Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2019

What can the left learn from Vito Marcantonio’s career in Congress?

Filed under: electoral strategy,Jacobin,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last August, I wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Young Marxist Intellectuals and the Democratic Party” that called attention to how impressive scholarship is being used to sustain a reformist agenda:

The “democratic socialist” movement spawned by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign has led to an interesting development. Highly educated and self-described socialists in the academy have written erudite articles making the Marxist case for voting Democratic. Even if they are wrong, I am impressed with the scholarly prowess deployed on behalf of obvious casuistry.

The latest example just showed up in a December 20, 2018 Jacobin article titled “New York’s Last Socialist Congressperson” that is a eulogy to Vito Marcantonio, a Congressman from East Harlem’s district from 1935 to 1951, who author Benjamin Serby, a doctoral student at prestigious Columbia University, quite rightly compares to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unquestionably, these politicians push the envelope of leftist politics and make the prospect of using the Democratic Party for social change plausible. As such, they extend the life of the longest-functioning capitalist party in the world and thus forestall the possibility of a radical party to the left confronting the bourgeoisie at the ballot box and in the streets.

Are Marcantonio and Ocasio-Cortez part of some conspiracy to co-opt the left? I don’t think so. Basically, they are operating in the framework of pragmatism, the guiding philosophy of American liberalism that has been around since the days of John Dewey and that was turbocharged by the Communist Party in the 1930s. If Marcantonio and his friends in the CPUSA and the labor bureaucracy were not so intent on backing FDR and strangling attempts to build a Labor Party in the cradle, who knows what might have happened?

To derail third party efforts, it is most effective to have people operating within its ranks as a Trojan Horse. Nominally, acting on behalf of a radical alternative to the Democratic Party, they conspire to prevent it. The most recent example was the Demogreen leaders of the Green Party, including Medea Benjamin, pushing for the nomination of an obscure figure named David Cobb in 2004 rather than Ralph Nader. They were traumatized by the election of George W. Bush in 2000 that many of their liberal co-thinkers blamed on Ralph Nader and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. David Cobb can be accused of many things but draining votes is not one of them.

Like most Columbia students, an institution that sets a high bar for scholarship, Serby has done quite a bit of research to prepare this article. We learn that Marcantonio was arrested in 1936 for his role in leading a demonstration of fifteen thousand unemployed workers against cuts to the Works Progress Administration. Impressive research there.

Based on Serby’s account, you can say that Marcantonio’s entire career was stellar. Obviously, if you are going to maintain the illusion that the Democratic Party can be an instrument of social change, especially when many workers were revolutionary-minded, you have to demonstrate your class struggle credibility on a consistent basis. That was not only true of Marcantonio. It was also true of the Communist Party that could be found in the forefront of civil rights struggles, organizing drives for the CIO and rally the people against fascism (except of course during  the Nonaggression Pact.)

The vanguard role of the CP was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helped to win significant reforms, especially the right to have a trade union but on the other, it propped up a capitalist party that would use its authority on the left to launch an imperialist war, sabotage the Little Steel Strike, throw Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, and keep a lid on the civil rights movement.

Like Eric Blanc, Benjamin Serby sees electoral politics on a pragmatic/tactical basis rather than a Marxist/class basis. In December 2017, Blanc defended the “dirty break” on Jacobin, an article defending the idea that socialists can exploit the Democratic or Republican party primaries to spread revolutionary ideas and even win office.

Serby sees Marcantonio’s career as validating this theory, without mentioning Blanc’s name. It is clear that the two brilliant doctoral students have the same agenda ideologically. I don’t want to sound cynical but having a Ph.D. and being capable of talking out of both sides of your mouth is not to be minimized from a career-development standpoint. I mean, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to write for a prestigious JSTOR journal or the Nation rather than some obscure WordPress blog?

Serby writes:

Marc’s Republican affiliation cost him his congressional seat in 1936, as the Democratic Party swept national elections. It proved to be a temporary setback. Two years later, he exploited a New York election law that permitted candidates to “cross-file” on multiple ballot lines, and ran in the Republican, Democratic, and American Labor Party (ALP) primaries.

