Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2013

Two views on the Robert La Follette campaign

Filed under: electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Neil Davidson’s view

Alex Callinicos claims to have found a precedent for treating Respect as a united front in the US Farmer-Labour Party. There are several reasons why this analogy is neither helpful nor, given the outcome, particularly encouraging, as Alex himself hints in a footnote. First, it was an early example of opportunistic “right” manoeuvring within the overall ultra-left turn taken by the Comintern after the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 and enshrined at the Fifth Congress in July 1924. Touted as a basis for achieving that chimera, a “worker-peasant (or worker-farmer) government” in the USA, it represented in embryonic form the catastrophic centrist position imposed by the Comintern later in the decade in which the British trade union bureaucrats and the Chinese bourgeois nationalists were treated as forces capable of bringing about the socialist revolution. Second, although claimed as an example of united front by the Comintern, it was even less of one than Respect. The American Worker’s Party (as the CPUSA was known at the time), simply entered an existing reformist organisation set up by the Chicago Federation of Labour in 1919 and successfully, if very briefly, succeeded into taking over leadership positions at the annual convention of 1923, leading to the mass departure of many of the native members. But the new national Federated Farmer-Labour Party had essentially the same politics as it Chicago-based predecessor, despite communist leadership. Third, because the revolutionaries had no real base in the new party outside their own ranks, they were themselves overturned by the remainder of the original membership when the more attractive possibility of standing the anti-Communist Robert La Follette as their Presidential candidate presented itself. In short, this episode, rightly described by Hallas as a “comic interlude” based on a “fantasy”, has precisely zero relevance to us today, except possibly in a negative sense. But, like the CC’s appeals to Trotsky in IB2, it is another example of the desperate search for historical precedents to justify a tactical turn which actually requires new thinking.

My own view

American Marxists have always been ambivalent about electoral formations arising to the left of the Democrats and Republicans. On one hand they would view such third parties as a necessary alternative to the two-party system; on the other, they inevitably regard them as rivals. Even when Lenin urged support for reformist electoral parties, he couched this in terms of the way a rope supports a hanging man. Needless to say, this outlook would almost condemn Marxists to irrelevancy when a genuine electoral initiative like the Nader campaign emerges. Unless revolutionaries are committed in their heart and soul to grass roots movements, electoral or non-electoral, such begrudging tokens of support are bound to lead to missteps.

The Nader campaign was not the first such opportunity in the 20th century. In the early years of the Comintern, the Communists faced similar phenomena in the form of the Farmer-Labor Party and Robert La Follette’s third party bid in 1924. Since the Comintern influence was almost always negative, it is no surprise that mistakes were repeatedly made under the “guidance” of the Kremlin leaders. At the Comintern’s Fifth Congress in 1924, Zinoviev admitted, “We know England so little, almost as little as America.” Despite this, advice was given freely to the American party which was in no position to judge it critically. William Z. Foster, one of the American leaders, was typical. He wrote in his autobiography: “I am convinced that the Communist International, even though they were five thousand miles away from here, or even six thousand, understood the American situation far better than we did. They were able to teach us with regard to the American situation.”

In the economic collapse that followed WWI, militant trade unionists began to form labor party chapters in industrial cities. A machinists strike in Bridgeport led to formation of the labor party in 5 Connecticut towns in 1918. John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockels of the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a national labor party in that year. Such grass-roots radicalism would normally be embraced by Marxists, but unfortunately a deeply sectarian tendency was at work in the early Communist movement.

Although the Farmer-Labor Party movement was loosely socialist in orientation, it retained a populist character as well. This could be expected in the context of a worsening situation in the farmland since the turn of the century. The party received a major boost from the railway unions in 1922, after a half-million workers went on strike against wage cuts. They took the lead in calling for a Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in February, 1922, shortly before the walkout. The SP, the Farmer-Labor Party and the largest farmers organizations in the country came to the conference and declared their intention to elect candidates based on the principles of “genuine democracy”. In the case of the Farmer-Labor delegates, this meant nationalization of basic industry and worker participation in their management.

