[Marxism] http://johnriddell.wordpress.com: Defying the democrats: Marxists and the lost labor party of 1923

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 11 08:44:33 MDT 2014

On 9/11/14 10:09 AM, DW via Marxism wrote:
> This article will chart the development of the movement for a Labor Party
> from 1919 to 1924, discuss the strengths and weakness of the Communists’
> orientation towards it, and conclude with an analysis of the dissolution of
> the Labor Party movement into the “Progressive Party” presidential campaign
> of Wisconsin Republican senator Robert La Follette.
> http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/defying-the-democrats-marxists-and-the-lost-labor-party-of-1923/

I wonder if John Riddell has left the building--maybe because I have 
been pointing out the foolish pro-Putin politics of his long-time 
comrade Roger Annis, I hope not.

In any case, I just took a quick look at this article by Eric Blanc, who 
wrote an excellent piece a while back on the Bolshevik's inadequate 
appreciation of the national question. Something tells me that Eric is a 
member of the small Lambertist propaganda group that David belongs to 
since much of the article relies on an analysis of 1920s CP electoral 
strategy written by one of their members. Much of the article is good 
but unfortunately repeats many of the dismissals of the La Follette 
campaign that are the accepted wisdom of the Trotskyist movement. If I 
find the time I will reply to this article, including my own assessment 
of La Follette. I will say now that we should only be so lucky as to 
have someone analogous to La Follette (Bernie Sanders?) running as an 
*independent* candidate in 2016.


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 

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.

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