After winning the GOP and ALP races, he trounced his Democratic opponent in the general election, 18,802 to 12,375. By delivering almost nine thousand of those votes, the ALP, a labor-backed party founded by socialist New Dealers, established itself as a force capable of tipping important elections. Within two years, Marc was the leader of its Manhattan branch and its sole representative in Congress.

By 1942, Marcantonio was winning all three party primaries handily, leading critics to charge that he was “a one-man political machine with an all-party organization.” In fact, he had no “machine” that dispensed patronage or political favors. Instead, his campaign relied on the voluntary commitment of a coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists — and on the support of organized labor.

American Labor Party? What’s wrong with that? If Marcantonio ended up as its legislator in Congress, doesn’t that mean he broke from the Democratic Party? How can any party with Labor in its name and backed by “organized labor” not be the kind of thing we need today? Unless you are an unrepentant Marxist dinosaur like me.

Let’s take a closer look at the American Labor Party to understand its role in the electoral system.

The American Labor Party (ALP) was spawned by Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) in 1936, a group that also came into existence in that year in order to ensure FDR’s re-election. It was the brainchild of John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO and the United Mine Workers union. He was assisted by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union and  George L. Berry of the printer’s union.

Arguably, Hillman was the real political strategist for the ALP based on his years of exposure to Marxist in-fighting. He was a member of an underground Marxist study circle in Lithuania when he was 16 years old and then moved on to join the Bund, the Jewish socialist group. After moving to the USA, he became a trade union activist and like many of his generation became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union in the early 20s that drew him to the CP. When Hillman decided to support Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign in1924, he earned the wrath of the CP that saw La Follette as a capitalist politician and nothing more. (I argue that his campaign was worth supporting here).

Any sympathy for the idea of a radical party was long-gone by the time that Hillman became a powerful bureaucrat in the 1930s. But doesn’t that sound antithetical to the formation of a Labor Party? Maybe not. Like Medea Benjamin, Hillman was clever enough to undermine the formation of a third party while paying lip-service to it.

In an invaluable article for the September-October 2002 International Socialist Review, Sharon Smith describes the complicated pirouette that Hillman executed, one that would have landed Nijinsky on his ass.

In 1936, support for a farmer-labor party was massive in the USA. Not only did 21 percent of those polled by Gallup back such a formation, existing farmer-labor parties were winning elections in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Smith writes: “Inside the labor movement, this sentiment was even stronger, with locals from the auto, electrical, and garment workers’ unions voting in favor of a labor party. At both the AFL and various CIO conventions in 1935, resolutions in support of forming a labor party were put forward, which garnered considerable support.”

Worried that Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party campaign would “rob” votes from FDR in the same way that Medea Benjamin worried that Nader’s might rob them from John Kerry in 2004, Hillman went on the offensive. By putting FDR’s name on the American Labor Party, many workers might be conned into believing that they were voting in their own class interests. You get the same thing today with the Working Families Party in New York that despite its name routinely puts Democratic Party candidates on its ballot line, including our vicious anti-union governor Andrew Cuomo last year.

In the Winter 1979-1980 Radical History Review, there’s an article titled “Picket Line & Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Labor Party Movement, 1932-1936”. Co-authored by Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, it gives you a compelling insight into the machinations that helped destroy the possibility of a labor party challenge to FDR. (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a paywall.)

Using the ground-level case study of labor party activism in Berlin, New Hampshire, the authors show how Hillman subverted its spread elsewhere. Berlin was basically a company town ruled by Brown Paper. To fight back against wage cuts and layoffs in 1932, the workers started the Coos County Workers club with 150 members. Within a year, the figure rose to 1500. As it happens, many of these workers were French Canadians originally and had the fighting spirit of the Yellow Vests.

In 1934, the Workers Club entered politics by forming a Labor Party made up of workers rather than bureaucrats. It swept into municipal office, winning office for all but one of its candidates. Among its first acts was to raise teacher’s pay by 50 percent. That’s what workers power can do. It also helped dairy farmers organize into a co-op to help them get better prices for their milk.

In trying to become part of a broader movement, they reached out to the Socialist Party. Norman Thomas came to town to speak at a rally that was the culmination of a massive parade. From the podium, Thomas said that their efforts were a “model for us all”. Instead of affiliating with the Socialists, the workers formed a state-wide farmer-labor party like the ones in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Announcing “its immediate goal” of increasing taxes on higher incomes and opposing a sales tax in New Hampshire, they began planning for the state elections in 1936. The Mayor of Berlin, Arthur Bergeron, was a forceful advocate of working class demands and a firm believer in independent political action.