The CP was not invited, but even if they had been invited, it is doubtful that they would have accepted. In 1919 the CP described the labor party movement as a “minor phase of proletarian unrest” which the trade unions had fomented in order to “conserve what they had secured as a privileged caste.” It concluded bombastically, “There can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism.”

In 1921 Lenin and the Comintern had come to the conclusion that the chances for success in an immediate bid for power had begun to subside, as the European capitalist states had begun to regain some social and economic stability. In such a changed situation, a united front between Communists and Socialists would be advisable. This opened up the possibility for American Communists to work with the new Labor Party movement, especially since Farmer-Labor leader Parley Christensen had visited Moscow and given Lenin a glowing report on party prospects.

Unfortunately, the gap between a united front in theory and the united front in practice was colossal. The Communists saw themselves as the true vanguard, so any alliance with reformists would have to based on the tacit understanding that the ultimate goal was political defeat of their socialist allies. Such Machiavellian understandings were obviously inimical to the building of a genuine leadership that could be embraced by the entire working class. The reason for this is obvious. The differentiations in the working class, based on income and skill, will tend to be reflected in their political institutions. They can not be abolished by imprimatur. The notion of a pure Bolshevik party made up only of the most oppressed and exploited workers unified around a ideologically coherent program is the stuff of sectarian daydreams and bears little resemblance in fact to the Russian reality.

When the  American Communists finally made a turn toward the Farmer-Labor Party, it retained ideological baggage and sectarian habits from the preceding three years. These harmful tendencies were aggravated by the intervention of John Pepper (nee Joseph Pogany), whose ultraleftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Bela Kun in the German Communist movement in the same period. Unlike Kun, Pepper did not have the imprimatur of the Comintern even though he implied that he had. He relied on his ability to spout Marxist jargon to impress the raw American leaders. Foster describes the impression Pepper made on him: “It is true that I was somewhat inexperienced in communist tactics, but Pepper…allowed everyone to assume that he was representing the Comintern in America…those of us who [did] not enjoy an international reputation were disposed to accept as correct communist tactics everything to which Pepper said YES and AMEN.”

The Chicago Communists, including Arne Swabeck, were on the front lines of the orientation to the newly emerging Farmer-Labor movement, since the Chicago labor movement was providing many of the troops and much of the leadership. Arne Swabeck might be known to some of you as one of the “talking heads” who functioned as a Greek Chorus in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. At my very first Socialist Workers branch meeting in 1967, I voted with the rest of the branch to expel Arne who had become converted to Maoism in his late 80s after a life-long career in the Trotskyist movement.

John Fitzpatrick, Edward Nockels and Jay G. Brown, three Chicago Farmer-Labor leaders, had decided to call a convention for July 1923. Three Communists–Swabeck, Earl Browder and Charles Krumbein–formed a committee to work with the Fitzpatrick group.

Fitzpatrick was typical of the previous generation of labor leaders of the old school. A blacksmith by trade, Irish in origin, he had opposed American involvement in WWI, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution and defied steel company and AFL bureaucrats in militant strike actions. But he was not good enough for the Communists, who regarded him with suspicion. How could it be otherwise when John Pepper was writing articles for the party paper stuffed with nonsense like this: “In face of danger, we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides–a Communist should not abandon his party, even if he thinks the Party is in the wrong. Every militant Communist should write on his shield: ‘My Party, right or wrong, my Party!'”

The Chicago Farmer-Labor party leaders were willing to work with the Communists, who had some influence in the labor movement as well as enjoying the backing of the world’s first workers state. All that they asked was for a little discretion since red-baiting was widespread in this period of the Palmer Raids. Farmer-Labor leader Anton Johanssen advised Browder, “If you keep your heads, go slow, don’t rock the boat, then the Chicago Federation will stand fast. But if you begin to throw your weight around too much, the game will be up.”

