A.J. Muste and the League for Independent Political Action in the Late 1920s and ’30s
Part Seven of our reprint of the series on the history of the struggle for a labor party in the United states, by Stan Phipps
The critical factor in building a viable Farmer-Labor political movement was the intimate, supportive involvement of national farmer and labor organizations. But this was not on the agenda between 1925 and 1931. After the abortive LaFollette campaign, both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the farmers’ Non-Partisan League (NPL) were in a state of decline and disarray. The surviving remnants of the Progressive Party and the Farmer-Labor Party movements were unable to name even a symbolic slate of candidates in the 1928 general elections. Political dissenters tended to coalesce instead around an elitist group of middle-class intellectuals in the so-called League for Independent Political Action (LIPA).
Mass unemployment, farm foreclosures, and a rapidly collapsing banking system during the early stages of the Great Depression shocked the complacent liberals into action. Unfortunately, the institutions built by the Farmer-Labor Party movement of the previous generation had largely dissipated. The existing F-LPs, one by one, abandoned class independence and merged into either a multi-class Progressive Party, or were absorbed by the Democrats. While the LIPA formulated detailed demands for change that emphasized class-issues, the middle-class leaders were reluctant to move beyond the talking stage.
To fill this void, trade union militants emerged with a class-based agenda, including the demand for independent political action. A.J. Muste, the director of Brookwood Labor College in New York State, led the charge for both industrial unionism and a labor party. After breaking with the LIPA over the question of candidate selection, Muste founded the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) to reinvigorate the labor movement and to build an American Labor Party in the process.
A conscious retreat from the class-based battles of the period 1917-1922 best describes the approach of the American Federation of Labor leaders from the middle of the 1920s to the end of the decade. While the sharp drop in union membership ended in 1923, the slow drift downward continued. For the most part, labor made no headway in organizing such critical and dynamic new industries as auto, electronics and petrochemicals (ASHP, 298). The contrast with the robust and expanding labor movement of the earlier period could not have been greater. From a militant and innovative body that frequently debated both demands for worker control in some industries as well as independent political action, the AFL in 1929 was shrinking in size and becoming increasingly conservative. The national leadership seemed content to represent the skilled craft workers, while largely ignoring the vast majority of the industrial workforce (ASHP, 300).
To be sure, an increasingly hostile political environment deterred union organizing efforts. The US Supreme Court in a series of decisions upheld the right of employers to impose what was known as the “Yellow Dog” contract. This anti-labor tactic required workers, as a condition of employment, to sign an agreement barring them from union membership. The existence of such a “contract” was interpreted by the nation’s highest court to prohibit such workers from taking part in any and all subsequent union organizing campaigns. Workers who later marched in picket lines or demanded collective bargaining could legally be discharged for breach of contract. Both union organizing drives and the willingness of workers to signup understandably declined in such an inhospitable legal atmosphere (ASHP, 299).
Faced with a shrinking membership base, the adamant opposition of the business community and an anti-labor legal system, AFL leaders, following Gompers’s death in 1924, became ever more tentative. William Green, the new AFL president, emphasized defending the union-contracts in place, primarily in the skilled trades, rather than organizing nonunion workers. At one point, the president of the nation’s largest labor federation was reduced to pleading for labor-management cooperation schemes. Green attempted to mollify hostile corporate managers by arguing that employment of skilled craft-unionists was a wise business decision that would result in “the promotion of efficiency” and the “elimination of waste” (ASHP, 299). Though several union officials announced their commitment to joint labor-management schemes designed to increase corporate profits, such assurances went largely unrewarded —only the rare “open shop” proprietor could be convinced that collective bargaining was a process likely to fatten the corporate bottom line (ASHP, 299).
Green and the timid AFL officials bear their share of responsibility for the decline of the labor movement in the 1920s. Still, Big Business’s dominant position in the decade of the 1920s resulted from the judicious use of both the carrot and the stick. The most militant and vocal critics of the corporate dominance of American society were first denounced as disloyal and then silenced during World War I by the repressive legislation and the Red Scare that followed. After the war, the open shop drive was imposed in order to decimate the strength of the rejuvenated AFL unions. Added to this witches-brew of political repression, strikebreaking and union busting was a form of corporate paternalism known as “welfare capitalism” (ASHP, 318). Some of the largest corporate-oligopolies began to offer fringe benefits to their workers. Chief among them were such innovative concepts as: employee stock-purchasing plans, company pensions, subsidized housing or mortgages, group insurance policies, and even the corporate sponsorship of athletic leagues (ASHP, 291). In such an environment, the prospects for the revival of a class-based Farmer-Labor Party movement on the national level declined in tandem with the strength of the labor movement.
Yet not all was sweetness and light for the American working class even during the most prosperous years of the 1920s. Rather, economic and social division characterized American society as the gap between the rich and the poor reached record levels of inequality. Among the privileged segments of society, the concentration of wealth was phenomenal. The 36,000 wealthiest families earned an income greater than the combined total for the 12 million poorest families (ASHP, 298). When economic hard times returned at the end of the decade, with mass unemployment and declining profits, welfare capitalism and the attendant gestures of benevolence or paternalism were unceremoniously jettisoned (ASHP, 318).
While the concept of independent political action still resonated among agrarian radicals and union militants throughout the 1920s, the national movement clearly went into decline. On the other hand, key figures such as Robert M. LaFollette and William H. Johnston in 1925 remained optimistic and hopeful that the previous year’s Progressive Party campaign would evolve into a permanent liberal Third Party. LaFollette anticipated embarking on a national speaking tour designed to encourage his supporters to build a “sound political structure,” at the grassroots level state by state (Shideler, 199, 200). LaFollette exulted, “We are enlisted for life. … We will not quit and we will not compromise” (Tobin, 167). LaFollette’s army, on the other hand, evaporated even before the 1926 election as increasing numbers of Progressives “drifted back” into the old parties. An apparent economic recovery dubbed as “Coolidge prosperity” sapped the “spirit of revolt” that had been so evident in 1922 and 1923. Many pragmatic-minded Progressives returned to the inside political strategy with the rationalization that they could be more effective by working within the structure of one of the old parties (Shideler, 200, 201). For his part, Parley P. Christensen, the 1920 F-LP presidential candidate, was “disheartened and frustrated” by the capitulation of his erstwhile political allies. He argued that Progressives were “frittering away … precious time.” In his view, the “Home Folks” had “been waiting for a call to action!” Christensen implored the Progressives to “issue a call with a thrill to it” (Tobin, 176).