The authors describe how Labor’s Non-Partisan League undermined their efforts:

In New Hampshire, a statewide convention of labor party forces was held in Concord on July 26. Among the participants was David Randlett, president of the Concord Central Labor Union and first vice president of the state AF of L. Beforehand, Randlett wrote Arthur Bergeron, “I have always been interested in a Labor Party, but I haven’t as yet seen the time when the opportunity was right.” At the convention he repeated this sentiment but agreed to serve on the Platform Committee. Then, a short time later, he resigned from the Farmer-Labor Party and went to work for the Non-Partisan League. In the course of the ensuing campaign, he spoke out strongly in opposition to the Farmer-Labor effort.

Bergeron, on the other hand, remained true to the cause, and in September was chosen by the Farmer-Labor Party to be its candidate for governor, In accepting his nomination, Bergeron declared, “The major parties are bankrupt for ideas, leaders and platforms. We shouldn’t put too much faith or hope in President Roosevelt. Due to circumstances in the country and state, the time is ripe for a third party movement.” Not that he expected instant success. “There’s no use insulting our intelligence in thinking that I’ll be the next Governor of New Hampshire,” he went on, “but we will poll more than three percent of the total vote for Governor and make ourselves a duly constituted party.” And he vowed to make “relief, relief from the high cost of living on the one hand and relief from unemployment on the other” a major issue in his campaign.

Even the modest goal of attracting three percent of the state’s electorate proved beyond reach. Norman Thomas returned to Berlin to endorse Bergeron’s candidacy, but organized labor offered no support. The annual convention of the New Hampshire AF of L in September defeated a resolution to endorse the Farmer-Labor Party on the grounds “that it was not time as yet.” National leaders of the CIO, as we have seen, gave priority to the President’s reelection, not local insurgency efforts.

In the end, Bergeron garnered less than two thousand votes statewide, approximately one percent of the ballots cast for governor. Berlin, his stronghold, gave him seven-tenths of his total. But even there, said the Reporter, “Not a single Farmer-Labor candidate survived the Democratic avalanche . . . to gain election to even a minor ward office.”

For nearly another decade the Farmer-Labor Party would dominate Berlin municipal politics. Bergeron was reelected mayor in 1937 and Aime Tondreau won as a Labor candidate for the same office from 1939 to 1943. (Legassie [a labor militant] lost in 1938.) But the hope of generating an effective statewide, much less national, movement for an independent workers’ party was crushed in Berlin, as elsewhere, by the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.


  1. I am not sure what the polemic against Marcoantonio centers on. I haven’t thought about it in a while, but as I recall, after WWII the ALP was firmly in the hands of the CP and its supporters and periphery, since the Hillman forces and social democrats had bolted to form the Liberal Party. Marcantonio OPPOSED the CP’s policy in the early to mid-1950s of dissolving the ALP in favor of working inside the Democratic Party. Surely you don’t subscribe to James P. Cannon and the SWP’s idiotic view that “every election poses the question of which class shall rule” The result of the latter perspective is propagandistic, narrow, party-building campaigns such as Farrel Dobbs for president, which might gain a dozen new members for the self-proclaimed vanguard party, but does nothing to advance the struggle.

    Comment by Pedro — February 3, 2019 @ 7:56 pm

  2. A PhD, even one from Columbia University, is of little use if it is not used to push forward the radical organization of the working class, to write and act for it and not about it. It is remarkable that no matter how much evidence we offer, the left-liberals continue to repeat the failures of the past. If social democracy was a fertile ground for socialism, we would have full-blown socialism in most of the Scandinavian countries. How many times do we have to hear the mantra that we must elect good Democrats and then hold their feet to the fire. Really? When has that ever happened? And how likely is it now?

