Seventh in our series of reprints of Cde Stan Phipps’ articles on the struggle for a Labor Party in the United States.
For advocates of a class-based political realignment in the United States, the most disorienting challenge to the Democrats’ and Republicans’ two-party political-monopoly is Robert LaFollette’s 1924 so-called “Progressive Party” campaign. A common misconception holds that this constituted the high-water mark in the attempt to create a genuine farmer-labor party. Part of the confusion, in this matter, stems from the unprecedented endorsement of LaFollette’s candidacy by Sam Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
In his detailed study of LaFollette’s “Progressive Movement,” Kenneth Campbell MacKay reflects much of the difficulty in interpreting the meaning of this episode. At one point MacKay argues that the LaFollette campaign is the “nearest American workers have ever come to a farmer-labor alliance independent of the major parties” (9). Later, he characterizes the campaign as “a grim attempt to establish a party of farmers and workers … an instinctive class movement” (MacKay, 21). At yet another point, he concedes that the nature of the movement was “liberal rather than radical …” (MacKay, 9).
The last observation captures the essence of the “Progressives of 1924.” In part because of the Workers’ (Communist) Party’s ill-conceived ultra-left intervention, the movement for a mass-based, labor party in the years 1922 and 1924 was diverted into another multi-class formation. Despite LaFollette’s use of radical sounding language, his program consisted of middle-class reform measures. Worst of all, the so-called Progressive Party did not seek to elect a slate of candidates to office. Rather it was created as a vehicle for LaFollette’s personal presidential aspirations.
Big Business had severely wounded the labor movement by the widespread use of strikebreaking techniques in the 1919-strike wave (see above). While labor was still “reeling from that blow,” the National Association of Manufacturers intensified the anti-labor offensive with a campaign for the non-union “open shop” system, which was cynically referred to as the “American Plan” (MacKay, 26). The ultimate goal was for business to take back the concessions granted to labor during World War I.
Membership in AFL-affiliated unions, in 1920, for the first time reached the four million-mark, which was double what it had been in 1916. Between 1921 and 1923, the wartime gains of labor, as MacKay notes, were largely “obliterated” (28). The AFL’s membership losses in the time period were staggering– a total of 1,052,000 or twenty-four percent (MacKay, 25). Even the rather conservative AFL officials recognized the need for a political response. Most understood that the government was openly dominated by Big Business and the opponents of labor (MacKay, 28).
In the attempted “fight back” which followed, the business-union oriented railroad brotherhoods emerged as the single strongest sector of the labor movement, one which would have much to say in the continuing debate over the question of labor-based, independent, political action. Among the various affiliated unions in the railroad industry, the growth in membership during the war was phenomenal. From a base of 219,500 members in 1916, the Railroad Brotherhoods in 1920 claimed 1,425,000 or more than one in every three unionists in the United States (Fine, 398; MacKay, 22). The emerging influence of the brotherhoods in the U.S. labor movement was based primarily upon this massive membership.
Still there was an overwhelming sense of incongruity that this rather conservative labor body should play such a central role in the on-going discussions concerning independent, labor-based, political action. The brotherhoods, after all, had originated as primarily beneficiary societies –a response to the policy of private insurance companies to refuse insurance to train workers. These fraternal bodies, which focused on providing a needed service, for the most part, seemed largely indifferent to the labor conflicts of the late nineteenth century (MacKay, 28, 29). In addition they had a well-earned reputation as a relatively privileged body of skilled workers; the railroad brotherhoods even refused membership to African-Americans.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Order of Railway Conductors, the Order of Locomotive Firemen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, known as the “Big Four,” were the largest of the sixteen “brotherhoods” of railway craft-unions. They led the way in raising standards and in developing policy for the entire railroad industry. By 1920, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen boasted the largest membership of any single brotherhood (350,000) and was looked to as the leader among the railroad industry’s unions (MacKay, 29).
One explanation for these unions’ atypical status was the conciliatory policies of William Gibbs McAdoo, who directed the Federal Railroad Administration –the government agency that coordinated the nation’s wartime rail transportation system. To assure uninterrupted train service, McAdoo extended to the brotherhoods official recognition and even collective bargaining rights. Tripartite adjustment boards were established to mediate labor-management disputes. One result of McAdoo’s tolerant approach to railroad unions was periodic pay raises for railroad workers. Another perhaps more significant aspect of government control of the railroad system was the largely symbolic consultation with railroad workers’ union leaders in what was optimistically described as “labor-management joint control of the industry” (MacKay, 29, 30; Fine, 398).
Railroad Labor Board
At the end of the war, rank-and-file railroad workers resisted the re-privatization of the industry. Most came to believe that workers should continue to have a voice in the management of the railroad industry. Some demanded exclusive workers’ control (Fine, 401). The railroad unions initiated a political campaign for government ownership of the railroads, which became known as the Plumb Plan. Glenn E. Plumb, the general counsel for the Brotherhoods, designed a detailed proposal for government ownership of the railroad industry. Through the issuance of bonds, the Plumb Plan proposed that the government purchase all railroad property and coordinate operations through a national non-profit corporation. The Plumb Plan, further, envisioned that, apart from payments on the principle and interest in the fifty-year transaction and the essential costs for operating expenses, all profits generated by the industry were to be shared among the railroad workers (MacKay, 30).
A “Plumb Plan League” was founded in order to win the demand for government ownership of the railroads. Sam Gompers agreed to serve as the League’s president to symbolize the entire labor movement’s commitment to the concept. The weekly journal Labor was founded to promote the bill in Congress. A central headquarters was established in Washington, D.C. to “push, popularize, and publicize” the Plumb Plan (MacKay, 30). Corporate interests, however, had the ability to raise more money, hire an army of professional publicists, and, in general, to greatly out spend labor in any lobbying campaign. As a result of an intensive corporate-funded opposition to the plan, Congress rejected the Plumb Plan and passed the Esch-Cummings bill instead, which in 1920 returned the railroads to private ownership (MacKay, 30, 31).
As a largely symbolic gesture to the railroad workers, the Railroad Act of 1920 continued the tripartite structure through the newly established Railway Labor Board (RLB). The nine-member board, appointed by the president, consisted of three members representing labor, three representing management, and three the public. Though out-voted by six to three on all issues that divided along class lines, railroad unionists conceived of the RLB as the continuation of the tradition of the joint labor-management consultation established during the war. When disputes over wages or work rules arose, this quasi-independent board had the authority to adjudicate job-related questions (MacKay, 31; Murray, 1969: 239).
The railroad brotherhoods quickly tested the RLB with the demand for an immediate wage increase to partially offset the postwar inflationary spiral. On July 20, 1920, the Board’s decision to grant railroad workers a hefty 22 percent pay increase influenced some railroaders to place confidence in the new system (Murray, 1969: 240). That optimism proved to be rather short-lived.
A major postwar depression began in the middle of 1920, and workers felt the full effects by early 1921. In the next two years, up to one-fourth of all factory workers would lose their jobs, as more than 4 million workers were officially acknowledged to be unemployed. Corporations attempted to recoup their falling-rate of profit by wage cuts and increasing the length of the workday, as part of the Big Business strategy to take-back the benefits workers won during the First World War. Railroaders were not exempt from these “take-backs” (MacKay, 22, 26).
As the depression continued to cut into Railroad Company profits, the operators flooded the RLB with wage cut demands. Even farmers, who were economically hard pressed to repay their debts, as farm commodity prices deflated joined in the chorus demanding wage cuts. They were convinced that shipping rates would only decline if the average $1600 per year railroad worker’s pay was drastically reduced. The Labor Board in the spring of 1921, largely at the insistence of carriers, responded to corporate pressure by “reexamining” railroad wage scales. In mid-May the board imposed a 12.5 percent pay cut effective July 1, 1921. The action was satisfactory neither to workers nor to the owners. The carriers denounced the pay cut as far too little and demanded more. The leaders of the brotherhoods, on the other hand, warned that a strike was inevitable should wages be cut any further (Murray, 1969: 238-240).
The railway unions on October 15 issued a strike call for October 30, in order to indicate their level of anger with the RLB imposed wage cuts. In response the Labor Board assured railroad workers that, for a six-month period, no further wage reductions would be considered. The next day the brotherhoods unanimously voted to call off the strike. While a national crisis was averted, the respite was at best a postponement. Sam Gompers observed that the issues had not been addressed and, unless they were, more conflict was unavoidable. The fall and winter of 1921-22 were largely uneventful as neither the Labor Board nor the government evidenced much interest in avoiding the impending showdown. Government officials, though, did begin to stockpile essential raw materials, foodstuffs, and other commodities near key industries and transportation routes as the likelihood of a railroad strike loomed ever-larger (Murray, 1969: 240-241).
Labor conflict erupted in another crucial industry, while national attention, in the spring of 1922, focused on the possibility of nationwide railroad strike. Coal miners’ grievances could be traced to the 1919-strike wave. In addition to higher wages, strikers in the bituminous fields that year demanded a six-hour day, time and one-half for overtime, a five-day workweek, and double-time for Sunday work. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer broke the 1919 coal strike with a federal court injunction, which engendered great labor bitterness while it resolved none of the issues. Then, in March 1920, a three man investigating team awarded the miners a 17 percent pay increase, but recommended no other concessions. The resultant agreement, which was reluctantly accepted by the miners, was scheduled to expire April 1, 1922 (Murray, 1969: 242).
When the 1921 Depression hit the coalfields, many operators refused to pay the wage increases they had agreed to in 1920. Bituminous coal companies, instead, ordered an immediate wage cut in their non-union operations, which caused annual wages to drop from a $1386 average to $1013. With the striking coal miners on the defensive, and apparently losing the strikes, company officials refused to renegotiate the general agreement scheduled to expire on April 1, 1922. In response, more than 600,000 coal miners (the largest number in U.S. history) joined the picket lines in a nationwide coal strike. Weekly soft coal production plummeted from 10 1/2 million tons to 3 1/2 million tons. No coal was being mined in the anthracite fields (Murray, 1969: 242).
Despite a record number of coal miners on strike, beginning May 28, 1922, the RLB provocatively ordered a series of deep pay cuts for train workers. In each instance the board divided along class line. The six to three RLB-majority pitted the three labor members against the board’s management and public representatives. The nearly 400,000 railway shopmen were hardest hit; they were ordered to take a $60 million pay cut. Maintenance-of-way workers’ wages were cut by 13 percent, or a total of $48 million, while the reduction for clerks, signalmen, and stationary engine forces came to some $26.5 million. The massive pay cuts were ordered by the RLB to ensure the profitability of the newly privatized railroad industry (Murray, 1969: 244; MacKay, 31).
These wage-reductions sparked what became known as the “shopmen’s strike of 1922,” as more than 400,000 workers (shopmen and men from several smaller crafts) walked off the job on July 1. In what MacKay (31) terms an “extraordinary and incongruous” statement, Ben W. Hooper, RLB Chair, declared the job action to be a strike against the government. On July 3, the RLB warned striking railroad workers that if they did not return to work by July 10, they would forfeit all of their seniority rights and the Brotherhood of Trainmen would be declared an outlaw union. Despite the threats, the strike was still ninety percent effective (Murray, 1969: 244, 245).
With more than a million workers on strike in the summer of 1922, government-orchestrated strikebreaking measures swiftly followed. President Warren G. Harding first urged the coal company officials to resume operations at their mines as soon as possible. The president then telegrammed the governors of twenty-eight coal producing states requesting that they provide adequate protection for strikebreakers. Harding further declared the state and federal government to be “jointly responsible” for the resumption of coal production, as well as for ensuring “safety and security” in all “lawful “coal mining operations” (Murray, 1969: 247).
If anything, Harding’s strikebreaking methods in the shopmen’s strike were even more heavy-handed and clumsy. He turned the matter over to the Attorney General of the United States, Harry Daugherty, who obtained what MacKay (32) characterizes as the most “sweeping injunction in American Labor History.” On September 1, 1922, Federal District Court James H. Wilkerson enjoined train workers throughout the United States from “tampering with railroad operations in any way.” More specifically, strikers were forbidden to “encourage the continuance of the strike by letters, telegrams, telephones, or word of mouth.” Unionists were barred from setting-up picket lines or even using union funds in an effort to win the strike (MacKay 32, Murray, 1969: 255, 256).
Objections to the Wilkerson injunction were immediate and widespread. Labor leaders denounced the measure as an “outrageous” intervention to break a lawful strike. Union after union passed resolutions demanding that the President remove Daugherty as Attorney General. Even Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover condemned the injunction for virtually eliminating the railroad workers’ civil liberties. For his part, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall criticized the restrictions placed on labor as being both “too broad,” and “politically unwise” in an election year (Murray, 1969: 256).