The effort to organize a political fight back was further complicated by the fact that the ravages of time had begun to take a physical toll on a generation of both Farmer-Labor Party and Progressive Party leaders. LaFollette’s death, July 18, 1925, was a major blow to the progressives like Christensen. No other candidate in the offing possessed the national standing necessary to hold the disparate elements of the Progressive Party’s cross-class coalition together in the sought after political regroupment (Shideler, 200). Then, in October 1925, William H. Johnston, the most consistent advocate for labor-based independent political action, suffered a disabling stroke. Finally on November 3, 1927, the Progressive Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) members concluded that the perpetuation of even this paper organization “would serve no useful purpose” (Tobin, 187). As consummate political-insiders, former Progressive Party activists abandoned independent political action and instead put their faith in the “liberal presence on capital hill” and the activities of “lobbying groups” (Tobin, 187).
The Liberals’ preoccupation with the inside strategy influenced Mercer G. Johnston, the caretaker chair of the “moribund” Progressive Party NEC, to rebuff an offer for cooperation from the F-LP. When Minnesota’s William Mahoney in 1928 issued a call for a national convention to discuss the renewal of the coalition between F-LP and Progressive Party, his offer was flatly rejected. The NEC members expressed the fear that “Farmer-Labor sentiment” would “overlay” any such gathering. More significantly, grassroots labor activists did not respond to yet another plea for liberal-labor cooperation. Progressives had routinely issued such calls since 1919. In the words of one historian of the era, “what distinguished” this proposal, “was the indifference with which” it was “met by organized labor” (Tobin, 186).
With no viable challenge to the old parties in the offing, Progressives and labor in the 1928 presidential election reverted to “lesser evil” politics. Most endorsed the Democrat, New York Governor, Alfred E. Smith, though they understood that “neither Smith nor Herbert Hoover” was “a real champion” of labor or meaningful reform (Tobin, 192). The pro-business Republican candidate, former Secretary of Commerce, Hoover, was totally unacceptable to labor. Yet, Democrat Al Smith was also suspect due to his close connections with New York City’s notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall political machine (Tobin, 195). Publicists for an organization known as the Progressive League for Alfred E. Smith attempted to win votes for the Democrat by counterpoising Smith’s positions to those of Hoover. In its campaign-literature, the Progressive League insisted that, as president, Smith would support a litany of issues considered to be of critical importance by labor and the left. The emphasis was placed on “the public ownership [and] development of hydroelectric power,” nonintervention in Latin America, curbs on unwarranted [emphasis added] injunctions, the conservation of natural resources, child welfare protection, and legislation ‘for the advancement of the workers’.” On the other hand, Smith’s pledge, that in his administration, “Government” would “interfere as little as possible with business,” was conveniently ignored (Tobin, 192).
When confronted by the depressing choice between Smith and Hoover, some reformers expressed second thoughts about the inside strategy. Veteran activists, such as John Haynes Holmes, argued that Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, was the progressives “only realistic choice in 1928.” Holmes pleaded, you “have to support him or the political interests he represents tomorrow, if you are not to abandon the progressive cause altogether” (Tobin, 194). Most liberals wrote off Thomas’s candidacy because of their pro-business orientation. They remained “convinced of the basic soundness” of market-based capitalist economics. Amos Pinchot retorted that he opposed “socialism as much as he did special privilege.” In his view, both were inimical to the sacrosanct “free enterprise system” (Tobin, 194).
Elitist liberals reacted to “Hoover’s landslide victory” over Smith with more a sense of “relief than despair.” These predominantly WASPish, college-educated, professional middle-class, political activists could not accept someone like Smith as their equal. As an Irish Catholic child of immigrant parents whose formal education ended in the eighth grade, Al Smith was held in disdain as their social inferior. Smith’s humiliating defeat simply cleared the way for a return to what some conceded was “a favorite Progressive past time” –the furtive discussions about launching a left-of-center Third Party dominated by men of their class (Tobin, 195).
Rather than a mass-based Farmer-Labor Party controlled by grassroots activists, the political liberals’ perception of a new party was of one that would be closely managed from the top down. They envisioned a party that would be governed by a coterie of “carefully selected … economists, statisticians and other” technical experts who would meet together to draft a program for reform. The objective of this closed group of elitists was to emulate the role of the British Fabian Society. In the end they were convinced that only “experts” were capable of formulating a “body of trained thought … fit to inherit power” (Tobin, 196).
League for Independent Political Action
When the advocates of a new political realignment met in New York City, December 15, 1928, the equivocal nature of the hoped-for coalition was apparent. Though few delegates had any doubts concerning the need for a new approach to politics, their uncertainty as to immediate objectives was apparent in the names considered for the new alliance. Among the proposals were the rather innocuous sounding “Political Education Society” and the “Third Party League.” More substantive and therefore controversial were suggestions for an “American Fabian Society” and the “Labor Party League.” The name finally agreed upon, the “League for Independent Political Action” (LIPA), indicated the intent of the delegates to break with the two-party system, without addressing the nature of the new party (Tobin, 203).
Economist Paul H. Douglas most articulately expressed the sentiment for independent political action among the delegates. He noted that, because of the unity of opinion among Democrats and Republicans “on fundamental economic questions,” any meaningful distinctions between them were “virtually nonexistent.” The solution proposed by Douglas was for “economic progressives” to construct a party by following the British Labour Party model (Tobin, 203). With the long-term goal of constructing a party supported by the labor movement, Douglas counseled the LIPA to focus its appeal on class-based issues.
Douglas insisted that the LIPA take a strong stand against a market-based economy and emphasize the need for “national economic planning,” a system for “income redistribution,” and the eventual “democratic management of industry.” He also called for guaranteed employment through a national program of public works, the creation of free government-run employment offices, and a “decent minimum wage.” To further promote the interests of the worker, Douglas proposed that the existing legal restrictions on the rights of labor, such as yellow dog contracts, court injunctions, and “prohibitions against picketing and boycotts,” be repealed. With the nation’s working farmers in mind, Douglas urged the LIPA to advocate a lower tariff on manufactured consumer goods, government-subsidized cooperatives, the generous funding of farm credits, and a crop insurance program to protect against natural disasters (Tobin, 204).
