How Vanguard-ism Helped Abort U.S. Third Party Efforts

by Louis Proyect on February 6, 2013

This post is the first in a new North Star series on radical American history. By examining previous attempts to build movements and third parties we hope to discern lessons for the present moment as we wrestle with how we can build a movement for socialism in the 21st century.

American Marxists have always been ambivalent about electoral formations arising to the left of the Democrats and Republicans. On one hand, they 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 almost condemns Marxists to irrelevancy when a genuine electoral initiative like the Nader campaign emerges.

Unless revolutionaries are committed in their heart and soul to grassroots movements, electoral or non-electoral, such begrudging tokens of support are bound to lead to missteps.

farmer-labor-partyThe 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’s 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 World War I, 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 five 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 grassroots 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 Socialist Party (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 Communist Party (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 (Joseph Pogany), whose ultra-leftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Béla 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 Party 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, 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 World War One, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution, and defied steel company and American Federal of Labor 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 New York City Communist leaders under Pepper’s influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps were 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.

FLPFrom his offices in New York City, 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, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP’s 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.


La Follette

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 (PLS) 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. They strongly identified with the British Labour 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, and 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 (KKK) 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% of the vote in 1924, as compared to 28.8% for the Democrat candidate John W. Davis and 54% 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% 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”


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Halle February 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

That this brilliant article has provoked no response is a bit baffling. Could it be that its basic point and the implications deriving are too radical and disturbing for many of us on the left to contemplate?

I can’t think of any other explanation.


Aaron Slater February 8, 2013 at 10:05 am

I am as surprised as you about the lack of discussion. Either everyone agrees with Proyect’s excellent article or people are too disturbed to contemplate.

Proyect’s assessment resonates with me and his argument against myopic dogmatism from the Communist Party and the left in general towards non-socialist/communist movements to the left of the two parties is spot on.


Pham Binh February 12, 2013 at 9:04 pm

This makes me think the Greens, for all their flaws, have survived in part because the “Leninists” stayed aloof.


Bob Roman February 12, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Well, another reason may be that it’s a rehash of an old old conversation on the left. My only surprise in reading it was: the author is Proyect.

For my part, I think the main problem facing the left is coming to grips with the reality that parties in the U.S. don’t really exist, and haven’t for many decades. We either need to reinvent them, first, or find alternative means of organizing. (The left is hardly unique in failed political parties.)


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