With the Wilkerson injunction in place, the striking railroad workers reluctantly concluded that their strike was lost. Therefore, on September 13, 1922, the shopmen announced that they would enter into separate agreements on a company-by-company basis. They hoped in the process to negotiate the retention of some workers’ seniority rights. A few of the larger companies, such as the Baltimore and Ohio, found that acceptable, as long as their shopmen agreed to the wage reductions. While about 225,000 shopmen did manage to salvage some of their union rights, the other 175,000 were “herded” into newly established company unions (Murray, 1969: 261).
The railroad brotherhoods in the aftermath of the strike sought to build a political challenge to the strikebreaking alliance of business and government. Train workers everywhere were convinced that justice for labor was impossible in a political system so obviously prejudiced against the worker. The sixteen railroad brotherhoods were well positioned to take the lead in building a labor-based political movement. Nowhere else was there “such a strong, compact organization of proud and skilled workers.” The major task confronting the railroad brotherhoods, and the U.S. labor movement in general, was to devise a workable political strategy and then mobilize their nearly 1,500,000 members to support it (MacKay, 32, 33).
Farmers in 1920-1922 were also seeking new political alliances, in large part out of their rather desperate economic plight. For American farmers by 1920-1921, their Great Depression was already under way. What had been a “wartime boom” in the price of agriculture commodities quickly turned to “bust.” The falling exchange rate of farm products for basic supplies illustrates the economic crisis farmers confronted. When farm prices were at their peak in 1919, a farmer could get five gallons of gasoline for the price of a single bushel of corn. One year later, a bushel of corn had plummeted in value to that of a single gallon of gas. In two years, a bushel of corn’s exchange value had dropped even further to one-half gallon of gas.
Similarly, the market price for six bushels of corn in 1919 could buy a ton a coal. One year later a ton of coal cost the farmer the equivalent of forty bushels of corn; in two years, the price had risen to sixty bushels (MacKay, 41). The volatility in average farm income in the era indicates the crisis confronting agriculture. Five years before the war, the average farm family earned a modest $396. In the wartime boom years of 1918 and 1919, average farm income jumped to a record $1200. The 1921-22 collapse in the agricultural sector of the economy cut the average farm income to a rather dismal $292 (MacKay, 42).
Both labor and farmers in 1922 began looking to joint political action largely from the perception that they faced a common enemy –an “unholy alliance of Big Business” fully backed by the Harding Administration. Political action in opposition to both the Democrats and Republicans was being seriously considered because the old parties appeared “deaf” to the pleas of both labor and farm organizations (MacKay, 44). In addition, the farmers’ Non-Partisan League (NPL) was attempting to forge farmer-labor alliances in both Minnesota and Montana. This was largely a defensive reaction against a frontal attack against the NPL by the old parties. Because farmer- and worker backed slates were winning direct primary elections in some western states, Democrats and Republicans in both Montana and Idaho proposed to do away with their states’ primaries. With that avenue of organizing popular expression denied to them, NPLers were forced to consider the possibility of political action outside the two major parties (MacKay, 51, 52).
Labor and farmer activists gathered in Chicago, February 20-21, 1922, at what became known as the “Conference for Progressive Political Action” (CPPA). The railroad brotherhoods called for the gathering in order to develop some semblance of political unity among the “producing classes” (Fine, 401). More than any one else, the first meeting of the CPPA resulted from “the interest, strategic position, and contacts” of William H. Johnston, president of the machinists union. Though no longer the socialist he had been in 1911, Johnston sought to influence the entire labor movement in the postwar era to embrace more progressive positions (Fine 399).
Johnston presided over what was conceded to be the most significant gathering of the representatives of American mass movements in decades. Fifteen railroad brotherhoods were among the fifty official delegations of national and international labor unions. All of the farmer organizations were also represented. The range of other organizations present was no less impressive. The Non-Partisan League, the Farmer-Labor Party (F-LP), the Committee of Forty-Eight, and the Socialist Party (SP) all sent delegations. Even religious-based reform groups, such as the Methodist Federation of Social Service, the Church League for Industrial Democracy, and the National Catholic Welfare League, were also present. Still, many of the middle-class organizations at the conference had little in common with the labor organizations other than a vague sense of dissatisfaction with existing social conditions (MacKay, 60-62).
As a result of the cross-class make up of the invited delegates, the “call” for the Conference explicitly stated that the CPPA was not an attempt to form a new political party. Rather, the stated purpose was to bring together the “progressive elements in the industrial and political life of our nation” in order “to discuss and adopt a fundamental economic platform” (MacKay, 61). The CPPA’s so-called “Address to the American People” adopted at the end of the session, therefore, consisted of little more than a series of vague generalizations and platitudes. In addition to a rather routine indictment of “the invisible government of plutocracy and privilege,” the “Address” rather mildly stated the criticisms of existing conditions and proposed a “plan of action” that allowed each organization to do precisely what it would have done had the conference not met (MacKay, 64).
Any objective evaluation of the first meeting of the CPPA would likely concur with the observation of the editor of the Socialist World that the meeting was a “disappointment.” Though the time clearly was “ripe” for independent political action in 1922, the discussion of a new party was postponed. This was especially unsatisfactory to the Farmer-Labor Party activists such as John Fitzpatrick (MacKay, 64).
Perhaps the best that can be said for the conference is the fact that the meeting was held at all. For two days representatives of both conservative and radical unions, the traditional farm organizations and the NPL, the F-LP and the SP met and amicably discussed existing economic problems and a myriad of possible remedies with little rancor and adjourned without denouncing one another. At the end of the session there was general agreement that another CPPA conference should be held in order to unify the disparate organizations on a common program. On the other hand, the CPPA had behaved much like the old parties when faced with the task of designing a platform. As MacKay (64, 65) observes, they risked becoming yet another one those “spineless creatures known as the American political party” by opting to say nothing of substance in order to avoid alienating constituents of a rather amorphous political coalition.
The tangible results of the CPPA’s first meeting were rather meager. In organizational terms, the most significant decisions were to establish a national committee and to schedule a second conference for December 11, 1922. The constituent organizations were also urged to adopt a “lesser evil” approach in the 1922 general election by becoming actively involved in the campaigns for the more liberal-minded business party candidates against their more conservative Republican opponents. Edward Keating, the editor of Labor, the official publication of the railroad brotherhoods, offered much needed press support for the CPPA. The labor paper’s national circulation of more than 400,000 proved to be an invaluable resource for the CPPA (MacKay, 65, 66).
A Cross-Class Formation
Like the business parties, the CPPA attempted to be all things to all people. On the left of their cross-class formation stood the Socialist Party. SP leaders were actively seeking a new alliance because by 1922 the SP had dwindled to a mere shadow of its former self. Party membership had sharply declined between 1919 and 1922. Though down from the all-time high of 118,045 in 1912, the number of active Socialists in 1919 was something over 100,000. Police repression, splits and the mass expulsion of those sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution by 1920 had reduced Socialist Party membership to 26,766. In 1922, only 11,019 names remained on the Party’s rolls (MacKay, 55).
The SP’s sudden overtures to the Progressives were quite ironic in light of the Party’s recent attitude toward coalitions. This was the party that in 1920 had “steered clear” of any association with the class-based Farmer-Labor Party, which SP leaders dismissed as too “unpredictable.” Likely the rapid decline in membership was the most important factor in predisposing the Socialist Party leaders to accept the invitation of the railroad brotherhoods to attend the CPPA’s inaugural session. Yet without question, the SP was moving quite rapidly toward the center of the political spectrum. They were in the process of abandoning what some party leaders began referring to as “its revolutionary myth,” in order to “accept a place on the left wing of a farmer-labor movement” (MacKay, 55, 56).
Many liberals welcomed the SP into the CPPA, because they understood that the Socialists had resources that could be of great value to any Third Party. Foremost among them were the party’s branch organizations around the country, which could provide the framework for the structure of a new party. Moreover, Socialist Party veterans had a rich knowledge of how to conduct campaigns and engage in a national political dialogue, even with a limited budget. Equally important was the fact that the SP had a place on the ballot in almost all of the states (MacKay, 55).
If the Socialist Party constituted the CPPA’s “left-wing,” the Committee of Forty-Eight could be designated the coalition’s “right-wing.” For the most part, the Forty-Eighters were veterans of Teddy Roosevelt’s (TR) 1912 Third Party run for the presidency. The organization’s founder and chair, J.A.H. Hopkins, was one of the most prominent “Bullmoosers” in the country. His connections within New York’s banking and investing community qualified him to serve as treasurer of TR’s Progressive Party national presidential campaign (MacKay, 56).
Though by 1916 Roosevelt had abandoned the attempt to create a third, more liberal, business party and rejoined the Republicans, Hopkins was among those “Bullmoosers” who continued to function as political independents. The Committee of Forty-Eight was established to contribute to the building of a stable pro-business alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. Hopkins explained that the committee was “organized not as a political party but as an organization pledged to create such a party …” (MacKay, 57).
The Forty-Eighters’ goal was to refurbish the market-based economy in order to make it more acceptable to the American people. Their 1920 platform declared the Forty-Eighters intent to be the “abolition of privilege,” that “unjust economic advantage” which “stifles competition” and “prevents equal opportunity” (MacKay, 58).
The Committee of Forty-Eight participated in the 1920 Chicago Farmer-Labor Convention with a single purpose in mind –to secure a Third Party nomination for the Robert M. LaFollette, Wisconsin’s Progressive Republican Senator. When the convention, instead, reflected the pro-labor party perspective of the Chicago Federation of Labor’s (CFL) militant president, John Fitzpatrick, the Progressives were sadly disappointed. Hopkins was said to have left the convention “pale, unhappy and crushed as he saw the smashing of his dream” of establishing a national liberal party (MacKay, 58).
As political “moderates,” the Forty-Eighters were “disgusted” by the class orientation of the Farmer-Labor Party (MacKay, 59). Within the CPPA, the Forty-Eighters sought to constitute the brain trust for LaFollette’s brand of Progressivism. They saw their role as a balance wheel in the CPPA. As a group of “argumentatively and literately agile … intellectuals,” the Forty-Eighters hoped to moderate both the “pragmatism of the men of labor” and the “doctrinaire Marxism” of some of the socialists (MacKay, 60).
Despite the CPPA’s divisions and an uncertain strategy, the results of the 1922 general election were quite encouraging. When the second CPPA conference met in Cleveland, Ohio, December 11-12, 1922, the members of the national committee were heartened by the work of the state and local affiliates and the election of CPPA endorsed candidates to Congress. The CPPA affiliates in thirty-two states distributed in excess of a million special election-editions of Labor and spent more than $15,000 on campaign activities. In part, due to the CPPA’s “lesser-evil” strategy, ninety-three “undesirable” incumbent Republican members of Congress lost their seats. Though Republicans retained a 22 seat majority in the Senate and a massive 169 margin in the lower house, the new House of Representatives was expected to seat as many as 140 “Progressive minded” Democrats and Republicans (Fine 402, 403; MacKay, 67, 68).
Electoral success deepened the existing divisions within the CPPA over the advisability of independent political action. Farmer-Labor delegates to the second conference, along with the “Socialists, the left-wingers, and the ‘intellectuals'” present, tended to favor “organizing a Third Party” that would run candidates for office. In opposition stood the railroad brotherhoods, the AFL craft union delegates, and many of the farmer-delegates. The brotherhoods wanted to maintain the option of endorsing W.G. McAdoo, should he receive the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Many farmers, for their part, were still committed to the traditional NPL strategy of running slates in the old-party primaries, rather than Third Party efforts (MacKay, 69).
Given the lack of consensus on this fundamental strategic question, a clash among CPPA member organizations was inevitable. The F-LP sponsored resolution endorsing political action, in opposition to the business-parties, precipitated a split. At this critical moment in the development of the CPPA, John Fitzpatrick, Robert Buck and other CFL delegates were somewhat isolated. Even the Socialist Party delegates, who theoretically favored the concept of independent class-based political action, spoke in opposition to the resolution. They argued that it was “unwise to force something upon the union men at an unpropitious time” (Fine, 403).
Those who spoke in favor of the F-LP resolution included delegates from the Missouri and Wisconsin Federation of Labor, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, and farmer-delegates from several western states. The numerical weight of the Railroad Brotherhoods in the CPPA, as well in the larger labor movement, doomed the measure. Brotherhood delegates, along with those from the NPL, opposed the resolution. Those who resisted class-based, independent action swayed many of the undecided with the argument that “no effective action could be taken by the CPPA if the leaders of the transportation unions were against it” (Fine, 404).
In the end, the Second CPPA convention narrowly rejected the F-LP sponsored proposal by a vote of 64-52. The vote was close because many of the SP delegates were reluctant to go on record as opponents of Third Party challenges to the two-party monopoly. Once they were sure that the F-LP proposal would not pass, they voted with the minority in favor of a new party (Fine, 404; MacKay, 70).
At the close of the second convention of the CPPA, like the first, the delegates agreed to a statement of intent consisting largely of “platitudes and generalities.” In what became known as the “post-card” platform, the CPPA’s political-program was limited to six points –the most prominent of which consisted of a call for the repeal of the Esch-Cummings railroad law; that proposal was buttressed by the demand for the nationalization of the railroad industry (MacKay, 71).