There was little that was new in Douglas’s proposals. He simply reiterated demands that had been espoused by “progressives and laborites for more than a generation.” More important than the specifics proposed was the nature of the mechanism designed to put them in place. Douglas remained committed to recreating another multi-class political formation of the type that had failed to achieve these goals in the past. The prestigious Economics Professor’s vision of the future depended on the ability of the nation’s “small discordant left wing elements –socialists, progressive, farmers, middle-class liberals, and unorganized workers … to cooperate” under the leadership of a privileged layer of prestigious elites (Tobin, 204).
The launching of such a cross-class party faced numerous obstacles. Perhaps most nettlesome was the persistent pattern of “liberal impatience with the slow unrewarding aspects of party-building.” In their eagerness to win office in the next election, liberal politicians had little patience for the tedious, day-to-day efforts necessary to build a grassroots-based political movement. They preferred instead to scotch-tape together instant coalitions that had the tendency to quickly dissipate following an election. Of much more long-term significance, the AFL chiefs under Green’s tutelage were not interested in supporting another left-of-center political challenge to the two-party system. The diffident attitude of the labor movement, in large part, stemmed from “a strong suspicion” of the liberals’ penchant for behind-the-scenes political “machinations.” After the “abortive La Follette campaign,” the AFL wished to avoid being tainted with even a hint of radicalism and instead wished to be identified as being “squarely within the nation’s political center.” As the representative of the skilled craft unionists, the AFL leaders wanted to reassure corporate bosses that the AFL was also a defender of “tradition and respectability” and could be relied upon to defend “the status quo” (Tobin, 204, 205).
Without a sense of urgency in an era of economic prosperity, the efforts at building an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans faltered. The working class seemed quiescent, and the economy appeared to be humming along with no downturn in sight. Corporate public relations firms expended considerable effort to manufacture such a perception –yet it did not conform to economic reality. In March of 1929, at the time of Herbert Hoover’s inauguration, the economic expansion of the 1920s was already over. The number of prosperous years in the so-called “Roaring Twenties” numbered exactly five (1922-1927). The decade that had begun with the Panic of 1921 ended with the early stages of the Great Depression. Hoover’s boast about the US entering a period of “permanent prosperity” was simply bravado designed to bolster the business community’s confidence. The upward swing of the economic cycle had peaked out and had begun its inexorable slide downward. Both consumer spending and the pace of construction slowed in 1928. Corporations began cutting production and laying-off workers early in 1929. By that summer, a full blown economic contraction was clearly underway (ASHP, 318).
Despite Hoover’s best efforts to conceal this harsh reality, the October 24, 1929, crash of the New York Stock Exchange, known as “Black Thursday,” created a sense of panic in the land. When Wall Street’s speculative bubble burst, the asking price for overvalued stocks began to plummet. The selling-price of stocks with a paper value of $87 billion declined in a single month to $56 billion (by 1933 the aggregate value would sink to only $18 billion). Though few Americans owned stock, the economic slump accompanying the crash led to mass layoffs, as the number of jobless workers exploded from 500,000 in October to more than 4 million in December. It was apparent in 1931, when the economy plunged again, that this downturn was not a minor adjustment. The American working class by the Spring of 1933 faced an economic calamity with 15 million (one in three wage earners) unemployed and untold millions more working reduced hours. Real wages fell 16% in just two years (ASHP 318-319, 321).
Bankers’ and investors’ irresponsible behavior accelerated the rate of economic decline. Massive layoffs combined with cuts in wages and reductions in the hours of work did nothing to turn around the economy. With declining incomes, the demand for consumer goods dropped off sharply, which hastened the downward spiral of the economy. The rapid collapse of the nation’s industrial-base was truly shocking. Investment declined by an extraordinary 98 percent in only two years. Overall, the gross national product, in that short time span, declined by 29 percent. Basic industry was especially hard hit with the construction falling by 78 percent, and manufacturing by 54 percent. One clear illustration of the dimension of the economic collapse in the era was evident in the steel industry where production was slashed to only 12 percent of capacity (ASHP, 319, 321)
The human suffering inflicted on the working class and the poor by the Depression was without precedent. Growing levels of hunger and even instances of actual starvation were reported throughout the nation. New York City officials in 1931 attributed the deaths of 95 people to starvation. A survey of Colorado residents revealed that as many as one-half of the state’s children were denied an adequate diet necessary for proper growth and development. Malnutrition led to a rise in the incident of diseases associated with poverty. State health officials documented increased cases of dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra and typhoid (ASHP, 320).
Under-consumption was the culprit in this unfolding tragedy. While the productivity in the US reached record levels, the American people could not afford to purchase the bounty their labor produced. The corporate bosses’ insistence on paying low wages combined with the labor movement’s inability to successfully challenge that policy was the fundamental cause of the economic collapse. Wealth was so maldistributed that the poorest 40 percent of the population earned only one-eighth of the nation’s wealth. The richest five percent, on the other hand, grabbed nearly one-third. Due to this disparity, working class incomes could purchase little beyond basic necessities. Even the blatantly opulent life styles of the rich could not consume enough to compensate for this deficit in purchasing power (ASHP, 321, 322).
An expanding farm depression added to the national sense of calamity. The agricultural sector of the economy had been mired in a more or less “sick state” since the 1921 Depression. Low prices for agricultural produce, except for a brief fluctuation in the mid-1920s, remained a persistent problem for farmers. Farmers’ incomes by 1929 dwindled to only one-fourth of the national average. Still, many farmers mortgaged their land and borrowed money out of a commitment to perpetuate the rural way of life. They continued optimistically to hope for higher prices in the future. The onset of the Depression pushed hundreds of thousands of hard pressed farmers into bankruptcy. Rural banks by the hundreds, in a ripple effect, failed. A bona fide bank panic resulted when worried depositors began to withdraw their savings from urban banks, as well. By 1931 the more than 5,000 bank failures had “wiped out a million savings accounts” (ASHP, 322).
