Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 5, 2017

Can socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: third parties,workers — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Under the command of Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd Olson, the Minnesota National Guard holds back workers as it raids headquarters of Local 574 of the Teamsters Union in 1934

Yesterday Eric Blanc stepped outside of his “April Theses was not a break from Old Bolshevism” comfort zone and wrote an article for Jacobin titled “The Ballot and the Break”. The title of the article evoked Malcolm X’s 1964 double-barrel blast at the two-party system titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” but that speech was in marked contrast to Blanc’s argument that socialists can run in Democratic Party primaries to their own advantage, something he calls a “dirty break”. By contrast, Malcolm X and many Marxist dinosaurs like me call for a “clean break” from the two-party system.

The article is a stroll through the history of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in Minnesota that used to run candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Party primaries and eventually became the Farmer-Labor Party, which shunned such practices until it fused with the dreadful Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party in 1944. Blanc makes the case for such a pragmatic approach here:

The organization spread like a prairie fire, first in North Dakota, then across the Midwest, and even into Canada. Individuals joined by paying dues, which went towards financing farmer political candidates. And on an electoral level, the NPL took a novel approach: instead of building a new third party or allying with a “progressive” wing within the existing parties, the organization ran its own independent candidates within Democratic and Republican primaries. Since Republicans were dominant in Minnesota, the main battles took place within that party’s primaries, which were open to all voters.

Arguing that both parties were equally in the pay of big business, the NPL insisted on political and organizational independence from the leaderships of each. Nonpartisan League candidates pledged to uphold the group’s platform and were financially as well as organizationally dependent on the NPL during and after elections. Perhaps most importantly, when an NPL candidate lost the primary election, the organization nevertheless refused to support the party’s nominee in the general election.

Although the DSA is not mentioned once in the article, this excursion into American history from a century ago might be understood as giving its blessing to the group running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line. Blanc’s article takes exception to both the old guard DSA’ers who identify politically with Michael Harrington and to sectarians like me who oppose voting for the Democrats on principle. I gather that he is leaning toward the sophisticated “inside-outside” orientation of the Jacobin wing of the DSA. I should add that during the euphoria of the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara spoke much more as a Harrington disciple in making the case that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a winning party if it moved left and “embraced a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people.” Good luck with that.

For Blanc and Sunkara, work inside the Democratic Party is a tactical question rather than one of principle. Blanc’s research into the NPL’s history is obviously designed to reinforce the notion that such a tactic can be useful since it led to the formation of the Farmer-Labor Party that “captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement”. He does confess that relations between the party and militant workers were rocky–to say the least–during the Trotskyist-led 1934 Teamster rebellion.

I should mention that this not the first time I have run into people steeped in Leninist orthodoxy who advocate such an opportunist electoral approach. Seven years ago when the Kasama Project was still around, I made the case that Lenin was opposed to voting for bourgeois candidates as a matter of principle. Mike Ely, who founded Kasama, remonstrated with me: “Actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black Hundreds.” So if Lenin gave his benediction to this, why shouldn’t we back candidates like Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders? Or for that matter, run DSA’ers on the DP ticket? You can read my reply to Ely here if you are interested. It shows that I can dig as deep into the bowels of Bolshevik history as well as any other Marxo-Talmudic scholar, or even deeper.

Turning back to Blanc’s findings, there is one important thing that has to be stressed over and over. When NPL’ers ran as Republicans, this was not the party of Donald Trump–to say the least. In the days of Theodore Roosevelt, both parties had rebellious elements that had goals that sounded as if they were lifted from Green Party campaign literature. As the name implies, the Nonpartisan League sought to advance a program that spoke in the name of farmers, many of whom were Republicans angry about their plight. In many ways, they were the counterpart of Tom Watson’s Populists.

Arthur Townley, the founder of the NPL, wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to vote for one of his candidates:

Inasmuch as the lack of respect for farmer rights could be laid to neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party exclusively, we hit upon the idea of using a no-party or nonpartisan organization. It was to be an organization which both Democrats and Republicans who believed in certain principles could join without having to go all the way from one party to the other. To make the route of farmer union for political action easier we called the organization a League rather than a party.

To repeat, unlike today’s Republican Party, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt was suffused through the ranks of the GOP so much so that the most radical presidential campaign of the 20th century outside of  Henry Wallace’s was mounted by Robert La Follette who was the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906.

La Follette was the standard-bearer of the Progressive Party in 1924. The Socialist Party formally endorsed him at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed him as well. 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.”