Without question, the Railroad Brotherhoods’ conservative leaders were in firm control of the CPPA. The strategy of these “hold-back boys of 1922” (as MacKay labels the Railroad Brotherhood chiefs) was to block the founding a new party and patiently watch and wait for the “big name” liberals in both business parties to decide their strategy for the 1924 election. Whether they ran as “independents” or on an old party ticket, the CPPA was eager to endorse the candidacy of McAdoo, or possibly LaFollette in the 1924 election (MacKay, 70, 71).
Farmer-Labor Party Activists
John Fitzpatrick, the CFL, and F-LP activists were disgusted by the results of the Cleveland convention and broke with the CPPA, primarily over the liberal’s reluctance to embrace independent, class-based political action (Draper, 37). They were also disappointed by what was missing from the “post-card” platform. In their determination to be cautious and careful, the conservative trade union delegates voted down issues considered to be “litmus tests” to the F-LP. Included among the critical questions of the day left unaddressed by the CPPA were: child labor, the public ownership of power companies, the question of war and imperialism, and the nationalization of the nation’s coal mines (MacKay, 70). As a result of the CPPA’s timidity, national F-LP spokesmen denounced the CPPA as a “scab and dual organization” on the political field, which was committed to forcing the AFL’s “nonpartisan” political strategy on the nation’s farmers and workers (Fine, 429, 430).
The F-LP, the CFL and their supporters and allies in the labor movement chose to continue to build the movement for a labor party, with, or without, the support of the CPPA. Farmer-Labor Party leaders remained optimistic about the prospects of success in this endeavor, for even with the CPPA’s endorsement of old-party liberals in the 1922 election, F-LP candidates received substantial support in several states. The 1922 FL-P vote did drop off from their 1920 totals; still 46,033 votes in South Dakota, combined with another 33,352 in Washington State, constituted a “fair” showing. Robert Buck continued as editor of the lively F-LP newspaper, The New Majority. The party’s national secretary, Jay G. Brown, reported some success in organizing F-LP branches in more states. In May 1922, 70 delegates from 17 states participated in the F-LP national convention (Fine, 429).
Fitzpatrick and Brown sought to by-pass the national AFL leadership and appeal directly to local labor leaders and the rank-and-file unionists in 1923. In an attempt to repeat the process which resulted in the founding of the F-LP in 1919 and 1920, they invited numerous national, state, and local organizations, unions, farmer organizations and political dissidents of various kinds and varieties to attend the July 3, 1923, Farmer-Labor Party’s Chicago convention. The SP, rather ungraciously, declined the invitation to send delegates. Only a few national unions, most notably the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW), responded favorably. The more militant labor councils and local unions inside the AFL did not answer this call as they did to those issued by the CFL in 1919 and 1920 (Fine, 430).
Workers’ (Communist) Party
On the other hand, the Workers’ (Communist) Party (WP) was quite enthusiastic about participating in the F-LP sponsored convention. As Nathan Fine notes, it was natural enough for the CFL activists to solicit the participation of a WP delegation. F-LP leaders Fitzpatrick and Brown had been close allies of William Z. Foster in the 1919 national steel strike. Like the WP, the F-LP leadership was highly critical of the AFL’s political stance. Both organizations were outside of the CPPA and remained hostile toward the Socialist Party because of the SP’s actions in the December 1922 CPPA convention. Both groups “wanted to do something, and not merely wait and hope” (Fine, 430, 431). Yet another appeal of the WP for the F-LP was the fact that the Workers’ Party offered the services of the party’s “militant and fearless members who made up in activity what they lacked in numbers” (Fine, 431).
Workers’ Party delegates who attempted to participate in the CPPA’s 1922 Cleveland convention had been rudely rebuffed. The credential committee’s report omitted all mention of the WP delegates (C.E. Ruthenberg, H. Gannes, W.F. Dunne, C. Harrison, and L. Lore), even though Ruthenberg insisted that the necessary credentials had been submitted in a timely fashion. The Workers’ Party liberal critics justified the organization’s exclusion on the basis that the Party was “un-American [and] did not stand for the constitution .…” Some argued that the WP leaders were “disrupters” of the labor movement and that many of the Party’s activists, in reality, were “private detectives and spies” (Fine, 404, 405; MacKay, 80).
Socialist Party delegates voted for the motion to reject the credentials of the Workers’ Party, but felt the need to disassociate themselves from some of the Railroad Brotherhoods’ “red baiting” rhetoric. Otto Bransletter, SP secretary, commented, “We do not believe that the representatives of the Workers Party are agents of employers, not can we agree [that they] should be excluded because they are ‘un-American’.” Instead Bransletter endorsed the expulsion of the Workers’ Party delegates on the basis of the WP’s “disruptive tactics” and because “by rejecting the principles of democracy in favor of dictatorship, the Workers’ Party … is not entitled to representation” (Fine 405; MacKay, 80). The Chicago Farmer-Labor Party delegates, and no one else, supported the seating of the WP delegation (Draper, 36).
In view of the communists’ disdain for the F-LP in 1920, the growing rapprochement between the two groups reflected a dramatic reversal of policy for both organizations. The underground Communist movement of 1920-21 was preoccupied with problems of unity and legalization. As a result, the Farmer-Labor movement was written-off as a “watered-down, trade-union-sponsored version of reformism” (Draper, 31). In September 1919, the communists denigrated the Labor Party as a “minor phase of proletarian unrest” designed by the trade unions to enable them “to conserve what they have secured as a privileged caste” (Draper, 31).
The Party’s harsh conclusion held that, there “can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism” (Draper, 31). The ultra-left policy of the Communist Labor Party was to refuse to “associate” with any other groups which were “not committed to the revolutionary class struggle” (Draper, 31).
Such a sectarian attitude toward the labor movement tended to add to the Communists’ sense of isolation and marginalization. The first proposal for American Communists to reconsider this shortsighted policy came from V.I. Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International (Comintern). In a discussion with the leader of the American delegation, Louis Fraina, Lenin presented the case for an American Labor Party. Fraina’s response was an adamant defense of the Workers’ Party’s position on the question. Lenin dropped the matter until 1921. With the convening of the Third Congress of the Comintern that year, he again took the initiative in a conference with the entire American delegation. Lenin argued that participation in a Labor Party would present new openings for the work of American communists. The delegates took Lenin’s suggestions seriously, but the WP’s position on the Labor Party question did not change (Draper, 32).
United Front Strategy
Not until the fiasco at the CPPA’s December 1922 Cleveland Convention did the Workers’ Party commit itself to the formation of a Labor Party. As Alexander Bittleman commented, “We began thinking in terms not of propaganda alone but also of organizational and political manoeuvres designed to bring about the actual formation of a Farmer-Labor Party” (emphasis in original) (Draper, 37, 38).
The Workers’ Party activists attempted to break out of their isolation and to play politics on a “broad scale.” Their experience with the CPPA was frustrating, but the support of the Farmer-Laborites more than made up for that rebuff. By voting for the admission of the Communists, the Chicago F-LP activists had symbolically accepted the WP into the fold of the American Labor movement (Draper, 37).
Parties affiliated with the Communist International around the world after 1922 embraced a “strategic tactic” known as the United Front. Alliances between Communist Parties and class-based Labor parties were sought as the postwar revolutionary wave declined and capitalism began to slowly recover from the postwar crisis. Another motivation for this change in policy was the belief that the internal crises suffered by the “inexperienced, jerry-built Communist Parties outside Russia” required both time and careful party building to resolve (Draper, 33). The United Front concept evolved from a proposal Lenin made to British Communists –that revolutionaries in the CP consider offering conditional support to the reformist Labour Party. Lenin suggested the British Communists should “urge electors to vote for the labor candidate against the bourgeois candidate” (Cannon, 59; Draper 33). Later he recommended that the British CP seek to affiliate formally with the Labour Party.
James P. Cannon, Workers’ Party Chair, saw many advantages for the American communist movement in a Labor Party orientation. He agreed that Labor Party association would provide “an excellent basis for a bloc with the more progressive wing of the trade-union movement, and open up new possibilities for the legitimization of the communists as part of the American labor movement” (Cannon, 60).
Another obvious plus for the fledgling WP would be a vast increase in the number of working class party contacts. In his published recollections of the time period, The First Ten Years of American Communism, Cannon recalls a conversation with Jay Lovestone about the Labor Party question. Cannon, who would later be identified as the spokesman for the “Left Opposition” in the American communist movement, rather ironically identifies himself as one of the “right-wingers” by the Party standards of the time. That is, he was “looking for all possible openings for the party to break out of its isolation and become a factor in American life” (Cannon, 62)
In late 1922, the Workers’ Party began agitation for a Labor Party and attempted to form a united front with the pre-existing Farmer-Labor movement. The simple “United Front” slogan immediately struck a chord with party activists as a “solution to one of the deepest instinctive needs of the working class” for political unity. The initial codification of the role of the WP in a united front stressed that the “tactics of the United Front imply the leadership of the Communist Vanguard in the daily struggles of the large masses of the workers for their vital interests” (Draper, 34).
In 1923, the Workers’ Party published a pamphlet written by Party Secretary, C.E. Ruthenberg, which emphasized the workers’ and farmers’ “continual struggle with the capitalists” as the justification for the communists’ participation in “The Farmer-Labor United Front.” Rather than understanding class-conflict as some esoteric theoretical construction, Ruthenberg defines the dynamic as the “hard bitter, everyday struggles which decide the standard of living of the workers and their families” (7).
Farmers, too, “struggle against the bankers who hold mortgages on their land [and] the marketing organizations to which they sell their products” (Ruthenberg, 7). In addition “[farmers’] interests are in opposition to those of the railroads which transfer their goods” (Ruthenberg, 7).
The WP, Ruthenberg concludes, must ally itself politically with the farmers’ and workers’ movement because: “… it is in these struggles that the workers learn the character of the capitalist system and there is developed the will to power of the workers, the determination to triumph over the enemy who exploits and oppresses them” (8).
Ruthenberg argues that communists must join in everyday struggles on behalf of workers because they create “the most favorable condition for establishing the influence and leadership of the Communist Party.” In the process, workers “learn by experiences in the struggle that the government under the capitalist system is merely an agency of the capitalists for maintaining the system of exploitation” (8).
While supporting the class demands put forward by farmers and workers, communists must continually point out “that these immediate demands cannot solve their problems.” Workers’ Party intervention should be designed to help “the workers become more conscious of their class interest and their class enemy” (Ruthenberg, 8). In the end, Ruthenberg envisions that “… the revolutionary will develops through these struggles … step by step to the final stage of Proletarian Revolution” (8).
Despite many obvious advantages, the united front strategy presented numerous pitfalls for WP activists. A coalition with Farmer-Laborists could have the tendency to move the Party away from its revolutionary ideals and toward the reformist center. As Ruthenberg articulates the worst possible outcome, “In place of making Communists of Farmer-Laborites, the Communists would become Farmer-Laborites” (9, 10).
This danger was to be warded off by insisting the party members openly advocate communist views within the F-LP. Ruthenberg asserts that WP candidates in Farmer-Labor primaries must “publicly announce themselves as Communists and … advocate Communist principles.” If elected to office, they will “carry on revolutionary propaganda in the legislative assembly of the capitalist government” (Ruthenberg, 10).
The exact make up and nature of any “United Front” was also a matter of great concern. An ideal united front coalition was “from below.” That is, it would be set up under communist leadership and attract mass support outside the communists’ existing membership and the party’s periphery. A “United Front from below” was fully authorized by and had the approval of the Comintern. On the other hand, a “United Front from above” was never acceptable. Such a coalition was entirely made up of communist leaders and the leaders of other working class organizations (Draper, 34).
In Ruthenberg’s words, “under no circumstances can our party support candidates of the old party tickets.” To do so “would be leading the workers back into the parties of their enemies.” In the long run, such a coalition would simply “maintain the illusions we are endeavoring to destroy” (12).
Still, under specific circumstances, a combination of “United Fronts,” a third option, was sometimes acceptable. When communists were a “hopeless minority,” such as the situation in England, the Comintern authorized a “combined United Front.” Such a coalition was intended to be “a method of agitation and mobilization of the masses,” rather than a merger or partnership with the Social Democrats. The communists’ task was to “unmask” the treacherous role of the Social Democrats, not to merge with them (Draper, 34, 35).
In the early stages, the prospects for a Workers’ Party and Farmer-Labor Party United Front looked promising indeed. The strong group of Chicago communists seemed to be strategically located in a position to win over the F-LP leaders in the Chicago Federation of Labor. Several of the WP leaders were well known to both Fitzpatrick and Brown and had won their trust. The Party’s District Organizer, Arne Swabeck, represented the painters’ union at the Chicago Labor Council meetings. The steamfitter’s union delegate, Charles Krumbein, was also Industrial Organizer for the Chicago Branch of the Workers’ Party. Other WP member-delegates to CFL meetings included Jack Johnstone, of the painters’ union, and Andrew Overgaard of the machinists’ (Draper, 39).
