization, and well-positioned within a historiography open to seeing positive contributions by Communists."
—David Roediger, Foundation Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas
"With eloquence and wit, Robert Zecker provides a crucial, previously hidden history of the International Workers Order, a communist-affiliated mutual aid society. Archivally rich and theoretically deft, the book connects questions of 'working class fun' and multiracial solidarity to histories of labor and civil rights struggle. Zecker laces a familiar story of Cold War repression with crucial insight about the arts of community survival. Based on a twentieth-century organization, 'A Road to Peace and Freedom' addresses a key issue for the 21st century: How can political movements address fundamentals such as the social welfare and well-being of their constituents?"
—Rachel Ida Buff, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
" Building on a mountain of research, Robert Zecker reconstructs the rise and destruction of the International Workers Order, which offered its interracial membership life insurance, sickness benefits, and a vision of a better world of economic and racial justice. 'A Road to Peace and Freedom' traces the IWO's career in all its complexity and contradiction—as an insurance consortium with a largely Communist leadership and a politically diverse membership, a mass organization that brought black, Latino, and white ethnic workers into campaigns against lynching and colonialism and for national health insurance, and a financially sound enterprise whose property was expropriated by state officials on political grounds. This compelling story leaves us wondering about the potential for interracial working-class mobilizations and the tragedy of roads not taken—or shut down—in twentieth-century America."
—Russell A. Kazal, Associate Professor, Graduate Faculty, in the Department of History at the University of Toronto
"(D)ensely researched.... Zecker argues convincingly that the IWO’s (International Worker's Order) commitment to fighting both racial and class inequities far surpassed that of others on the left.... 'A Road to Peace and Freedom' enhances our understanding of the Communist Party’s role in American life and the possibilities for multiracial and multiethnic politics that the IWO so passionately advocated." — American Historical Review
"This thoroughly researched, detailed study of the International Workers Order (IWO) tells an important story of the narrowing possibilities of voluntary associations and political discourse resulting from the rampant governmental anticommunism between the 1930s and the 1950s.... Zecker has illuminated an important story, and we are in his debt for the superb research and clear writing of his account." —Journal of American History
Table of Contents
1. "A Practical Demonstration in Democracy": The IWO
2. A "Plan for Plenty": The IWO Tames Capitalism
3. "We Dare Entertain Thoughts Not to the Liking of Present-Day Bigots": Race, Civil Rights, and the IWO
4. "A Mandolin Orchestra . . . Could Attract a Lot of Attention": Interracial Fun
5. Foreign Policy and the IWO
6. "A Fraternal Order Sentenced to Death!" Government Suppression