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Fitzpatrick was stuck in the middle between some fearful Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who reflected anticommunist prejudices, and the NY Communist leaders under Pepper’s influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps was exacerbated by the Communists who entertained the possibility of taking over the new formation and turning it into a proper revolutionary instrument under their farsighted leadership. [Insert typographical symbol for sarcasm here.]

The tensions came to a head over the timing for a national conference, with Fitzpatrick opting for a later date and the Communists favoring a date as early as possible. The differences over scheduling reflected deeper concerns about the relationship of political forces. The Communists felt that an earlier date would enhance their ability to control events, while Fitzpatrick hoped that a delay would enable him to rally other leftwing forces outside the CP’s milieu.

>From his offices in NYC Pepper pushed for an earlier date and was successful. It was able to garner more votes than Fitzgerald on leadership bodies. Once the decision was made at the Political Committee level, the Chicago leaders closed ranks in a display of “democratic centralism” even though they felt that it was a mistake. When the national Farmer-Labor Party gathering was held on July 3, 1923, nearly 80 years ago this week, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP way. During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the “big Red machine.” No wonder independents hated us.

On the third day of the conference, John Fitzpatrick could not contain his dismay:

“I know Brother [William Z.] Foster and the others who are identified and connected with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women of America to their organization, I say to them and to this organization, that is a helpless course, and they cannot do it.

“Then what have they done? They have killed the Farmer-Labor Party, and they have killed the possibility of uniting the forces of independent labor action in America; and they have broken the spirit of this whole thing so that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years!”

The CP had succeeded in capturing itself. After the conference ended, all of the independents left the Farmer-Labor Party and it functioned as a typical front group of the kind that vanguard formations–whether Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist–have succeeded in building over the years. A true mass movement will have contradictions and tensions based on class differentiation that will never remain bottled up in such front groups. The purpose of a genuine vanguard party, needless to say, is to help act as a midwife to such formations because they are the only vehicle that can express the complexity and hopes of a modern industrial nation numbering nearly 300 million.

The Communists had another opportunity before long in the form of the Robert La Follette third party campaign of 1924. They would screw this one up as well, and for the same sorts of reasons. Senator Robert La Follette was a Republican in the Progressivist tradition. For obvious reasons, the Nader campaign hearkens back to the 1924 effort. Nader, like La Follette, is running against corporate abuse but really lacks a systematic understanding of the cause of such abuse or how to end it. The anti-monopoly tradition is deeply engrained in the American consciousness and it is very likely that all mass movements in opposition to the two-party system will retain elements of this kind of thinking. Of course, one can always fantasize about an October 1917, keeping in mind that such fantasies miss the deeply populist cast of the Russian Revolution itself.

At first the Communists looked favorably on the La Follette initiative, couching it in sectarian phraseology: “The creation of a Third Party is a revolutionary fact,” John Pepper explained, “but it is a counter-revolutionary act to help such a Third Party to swallow a class Farmer-Labor party.” Translated from jargon into English, this was Pepper’s way of saying that the Communists favored La Follette’s bid but only as a means to an end: their own victory at the head of the legions of the working class. La Follette was seen as a Kerensky-like figure, who would be supported against a Czarist two-party system in an interim step toward American Bolshevik victory.

Despite the 1921 “united front” turn of the Comintern, a decision was made to instruct the Americans to break completely with La Follette. Not even critical support of the kind that Pepper put forward was allowed. It proposed that the CP run its own candidates or those of the rump Farmer-Labor party it now owned and controlled, lock, stock and barrel. Eight days after the CP opened up its guns on La Follette, he responded in kind and denounced Communism as “the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals.”

Looking back in retrospect, there is powerful evidence suggesting that the La Follette campaign had more in common with the working-class based Farmer-Labor Party that John Fitzpatrick had initiated than the kind of middle-class third party campaign a Republic Senator would be expected to mount.