Cannon was an enthusiastic and eager proponent of the Workers’ Party entering into a “bloc” with Fitzpatrick and the F-LP. Cannon writes with obvious pride, that in the summer of 1923, the Workers’ Party labor party policy could be summed up as the “application of the united front of the Communist International.” The WP chair judges this approach to have been “absolutely correct” as the party was making “great headway.” The bloc successfully “drove the labor party movement forward and our party advanced along with it, gaining great prestige” (Prometheus, 23, 155). As a result of the united front labor policy, an alliance was forged “between the Communists and the progressive trade unionists,” which proved instrumental in both “broaden[ing] the mass movement of the rank and file, and strengthen[ing] the position of the Workers’ Party” (Prometheus, 155).
Just as the united front policy was proving to be a great success both to the labor party movement and to the Workers’ Party, it abruptly came to an end because of an incredibly wrong-headed policy endorsed by the Workers’ Party’s Executive Committee (EC). The American communist movement survived the 1920-21 depression, began to recover in 1922, and largely thanks to the united front strategy, anticipated that 1923 would be the “year of the boom.” Instead the party’s prospects were headed for a “bust” (Cannon, 78). The party’s leadership in the so-called “Pepper era” presented C.E. Ruthenberg and William Z. Foster as the public representatives of the movement. Behind the scenes, one Joseph Pogany, who was known as John Pepper, came to dominate the party (Cannon, 84, 85; Prometheus, 19).
The Comintern sent Pepper to America in order to calm the “raging fights in the émigré leadership of the defeated Hungarian Party,” under Bela Kun. Cannon aptly describes Pepper as “the most brilliant phony I ever knew.” He was said to sparkle “like an Arkansas diamond” (Prometheus, 20). Upon his arrival in the U.S., as Cannon notes, this factional manipulator rather arrogantly “began to regulate party affairs with the arbitrary authority of a receiver appointed by the court to take over a bankrupt concern.” An opposition to “Pepperism” quickly coalesced within the Workers’ Party and his tenure as party boss was quite short. Yet, as Cannon observes, “while it lasted it was a real merry-go-round which left everybody dizzy” (Cannon, 76).
By February 1923, Pepper, for the most part, controlled both the leadership and the policy of the Workers’ Party. “[H]e seemed to be in full charge of everything, including the positions and the fate of individuals who pleased or displeased him” (Cannon, 77). Despite his brilliance as both a writer and speaker, Pepper was not connected to the reality of the American situation. Cannon characterizes his proposals as “fantastic views” based upon “fantastic theories.” Pepper was the chief manipulator in the Workers’ Party behind the disruption of the July 1923 Farmer-Labor Party Convention, yet others in the party, who should have known better, willingly went along (Cannon, 79).
In the period just before the Farmer-Labor Party convention, Pepper’s ultra-left views published in the Workers’ Party press on the theory and practice of the united front and the duty of party members in other organizations were needlessly provocative. At one point, he issued “a public reminder that the communists believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat” and the “role of force in history.” In yet another comment that could only chill the warm relations between the F-LP and the WP’s Chicago branch, Pepper warned that “we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides .…” He continued rather ominously, “a Communist should not abandon his party even if he thinks that the party is in the wrong.” Instead, the motto for a disciplined party member should be “[m]y Party, right or wrong, my Party” (Draper, 41).
Pepper’s inflammatory rhetoric provoked misgivings among Fitzpatrick and other F-LP leaders in regard to their fledgling alliance with the Workers’ Party. While they had worked amicably with WP militants such as Swabeck, Krumbein and Browder– Pepper and the New York communists were unknown quantities to the Farmer-Laborists. Chicago communists, in June of 1923, noted an immediate change in the attitude toward them. Fitzpatrick’s concern was palpable to those around him. Most of the progressive trade unions, the Socialist Party, and all of the leading AFL officials had announced that they were boycotting the F-LP convention. In addition, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor was flooded with warnings that the communists were planning to “pack” his convention (Draper, 41, 42).
Fitzpatrick was frank in his remarks to Swabeck about the upcoming convention. As Swabeck recreated the conversation, “At the very first meeting, Fitzpatrick started by bluntly saying: ‘Let’s get the record straight– we are willing to go along, but we think you Communists should occupy a back seat in this affair.'” Other CFL officials, in private conversations, issued similar warnings to WP activists Johansen and Browder. They were cautioned that: if “you keep your heads down, 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” (Draper, 41).
The Chicago Workers’ Party militants, with long-standing ties to the American labor movement, realized that a break in their growing alliance with the CFL was imminent and looked for a solution. The Chicago communists appealed to Cannon, the Party Chair, who was passing through Chicago on a lecture tour. Cannon fired off a “serious warning” to the national office in New York urging Pepper’s group to reaffirm the party’s commitment to a united front from below strategy (Draper, 41). Cannon admonished members of the Executive Committee: “If we are working chiefly for party advantage … we want to pack in as many delegates as we can possibly muster up. But that is not our view of the conference….[T]he chief significance of this conference consists in the possibility of laying the basis there for an organized drive towards a labor party and our party cooperating in it as an integral unit from the start” (Prometheus, 125).
Instead of conciliatory actions, Ruthenberg and Pepper ordered the Chicago communists to break with the Farmer-Labor Party leaders. The WP Executive Committee “peremptorily ordered Swabeck, Browder, and Krumbein to stay out of further discussions with the Farmer-Laborites” (Draper, 41). Ruthenberg and Pepper personally rushed to Chicago in order to ensure that the EC’s policy was followed to the letter.
At this critical juncture in the Labor Party movement, Fitzpatrick began to have second thoughts about the agenda for the July 3 convention. Rather than the founding of a new party, he proposed that the session be restricted to the drafting of a program, which would then be submitted to the organizations in attendance for approval by the membership. The actual creation of a new party would be postponed until a more favorable moment. Fitzpatrick’s proposal allowed the F-LP leaders to play for time, while avoiding a break with his Workers’ Party allies. Still, the delaying tactic indicated that the CFL progressives were wavering in their resolve and placed the founding of a new class-based party in doubt (Draper, 42).
The Workers’ Party dilemma stemmed from a lack of commitment to the slow and patient work of winning over the majority of rank-and-file of the American working class implicit in a united front policy. Because progress in putting together communist-friendly delegations to the upcoming convention had far exceeded their expectations, the EC feared Fitzpatrick’s proposal would nullify those efforts. Yet a split with Fitzpatrick presented the danger of once again isolating communists from the larger labor movement. The Party’s first political alliance with non-communist forces had resulted in real progress in a remarkably short period of time. Some in the Party doubted they could continue to advance alone. Pepper’s group, on the other hand, was tempted to confront Fitzpatrick and the F-LP with a demand for immediate action on a new party. Should the F-LPers refuse Fitzpatrick, the CFL could be shunted aside and the Workers’ Party and its carefully selected allies and sympathizers would be in position to dominate the new party (Draper 42).
The Workers’ Party EC debated these questions and options at great length. The prospect of an impending split with Fitzpatrick alarmed Ruthenberg. He argued that communists could not afford a split at this early state of the Farmer-Labor Party movement, and that the Party should continue to work closely with the CFL. Pepper argued the opposite point-of-view. He proposed that the original plan for the convention be adhered to even if it meant a split with Fitzpatrick. In part because he was not in touch with American realities, Pepper wrongly believed that the convention delegates would reflect the views of the half-million or so members affiliated with the farm and labor organizations sending delegations to the meeting. Foster sought a position somewhere between that of Ruthenberg’s and Pepper’s. He proposed that Fitzpatrick be deferred to unless a sufficient number of national union delegations came to the convention with a mandate to found a national labor party (Draper, 42, 43).
Pepper’s views prevailed on this critical question. He won a large majority of the votes in the EC. Of the entire thirteen-member committee, only Ruthenberg, Foster and Katterfeld (who took an ultra-left anti-Farmer-Labor Party position) voted against Pepper. This triumph established Pepper as the dominant figure in the American communist movement. That was quite a remarkable feat for a newly landed immigrant, less than a full calendar after his arrival in the United States. Once the decision had been made, Workers’ Party members closed ranks. Even the Chicagoans, who knew this policy could only lead to disaster, went along. In the words of historian Theodore Draper, the members of the Chicago Workers’ Party Branch “grumbled and crumbled” (43). Just prior to the convention, Fitzpatrick distanced himself further and further from his erstwhile allies. When a Workers’ Party delegation asked to meet with the CFL president two days before the convention, he emphatically refused to do so (Draper, 43).
“Pepperism” at its worst was on display at the July 3, 1923, Farmer-Labor Party convention. The convention’s call was deliberately open ended; Fitzpatrick and the CFL invited “all groups with an interest in promoting an alliance of farmers and workers” (MacKay, 81). Several hundred delegates, representing a combined membership of as many as 600,000 people, were present at the opening gavel. Among them were four national trade unions, the most notable of which was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Four state farmers’ organizations sent delegations, as did the three national political parties (the F-LP, the WP and the Proletarian Party). Also represented were 125 separate fraternal societies and 247 local farm and trade union branches (Draper, 43, 44). The official Workers’ Party delegation was quite small, only 10, compared to 50 allotted to the Farmer-Labor Party. Yet, Pepper managed to “pack” the convention by disguising dozens of other communists as representatives of local trade unions and assorted fraternal organizations.
His efforts demand a certain degree of grudging respect for creativity, if not for ethical behavior. Included among the ad hoc groups present were the Lithuanian Workers’ Literature Society, the Rumanian Progressive Club, the United Workingmen’s Singers, the Improvement Benefit Club, the Workmen’s Gymnastic Association and numerous sick and death benefit societies. Two groups were rather obliquely listed simply as “P.D.” and “P.H. of A.” (Draper, 44; MacKay, 81). Draper (44) cites the estimate of Pepper and Ruthenberg that, in all, approximately 200 people or about one of three delegates to the F-LP Convention were Workers’ Party members. MacKay (81) suggests that, regardless of actual party membership, as many as 90 percent of the delegates registered their affiliation with the convention’s “communist caucus.”
It was clear from the outset that the communist caucus was in full control of the convention. The caucus’s steering committee (Ruthenberg, Pepper, and Foster) organized the communist delegates into groups of ten, with a captain appointed for each to insure strict party discipline. By seating them in strategic locations on the convention floor, they steam-rolled the F-LPers. Fitzpatrick and Nockels were reduced to pleading with the communists to withdraw their motion calling for the immediate creation of a new party (Draper, 45; MacKay, 82). As MacKay comments, “There was something pathetic about the unscrupulous manipulation of the grievances and discontent of these farmers and laboring men.” Pepper’s hard ball tactics were symptomatic of “more than bad manners on the part of the Communists.” Rather tragically for the Labor Party movement, Pepper’s high-jacking of the 1923 Farmer-Labor Party convention resulted in “killing the hopes of men who were so conscious of injustice and exploitation” (83).
Staunch F-LP advocates, such as Fitzpatrick, Nockels and other CFL activists, bolted the convention. Fitzpatrick’s spirit seemed to be broken by the debacle. Pepper and the Workers’ Party delegates had made him look like a fool. After all, Fitzpatrick had walked out of the 1922 CPPA convention over the failure to commit to the founding of a new class-based party. Yet, only seven months later, he stormed out of his own convention because of his newfound opposition to the immediate creation of such a party. The CFL president knew that other AFL officials were mocking him for his naivete, while communists were skewering him for his alleged “betrayal” of the Labor Party movement (Draper, 50).
In the end Fitzpatrick repudiated much of his own legacy. His sense of disillusionment led him to end his friendship with Foster and break all ties with the Workers’ Party. He also abandoned his commitment to a Labor Party and even the amalgamation of the various craft unions into a single organization (Draper, 50, 51). Fitzpatrick reconciled his long-standing tension with AFL president, Sam Gompers, by endorsing the AFL’s so-called nonpartisan political stance (MacKay, 85). For all intents and purposes, the grassroots movement for a mass-based Farmer-Labor Party had come to an end (Fine 429, 434).
Recriminations quickly followed. Fitzpatrick denounced the Workers’ Party coup d’etat out of a sense of both grief and bitterness. Foster was the first to feel his wrath. The CFL chief observed that, “I know Brother Foster and others who are identified with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women to their organization, I say to them … it is a hopeless course and they cannot do it.” In Fitzpatrick’s view, the communist’s victory was pyretic indeed. Their triumph at the F-LP convention simply resulted in “kill[ing] the possibility of uniting the forces of independent political action in America .…” Fitzpatrick concluded that the Workers Party had so “broken the spirit of [the Labor Party movement] that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years” (Draper, 45, 46).