There is little question that the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and La Follette’s campaign were giant steps forward for the left but were both eclipsed by FDR’s presidency that relied on the CP for both ideological justification and organizational muscle. No matter how many times Bernie Sanders or Bhaskar Sunkara use the word socialism, there is no doubt that their goal is to resurrect the New Deal. One only wonders what investment Eric Blanc has in all this.

Returning to the history of the NPL, it has to be emphasized that the tactic of running in bourgeois party primaries was short-lived. The NPL was formed in 1915 and was forced to abandon the tactic in 1921 when the Republican Party banned such “entryism”. That year, NPL’ers were forced to make a choice. Would they dissolve into the Republican Party or would they form a third party?

The farmer dominated NPL decided to team up with the Democrats in 1922 but the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) that was inspired by it but took the road of class independence. The WPNPL had been formed by Minnesota’s Socialist Party in 1919, dissolving itself afterward. With a larger working-class composition and ideology inherited from the founders, the party had much more of a class struggle orientation even if it “eschewed talk of violent revolution and dropped explicit Marxist rhetoric”, as Blanc puts it.

In 1922, the WPNPL gave birth to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party just as the SP had given birth to it. From the start, it was very successful. It elected Governors, Senators, and House Representatives as well as many municipal officials. It is easy to understand why it would fuse with the Democratic Party in 1944 since there was very little difference between the two programmatically. The main difference was over its institutional base, which like the British Labour Party, rested in the trade unions.

For revolutionaries, the attitude toward such a party must be grounded in dialectics. It is doubtful that any Labor Party that will emerge in the USA will come perfectly formed like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. If you keep in mind that Lenin recommended that Communists support British Labour like a rope supports a hanged man, what are the justifications for forming one in the 1920s or today for that matter?

Although the Farmer-Labor Party rested on a trade union base, the elected officials tended to be middle-class professionals backed by trade union bureaucrats who sought to rule on behalf of all classes in Minnesota rather than working stiffs.

The small-town lawyer Thomas Latimer became the Farmer-Labor mayor of Minneapolis in 1935. He was once the Socialist Party candidate for governor, an indication that it was a party that welcomed middle-class progressives. Whether Latimer was much of a progressive when he became mayor is open to question. When the workers at Flour City Iron Works went on strike, he marched with the chief of police to escort scabs into the plant. Later that day, the cops tear-gassed and shot pickets, killing two bystanders. Some years later, Latimer was invited to join the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky led by John Dewey, a mistake in my view.

He was cut from the same cloth as Floyd Olson, who Warren Creel, formerly the Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, described as “a capable, courageous and spectacular politician” in the Fourth International magazine in 1946 as part of an autopsy on Farmer-Labor. Olson, a lawyer who had run as a Democrat in the past, accepted the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Party in 1930 with the proviso that he be allowed to establish “Olson All-Party Committees” that would be free to include Republicans and Democrats, who naturally would be lured by the prospect of landing a state job through patronage.

Olson and his supporters vowed to run a campaign that would “slur over contradictions and differences” and “unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate clarification of their differences to succeed.” Hope and Change, 1930 style, in other words.

On July 17, 1934, the coal yard bosses refused to abide by the agreement they worked out with Local 574 a few weeks earlier. This meant that the strike was on again. Three days later, “Bloody Sunday” took place. Over a hundred cops fired on a mass gathering of workers that left two pickets, John Belor and Henry Ness, dead as well as wounding over 65 others, many of whom were shot in the back. The Minneapolis Labor Review reported a crowd of 100,000 people in attendance at Henry Ness’s funeral.

Olson then ordered 4,000 National Guard troops to enforce martial law in Minneapolis. He also banned picketing, which allowed scab-driven trucks that were issued military permits to begin moving again. On the night of July 31, the National Guard surrounded and then raided Teamster headquarters, arresting many strike leaders. The next day, after 40,000 strikers and their supporters marched on the stockade where they were being held, the leaders were released and union headquarters were returned to the workers. It was workers power that finally led to a victory in Minneapolis, not the “progressivism” of the state’s governor or the mayor.

Despite all this, Leon Trotsky recommended to SWP leaders that they support the Farmer-Labor Party or any other Labor Party that came into existence in a discussion that took place in 1938. Listening patiently to their criticisms of such formations, Trotsky replied:

Now we must not reckon by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today. American capitalism is very strong but its contradictions are stronger than capitalism itself. The speed of decline came at American speed and this created a new situation for the new trade unions, the CIO even more than the AFL. In this situation it is worse for the CIO than the AFL because the AFL is more capable of resistance due to its aristocratic base. We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.

What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised.

In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten – a hundred times faster than the speed of our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.

