Robert M. Zecker: "A Road to Peace and Freedom" - Print

The history of the International Workers Order's struggle to enact a social-democratic, racially egalitarian vision for America


“A Road to Peace and Freedom”

The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930–1954

Robert M. Zecker

paper EAN: 978-1-4399-1516-5 (ISBN:1-4399-1516-4)
$34.95, Jan 18, Available

cloth EAN: 978-1-4399-1515-8 (ISBN:1-4399-1515-6)
$99.50, Available

384 pp, 6 x 9, 14 halftones

"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

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.



Read the Introduction (pdf).



"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




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



About the Author(s)

Robert M. Zecker is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Saint Francis Xavier University. He is the author of Race and America's Immigrant Press: How the Slovaks were Taught to Think Like White People.


Subject Categories

Labor Studies and Work
Community Organizing and Social Movements


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