In their moment of factional triumph, the Workers’ Party leaders treated the F-LPers with studied contempt. Only Foster made any attempt to soothe the CFL leader’s anger with “soft words.” He began by observing that he and Fitzpatrick were veterans of “some good battles.” Foster then credited Fitzpatrick for possessing the “courage of his convictions” and further noted that he had never disagreed with the CFL president “until right here” (Draper, 46). Despite these conciliatory remarks, Foster could not resist a final taunt. He noted the seeming contradiction in Fitzpatrick’s attitude on the question of when to found a new party. Fitzpatrick had condemned the CPPA’s postponement of the decision, while insisting that the decision be delayed at his own convention.
Ruthenberg and Pepper were even more ungenerous in their closing remarks. In the official Workers’ Party reply, Ruthenberg boasted, “We are Communists– I am a Communist– and we do not guess at things. We analyze the economic conditions and the political facts. … This party will be a success, if we seize the opportunity” (Draper, 46, 47). Pepper’s comments were rudely insulting personally to Fitzpatrick. Like so much road-kill, he sneered that the CFL President was simply one of the “political corpses of well-intentioned leaders” which litter the road to revolution (Draper, 47).
Foster, Ruthenberg and Pepper and their tightly controlled delegation prevailed, and a new political party, the Federated Farmer-Labor Party (FF-LP), was immediately organized. A single word was added to the name of the existing F-LP in order to signify that the new party was structured on organizational affiliates rather than individual membership. Ruthenberg rather foolishly concluded that the prominence of communists in the new party was a strength. He bragged that under the leadership of the Workers’ Party, “the first mass party of American workers … was formed” (Draper, 48). Clearly communists were in position to influence the direction of the FF-LP. The party’s national secretary, Joseph Manley, was Foster’s son-in-law. At least 14 of the 33 members of the FF-LP’s National Executive Committee were known to be WP members, and some of the remaining 19 likely were communists as well (Draper, 48).
Still there was an attempt to link the new party to the legacy of Fitzpatrick’s F-LP. William Bouck, of the Washington State Farmer-Labor Party, was named national FF-LP chair. The most significant concession, however, was a vote by the communist caucus the last day of the convention, to adopt the constitution and by-laws of the Farmer-Labor Party. Rather than winning over Fitzpatrick’s supporters, the maneuver further alienated them. The CFL delegates responded that the adoption was simply further evidence that there was no need for a new party (Draper, 45, 47-48).
Far from a Workers’ Party triumph, the founding of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party was an unmitigated disaster for the American communist movement. In the end, as Nathan Fine (432) observes, Pepper’s ultra-left adventure resulted in the communists’ “capturing themselves” and in the process further isolating the Workers’ Party from the Progressive-wing of the American Labor movement. Even the choice of a name for the party was mishandled, for Federated Farmer-Labor Party was far too long to be listed on the ballot in most states (MacKay, 84).
This critical moment in American Labor History has been rather poorly understood by most chroniclers of the era. In part, this is due to the repressive impact of two “red scares” and the legacy of nearly a half-century of “Cold War.” Rather than acknowledging their organic connection to the American working class, communist activists in the labor movement, until recently, have been all too often been written off as “Moscow Agents.” From this perspective, MacKay (79) contends that the Workers’ Party role in 1923 was an effort to “preempt the Third Party idea.” Fine (432), similarly, dismisses the communist delegation to the Farmer-Labor Party convention as little more than “disciples of the Third International.” Even Draper, who is much more balanced in his approach, concludes that the American communists were overly influenced by and too often stood in awe of Soviet-Russia. While such interpretations are quite consistent with the dominant political culture, there are some serious problems with them.
First and foremost is the rather obvious point that “Pepperism” represented the direct repudiation of the Third International’s “United Front from below” policy. Cannon defines the attempt to create a class-based farmer-labor party by those disconnected from the masses as “Putschism.” In his view, such a formula would not lead to greater “contact with the masses,” but could only bring the Workers’ Party greater isolation and more “sectarianism” (Prometheus, 295, 296). The FF-LP secretary, Joseph Manley, noted the party’s growing isolation when he conceded that the WP provided the “overwhelming bulk” of the new party’s members and operating funds. Other communists observed that the FF-LP largely consisted of “ourselves and our nearest relatives” (Draper, 75). The sectarian adventure also left communists isolated and defenseless within the AFL. At the 1923 national convention in Portland, Oregon, the AFL delegates unseated WP member William F. Dunne, who represented the Butte, Montana, labor council, by a vote of 27,837 to 108, with 643 abstentions. This high profile action set the precedent for the mass expulsion of communists from AFL labor councils all over the U.S. (Draper, 76).
Second in order, but of equal significance, an opposition faction within the Workers’ Party quickly arose to challenge Pepper’s baneful influence. Chicago’s Earl Browder was the first EC member to speak out, when he denounced the split with Fitzpatrick and moved that “Pepper be invited to go back to Moscow” (Draper, 77). Dunne seconded Browder’s motion, but no one else on the EC spoke in favor of it.
Cannon was in a particularly strategic position to lead an inner-party challenge to the Pepper regime. He was on record in support of the Chicago communists’ position against a break with Fitzpatrick. At the time of the F-LP convention, Cannon had been sent to Portland, Oregon, to speak at Workers’ Party picnic (a party assignment designed to minimize his influence, or so he came to believe). Though Cannon was Party Chair, he was told nothing about the impending split with Fitzpatrick until he read about it in the newspaper (Draper, 78). Skeptical about the move from the beginning, Cannon immediately perceived Pepper’s and Ruthenberg’s big “victory” to have been a “big mistake” (Cannon, 86).
Cannon had obvious strengths in the forthcoming faction fight. His place in the party hierarchy (Party Chair) leant credibility to a challenge to the Pepper regime. After spending six months in Moscow, Cannon could not be intimidated by Pepper’s specious claim that he spoke with the authority of the Communist International. In addition, Cannon’s nationwide speaking tour gave him real insight into the relative weakness of the Workers’ Party in the larger labor movement (Draper, 78).
To be successful in the challenge, Cannon needed the support of Foster, who was enormously popular among the Party’s rank-and-file. The combined forces of the Party’s trade union leader (Foster) and the Party Chair (Cannon) would be potent indeed. Cannon immediately set out to “goad” Foster into joining in the upcoming factional fight against Pepper and Ruthenberg (Draper, 79).
Cannon found Foster’s involvement in the FF-LP adventure to be puzzling. As he reconstructs his feelings, “I respected Foster as a realist, and as a man who knew the labor movement through and through. I couldn’t understand how he could deceive himself about the consequences of a break with the Fitzpatrick forces, and a decision of the Workers’ Party to create a labor party all by itself …” (Cannon, 86).
As Cannon remembers their face-to-face discussion, Foster conceded that in “the party caucus at the convention of so many of our people, carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment … I got carried away myself and was convinced against my better judgement” (Cannon, 87). Cannon concludes with the observation that, “I got the impression that [Foster] was glad to find someone to whom he could express his real sentiments and get some encouragement to resist the fatal course of the official policy” (Cannon, 87).
While the FF-LP fiasco was the catalyst for the formation of the Worker’s Party’s Foster-Cannon faction, Cannon defines the real issue to have been “Pepperism” –by which, he means the WP’s “adventuristic” policies in regard to the labor movement in general and Pogany’s attempted “dictatorial domination” of the internal functioning of the Party.
Cannon establishes the August 24, 1923, Political Bureau meeting as the date of the formal starting point of the faction’s internal struggle (Cannon, 117, 120-21). The anti-Pepper movement began with an agreement between Foster and Cannon. Their collaboration was further strengthened at the Political Bureau meeting when Alexander Bittleman voted with the two against the Ruthenberg-Pepper Federated Farmer-Labor Party “Thesis.” Next the leaders of the Chicago branch (Browder, Johnstone, Swabeck, and Krumbein) announced their support for the dissident faction. This was quickly followed by the endorsement of prominent activists in the WP youth organization (the Young Workers League), such as Martin Abern, Max Shachtman and John Williamson. Other prominent Party militants like Dunne quickly came on board (Cannon, 121, 122).
Pepper was far from defenseless; he also had the support of prominent Party officials. Party Secretary Ruthenberg’s and Max Bedacht’s endorsement leant credibility to “Pepperism” among Party loyalists. Pepper had laboriously fostered the support of a segment of WP “ultra-leftists” known as the “Goose Caucus.” In addition, Pogany worked closely with Jay Lovestone, a protégé whom Cannon aptly describes as a “willing pupil for [Pepper’s] unique brand of opportunism/adventurism” (Prometheus, 25). The question of the WP leadership was decided by the 53 delegates to the Party’s Third Convention who met in Chicago from December 30, 1923 to January 2, 1924.
The Foster-Cannon caucus was united by a shared disdain for the misguided-policy that forced the break with Fitzpatrick, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Farmer-Labor Party. In the end, Pepper was “toppled from power,” as Foster and Cannon won control of the top leadership of the WP (Draper, 90, 91).
Still Cannon proved to be magnanimous in victory. His goal was simply to put an end to “Pepperism,” and he took great pains to ensure that Pepper’s American allies were not punished. Ruthenberg remained Party Secretary; Foster became Party Chair; and Cannon moved to the position of Assistant Secretary. Cannon was determined to replace Pepper’s personal dictatorship with a collective leadership style in the Party. The Foster-Cannon caucus had only an 8 to 5 majority on the EC and dominated the Political Bureau by a slim 4 to 3 majority. Still, Cannon’s allies did hold influential Party positions. Arnie Swabeck continued as Chicago’s WP District Organizer; Martin Abern served as Secretary of the Young Workers League; and Max Shachtman as editor of The Young Worker (Prometheus, 29; Draper 91, 92).
Cannon and Foster soon found that while they could put an end to the Pepper Regime in the Workers’ Party, the negative legacy of “Pepperism” among American Trade Unionists would endure. The stereotype of communists as “disrupters and wreckers” in the labor movement was firmly established by Federated Farmer-Labor Party adventure of 1923. A question known as the “great if” would haunt American communists for decades.
As Draper phrases the proposition, “What would have happened to the Farmer-Labor movement … if they had refrained from breaking with Fitzpatrick’s forces in July 1923?” (Draper, 95) As late as 1957, Foster lamented what he referred to as the “two greatest mistakes” of the American Communist Party. The first, he concluded, was the 1923 split with “their allies in the Farmer-Labor movement.” Upon more than thirty years of reflection, the only other misstep of equal magnitude, in Foster’s view, was the 1949 split with “their allies in the CIO” (Draper, 76, 77).
The severe consequences of the WP’s misguided adventure were apparent by the end of 1923, when McAdoo became unavailable as the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Earlier in the year, he had been considered the Democrats’ clear favorite. The Railroad Brotherhoods and organized labor were enthusiastic backers of the McAdoo candidacy until he became “smeared” with oil in the so-called Teapot Dome scandal (MacKay, 75, 102). While Republican Warren G. Harding’s cabinet and political cronies were the primary culprits in the solicitation of direct bribes and other kinds of payoffs to allow oil companies to siphon off naval oil reserves, prominent Democrats were also linked to the scandal.
Attorney General Daugherty and Interior Secretary Fall were the only government officials indicted for criminal behavior in the incident, but the investigation revealed that McAdoo had accepted a $25,000 “retainer” for his legal services by one of the oil company executives implicated in the affair. Keating, the editor of Labor, among others, advised McAdoo to drop out of the presidential race. McAdoo’s fall from grace brought the revival of the CPPA and renewed talk of independent political action (MacKay, 102, 103). Unfortunately for the cause of a class-based political fight-back, John Fitzpatrick and the CFL were no longer central figures in the movement.
Third Party Alliance
The Northwestern Farmer-Labor activists took the lead in the next stage of development. Minnesota’s Farmer Labor Federation had just elected Magnus Johnson as the Party’s second United States Senator. The resultant prestige and recognition established the F-LP leaders in Washington State, South Dakota, Montana, and especially Minnesota as the key actors in the effort to unite the nation’s Farmer-Labor supporters in the 1924 presidential campaign. Both Fitzpatrick’s F-LP and the Workers’ Party FF-LP were happy to defer to the Minnesotans in this endeavor (Fine, 434). Despite the protest of CFL leaders, the Northwesterners included the Workers’ Party among the delegates to their 1924, St. Paul Convention (Fine, 435; Draper, 101).
Once again the Workers’ Party leadership blundered in their attempt to apply the United Front strategy in the American context. John Pepper and Charles Ruthenberg influenced the Party to embrace yet another misguided policy –this one marked by rank opportunism rather than ultra-leftism. The so-called “Third Party Alliance” strategy attempted to build a party with the supporters of Republican Robert M. LaFollette, without either “openly advocating or strongly opposing” his presidential bid (Prometheus, 26).
This created an impossible situation for WP branches around the country. Party members were expected to build a Third Party as a vehicle for LaFollette’s presidential ambitions, while simultaneously criticizing the Wisconsin senator’s candidacy. Some communists got so caught up with the idea of the “Third Party” movement, that they founded “LaFollette for President” clubs (Draper, 98). For example, the Workers’ Party militants in Spokane, Washington, proudly reported to the national office that their cadre had “captured” the local LaFollette for President organization (Ruthenberg, 4). Even Ruthenberg was forced to concede that, “It is not easy to strongly criticize and give support at the same time” (Draper, 98).