Dormant F-LP Movement
The active participation by agrarian radicals was an essential element in the hoped-for reinvigoration of the Farmer-Labor movement. Yet their contribution to the discussion did little to clarify the class basis of the anticipated political challenge. Veterans of the Non-Partisan League (NPL) had “grown weary” after a generation of agitating for social and political change. Many agreed with the lament of North Dakota’s William Lemke concerning electoral politics, “The outs want to be in … and when they get in they are just as bad as the ins” (Tobin, 206). Despite that insightful comment, Lemke’s NPL-perspective led him to reject independent political action and to propose taking over the Democratic Party. He contended that “if we have not got the sense and courage to take over the machinery of one the old parties and make a progressive party, then we cannot establish and maintain a new party” (Tobin, 206).
Even in areas notable for a history of labor and agrarian political challenges, the farmer-labor movement was largely dormant after the 1924 election. The Washington State Farmer-Labor Party in 1920 racked up impressive vote totals in a grassroots challenge to old party dominance of the electoral process. F-LP candidates that year won the support of more than 30% of the voters in the gubernatorial-race, as well as in four of the five Congressional-races. In addition, the insurgent Party’s candidate for the US Senate claimed 25 percent of the vote. Support was not limited to state and local candidates. As one historian notes, Parley P. Christensen “rolled up a huge third-party vote,” 19.4 percent “in the presidential race.” This total was especially notable when compared to the 0.99 percent of the national vote cast for Christensen. The Washington State F-LP again waged a class-independent campaign in the 1922 election but compromised that position in 1924 by fusing with the multi-class LaFollette Progressive Party campaign. The party literally “died after the 1924 elections” (Valelly, 50).
In South Dakota and Montana, promising F-LP movements were similarly attenuated. Voters in South Dakota in the 1920 election gave Christensen his second greatest percentage of the vote (19.0 percent). This high vote “stimulated” efforts to organize a systematic challenge to the old parties’ “lock on elections.” A slate of F-LP candidates competed statewide in the 1924 and 1926 elections but did poorly. In Montana, a Farmer-Labor Party was the vehicle for the LaFollette candidacy in 1924, and also ran a statewide slate of independent candidates. Though Montana’s F-LP maintained its institutional identity into the late 1920s, the party “functioned primarily as a vehicle for a pro-Communist state senator” (Valelly, 50).
Significant agrarian challenges in Oklahoma and Texas were undermined by the NPL strategy of fusing with existing parties. In Texas, the government-backed imposition of the open shop following the 1922 railroad strike motivated socialists in the Farmer-Labor Union to organize a political response. Because of the influence of NPL organizers who were attempting to “diffuse” their movement to the Southwest, the Farmer-Labor Union entered a gubernatorial candidate in the 1922 Democratic primary who put together a “strong showing.” Rather than building an independent pole of attraction based on a substantial vote total, the dissidents disappeared inside the Democratic Party (Valelly, 50). The NPL strategy was again implemented with the support of the “remnants of the once powerful” Socialist Party in Oklahoma. The former socialists were convinced to abandon independent political action and support a NPL-style fusion known as the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League. Farmers, workers, and socialists, who were members of the League, voted in the Democratic Party primary in order to elect the progressive-minded mayor of Oklahoma City as governor. Once in office, the Democrat predictably “abandoned the league platform and [the] politics” that had elected him. Worse yet, the governor seemed unwilling or unable to protect League activists from Ku Klux Klan-orchestrated violence (Valelly, 50).
Idaho’s experience with NPL politics was equally disappointing. In 1918 farmers and workers entered the Democratic Party primary in sufficient numbers to nominate a candidate for governor. Against the near universal opposition of Idaho’s business and commercial interests, the NPL-endorsed Democrat won 40.1 percent of the vote in the general election. After Idaho’s legislators in 1919 amended the state laws to preclude outsiders from taking over one of the existing parties, the League’s gubernatorial candidate in 1920 was forced to run as an independent. Still, the NPLer picked up 20.1 percent of the vote in a three-way race, while two Progressive Party statewide candidates totaled 26.5 percent and 23.7 percent, respectively. By 1922 the League had fused with the Progressive Party and quickly supplanted the Democrats as the “state’s second party.” Despite winning an impressive vote in the 1924 election, the Idaho Progressive Party “collapsed” after 1926 (Valelly, 50, 51).
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (MF-LP) stood out in the late 1920s as the lone survivor of what had been a dynamic mass movement for class-based independent political action in the Western states. With no viable F-LP structure in existence at the national level, the League for Independent Political Action emerged as the focal point for those who favored a break from the two-party monopoly. Political dissenters of all stripes and varieties looked to the LIPA as their only realistic option. Intellectual, reformers and even radicals with national reputations were appointed to the LIPA’s executive board. The highly respected philosopher, John Dewey, lent the organization immediate credibility when he “agreed to serve as national chairman.” Paul H. Douglas, officially listed as a LIPA vice president, was widely acknowledged to be “one of the movement’s driving forces.” Other vice presidents were selected to symbolically represent the broad-based constituency the LIPA hoped to mobilize. The NAACP’s leading spokesman, W.E.B. DuBois, was named a vice president in order to indicate the LIPA’s commitment to racial justice. Opposition to war and imperialism was signaled by the appointment as vice president writer Zona Gale of the American Union Against Militarism. The final vice president, James H. Maurer, the long-time leader of the coal miners union (UMW) and a leading member of the Socialist Party, was chosen to indicate the LIPA’s sympathy with workers’ struggles (Tobin, 206).
Other prominent members of the executive board constituted a virtual “who’s who” of the liberal establishment. Oswald Villard, the LIPA’s treasurer, a former publisher of the New York Post and editor of The Nation, was in a good position to identify potential contributors to the cause. The range of views held by board members spanned the liberal-left spectrum. The more notable appointees included: Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1928; Devere Allen, the associate editor of The Nation; the social gospel theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; and the League for Industrial Democracy’s executive director, Harry W. Laidler. Because of the high profile of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party among reformers and radicals, Howard Y. Williams, a former St. Paul Unitarian minister and an activist in the MF-LP, was chosen as the LIPA’s executive director (Tobin, 207).