    Comment by Michael Yates — February 3, 2019 @ 9:19 pm

  3. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Comment by jamesbradfordpate — February 3, 2019 @ 10:52 pm

  4. I totally reject the kind of campaign Dobbs ran. As I tried to indicate in the article, I would have supported LaFollette in 1924. I also would have supported Henry Wallace. What I won’t support is the Democratic Party at all times and under all conditions, in the same way I won’t cross a picket line.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

  5. Sorry I misinterpreted your post, Louis. I know you don’t hold the SWP’s sectarian election campaigns as a model.

    Comment by Pedro — February 4, 2019 @ 12:58 am

  6. Good article, with a reasoned argument.

    I’m a Registered and financially Supporting Member of the Green Party here in New York State, and have been for many years. With about 250,000 registered supporters around the country, it is de facto the largest left/progressive party in the country.

    Unfortunately, the GPNYS/GPUS is dysfunctional in many ways. I understand that for a couple of years the American party had a National Office staffed with four full-timers on modest salaries, but many local Greens opposed the idea and would not fund it, so now it’s all volunteer stuff, I guess. If one even talks about professionalizing the party, one gets sneers and jibes. It’s so dysfunctional they don’t even acknowledge one’s financial contributions–$ disappears into a green hole somewhere…And with the American bozotariat being what it is, enthralled to over-paid and over-weight labor bureaucrats like Richard Trumka, I’m not holding my breath for any mass-based, left-wing third party in this country any time soon.

    I guess the best we can hope for is to bring forward independent candidates every couple of years supporting a progressive agenda (National Health, livable minimum wage, trade union rights, etc.)

    Kurt Hill, Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — February 4, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

  7. In 1934, the Workers Club entered politics by forming a Labor Party made up of workers rather than bureaucrats. It swept into municipal office, winning office for all but one of its candidates. Among its first acts was to raise teacher’s pay by 50 percent. That’s what workers power can do. It also helped dairy farmers organize into a co-op to help them get better prices for their milk.

    Interesting and well-reasoned.

    But in the minds of most Americans, perhaps, a party is above all an organization without meaningful membership, sponsored by committees of the faceless rich, that runs candidates in elections and gets them into office–in short, the Democrat and Republican parties of the post-primary election era. I don’t dispute that electioneering and fielding candidates is a vital function of a party, but what else should a party be and do?

    The old-time machine parties (Tammany Hall and G.W. Plunkitt for instance) had a much more “organic” relationship to their consituencies–albeit disastrously corrupt–as did the Communist Party, which first monopolized the Left and then deserted it. I don’t know whether the Democrats in Plunkitt’s day had actual membership, but the party organization was a tangible presence in the lives of its constituents in a way in which the supposedly “purified” parties, with their primary elections and the abolition of outright graft in favor of “campaign contributions” are not.

    The system of primary elections which is meant to render the parties less corrupt winds up creating structures that are even more alienating than their predecessors and confirms the “two-party” religion to the detriment of labor action organizing and other functions that, in the current setup are outside the scope of parties in general and are being performed only in a fragmented and fragmentary manner by a few labor unions and other organizations.

    My question is, what was the mode of existence as a party of the Worker’s party apart from sweeping candidates into office–we note that they organized dairy farmers, which is something no political party in the U.S. nowadays could or would do–and then, what would a modern Worker’s Party have to be at present to be truly effective, particularly given the differences between the present and the political scene in the days of Marcantonio et al?

    I think somehow (not an original thought) that the present system of political campaign organization and funding, primaries and all, creates politics as a TV spectacular with which ordinary people cannot feel a direct connection, even though direct corruption is much harder to show than in previous eras. How would a new Worker’s Party break this lock–what would its modes of existence and operation be vis a vis the people whom it would seek to serve?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 4, 2019 @ 9:35 pm

  8. Thanks for the mention of our article, “Picket Line & Ballot Box,” about the Berlin, NH, Farmer-Labor Party. You can find a more extended discussion of the labor party movement by me (entire long chapter) in Staughton Lynd, Ed., “We Are All Leaders.” Many libraries have it. Used copies available everywhere. The above article is now available as a booklet on Barnes & Noble & Amazon. Urge people to get copies. Cheap: https://www.amazon.com/Picket-Line-Ballot-Box-Forgotten/dp/0359186572/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549386722&sr=8-1&keywords=davin+%2B+picket+line+and+ballot+box

    Comment by Eric Leif Davin — February 5, 2019 @ 5:15 pm

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