The implications of the torturously difficult policy were reflected by a vote of EC members two days prior to the St. Paul Convention when they ratified Ruthenberg’s face-saving caveat that: “… we propose that nominations be left to the convention (we are not for LaFollette, but if the convention nominates him we will not split on that account)…” (Draper, 102).
Cannon later regretted going along with the Third Party Alliance. He laments that, “The cold fact is that the party … became … the advocate of a ‘third party’ of capitalism and offered to support, under certain conditions, the candidacy of the petty-bourgeois demagogue LaFollette…” (Prometheus, 26, 27). Though Cannon’s party nemesis Pepper “formulated the policy,” the rest of the EC went along. As the leader of the WP’s minority faction, Pepper demonstrated his “resilience and continuing influence.” In regard to the “bewildered” leadership of the Workers’ Party, Cannon admits that, “it doesn’t say much for the rest of us” (Prometheus, 27).
The Workers’ Party disgraced itself in the Third Party Alliance episode by embracing what amounted to a “United Front from above” strategy. Yet it is unfair to single out Pepper and Ruthenberg as the culprits in this affair. Cannon points out that, “all the prominent leaders without exception, myself included, were in it up to our necks, with no excuse save that of ignorance and no reason except perhaps the foolhardy ambition to outwit ourselves” (Prometheus, 27).
Leon Trotsky made the question of the American Party’s “Third Party Alliance” an important element of his criticism of what he characterized as the Comintern’s increasingly “soft, opportunistic policy” (Draper, 109). He insisted that the Communist International “pay more attention to combating reformist and bourgeois trends within the workers’ movement.” Trotsky singled out the Workers’ Party as prime example of the growing trend toward opportunism by Communist Parties everywhere. As he articulated the issue, “For a young and weak Communist Party … to play the solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive voters’ for the Republican Senator LaFollette is to head toward the dissolution of the party in the petty bourgeoisie” (Prometheus, 32).
Trotsky identified opportunism as being characterized, “not only in moods of gradualism but also in political impatience; it frequently seeks to reap where it has not sown, to realize successes which do not correspond to its influence” (Prometheus, 32). He concluded his criticism with a trenchant evaluation of the Workers’ Party leaders. “The inspirers of this monstrous opportunism … are thoroughly imbued with skepticism concerning the American proletariat. … [They underestimate] the basic task –the development and strengthening of the proletarian character of the party– here is the basic trait of opportunism” (Prometheus, 32).
In the end, the Comintern rejected support for LaFollette, not support for the Farmer-Labor Party movement. Zinoviev concurred with Trotsky’s judgment that an “alliance with LaFollette would not serve the liberation of the petty-bourgeois masses from domination by capital” (Prometheus, 33). Still, the leader of the Communist International acknowledged the need for a mass-based, farmer-labor party in the United States. The role identified by Zinoviev for the Workers’ Party in such an alliance was also consistent with Trotsky’s perception. The American communists’ task was to form within the Farmer-Labor Party a “strong consolidated labor wing, which would include agricultural workers” (Prometheus, 33).
The Comintern decision, in effect, acknowledged that the split with Fitzpatrick and the CFL had been a “disaster.” Even the staunch Ruthenberg-Pepper Faction supporter, Israel Amter, conceded that, “experience shows that the conception of Comrades Foster-Cannon was correct” (Prometheus, 33).
Workers’ Party leaders, following this barrage of criticism, concluded that the Third Party Alliance had to be abandoned. Still, they searched for a way to break with LaFollette without re-enforcing the stereotype of communists as an alien force in the labor movement, one bent on disruption. While the WP activists were considering their options, LaFollette beat them to the punch. He released a letter to Wisconsin’s Attorney General in which he excoriated communists as “the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals” (Draper, 114). LaFollette’s red baiting attack, as Draper (114) notes, permitted the Workers’ Party to “counterattack as if LaFollette had forced them into it.”
LaFollette’s letter hit the Farmer-Labor activists like a “bombshell,” for in addition to the explicit repudiation of communist support, he also castigated the Farmer-Laborists for associating with communists (MacKay, 86). The letter had its desired effect. Even before the June 17, 1924, St. Paul convention, the rhetoric of the critics of the Workers’ Party participation in the upcoming meeting was reminiscent of that used by John Fitzpatrick following the 1923 F-LP convention. William Mahoney, for example, ominously suggested that, “The presence of an organized revolutionary group within the [Farmer-Labor] party and constantly striving to control it, is causing many to question the wisdom of tolerating such activity.” He dismissed the Workers’ Party delegation as “a small group carrying on their intrigues and plots” (Draper 114).
LaFollette supporters around the country predicted that the St. Paul Convention would be communist-dominated and urged trade unions and farmer organizations to boycott the session. That the convention met at all Draper (115) attributes to the “triumph [of] communist persistence and organization.” Cannon and Foster would later characterize the more than 500 delegates from nearly 30 states as consisting of “communists, their close sympathizers, and a scattering of lukewarm trade unionists and farmers” (Prometheus, 293).
The point of conflict in the convention was a reprise of the 1923 Chicago meeting. Communist delegates endorsed the immediate founding of a National Farmer-Labor Party, while Mahoney and the non-communists in attendance favored postponing such a decision. This time, the communists conceded much to their critics on this fundamental question. The “National Farmer-Labor Party” (NF-LP) would nominate candidates for president and vice president, but not establish a “full-fledged” party (Draper, 115, 116).
Duncan MacDonald, former head of the United Mine Workers of Illinois, agreed to accept the NF-LP’s presidential nomination. William Bouck, founder of a dissent Grange organization (the Progressive Farmers) and chair of the Washington State Federated Farmer-Labor Party, was named as candidate for vice-president (Draper, 115, 116; MacKay, 89, 90). Both MacDonald and Bouck understood their candidacies were provisional at best. The NF-LP national committee (NC) was authorized to oversee the campaign. Among the powers granted to the NC was the ability to withdraw or replace the candidates, as well as to negotiate unity with other “progressive groups” (MacKay, 90).
Workers’ Party response
The 1924 National Farmer-Labor Party collapsed even more rapidly than had Federated Farmer-Labor Party of the previous year. Cannon and Foster reluctantly concluded that NF-LP was simply “another case of a ‘united front with ourselves'” (Prometheus, 293, 294). In response to yet another failure to successfully implement the United Front tactic, Foster proposed that the Workers’ Party break with the Farmer-Labor movement. Draper (109) interprets this position to be an overreaction to the Comintern’s criticism of the WP, which “demanded disassociation from LaFollette … not … cutting loose from the Farmer-Labor movement.” Foster argued that the split with pro-LaFollette Farmer-Laborists at the St. Paul convention meant that the NF-LP consisted of “communists and their closest sympathizers.” Because the new party obviously lacked a “mass character,” Foster concluded, the Workers’ Party should run its own candidates (Draper, 110).
This extreme position reflected a growing consensus that the Party’s efforts to establish itself as an integral part of the labor-wing of the F-LP movement had failed. After more than two years of effort, at time of great ferment and popular enthusiasm for a Third Party, the WP could not break out of its isolation and help build a “class-based” party capable of running credible election campaigns (Prometheus, 294). The Workers’ Party EC concluded that the time had come to put an end to the Farmer-Laborism campaign. Only three votes were cast against Foster’s motion to do so.
Much more controversy arose over the decision to withdraw the candidacies of MacDonald and Bouck. Though Ruthenberg adamantly opposed Foster and Manley on this decision, within 48 hours, the communists announced a Workers’ Party ticket in the upcoming election –William Z. Foster for president and Benjamin Gitlow for vice-president. The three-week NF-LP candidacy of MacDonald and Bouck was one of the most fleeting of any presidential ticket in history (Draper, 116, 117).
Mahoney and the Northwestern farmer-laborists protested bitterly and denounced communists for their betraying their confidence. Browder, speaking for the Party, gratuitously denigrated Mahoney as “the agent of forces of capitalist exploitation in Minnesota” and “of the bankers.” In response, Mahoney sponsored the move to bar communists from future participation in the Minnesota Farmer-Labor movement (Draper, 118).
As indicated by the slogan, “We Want No Fake Labor Party” (Prometheus, 324), Cannon and the dispirited WP activists abandoned further attempts at fostering labor-based independent political action and waited for a genuine labor party to emerge. Rather than “continuing to raise the labor party slogan,” Workers’ Party militants emphasized building united-front alliances around “concrete issues” confronting the labor movement (Prometheus, 24). On the other hand, representatives of nearly all of the labor and farmer organizations that had previously endorsed the movement “[f]or a ‘class’ farmer-labor party” were jumping on the LaFollette bandwagon (Prometheus, 291, 293).
A third CPPA conference was held February 11, 1924, in St. Louis, Missouri, in order to build support for a nominating convention. Delegates to the St. Louis convention saluted the success of the British Labour Party, which had just won the British parliamentary elections. The CPPA’s resolution noted that, “workers in any country having universal or general suffrage may come into peaceful control of their government whenever they have the intelligence and will do so” (Fine, 408).
In this spirit, the convention’s declaration of purpose seemed to commit the CPPA to field a full slate of candidates in the upcoming election. In unambiguous terms the delegates stated that, “The Conference for Progressive Political Action is an organization created for the purpose of securing the nomination and election of Presidents and Vice Presidents of the Untied (sic) States, United States Senators, Representatives to Congress, members of State Legislatures and other state and local public officers who are pledged to the interests of the producing classes and to the principles of genuine democracy in agriculture, industry and government” (MacKay, 76). Two more CPPA 1924 conventions were also scheduled. A nominating convention was to meet July 4, in Cleveland. And a national convention would meet after the election (December 8), at a place to be named by the National Committee (MacKay, 77, 78).
A multi-class formation
The July 4 Cleveland Nomination Convention was attended by as many as 600 progressive political activists. Delegations representing state chapters of the Socialist Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, the Committee of Forty-Eight, and the Women’s Committee on Political Action added significantly to the those numbers. Unionists were also present in larger than usual contingents at the CPPA gathering. Those selected to address the convention reflected the wide spectrum of progressive views present. William H. Johnston of the Machinists’ Union delivered the keynote address. Lynn Frazier, the NPL Senator from North Dakota spoke to the delegates, as did Minnesota’s F-LP Senator Hendrick Shipstead. Prominent office-holding Progressive-Republicans on the speakers’ list included John M. Nelson of Wisconsin, and New York’s Fiorella LaGuardia. Both Morris Hillquit and Harriet Stanton Blanch spoke for the Socialist Party. Speakers for the labor movement included Andrew Furuseth, President of the Seamen’s Union of the Pacific (Fine, 408).
Despite the attempt of the convention’s managers to portray a sense of unity, there were deep divisions among the various contingents in the multi-class gathering. The fact that the Workers’ Party observers (Foster, Ruthenberg and Manley) were barred from speaking or otherwise participating in the convention’s proceedings was not surprising (Draper, 116). A more significant indication of political intolerance came when the credentials committee refused to seat William Mahoney of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association. Despite his open conflict with and harsh criticisms of the WP activists at the St. Paul Convention, he was written out of the progressive movement for his recent association with communists. In this decision, as Fine notes, “Mahoney had practically no defenders” (408, 409).
A much more significant disagreement arose between the supporters of independent political action and the delegates who favored LaFollette’s personal candidacy for president without founding a new party. Though the LaFollette partisans were forced to concede on some procedural matters, the convention was thoroughly dominated by LaFollette and his admirers. For the most part, they were unconcerned about the fate of the CPPA following the general election. The platform agreed upon was tailored to meld with LaFollette’s position on the issues (Fine, 409). The first sentence of the Progressive Platform was reminiscent of the pre-World War I reform movement. It reflected LaFollette’s view that, “The great issue before the American people today is the control of government and industry by private monopoly” (MacKay, 143). As Fine (409) notes, LaFollette’s supporters “were still thinking in terms of individualized competitive business ….”
Perhaps the greatest ideological weakness of the Progressive campaign was the fixation on this “almost nostalgic call to do battle against ‘special privilege’ and monopoly” (MacKay, 145). This naïve formulation looked to recreate the mythic past rather than to the future. MacKay criticizes the platform for rather “pathetically” stating the obvious, that “monopoly has steadily extended its absolute dominion to every basic industry.” In another instance MacKay compares LaFollette to “Canute seeking to hold back the [ocean] tide,” as if LaFollette and his faithful followers were oblivious to the inevitable tendency of business to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands in a capitalist economy (145).
LaFollette’s formulation must have been difficult for the Socialist Party delegates to swallow, but they accepted the statement without a murmur. The Socialists were willing to accept almost any compromise in order to achieve their highest priority –the founding of a permanent third party to challenge the two-party monopoly in American politics. Other members of the CPPA’s diverse coalition shared this vision. The Committee of Forty-Eight and the editors of both the Nation and the New Republic magazines were chief among them.