Williams understood that the LIPA was unlikely to mount a challenge to the old parties’ political dominance without the endorsement of a significant wing of the labor movement. Therefore, the LIPA executive director solicited the participation of Chicago of Federation Labor’s president, John Fitpatrick (who was widely respected as the father of the previous generation’s Farmer-Labor Party upsurge). Fitzpatrick, apparently still smarting from his humiliation at the 1923 Chicago F-LP convention, rejected the offer to become actively involved with the LIPA. Although Fitzpatrick indicated that he was pleased by the founding of the LIPA and continued to favor the concept of independent political action, “he was,” in the words of one historian, “no longer willing to expose his union to the vagaries of political life” (Tobin, 209). Fitzpatrick explained his reluctance with the observation, “Someone said that a ‘burned child dreads the fire’…” In an obvious reference to the recent experience of the F-LP cadre, he continued, we “are the burned child so to speak” (Tobin, 209).
Without the input of unionists, the liberal dominated LIPA’s response to the stockmarket crash was rather passive. Black Thursday should have injected a sense of urgency into the cause of political reform. An important exception to the generally passive response of the liberals was John Dewey, who promulgated a “statement of principles” for the LIPA prior to the crash. Based largely on Douglas’s proposals previously cited, Dewey’s proclamation spoke to many of the issues confronting the nation’s workers and farmers in the Depression. His specific proposals ran the gamut from unemployment, old age and health insurance, to generous spending on public works projects, and included the extension of government credits to hard-pressed farmers. This LIPA program also advocated federal funding for consumer and producer cooperatives, the democratic control of industry, and the redistribution of income. The obviously innovative and relevant policy positions, initially, evoked little response among liberal opinion makers. More than a year passed before the relatively privileged “liberal community” sensed “the seriousness and the dimensions” of the 1930s social and economic crisis (Tobin, 208).
Despite the class-identity of the bulk of their membership, the LIPA consistently restricted their support to Third Party candidates. The League endorsed and campaigned for the entire Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party ticket. LIPA funds were donated to support Socialist Party candidates in Milwaukee and New York City. From Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York, to New Bedford, Massachusetts, LIPA chapters worked for the election of “trade unionists and progressives running” as independents and as candidates of local labor parties (Tobin, 210). The League’s stated strategy was to build on successes at the local and state levels to stimulate a “new political alignment on a national scale” (Tobin, 210). This approach “stirred considerable unrest and anxiety among progressives” elected on old party labels. Already under criticism as unreliable political “mavericks” by old party bosses, progressive officeholders doubted that they could be reelected in a three-party race (Tobin, 210).
By the end of 1930, the LIPA “stood on an impasse.” In less than two years of existence, the organization had established a contradictory legacy. The press and public opinion frequently commended the League’s articulate demands for “national economic planning and a new political alignment,” yet such proposals were “seldom acted upon.” Some of their “strongest liberal supporters” were resentful of the policy limiting support to Third Party candidates. Worst of all, the LIPA had failed to expand beyond the “elite intellectual forum” stage of its origin (Tobin, 211).
At this critical juncture, trade union militants began to reassert themselves. Within the larger labor movement, a coalition of progressive trade unionists openly opposed the conservative policies of William Green’s AFL. The first demand central to this growing opposition was a campaign to organize the unskilled mass-production workers. Second in priority was the demand for independent political action in the form of a Labor Party. Labor progressives, once again, began to pursue a “vigorous, occasionally militant … attack” on the AFL hierarchy (Tobin, 205). Given the harsh economic and social conditions associated with the Great Depression, that was not a surprising development. The source for this opposition, the Brookwood Labor College, on the other hand, was unexpected.
Labor colleges in the US were founded in 1921 by the progressive wing of the AFL. Enthusiastic supporters of the development included some of the nation’s most dynamic and aggressive labor leaders. Chief among them were James H. Maurer, who headed the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor at the time, John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and Fannie Cohn of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. John Dewey and other leading educators in support of the concept anticipated that these educational institutions could quickly emulate the success of similar institutions in Britain (Muste, 129). Students enrolled in the labor colleges did not earn grades, academic degrees, or certificates of any kind. The schools were designed, in the short term, to train a new generation of labor leaders and activists in the skills necessary to recruit workers and to provide the innovative leadership needed to ensure the future development and growth of the trade union movement. With no grades or degrees, labor college graduates were “in a situation where” only “the actual work they did in unions” could document their educational achievements (Robinson, 36). The long-term objective for the colleges went far beyond the immediate needs of the trade unions. The progressive wing of the labor movement anticipated that the labor colleges would help develop a cadre of working class leaders with both a sense of solidarity and a vision. The ultimate objective was for them to construct a new social order– one that was characterized by an “economy controlled by workers and free from exploitation” (Altenbaugh, 249.)
Brookwood Labor College, located in suburban Westchester County, New York, was established as a resident institution to train worker-activists who had been selected by their local unions. The first class was invited to enroll in September 1921, shortly after an estate near Katonah was made available. Ex-minister and labor-organizer, A.J. Muste, served as the school’s educational director from its opening until 1933. (Muste, 127, 129; Tobin, 205).
Muste’s first experience with labor action came in Lawrence, Massachusetts, during a 1919 mass-strike of 30,000 textile workers. Along with two other Protestant ministers, who had also “lost their pulpits” because of their opposition to World War I, Muste went to Lawrence to support the strikers in a confrontation that lasted four long months. Within a week of his arrival, A.J. Muste was chosen executive secretary of the strike committee (Hentoff, 49).
Prior to this sojourn, the young preacher had evidenced little sympathy for strikes or other forms of worker protests. Only one year prior to the Lawrence strike, Muste publicly admonished an audience of young people to resist the temptation to “organize, strike” and “fight to obtain food and their rights.” Even if mass movements were successful in wringing economic concessions from the bosses, the pacifist-minded Muste insisted that workers would never “be satisfied” (Robinson, 28). Muste’s pacifist principles were severely tested during the strike when he was beaten by the Lawrence police and then jailed for “disturbing the peace” (Robinson, 29). The charges were dropped when eyewitnesses testified that the police were, in fact, the chief disturbers of the peace (Hentoff, 50). At one point during the strike, company spies attempted to frame the minister on trumped-up murder charges. On yet another occasion, Muste narrowly “averted a massacre,” when he quashed the efforts of agents provocateur to goad the unarmed strikers into attempting to “seize the machine guns” carried by the police, company guards and hired thugs (Robinson, 29).