It is our fate today that at the very best, we don’t even have a reformist workers party to join. One was stillborn in 1996, for reasons put forward by its leader Mark Dudzic in an interview with Derek Seidman in Jacobin from 2015 that concludes:

In many ways it would appear that this is the perfect time for a labor party movement to revive. We are years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, working-class wages have stagnated for over a generation, inequality is at unprecedented extremes, and both major political parties are wedded to neoliberal and austerity politics. Working people are desperate for real solutions.

Yet there is not a single national union that would commit the resources and organizing focus to a labor party movement in the way that several unions did in the mid-1990s. The failure of the labor party movement is bound up with the crisis and decline of the organized labor movement. The labor party model remains the only plausible way to launch and sustain an effort for independent working-class politics. While the challenges are even greater today than they were twenty years ago, the need is also greater.

There are no shortcuts. The movement to build a labor party is inextricably linked to the project of transforming and revitalizing the entire US labor movement. It is inconceivable to envision almost any progressive initiative succeeding without the support and participation of a vigorous and engaged labor movement.

Today, such a movement’s very survival is at stake. As we work to rebuild it, we have an opportunity to correct the policies and strategies that contributed to its failure and to work to assure that a focus on independent working-class politics is part of its core identity.

I would agree with this and even more for the call for a revolutionary party that avoids the sectarian mistakes made by Leon Trotsky’s followers. The time to start work on this is yesterday.

3 Comments »

  1. An excellent take on this subject and critique of Eric Blanc, Jacobin, and DSA-type capitulation to capitalist politics. The goal of the Left should be to destroy both the twin parties of capital, especially the Democrat Party, in which even young people who self-identify as socialists have illusions. The past is repeating itself. As a Minnesotan, I often have discussions with other radicals about the Farmer-Labor Party, and how much better off we would be today if there were such a party. That’s hard to disagree with, so low has politics sunk in the United States, and so ascendant is the capitalist class, and so weak and irrelevant is the Left today. The FLP looks good in comparison, despite Governor Olson’s deference to the capitalists during the 1934 Minneapolis strikes. Strike leader Ray Dunne told me that during the strike, Olson showed up at strike headquarters and workers grabbed him on both arms and wanted to kill him by smashing him against a pillar, and Olson pleaded, “What am I to do?” Strike leaders stopped the murder in progress. Halfway measures do not work, and the DSA, Jacobin, and their ilk are fostering illusions that anything less than destruction of the Democrat Party is an acceptable route to radical change. A question neither you nor Blanc address, though, is what relevance all this has to today, when resurrecting a farmer-labor alliance is a pipe dream in view of the disappearance of the family farmer and the dwindling influence of organized labor.

    Comment by David Thorstad — December 5, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

  2. Thorstad and Louis are both right, IMHO, but I disagree somewhat with the particular formulation “The goal of the Left should be to destroy both the twin parties of capital,” Obviously the goal of the Left should be to foster workers’ organizations and politics worldwide toward the goal of achieving socialism–only when this becomes a threat to capital could a battle or series of battles ensue in which one or the other antagonist must be destroyed. At present, despite misgivings and factional strife within the ruling class, capital believes itself to be basically unassailable.

    The parties of capital, if for no other reason than because they are national and capital is now more fully realizing its international character, are getting weaker anyway. People are disgusted with the parties; you can’t join them; they don’t directly touch your live in any way–so in the bourgeois elections people don’t vote or vote capriciously, leaving power in the hands of an increasingly corrupt and incompetent minority. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that , in the United States, the fundamental structures of bourgeois governance themselves are under assault.

    What sustains the weakened parties currently is perhaps the echec imposed by the current formulation of imperialism, in which (BTW and pace/em> the phony “anti-imperialist” left, the BRIC nations are the willing and indispensable handmaidens of the worldwide 1%).

    This is a formidable obstacle. How can it be addressed both nationally and internationally in a practical political way? What initiatives can pave the way for an international Left formation that will make it possible to destroy the Democrat and Republican parties without simply (in the extreme case) installing some series of Pinochets to hold the horses while their masters slug it out for a share of the profits? Is there any reason why the United States can’t merely subside into being the Sick Man of North America indefinitely, with disastrous consequences for the workers both here and abroad?

    NB: I’m not speaking here of fascism, which–bad as it is and possibly resurgent though components of it are worldwide–is certainly not IMHO the central or only problem facing the Left.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 6, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

  3. […] Can socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries? A reply to Eric Blanc […]

    Pingback by “Can Socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries?” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | BOYCIE'S BLOGS: VIVA THE ANTI-TORY/DUP REVOLUTION! — December 7, 2017 @ 5:23 pm


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