LaFollette neutralized this aspiration with the deft use of rhetoric. He concurred that the time “had come for a militant political movement independent of the two old party organizations.” Still, he argued that the 1924 General Election was not the right time for the founding of such a party. Instead, the Senator from Wisconsin proposed it should be delayed until after the November election when the “people would ‘register their will and united purpose by a vote of such magnitude that a new political party was inevitable’ …” (Fine, 410, 411). Until that propitious moment, he advocated the continuance of the CPPA’s “nonpartisan” political policy. In essence, he proposed the Progressive Party not seek to elect candidates to any office other than president and vice president. For all other offices, the CPPA should endorse “progressive-minded” candidates in the old parties.
LaFollette’s emphasis on “nonpartisanship” enabled him to appeal both to independent minded western farmers and to the American Federation of Labor. With the political demise of McAdoo as a Democratic nominee, neither of the old party’s candidates was acceptable to labor or western progressives. The Republican Calvin Coolidge was notoriously anti-labor in his views. Among the CPPA activists he was widely despised for actions while Governor of Massachusetts in breaking the 1919 Boston police strike. The Democrat’s candidate, John W. Davis, was equally flawed. He was a partner in the law firm that represented the rapacious capitalist and sworn enemy of labor, J. P. Morgan. Most progressives were repulsed by the idea of endorsing Davis, who was routinely disparaged as a “Wall Street lawyer” (MacKay, 107; Fine, 411). Seldom had the AFL faced such a dismal choice in the pursuit of “lesser evil politics.” Under the circumstances, the country’s premier labor organization simply could not ignore LaFollette’s pro-labor voting record. To do so would have been an act of “base ingratitude” (Fine, 411).
Yet the AFL was determined to remain committed to the tradition of political “nonpartisanship.” The AFL presented a series of demands before the various parties and vowed to await their responses before making any political endorsement. Key AFL demands included, the prohibition of injunctions in labor disputes, the ratification of a constitutional amendment to ban child labor, the expansion of workmen’s compensation laws, and the recognition of the right of workers to bargain collectively through unions and representatives of their own choosing (MacKay, 151).
When both the Democrats and the Republicans voted down these pro-labor planks at their conventions, Gompers reluctantly turned to LaFollette. Still, as MacKay notes, Gompers’s endorsement of LaFollette was “curiously negative” (MacKay, 152). The AFL chieftain remarked, almost sadly, “It looks as if we are forced to turn to LaFollette. … There is no other way” (MacKay, 152).
Despite the endorsement of the Progressive Party’s candidates, Robert M. LaFollette for President and Burton K. Wheeler for Vice President, the AFL executive board members had no intention of abandoning “nonpartisanship.” They felt that a series of political disappointments had pushed and prodded them into a position that they were hesitant to embrace. Thus, the AFL’s endorsement was severely limited in scope. The candidacy of Robert M. LaFollette was explicitly referred to as that of an “independent Republican,” while Wheeler, a Senator from Montana, was identified as an “independent Democrat” (MacKay, 150, 152). As MacKay (154) observes, “It was almost as if the magic words ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ lent respectability to Progressive candidates!”
In order to ensure that no one misunderstood the AFL’s position, the executive board’s statement further noted that LaFollette’s and Wheeler’s candidacies were recommended because “throughout their whole political careers, [they had] stood steadfast in defense of the rights and interests of wage earners and farmers.” In addition, labor leaders found that the Progressive Party’s platform addressed the pressing issues of the day “in a manner more nearly conforming to Labor’s proposals than any other platform” (MacKay, 153).
AFL officials attached a severe caution to their endorsement. The statement reiterated that, “cooperation hereby urged is not a pledge of identification with an independent party movement or a third party, nor can it be construed as support for such a party, group or movement except as such action accords with our nonpartisan political policy” (MacKay, 153).
Progressive Party campaign
Without question, labor’s endorsement was a substantial victory for the LaFollette campaign. Although the number of AFL members was significantly less than the 1922 record level of more than four million, there were still 2,865,979 paid-up union members in 1924. If the AFL’s executive board’s endorsement translated into their votes, as well as the votes of family members, labor had the potential to decide the election in LaFollette’s favor (MacKay, 155). Unfortunately, Gompers quickly distanced himself from the Progressive Party campaign. The CPPA received disappointingly little financial support from the AFL. Rather than the millions of dollars they hoped to receive, the total donation from all labor sources amounted to a paltry $50 thousand (MacKay, 188, 189). With such insignificant financial support, labor’s support for LaFollette’s candidacy can be described as symbolic at best. As a result, financial problems plagued the LaFollette campaign. In all, only about $250 thousand was donated, mostly from individual farmers and workers.
Ballot access, yet another perennial problem for Third Party candidates, proved relatively easy for LaFollette. On election day, the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket was on the ballot in every state but Louisiana. The variety and style of party designations, however, was staggering. In many instances the ticket was listed as the Progressive Party (the preferred designation). Some state election officials, such as in California, found legal technicalities to place LaFollette’s name under the Socialist Party label, which was designed to limit his potential vote total. Other states listed him as the Progressive/Socialist candidate, or the candidate of the Farmer-Labor Party (or simply the Labor Party). In yet other jurisdictions, LaFollette and Wheeler were designated to be candidates of the Independent Party (Fine, 412).
Ballot access was an essential ingredient in any serious electoral challenge to the status quo parties. Still, the endorsement of the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket by opinion makers with the ability to influence the undecided voter was a missing ingredient in the Progressive Party campaign. Scripps-Howard was the only chain of daily newspapers to advocate LaFollette’s election. For the most part, editorial support for the independent ticket was limited to the labor, radical and liberal journals, which were published weekly or monthly with a limited circulation (Fine, 412).
Even the prestigious liberal journals like the Nation and the New Republic were restricted in their ability to influence public opinion. These weekly publications had a combined circulation of less than 75,000 in a country with a population of more than 100 million people. Perhaps the most significant publication to support the Progressive campaign was Labor, the weekly paper of the Railroad Brotherhoods. Edited by the highly competent Keating, 500,000 copies of this paper were circulated among the “politically aware and highly committed” railroad workers and their allies (MacKay, 210).
Despite the obvious limitations of the Third Party challengers’ campaign, the Republicans focused their political-fire on the Progressive Party. LaFollette’s relatively mild reform proposals, especially those with class implications, seemed to evoke the fury of the business community. The Progressive Party’s platform condemned the recently enacted Republican tax cuts on high incomes and specifically endorsed a “surtax on swollen incomes,” a “tax on excess profits” and “progressive taxes on large estates and inheritances” (Fine, 410). In a similar vein, LaFollette also opposed protective tariffs and advocated a veteran’s bonus.
Most significant of all, the Progressives demanded the abolition of federal judges’ ability to act as strikebreakers during labor disputes (Murray, 1969: 508). In unmistakable language, the delegates to CPPA Cleveland convention attacked the federal courts for “tyranny and usurpation” in the nullification of pro-labor “legislation in conflict with the political, social or economic theories of the judges.” The LaFollette supporters insisted on reigning in the powerful federal judges by prohibiting both “injunctions in labor disputes” and their “power to punish for contempt of court without trial by jury.” The long-term liberal solution to the pro-business, conservative judicial activism was the “election of federal judges” to severely “limited terms” in office (Fine, 410).
Republicans found LaFollette’s position on foreign policy issues to be no less unacceptable. Progressives denounced what they referred to as “the mercenary system of foreign policy” which was designed to serve “the interests of financial imperialists, and international bankers.” The LaFollette campaign was pledged to replace such “degraded” policies with “firm treaty agreements to outlaw wars, abolish conscription, drastically reduce land, air and naval armaments and guarantee public referendum on peace and war” (Fine, 410).
In response, the capitalist press viciously attacked LaFollette. His program was bitterly denounced as thinly disguised Bolshevism, which would be destructive of all organized government. Republican speakers, whom Fine characterizes as advocates for the party of Big Business “par excellence,” were especially exercised by the proposal to limit the power of the federal courts. To them, the “radical” LaFollette was intent on “undermining the foundations of the American government” (Fine, 413). Not content with these rhetorical flourishes, Republicans openly engaged in attempts at economic coercion. They attempted to use the depression to intimidate wage earners by threatening the immediate closure of factories, should LaFollette be elected (Fine, 413; Prometheus, 291).
Much of this animus was motivated by LaFollette’s use of radical sounding rhetoric during the election campaign. He routinely warned the nation’s farmers and workers about the evil intent of “Wall Street,” which was said to be inhabited by “bloated plutocrats” pursuing policies designed to benefit the “money piracy.” Still the multi-class Progressive coalition of farmers and workers he headed was characterized by numerous contradictions that hampered efforts at unity. The most obvious of these conflicts related to the price of agricultural commodities. LaFollette’s campaign, for example, promised “high beef [prices] on the hoof and low beef [prices] on the table” (Murray, 1969: 510).
When forced to choose between the divergent interests of farmers and workers, the Progressives invariably sided with farmers. The Party platform was noteworthy for a decidedly agrarian flavor. The document contained an unusually wordy “appeal to the American farmer.” No other interest received similar attention. MacKay concludes this indicates that, “basically the movement was stemming from the west” (145). The platform even included references to the highly romanticized vision of the self-sufficient farmer disconnected from market influences –the ideal articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the early nineteenth century (MacKay, 145).
This emphasis on western agrarian interests hurt LaFollette’s election chances in two different but related ways. First, LaFollette’s timing was off, for the ability of the Progressive farmers through the activities of the Non-Partisan League to influence western-farmers’ votes by 1924 had seriously deteriorated. The decline of the once powerful organization was obvious. Even the voice of the NPL, the Non-Partisan Leader, in 1923, discontinued publication. Gone were the powerful editorials and graphic cartoons designed to advance the interests of the western farmer. Grassroots efforts by the Farmers’ Non-Partisan League in the 1924 election campaign, as a result, were “haphazard” at best (MacKay, 208).
Second in order and more importantly, farm prices began to rise modestly. Improved economic prospects led to a resurgence of loyalty by western farmers to their traditional Republican Party base. Between 1923 and 1924, the price index for all grains rose from 114 to 129; at the same time the cost of non-agricultural goods fell from 171 to 162 (Fine, 413). Many farmers concluded that better economic times were on the horizon and voted accordingly. MacKay terms this sudden turn around in agricultural prices to have been nothing less than, “providential” for the Republican Party. In his view, that was the difference between “victory and defeat for Coolidge” (MacKay, 205).
Organized labor, too, was unable to maintain consistent support for LaFollette’s candidacy during the campaign. In this instance, the issue at stake was much more fundamental. The representatives of the AFL-affiliated trade unions and the Railroad Brotherhoods adamantly refused to “sever their ties” with the two major parties and embrace independent political action. This was a source of much tension between union officials and other members of the coalition.
While the Socialist Party and the Committee of Forty-Eight members were strongly committed to the creation of a “sound, enduring third party composed of liberals and progressives,” the unionists, as MacKay (197) observes, “were not ready to take the plunge.” Efforts at compromise on key issues revealed the tenuousness of the CPPA coalition. For example, the Brotherhoods’ delegates even initially resisted the Socialists’ proposal for the nationalization of the nation’s railroads. In order to insert such a clause in the Party platform, the Socialists had to agree that public ownership would be accompanied by “definite safeguards against bureaucratic control” (MacKay 146).
Labor’s “mild enthusiasm” for LaFollette’s candidacy grew progressively weaker as the election approached. The AFL leaders, from the outset, distinguished their support of the personal candidacies of LaFollette and Wheeler from the endorsement of any Third Party movement. Both “moral and financial backing” for the independent candidates “dwindled” over time (MacKay, 199). Many officials with long-standing ties to the two party system refused to back LaFollette, however conditional that support was said to be (MacKay, 200). George Berry, president of the Pressmen’s Union, for example, unhesitatingly endorsed the Democratic ticket. John L. Lewis of the UMW and William Hutcheson of the Carpenters reiterated their traditional support for the Republican Party.
Some union leaders, such as Terence O’Connor of the Longshoremen, went so far as to issue “absurd” public denunciations of LaFollette’s candidacy. However, the executive board members of the New York City Central Trades and Labor Council action was much more indicative of labor’s political trajectory. Though they had earlier officially endorsed the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket, New York’s AFL officials rescinded that decision just five days prior to the election and urged support for Davis instead (Fine, 412).
Some historians argue that labor’s “interest in the LaFollette candidacy” was in direct proportion to “LaFollette’s chance of winning.” From this perspective, MacKay (199, 200) concludes that, “Lost causes held no special attraction for men whose policy had been to reward their friends and punish their enemies on election day.”