By the sixteenth week of the Lawrence strike, a sense of depression began to permeate the thinking of Muste and the other strike leaders. Their strike fund was nearly exhausted. Police violence against strike leaders had escalated. Muste narrowly escaped another beating only because he was out of town when the cops burst into his hotel room (Hentoff, 52). Along with the other strike leaders Muste, reluctantly concluded that he “had no right to call” upon the workers “for further sacrifices” (Robinson, 30) and was prepared to call off the strike. At that pivotal moment, the textile bosses capitulated. In the end the solidarity of the ethnically diverse workforce forced company officials to accept the key union demand –54-hours pay for 48 hours of work. Other concessions included an increase in the piece rate and the recognition of union grievance committees (Hentoff, 53). The Lawrence victory was facilitated in part from the efforts of the Amalgamated Textile Workers (ATW) –a so-called “outlaw” union that was created to challenge the toothless policies of the AFL affiliated United Textile Workers (UTW).
Because of his leadership role in the Lawrence strike, Muste was soon appointed National Secretary, as well as Treasurer of the ATW. He also edited the new union’s national publication, the New Textile Worker. In his role as a fulltime labor leader, A.J. Muste quickly developed a vision for an insurgent labor movement. He wanted to build an organization capable of aggressively challenging the systemic exploitation of the worker. Muste clearly articulated this perception in his October 1919 speech to the ATW convention delegates. The new National Secretary declared that he was “not interested merely in shorter hours and higher wages but looked far ahead to a future reorganization of the system of production” (Robinson, 31). A.J. Muste, in the years 1919-1921, had embarked on the trajectory that would lead him in the 1930s to embrace the ideals of revolutionary socialism. Yet as the leader of a new union in the early 1920s, he attempted to avoid needlessly provoking strikes that could not be won. Instead, he attempted to reach agreements early in the collective bargaining process.
Under Muste’s visionary, but cautious leadership, the ATW seemed to be flourishing. One contemporary account in 1921 observed that the new union had compiled a record of “extraordinary progress” (Robinson, 31). Still at best, the combined efforts of both the ATW and UTW organizers had managed to sign up no more than one of four American textile workers. When an economic downtown hit the industry in the 1921 Depression, even that number slumped to as few as 12 to 15 percent of those working in the industry. Muste later characterized his two years as ATW national secretary as a time of “unremitting desperate effort to establish a beachhead … of unionism in a chaotic industry” (Robinson, 31).
A.J. Muste agreed to accept the Brookwood directorship because, as he later reconstructs his feelings, the “early twenties were not favorable to the establishment of unions in the textile industry … [and] administration of a labor union was hardly a natural occupation for me” (Muste, 127-129). As one chronicler of his life suggests, he also wanted a respite from “the gruelling (sic) and essentially hopeless ATW battles” and to resume a more “reflective mode of life.” Muste himself conceded that he felt that he “was running out of ammunition” and was in need of the “sort of stimulus you’d get from serious reading” (Robinson, 32).
Brookwood Labor College
In his role as Brookwood director, he successfully recruited an outstanding faculty. Among the more notable instructors were labor historian David J. Saposs, sociologist Arthur W. Calhoun, and the veteran teacher-union organizer and English instructor Josephine Colby (Robinson, 33). While visiting professors shared their insights in the disciplines of psychology, economics, and politics, Arthur Calhoun presented an avowedly Marxist perspective of society and David Saposs emphasized the role of workers in history. Muste personally conducted a seminar in world civilizations (Robinson, 35).
Unlike the typical academic institution, Brookwood made “no pretense of being neutral.” On the contrary, the school’s mission was to advance the cause of labor and, whenever possible, the specific “struggles of workers.” Faculty members and administrators at the college self-identified themselves as either “progressives or radicals” (Muste, 129, 130). The spirit of collegiality permeated the atmosphere at Brookwood. No political tests were applied in the admittance process. As a rule, the student body was as diverse as the larger labor movement. Every political perspective in the workers’ movement from that of the most conservative craft unionist to that of the most militant communist was found on campus. Though not politically neutral, Brookwood was proudly unaffiliated with any specific party or ideology. The school clearly was influenced by “Marxist thought” yet it was not intended to be identified as a Marxist school (Muste, 130). In an early example of what would later be classified as “political correctness,” Brookwood policy held that “no point of view should be repressed but that opinions based on prejudice would not be tolerated” (Robinson, 35).
Academic freedom at Brookwood mandated that the selection of faculty members was based on scholarly competence. More than that, academic freedom implied that instructors were granted complete freedom inside and outside the classroom. The “unifying central concern” was for each instructor “to contribute to the development of a trade union, political and cultural movement” in the US and ultimately to “contribute to the achievement of a democratic society” (Muste, 130). Under Muste’s guidance, Brookwood instructors were urged to focus on action, rather than monastic-style contemplation. As a colleague of Muste observed, “A.J. was always an actionist. He’d listen to students discussing a problem for hours, but when they became paralyzed in talk, he’d interrupt.” Muste’s charge to the next generation of labor leaders was to make “up your mind and act, while action will have some meaning” (Hentoff, 62, 63).
Progressive-minded unionists and leading figures in the intellectual and academic community copiously praised the work of Brookwood’s faculty and graduates. At one point, thirteen national and international unions financially supported Brookwood (Hentoff, 60). The AFL hierarchy, in the era of Big Business domination, was decidedly less enthusiastic. Over time, craft-union officials grew increasingly “suspect” of Brookwood’s influence. Muste, for his part, made little effort to conceal his disdain for the rather timid policies of the AFL under William Green, who he routinely derided as the “Calvin Coolidge” of the labor movement, the “incarnation of perfect mediocrity” (Hentoff, 68).