La Follette first began to explore the possibility of running as an independent during the 1920 campaign, when a platform he submitted to Wisconsin delegates was reviled as “Bolshevik.” It included repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, restoration of civil liberties, and abolition of the draft. On economic policy, it promised nationalization of the railroads, a key populist demand, and of natural resources and agricultural processing facilities. It also urged government sponsorship of farmer and worker organizations to achieve “collective bargaining” to control the products of their work. (They don’t make Republicans the way they used to.)

In 1921 radical farmer and labor organizations launched a common lobbying front in the People’s Legislative Service and La Follette became its most prominent leader. The PLS received most of its funds from the railway unions. La Follette was convinced that taxation was the best way to remedy social inequality and his PLS speeches hammered away at this theme, in somewhat of the same manner that Nader’s stump speeches focus single-mindedly on corporate greed.

La Follette threw his hat in the ring in 1924 and attracted support from the same constellation of forces that had rallied to the railway union initiated CPPA (Conference for Progressive Political Action). They strongly identified with the British Labor Party and hoped that the La Follette campaign could lead in the same direction. At the July 4, 1924 CPPA convention, the labor and farmers organizations were joined by significant representation from the rising civil rights movement, especially the NAACP.

Soon afterwards, the Socialists formally endorsed the La Follette bid at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed La Follette. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to “discrimination between races” and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as “the arch enemy of the nation.”

La Follette won 16.5 percent of the vote in 1924, as compared to 28.8 for the Democrat candidate John W. Davis and 54 percent for Coolidge. La Follette was old and sickly by the time the campaign began and its rigors took its toll. He died of a heart attack on June 18, 1925, four days after his seventieth birthday.

The La Follette campaign was the last significant third party effort in the United States until the 1948 Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign. It is difficult to say whether it would have evolved into a fighting labor party, especially in light of the sectarian hostility of the CP. When Eugene V. Debs came out in support of La Follette, William Z. Foster blasted him for his “complete capitulation”. Debs fired back that he made his political decisions without having to rely on a “Vatican in Moscow.” The stung Foster replied, “We make no apology for accepting the guidance of the Third International. On the contrary, we glory in it.”

Perhaps a glimmer of reality would eventually creep into the Comintern’s thinking. The significant labor and black support for La Follette could not be ignored. In 1925, after taking a second look at the La Follette campaign, it decided that the 16.5 percent vote was “an important victory” for the American left, an implied rebuke to earlier sectarian attitudes.

Obviously it is best to start off with fresh slate, without any sectarian attitudes, when confronted by phenomena such as the Farmer-Labor Party or the La Follette campaign. It is within that spirit that my final post on the Nader campaign will be presented in the next week or so. In it I want to closely examine the social and economic forces that have given birth to the most extraordinary electoral project of the left since the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948.

Sources:  Theodore Draper, “American Communism and Soviet Russia”;  David Thelen, “Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit”


  1. This links into my other question about the kind of party you want to build and what it would do if successful, since it’s still not clear to me. La Follette and Nader were more popular than communist candidates for a few key reasons: they were acceptable small-time capitalist candidates and they ran in non-revolutionary periods. What do you expect would have come out of their victory at the polls? In what way would they do anything more / different than say the Party of Communists in Moldova (in power 2001-2009) or Evo Morales in Bolivia (in power 2006-present), i.e. nothing of consequence whatsoever to capitalism.

    What exactly is it that you want to do? Are you looking for the overthrow of capital or simply better management? Is it possible that the reason you have so many differences with most Marxists is that you have a totally different end goal?

    Comment by Clifford Saint Claire the Beloved — January 29, 2013 @ 5:10 am

  2. nader’s value was in trying to force a break with d/r politics and d/r thinking, step 1 to breaking the cycle of less-worse politics now keeping the left in thrall. he wasn’t going to get elected.

    Comment by jp — January 30, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

  3. A break with what? A break with one bourgeois party for another bourgeois party is not a class break, and that is what actually matters. Bourgeois parties have come and gone, even historically in the US.

    Comment by Clifford Saint Claire the Beloved — January 31, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

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