The reality, however, may be more complicated. As Fine notes, the “so-called progressive congressmen” who ran as candidates of the old parties were worried about their prospects for reelection. These incumbents were concerned that their support for LaFollette may cost them votes among traditional party loyalists. Since there was no Third Party in the field to realign political loyalties, these Congressional-progressives “were only too glad … to abandon ship” (415). The failure to establish a stable new party may have been the critical factor in the precipitous decline of support for LaFollette as the election approached.
Even where a local Progressive Party did nominate a slate of candidates to oppose the old parties, the National Executive Board refused to support Third Party candidates for Congress. New Mexico provides an illustration of this shortsighted policy. New Mexico’s Farmer-Labor Party, on September 2, 1924, voted to amalgamate the Party with the other LaFollette supporters in the state. At the Progressive Party state-convention on September 22, the Farmer-Laborists prevailed against the protests of the railroad union delegates and nominated a third state ticket to challenge the two-party political monopoly. This was deemed to be necessary to ensure that “the LaFollette supporters and all true progressives will not have to vote for the Gold Dust Twins” (Roswell Record, September 22, 1924). Yet on November 3, a spokesman for the state’s Progressive Party announced that the Party’s candidate for New Mexico’s lone seat in the House of Representatives, C. M. Armstrong, had been withdrawn from the race.
Armstrong, an officer in his railroad union local, objected. He complained, “A little coterie of Democratic politicians in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are betraying the LaFollette movement … in order to elect [incumbent Democrats].” Armstrong went on to make a case for class-based, independent political action. He remarked that, “I accepted the nomination for the congress believing as I now believe that neither of the old parties are [any] longer responsible to the will of the masses and that the Progressive Party, under the leadership of Senators LaFollette and Wheeler, speaks in the terms of the common people and the men and women who toil.” Armstrong defied the Party official’s edict by asking the voters to “ignore all the false reports that I have withdrawn and unite everywhere in putting a man in congress that will not betray their(sic) trust. Organized labor should unite as one man to elect a bonafide organization man and she will never lack for a champion” (Roswell Record, November 3, 1924). Despite the candidate’s protest, his name did not appear on the ballot in 11 of New Mexico’s 31 counties. (John Morrow, the Democrat, retained his seat in the House of Representatives by a narrow margin of 3,842 votes.)
At the national level, the vote for LaFollette was a substantial 4,826,371 or 16.8 percent. Still the expectations of the nation’s progressives were not met. Some had anticipated that, if the Progressives carried eight or more states, no candidate would receive a majority of the electoral vote. In that case, the state delegations to the House of Representatives would choose the president. With the presidency hanging in the balance, progressives in Congress would have been well situated to barter their votes in return for policy concessions from both of the old party leaders.
Rather than an indeterminate outcome, Coolidge won a decisive 54 percent of the popular vote and carried 35 states with a total of 382 electoral votes (Murray, 1969: 511). LaFollette won a majority of the votes only in his home state of Wisconsin. Yet his supporters took some solace in the fact that the Progressive candidates finished second, ahead of the Davis, in 11 western states (California, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming) (Fine, 413).
Still, millions of Americans cast a class-based vote for the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket. The best estimates indicate that approximately 2,500,000 of the Third Party voters were farmers and something over 1,000,000 were workers (Murray, 1969: 511). The political influence of the Railroad Brotherhoods may have accounted for as many as 200,000 Progressive votes (MacKay, 221). The remainder came from the activities of liberal organizations such as the Committee of 48. In terms of party identification, 3,797,974 votes were cast for LaFollette under the Progressive Party designation. Another 858,264 votes were recorded for him as the Socialist Party candidate. A total of 170,233 votes were cast for LaFollette as the candidate of the various Farmer-Labor Parties (MacKay, 220, 221).
Though the statewide vote totals for the Progressives were highest in the West, LaFollette also did well among city voters. Irish, German, and Jewish populated urban immigrant precincts cast heavy votes for the Third Party challengers. They “made a clean sweep” in the Jewish districts where the Socialist Party had been active for the previous twenty-five years. LaFollette carried virtually every assembly district (many with a majority of the vote) that had earlier been considered socialist strongholds (Fine, 414).
Some historians contend that much of the Progressive vote came from the fruits of earlier Farmer-Labor Party efforts. Fine for example, comments that, “Everywhere in the city and country LaFollette benefitted from the hard and continuous propaganda work of the labor and farmer parties which had preceeded(sic) and continued through the 1924 campaign” (414).
By contrast, the disappointingly low vote for the Workers’ Party in 1924 election was understood to be a “nonfatal disappointment” (Draper 119). Only 36,386 ballots were cast for the communist ticket headed by Foster. Not only was the total rather miniscule, the WP candidates trailed behind other so-called minor parties, such as the Prohibition Party (55,551) and the Socialist Labor Party (39,400). Votes for the communist candidates barely surpassed those for the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party (24,430) (MacKay, 220, 221). WP leaders consoled themselves with the belief that “they could hold on and wait for a better day.” Still, many were troubled by the knowledge that, “they had squandered one rich opportunity after another.” In the process, American communists had “maneuver[ed] themselves back into the rut of isolation and sectarianism” (Draper, 119).
The authors of the Cannon-Foster faction’s 1925-election analysis dismissed the LaFollette campaign as “a big defeat for many of the labor bureaucrats,” who failed to achieve any of their objectives. First and foremost LaFollette did not carry enough states to prevent Coolidge or Davis from winning a majority of the electoral vote. LaFollette, in addition, was personally somewhat embarrassed by the fact that he carried only his home state. As a result, many AFL leaders lost their ardor for a third business-party. The so-called Third Party Alliance was dead. Both the AFL and the CPPA were back to where they started in 1922 following the defeat of the shopmen’s strike (Prometheus, 291, 292).
End of the line
Both organizations declared their support for non-partisan political action within the traditional two party system. As Fine notes, “… despite the vote of [nearly] 5,000,000 which LaFollette received, the army behind him melted away soon after the election and the C.P.P.A. went up in smoke” (414). Such a disheartening outcome was far from inevitable. The advocates for independent political action within the CPPA argued strenuously against the dissolution of the movement. To them, the election demonstrated the need for a new party that ran candidates at the state and local level to build support for the national campaign. The railroad union and AFL delegations, on the other hand, insisted that the LaFollette campaign “proved the futility of forming a new party.” The opposing sides were further apart on the question of labor-based political action than they had been when the CPPA was founded (MacKay, 204).
The reluctance of the AFL’s and the railroad unions’ officials to embrace “labor solidarity at the ballot box” was the fundamental problem. From the outset, they had no intention to assist in the building of a Third Party electoral challenge to the Democrats and Republicans. Prior to 1924, these “holdback boys” argued that a farmer-labor based party simply could not get sufficient backing from the voters. Yet the almost 5,000,000 votes for LaFollette compared quite favorably with the percentages for labor and social democratic parties in Europe at the time. Despite that fact, labor officials adamantly refused to interpret the election results as a “splendid beginning and a remarkable demonstration of the unity of the opposition to the old parties.”
A class-based party was ideologically beyond what the labor bureaucracy was willing to accept. So, too, was even a multi-class, farmer-labor-liberal, pro-business party. Any labor-supported third party that ran candidates for office would endanger labor officials’ ability to wheel and deal behind the scenes with Democrats and Republicans in Congress (Fine, 415). When all was said and done, Sam Gompers’s AFL was committed to the maintenance of the existing political status quo.
As a result, the December 12, 1924, post election national committee meeting signaled the end of the line for the CPPA. Railroad union representatives declared their opposition to a post-election 1925 convention to form a stable, broadly based new party. Though representatives of the brotherhoods were outvoted 30-13 on this question, it proved to be a hollow victory for the supporters of independent political action (Fine, 415).
The February 21-22, 1925, CPPA Chicago convention of nearly 300 delegates was again “presided over” by William H. Johnston, who chaired the National Executive Committee. Railroad brotherhood delegates were determined to disassociate themselves from all “third party experiments” (MacKay, 230). A resolution to continue the CPPA on “nonpartisan lines” was introduced, but no vote was taken on the question. Rather, a motion to adjourn, sine die, was passed. This non-debatable measure was made more palatable by the provision “that those who wished to organize a new party could reconvene as individuals.” When the motion passed, the Conference for Progressive Political Action disappeared from the American political scene (Fine, 416).
All of these maneuvers had been rendered largely anticlimactic by the time of the CPPA’s final meeting. The AFL, at its national convention in El Paso, had gone on record in opposition to further third party efforts. The report of the executive council of the Non-Partisan Political Campaign argued that, “the launching of third party movements has proved wasted effort and injurious to the desire to elect candidates with favorable [voting] records.” By voting to accept this report, the AFL was “publicly stating it had made a mistake” in endorsing the LaFollette-Wheeler candidacy in the recent election (MacKay, 234).
This position created a quandary for unionists still convinced that a new party was essential to promote the interests of the nation’s producing classes. Johnston, of the machinists’, clearly articulated the dilemma when he observed that, “As president of one of the labor unions, and one who believes in a new alignment, I could not speak for my organizations as such. When the machinists joined the union, which I happen to be connected as president, they did not concede to me the authority to come into a meeting like this and commit them to any party. Personally, I favor a new political alignment. I see no hope in the old parties” (MacKay, 231).
Like Johnston, other advocates of an independent class-based party that ran candidates for office seemed resigned to the demise of the Progressive Party movement. Eugene V. Debs, who had formally endorsed the election of LaFollette-Wheeler ticket, spoke to the CPPA delegates at the 1925 convention. It was one his last public addresses. Though he accepted the fate of the latest challenge to the two-party system, the perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate remained hopeful about the future.
Many of the delegates nodded their heads in approval when Debs noted, “If a labor party is organized, it must expect from the beginning to be misrepresented and ridiculed and traduced in every possible way, but if it consists of those who are the living representatives of its principles, it will make progress in spite of that, and in due course of time, it will sweep into triumph. So I have learned to be patient and to bide the time…” (MacKay, 234).
After this lengthy and inclusive debate on the question “Shall there be formed a Progressive Party?” the CPPA was pronounced officially dead. It was somehow fitting that those who “officiated at the internment services of the expiring LaFollette progressive movement” were delegates to a convention called for the express purpose of founding a “permanent political party for national and local elections” (MacKay, 231). The refusal to take this step was the primary failing of the 1924 Progressive Party campaign. Only the motion to adjourn spared the railroad union delegates from the “ordeal” of walking out of their own convention over this issue (MacKay, 235).
The ultimate collapse of the supraclass political movement may have been inevitable. MacKay shows real insight when he comments that, “LaFollette’s mixed army went in too many directions at once” (250). The heterogeneous make up of the Progressive Party constituency made it difficult to agree on a program of action or even place much confidence in other members of the coalition. The conflict of material interests between farmers and workers was obvious and proved difficult to overcome.
In addition, the NPL’s pragmatic approach of running candidates in the old parties’ primary elections collided with the growing commitment of others to the concept of building a independent party of the nation’s producing classes that ran its own candidates. Worse, the disparate elements of the political coalition came to fear that they might be “swallowed up by the others” (MacKay, 250). Westerners, for example, wanted a Progressive Party, not a Labor Party, and were miffed when the Socialists had the temerity to suggest that any new party be named “The American Labor Party” (MacKay, 237).
One impact of these “internecine” disputes was to transform the Progressive Party campaign into a “one-man show.” The elevation of LaFollette was both a strength and weakness for the movement. On one hand, the dissenting groups could sublimate their differences by emphasizing their support for the candidate. Yet when the campaign ended, little of substance remained. The CPPA largely abdicated its public role and subordinated the campaign to the desires and wishes of the candidate. LaFollette was even allowed to “dictate the party platform.” The changing tone of the political rhetoric reflected the candidate-centered nature of the Third Party movement. The campaign soon became identified as the “LaFollette movement” –reference to both the “Progressive Party” and the “CPPA” became less and less frequent (MacKay, 250, 251). When the campaign ended, there was little to build upon.
Despite the many deficiencies of LaFollette’s Progressive Party campaign, the mass character of the vote cast for him was remarkable. The vote could have been even higher, and Third Party challengers could have been elected to office. Still, the willingness of American voters to abandon the candidates of the old parties and vote for challengers on the left was clearly documented in this episode.
For the serious student of the subject, perhaps the most “striking fact” about Labor Parties in the U.S. is that they continued “springing up” (Fine, 437). Large numbers of both Labor Parties and Farmer-Labor Parties would again be founded during the “Great Depression” of the 1930s.
Cannon, James. P. The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1962.
Draper, Theodore. American Communism AND Soviet Russia. New York, Vintage Books, 1960, 1986.
Fine, Nathan. Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828-1928. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.
James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches,1920-1928. New York: Prometheus Research Library, 1992.
MacKay, Kenneth Campbell. The Progressive Movement of 1924. New York: Octagon Books, 1972.
Murray, Robert K. The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
Ruthenberg, C.E., “The Farmer-Labor United Front,” published by the Literature Department of the Workers Party of America, 1113 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, 1923.