Beginning in 1924, a series of comments by Muste and others at school convocations added to the growing sense of estrangement between Brookwood and the AFL chiefs. While noting the passing of Arthur Gleason, an English patron of the school, Muste praised the memorial scholarship established in his name. In an aside, the Brookwood director expressed his preference for that form of tribute in contrast to the statue union officials had commissioned to honor Sam Gompers. Then in a spring 1925 meeting to commemorate the death of Vladimir Lenin, the excited remarks of an unidentified mourner were unfavorably reported in the press. In closing the animated speaker was said to have observed that though “Lenin the man is dead, … Leninism still lives.” The next year the apprehensive AFL bureaucrats were further alienated by Muste’s heartfelt eulogy for Eugene Debs. In “deeply moving” language, Muste both praised the much-loved socialist leader for his radicalism and challenged the audience to follow his example of trade union militancy. In what may have been the final straw in the fall of 1927, Muste linked union officials, textile industry bosses, and the courts of Massachusetts as accomplices in the “judicial murder” of Sacco and Vanzetti. While still mourning their execution by electrocution, he chided trade union officials for being “too easily misled by talk of ‘anarchists and foreigners'” (Robinson, 37).
At the August 1928, annual AFL convention in New Orleans, key labor dignitaries denounced Brookwood’s faculty with the accusation that they were “tainted with communism, atheism, and with infidelity to the American Federation of Labor” (Robinson, 38). Based on AFL Vice President Matthew Woll’s confidential report to the Federation’s executive council, all affiliated unions were instructed to withdraw financial support from the college and to caution their members about the “dangerous radical influence” of the school’s faculty (Muste, 130). In what could only be described as a star-chamber proceeding, the trade unionists on Brookwood’s board of directors were denied the democratic right to scrutinize the document damning the institution in their charge. Rumors circulating in “reliable circles” indicated that the nature of the school’s most recent May Day commemoration triggered even more animus toward Brookwood. Muste’s address first criticized the AFL as a “stagnant” and “reactionary” organization and then “singled out William Green for special condemnation” (Robinson, 38).
Worse still, in the view of some well-placed insiders, the organizers of the celebration had besmirched the reputation of Sam Gompers, the highly revered and recently deceased former AFL president. Gompers’s portrait had apparently been placed in close juxtaposition to those of socialists Debs and Lenin. Had Gompers’s portrait been omitted entirely from the ceremony, reliable sources hinted, the celebration would have caused less offense (Muste, 131). Brookwood “weathered the crisis,” in large part because of the their alumni’s reputation for “devotion and competence” in union work. Local labor leaders remained steadfast supporters of Brookwood. New students continued to enroll in the college. None of the unionists resigned from the school’s board of directors. Most important of all, the school managed to stay “financially solvent” during the worst years of the Great Depression (Muste, 131).
Conference for Progressive Labor Action
By the late 1920s, A. J. Muste emerged as an articulate critic of the complacent approach to union organizing of the AFL in general and William Green’s approach to political action. In a campaign that one historian suggests had the flavor “guerilla warfare,” (Tobin, 207) labor militants attempted to both reinvigorate and infuse a sense of radicalism into the floundering labor movement. Muste, in February 1929, publicly challenged AFL leaders to embrace both industrial unionism and class-based independent political action. In order to systematize this challenge, an “invitation only” conference convened May 25-26, 1929, in New York City’s Labor Temple. More than 150 delegates from 18 states, representing 33 unions (mostly AFL-affiliates), as well as academics from 12 educational institutions participated in the conference. The diverse mixture of delegates exemplified Muste’s perspective of uniting labor progressives, socialists, and unionists with the LIPA’s independent-minded liberals in a common cause. With Muste presiding over the meeting, the delegates voted to create the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA). The objectives identified for the organization were succinct: the mission of the CPLA was to “promote industrial unionism, independent political action, and fundamental change within the AFL” (Tobin, 207; Altenbaugh, 205).
The CPLA platform, which some dubbed as “Muste’s Manifesto,” clearly delineated the unresolved issues confronting the 1920s labor movement. Point one argued for the organization of mass production workers into industry-wide as opposed to separate-craft unions. Point two demanded that all “racial and religious barriers to union membership” be eliminated in order to unite the ethnically and religiously diverse American working class. Point three called for the creation of a system of “unemployment benefits and other forms of social insurance.” Point four stipulated that the Labor Party-structure be the specific vehicle for class-based independent political action. The final two points focused on the international responsibilities for a class-conscious working class movement. Point five called for the immediate recognition of the Soviet government in Russia. The sixth and final point demanded that the labor movement engage in the fight for an “anti-imperialistic and anti-militaristic” foreign policy (Altenbaugh, 205; Tobin, 205).
In the early stages of its existence, the CPLA functioned as a caucus within the larger structure of the LIPA. The basic congruence of the concerns expressed in Muste’s Manifesto and Douglas’s draft of League objectives made this seem both natural and appropriate. In addition, both Muste and Brookwood board member Maurer were active LIPA members. Maurer was one the League’s four vice presidents, while Muste served on the League’s executive board (Tobin, 205). Labor-oriented members of the LIPA played a seminal role in the CPLA. Muste chaired the CPLA, while Maurer served as the caucus vice chair. Though the Socialist Party (SP) limited its support for the CPLA to an unofficial endorsement, SP leader Norman Thomas sat on both the LIPA’s executive board and the CPLA’s executive committee. (Altenbaugh, 205, 206).
Membership in the CPLA was open to all labor or farmer-based organizations. Trade unionists and members of producer or consumer cooperatives were also solicited on an individual basis. While machinists, jewelry workers, hat and cap makers, and sleeping car porters constituted the bulk of the individual members, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the United Textile Workers (UTW) constituted the union affiliates. (Altenbaugh, 205, 206). Muste wanted to build the CPLA into a national organization that would go beyond the talking stage and actively fight for working-class interests. To coordinate this effort, the CPLA opened a national headquarters in New York City June 10, 1929. Seventeen branch offices, in all, were set up over the next two to three years. The important industrial cites of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Youngstown, Ohio, were centers for CPLA organizing activities. Union organizing CPLA campaigns were launched in both the Illinois and the West Virginia coalfields, as well as southern mill towns in North Carolina and Tennessee. While the CPLA efforts were beaten back in the early years of the Great Depression, the experience gained in struggle would later contribute to important union victories in the Toledo-Autolite strike and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber strike (Altenbaugh, 206, 211-212; Muste, 124; Robinson, 44).
In the process of personally participating in numerous instances of class conflict, Muste was further radicalized. He concluded “that only revolutionary action by the working class and other elements under the leadership of a vanguard party could bring in a new social order” (Hentoff, 75). To foster the development of such a party, the CPLA in 1931 was “redefined” as a “left-wing political group” consisting of “a disciplined membership” (Robinson, 45). Muste also came to question his pacifist, nonviolent principles, which seemed increasingly irrelevant to him. He also came to view pacifism as a “mostly middle class and individualistic phenomenon” (Hentoff, 75). Strike violence, he observed, “almost invariably” was initiated by the police or company thugs. As a result, Muste thought it “difficult to find any moral ground for objecting to the spontaneous violence” of the worker in fighting back (Robinson, 45)
Muste’s experiences convinced him that only greater involvement by the working class majority could win the fight for the progressive political and social change he envisioned. His experiences on the executive board of the elite-dominated LIPA simply re-enforced that view. Over time, Muste became increasingly “uncomfortable” with what he referred to as his middle class “colleague’s posturing and intellectualizing” (Tobin, 208). The CPLA chair came to doubt that the LIPA’s appeal would ever extend beyond the “Good Government crowd” of elitist liberals. Muste feared that the only third party likely to emerge from such an amorphous political alliance would be a “hodgepodge of various dissenting elements, without any broad and sound economic base” (Tobin, 208). Above all, Muste was committed to building a political movement capable of attracting the active participation of industrial workers.
There was a quantum jump in Muste’s discomfort level on Christmas Day 1930, when John Dewey released the contents of a letter he had sent to US Senator George W. Norris. Professor Dewey solicited the Nebraska Republican to resign from the GOP in order to play the role of the “big name” politician around whom a national third party ticket for the 1932 election would coalesce. In essence, Norris was invited to replicate the 1924 role of Robert LaFollette in the Progressive Party campaign. The Dewey-Norris exchange of letters made “front-page news” across the nation. In the end, Norris declined the offer. Economic planning proved to be too radical a concept for the Republican politician to endorse (Tobin, 211; Altenbaugh, 209).
In Muste’s view this episode crystallized everything that was wrong with the LIPA’s approach to party building. As one historian observes, the CPLA chair “resented the overtures to Senator Norris,” whom he saw as “a symbol of liberal capitalism.” In the discussions among the League’s national executive board members that followed, Muste protested that, a “loosely constructed party with a nice program, built around a few prominent individuals … will get us nowhere” (Tobin, 212; Altenbaugh, 209). Muste further noted that Dewey’s flirtation with Norris tended to undermine the “LIPA’s credibility as an agent of fundamental social change” (Tobin, 212). The entire episode convinced Muste that “only a labor party could function as an effective third party” (Altenbaugh, 209). In the final analysis that perception was the core cause of his growing sense of estrangement from Dewey and the LIPA.
Because of this fundamental disagreement with Dewey, Muste resigned December 30, 1930, from the LIPA executive board. Instead of a liberal-minded party structured around the personality of a prestigious politician, Muste was determined to build an American Labor Party controlled by rank-and-file members. The Norris fiasco had persuaded him that the CPLA must pursue its goals “outside of the liberal consensus” (Tobin 212).
The CPLA’s evolving vision for a Labor Party was for one that embraced the very issues that repulsed liberals like Norris. Muste sought a class-based Labor Party that would proudly lead the fight for “industrial democracy, a planned economy under workers’ control, and social ownership of national resources” (Tobin, 212). This would be a party, in Muste’s wry comment, that would not seek “after Messiahs … to bring down a third party out of the political heavens.” He insisted that, a “soundly built labor party in the process of its growth will develop its own leaders.” Muste was confident that the “vitality” of a labor party under dynamic working-class leadership would inevitably win prominent old party progressives’ endorsement, “without [their] being ceremoniously invited to do so” (Tobin, 212; Altenbaugh, 209).
Socialist Norman Thomas was also troubled by the Norris episode. The incident would influence him to follow Muste’s example and also resign from the LIPA’s executive board. Thomas questioned the propriety of old party politicians like Norris seeking to lead a national Third Party movement without regard to their party affiliation. More to the point, he doubted that the “major party insurgents” could be relied on to “help build a new political movement.” Even if they did, Thomas expressed little interest in the kind of party likely to result from their efforts. For the SP leader, all third parties were not necessarily of equal value. Given the sense of crisis created by the Great Depression, Thomas contended that the formation of yet another “coalition of western farmers, urban laborers, and middle class intellectuals” would not have necessarily constituted a major step forward. Thomas expressed Socialist Party sentiments when he warned that not “every type of third party is one which we can support” (Tobin, 213).
At this point, Thomas and Muste diverged significantly in their respective approaches as to the specific form a class-based third party in the US would take. Muste advocated a Labor Party structured around the trade union movement and supported by farm organizations. Thomas, on the other hand, anticipated that growing worker and farmer unrest would spontaneously transform the SP into a mass-based party. In institutional terms, the relationship between the SP and the LIPA, from the founding of the League, had been marked by mutual distrust. As one historian defines the source of the tension between the two organizations, the SP “was both a direct competitor with the LIPA and potentially one its most important collaborators” (Tobin, 208, 209). Some socialists dismissed the idea of building a labor party as a diversion from the primary task at hand, while liberal critics “considered the very word ‘Socialist’ to be barrier to progress” (Tobin, 206).
When the working class movement shifted into high gear in the early 1930s, the ongoing rivalry between liberals and radicals complicated the development of a political fight-back. At the moment in history that pro-Labor Party views in the US would reach an all time high, the class-divided Third Party activists were paralyzed by uncertainty. Both Socialist Party and Communist Party leaders resisted efforts to build a labor party in the expectation that their cadre-organizations would quickly become mass-based parties. The pro-business liberals, on the other hand, looked askance at participation in a socialist-oriented presidential campaign. With a general election scheduled for November 1932, the urgency to build a viable class-based party to challenge the two-party political monopoly had never been greater.
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